An oil slick amidst the Hungry Tide

Just a short while ago, I hadn’t the remotest clue of what an Orcaella or the Irrawaddy Dolphin was.But within a span of two months, I encountered it twice. Two days ago, I glanced at the papers and it jumped out at me.A huge oil slick off the coast of Sunderbans had endangered several lives including that of the Irrawaddy dolphins.Somehow,this struck closer home as I had just finished Amitav Ghosh’s book ‘The Hungry Tide’. Human activities continue to threaten the fragile ecological balances existing worldwide as we doggedly pursue our blinkered journey towards self-annihilation drowning out the few dissenting voices of naturalists and environmentalists. Piyali Roy, the main protagonist of the book is one such lone voice.
The_Hungry_Tide
Fiction set in rich contexts exploring a historical setting or those examining the uniqueness of a particular locale is always an intriguing read.But it transforms into a magical journey in the hands of adept authors like Amitav Ghosh when the characterization takes on a different dimension altogether.’The Hungry Tide’,set in the Sunderbans, brings to life all the magic, mystique, intrigue and perils of the place that one could possibly associate it with. The lives of people for whom change is enduring, living is indeterminate, survival – a daily odds; those who are aware that the very ground they stand on, could be swallowed up the very next minute. It portrays the psyche of such people who encounter death on a daily basis but nevertheless, life elsewhere is unthinkable. They are the inhabitants of the tide country. And with such a narrative, not only are you riveted by an engaging plot but also absorb the essence of a place and time painstakingly sketched by an author’s extensive research.

The protagonists of ‘The Hungry Tide’ are as unlikely a bunch one could envisage. A young cetologist, Piyali Roy, whose life’s ambition is to study the habits of the little known Irrawaddy dolphin.An illiterate rustic fisherman, Fokir.And Kanai, a suave city-bred translator, who is summoned to Lucibari – a remote,unreachable and hostile island in the Sunderbans, for a very curious reason.In typical Ghosh’s style, each of them is very expansively portrayed.Piyali comes across as a resilient woman; passionate about her scientific work and single minded in her pursuit,enabling her to overcome the harsh extremes that her work imposes.She also happens to be a woman, who’s still searching for her identity and discovers her answers in the remote Sunderbans amidst the congregations of the Irrawaddy dolphins.Fokir, though an illiterate fisherman and a man seemingly so far removed from the scientific and highly educated Piyali, still remarkably congruent in his passion for the flora and fauna of the mangroves.And hence, it comes as no surprise that when fate throws Piyali and Fokir together, they connect. A primal bond that renders language superfluous, barely acknowledged yet resilient enough to withstand a storm. And finally there was Kanai.Out of all of them, it is his mutable character with the shades of grey which would have been the trickiest to portray.At one instant, his character smacks of superficiality and conceit but at the very next, it also manages to elicit sympathy for the struggles of a reasonable mind against the prejudices that form the bedrock of his upbringing.Confident to the point of arrogance,but also possessing a remarkable sense of intuition, Kanai rises above himself when he’s put to the ultimate test.He arrives in Lucibari on a strange mission – that of reading his dead uncle’s diary which chronicles his last days before the massacre of Morichjhanpi,when the government of West Bengal forcibly evicted thousands of refugees.And in that dairy,he again encounters his childhood friend,Kusum, who is an ephemeral presence throughout the novel, entwining the past with the present.

It’s a novel which explores many facets – about human bonds that transcends barriers, about rising above oneself, about life in the Sunderbans but above all, I felt it was a novel about exploring one’s identity and the human spirit. Finding that elusive purpose divergent from materialistic pursuits. It also poses several thought-provoking questions when environmentalism comes into conflict with humanism. Does the plight of the Sunderban tigers far outweigh the plight of human refugees ? Though the novel is a good 400 pages, my interest hardly flagged even through the arcane descriptions the author provides on the habitat and the etymology of the Irrawaddy dolphins.

And thus it was, that I came to know of the existence of the rare Irrawaddy dolphin and of the wonder that is the Sunderbans and of the remarkable people of the tide country. In light of my almost personal acquaintance with the animal through the eyes of the cetologist, it was even more distressing to read of the oil slick off the Sunderbans that threatens to disastrously tilt the scales.The need of the hour is to join forces to save the last of the wonderful creatures that depend on these fragile eco-systems. The hungry tide has risen and it shall not be stopped by the narrow confines of national boundaries.

File Photo: Irrawaddy Dolphin
File Photo: Irrawaddy Dolphin

Three Rivers of Tears

Three Rivers of Tears is a story, set in the context of three nations which splintered out of colonial India – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – where people were brutally torn asunder and the embers continue to simmer to this day.
Three River of Tears

This book is written by Lopa, a post-graduate in physics from IIT Kanpur. She has many short stories, essays and poems to her credit and has scripted and produced a few documentary films.The work is a product of some pertinent questions – Why are borders between so many countries a zone of uncertainty, torn by open conflict or surviving on a precarious peace? Even when commonalities stare us in the face why do we focus on differences? Tradition, lifestyle, history, language – all the diversities that enrich our spirit – why do we use them as weapons of mistrust?

1970’s Calcutta – A young urban educated woman, Binapani, brimming with romantic ideologies infused by Russian novels, gets sucked into a communist revolution to be rudely awakened to the practical realities of the uprising which started in Naxalbari.
1971, East Pakistan – A child Partha,named ‘Rahim’ through a stroke of fate, was born to a young Hindu woman, Madhumati amidst burning cities and villages which had become Hindu graveyards.Madhumati with her husband Sulaiman Ali and son, then begins the arduous journey of escape to India and establishing a new life for themselves.

Around the same time, Tariq, a young boy from Pakistan, whose parents emigrate to India in search of a better life, sees the wonder of Taj Mahal for the first time.

A brief tryst with communism alters Binapani’s destiny forever and as her life progresses on a different tangent, Binapani’s story gets enmeshed with several other characters. To her is born, a free-thinking and avant-garde daughter, Panchali.As Panchali grows older, she feels passionately for the people of the three countries, bound by a shared cultural heritage yet distanced by political interests.As her life traverses and crosses the path of Tariq, Rahim and various other characters impacted by the partition, she questions the need for continued division in the minds and hearts of people and seeks to perform the ultimate sacrifice for the unification of the three countries.

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This is a book on historical fiction that traces various historical events and happenings from 1970 till 2007 through a simplistic style of narration. Along with history, the book is richly interspersed with mythological references, culture and traditions of India. The book is divided into 6 parts and Part 1 of the book, which deals with Binapani getting sucked into a communist rebellion, is the most promising. The rich background context, in this part, can lend itself to a whole book.

From Part 2 onwards, the book meanders and branches off into too many characters, many of whom are of no consequence. This profusion of people, most of who do not warrant sufficient depth or mind space, creates unnecessary distractions.

The history,in various places, is narrated in a question and answer form and seems contrived to educate the reader.Introduction of some characters has been done purely to ask a leading question which is then answered in detail by another.

“Where is Brindavan?”
“Brindavan is on the banks of River Yamuna, in northern India….”

….

“Anand, tell them the Mahabharata” requested Binapani.
And four pages of abridged Mahabharata follow.

There are some instances, where the occurrences are narrated by the author as a commentary and also carry the author’s opinions on the political scenario at that time.

“What India needed most at this juncture was internal stability.The Iron Lady,Indira Gandhi, who had proved her mettle in the Bangladesh war, put a strong government back on its feet.”

The narration on several instances, verges on the yawningly text bookish. The history, ideally should have been woven into the story unobtrusively, without being obviously focused on as an academic discourse and should have made a sufficiently strong impact on the reader to want to search and read up the historical facts.

Many ubiquitous items, which would be obvious to an Indian, is explained in detail which further lends credence to an assumption that it is aimed towards a non-Indian audience.Explanation of Sari, Duppatta,Golgappa,Amchi-Mumbai, Hindi film songs are not something an average Indian is going to be enthused about.

Though ideologically sending a strong message, the depth of the characters demanded to be portrayed for roles like these, seemed shallow in comparison.Even the protagonist’s character and her goal don’t resonate much owing to the lack of a sound bedrock of convictions shaped through interactions, introspection and reasoning. The conversations which aim to remove the communal disconnect and illustrate the commonality across religions seem too simplistic and unimaginative.

Taking cognizance of just the history chronicled during the period mentioned, it does a commendable job of mentioning almost every political incident worth mentioning. Stories from the epics also create an interesting diversion with the names of a lot of key characters derived from them, though the passages can drag for readers who are already cognizant of them.

Do pick up the book, if you would like to know more about the Indian mythology and culture interspersed with a story weaving in and out. But if you already are aware of all these, then I am afraid that it would verge on the blase.

Author – Lopa
Publisher – Lifi Publications
ISBN 978-93-82536-00-0
Pages – 492
Price – Rs.325