Amitav Ghosh tops my list of authors I wish readers everywhere would get to know better. Journalist, novelist and travel writer, with a doctorate in social...
“The Hungry Tide”
by Amitav Ghosh
Houghton Mifflin, 333 pp., $25
Amitav Ghosh tops my list of authors I wish readers everywhere would get to know better. Journalist, novelist and travel writer, with a doctorate in social anthropology from Oxford, Ghosh’s 2001 novel “The Glass Palace” was an intricately braided, immensely satisfying saga of Indians living in Burma, struggling to shake off their Anglicization after decades of colonialism.
“The Hungry Tide,” Ghosh’s latest, doesn’t have the sweep of “The Glass Palace,” but it’s a deeply layered, stirring story that unfolds in a part of the world that remains remote and exotic to most Westerners.
“The Hungry Tide” is set in the Sundarbans, an archipelago of thousands of tiny islands at the mouth of India’s Ganges and several other rivers. The Sundarbans shelter the Royal Bengal tiger and the Irrawaddy dolphin. Sculpted by tides and storms, teeming with exotic species, they remain a place where humans must contend with forces (natural and man-made) for whom human life is of secondary consequence.
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“The islands are the trailing threads of India’s fabric, the ragged fringes of her sari, the ãchol that follows her, half wetted by the sea,” Ghosh writes, a liquid landscape where surging cyclones can wipe out thousands of lives with the flick of one giant wave.
As events unspool, the lives of several characters converge. Kanai Dutt is an urbane Delhi businessman who spent part of his childhood in the Sundarbans. Kanai reluctantly has returned at the insistence of his aunt, Nilima, a tough, gray-haired pragmatist who runs a hospital and foundation on one of its most remote outposts.
The author of “The Hungry Tide” will read at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co. (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
Piya Roy, an itinerant American of Indian descent, was raised in Seattle and educated as a marine biologist. She hopes to make the Irrawaddy dolphin (orcaella brevirostris, cousin to Puget Sound’s own killer whale) her life’s work. The third leg of this contemporary triangle is Fokir, an illiterate fisherman who knows the waters of the Sundarbans better than anyone, and his own heart better than most.
As the search for the dolphins unfolds, Kanai reads through the journals of Nirmal, Nilima’s idealistic poet husband. Nirmal writes his first-person account of the 1979 eviction of refugees from the Sundarban island of Morichjhapi, when government troops raped and murdered squatters who had claimed land meant for a wildlife refuge.
Adding further narrative texture, there’s the folk tale of the struggle between Bon Bibi, a beneficent spirit, and Dokkhin Rai, a demonic one, for control of the island kingdom (every character in “The Hungry Tide” seems to have its opposite — as Piya basks in a sighting of the dolphins, Kanai caustically observes: “I thought you were going to lead me to my Moby Dick. But these are just little floating pigs.”).
Ghosh is an exceedingly acute chronicler of people and possessed of an exquisite sense of place. His journalist’s eye observes how social behaviors in India are still molded by the legacy of its caste system. His sense of the telling detail shows itself in this passage about a simple piece of netting: “mosquitoes were the least of the creatures this net was intended to exclude; its absence, at any time, night or day, would have been an invitation for snakes and scorpions to make their way between the sheets. In a hut by the pond a woman was even said to have found a large dead fish in her bed. This was a koimachh, or tree perch, a species known to be able to manipulate its spiny fins in such a way as to drag itself overland for short distances. It had found its way into the bed only to suffocate on the mattress.”
As Piya pursues her dolphin study ever deeper into the mangrove swamps, she and her fellow travelers put themselves at risk (this is a region where up to 200 people a year are eaten by Bengal tigers). Some of Ghosh’s plot turns are a bit melodramatic — an overheard conversation propels one twist, and one character’s vision of fate proves too neatly prophetic.
But these are minor complaints about a story that’s sophisticated in its observations, poetic in its natural descriptions and astute in its analysis of the forces that have shaped this region. The author could be describing himself, in this passage about the doomed poet Nirmal:
“For him it meant that everything which existed was interconnected: the trees, the sky, the weather, people, poetry, science, nature. He hunted down facts in the way a magpie collects shiny things. Yet when he strung them all together, somehow they did become stories — of a kind.”
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or email@example.com. She has been the Seattle Times book editor since 1998.