Tropical islands and seaside bring visions of Somerset Maugham and his short stories set in the mystical East particularly the Malay peninsula. Sunderbans is different kettle of fish altogether – it is so much a part of India and yet so many of us are utterly ignorant about the life and culture in the ‘Tide’ country.
The Bangla related strains are familiar along with its suburban spots such as Canning but the interior is an unfamiliar journey in the realm of man v/s an unsparing environment. Flooding, Tiger attacks, loss of life and property is accepted as a harsh reality of life and people have developed their immune mechanisms to cope with the same.
Amitav Ghosh takes us on a journey of sociocultural anthropology and the overt narrative of the characters is rooted to tell the story of the land and the sea. The twin strands of fresh water and salt water get intermixed so very often to produce an odd taste in one’s mouth. The alternate setting of the tale in the 70s (Morichjhapi incident) v/s the current reality around 2000 takes a while to get used to. At times one misses the link from the previous narrative as the other story took root and the drama overwrote the prior episodes. Eventually one gets used to the idea and is able to keep track of the two tales that unwind.
The history and legacy of the tide country forms the base of the novel. The legend of Bon Bibi and delicate balance between man and forest is a recurrent theme in the tales of ordinary people who braved all odds to occupy the Tide country and acknowledge their roots.
People and their relationships take interesting twists and turns. In the present narrative we have spirited young American lady, Piya, who has roots in Kolkata and is visiting the tide country to pursue her professional dream of tracking the Irrawaddy Dolphin – she is a Cetologist. She is pursued by the suave urban Kanai, who is visiting his aunt and looking at some papers left behind for him by his late uncle. He is a professional translator and a successful businessman. Initially he seems to be lost in the boondocks as it were till he evinces interest in Piya.
In sheer contrast is the unlettered boatman, Fokir, who knows the river and its rhythms. He is invaluable to Piya as an assistant for her research and they develop a strong relationship although they cannot even speak to each other. The love triangle doesn’t quite exist but people have their interpretations to the tale including Mashima (Kanai’s aunt), Moyna (Fokir’s literate wife who wants to qualify as a Nurse), and Horen (Fokir’s mentor and foster-father equivalent). The frisson keeps the tale on the boil as even the reader wonders on whether the romance will finally be in the air and lead to an episode.
An interesting sidelight is the ‘love story’ Piya narrates that happened to her in one of the initial assignments when she was based again a small town by the sea – Kratie in Eastern Cambodia. The cookie crumbled painfully and was a life lesson to the young girl – she was only surprised to learn later from her colleagues that such a liaison was a ‘job-hazard’ for young cetologist and invariably most experienced a similar episode. The story serves the purpose of bring Piya character to scale and imbues the touch of sexuality that was otherwise missing in what seemed an aseptic professional person’s life.
The tale of the 70s is on more familiar lines and met with a conventional response. Nirmal, Mashima’s husband and mentor (there is an amusing narrative about Mashima seducing him when he was her teacher and associated with the Left movement in Kolkata) has been a Headmaster for decades in the tide country and post retirement he develops an interest in Kusum (Fokir’s widowed mother who is a spritely young girl). The narrative shows him to take an extraordinary interest in her well-being though nothing more is ascribed herein. The final twist to the tale is that Kusum develops an interest in Horen, and that accounts for the sense of responsibility Horen feels for Fokir particularly since Kusum is supposed to have died in the Morichjhapi incident. Horen develops an instinct for such a tale and instinctively feels that a similar episode may happen involving Piya, Fokir and Kanai. Thankfully the writer is not given to platitudes and so doesn’t commit a pedestrian repeat of the saga.
The pulsating action of the tide country caught in a maelström is narrated towards the end. Action grips all of us and the riveting tale draws to a climax. Losses occur – physical and psychological (chiefly Nirmal’s notebook addressed to Kanai) but life carries on. Fokir’s demise is narrated in a ‘matter-of-fact’ manner and there is a sense of realism around it.
The book serve as an education to the ordinary folks – we discover a part of India and the lives of the people who delve there. One learns that Amitav Ghosh’s other novels too explore similar themes and his interests extends to all our physical domains ranging from Ganges,Sunderbans, Bay of Bengal to the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Sea. I am excited and plan to read further to discover more about the land and its people. Ibis trilogy – here I come!