The Hungry Tide

The hungry tideI was on a roll early this year reading strictly from my TBR piles. And even when I broke it, reading the first two books of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series from the library, I was still, in my mind, reading books I planned on reading for some time.

But I really broke the streak when I picked up The Hungry Tide (Amitav Ghosh, 2005), a book I’d gotten only recently in the library book sale. Perhaps it is the change of seasons, but I was really ready for a book to take me on a journey somewhere else. This book delivered.

The Hungry Tide is set in the Indian Sundarbans. I  think I’d seen part of a TV special on this fascinating region. The Sundarbans are the earth’s largest mangrove forests that make up the delta of four major rivers dumping into the Bay of Bengal. The border of India and Bangladesh runs through the center. The muddy, swampy islands and labyrinthine waterways of the Sundarbans are home to a variety of creatures, many dangerous and or endangered, including saltwater crocodiles, tigers, snakes, birds, and rare river dolphins. The tigers in this region, in particular, are known to be man eaters, and hundreds of people are killed every year by them. The area is poor, and people risk their lives to venture into tiger territory to find honey or collect firewood. The locals lives are also made precarious by the daily tides that engulf entire islands and eat away at the boundaries of others, not to mention the effects of the periodic ravages of storms. But the tides are also what give the area life and bounty. In short, this was — to me — a really fascinating setting for a novel.

The book contained long passages, fairly successfully interwoven, about the geography and the environmental importance of the region to the health of the tidal country. Part of the success of these passages is due to the plot. The story involves an Indian-American (not Native American) woman, a biologist, who comes to the Sundarbans to study the declining and understudied population of river dolphins, so the topics of science and conservation are forefront in the book — another huge plus for me. On the train from Calcutta to the Sundarban port of Canning, she briefly meets Kanai, a successful New Delhi businessman who is on his way to visit his aunt, an important figure in the remote island of Lusibari. As fate would have it, the scientist, Piya, is also heading to Lusibari to establish a base for her research. Kanai goes one way, and Piya hires the first dubious boat to take her another. The boatman are, indeed, up to no good, and her escape from them puts her into the chance company of Fokir, a native fisherman who knows the tides and waterways like breathing air. Although Piya can’t communicate in words with Fokir, he becomes Piya’s guide to finding the dolphins. If Kanai is the face of the modern development of India, and Piya the face of modern Western science, then Fokir is the natural world and its ancient harmonies, pure and simple. He is he water, the tides, the crabs, the mangroves, the tiger, the dolphins, and generations of lean, elemental men who are one with their environment. He is a First Man sort of character.

It was obvious from the start, when Piya meets Kanai on the train, that there was going to be a romance in this book — and that is fine with me; I enjoy a good love story. But I felt that the romantic aspects of the book were handled awkwardly. For instance, the first time Kanai sees Piya in the train station, he is immediately intrigued in a predatory way. This kind of works because Kanai is described as a Lothario, so it seems fitting that his radar goes off on this petite American woman. Still, isn’t it predictable? Then right after Piya meets Fokir,  she notices with interest his salty, river-smelling sweat. I cringed inwardly. If Piya is supposed to be a scientist who has been on numerous expeditions with local fisherman (they know where to find the dolphins, she explains), then she is unlikely to be titillated by this particular one’s spicy sweat. It seems more likely she would be extremely protective of herself and her interests, given how often solo women receive unwelcome attention when traveling. The romantic relationships don’t really get any more plausible — Fokir turns out to be married to a woman who is so unlike him that the author’s explanation that they have a deep, unspoken connection seems entirely unbelievable. And then, in the course of a paragraph, Kanai has an spectacular epiphany and realizes that Piya is truly the most extraordinary woman he has ever met. She might be, but the suddenness of his realization was a bit unconvincing.

Despite its weakness as a love story, I found that I could find a lot to enjoy that kept me reading. Of course, there is the setting and the science, but also there is a theme of the primacy of storytelling and poetry in the book, which is also seen as a kind of teaching. Kanai’s deceased uncle, a teacher, has left him a journal to read. His uncle dreamed of being a poet in his younger days, and adored the poems of Rilke. His journals reveal him to be a marvelous storyteller and the way he is remembered teaching the young Fokir all show him to be a equally gifted teacher. All the stories about his uncle and journal entries end with an appropriate passage from the poet Rilke. That is the “educated” side. But on the other side are the local narrative song and legend of the local spirit/protector Bon Bibi who keeps the fisherman, honey seekers, and other locals safe from tigers, crocodiles, and other demons. Fokir is illiterate, but he can sing these songs by heart, and the story of Bon Bibi provides guidelines for how the locals interact with the forest, islands, tides, and animals. I don’t always like long retellings of folk tales in fiction, but the passages of Bon Bibi’s story worked for me in this book.

This is the first book I’ve read by Amitav Ghosh. (I tried to read The Glass Palace some years ago and gave it up — I don’t remember why.) One of my big curiosities about his books is if the sexual politics are handled in the same way. In addition to this book’s love triangle, there is the notion that sex will always be at the forefront when men  and women interact. Both sexes can be smart, strong, and determined, but they can’t interact without an awareness of the sexual other. It’s an interesting, if not equally annoying idea. I’d also like to see if he writes more in depth about Indian politics. There were little openings in the story that made me think Ghosh couldn’t quite decide whether to frame the politics around the love story or vice versa. Still, I think Ghosh succeeds overall in combining a very ambitious number of topics and themes.

A passage I admired, and where the the book gets it title:

And imagine that fateful night when the storm struck, at exactly the time that a kotal gon was setting in; imagine how they cowered in their roofless huts and watched the waters rising, rising, gnawing at the mud and the sand they had laid down to hold the river off. Imagine what went through their heads as they watched this devouring tide eating its way through the earthworks, stalking them wherever they were. There was not one among them, I will guarantee you, my young friend, who would not rather have stood before a tiger than have looked into the maws of that tide.

3.9/5 (weird, but oh well)
personal copy

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