The archipelago known as the Sundarbans is not so much the setting of The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh's complex new book, as it is a co-author. 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.
Into their transformative sphere venture two very different individuals, Piya Roy, a Bengali-American cetologist, and Kanai Dutt, owner of a translation business in Delhi. Piya is drawn by the tidal water: she has come to study a rare freshwater dolphin that negotiates the mix of fresh and saltwater. Kanai, on the other hand, has been summoned to the land: he comes to the island of Lusibari on account of a posthumously discovered manuscript, written by his late uncle. When Piya and Kanai first meet—in classic fashion, on a train—Kanai is reading a xerox; Piya, jostled, splashes water on his page. For unlike this hyperliterate man who has turned words into a commodity, Piya has learned to see speech as "a bag of tricks that fooled you into thinking you could see through the eyes of another being." Though she reads too, her reading material is no photocopy. Rather, it's the river she studies as though "puzzling over a codex that had been authored by the earth itself."
Piya is drawn, then, not to Kanai, but to a married, illiterate crab fisherman named Fokir. They're thrown together by a second jostling that also results in a splash—this one of Piya falling into the river—and Fokir and Piya develop a live sympathy for each other. They are unable to speak a word of each other's language. Still, their work resonates with surprising profundity, and through the reciprocal anticipation of simple needs (for privacy, for warmth) they achieve a utopian intimacy beyond words. As Fokir's wife, sensing trouble, observes, "words are like the winds that blow ripples on the water's surface. The river itself flows beneath, unseen and unheard."
And yet, and yet. Even as it is challenged from within, this novel carries on its wordy project with a vengeance, braiding vivid, high-adventure run-ins (tigers! crocodiles!) with numerous myths, stories, and texts. Not least of the last is Kanai's uncle's manuscript, through which a romantic triangle gradually emerges, involving Kanai's uncle, Fokir's late mother, and Fokir's apparent father, a boatman. Centered on a utopian, doomed Sundarban settlement, their story so eerily prefigures the Kanai-Piya-Fokir story as to seem its earlier incarnation. Beautifully, weirdly, the earlier story seems, like one of the islands, to be re-emerging from the water like something eternal, wearing a different guise.
The Hungry Tide is not without its flaws. Its elaborate pattern does curb the characters; and in its cosmic effort to unite science with myth with society with romance and more, it leaves the reader feeling, at times, force fed. Still, Ghosh's mythic vision of life as recurrent and cyclical, with deep division giving way to deep integration, is moving, wise, and large. Emerging as it does from within a Western art form, it is also significant: this is a book that challenges everything from our notions of place and reality to our notions of what the novel can do. At one point in its progress, Kanai's uncle writes that "here in the tide country, transformation is the rule of life." We feel, by the end of this compelling book, that we have been to that country, and that it has—maybe not for the first time—remade us.
Reviewed by Gish Jen