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A collaboration over too much coffee.
coffee and pen

17 November, 2004

Book Review: The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

Some writers are spinners of tales, some paint large canvases in myriad hues and yet others put select ingredients to cook up a sumptuous meal. But Amitav Ghosh in his The Hungry Tide weaves realities together to create magic in moments. In could have been a story or a piece of history or biographies of a few people who share very different histories and realities, but it becomes none of these. It unfolds at a point where histories and myths, dreams and realities, the personal and the political come together. The Hungry tide becomes the exact place where it is situated, a "mohana" in the tide country, the Sunderbans.

The tide country itself is the central character here. It almost playfully brings together Piya, the Bengali American cytologist, Kanai the businessman translator and language expert, and Fokir the uneducated silent fisherman, in close proximity of each other. Around them are shadows of Kanai’s uncle Nirmal’s diary, Kanai’s aunt Nilima’s faith in making small changes in the lives of people around her and Fokir’s wife Moyna’s ambition to rise above her own.

Here is where histories are repeated. The story of Kanai-Piya-Fokir unmistakably mirrors that of Horen-Kusum-Nirmal. Memories and realities of cyclones merge with each other. The son of the man who was once saved in a terrible cyclone is hoped to survive another. The altar of Bon Bibi visited by the father and then his daughter is also visited by the grand son and his son. It is almost as if there is a wheel of things that keep churning themselves coming back to the same point with unmistaken certainty.

The incident of the evacuation of the ‘illegal’ settlers of Morichjhapi almost becomes the strongest icon standing for the spirit of the people of the tide country and their zeal and vigour to live, fighting constantly against the odds of nature and whims of kings. Its relevance is almost of mythical proportions, where it today stands, like a story heard so many times that one does not know whether it really happened or it is collective imagination. But somewhere its effect lingers on just like the point where even after Nirmal’s diary containing his impressions on the Morichjhapi incident disappears in the river, it retains itself in Kanai’s mind.

Nature and Science come so close to one another in similarities and contrasts. The river dolphins that Piya hunts out for her research becomes the messengers of Bon Bibi in tide country legend. The same dolphins change their patterns of movement at the onset of the storm becoming both scientific indicators as well as Bon Bibi’s warning. Fokir, the man who is tuned to the ways of the natural world, becomes the guide to a scientist’s quest. Kanai, the language expert comes to understand how words are like the wind that blows over the river as the river flows on underneath.

The intensity of the written word and the visual imagery that it creates is exhilarating. The words move like the river in jowar, the high tide, and bhata, the ebb, with the gentleness and calm of the tranquil waters and then picking up the speed and gusto of the cyclone. The beauty of this dangerous mistress of the river, the Sunderbans could not be better experienced.

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