The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
There’s a funny story behind how I discovered this book. In order to fulfil my course requirements, I took a certain module in my first year of university. It was titled – Beasts, People and Wild Environments in South Asia. As an animal and nature-lover since young, the name of this module instantly stood out to me among the sea of cultural, societal and science-based modules that made up the list I had to choose from. This book was one of the very first readings specified for the module. And like all good university students, I didn’t finish it. I don’t think I even reached the quarter-mark. However, the book and its writing left an inexplicable mark on me. So when I started taking my writing career and reading more seriously, I decided that this was one book I had to eventually return to and finish.
The first thing I have to mention when talking about this book is its setting – a relatively unknown location spanning both India and Bangladesh known as the Sundarbans. Also known as the tide country, it is a place where fresh and seawater blend chaotically, and islands and mangroves can disappear overnight, only to be reborn the next day. Filled with man-eating tigers and massive crocodiles, it is a land where nature is the one true law. Ghosh’s depiction of the Sundarbans is masterful and very real. What makes the tale even more impressive is its depiction of the female lead character Piya – a cetologist, a scientist who researches marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. It’s not an experience I would call common, but Ghosh manages to colour it vibrantly, channelling the images of blue-grey fins popping out of the waves and the thrill of those sights with meticulous detail. In the Author’s Note at the end of the book, Ghosh himself explains that he had travelled in the Sundarbans as well as accompanied an actual cetologist on a survey expedition in order to gain the experience necessary to write this novel. For that, I have a lot of respect. It really drives home the importance for writers to devote themselves to research in order to sharpen the realism of the worlds they try to create.
Beyond the excellent detail and verisimilitude, something I thoroughly enjoyed was the ‘human’ aspect of the novel. At its core, the novel doesn’t depict extraordinary events – this is no dramatic thriller with excitement and plot twists. However, it does depict extraordinary people. And the story of the novel is weaved around the encounters between these extraordinary people, breathing life, motivation and desire into what would otherwise be events of arguably little significance. By the first few chapters you become heavily invested in the characters and this makes you want to read on – you want to find out what happens to them next. Interestingly, this is complemented by the normality of the novel’s events because it is through the everyday that the personalities of these characters truly shine and flow. You learn a little bit more about each of them one step at a time. At first glance, you probably won’t think of the characters as special. In fact, you probably will be able to think of some people you know who are reminiscent of the characters. But by the end, you come to realise just how extraordinary each of them are in their own right – the extraordinary-ness of ordinary human beings like you and me.
There is some romance sprinkled throughout the novel as well and I have to say it’s one of the best I’ve ever read. Neither shallow nor overblown, it is exactly what it’s supposed to be – just ‘human’. Sentimental, complex. It doesn’t make sense to the characters but they acknowledge it is there. I’m going to use the phrase again – Ghosh manages to convey the extraordinary-ness of ordinary love. All in all, it was an engrossing and enchanting read – definitely an enjoyable experience and I highly recommend it. I think I’ll check out some of his other works as well.