In 1854 a British meteorologist, Henry Piddington, warned the colonial government of India that its plans to build a new port south of Calcutta were doomed. Piddington knew that the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans, an archipelago of tiny, muddy islands at the mouth of the Matla River, protected the Bengali coastline from storms. This unique environment–today, one of the last habitats of the Royal Bengal tiger and the Asian river dolphin–is the setting of Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, The Hungry Tide, a contemporary story with deep historical roots. Piddington appears as a minor character, writing a frantic letter to the viceroy: “There would come a day when a great mass of salt water would rise up in the midst of a cyclone and drown the whole settlement.” Piddington was ignored, and five years after its completion, the new port, which was to be a peer of Bombay, Singapore and Hong Kong, was destroyed by a tsunami.
Unlike weathermen, novelists are not in the business of making predictions. Even so, The Hungry Tide, which describes a fictional contemporary tsunami in the Indian Ocean–and was completed before the recent disaster there–seems eerily prescient. Ghosh, who has a doctorate in social anthropology, seems to approach his novels like research projects–a contentious strategy today, as some writers proclaim their freedom from the library, while others emphasize the trouble they have taken to procure the facts. In this case, the author’s investigations feel organic to the story because of his deep involvement, both personal and political, with the place he’s writing about. (Ghosh has family connections to the Sundarbans, and has recently joined the protests against a resort development there.) The islands represent a small part of his rich literary territory: the extraordinary confluence of language, culture and religion at the nexus of India, Bangladesh and Burma. In his previous novels, especially The Shadow Lines and The Glass Palace, Ghosh has explored the devastating effects of colonialism in this part of the world, and The Hungry Tide continues the project, drawing a brilliant analogy between the unique ecology of the Sundarbans and their violent history. In the novel as in life, the Sundarbans remain one of the few places on earth where humans and nature are equally matched.
The Hungry Tide begins simply, with a man and a woman on a train. Kanai Dutt, a translator who runs a successful corporate interpretation service in New Delhi, notices Piyali Roy, a young American scientist of Indian parentage who has come to the Sundarbans to study the rare Asian river dolphin. She spills her tea on him; he invites her to visit him and his aunt on an island called Lusibari. It’s easy to set up an attraction in fiction but difficult to maintain it, and at this point Ghosh sensibly diverts his two main characters for more than a hundred pages. Piya meets Fokir, a crab fisherman whose work turns out to have an almost perfect symmetry with her own, and hires him as a guide to the waterways of the tide country. Meanwhile, on Lusibari, Kanai’s aunt introduces him to Fokir’s wife, Moyna, an ambitious nursing student. Less a triangle than a love square, the relationships between Kanai, Piya, Fokir and Moyna over the course of the novel allow Ghosh to explore deep questions about language, class and the nature of home.
Kanai, a bachelor who is “rarely single,” prides himself on his ability to spot an attractive woman in a crowd. Although language is “both his livelihood and his addiction,” his passion for it is decidedly secondary. Interestingly, in Ghosh’s fiction etymological expertise is not an especially admirable trait. Kanai’s recognition of Piya’s American accent is the inverse of a moment in Ghosh’s 1995 novel, The Calcutta Chromosome, when a nineteenth-century British colonial linguist attempts to seduce a servant by identifying his dialect: “‘Can’t fool me,’ he says. ‘I’ve got you natives figured: I know exactly where every single one of you belongs. Those loan words will give you away every time.'” The insult of the unwanted advance is compounded by the fact that the word that has given the servant away is a loan word, borrowed from English. Ghosh is eloquent about the unique problems of language on the subcontinent, where the Sanskritization of colonial place names has made it possible to “forget” even the name of one’s birthplace. Piya notices that Kanai says “Calcutta” rather than “Kolkata.” He explains: “I try to reserve ‘Calcutta’ for the past and ‘Kolkata’ for the present, but occasionally I slip. Especially when I’m speaking English.”