To stay is to be nowhere: A thought on Amitav Ghosh's Hungry Tide
If I need to name one sequence from Amitav Ghosh's Hungry Tide that I cherish the most, it's that of Piya hypothetizing a striking connection between the trajectory of Irrawaddy dolphins and the tide formations in the Sundarbans. Piya's singleminded determination in the pursuit of these creatures seemed to have reaped rich dividends. Her insight into the lives of the river dolphins is "of stunning elegance and economy, a thing of beauty", according to Ghosh. Successful completion of her work along these lines "would do as an alibi for a life. She would not need to apologize for how she had spent her time on this earth".
I can't help asking myself: why do I pick, sort of effortlessly, this incident involving Piya and her dolphins as my favourite sequence among the numerous well-narrated scenarios of this novel? After all, The Hungry Tide is a work that is rich in many aspects. There are many things that go into Ghosh's canvas; so many facts, so many stories, so beautifully told. (Incidentally, I understand that this is typical of Ghosh. Perhaps what is said of Nirmal in this book is true of Ghosh too. Like Nirmal, he too "hunts down facts in the way a magpie collects shiny things, [and] when he strings them all together, somehow they become stories". There's a magic wand here!)
First I attributed my choice to my tastes and training. We, in Mathematics, are trained to value those -- and only those -- ideas of "stunning elegance and economy". Naturally it's easy to appreciate Piya's steadfastness, and admire her findings. I do have second thoughts nevertheless. While it could very well be true that my likes (and dislikes) force this particular choice, I guess it's just half the truth. It must also be the case that this Piya episode is sort of central to the whole theme of this work, and if I like the novel, I'm forced to appreciate and admire this part of it as well.
Why is that so? Let's look at Piya's main observation. The gist of it is that the Irrawaddy dolphins in the Sundarbans have adapted well to the tidal ecology. Unlike their cousins in other places who return to a specific pool seasonally, these ones return to the same pool twice a day, exactly when it's ebb tide. When the tide turns in, they move out of the pool. It's this constant moving in and out, this tide, that defines the tide country and its inhabitants. Sluggishness of the townsmen would not gel with the life here. In the tide country, "to stay is to be nowhere". The most exacting evidence of this principle constitutes Piya's hypothesis. One early indication of the centrality of this chapter is its title itself -- An Epiphany.
Indeed it's the poetry of "the heady excitement of revolution" that is nearer to this principle than the prose of "the quiet persistence of every day change". As Piya remarks, "in the nature, for a long time nothing happens, and then there's a burst of explosive activity and it's over in seconds". This could also explain why the "dreamers" -- Nirmal, Fokir, Piya (?) -- of the novel are more comfortable in the Sundarbans than the "pragmatists" -- Nilima, Moyna, and Kanai. In the tide country, life is lived modulo several equivalences: to see is also to speak, to exist is to communicate, to say it is to call it, and perhaps to build something is to dream of it!
Journeying with Amitav Ghosh through the Sundarbans is very fascinating. Ghosh takes enough narrative care that those who accompany him do not stay at one place or stick to one story. Again, "to stay is to be nowhere" seems to be the guiding principle. It's a good mix of dualities out there: prose vs poetry, revolution vs gradual change, tactical compromises vs dreaming, preserving the wildlife vs the human angle to it. Obviously it's a hard job of translating/navigating, especially since Ghosh is careful not to take sides. He "fades from the sight as a good translator should", leaving us to ourselves, to think about our journey alone.