The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh
This is a beautifully crafted novel, weaving together characters far apart in space and time in a story spanning little over a week and based in the ‘tide country’, the name by which Ghosh refers to the Sundarbans, the settled islands off the coast of Bangladesh. The central characters, Piya, an American scientist of Indian origin, Kanai, the successful owner of a translating service in Calcutta and Fokir, an illiterate fisherman who lives in the tide country, in the tradition of great novels, find their paths crossing serendipitously time and again. Piya comes to the tide country to observe the habits of one of its inhabitants, the ‘Irrawaddy dolphin’ as part of her research work. Kanai, meanwhile, finds himself summoned by his aunt, Nilima, who runs a welfare organization in the tide country, to read a manuscript her late husband, Nirmal had left behind for Kanai. It is from the perspective of these two characters, Piya and Kanai, that the story is told but it is the taciturn and indecipherable Fokir who is at the heart of it. Fokir, a married fisherman, plies the waters with his son, whom Fokir encourages to play truant and catch crabs along with himself. He is imbibed in the folklore of the tide country and well-versed in the syncretised tradition of Bon-Bibi.
Piya first crosses Fokir’s path when she is in trouble with some Forest Department toughs aboard a motor boat in the tide country. Accidentally thrown overboard into the turgid waters, she finds herself rescued by Fokir. From then on begins a strange and unlikely romance, unspoken and perhaps even unacknowledged, between the two who cannot even converse with one another yet due to their professions have a bond which makes their causes common. Once Fokir takes her to the island of Lusibari, Piya decides to enlist his invaluable knowledge of the tide country waters and marine life in her observation project. She finds refuge with Nilima, of whom she has heard from Kanai, the one time that they briefly met on the train from Calcutta to Canning.
Kanai, meanwhile, after having met and extended an invitation to Piya, to whom he is attracted, to stay at his aunt’s while she is in the tide country, reaches his aunt’s home on the island of Lusibari. He begins to read the manuscript left by his uncle, Nirmal, an idealistic leftist professor. Kanai is led into a world of the past, shortly before Nirmal’s death, when the latter began to take interest in the island of Morichjapi and the young woman, Kusum, who was once Kanai’s childhood playmate. Nirmal’s interest in both had to do with his left-leanings as Morichjapi is illegally settled by a group of poor and landless people, including Kusum. Nirmal, after his retirement, began to take a great interest in these people’s affairs, hoping, at the end of his life, to kindle the fire of revolution once.
Kanai and Piya meet at Nilima’s house and Kanai tries to woo her, to little avail. He also hears of her encounter with Fokir from Fokir’s wife, Moyna. Moyna is an ambitious woman driven to educate herself and her son to get ahead in a modernizing world, in contrast to her husband, Fokir, who is content to just fish, as his ancestors have done. Moyna, upon hearing that Piya wants to hire Fokir for her project is immediately and simultaneously jealous and joyous. This jealously seems to infect Kanai too and he suggests that he shall go with Piya and Fokir on the expedition to act as the translator between the two.
The fateful expedition that ensues brings together the various strands of the story in a manner both satisfying and heart-rending. The book is replete with evocative descriptions of tide country scenery and traditions, colonial history and the Irrawaddy dolphins; while simultaneously the writer has the gift to leave unwritten what is better left to the reader’s imagination. The book raises provocative questions about modern and traditional societies, revolution and social work and language and its limits. All in all the book was an extremely fulfilling read and the author of this review highly recommends it.