Folklore plays a very important part in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004). Legends are not separate or merely fantastical elements in the novel; rather, they operate as part of the day-to-day reality of life in the Sunderbans, where the novel is set. Most significantly, the Bob Bibi legend dominates the book and mirrors the challenges faced by the people in the tide county—the local name for the Sunderbans—and their resolution. The region is unique because of its weird, frequent tides, its topography of shifting islands, its resource-rich mangrove forests, and the world’s largest concentration of the Royal Bengal Tiger. The impoverished people living on the islands and other areas around the tide country contend with the beauty and unpredictability of their geography, as well as the threat of the tiger, while going about life.
One of the book’s chief characters, Fokir, earns a livelihood fishing in the estuaries and channels around the tide country. Fokir’s father, like many other villagers in the area, was killed by a tiger. The other protagonists of the novel are Piya, a marine biologist who hires Fokir and his boat to study river dolphins in the area, and Kanai, a translator from Delhi who is visiting his aunt who runs a non-profit from Lusibari, one of the largest islands in the region. Since Kanai is multilingual, he acts as a bridge between English-speaking Piya and Bangla-speaking Fokir. It is also Kanai who translates the folk legend of Bon Bibi into English for the reader and Piya.
According to the lore, Bon Bibi is the guardian goddess of the forest and the people of the tide country, defending them from the bloodthirsty demon Dokkhin Rai, the “king-in-the-south,” manifested in the form of a man-eating tiger. Protector of the pure-hearted and the hapless, Bon Bibi also upholds the law of the jungle, maintaining a balance between nature, animals, and humans. People in the tide country often pray to Bon Bibi as they move in an area dominated by floods, cyclones, and tiger attacks. Ghosh establishes that the threat of the tiger is not overblown: tigers are a real threat to the people living in the tide country. Thus, the conflation of the demon with a tiger in Bon Bibi’s legend.
Moreover, Bon Bibi can also be said to represent nature itself. When her warnings are ignored and the natural balance upset, calamity ensues. Yet Bon Bibi or Mother Nature picks up afterwards, healing whoever is left behind. In the book’s climactic sequence, Fokir and Piya are caught mid-water in a cyclone, the signs of which the love-struck Fokir has missed. Unable to paddle back to the safety of the mainland, Fokir and Piya take refuge in Gorjontola—significantly an island where a shrine of Bon Bibi is located. Although the shrine itself is destroyed in the cyclone and Fokir loses his life protecting Piya, Piya survives to provide support to Fokir’s wife and child. Thus, Bon Bibi does save Piya—and even Fokir in a way. In the folk tale, Bon Bibi is able to breathe life back into Dukkhey, a poor, innocent boy attacked by the tiger-demon. However, in reality, Fokir dies. Thus, folklore also acts as a conduit for a peace that life sometimes cannot grant the people of the tide country.