Title: The Hungry Tide
Author: Amitav Ghosh
My Rating: 5 Stars
Short Review: Fabulous story that is as complex, mysterious and hauntingly beautiful as the fascinating sunderbans that it is set in.
Amitav Ghosh is one of the most prominent Indian English authors. I have always read great things about him and his books but after one failed attempt at comprehending Calcutta Chromosome a long time ago, I have always shied away from trying any other book of his. I made an exception for “The Hungry Tide” only because of the place the book was set in. I have always been fascinated by the area that is called the Sunderbans – a swampy archipelago at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal. The dense mangrove forests and the hundreds of salt water waterways are home to some of the most terrifying animals – the royal Bengal tiger, crocodiles, snakes, etc. But what’s fascinating in this place is that humans have little to no control over the land here. Landforms are constantly changing as the sea comes in and goes out at its will. I’ve always been very intrigued by the power of nature in this area and when I found out that the hungry tide was set in the Sunderbans, I decided to read it. The book was completely unlike anything I expected. The Sunderbans wasn’t just a location in the book; it was a living entity - one of the most compelling characters! Amitav Ghosh descriptions almost transported me from my quiet little american suburb to the fascinating Sunderbans teeming with dangerous wildlife.
The settlers of the Sundarbans believe that anyone who dares venture into the vast watery labyrinth without a pure heart, will never return. It is the arrival of Piyali Roy, of Indian parentage but stubbornly American, and Kanai Dutt, a sophisticated Delhi businessman, that disturbs the delicate balance of settlement life and sets in motion a fateful cataclysm. Kanai has come to visit his widowed aunt and to review some writings left behind by her husband, a political radical who died mysteriously in the aftermath of a local uprising. He meets Piya on the train from Calcutta and learns she has come to the Sundarbans in search of a rare species of river dolphin. When she hires Fokir, an illiterate, yet proud local fisherman to guide her through the mazelike backwaters, Kanai becomes her translator. From this moment, the tide begins to turn.
The characters that Amitav created in this book are so memorable – Piya Roy – the born and raised in Seattle cetologist. Her parents are Bengali but for Piya, Bengali is just a language that they used to fight. With no knowledge of her parents language, Piya bravely ventures to the sunderbans to study a rare species of dolphins that has been spotted in the area. To help her in her quest, she hires Fokir – an illiterate fisherman who knows the waters better than the back of his own hands. The relationship between Piya and fokir is fascinating. They couldn’t be any more different from each other. But in spite of having no common methods of communication, they sense a level of bonding and are able to understand each other on a completely different plane. They share a love for the mysterious waters of the sunderbans. And if this wasn’t complicated enough, we have Kanai – suave, arrogant, educated Kanai who meets Piya on the train from Calcutta and follows her to aid her as translator in her quest.
One of the aspects that I really loved about this book was Ghosh’s effective play with multiple timelines. One thread is set in the present with Piya, Fokir and Kanai navigating the Sunderbans waterways in search of the elusive dolphins. A parallel thread takes us back in time through a manuscript written by Kanai’s revolutionary uncle that he has come to translate. Through the manuscript, we learn more about the 1979 Morichjhapi eviction of refugees and the political war between the government and the settlers in the Sunderbans area. Ghosh manages to intersperse another love triangle in the politically charged past as well.
The Hungry Tide is a complex novel and has so many different aspects and layers to it. It is an amazing creation. Amitav Ghosh is a fabulous writer and he successfully transports you to the world of Piya, Fokir , kanai and the mysterious sunderbans. He daringly sprinkles the text with mythological references, folklore, scientific research, political history. He jumps erratically between the two timelines. The pace of the writing is just perfect through the book and I feel that there’s something in it for everyone who reads the book.
I definitely want to read the book again. And this time, I want to read it at leisure because there’s no anticipation. I already know what’s going to happen to Piya and Fokir and Kanai. I can relax and grasp the many nuances and multiple layers of this fabulous fabulous book.