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.
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.