The Hungry Tide – Amitav Ghosh
Like so many people who have taken interest in this book review project, a Bengali friend was quick to recommend a book when she heard of this blog. The Hungry Tide is the story of human interaction and the interaction of humans with the harshness and beauty of nature. It shows the contrast of opinion and action of a variety of characters from differing backgrounds and in the face of different circumstances . After a pretty slow start the novel gathers pace and becomes the cliched page turner.
It is set in the Sundarbans, a mystic area of natural beauty right on the doorstep of Kolkata. The area has been mentioned to me on many occasions and I thought a story set in this place would be insightful. It turned out to be an incredibly written story that is both complex and easy to follow. The mixture of the islands physical make up , it’s wildlife, it’s culture and the waters that surround it provide the perfect setting for the unravelling of this story.
The story is told through the visits of Kanai and Piyali to the Sunderbans. They have a chance meeting in Kolkata before going their separate ways. Piyali (of Bengali descent) is an American post grad student who has travelled to the Sunderbans to research it’s dolphin population. She is thrown into the path of a local fisherman who saves her life and despite the lack of sharing a common language these two have a connection that transcends the communication of tongues. Trust, equality, respect and understanding are played out in this speechless relationship.
Kanai is a linguist and owner of a translation agency. He is in the area to review the writings of his late uncle. These writings are in themselves a separate story of a people’s struggle against the Indian government for settlement in a previously uninhabited island of the area. It is a heartening tale of displacement and the triumph of the human spirit in the search for belonging. It is a factual account of the establishment of a society based on the utopian principles of an English Humanist, Sir Daniel Hamilton . These papers end up revealing the story of Kusum and her young son Fokir, the very same boatman who later saves Piya’s life. Languages, translations, and understanding are a common theme throughout the book and Kanai’s vocation adds an ironic element to the story.
Piya and Kanai, after going there seperate ways are reunited in Lusabari. Fokir is also enlisted to help with Piya’s research and an air of tension arises on the trip.Kanai is arrogant, Fokir although illiterate is soulful and genuine. The contrast is revealing of the differences in human nature. While Kanai’s education and sophistication are revered in the city, it is the people of the islands who are the masters of the tide country.
The book is a compilation of short chapters. The chapters jump back and forth in time and place, constantly keeping you on edge as to how each story is developing. I really like this use of style as you also progressively see how the the different stories are linked. I was constantly trying to put it all together, with more or less succes at different times, like putting a puzzle together. It keeps the mind guessing as to the direction in which the story is headed and the author reveals more and more like a regulating valve. It keeps the plot interesting throughout.
The Hungry Tide is factual and informative. Ghosh is a celebrated academic and his research is meticulous. Information about the partition, war, politics, gender and class struggle, nature conservation, the make up and flaura of the islands, it’s animals , the working of the tides, and Indian folklore are richly interwoven with the telling of this story. The descriptive writing appeals to the senses and this makes the reader feel that they are in the thick of the story. I would highly recommend this book.