Author: Amitav Ghosh
Year of Publication: 2004
“How do you lose a word? Does it vanish into your memory, like an old toy in a cupboard, and lie hidden in the cobwebs and dust, waiting to be cleaned out or rediscovered?”
Calcutta and Catharsis are two strong words which I associate with the author Amitav Ghosh. The novel is a story about that side of Calcutta which has become popular with time but is still remote to access. It is a story of not one but many who are intertwined and speak of a larger cause for which the locals had to work when it is was the responsibility of the government to take care of things.
The title ‘The Hungry Tide’ is metaphorical when it comes to the justice and wants of humans and animals who chose to live in coexistence. An ecological cycle which has been practiced over a period of time becomes problematic when the city doers impose their laws on rural people.
The tide is natural and so is the hunger, but what is unnatural is the greed which makes humans hungry.
The Sunderbans where there is huge reservoir of the Royal Bengal Tiger, small islands and plantations; Ghosh leads us to a journey through these small pools of water to the flood which takes over. The fear of living with man eating tigers and drowning in tides is a perception of an outsider but for the inhabitants it is a matter of harmony and mutual existence.
Bengal is about a culture, a language and a tradition which is of its own. With an establishment of a settlement in a remote area, are these rooted elements transported and implanted or are they left behind only to be practiced in the mainstream city?
The characters of the couple Nilima and Nirmal who are educated and civil construct hospitals and schools to educate and empower people who used to earn their living only by fishing and other rooted means. They create a beautiful pot from the clay they were given thinking of future of the people who don’t have access to basic health care and education.
They with their intelligence over the years created ways to avoid disasters and created damage controls and equipped people with basic life skills so that precious lives which are lost in floods can be saved.
The novel also talks about a modern middle aged Bengali Kanai Dutt living in a city, whose memory of visiting a childhood place becomes a reason for a revisit to a remote place like Lusibari from where the the exploration of that plot begins which was so far was only trapped in the pages of a diary which Nirmal had written in his last days.
How one’s last wish i.e. of Nirmal’s becomes the central matter of a voyage which engulfs lives of many in one thread is worth reading.
The novel maps how people from Bangladesh who were given space to reside in refugee camps seek shelter in these plantations for this is where they belong even if the borders have created two countries.
A foreigner and a biologist Piyali Roy finds her way to Lusibari in search of collecting readings and data of the species of a particular fresh water dolphin named Orcaella; finds a true connection in a fisherman Fokir who follows water routes out of joy and his grounded-ness to the place to which he belongs. Even a language barrier is no barrier for the two of them.
Is Love only Love when it is consummated? Sometimes we come across characters who don’t need bodies to satiate their feelings for each other. A common interest is enough to appreciate each other and explore what others might think as unreasonable.
The relationship of the two- Fokir & Piya, as a reader touched me because sometimes in the nothingness of a situation one finds everything.
The novel also shows Kinai’s love interest in Piya but we know as we read that he is just infatuated and attracted to her for she is a different person to him than he is.
When Fokir, Piya and Kanai are on a journey where Piya is tracing the movement of dolphins, he comments “I just can’t believe we’ve come all the way to look at these ridiculous porcine little things.”
Instead of being sensitive and inquisitive he is mocking at something which is dear to someone he is trying to be dear to.
Fokir is not ‘fakir’ or poor, he is rich in many ways which the modern world fails to lack. He doesn’t go on voyages because he wants more money but he is the one who understands each current. As if words are written on water and are giving him messages. It is as if they are telling him in which direction to flow and he follows for he believes in the water where he spends most of his time.
The novel also tells us legends and fables which make these rural people going. The myth of Bon Bibi as the savior is a false hope with which they live, because their lives are always at risk because of the man eating tigers or forest officials who are in quest of arresting ones who are supposedly living illegally on these islands.
A law of land is essential to maintain peace. But is that law above lives of people for whom nature is the only way of living?
Ghosh follows a technique of the juxtaposed chapters where one plot follows and is immediately switched to another and then back to the previous one. It is like one is reading two different stories which merge at a point and become one.
Language, learning and love are three components which can connect any two individuals. Though Fokir lost his life to suffice the hunger of the tide but he gave life to many characters in bringing out their character.
The novel is a thoroughly researched piece of writing where a lot of its elements have been experienced by the author himself. He allows the reader to travel through all these experiences and then think on which subject matter is graver.
I believe this novel is a beautiful read for it teaches you more about human relationships with nature which usually gets corrupted when one shifts to a city.