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Knowing the heart of the river

By Sally Bland - Feb 09,2014 - Last updated at Feb 09,2014

The Hungry Tide
Amitav Ghosh
Boston/New York: Mariner Books, 2006, 329 pp

Not often does an author’s choice of setting play such an overpowering role as in Amitav Ghosh’s “The Hungry Tide”.

In this novel, the unique environment of the Sundarbans shapes the plot and characters in indelible ways, and gives rise to provocative themes.

In a very visceral way, the story reveals the tension between different kinds of knowledge, different survival strategies, different approaches to nature and different concepts of progress.

The Sundarbans is an archipelago in West Bengal, southeast of Kolkata (Calcutta), with thousands of islands demarcated by rivers and streams as they head for the sea.

It is “a terrain where the boundaries between land and water are always mutating, always unpredictable… There are no borders here to divide fresh from salt water… The tides reach as far as two hundred miles inland and every day thousands of acres of forest disappear underwater, only to reemerge hours later.” (pp. 6-7)

The peculiar eco-system enables amazing phenomenon, like a rainbow of the moon, but also poses unfathomable dangers.

Besides facing poverty and lack of state services, the people who inhabit these islands fall prey to snakes, crocodiles and tigers hiding in the dense mangrove forests, but more devastating are the relentless tides which storms periodically whip into gigantic waves sweeping away everything in their path.

There are natural wonders and adventures galore to be found here, and Ghosh describes many fascinating and suspenseful scenes, but he is most concerned with the psychological and spiritual impact of the environment on human beings.

It is its very remoteness that draws people there, and the reader enters the Sundarbans through the eyes of “outsiders” whose presence highlights chasms in Indian society — urban vs. rural, prosperous vs. poor, educated vs. illiterate, as well as the hierarchy of class and caste.

In the 1950s, as newlyweds, Nilima and Nirmal fled Kolkata to seek refuge in the area after the latter’s leftist activities got him in trouble with the authorities.

They stayed on, she heading a women’s centre and hospital for the local population, he as school headmaster, but tension persisted between her social work and his revolutionary dreams of radical change.

As the novel opens, half a century later, Kanai, their urbane nephew who runs a successful translation agency in Kolkata, has been summoned by Nilima to read the notebook Nirmal left behind when he died, which provides a story within a story, giving the novel added historical depth and background on the geology and mythology of the area. (Interestingly, the local religion and legends reflect the area’s mixed Muslim-Hindu heritage.)

On the way, Kanai encounters Piya, an American of Indian descent coming to study river dolphins. None of them will ever be the same after their time in the Sundarbans.

Piya needs Kanai as a translator, but she is more impressed by her guide, Fokir, an illiterate fisherman who knows every inch of the seemingly infinite network of rivers, including when and where the dolphins gather.

“I’ve worked with many experienced fishermen before but I’ve never met anyone with such an incredible instinct. It’s as if he can see right into the river’s heart,” she says. (p. 221)

Though they speak no common language, they work together perfectly.

In contrast, Kanai, who knows six languages, cannot navigate this strange environment. He undergoes a humbling experience when lost in the mangrove jungle, an epiphany which teaches him that words are not everything.

His journey in the wilderness mirrors that of his uncle, as recorded in his notebook, who also discovered that words were powerless to save those he loved — a group of refugees from the Bangladesh war, who were trying to establish a new community on an island designated as a wildlife reserve.

Suddenly, the government, which had been oblivious to their dispossession for a decade, was on the scene in a massive police operation to evict them.

To the refugees, it seemed “that this whole world had become a place of animals, and our fault, our crime, was that we were just human beings, trying to live as human beings always have, from the water and the soil”. (p. 217)

As Ghosh unmasks injustice and human frailty, as he weaves between the historical past, the mythological past and the present, the sheer beauty of his prose takes your breath away, as do the turn of events, the human emotions, dilemmas and conflicts encompassed in this novel.

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