The Hungry Tide

by Amitav Ghosh
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The Hungry Tide

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1773

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.

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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.

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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 know: that her husband’s idealism may indeed have cost him his life.

In other chapters, Kanai relives an earlier period when, having been suspended from school, he was sent to Lusibari to contemplate his misdeeds and prepare himself for reentry into the educational system. He remembers his first meeting with a strong-willed teenager named Kusum, with whom he was halfway in love. At a performance honoring Bon Bibi, the legendary protectress of the island people, Kusum had told Kanai about watching her father being dragged off by a tiger and her own sense of betrayal when Bon Bibi ignored her calls for help. After the play, Kanai saw Kusum being spirited away so that she would be safe from the villainous man who sold her mother into prostitution and had been pursuing the daughter ever since. Kanai never saw Kusum again. However, during this visit he learns about her later life, which ended in martyrdom at Morichjhapi. Kusum, as it turns out, is Fokir’s mother.

In the first part of The Hungry Tide, Ghosh maintains the interest of his readers by exploring the past and sustains suspense by keeping Piya in dangerous waters. However, the primary purpose of that section is to prepare for the more dramatic second part of the book. The first section is titled “The Ebb: Bhata”; it is followed, inevitably in tidal waters, by “The Flood: Jowar,” which is the title of the book’s second section. Although the work builds toward a cyclone, or hurricane, which floods the mangrove islands, “The Flood” also describes the human condition, for as Ghosh demonstrates, people can be as overwhelmed by internal conflicts as they are by governmental tyranny or by the destructive power of nature.

For example, by the time Piya, Fokir, and Tutul return to Lusibari, Piya knows that she has developed a crush on Fokir. Though Fokir seems unaware of her interest, his wife, Moyna, is not; as a result, she is not as friendly toward Piya as she would ordinarily be toward a guest on the island. Piya, in turn, is unaware of Kanai’s interest in her. Although, as Kanai admits, he has never been without women, he takes more than a casual interest in Piya. Evidently she is the first woman since Kusum who has touched his heart.

Nirmal’s notebook describes another kind of internal conflict, the struggle between love and duty. When government forces decided to evict a group of squatters from Morichjhapi, which had been declared a nature refuge, Nirmal felt it was his duty to support the squatters. However, he knew that in doing so, he would probably be forfeiting his life, thus deserting the wife who loved him. Kusum, too, had to balance love and duty, for her death left her son an orphan.

Although the barbaric action of the government forces at Morichjhapi was indefensible, Ghosh makes it clear that the issue involved was not a simple one. To Piya, for example, the claims of the environment should come before the needs of people. She makes her position clear when she comes upon villagers torturing a man-eating tiger they have captured. Realizing that they intend to burn it alive, Piya attempts to intervene, and Fokir has to drag her away, explaining that after all, it had killed human beings. His mother, Kusum, would have seconded his comments, for as a nurse trainee, she had been taught that human life, not nature, is of paramount importance.

In The Hungry Tide, Ghosh also points out that some of the most serious errors made by colonial overlords arose from their certainty that they could bend nature to their will. Midway through “The Flood,” Kanai tells Piya what happened at Canning, the town at which their train journey ended. Having decided that both a new capital for Bengal and a new port were needed, the British set about transforming a little fishing village on the banks of the Matla River into a large metropolis. They would not believe an amateur expert on storms, who warned that within fifteen years a cyclone would drive the ocean into the town and sweep away all of their improvements. It took not fifteen years, but just five, for nature to strike back at those who had defied it. The storm that hit Canning in 1867 was not even a major cyclone, but because the town had been built in an exposed position, where there were no mangrove swamps to protect it, it was devastated by a storm surge. Now the muddy river had taken over where once the town had stood, and only a post office was left to remind travelers of its short-lived glory.

Kanai’s story should have warned Piya against ignoring nature. However, she is so excited about the success of her research that when she ventures out again in Fokir’s boat, she does not notice how strangely the dolphins are behaving, even though by now she knows them well enough to distinguish one from another. A major storm is moving in, and Piya and Fokir cannot make it back to Lusibari before it hits. They have to take shelter amid the mangrove trees. Fokir positions himself so as to shield Piya, and he is killed by flying debris.

Despite Fokir’s death, The Hungry Tide ends on an optimistic note. Moyna and Tutul are assured of a secure future, and Nilima’s foundation will benefit from the funds Piya has raised for further research. Piya now plans to make Lusibari a permanent base, and Kanai will spend most of his time there, writing the story of Nirmal’s notebook. Most important, both Piya and Kanai have discovered who they are and what is important in their lives. Neither of them will again take nature or love for granted. If in the final pages of The Hungry Tide Ghosh seems to ignore the issues that he explored earlier in the novel, such as the helplessness of the poor in the face of human tyranny or natural disaster, he can be forgiven, for in the course of his book he has transported his readers to an unfamiliar environment and made it real to them.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 37

Booklist 101, no. 15 (April 1, 2005): 1341.

The Economist 372 (July 17, 2004): 81.

Far Eastern Economic Review 167, no. 34 (August 26, 2004): 53.

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 3 (February 1, 2005): 137.

The Nation 280, no. 23 (June 13, 2005): 24-28.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 7 (February 14, 2005): 50.

The Times Literary Supplement, July 16, 2004, p. 21.

The Washington Post Book World 35 (May 8, 2005): 12.

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