Short review of Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide

The Hungry Tide is the work of a novelist at the peak of his powers. It’s similar in style and tone to Ghosh’s overlooked masterpiece, The Glass Palace. But despite the similarities, its smaller scope and more limited range of characters makes it feel somewhat more accessible than the earlier book. Ghosh has managed to turn The Hungry Tide into a veritable page-turner -- beautifully controlled and plotted -- while sacrificing none his trademark historical sweep.

The Glass Palace (to review, or in case you missed it) is virtually an epic of southeast Asia – it simultaneously tells the story of: 1) the Indian National Army (i.e., Netaji, Subhas Chandra Bose) during the second world war; 2) the advent of modernity in Burma, including especially the role of the rubber and teak trades in British colonialism; and 3) the plight of Indian migrant workers in places such as Malaysia at a time of widespread displacement and general chaos. Each of these parallel sub-plots is essential to the novel's major conceptual plot, and the presence of each is the product of considerable research on the part of the novelist. Through juxtaposition, Ghosh suggests a number of compelling ties between Bengal and the rest of Southeast Asia. Through the novel, he makes a major claim for unifying modern Southeast Asian history -- a profoundly integrated Indian Ocean Basin. This broad scope, careful research, and attention to detail is unparalleled amongst Ghosh’s 'Indo-Anglian' peers. [Indo-Anglian meaning, Indian authors writing in English] Certainly, writers like Rushdie, Mistry, or Seth (though they each have considerable strengths), have never attempted to do quite what Ghosh does.

The Hungry Tide, in contrast, is geographically quite narrow -– it is limited to the Sunderban islands in the Bay of Bengal, and perhaps by extension Bengal. And it is also a bit conceptually more limited as well. Aside from the various intertwining character plots, it has only two conceptual plots. First, it explores the plight of displaced peoples (a familiar Ghosh theme), here specifically a group of refugees from Bangladesh who found themselves in a confrontation with the Indian state in 1979. The other conceptual question is how humans share a complex and dangerous ecosystem with animals (here, dolphins and tigers).

The dolphins are being studied by Piyali Roy, a marine biologist of Bengali descent who discovers some strange behavioral quirks amongst Irawaddy Dolphins in a tide pool while visiting the islands on a grant. And the Bay of Bengal is one of the only habitats where Bengal Tigers continue to live in the wild. They are zealously protected by various international environmental groups (who apply economic pressure on the Indian and Bangladeshi governments to maintain the tiger habitats by military force). But in the name of tiger preservation (or "reservation," we might say), human lives are threatened: the tigers routinely maul and often kill islanders. Though there are the obvious modern devices that might be used to protect the islanders, the state allows the deaths to continue. In the Sunderbans, Ghosh argues, human lives are valued somewhat lower than those of Tigers.

Sunderbans. Ghosh has an anthropologist’s fascination for the stories people tell -– the local mythologies that subvert the official religious and national versions of history. In several of his books there is a perspicacious investigation into the 'local reality', and with it, critiques of the official version of history. Here the local reality is that of the Sundarbans, a densely populated archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, which straddles Indian west Bengal and Bangladesh. The tide country people have an epic narrative of origins that they pass on orally. They have a kind of local religion – they worship a Goddess called Bon Bibi – but the epic of Bon Bibi is strongly inflected by Islamic influences. This kind of syncretism too will be familiar to Ghosh readers -- it is one of the central points of his In An Antique Land, a book that is a landmark in cross-cultural creative non-fiction.

The tide country is perhaps a relatively remote corner of Bengal. But it is also possible to see it as a separate region. The protagonist Kanai, a professional translator, is entrusted the notebooks of his deceased uncle, and comes across the following explicative passage:

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.' There are some who believe the word to be derived from the name of a common species of mangrove—-the sundari tree, Heriteria minor. But the word’s origin is no easier to account for than is its presence prevalence, for in the record books of the Mughal emperors this region is named not in reference to a tree but to a tide –- bhati. And to the inhabitants of the islands this land is known as bhatir desh –- the tide country -– except that bhati is not just the "tide" but one tide in particular, the ebb-tide: it is only in falling that the water gives birth to the forest. To look upon this strange parturition, midwived by the moon, is to know why the name "tide country" is not just right but necessary.

One of Ghosh’s most persistent themes is of the ephemerality of concepts of national and ethnic identity. The multiplicity of names for the Sundarbans is a metaphor for that ephemerality. Another metaphor for ephemerality, albeit one which has a great deal of material heft behind it, is the fact that the land itself is inconstant –- subject to sometimes radical alterations as a result of late summer storms. Whole islands are washed away by the cyclones that sweep in with huge tidal surges. Thousands of human beings and animals routinely die in these storms.

Alongside these natural catastrophes are the man-made ones –- the storms of history, if you will. In Ghosh’s historically-engaged fiction, the two are effectively metaphors for each other. The beauty of the metaphor is the way it allows Ghosh to give shape and texture to (often forgotten) historical events that otherwise might seem inexplicable. But there is a danger in it too: the specific political actors and discourses that lead to events such as the massacre at Morichjhapi are downplayed. Ghosh’s view of history makes it impossible to render such atrocities as events that might have been avoided, or for which some historical responsibility might be assigned to particular actors.

BTW, the Outlook India review of The Hungry Tide (review by Alok Rai) is here. I have to admit, I find the review a little incomprehensible.