Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Hungry Tide

Finished Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide a few days ago. Ghosh’s large fan following is divided between those who love his fiction (especially The Shadow Lines, which has a cult following) and those who prefer his travelogues/essays, but this book comes close to uniting the two forms with its story of the changing personal equations between three people who meet on the Sunderbans -- the archipelago of islands that lies east of Bengal, and about which little has been written before, certainly in popular fiction. I loved the first three-fourths but was marginally less impressed by a climax that overdoes the disaster-movie mood (though that might seem an inappropriate thing to say in the aftermath of the real-life tsunami, which made Ghosh’s descriptions of hungry tides seem tame by comparison). Still, there’s so much here to appreciate in this book that one feels silly quibbling.

Not doing a review or anything but here’s a quick primer on the three protagonists: there’s Kanai Dutt, a disenchanted businessman visiting the island of Lusibari on an aunt’s request, to collect a diary his late uncle had left for him; Piyali Roy, a US-raised cetologist on the trail of the river dolphin; and Fokir, an illiterate fisherman (whose final sacrifice will remind many Ghosh fans of The Shadow Lines’ Tridib Sen, who became something of a folk hero to many youngsters who read the book at an impressionable time in ther lives).

The author continues to enhance his reputation as one of India’s most elegant writers. If you’re fastidious to a fault, you might suggest that his writing is sometimes too mannered (especially in the conversations between his characters) but it would have to be a very quiet suggestion. Incidentally, one things I find interesting about Ghosh’s style is the way he switches between direct and indirect speech to illuminate a point during a conversation. For instance, Character A and Character B are talking:

A: “So what you’re saying is_______?”
B: “Yes, to an extent.”

And this is followed by a paragraph of reported speech where Character B elaborates the point. And then back to direct speech and so on, with the author alternating between a comfortable conversational style and a historical perspective. This occurs most frequently in the exchanges between Kanai and Piya, where she has to explain certain scientific phenomena to him. The device is occasionally annoying, but often very charming, and I can’t offhand think of another writer who does this in quite the same way.

(Hell, I sound like a Wren and Martin.)

If you haven’t read The Hungry Tide yet, give it a go. It’s a much easier read than the subject matter might suggest (and I remain eternally grateful to any author who gives us short chapters, the way Ghosh does here).


  1. South-east Bengal is geographically more correct as a description of the Sundarbans location - east of bengal lies the great and populous state of Assam.

    If you've read the Beau Geste trilogy and "Sinbad the Soldier",
    you'd reckon Wren broke his own rules pretty often when it came to reporting dialogue.

    Mind you, I loved the concluding paragraph of "Beau Sabreur" where
    "the journal of Major Henri De Beaujolais ends abruptly at this point. A passing Tuareg noticed a sliver of light emitted by the major's reading lantern between the folds of his tent. Creeping within range, he fired a random shot. This passed through the canvas wall of the tent and hit the major's wristwatch and scattered the contents of the latter through the former."

  2. Good review, I agree with you about the book's last quarter or so not being as good as what preceded it...

    My own review is at:

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  4. Tridib wasn't Sen. He was Tridib Datta-Chaudhuri. This reminded me of Kakutani's review of The God of Small Things in the NYTimes where she turned everybody into a Kochamma (aunt): Estha Kochamma, Rahel Kochamma, Ammu Kochamma, even Chacko Kochamma. Except Velutha.

  5. Touché about the short chapters thing. Although I just reviewed the book, you've made some points that I noticed but failed to put down. And yes, my "review" is not quite a review either. Loved your points, though.