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The Hungry Tide comes in
By Daphne D'Gama
The river Ganga flows from the Himalayan Mountains across northern India, emptying into the Bay of Bengal. Its delta creates a vast archipelago of tiny islands, called the Sunderbans, named after the quick growing mangrove jungles. Life here is precarious, ruled by the unforgiving hungry tides and the constant threat of attacks by tigers, huge crocodiles, sharks and snakes. At the beginning of the 20th century, a wealthy Scottish businessman, Sir Daniel Hamilton decided to create a utopian society there, offering free land to those willing to work as long as they accepted the others as equals, regardless of caste or ethnicity. But often entire islands are washed away by the cyclones that sweep in along with huge tidal surges. The late summer storms constantly reshape and devour islands, sometimes with just the tops of the jungles visible at high tide. Thousands of human beings and animals routinely die in these storms. Amitav Ghosh’s fifth novel, The Hungry Tide delves into the lives and aspirations of the people living in this tide country.
The story is told from the perspective of its two main characters, Kanai Dutt, a Delhi businessman cum translator and Piyali Roy, an Indian-American marine biologist who has come to study the once plentiful breed of freshwater dolphin, the Orcaella brevirostris or Irrawaddy dolphin, which lives in the rivers of the tide country.
Kanai comes to the island of Lusibari to visit his aunt, Nilima because of a package left to him by her late husband, Nirmal, which has been found some 20 years after his death. Nirmal and Nilima had moved to the Sunderbans when his revolutionary ideas became too dangerous in Calcutta. Nilima founded a cooperative trust which brought help, medicine and ultimately a hospital to Lusibari. Nirmal spent his career as headmaster of the local school and died mysteriously in a local political uprising. For a short time when Kanai was visiting as a teenager, a young woman Kusum passed through their lives. The package now left to Kanai contains an account of the events near the end of Nirmal’s life, which revolved around Kusum and her son Fokir and their struggle to form a new society on the island of Morichjhãpi. It also explores the plight of dispatched people there, specifically a group of refugees from Bangladesh who found themselves in confrontation with the Indian State as they tried to settle on these islands. Many of these destitute squatters, like Kusum, were brutally tortured and killed.
A novel that describes one of the most fascinating regions on Earth -tiny islands known as the Sunderbans, off the coast of India, where life is ruled by the unforgiving tides and the constant threat of attacks by wild animals.
The Hungry Tide
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Published by: Harper Collins
Year: 2004 | Price: Rs. 250 (£17.99)
Number of pages: 400
A series of events allows Piya to meet Fokir while on a trip studying dolphins. Fokir brings Piya to Lusibari, where the paths of Piya, Kanai and Fokir all merge. With the help of Kanai’s translation skills and Fokir’s knowledge of the river and wildlife Piya sets out on a trip into the heart of the tide country which will brings lasting changes to all of their lives. The settlers of the Sunderbans believe that anyone without a pure heart who ventures into the watery island labyrinth will never return. Kanai and Piya realise this only as the tide begins to turn… The novel is about the struggle of every person seeking his or her own identity in this world. The author keeps the story alive with an interesting blend of the history of the tide country, ancient folklore of local deities, modern scientific information and vivid description of nature. He tastefully combines adventure, romance, history and nature. The story expresses bonds of human relationships and the deep friendship formed between Piya and the uneducated impoverished Fokir who saves her life. Amitav’s style of writing is appealing as he adds a touch of humour and gentle irony, even to serious issues and uses Bengali words to make an emphasis. “…he was a man so mental that who could blame him if there was a little gondogol in his mind…”
The Hungry Tide is thought provoking, - and those thoughts have no easy answers. In Kanai and Piya’s world of business and science they view everything as back or white but in the Sunderbans where the tide changes the environment daily, nothing is certain and life is a permanent shade of grey. The tigers kill hundreds of people a year, but being a protected species, killing a tiger that has been preying on a village brings on government authorities to mete out punishment. The story reveals how humans and animals share a complex and dangerous ecosystem. It also vividly describes the life cycle of the Orcaella, the story of its identification and aquatic history. This species is fast dwindling due to climatic changes. From the vivid details of the description of nature, we can go as far to say that Amitav Ghosh is an environmentalist and lover of nature. He is apt in providing the reader with imagery of wildlife, plants, the cycle of the tides and natural catastrophes in integration with inhabitants of the tide country. The Hungry Tide is a must-read for all, especially those who love the environment.