The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh; Ravi Dayal, 2004; pages 400, Rs.350.
THE book is that rare occurrence: a subtle and complex novel that sucks you in like the slime of the Sunderbans where it is set. The territory is not entirely uncharted. In a terrifying phantasmagorical interlude in Midnight's Children, Rushdie describes the primeval dankness of the Sundarbans. Here too, the tide country is a place of no mercy, and yet also a call in the blood for people who belong here and hanker for the soft yielding mud and shifting islands of this region. "At no moment can human beings have any doubt of the terrain's utter hostility to their presence, to its cunning and resourcefulness, of its determination to destroy or expel them." Utterly devoid of prettiness, the Sundarbans is the perfect crucible to stir together the most pressing questions about the human spirit; it is believed that anyone who ventures there with an impure heart will not return alive.
Moon, tide, jungle-flux and shifting shadow form the strange foundation of this mud country where the main characters, Piya and Kanai, are forced to confront themselves. Piya, of `stubbornly American' antecedents, is a classic stranger in a stranger land. Researching the rare river dolphins of the Sundarbans, she finds herself negotiating a lot more than just a tricky physical terrain. When she stumbles on an important discovery about Irrawaddy dolphins, she is aware that it will not revolutionise the sciences, but will give her two decades of work at an American university and "an alibi for life".
Piya's mute communion with a noble-savage kind of fisherman called Fokir and her experience on the storm-tossed waters result in the crumbling of all her neat certainties and set her off in an entirely different direction.
Similarly, Kanai Dutt (definitely one of Ghosh's best-realised characters) is a Delhi-based businessman, the kind of guy who has imbibed the sense of privilege from every pore. In Piya's eyes, he is an example of "a certain kind of Indian male, overbearing, vain, self-centred - yet, for all that, not unlikeable". Watching Kanai applaud the aspirations of a local nurse, Piya observes that this sort of upward mobility validates his own life choices. "It was important for him to believe that his values were, at bottom, egalitarian, liberal, meritocratic. It reassured him to be able to think, `What I want for myself is no different from what everybody wants, no matter how rich or poor; everyone who has any drive, any energy wants to get on in the world - Moyna is the proof'." Even as she grits her teeth at his smug sizing up of the world and his only-too-obvious interest in her, Piya realises that there is more to Kanai as the plot progresses. From being confident to intrigued to profoundly affected by his experience, Kanai changes after he finds himself literally adrift in tide country, seeking some measure of authenticity and understanding.
Amitav Ghosh is a natural born weaver of tales. He expertly shifts mood and pace, from the relaxed expansiveness of Kanai's diary to the gripping action-movie tension of the climax. Ideas, oddities, and stray details make the book an absorbing read. Amitav Ghosh has always excelled in bringing obscure areas of research to life in his fiction. In this novel, he makes cetology sound like an electrifying field of study and makes each little quirk and detail about the tide country appear momentous. From history to scientific arcana to the most delicate registers of human connection, nothing much seems alien to his writing.
In fact, The Hungry Tide touches on all the standard tropes and conflicts that make Ghosh so popular in classrooms across the world. Language and unbelonging, the travails of `a translated world', even the eternal Man vs Nature questions abound in the novel, but they arise naturally out of context and situation.
Unlike the much-reviled `maximalist' novels written by many of his contemporaries, Ghosh does not break off mid-story into long essayistic rants or overblown linguistic acrobatics. In fact, if there is a fault to be found with much of his writing, it is the easy use of the prefab phrase (`small but thriving business' and so on) that renders it a tiny bit less classy. The Hungry Tide, though, is an achievement even on those terms, with some exquisitely written descriptive passages. Here, Amitav Ghosh shows off the sense of play, the spark of writers in the line of Rushdie, with surprising control - for example, the legend of Bon Bibi is told in a sing-song rhyme that echoes the doggerel verse of the Bengali original.
It can also be argued that it is the unforced, graceful quality of his narrative that makes his ideas come alive. Writing about Morichjhapi, a refugee community that the government plans to evict, Ghosh grapples with big questions - the collision between human beings and their habitat, the daily struggle of living and insensitive theories of justice that think nothing of such suffering. As a lone, bewildered woman cries, "the worst part... was to sit here helpless, and listen to the policemen making their announcements, hearing them say that our lives, our existence was worth less than dirt or dust. This island has to be saved for its trees, for its animals... everyday, 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 name?" A schoolmaster whose imagination is stirred by the revolutionary potential of Morichjhapi remembers German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, "Each slow turn of the world carries such disinherited ones to whom neither the past nor the future belong." Ghosh describes their world with the kind of moral weight that punches you in the gut, far more effectively than all the pamphleteering and rhetoric on displacement and human rights.