Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Hungry Tide

It's been a long gruelling week. Work, work and more work. The kind of week where thinking saps the marrow out of you and you return weary, dissolate and a little frayed. And if that's not enough, the tail end of the monsoon is eking out its departure. The air gets so thick sometimes I think I can see it. These are days where if you read (and we do all read, don't we?) it is time to turn to something which will not unduly tax the grey cells and will yet not stoop to the level of of the epidemic Dan Brown sorts. Amitav Ghosh is one writer who is ideal for days such as these. His prose is swift and precise but not belaboured. He has a story to tell and he tells it reasonably well. One glides through his books thinking, what happens next ? And a great deal does.
In The Hungry Tide, Ghosh returns to his native Bengal. His new novel is set in the Sundarbans, that part of the subcontinent which is substantially delta, where land and water are so deeply intertwined that the high tide submerges what was terra firma a few hours ago. Only the mangroves provide some sense of rootedness in this highly deceptive geography. Ghosh is a master of mixing fact with fiction or, more precisely, science with fiction giving his work a curious credibility. Piya is a non-resident Indian and an expert on river dolphins (related to the blind dolphins of the Indus river) who arrives in the Sundarbans to undertake her research. Kanai is a jaded fortysomething linguist who she meets on her way there. Ghosh flirts with the possibility of romance- will they or won't they. I won't give the ending away. These urbane representations of India are brought face to face with a variety of characters representing other strains. Kanai's uncle Nirmal, a disilllusioned marxist, who has left behind a manuscript for his nephew. His aunt, an "NGO type" and a realist who lacks her husband's idealism, but shares his drive to protect and develop the fragile ecosystem they live in.
And then there are Ghosh's "desi" (or should I say "deshi"?) characters. Fokir the boatman who comes painfully close to a modern day "noble savage". His mysterious mother Kusum who acquires an iconic presence as the novel progresses. She becomes at once symbolic of the land and the dangers that go with it. Add this assortment of characters onto a series of boats and you have a Bengali version of The Heart of Darkness. The voyage, ostensibly to chart the migratory movements of dolphins manages (to me) to allegorically chart the human journey in the 21st century. Ghosh's unspoken arguments pit science against the environment, man against beast (the Sunderbans are home to the Royal Bengal Tiger), man against myth (the inhabitants follow a homegrown series of religions combining Islam and Hinduism) and, ultimately, man against the elements. The most effective descriptions seek to equate the shifting and "hungry" tide of the title with equivalent shifts among the characters Ghosh peoples his novel with. It's not "great" literature, but immensely involving-especially when you've survived the mother of all weeks. Oh yes, there's a haunting quote from Rilke (Kanai's Uncle Nirmal reads the German poet in Bengali) which came back to me from a place "far ago and long away" - a time when I still read good poetry and wrote appaling poems: It reads :
"Look we don't love like flowers
with only one season behind us; when we love
a sap older than memory rises in our arms; O girl
its like this: inside us we haven't just loved some one
in the future, but a fermenting tribe; not just one
child, but fathers cradled inside us like ruins
of mountains, the dry riverbed
of former mothers, yes and all that
soundless landscape under its clouded
or clear destiny-girl, all this came before you."


Blogger Phantoms and Voices said...

Thats a nice review. I particularly enjoyed Ghosh's 'Calcutta Chromosome'... another instance of how well he mixes science with fiction.

On a different note, if you like books which mix science with fiction ... not science fiction... but instead remains loyal to the science while riding on fiction to spin a human story around it... definitely read Dominique Lapiere's 'Love.' I loved it. As a gay man, I would say it'll particularly be of interest to you.

2:45 am  

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