The Hungry Tide

by Amitav Ghosh

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What is the writing style of The Hungry Tide? Discuss language, words, and grammar.

The writing in Amitav Gosh's The Hungry Tide is full and verbose. He often uses colons to elaborate and expand a sentence. As for the sentences themselves, they tend to be lengthy, featuring multiple commas, dashes, and, yes, colons. For the words, readers are struck by how sterile and scientific terms can create visceral feelings. Piya wishing for "sounds that had been boiled clean like a surgeon's instruments" makes for a powerful mix of sensations, desires, and objects.

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As you know from reading Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide, one of the central themes of the novel is language and communication. There's Piya, who likes to communicate via gestures and flashcards. Then there's Kanai, who tells Piya that he speaks six languages "not including dialects."

Your question is fascinating. It doesn't so much concern what Ghosh might be trying to say about language, but it's more about how Ghosh himself uses language—his choice of words, his use of punctuation—to tell his story.

Let's start with punctuation. One of the things to notice was Ghosh's use of the colon. Here is Ghosh telling us about Kanai:

He ran an agency of translators and interpreters that specialized in serving the expatriate communities of New Delhi: foreign diplomats, aid workers, charitable organizations, multinationals, and the like.

Now, here is Ghosh talking Kanai's thoughts on Nilima:

His admiration for her was genuine too: in founding his own business he had gained a fresh appreciation of what it took to build and maintain an organization like hers—especially considering that, unlike his own agency, the Trust was not run for profit.

We could go on with examples, but let's stop and think about how Ghosh's semicolons connect to the story. We're reading a story about discovery and learning. Piya is trying to discover more about the Orcaella dolphins, and Kaniai has already learned six languages.

What does learning and discovery entail? Elaboration and expansion. When we learn, we build upon things we already know. What does this have to do with the colon? Well, a colon, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, is a punctuation mark "used to precede a list of items, a quotation, or an expansion and explanation." While on the topic of expansion and explanation, you might have noticed that Ghosh's sentences tend to be quite long. We might say that the lengthy sentence structure—featuring comma splices, dashes, and, of course, colons—match the wide-ranging scope of the book. The book does not take place in a tidy or compact setting. In the book, we're constantly on the go. That's kind of how the sentences feel. Their bumpy, unwieldy, and filled with twists and turns.

As for the words used, we're struck by how Ghosh employs scientific and medical terms to provoke lucid and arresting memories and feelings. Ghosh tells us that when Piya was a child she wanted "words with the heft of stainless steel, sounds that had been boiled clean like a surgeon's instruments." Later on, we witness Kanai marveling at "the pure structure of sound" when Fokir asks if "he can feel the fear."

Why the nod to purity and cleanliness? What do they have to do with science? Conversely, what do they have to do with feeling? The blending of sterilized images with visceral feelings might upend some of our understandings of science. Science is supposed to be a dispassionate, objective field. As Ghosh's writing demonstrates, though, the language of science can produces vivid emotions.

Real quick: You might also want to think about how some of Gosh's writing replicates the flashcards that Piya uses. Yes, many of Gosh's sentences are long, but there are also some very snappy ones, ones that might make a reader think of flashcards.

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