The Hungry Tide

by Amitav Ghosh

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How are folklore and nature related in The Hungry Tide?

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One of the most interesting aspects of Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004) is the convergence of folklore, nature, and the complex realities of environmental conservation. The novel’s setting is the mangrove-rich Sunderbans, “the country of the eighteen tides”—a vast region at the border of India and Bangladesh. Spotted with many islands, this is an area where the rivers Ganga and Brahmaputra drain into the Bay of Bengal, creating mercurial lagoons and unpredictable tides. It is also home to some of the world’s poorest people and its largest concentration of the Royal Bengal Tiger. Most locals in the area eke out a livelihood through fishing and honey-gathering. Thus, natural forces dominate their lives in a way most city-dwellers cannot comprehend.

We are introduced to the world of the tide country through the eyes of Piya, an American cetologist (a scientist who studies marine mammals) researching the elusive dolphins that live near the mouth of the Ganga, and Kanai, a suave, urbane entrepreneur from Delhi visiting his aunt who runs a non-profit in the Sunderbans. Fokir, the name replete with connotations of a nomad and a spiritual seeker, is a poor boatman who ferries Piya and Kanai in their pursuits around the tide country. Through Fokir’s songs, translated by Kanai, Piya learns of the most prominent folk legend of the people of the Sunderbans.

The striking tale is a parable about the need for humans, beasts, and nature to respect mutual boundaries. Known as the “Bon Bibir Johurnama,” or the narrative of Her glory and miracles, the legend is about Bon Bibi, the goddess of the forests.

According to the legend, Bon Bibi protects her people from Dokkhin Rai, the evil king of the south, who roams the tide country in the guise of a man-eating tiger. When the poor boy Dukhey, "the sad one," is left as ransom to Dokkhin Rai by his uncle Dhona in exchange for the unlimited honey and wax of the forest, Dukhey is sure his end is near. Disguised as a demonic tiger, the king of the south approaches the lone boy, eager for his flesh, “its jowls filled like sails as it sprang to attack.” It is at this time Dukhey recalls his mother’s instructions: when all hope has fled, pray to Bon Bibi. Dukkhey calls out to the goddess in utter despair, and soon she appears, breathing life into the boy, who has lost consciousness. She instructs her brother Shah Jongoli, the shah of the jungle, to teach the tiger-demon a lesson.

So eager was he to carry out his command, that he struck the tiger with the flat of his hand. The demon reeled, so great was the force of the blow, and in panic fled south as fast as he could go.

Thus, Dukhey is saved, and Bon Bibi restores order in the world. For the people of the tide country, Bon Bibi is the manifestation of Mother Nature herself, benign and forgiving. Dhona, the greedy uncle, represents the immoral, avaricious nature of man that plunders the forest of its wealth and is ready to sacrifice his kin for profit. In some versions of the legend, Dhona too is punished by Bon Bibi.

Dokkhin Rai is an embodiment of the very real threat presented to the villagers by man-eating tigers who roam the tide country. Because Dokkhin Rai breaches the natural order to feast on man, he is punished, just like Dhona is penalized for his greed. Dukhey symbolizes innocent, hapless humanity. Through the legend of Bon Bibi, we see that nature, beasts, and humans must exist in harmony for the sake of universal peace and balance.

When humans fail to read the signs of nature, disaster ensues. We see this in the novel's climax, as Piya goes deeper into the tide country in her pursuit of dolphins. Single-minded in her obsession, she fails to see the signs of an approaching cyclone. By the time she realizes a storm is coming, she and Fokir have no option but to tether their boat to a tree and take refuge on an island. As the storm wreaks havoc, Fokir, a devout believer in Bon Bibi, assures Piya of her grace.

Bon Bibi's grace plays out in an unexpected way. Fokir sacrifices his life to save Piya, who in turn ensures Fokir's wife and child are well-looked after. Thus, Fokir’s faith in Bon Bibi is justified to an extent. The humans pay a price for their mistake, and are forgiven, and order is restored. The entire sequence is a bittersweet evocation of the complex dynamic between legend and reality, folklore and faith, and humans and nature.

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