13 September 2007

The Hungry Tide

Author: Amitav Ghosh
Pages: 403
Year of Publication: 2004
Publishers: HarperCollins
Price: Rs 250

Element encounter

The entire action of the novel takes place in India's Sundarbans. The jacket of the book tells you about the setting, ‘Between the sea and the plain of Bengal, on the easternmost coast of India, lies an immense archipelago of islands. Here there are no borders to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea, even land from water. For hundreds of years, only the truly dispossessed braved the man-eating tigers and the crocodiles who rule there, to eke a precarious existence from the mud’
However, the picture changed towards the start of the last century, when a visionary Scotsman bought a few of these fragmented islands from the British to form a utopian settlement, where people irrespective of race, caste, culture could live together.

Considering the sheer scope that this theme allows in terms of enumerating the legends, folk-lore, history and geological wonders, it's no surprise that it caught the author's interest.
Also, it enables Ghosh to highlight the raging social debate about forest conservation vis a vis human settlement.
The story follows Indian-born American marine biologist, Piyali Roy, who is in search of rare river dolphins. During this adventure, she encounters two  different men. Kanai - a smug, urbane Delhi entrepreneur and Fokir, an illiterate but a proud local man of Lusibari.
While Piya is in Sudarbans for her project, Kanai is at the islands at the behest of his aunt, Nirmala.
Their paths cross and it is through their interwoven lives that Ghosh looks at the various elements of his theme. Piya, through her conscientious drive to unravel the hidden wonders of nature, is instantly attracted to Fokir's animal instinct and raw charm. Kanai, on the other hand, leaves her cold. Piya is not impressed with Kania’s superciliousness, and between the two men, finds herself constantly  leaning towards the natural, unalloyed world that Fokir represents.
Ghosh brings in the debate about human settlements in forested lands through Piya and Kanai.

Given the vagaries of nature in this place, with its unrelenting storms, changing tides and thriving wild life, Piya believes God probably intended it that way and any human intrusion that harms it must be disallowed.
On the other hand, Kanai supports the theory of human beings getting preference over animals. But again, Piya argues that this kind of short shrift shown to lesser beings will never end, whether they are animals or human beings.
The face-off between Fokir and Kanai that happens during their boat trip, is rightly then the sign of the growing hostility between the ‘civilised world’ and rustics. Here, Fokir’s fear of the outsiders (Kania) can be alternatively read as nature’s resistance to people like Kanai who ‘intrude’ upon its territory.

There’s another story that runs parallel to this one. Kanai reads out notes from his uncles' diary which allows the author to introduce the readers to a different time period in Sundarban’s history, it’s myths, legends, compulsions etc...
Ghosh's novel is textured and effortlessly transports you into the land he describes. Every swish of the wind and swirl of the water are beautifully captured.

The novel does become tedious in the middle with scholarly details of every kind infused in the pages. If pitched as a travelogue this imight have been excusable but otherwise most will just be sifting through these pages.

 Ghosh puts his interest as an anthropologist above the story, which brings the action to a complete standstill at one point. 

As for the characters, Ghosh approaches some of them with great understanding –Piya’s character is beautifully etched but there are others like Nilima, whose character slips into melodrama. Also, the manner in which Kanai is established as a cad in the novel is also a bit tastelesly done.

Ghosh, while offering no real answers through his novel vis a vis the larger issues at hand, does offer an engrossing work of literature about a lesser known world.


Sashwati said...

The Hungry Tide is a poignant story of the writer’s personal love for the place. The book would have been ideal as a travelogue of a kind but is quite a dampener as a fictionalized book of sorts. The fertile soil of the land is a metaphor of the passion that has overawed the author. But this fails to turn into a fairly gripping novel, Ghosh is known for.

Even as the three central characters- Piya, Kanai and Fokir are representatives of disparate eras and ideologies, their coming together expectedly would have been the high point of the tale. However Ghosh is too carried away by the mystical allure of the Sundarbans and lets his characters drift away in the clamourous ‘swish and swirl’ of the gorging Ganges.

Its much like, Ghosh deliberately holds a mélange of words as a flimsy curtain to the real undercurrents of the tale that would have otherwise been a delight to unearth.

janaki said...

Amitav Ghosh is easily on top of my list of favorite authors ... His Glass Palace was epic in proportions, and Hungry Tide dnt match it in scale.

But i loved hungry tide, because it was completely yin in nature. Whether it is Piya and aunt, or the tides or legends .... it appealed to the feminine in you. I will be interested in knowing whether men have enjoyed this book as much as most women i know have.

As sashwati says and as you sandhya pointed out, the imagery and folklore make it a travelogue, like Legends of Pensem and Pico Iyer's Lady and the Monk. But Ghosh is a better fiction writer than Iyer (and Iyer is a better travel writer !!).

But Ghosh is at home in the East. Whether it is Burma in Glass Place, or Cambodia in "Dancing in Cambodia...." Reading him evokes the imagery of a National Geographic video.

But Hungry Tide exhausts you. It will be a while before you pick another heavy book. You need a light one now ! like Lollipop shoes !

sandy said...

Sash/Janaki: Quite evidently, this novel slips into travelogue mode several times in the course of its narrative (which actually bored me quite a bit). The fiction has taken a backseat, no doubt about it. But having said that, I found the Kanai-Fokir-Piya triangle extremely interesting. I felt both Kanai's and Piya's characters were superbly etched, so certainly, Ghosh's talent for fiction is unmistakable.
But as a whole, Ghosh's approach to the book is more as an anthropologist than a fiction writer, which means there's really not much of a story here.

Qalandar said...

Superb review sandy, and (to answer janaki's question), I have quite a weakness for this book:


To the extent one can posit a "split" between anthropologist and novel (the lines are especially blurred where Ghosh is concerned, as "In An Antique Land" attests) I would probably agree that "The Hungry Tide" falls on the anthropologist side...

gaohui said...


Nayeem said...

I loved the book, I read it couple of years back, I remember particularly falling in love with Piyali's character (free spirited) person. I liked what you said here "Ghosh brings in the debate about human settlements in forested lands through Piya and Kanai"..very true..
As usual, good review.

drhadi.masoom said...

Hi Sandhya , was planning to buy this book for 100 rupees but decided to not go for it after your sentence in parenthesis ( that narrative bites you to death ) every time I go to the shop I browse it and search for some good paragraph which holds my interest ..but it doesn't even after umpteen number of browsing sessions .. thank you for saving my money .. I will re read sea of poppies and essay collection by Amitava in lieu of this low tide