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Expectations in the Sundarbans

by David Burleigh

THE HUNGRY TIDE, by Amitav Ghosh. HarperCollins, 2004, 403 pp., £10.99 (paper).

Piyali Roy, the daughter of Bengali immigrants to the United States, is spotted standing on a railway platform. She is dressed in the clothes “of a teenage boy.” The man who distinguishes her from the crowd, as a stranger and a foreigner, is a middle-aged businessman from Delhi called Kanai Dutt.

The station is in Kolkata (Calcutta), and both of these people are traveling southward, to an area called the Sundarbans. This sultry and scarcely inhabitable region is made up of mangrove swamps and the ever-changing islands that form the largest river delta in the world.

It is the place where the Ganges and the Brahmaputra flow into the sea, where the salt and freshwater tides meet and intermingle.

Piya, as she is generally known, is a cetologist and has come to do a study of the river dolphins called Orcaella, which are related, not to marine dolphins, but to the Orca or killer whale.

As a visitor, she is unfamiliar with the landscape and the language. Kanai, on the other hand, has come to visit relatives, and to examine a manuscript left by his late uncle, a teacher and aspiring poet. He is urbane and cynical, and like many people in southern Asia, multilingual. He is impressed by Piya’s enthusiasm when they meet.

As with Amitav Ghosh’s previous novel, “The Glass Palace,” set in India and Burma (also known as Myanmar), this new book offers a wide range of characters and a broad historical perspective, even if it is not quite so epic in scale as the other story. But the delta region is evidently of great importance to him, and is intimately described. His training as an anthropologist, and his deep sense of the poetry of things, make him uniquely able to evoke the whole life of the “tide country.”

The inhabitants of the Sundarbans have always had to contend with “tempests and tides, tigers and crocodiles,” and were driven away by them at first. In the time of the British Raj, however, a wealthy Scottish businessman, Sir Daniel Hamilton, had attempted to set up an ideal community here: “He dreamed of a place where men and women could be farmers in the morning, poets in the afternoon, and carpenters in the evening.” Kanai’s relatives live in a town that is one of the remnants of the utopian dream of “S’Daniel.”

Ghosh shows us the wary encounters in India between people of different background and expectation, like Piya and Kanai, and more especially between Piya and the local people. The description of her difficulties with local officials and fishermen, when she attempts to begin her study, are utterly convincing. But equally engaging are the author’s descriptions of the land, and what he calls the “mythologies of discovery,” in the scientific examination of it.

Nowadays we know much more about the importance of tidal flats and wetlands, and the plethora of life-forms that they support. That there are “more species of fish in the Sundarbans than could be found in the whole continent of Europe” is reason enough to know something about the region. Ghosh includes much to fascinate the reader in his digressions, and just as much about human superstitions and beliefs as about the natural environment.

The story itself is one of exploration and follows Piya and Kanai in alternate chapters, as she investigates the river delta and he revisits past events through his uncle’s manuscript. A mystery surrounds the second attempt to establish an ideal community, by a large group of internal refugees, and the tragic conclusion to this, in which the uncle became involved. The tale of human settlement also runs up against the newer need to protect the natural surroundings, and Piya speaks in a self-righteous voice on their behalf.

The device of alternating chapters breaks down about two-thirds of the way through the book, when the tributaries of the story run together. The sea then rises to threaten the leading characters in the form of an unexpected cyclone, and the tidal waves that it produces. Floods and storms are by no means unusual in the Sundarbans , and the novel is swept to a conclusion with suitable drama and excitement.

The estuarine delta of the Sundarbans, much of which is now in Bangladesh, is often troubled by natural disasters. We learn in the novel, for example, of a cyclone in 1970 in which 300,000 people died. Luckily this region was spared when the Dec. 26 tsunami swept across the ocean to its south. Yet it is sobering to think that the death toll in such events must reach five, or even six figures, in order to get the world community’s attention.

“The Hungry Tide” is an elegantly written and highly informative volume that beautifully evokes a little-known part of the world.