Saturday, December 5, 2009
The Hungry Tide
It doesn't get more exotic than Amitav Ghosh's novel of the tide country in the Bay of Bengal. Tigers, crocodiles and river dolphins teem in this parallel narrative of a present-day marine mammal researcher and the story of a little-known massacre a generation earlier.
Along with Ghosh's beautiful, literate prose, there are stories with human emotions -- in all their resplendent ambivalence -- that are at once so firmly embedded in their Indian and Indian-American characters and yet so universal that the reader is carried along in a tide of the author's making.
Piya, the Indian-American researcher; Kanai, the New Delhi yuppie; and Fokir, the unlettered fisherman form an unusual love triangle -- in fact with Moyna, Fokir's wife, two intersecting triangles -- and this drama is quite moving when it reaches its climax.
The parallel story of Nirma and Kumus, with Kanai, Nilima and Horen bridging the time gap adds a whole dimension to the main narrative and the two stories build slowly to their crescendos in virtual lockstep. Nirma, the wannabe revolutionary who becomes a rural headmaster and failed writer, is the dreamer out of step with reality. His wife, Nilima, is more practical, realistic, focused on the moment. And yet in the end, it is Nilima who is left with a some bitterness, conceding that one practical idea Nirmal had amidst his dreaming was responsible for saving numerous lives. Horen, who ferries people around in both narratives, turns out to be not such a minor character.
Ghosh's prose is at time lyrical and the reader is willing to hear the most beautiful speeches from the most unlikely characters. Horen, taciturn through the book, erupts near the end with a soliloquy that Shakespeare would have been proud of, and Moyna is able to articulate the hidden undercurrents of emotion. When she asks Kanai to remind Fokir, her husband, that Piya is only here for a short time, Kanai wants to know why he should be the one to talk to him and not her.
"Only a stranger can put such things into words," Moyna says. "Because words are just air...When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard. You can't blow on the water's surface from below...Only someone who's outside can do that, someone like you."
One small bonus from reading this book is an appreciation for Rilke's Duino Elegies, which Nirmal quotes often, referring only to the Poet. But there are many rich bonuses -- an excursion into cetology, a branch of the study of marine mammals; a tour of the Sundarbans archipelago extending from Calcutta into the Bay of Bengal and sheltering the city from cyclones; a view of the mixed Hindu-Islamic culture along the border between India and Bangladesh; a history lesson about the massacre at Morichjhapi. Ghosh is not afraid to stand things on their heads -- by showing, for instance, the potential damage the West's obsession with saving tigers can have on the poor in those regions.
But The Hungry Tide is above all a novel, with romance, adventure and stories that enrich our understanding of how people think and feel.