The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh [A Review]

In The Hungry Tide Amitav Ghosh takes the reader on a journey into one of the world’s most unique ecosystems. Following behind two outsiders who have little forewarning of what secrets and dangers await them.

The Sundarbans is a region that straddles the border of what is today India and Bangladesh, where the land meets the Bay of Bengal. Here, several rivers, including the Ganges, reach the sea, splintering as they do into innumerable smaller flows forming a large archipelago of islands. It makes for a complex ecosystem as fresh and saltwater mix between dry land and mangrove swamp.

These islands are the trailing threads of India’s fabric, the ragged fringe of her sari, the ãchol that follows her, half-wetted by the sea. They number in the thousands, these islands; some are immense and some no larger than sandbars; some have lasted through recorded history while other were washed into being just a year or two ago.

[…] There is no prettiness here to invite the stranger in: yet, to the world at large this archipelago is known as “the Sundarban”, which means, “the beautiful forest”.

People have inhabited the Sundarbans for centuries despite the precariousness of life there. Habitable land is sparse and can be easily reclaimed by swamp or sea in quick time, the region is vulnerable to cyclones emerging from the Bay which can utterly devastate the communities there, while even the daily routine includes the danger of crocodiles, sharks and man-eating tigers who probably kill far more than even the locals realise. Nevertheless, people continue to manage a meagre living there. Insisting that they are ‘tide people’ who neither know nor want any other way of life.

In The Hungry Tide, two outsiders journey to the Sundarbans, two very different people on very different missions.

Kanai is a businessman from New Delhi. With a gift for languages, he has built a successful business providing translators, much in demand in the Indian capital. Talent, security and confidence has provided a life where he has never felt particularly challenged, in danger or in want. He has led a playboy existence, never marrying though now middle-aged, preferring instead to enjoy himself with flings and lovers. Naturally, such attributes and outlook got him into trouble as a youth. On one such occasion he was sent to live with an uncle and aunt on the island of Lusibari in the Sundarbans to cool off after being suspended from school.

Kanai’s uncle, Nirmal, was something of a dreamer, a romantic and an idealist. As a young man Nirmal made a name as a Leftist intellectual who gave impassioned lectures on English Literature at university. Following Independence, Nirmal’s views attracted unwanted attention. After being interrogated by police for attending a socialist meeting, a heartbroken Nirmal and his wife, Nilima, seek to make a new start on Lusibari where Nilima’s family have arranged a teaching position for Nirmal at the local high school.

Kanai’s aunt, Nilima, came from a distinguished family known for their public service. The harshness of life on Lusibari, where there are few services available, crops routinely fail and deaths from natural dangers are too frequent, gives Nilima new opportunities. Politically astute and a natural leader and organiser, Nilima has devoted herself to improving the quality of life of the tide people and has a number of large accomplishments to her name, especially the hospital that has been built on Lusibari. Her pragmatism and achievements are in sharp contrast to Nirmal’s idle idealism and their marriage is not without friction.

‘You have to remember, Kanai,’ she said at length, ‘that as a young man Nirmal was in love with the idea of revolution. Men like that, even when they turn their backs on their party and their comrades, can never let go of the idea: it’s the secret go that rules their hearts. It is what makes them come alive; they revel in the danger, the exquisite pain. It is to them what childbirth is to a woman or war to a mercenary.’

After retirement, Nirmal’s behaviour became erratic and secretive. He disappeared for a stretch and, after being found, suffered from pneumonia from which he never recovered. No one ever found out what had happened. But now, some of his writing has surfaced, addressed to Kanai.

Taking in these sights, I felt the onrush of a strange heady excitement: suddenly it dawned on me that I was watching the birth of something new, something hitherto unseen. […] I could walk no more. I stood transfixed on the still-wet pathway, leaning on my umbrella while the wind snatched at my crumpled dhoti. I felt something changing within me: how astonishing it was that I, an aging, bookish schoolmaster, should live to see this, an experiment, imagined not by those with learning and power, but by those without!

Also travelling to the Sundarbans is Piya, a young woman from America. A cetologist, she is journeying to the Sundarbans to study the Irrawaddy dolphin; a rare, small, cetacean most closely related to killer whales that lives in these regions where fresh and saltwater mingle. With little known about their habitats or behaviour, Piya hopes to conduct a preliminary survey that could lead to a research grant and a career doing what she loves.

Though she was born in India, Piya grew up in Seattle and parents did not share much of their previous culture with her and, to Piya, India is as alien as any other foreign land. She is wary of the solicitous and much older Kanai when they first meet on a train to Canning. But by the end of their train ride they promise to meet again. Piya soon finds embarking on her project more difficult than she expected. As wary as she may have been of Kanai, there is plenty for a young woman, travelling alone in a foreign country, reliant on untrustworthy strangers for her work and safety, to be concerned of and she is soon thankful to have made a friend in the area, who speaks English and who she can call on.

The Hungry Tide is the fourth Amitav Ghosh novel I have read after his excellent Ibis Trilogy. It may be unfair to compare it to the high standard of those three novels but The Hungry Tide has some characteristics that are becoming distinctive in my mind of Ghosh’s writing.

One of those things is the way Ghosh adds ‘colour’ to his novels. There were many chapters in The Hungry Tide where I did not take any notes because they did not add much to the plot, characters or themes but instead gave the reader an appreciation of the setting and its history. In many books by many writers, such passages can be very dull and feel forced but Ghosh has a knack for making these parts interesting and natural. Short chapters is a technique that probably helps. Even though I am a slow-ish reader, I read this 400 page novel in a breeze.

What I call ‘intrigue’ – a force to drive the reader forward – is, I believe, a crucial factor in making a novel enjoyably and engaging. The mystery of Nirmal’s last days and what Kanai is going to discover when he reads what his uncle has left him is the main source of intrigue in The Hungry Tide. Even though things did not proceed as I would have predicted from the early novel, I think The Hungry Tide could have used a lot more intrigue to get the reader invested. Being somewhat arrogant and flirty, Kanai is a character that can be difficult for the reader to sympathise with and get onboard with his growth. Ghosh’s easy, readable, style does go a long way to compensate for these.

One aspect Ghosh achieves exceptionally well is the sense of fear, and even terror, that he leads the reader into when the characters take chances with the natural dangers of their environment and their survival is in peril.

There are probably several themes at play in The Hungry Tide but I just want to share one here – the clash between the needs of people and the environment. In order to make their precarious living in the Sundarbans, the tide people must battle nature. It is not just the constant threat of crocodiles and tigers but beating back the ever-encroaching jungle and swamp. While, in the past, the measures taken would not have attracted any notice from the outside, modern sensitivities to the environment and its preservation have come into play. This creates a conflict where tide people are being told to change the only way of life they have known by people outside of the culture. Add to that pressure the influx of funding from outside the country, from the West, for the preservation of the environment and you have a situation where people face what they perceive to be impossible and unjust choices.

“This island has to be saved for its trees, it has to be saved for its animals, it is part of a reserve forest, it belongs to a project to save tigers, which is paid for by people from all around the world.” Every day, sitting here, with hunger gnawing at our bellies, we would listen to these words, over and over again. Who are these people, I wondered, who love animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them? Do they know what is being done in their names? […] No one could think this a crime unless they have forgotten that this is how humans have always lived – by fishing, by clearing land and by planting the soil.

It is fair to say I did not find The Hungry Tide as engaging or intriguing as the other Ghosh novels I have read but such is his skill as a storyteller that there was still plenty to enjoy and I found myself racing through this book much faster than I typically do. Once I finished it left me with a feeling I am not accustomed to in my reading – the next day I expected, wanted, to pick it up and keep reading even though the book was finished! That is probably proof that I did become more invested in the characters than I realised. I think it also reflects the nature of the story; when characters are put through an experience that changes them, the ending is sometimes more of a new beginning.

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