"The Hungry Tide" is the first novel by Amitav Ghosh I read. I am very interested in India and read a lot of Indian authors, but somehow Ghosh had escaped my attention. Till now - because now I will definitely read his other books.
I was drawn to "The Hungry Tide" by its setting - the action takes place in the Sundarbans, the archipelago in the Bengal Bay, at the mouth of the Ganges, partially belonging to India and partially to Bangladesh, where the fresh river water mixes with the saltwater from the ocean. The tides make the Sundarbans a difficult place to live for humans, but, at the same time, a unique habitat for fauna and flora. The mangrove swamps are dominant, and they provide the shelter for many species of animals, which are specific to the region or very rare in other areas. The example is the Royal Bengal Tiger, a man-eater, featuring in "The Hungry Tide" together with several species of dolphins and deadly crocodiles.
The novel starts with the meeting of two main characters, Piyali (Piya), an Indian-American field biologist specialized in dolphins, and Kanai, a sophisticated interpreter and businessman, on the train to Canning. Piya has a plan to collect data on the life of the rare river dolphins, which are the subject of her research. Kanai was summoned by his aunt, Nilima, to the island of Lusibari (he spent there only one summer as a schoolboy), where she runs a charity, to get the package left to him in the will of his late uncle, Nirmal, a leftist schoolteacher with literary ambitions. Kanai is interested in Piya, and when they part in Canning, he invites her to Lusibari.
From this point, the narration is separated into alternating chapters devoted to the doings of Piya and Kanai. Piya gets her travel permit and goes by motorboat to see the dolphins with the national forest guard and a thug of a boat owner. The accident, in which she nearly drowns, leaves her on the small fishing rowboat belonging to Fokir, a poor fisherman from Lusibari. Since then, Piya's fate is connected with Fokir's. After seeing some dolphins, they go to Lusibari and organize a bigger expedition, in which Kanai participates as a translator. The tension between the three becomes difficult to bear...
The novel is full of extraordinary, powerful characters. Each protagonist has very distinct characteristics and all of them stand out of the crowd. They are all strongly tied to the Sundarbans, but each of them understands the life in the islands differently: Fokir is rooted in the old traditions; his wife, Moyna, who trains to be a nurse, wants to have a better life and help the local people; Nilima runs a charity - a hospital, a guest house and educational services; Piya and Kanai become infected with the Sundarbans and want to go back...
I liked the construction of the novel, which, in addition to alternating chapters about Piya and Kanai, which finally merge, has many other threads, most important of which is Nirmal's notebook, which Kanai is reading, and which reports the events leading to Nirmal's death. These events are, of course, the happenings essential in the newest history of the Sundarbans. Nirmal, who is an admirer of Rilke, quotes Rilke's poems all the time (sometimes, to me , a little too freely, and I cannot see the connection between his thoughts and Rilke's lines, but - licentia poetica...).
There is also an evocation of the local myth of the goddess Bon Bibi, which is beautifully woven into the story.
I could compare "The Hungry Tide" to James Michener's novels, it is in the same way well researched (Ghosh is an anthropologist so his interest and knowledge of the natural sciences are profound) and concentrates on the specific region. Unlike Michener though, Ghosh tells one actual story and his book is a real novel, not an attempt to span the centuries of history, so it is way less superficial and concentrated on the characters.