The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

Ganga flows, tamed by Shiva’s locks, across northen India. Where Shiva’s jata ends, Ganga erupts out of the fringes and empties into the Bay of Bengal. 

The river delta creates a vast archipelago of islands, the Sundarbans, where mangrove jungles grow quickly on land not reclaimed by the tide. The tidal surge from the sea can cover three hundred kilometers, constantly reshaping or devouring islands, with just the tops of the jungles often visible at high tide.

It is home to the Bengal tiger, huge crocodiles, sharks, snakes, impenetrable forests – and a few people trying to scratch out a living. I did not know much about the Tide Country, but after having read The Hungry Tide, I find it imposible to forget. It is a compelling story, full of ideas and no easy answers. 

Piyali Roy is an American scientist who has come to study the rare Irrawaddy dolphin which lives in the rivers of the tide country. Kanai is the owner of a successful translation business in Delhi and comes to the island of Lusibari. He is being summoned by his aunt, Nilima because of a package left to Kanai by her late husband, Nirmal, which has just been found some 20 years after his death.

Nirmal and Nilima came to the Sundarbans when his revolutionary ideas became too dangerous in Calcutta. Nilima founded a cooperative which brought help, medicine, and ultimately a hospital to Lusibari, while Nirmal spent his career as headmaster of the local school.

For a short time while Kanai was visiting his aunt and uncle as a youngster, a young woman named Kusum passed through their lives. The package now left to Kanai contains an account of the events at the end of Nirmal’s life, which revolved around Kusum, her son Fokir, and the catastrophic struggle of the dispossessed to form a new society on the island of Morichjhãpi.

Of Morichjhapi, Lotus Reads says,

Morijhapi forms the most powerful backdrop to events and issues addressed in the novel. Morijhapi was declared a protected area by the Union government as part of Project Tiger launched in 1973 to preserve and protect the dwindling number of tigers in Indian forests. In 1978, the island was taken over by a group of poor and defenceless Bangladeshi refugees, seeking to set up an egalitarian world, free of maladies of class, caste, religion and poverty that had plagued them till date. But it was not to be. Clashes ensued between the State and the settlers. The Left Front government of West Bengal was determined to evict the human inhabitants in favour of its animal populace, which finally resulted in a police shoot out that killed scores of these helpless settlers and forced the rest to flee the island. The memories and memoirs of Morijhapi form a haunting prelude to the novel.

Piya is a woman used to the solitude and rigors of the life of a scientist working in the field. Piya often works in areas where she knows neither the customs nor the language, and can survive for days on just energy bars and Ovaltine as she studies river dolphins, and here she falls into the company of Fokir, who is fishing for crabs with his son. Fokir brings Piya to Lusibari, where the paths of Piya, Kanai, and Fokir all merge.

Ghosh creates a setting where everyone is on an even footing. The hostile environment erases all societal strata because everyone is an equal in the struggle to survive. This is a life Kanai doesn’t understand. In the Sundarbans, his wealth, servants, and pride have no value. While he feels himself to be superior to Fokir, on the river he needs Fokir’s skills to provide for his survival. Piya, who feels closest to the animals she studies, needs Kanai’s translation skills and Fokir’s local knowledge of the river and wildlife for her to do her research.

At the center of all these relationships is Fokir, perhaps the truest soul in the novel. He’s an illiterate man, but possesses more knowledge of the river and its wildlife than all the outsiders who don’t understand him.

Piya feels an affinity for Fokir and his life which matches the rhythms of his environment. Kanai, attracted to Piya and envious of Fokir, decides to accompany them on a trip up the river to study the dolphins. The three of them embark on a trip into the heart of the tide country which will bring lasting change to all of their lives. 

The book has been reviewed here by Qalandar at Mount Helicon.

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