Sunday, August 27, 2006

Amitav Ghosh's "The Hungry Tide"

Professor Ray Taras generously reviewed Ghosh's The Hungry Tide for the blog:
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide (Houghton Mifflin, 2005) has been touted as both a prophetic and poetic novel. Its description of the natural beauty as well as the perils of the Sundarbans--the tide country lying to the south of West Bengal and Bangladesh--is in many respects poetic. While it does not rival the quoted poetry from Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies which concludes many of the chapters, the book lends new meaning to the lines "Tiger, tiger, burning bright...." For indeed there are fearsome man-eating tigers prowling in the mangroves of the Sundarbans--a romantic, haunting trope that the author uses to bring the implicit debate between environmentalists and survivalists to a memorable climax.

As for the prophesy the novel holds, what can we say other than that its publication predated the South Asian tsunami and hurricane Katrina by months? The image of flood water pouring across lowlands, people rowing to land in small boats, individuals perched on fragile roofs or in windswept trees, families returning soon after the storm to their broken homes intent on rebuilding, is one we are familiar with.

As with his earlier works such as The Calcutta Chromosome, Ghosh's novel disseminates scientific information in a wholly palatable way. We are instructed in geography, climatology, and marine biology. We are taken through use of the GPS and so are not surprised when, at the end, the life of the heroine is saved thanks to her methodically having plotted way points allowing her to make her way back to the village. The GPS may have saved no poor people in Indonesia or the Ninth Ward in 2005, but it certainly pays dividends for cetologists like Piya, the American-raised Bengali woman--and for search-and-rescue teams tracking down overeager (or drunk) hunters gone missing in the U.S. every fall.

Ghosh narrates contemporary stories well, then, despite a prose style that is more pedestrian than lyrical. He also is intent on offering commentary on politics and people. The Hungry Tide tells us about the 1979 massacre by government forces of refugees who had settled the village of Morichjhãpi. Having nowhere else to go, many East Bengalis at home in tide country attempted to remake their lives in India's Sundarbans. But invoking the need to protect forest and wildlife reserves, the government (ironically, a West Bengali Marxist one) harassed, threatened, and even killed these refugees. Anyone really wanting to know why people continue to make their homes in low-lying areas will find an eloquent answer in this novel. Put simply, it is because they feel less unwanted, less of a burden, there than anywhere else.

Socio-economic class--and caste and race--are involved in policy making that every so often privileges nature at the expense of human beings. Ghosh elaborates: "Was it possible that in Morichjhãpi had been planted the seeds of what might become, if not a Dalit nation, then at least a safe haven, a place of true freedom for the country's most oppressed?" (p.159). That "natural" disasters usually have human agency is described in a typology that follows (pp. 168-171).

Finally--and fittingly--to Ghosh's love story. It is a klutzy ménage-á-trois in-the-making among a noble illiterate savage (Fokir), his ambitious backwoods wife (Moyna), and the American outsider (Piya). To be sure, the many hours Fokir and Piya spend together on a small boat searching for river dolphins does not lead to a consummation of their emotionally wrought relationship. That is, unless consummation comes in the form of a dying Fokir breathing heavily down Piya's neck as they sit tied together by a sari to the trunk of a tree as the eye of the storm passes.

Perhaps literature having ambitions at greatness inevitably seeks out such contrived resolutions. If that is so, let us leave the treatment of a triangular relationship such as Ghosh presents to the unpretentious soap operas, whose unresolved plots are more in keeping with real life.

Ray Taras is professor of politics at Tulane and has directed its World Literature program for the past three years.

Many thanks to Ray for the excellent review.

--Marshal Zeringue