Amitav Ghosh was born in 1956 in Kolkata, India. He writes in English, but his many literary works have been translated into a number of languages. The Hungry Tide is set near the author’s birthplace in the Sundarbans. The novel captivatingly links historical events in this area with the fundamental question of what is more worthy of protection: human life or the environment?
The Sundarbans are made up of territory on the border of India and Bangladesh, which is for the most part ecologically protected. The area is home to the largest mangrove forests in the world. Within a convoluted labyrinth of canals, there are countless forested islands. Occasionally, people live on these islands, but this place of residence constantly confronts them with political and environmental challenges, which Ghosh’s novel describes in detail. The area is absolutely inhospitable. Efforts in agriculture and fishing are limitedly successful. Heavy storms, crocodiles and tigers are a constant threat to the people’s lives. Nevertheless – and this is based on historical facts from 1979 – thousands of Dalits fled to the Sundarbans to build a life and a communal utopia on Marichjhapi Island. (People who are subjected to untouchability within the Indian caste system chose the term Dalit for themselves.) But because it was a nature reserve, this settlement was soon brutally crushed by order of the government.
The novel is narrated from the perspective of two outsiders who are merely visiting the Sundarbans. Kanai receives an account of the events from Marichjhapi in the form of a notebook bequeathed to him by his deceased uncle, who was witness to the events. To get a hold of the notebook, the arrogant businessman has to travel from Delhi to the Sundarbans. He meets Piya upon arrival. Piya is of Bengali origin, but grew up in the USA. Her research on Orcaella – an endangered dolphin species – has led her to the Sundarbans. The stories of the two protagonists become dramatically entangled. Their ongoing conversations offer insights into local myths about Bon Bibi, the protective goddess of the Sundarbans, and into different life realities and goals. The regular change of narrative perspective creates an understanding for the different attitudes the two represent. Kanai and Piya experience first-hand how humans and nature cause each other difficulties. Characters and setting are vividly evoked. Ghosh’s book captivated me from the very first pages and kept me under its spell until the very last.