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The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

At sea in the waters of Bengal




In Amitav Ghosh's fourth work of fiction, Piya is a young Bengali cetologist brought up in the US. She arrives in the Sundarbans, the archipelago of islands where the Ganges merges into the Bay of Bengal, to conduct an ecological survey on dolphins. Having been schooled in the US, Piya - like so many Asian-Americans of her generation - is fully westernised and does not know any Bengali. Efficient, focused and experienced, she confidently sets about her task.

A drowning accident leads her to become reliant on a boatman as guide and protector in the violent Sundarbans. She also meets Kanai, a young Bengali professional man visiting the area on a family matter. Between them, the three weave an intriguing tale of history, folklore, ecology, migration, love and grief.

Hindu myth has it that the mighty Ganges frees herself from the taming dreadlocks of Shiva - the god of creation and destruction - near the Bay of Bengal in meandering strands, to create the Sundarbans. It is an immense stretch of mangrove forest where thousands of hectares become immersed and re-emerge with the tide. Ghosh skilfully depicts this truly vengeful place, where fantasy and reality constantly overlap: "At no moment can human beings have any doubt of the terrain's utter hostility to their presence, of its cunning and resourcefulness, of its determination to destroy or expel them. Every year dozens of people perish in the embrace of that dense foliage, killed by tigers, snakes and crocodiles."

Following the best tradition of Bengali-language novels on the rivers of Bengal - such as Manik Banerjee's The Boatman of Padma and Samaresh Basu's Ganga - The Hungry Tide takes us on a journey into the ways of the boatmen. But Ghosh endeavours to make his story accessible to a readership who will not recognise a host of cultural references.

In familiar contexts, this works well, but with the unusual it becomes tricky. When an everyday Indian object such as gamchha - a light piece of chequered material used mainly as a towel - is introduced, Ghosh has to use some 400 words to do justice to the concept before he supplies the Bengali word. This looks contrived. In places he gives a translation in parenthesis, making the text cumbersome.

Ghosh sprinkles Bengali colloquialisms throughout, proffering an English equivalent nearby as if to make doubly sure the reader understands. The most ambitious of his literary experiments is to compose an English pastiche of the Bengali metre dwipadi poyar: a rhymed couplet of about 12 syllables with a caesura. This is much like trying to describe Gregorian chant to somebody who has never heard it - it is impossible to convey the real flavour of this oral folk poetry.

To his credit, Ghosh spans two generations, and captures the transition sensitively as he switches from first to third person. The characterisation of Nirmal, a romantic, Bengali Marxist believer in a world where people can be "farmers in the morning, poets in the afternoon and carpenters in the evening", is sincere.

Strangely, postcolonial Indian writers like Ghosh feel the need to insert the local bhasa (tongue) and cultural anthropology for authenticity, whereas their predecessors - such as Anita Desai and RK Narayan - did not. They were confident enough to transport readers to a different society using brilliantly executed English. Their works are still read fairly widely, whereas Ghosh can expect a limited readership - however interesting his theme may be.

Krishna Dutta's cultural companion to Calcutta is published by Signal Books

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