Words Apart

Words Apart

In Amitav Ghosh’s new novel, language is a medium of power.


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.”

Ghosh is interested in the history of languages, and how they contribute to the formation of individual character. Although Piya’s parents spoke Bengali to each other, she didn’t learn it; as with many children of immigrants, she’s not sure she wants the baggage her parents’ language contains. Appropriately for a scientist, she prefers “words with the heft of stainless steel, sounds that had been boiled clean, like a surgeon’s instruments, tools with nothing attached except meanings that could be looked up in a dictionary.” Bengali, however, resides in Piya’s brain as a kind of fossil, and the sound of the language triggers memories of her childhood. In linguistic terms, Kanai’s aunt Nilima is Piya’s opposite:

Her Bengali, after years of living in the tide country, had almost converged with the local dialect, having been stripped of the inflections of her urban upbringing. But her English, possibly because she spoke it so rarely, had survived like a fern suspended in amber, untouched by time and unspoiled by the rigors of regular usage, a perfect specimen of a tongue learned in the schools of the Raj.

The alternative to these verbal “specimens” in the novel is science, which can be conducted without language. Piya and Fokir can’t speak a word to each other, and yet they discover that the crab line Fokir uses, with its evenly spaced morsels of bait, allows Piya to take regular depth measurements of the river. Those measurements prompt a significant discovery about the river dolphins’ behavior. Piya and Fokir’s professional sympathy gives way to an attraction that transcends the boundaries of language and class, and it’s a testament to Ghosh’s skill that he pulls it off. Of course, it’s hard to resist a guy who saves you twice from drowning: “His face rested on the back of her neck and she could feel his stubble on her skin. Soon her lungs adapted to the rhythm of his diaphragm as it pumped in and out of the declivity of her lower back. Everywhere their bodies met, their skin was joined by a thin membrane of sweat.” Lungs, diaphragms, declivities and membranes–body parts reminiscent more of the laboratory than a love scene–are peculiarly appropriate for this couple; it is as if, without words, Piya and Fokir are forced to fall back on more primal stuff.

Kanai, who likes to boast that he has “loved…in six languages,” is a little baffled by his attraction to Piya–a woman whose greatest joy is standing silently for hours on a boat, scanning the river for creatures that look to him like “little floating pigs.” When he notices her interest in Fokir, he angrily tries to disillusion her: Anything she thinks she has in common with an illiterate fisherman is a foolish fantasy. Ghosh, however, seems to give the scientist the last word: “For if you compared it to the ways in which dolphins’ echoes mirrored the world, speech was only a bag of tricks that fooled you into believing that you could see through the eyes of another being.” The same could be said of writing novels, of course.

Ghosh’s skepticism about language raises a question about fiction, especially fiction that purports to speak for the dispossessed. In The Glass Palace, he dramatized the massive (and largely forgotten) exodus of refugees from Burma to India during World War II. Here, he tells a similar story while maintaining a distance from the refugees themselves. Kanai’s Uncle Nirmal, a frustrated Marxist writer, witnessed the struggle between the Bengali refugees who settled the tide country island of Morichjhãpi and West Bengal’s Left Front government, which violently evicted them. Kanai reads about the incident in a notebook his uncle left for him. For Nirmal, the refugees are political nobility, and their settlement on Morichjhãpi represents a kind of utopia.

Nirmal’s notebook is laced with quotations from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, for which the old writer has an almost religious reverence; the elegies gracefully mirror the novel’s themes of inspiration and the natural world. The animals, Nirmal quotes, “already know by instinct/we’re not comfortably at home/in our translated world.” Although Nirmal hasn’t accomplished the writing projects he dreamed of as a young man, he hopes that by passing the refugees’ story on to his successful, urban nephew, it will somehow reach the rest of the world: “I feel certain you will have a greater claim to the world’s ear than I ever had.” The notebook is written in English, but it isn’t in publishable form; in order to pass the story on, Kanai would have to find a way to retell it. Essentially, his uncle is asking him to go back to his first love, translation, and Kanai isn’t sure he’s up to the task.

Kanai’s interest in Piya inspires him to take on a simpler sort of translation: He asks to go along on her survey of the river dolphins, offering to interpret for her and Fokir. Moyna is less than thrilled with the prospect, and she begs Kanai to keep an eye on them: “There’s no one else who knows how to speak to both of them–to her and to him. It’s you who stands between them.” In this situation, the translator’s role is not so much to facilitate communication as to inhibit it, and as Ghosh implies, Kanai has the opportunity to obstruct more than he helps. Kanai surprises us, however. The last thing he translates for Piya is a song she’s heard Fokir singing. He gives her the translation in writing, along with a caveat: “Such flaws as there are in my rendition of it I do not regret, for perhaps they will prevent me from fading from sight, as a good translator should.” If the novelist is a kind of translator of the world, then he is most visible in his mistakes. As long as he writes honestly, the reader takes his creation for the real thing; the best the author can hope for is to become invisible.

Amitav Ghosh grew up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and in his family alone he seems to have enough stories for an army of writers. It was his father who inspired the most memorable character in The Glass Palace, a terribly conflicted soldier in the British colonial army; and his uncle, formerly the headmaster of a school in the Sundarbans, introduced him to the tide country. Fictionalizing these stories comes with an enormous responsibility, however: to render them in a way that the English-speaking world can understand. Ghosh has pointed out that there is only one published English account of the refugees’ experiment in Morichjhãpi (and, at least for the moment, the “world’s ear” still listens in English). Flaws in Ghosh’s “translation” of this world would do more than mar a piece of art; they would distort history.

The Hungry Tide is on the surface concerned with the violence of nature, with cyclones and tiger attacks. Like Bengal, however, the Sundarbans are divided down the middle: Some of the islands belong to India, while others are technically in Bangladesh. And the environmental disturbances in the novel suggest the historically volatile political climate on the islands. As Moyna tells Kanai: “When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard. You can’t blow on the water’s surface from below, Kanai-Babu. Only someone who’s outside can do that.” Like Ghosh, Kanai is both a stranger and a family member in the Sundarbans. A part of him would like to stay and help the islanders, while another is eager to return to his cosmopolitan life in New Delhi. Through Kanai, Ghosh subtly explores the complex relationship between the country’s well-off, urban minority and its much larger and poorer rural population.

Despite Ghosh’s distrust of language as a medium of power, his prose has a dazzling intellectual clarity, whether he’s describing the elegance of a scientific hypothesis or the vision of a utopian society for the dispossessed. Piya and Kanai, as well as more peripheral characters like Nirmal and Moyna, touch us through interior monologues on the ideas that matter to them: science, politics and the art of translation. When these characters are actually speaking to one another, however, they can sound stilted, as if their author’s suspicion of language as an effective means of communication extends to his characters’ dialogue:

“Is this the first time you’ve come, then?” said Piya.  ”No, it’s not,” said Kanai. “I was sent down here once, years ago.”  ”Sent down? Why?”  ”It’s a story that involves the word ‘rusticate,'” said Kanai with a smile. “Are you familiar with it?”  ”No. Can’t say I am.”

It’s hard to imagine a contemporary young woman from Seattle, no matter how independent and isolated by her profession, using the folksy expression “Can’t say I am.” Nor do even professional translators introduce their childhood stories by defining words. Ghosh occasionally seems so intent on establishing his characters’ obsessions that he won’t permit them to surprise us. At the end of the novel, when the cyclone we’ve been waiting for finally hits, Piya and Fokir are stranded in a tree: “Piya knew from the pressure in her lungs that the water above them was at least nine feet deep”–an observation that strikes the reader as a little too lucid under the circumstances, even for a veteran marine biologist. (Describing another near-drowning, Ghosh is much more convincing, showing the disorientation of going under in one of the tide country’s heavily silted rivers.) This tendency to be overly neat is most jarring in the book’s epilogue, where Ghosh can’t help tying up every loose end. The dead are memorialized, the characters are reunited and Kanai’s wonderfully prickly Aunt Nilima offers a final observation worthy of Walt Disney. Still, the novel’s penultimate section is beautiful; I wish it had ended there.

On the night before the storm, Piya and Fokir observe a strange moon: “It was almost perfectly spherical, except for a thin shaving missing on one side. Around it was a halo with a faint copper tint.” Ghosh’s disturbingly vivid description of the storm that follows makes it hard to believe he wrote the novel before last December’s pictures and news reports. Piya uses the very phrase–the “wall of water”–the tsunami’s survivors did in telling their stories: She “glimpsed something that looked like a wall, hurtling toward them from downriver. It was as if a city block had suddenly begun to move: the river was like pavement lying at its feet, while its crest reared high above, dwarfing the tallest trees.” In 1867 the meteorologist Piddington was vindicated by the fulfillment of his prophecy; I expect the same is not true for Ghosh. What is extraordinary about this novel is not its timeliness but the author’s ability to see an environment from several conflicted points of view–the scientist’s, the fisherman’s, the historian’s–without favoring any of them. A landscape can give a writer great gifts; maybe this multi-faceted perspective is something the best novels can give back to the places that inspired them.

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