Well, it’s a Amitav Ghosh book, and I’m an unabashed fan, so I’ll drop the pretenses of objectivity. Granted it’s not in the same league as The Shadow Lines (but then that’s once in a lifetime work for an author, even Ghosh). Ghosh seems to have moved away from (almost) pure literature after Shadow Lines, and it might be a loss for pure literature, but its a gain for history-telling genre.
The Hungry Tide, set in Sundarbans islands, or the tide country, tells the story of Piya Roy, an American cetologist of Indian origin, who’s come to the Sundarbans in search of the Irrawady dolphins. On the train, she meets Kanai Dutt — a Delhi based businessman, quite successful at that, who manages a firm which provides professional translation services — who happens to be visiting his Aunt in a (fictional) island of Sundarbans: the Lusibari. They meet again, when Piya takes up his invitation to visit him at his Aunt’s place, after a chance encounter puts Piya on Fokir’s boat. Fokir, an uneducated local fisherman, who knows the ever-changing riverbeds of Sundarbans better than most, takes Piya first to the Dolphins, after Piya shows him the sketches that are the only real mode of communication between the two: Piya knows no Bengali. Fokir knows no English. Piya sees in Fokir, what neither the city bred Kanai, nor Fokir’s village bred wife, who’s fighting against all odds, to become a nurse. He becomes her guide in her subsequent trip to the deep interiors of the Sundarbans, where she is to observe the behavior patterns of the Dolphins. Kanai joins them on impulse, and so does the river.
In his characteristic style, Ghosh weaves an intricately plotted story that touches upon myth, legends, history, science/ecology, and human issues. Ghosh’s USP has always been his painstaking research into the history of the locale where his story is formed. In contrast to “The Glass Palace”, where the story spans across multiple locations, though, Hungry Tide is set in just one area, and consequently, it’s much tighter. Glass Palace, on the other hand, was tremendous in scope, but ended up dragging, especially in its second half. The Hungry Tide, is almost a too easy read, moving at a brisk pace.
Another virtue (for me, at least) of Ghosh, is that he rarely preaches. He rarely takes sides, even. His characters do, of course, but then there is always another character, as central in the story, pitching for the other side. And so, in the spirit of postmodernism, he lays down ideas, and counter-ideas; perceptions and counter-perceptions; pitting myth against science, belief against scepticism, progress/survival against environmentalism, the rustic against the refined, and so on. There are numerous sub-themes, developed just enough to make them meaningful, and aborted just in time (OK, not all the time!) to not let them take away the focus, and all contributing to the intricate structure, which looks almost simple in the end. But if one ponders, even for a minute, its obvious what genius it takes to narrate like that!
The backdrop of Sundarbans, where survival is an everyday matter, where one is confronted by the unknown the every other step, also gives the work the depth that its characters lack, probably. It gives Ghosh an infinite freedom to maneuver. And he has used it, without really abusing it. At times it reminded me of both Calcutta Chromosomes, his very early work, where myths reaffirm themselves, and Circle of Reason, where men are driven by singular passions. Only the passions here are very earthly. But it clearly surpasses both of them, in its poise, its plotting, its focus, its flow. In the past, if Ghosh could really be blamed for anything, it’s his almost missionary zeal to find connections. Although it can be argued, that that’s his unique gift, too. That’s precisely why Hungry Tide is one of his best books. He doesn’t get carried away, in a backdrop, where it well could have been excused. I am waiting for his next book more eagerly now. Clearly, Ghosh is in a great form.