The Hungry Tide is a beautiful tale of history, love and man’s relationship with nature. It leaves one in awe of Amitav Ghosh’s ability to beautifully underscore the issues of language, love, and nature among the Ganges river’s “hundreds, maybe thousands, of tangled strands.”

A Tale of History, Love, and Man’s Relationship With Nature

Set in the Sundarbans and marred by the horrors of India’s colonial history, this historical saga beautifully captures the essence of unforeseen accidents, mythical tales, riotous pasts, and conflicted relationships.  

Piyali Roy, an Indian-American cetologist with a grant to study the elusive Irrawaddy dolphin, befriends Kanai Dutt, a New Delhi-based interpreter. An unforeseen accident leaves Piya struggling for life in the care of a fisherman named Fokir, for whom she kindles an inexplicable affection. Ghosh fluidly transcends the boundaries of fiction as he pens down an account of the siege of the island of Marichjhãpi, in which the Indian government forcefully ousted and killed Bangladeshi refugees for wildlife conservation. The story has a cinematic end in which a cyclone endangers the lives of the inhabitants of the Sundarbans. While Piya and Kanai manage to save themselves, Fokir sacrifices himself to save the former. Piya, thus, channels her grief by devising a conservation programme to help local fishermen, and names it after Fokir, her savior. 

Progressing through the book, one is left admiring Ghosh’s subtle references to a wide range of socio-political themes throughout the text. In fact, the more one introspects, the deeper the layers seem to get. Ghosh manages to create an effortlessly fluid narrative in the Sunderbans, wherein humanity and nature co-exist in an unprecedented confluence. This stands in contrast to the layman’s understanding of this archipelago as remote and uninhabited. The novel highlights the indigenous lifestyle, culture, traditions, myths, folklore, deities, and superstitions of the people of the bhatir desh

Ghosh meticulously embeds numerous themes into the novel. Firstly, he depicts language as the thread that sews all the fictional and non-fictional elements of the novel together. Through the characters’ interactions, Ghosh attempts to propagate the idea that language is an insufficient mediator among people. However, the culture of the Sunderbans itself is shaped “not only by rivers of silt but also by rivers of language: Bengali, English, Arabic, Hindi, Arakanese, and who knows what else?” Man’s relationship with nature and the human cost of conservation are other integral themes that ground the story into reality. 

In the novel, man and nature share a complicated relationship. On the one hand, the locals wage a daily battle for survival against the forces of nature, while on the other, they glorify and worship it. The people of the archipelago have innate sentiments attached to their bhatir desh, which is evident in the Bangladeshi refugees’ belief that “the mud of the Sundarbans still flows through their veins.” For the locals, their connection to the Sundarbans is metaphysical, and hence, inexplicable. Bon Bibi, which translates to ‘lady of the forest’, is the goddess who the people believe protects them from the elements of Nature. However, people still lived in terror of their environment. For instance, wives would dress in white, akin to widows, whenever their husbands ventured out into the river since they believed that their husbands’ death was imminent. 

What’s interesting, though, is that Ghosh does not demonise nature, even after the cyclone manages to decimate decades’ worth of human settlement in a matter of hours. He hints at how human-induced phenomena like climate change and rising sea levels have managed to disrupt the intricate ecological balance of the Sundarbans. The river, which was once a steady presence in the lives of the initial settlers, had now transformed into a fickle, unreliable force. This becomes evident from his statement, “Even a child will begin a story about his grandmother with the words: ‘in those days the river wasn’t here, and the village was not where it is . . .’”

While ecological conservation is another pertinent theme in the novel, Ghosh also hints at the anthropological loss caused in its wake. He uses the 1979 Marichjhãpi incident to highlight how the government often justifies violence against the defenceless in the name of wildlife conservation. He dramatises the incident as arising from an absolute disregard of the mutuality between bioregionalism and environmental conservation, and thus, propagates the idea that protection efforts should be made for both the natural environment as well as the people who inhabit it. This is made apparent when a villager wonders who the people are “who love animals so much that they are willing to kill [the refugees] for them?”

The conversations presented in the story underscore that the conflict between environmentalists and rural communities has persisted since time immemorial. Neither party is ever able to sympathise with the needs and wants of the other. For instance, Piya is left dumbstruck after she witnesses the inhuman killing of a tiger in a village. What leaves her even more devastated is that Kanai appears unperturbed by it, while Fokir himself participates in the process. The tiger, being depicted as dispensable, becomes a symbol of past and present human suffering. As a cetologist and wildlife conservationist, the actions of the villagers appear heartless, and even barbaric, to her. However, she later understands their plight and realises that conservation cannot be successful without incorporating and acknowledging human needs. 

The title of the novel too, though merely a few words long, succinctly conveys these themes. Humans, hungry for land and resources, irredeemably exploit the tidal country, while Nature, as tigers and storms, ravenously devours human life and property. Ghosh also uses the word ‘hunger’ in its most literal sense as he depicts how the people of the Sundarbans wage a daily battle with Nature to feed their families. Moreover, the capriciousness that is characteristic of the fragile relationships among the characters is representative of how a tide ebbs and flows.

Ghosh’s words serve as “living migrants” that trace their journey from the tidal country to the Western world. They not only underscore the plight of the people of the Sunderbans, but also hint at larger issues that plague numerous regions and communities across the world. The locals are aware of the power that the tiger possesses and are, therefore, hesitant even to utter the word “bagh” aloud. The special respect granted to these creatures is an illustration of the reverence and fear that the entire tidal landscape commands.

As a reader, what one might find most compelling about the novel is its comprehensiveness across the literary, cultural, ecological, mythical, and historical dimensions. Piya’s heartwarming interactions with the Orcaella manage to strike a chord with nature lovers and wildlife enthusiasts. The way the novel details the past and the present of the Sundarbans not only leaves one stunned by the sheer intensity of it all, but also makes one reflect upon the history and experiences of a region that has shaped the geography of the Indian subcontinent for centuries. Thus, The Hungry Tide is, undoubtedly, a priceless piece of literature that brings those stories to the forefront that would otherwise have never caught the world’s eye. A must-read for anyone interested in the human dimension of conservation.

The Hungry Tide

Amitav Ghosh

2004, HarperCollins, 400pp

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