The Hungry Tides by Amitav Ghosh begins at the backdrop of Sunderbans.  The novel stirs our imagination when Piya, the dolphin researcher from the US, in a curious turn of events falls from her launch in the estuarial waters of Sunderbans and Fakir; the poor fisherman saves her life.

He saves her: “Thrashing her arms, she tied to lift herself from water, only to be struck on the face again, by another powerful blow. Then, to her amazement, a pair of arms appeared around her chest. A hand caught hold of her neck, jerking back her head and another set of teeth clamped against her own. There was a sucking sensation in her mouth and something seemed to shoot out of her gullet.

“A moment later she felt a whiff of air in her throat and began to gasp for more. A clasped arm was holding her upright in the water and on her left shoulder was a sharp prickling sensation. Even as she was struggling to swallow mouthful of air, it filtered through her consciousness that it was the fisherman who was holding her and that his stubble was abrading her skin. The stinging seemed to clear her mind and she forced herself to loosen her panicked muscle, calming her body to the point where he could begin to swim.”

Piya’s fall from the launch and her journey with Fakir and his little son Tultul to Lusibari take about 144 pages of the novel. The story gets well entrenched here. Like a tree a novel also branches out when it develops. Whose story is The Hungry Tide? Is it the story of Piya’s study of Gangetic dolphins? Or Fakir’s life in the estuarial waters of Sunderbans or is it the dream and reality of Nirmal? Or  is it the story of  ‘Amra kara’ Bastuhara? And what about the subtexts? How do the stories of Nilima, Kanai and Horen enrich it? It is all of them beautifully woven in one colourful whole.

Fakir’s rescue of Piya creates an intimacy between him and Piya.  Poor and illiterate fisherman Fakir becomes her guide and company. Fakir doesn’t know a word of English and Piya knows no Bangla. But this is no bar in communication. They communicate through silence and physical intimacy. And the novelist presents it with so much artistry! Fakir also expresses himself through music.

“His voice sounded almost hoarse and it seemed to crack and sob as it roamed the notes. There was a suggestion of grief in it that unsettled and disturbed her. She had thought that she had seen a muscular quality of innocence in him, a likeable kind of naïveté, but now, listening to this song, she began to ask herself whether it was she who was naive.

“She would have liked to know what he was singing about and what the lyrics meant- but she knew too that a river of words would not be able to tell her exactly what made the song sound as it did right then, in that place.”

How did Fakir help Piya in her study of dolphins? “It is like he’s always watching the water-even without being aware of it. I’ve worked with so many experienced fishermen before but I’ve never met anyone with such an incredible instinct. It is as if he can see right into the river’s heart.”

The relationship between Piya and Fakir remains enigmatic till the end. But it was a relationship of care, intimacy and spontaneity. There are many occasions when both of them feel ease at themselves and speak their minds through the silence. Then, there are those eerie occasions when he saves her holding her physically. Finally in that terrible storm he dies shielding her only by his bare body.

“Now, he took hold of Piya’s arm and led her deeper into the island, crouching low against the wind. They come to a tree …unusually tall and thick-trunked. Fakir gestured to her to climb up and he followed at her heels as she pulled herself into the branches…..he chose a sturdy branch and motioned to her to sit astride it, facing the trunk.

“Then he seated himself behind her, like a pillion rider n a motorcycle, and made a sign to ask her for the rolled up sari tied around her waist. She saw now what he was for- he was going to use it to tie them both to the tree trunk. After another turn, the sari was all paid out and Fakir tied its ends into a tight knot.”

What a description! What a climax! Alas it was not a nuptial knot, but a death knot for Fakir. But how does that matter?

When the story intensifies in the waterfront with Piya’s study of dolphins, in the land, Kanai digs into the history of Sunderbans reading from the notes left by Nirmal before his death. Nirmal was Nilima’s teacher in Ashutosh College.

Nirmal was full of idealism and Nilima was mesmerized by his fiery lectures. Finally they got married and Nirmal’s radicalism compelled them to leave Calcutta.  They were looking for ‘a utopia’ in Sunderbans, instead they found there utter destitution. The fundamental question was “What is to be done?”

“Nirmal, overwhelmed, read and retread Lenin’s pamphlet without being able to find any definite answers. Nilima, ever practical, began to talk to the women who gathered at the wells and the ponds.”

Finally Nilima sets up a trust for the poor and plunges herself in trust’s works and Nirmal seeks solace in teaching in the local high school. But he remains an idealist till his death. After Nirmal’s death, Nilima, Kanai’s aunt asks Kanai to visit Lusibari to read through Nirmal’s notes which Nilima thought to be of some precious work of literature. Kanai and Piya met each other in the train in their journey to Sunderbans. On the way they turned friendly and Kanai invites her to visit his aunt Nilima, at Lusibari.

The climate of Sunderbans also comes alive in Ghosh’s description. “At night lying on his cot, Kanai would imagine that the roof had come alive; the thatch would rustle and shake and there would be frantic little outbursts of squeals and hisses. From time to time there would be loud plops as creatures of various kinds fell to the floor; usually they would go shooting off again and slip away under the door, but every once in a while Kanai would wake up in the morning and find a dead snake or clutch of birds’ eggs lying on the ground, providing a feast for any army of beetles and ants.

“At times these creatures would fall right into the bed’s netting, weighing it down in the middle and shaking the posts. When this happened you had to take your pillow, shut your eyes and give the net a whack from below. Often the creature, whatever it was would go shooting off into the air and that was the last you’d see of it. But sometimes it would just go straight up and land right back in the net and then you’d have to start all over again.”

But this is also the tale of a humid rural India. It reminds us to our childhood days in our village. Again is the The Glory of Bon Bibi a story or reality or myth riddled in history?

Myth is not history. But it may be a way of exploration of history. This is so beautifully expressed in the chapter ‘Beginning Again’ in the form of Nirmal’s notes. “…Ganga does not come to an end after it flows into the Bay of Bengal. It joins with the Brahmaputra in scouring a long, clearly marked channel along the floor of the bay.” Thus when we combine its journey through land and the sea it becomes the longest river on the earth. How wonderful! The tide country is also known for its share of storms.

Nirmal’s description of a giant storm of 1737 is hair raising. Nirmal also tells Fakir such storm may revisit their place and Lusibari may just be dissolved in water. Then he asks Fakir to put his ear to the embankment and listen carefully. Fakir hears a soft scratching sound and he asks Nirmal if crabs are making the sound.

Nirmal confirms it and says that multitudes of crabs are burrowing into the badh and it is only a matter of time that the crabs, storms, tides and winds will eat it up the badh. The narration is just magical. Through these notes the novelist tells us the stories of suffering of people living in Sunderbans. We also come to know about the infamous massacre of Morichjhapi which took place in 1979 when the first Left Front government came to power in West Bengal.

The description of the historic journey of thousands of refugees from the confinement of Dandakarany to Morichjhapi in Sunderbans is heart wrenching. Story of Kusum, Fakir’s mother is also entangled with this journey. This also brings the issue of partition. How partition turned some people refugee overnight in their own country! And see their plight even now.

The Hungry Tide has also so many subtexts woven into it! Ghosh’s description of the tide country is so powerful and vivid that you can feel the place and its people and their happiness and sorrow from it. This novel is a beautiful blending of scholarly research with creative imagination.

Agin he fuses high ideals, pragmatism, books and reality so creatively!  Reading this novel is like rolling in creative waves. The dramatic turns of the novel make it unputdownable. But the events are not contrived they unfold quite naturally. It is a story of hopes and despair. And it is also a story of transformation.

Avatar photo

Paresh Malakar

Paresh Malakar is a commentator based in Guwahati. He can be reached at: