Book Review: The Hungry Tide - A chronicle of the Sunderbans

June 03, 2006
Shantanu Dutta

With an Amitabh Ghosh book, you just don't get a novel you get generous doses of history and geography , folk lore , lots of scientific facts related to the plot( in this case - dolphins in general and Gangetic dolphins in particular) and you still enjoy the story at the level of a story. The archipelago known as the Sundarbans is the setting of The Hungry Tide,. Located in the southeast corner of India, at the mouth of the Ganges River, these chimerical islands--shifting, melting, and reappearing as they do, in a kind of eternal evanescence--so suffuse this book that the narrative itself comes to seem like something that has emerged for the moment but could once again submerge.

The book's movement, unusually, is not linear, but tidal, with the first half of the book titled "The Ebb: Bhata," and the second half, "The Flood: Jowar." And, intriguingly, nothing in the book happens but that the Sundarbans make it possible--indeed, almost make it happen--with their mangroves, and tigers, and crocodiles, and dolphins, and cyclones, and culture, and history.

For settlers here, life is extremely precarious. Attacks by deadly tigers are common. Unrest and eviction are constant threats. Without warning, at any time, tidal floods rise and surge over the land, leaving devastation in their wake. In this place of vengeful beauty, the lives of three people from different worlds collide.

The central character is Piyali Roy, an American of Indian descent who is in the Sunderbans to study the rare orcaella, or river dolphin. In the opening chapter, she fleetingly meets Kanai Dutt, an urbane translator from Delhi who has reluctantly come to this remote backwater at the behest of his aunt. It's immediately obvious that their lives will become intertwined, and they do - but not quite in the way you'd expect.

The intricate threads of relationships and events, both past and present, are almost as complicated as the twisted braids of the Sunderbans itself. Through the journals of Kanai's deceased uncle, the dirty underbelly of recent history is exposed, as are the great tribal myths that are still passed down from generation to generation. Together these characters weave several parallel plots: the plight of displaced people, the struggle for land, the constant fight for survival in a dangerous and fragile ecosystem, and all those interactions that strengthen human bonds, understanding and emotion. Ghosh also explores the sense of connection between people that transcend class, cultures, language and gender.

In this brilliant piece of work, Ghosh not only succeeds in telling a great story that is woven into the local community, customs and environment; he also makes dexterous use of the local words and incorporates it into the text. Through such works, Ghosh is also creating spaces within the English literary world for expression of the multi-layered and multicultural complexities of indigenous peoples.

Shantanu Dutta is a medical doctor by training and a development professional by vocation. His writings mostly deal with change, complexity and conversion and tries to look at a changing world through heaven's eyes.
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Book Review: The Hungry Tide - A chronicle of the Sunderbans


Author: Shantanu Dutta


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June 4, 2006
12:51 AM

This is one of the books that I was very eager to get as soon as it got released, and then complete it aqap once I got started. Ghosh's description of the islands and the tides is not just fascinating but also seductive; how many times did I not wanted to get instantly ported to these islands!

Its difficult to envisage the book as a riveting read by looking at the subject of the story, but those who have read Amitav Ghosh earlier should know better. I loved the way historical, geographical, dolphin-related information is spread all over the book, more than as it is done in Da Vinci Code. The characters are very interesting, some inspirational too.

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