Article on Amitav Ghosh, “The Hungry Tide”

Just published in THE ATLANTIC LITERARY REVIEW (New Delhi), 6 1-2, Jan-Mar/Apr-Jun 2005, pp. 86-107, is my essay:
Full text is at:  Here is an edited version of the beginning.
The Hungry Tide (2004) is the fifth novel and sixth substantial book by Amitav Ghosh. Born in Calcutta/Kolkata in 1956 and now resident in New York, Ghosh is by now established as one of the best-regarded of the “post-Rushdie” generation of expatriate Indians writing in English. If his first three novels revealed a writer experimenting with a diversity of forms and genres (magic realism and picaresque in The Circle of Reason (1986), impressionistic family history in The Shadow Lines (1988), and, in The Calcutta Chromosome (1996), a mélange of detection and science fiction), The Glass Palace (2000) marked an embrace of mainstream realism of an almost nineteenth-century type, manifested in the genre of the historical novel. Ghosh’s fiction has thus far exhibited a remarkable geographical spread, taking in, for The Circle of Reason, India, the Gulf region and Algeria; for The Shadow Lines, India, Bangladesh and the UK; for The Calcutta Chromosome, India and the US; and for The Glass Palace, Burma, India and Malaya. Generically, The Hungry Tide continues in the realist mode of The Glass Palace, this time with a contemporary setting plus historical flashbacks; geographically, its scope is more limited than that of Ghosh’s other novels, as it homes in on the human and natural ecosystems of a small and highly particular area of India, though also taking account of the wider world through characters hailing from Delhi and the US.
Ghosh’s narrative, rather than encompassing vast swathes of South and South-East Asia, here prefers, then, to focus a magnifying lens on what might be called a micro-culture within the region – namely, the Sundarbans or “tide country,” the islets of the Ganges delta that lie south of Kolkata and just east of the West Bengal/Bangladesh frontier. The story centres on two visitors to the Sundarban community, Kanai Dutt and Piyali Roy (Piya), and their interaction with that community and with each other. Kanai, a Delhi businessman in his forties, is a semi-outsider, paying a rare visit to his aunt Nilima, an NGO activist who runs a hospital on one of the islands; Piya, an Indo-American scientist from Seattle in her twenties, irrupts into the Sundarban world as – despite her Bengali origins – less a diasporic Indian than an outsider pure and simple, “the American.” Kanai is there to pick up and read a journal left him by his late uncle Nirmal, an idealistic, Marxist intellectual in the Bengali tradition, whose contents will oblige him to delve deep into his family history; Piya’s journey to the tide country is part of her ongoing research on dolphins. Piya knows no Bengali: her ignorance of her own language heritage induces her to take Kanai on board as interpreter between her and Fokir, the illiterate fisherman and protégé of Kanai’s aunt who serves as her guide. Ghosh’s novel takes as its task the exploration of a vast field of human communication, testing both its possibilities and its limits as the characters seek to cross multiple barriers – the barriers of language, religion and social class, those between human beings and nature, between traditional and cosmopolitan India, between urban and rural, between India and the wider world.

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