The Hungry Tide

The Hungry Tide is the fifth English-language novel by Amitav Ghosh and, like his earlier works, it reflects the author’s expertise as a sociologist with a Ph.D. from Oxford University, his broad general knowledge, and his insight into the colonial past. English and American writers would find it difficult to surpass Ghosh’s elegant style. Although in his early works he has sometimes lost control of the narrative, he handles the intricate structure of The Hungry Tide as effectively as he does the book’s various themes.

As one of Ghosh’s recurring themes is the presence of the past, it follows that the action in his novels typically takes place over long periods of time. In The Shadow Lines (1988), he follows two families through three generations and more than half a century. His novel The Glass Palace (2000) spans 115 years. By contrast, The Hungry Tide involves just a few weeks in the lives of a few characters. The time frame is greatly expanded, however, through accounts of past events, sometimes presented by the characters and at other times by the narrator through a journal written thirty years before and through a myth which originated in a far distant past.

At the beginning of the novel, Kanai Dutt, a middle-aged businessman from New Delhi, encounters Piyali Roy, or Piya, a young marine biologist from Seattle. They are on a train to Canning, in southeastern India, from where they will go by boat to the Sundarban Islands, an archipelago in the Ganges Delta made up of a number of small, mangrove-covered islands. Piya has a grant to study a rare species of river dolphin, while Kanai has been asked by his aunt to peruse a notebook left by his uncle Nirmal Bose, who died under mysterious circumstances during a rebellion thirty years earlier. Before they separate at Canning, Kanai politely invites Piya to visit his aunt at her home on Lusibari, one of the Sundarbans’ most remote islands.

Piya makes arrangements for her studies, hiring the required forest guides and a boat, and heads out. However, almost immediately she begins to have misgivings, and after falling into the water and being rescued by a fisherman named Fokir, she decides to stay with him on his small boat rather than return to the guides, who seem excessively interested in her money and her equipment. Her decision proves to be a wise one. Although Fokir speaks no English and cannot read or write, he is so intelligent that Piya has no difficulty communicating with him. She has only to show him her equipment and several pictures of dolphins for him to grasp her reason for being in the Sundarbans and to understand that she wishes to hire him and his boat. Fokir and his young son Tutul make room for Piya on their boat, and they proceed.

While Piya explores the present, Kanai ventures into the area’s past. First his aunt, Nilima Bose, delivers a lecture about the early history of the Sundarbans, and then Kanai begins reading the notebook of Nirmal, his late uncle. From that point on, the narrator will periodically insert into the story a separate, italicized chapter representing a section of the notebook. Kanai will not read the final entry until about two-thirds of the way through the novel.

Fokir knows the area so well that he is soon finding dolphins for Piya to study. He also makes sure that, in her enthusiasm, she does not forget that they are in crocodile-infested waters and that there are tigers in the mangroves. The narrative now begins switching back and forth, with one chapter devoted to the adventures of Piya and Fokir in the fishing boat and the next to Kanai on Lusibari, and the past. Some of the Lusibari chapters are notebook entries. In other chapters, the narration offers background information. For example, in a chapter titled “Nirmal and Nilima,” the reader learns that the couple came to the Sundarbans in 1950, less than a year after they were married, because Nirmal’s political activities had attracted the attention of the authorities and he needed to “disappear” for a while. His notebook was written in 1979, at the time of the Morichjhapi rebellion, and it reveals the fact that Nirmal never changed; he was just as idealistic at the end of his life as he had been in the beginning. Kanai begins to suspect exactly what Nilima would rather not...

(The entire section is 1773 words.)