Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide
Amitav Ghosh rose to eminence as a contemporary Indian English novelist with the publication of his second novel The Shadow Lines, winner of The Sahitya Academy Award. His popular novel The Hungry Tide, which won the Hutch Crossword Award in 2004 and was adjudged 'the best work in English fiction', is a wonderful piece of fiction that extensively deals with the local rhythms of contemporary Indian life as lived in the remote rural areas cut off from the hustle bustle of city life.
Kanai Dutt, a Delhi based translator and Piya, an American biologist of Indian origin, come close to the rural life of the tide country through Neelima who has been running a hospital in a village named Lusibari since her husband's death. On being diagnosed with a fatal disease, Neelima's husband, Nirmal Bose, a retired school headmaster, shifted from Calcutta to Lusibari with his wife for availing of the benefit of pollution free environment of Sunderbans spread between the sea and plains of Bengal on the easternmost coast of India. After Nirmal's death, Neelima is left alone in Lusibari with Kanai Dutt as her only close relative on whom she can rely during difficulty.
The story of the novel revolves around the tide country that includes a couple of villages such as Lusibari, Garjontola, Canning, Gosaba, Satjelia, Morichjhapi and Emilybari. These villages, off and on, undergo the threat of inundation. As these villages remain surrounded by the seawater throughout the year, they are known as islands of the tide country. About these islands, Kanai says:
'Interposed between the sea and plains of Bengal, lies an immense archipelago of islands. But that is what it is: an archipelago stretching for almost three hundred kilometers from the Hooghly River in West Bengal to the shores of the Meghna in Bangladesh.' (P.7)
Canning is the first village of the tide country to have found mention in the novel as the name of a chapter. As is true of all villages, Canning is prone to unhygienic conditions. The area near the Canning Railway Station is most polluted. The passengers from abroad in particular feel uncomfortable with the stench emanating from the filth and dirt lying on the railway track. Expressing his anguish at this unhygienic atmosphere of Canning Railway Station, Kanai Dutt ruefully says:
'It was late November and the weather was crisp and cool with a gentle breeze and honeyed sunlight. Yet the station had a look of bleak, downtrodden fatigue like one of those grassless city parks where the soil has been worn thin by the pressure of hurrying feet: the tracks glistened under slicks of shit, urine and refuse and the platform looked as if it has been pounded into the earth by the sheer weight of the traffic that passed over it.' (P.18)
The market place of Canning is not a place that has anything of attraction for a man like Kanai who considers his stay in a village a kind of severe punishment due to unhygienic conditions. The gloomy look of the bazaar of Canning drives him to observe:
'The bazaars of Canning were a jumble of narrow lanes, cramped shops and mildewed houses. The only buildings of any note were the cinema halls: immense in their ungainly solidity, they sat upon the town like sound bags as though to prevent it from being washed away:' (P.25)
Deep in the interior of Canning bazaar is situated the Forest Departments'office. Piya visits this office to seek guidance of the forest staff in her research on dolphins. With the help of the forest guards of Canning, Piya conducts the survey of Irrawady river so as to sight the dolphins. The inhabitants of this village depend on boating & fishing for their livelihood. Both men and women engage themselves together in daily activities and spend their time amidst mud and water. Neelima was astonished to see-
'The women had hitched up their saris and the men were rolling up their lungis and trousers. On stepping off the plank, there was a long drawn out moment when each passenger sank slowly into the mud, like a spoon disappearing into a bowl of very thick dal; only when they were in upto their hips did their descent end and their forward movement begin. With their legs hidden from sight, all that was visible of their struggles was the twisting of their upper bodies'. (P.26)
Lusibari is the farthest of the inhabited islands of the tide country. As for the surroundings of Lusibari, the novelist remarks:
'Lusibari was about two kilometers long from end to end, and was shaped somewhat like a conch shell. It was the most southerly of the inhabited islands of the tide country in fifty kilometers of mangrove that separated it from the open sea, there was no other settlement to be found. Although there were many other islands nearby, Lusibari was cut off from these by four encircling rivers'. (P.38)
Lusibari was named by Sir Daniel Hamilton, a Scotsman, after his niece, Lucy. After leaving his native land to seek his fortune in India, Sir Daniel Hamilton came to Calcutta, joined Mackinnon and Macknezee Shipping Company and as a result of his hard labour shortly became "the head of the company and master of an immense fortune, one of the richest men in India". Having an immense wealth at his command, Sir Daniel Hamilton purchased from the British government ten thousand acres of land surrounding Lusibari and decided to develop this village as a model for all of India, a new kind of country.
'He wanted to build a place where no one would exploit anyone and people would live together without petty social distinctions and differences. He dreamed of a place where men and women could be farmers in the morning, poets in the afternoon and carpenters in the evening.' (P.56)
But for reasons unknown, Lusibari is still a backward place which, for Kanai, is a rat eaten island where "there is nothing, no electricity, no roads, nothing". Like thousands of other villages of Bengal, this village is a tightly packed settlement of palm thatched huts and bamboo walled stalls and shacks. The village is rich in natural beauty but suffers from lack of means of transportation. Sir Daniel Hamilton's contribution to the development of this village is unforgettable. It is due to his efforts that there is a good market and grand school building which distinguish Lusibari from other villages. With regard to the infrastructural richness of Lusibari, the novelist observes:
'At the centre of the village was a maidan, an open space not quite geometrical enough to be termed a square. At one end of this ragged-edged maiden was a market place, a jumble of stalls, that lay unused through most of the week, coming alive only on Saturdays, which was the weekly market day. At the other end of maidan, dominating the village, stood a school. This was the building that was chiefly responsible for endowing the village with an element of visual surprise. Although not large, it loomed like a cathedral over the shacks, huts and shanties that surrounded it. The rooms were large and airy, with tall shuttered windows. Not far from the school lay a compound cut off from public view by a screen of trees. The house that occupied the centre of the compound was much smaller and less visible than the school. Yet its appearance was, if anything, even more arresting. Built entirely of wood, it stood on a two meter tall trestle of stilts, as if to suggest it belonged more in the Himalayas than in the tide country. In front there was a lily covered pond, skirted by a pathway of mossy bricks. Although that compound was situated in the centre of the settlement, there were few other dwellings nearby: it was clear at a glance that the area around the compound was among the most heavily trafficked in the whole island. Clusters of huts, houses, stalls, sweetshops and the like had grown up around the compound'. (P. 39-40)
Not very far from Lusibari is Satjelia, a village where Horen and Kusum, who play key roles in the novel as rustic characters, were born. As is the norm, the boys and girls of this village are tied in nuptial knots before they reach the age of fifteen. The girls in particular, if remain unmarried after this age, have to bear the brutality of the rouges. To protect them from being raped or kidnapped, they are put into the care of Women's Union. About this cultural pollution characterizing the life of Satjelia, Neelima tells Kanai:
'Horen was a fisherman, and he lived on an island called Satjelia, not far from Lusibari. He was younger than he looked, probably not yet twenty, but like many other tide country boys, he had been married ff early at the age of fourteen in his case. This was why he was already a father of three while still in his teens. As for Kusum, she was a girl from his village, a fifteen year old, whom he has put into the care of the Women's Union in Lusibari. Her father has died while foraging for firewood and her mother, without other means of support, had been forced to look for a job in the city. It was not safe for her on her own. All kinds of people tried to take advantage of her. Someone was even trying to sell her off. If Horen hadn't rescued her, who knows what might have happened? She might have been forced to lose herself respect and honour; it happened often enough to poor girls who're caught in that kind of situation' (P.31).
Garjontola is an inaccessible small settlement, deep in the jungles of the tide country. Kusum's father built a shrine here as a tribute to the presiding deity, Bon Bibi. It is in the tidal pool of this village that Piya realizes her dream of sighting the dolphins. This village is called Garjontola because of the garjon tree which is grown in abundance here. On being asked about her association with this village, Kusum tells Nirmal;
'It happened long, long ago before I was born; fishing alone, my father was caught in a storm. This wind raged like a fiend and tore apart his boat; his hands fell on a log and somehow he stayed afloat. Swept by the current; he came to Garjontola; climbing a tree, he tied himself with his gamchha. Attached to the trunk, he held on against the gale, till suddenly the wind stopped and a silence fell. The waves were quieted, the tree stood straight again, but there was no moon and not a thing could be seen. Now, in the dark of the night, he heard a garjon; soon he caught the smell of the unmanageable one. Terror seized his heart and he lost all consciousness; he'd have fallen if the gamchha had not held him in place. He dreamed, in his oblivion of Bon Bibi. "Fool"! she said "Don't be afraid; believe in me. This place you've come to, I value it as my own; if you are good at heart, here you will never be alone' (P. 252).
This incident leads the people of Garjontola to strengthen their trust in the power of Bon Bibi. Having been protected from a great danger by the grace of Bon Bibi, Kusum's father becomes a staunch devotee of the goddess and in her respect he builds shrine. While living at Morichjhapi, Kusum pays visits to this shrine every year. Her father died while foraging for firewood and her mother, left alone after her husband's death, leaves Garjontola to find a job in the city. Finding herself unsafe in the village, Kusum goes to Dhanbad where she marries Rajen, a seller of food items on the railway station of Dhanbad.
Morichjhapi is an eco-sensitive village, a couple of hours from Lusibari by boat. It falls within a part of the Sunderbans reserved for tiger conservation but like many villages it is relatively easily accessible from the mainland. In 1978 it happened that a great number of people suddenly appeared in Morichjhapi, cleared the plants and trees, built dams and put up huts. It happened so quickly that in the beginning none even knew who these people were but in time it came to be learnt that they were refugees from the government settlement camp in Dandakaranya, deep in the forests of Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of kilometers from Bengal.
A few months after their settlement in the village, the government authorities declared the village and the area surrounding it as a protected forest reserve and made an announcement that as settlers were squatters and land grabbers, they would have to leave the village at the earliest. The government authorities spread the message in the area that all that was possible to evict the settlers would be done and if anyone was found helping them was sure to get into trouble. As the settlers were courageous and well-organized, the police did not succeed in evicting them from the village.
With no option left, the policemen employed the gangsters to drive the settlers out and announced that all movements in and out of Morichjhapi was banned under the provision of the Forest Preservation Act and Section 144 was imposed on the whole area. Hundreds of policemen barricaded the settlements, stopped the supply of food items as a result of which the settlers were reduced to eating grass. As the tube wells were also destroyed and as a result thereof there was no drinking water, the settlers drank from puddles and ponds and an epidemic of Cholera had broken out.
The West Bengal government's motive behind evicting the settlers of Morichjhhapi was to convert this village into a reserve forest so as to protect the trees and tigers. A message to this effect was conveyed by the policemen to the settlers:
'This island has to be saved for its trees, it has to be saved for its animals. It is a part of a reserve forest, it belongs to a project to save tigers, which is paid for by people from all around the world'. (P. 284)
An announcement of this message by the policemen hurts the sentiments of the settlers. Kusum expresses her anguish at this announcement in a very emotional manner. She represents the sentiments of the settlers when she says:
'The worst part was not the hunger or the thirst. It was to sit here, helpless, and listen to the policemen making announcement, hearing them say that our existence was worth less than dirt or dust. Every day, sitting here, with hunger gnawing at our bellies, we would listen to the words over and over again: who are these people. I wondered who love animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them. Do they know what is being done in their names? Where do they live, these people, do they have children, do they have mother, father? As I thought of these things, it seemed to me that this whole world has become a place of animals, and our fault, our crime was that we were just human beings, trying to live as human beings here, from the water and the soil. No human being could think this a crime unless they have forgotten that this is how humans have always lived by fishing by clearing land and by planting the soil.' (P. 284)
The gangsters, at the behest of the policemen, sink the settlers' boats, set their huts ablaze and destroy their harvest. They also forcefully took away a group of women of Morichjhapi, used them and threw them into the sea to be washed away by the tide. A couple of men were beaten mercilessly and some of them were hacked to death. The news of brutal murders of the people of Morchjhapi committed by the gangsters at the provocation of the policemen appeared in the leading newspapers of India and the massacre was recorded in the history of the country.
In spite of being illiterate, the inhabitants of this village have their plans, their programs for erecting a new future for themselves and determination to create a new land to live. Nirmal Bose is astonished to see the developments rapidly taking place in Morichjhapi. To quote him:
'There was much to show even in the short while I had been away, there had been many additions, many improvements. Saltpans have been created, tube wells had been planted, water had been dammed for the rearing of fish, a bakery had started up, boat-builders had set up workshops, a pottery had been founded as well as an ironsmith's shop; there were people making boats while other were fashioning nets and carbines; little market places, where all kinds of goods were being sold had sprung up. All this in the space of a few months! It was an astonishing spectacle-as though an entire civilization had sprouted suddenly in the mud.' (P. 428)
Under the leadership of the group leader of Morichjhapi, a grand feast is scheduled to be organized. A couple of distinguished writers, intellectuals and journalists from Calcutta are invited to participate in this feast. The purpose of organizing this feast is to tell these people about the achievements of the settlers so as to enlist the support of public opinion. The invited guests attend the feast, fully enjoy it and make their presence felt by way of making speeches. With regard to the success of the feast, Nirmal says:
'It was soon evident that the occasion has served its purpose: the guests were undeniably impressed. Speeches were made, extolling the achievements of the settlers. It was universally agreed that the significance of Morichjhapi extended far beyond the island itself. Was it possible, even, that in Morichjhapi had been planted the seeds of what might become if not a Dalit nation,then at least a safe haven, a place of true freedom for the country's most oppressed?' (P.205)
Of the villages described above, while Lusibari and Gajrontola are fictitious settings, Canning, Satjelia and Morichjhapi indeed exist in the tide country. The novelist has disclosed this fact in author's note where he says:
'The characters of this novel are fictitious as are its two principal settings, Lusibari and Garjontola. However, the secondary locations such as Canning, Gosaba, Satjelia, Morichjhapi and Emilybari do indeed exist and were indeed founded or settled in the manner alluded to here'. (p.428)
To sum up, the novel presents the ground realities of rural life as lived in the villages of the tide country, aesthetically known as Sunderbans. These villages are hungry for economic development and technological advancement. Deprived of the benefits of modern development, the inhabitants of these villages still depend on boating and fishing for their livelihood, live in huts, shanties and shacks. They ungrudgingly bear the vagaries of nature and brutalities of policemen. The novelist has succeeded to arouse in the reader a deep sense of sympathy towards the rural people afflicted with extreme poverty.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide, New Delhi: Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd. 2004
(All subsequent references given in the text of the paper are form this edition.)