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In the mouth of the Ganges

The Hungry Tide: A Novel; Amitav Ghosh; Houghton Mifflin: 334 pp., $25

May 22, 2005|Richard Eder | Richard Eder, former book critic for The Times, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

"There is a tide in the affairs of men," Shakespeare's Brutus tells his fellow conspirators, instructing them to seize their moment. The tide in Amitav Ghosh's incantatory novel is both literal and figurative, and beyond all human seizing. It does the seizing: It lifts, submerges, washes away. It is nature, whose floods, droughts and gales command reverence from so-called primitive peoples. And which, only seemingly tamed by modern civilization, bides its time to prevail (with an occasional tsunami as reminder).

Ghosh's novel takes a classic form: Two strangers meet on a journey that will bring them together and utterly change them. Kanai and Piya find themselves on the same rickety train out of Calcutta. Kanai is a prosperous, self-pleasing Indian businessman; Piya, an idealistic marine biologist, American-born of Indian parents. They are bound on vastly different errands to the Sundarbans, one of the strangest places on the Indian subcontinent.

Along 200 miles of marshy coastline, the Ganges River breaks into hundreds of channels to form a vast archipelago of islands, many submerged twice daily, others maintaining an unstable high-tide elevation. Mangroves cover them, tigers and crocodiles infest them, and only a few can be precariously settled by fishermen and farmers.

"The islands are the trailing thread of India's fabric, the ragged fringe of her sari," Ghosh writes. Each channel is "a river in its own right, each possessed of its own strangely evocative name." When they meet, "the water stretches to the far edges of the landscape and the forest dwindles into a distant rumor of land."

"Land of the falling tide" is the Hindi phrase, for it is only as the tide drops that the land rises. By Ghosh's poetic extension, the lives in his lavishly told and brilliantly populated story know themselves to be (and the two outlanders learn themselves to be) subject to the forbearance of the tides they live among.

"The Hungry Tide" is an archipelago of stories braided by the tidal channels that weave among them. Piya's and Kanai's provide the main currents. They separate for a while and then converge. Piya comes to study the dolphins in the coastal waters and the estuaries that feed into them. The government crew she hires intimidates and almost drowns her; she is rescued by an unlettered fisherman, Fokir, delicately nurturing and with a knowledge of the waters and the islands that is both craft and religion. They spend days and nights in a partnership whose sexuality is no more than implicit. The odd characteristics of the coastal dolphins are material for a study that will keep her in the Sundarbans, perhaps for years.

Kanai has come to examine a journal left by his dead uncle, Nirmal, an impractically idealistic professor. His septuagenarian widow, Nilima, who summoned Kanai, is a thoroughly practical idealist, a mix of the tender and the steely. Her island hospital and women's cooperative -- funded thanks to her political efforts in Calcutta -- have made her the region's revered queen bee.

While Piya is on the water, Kanai pursues the story in the uncle's journal. It is the story of a dream and an estrangement. Nirmal discovers a flourishing squatters community on an island officially designated as a wildlife sanctuary and closed to settlement. He falls in love, partly with what his clouding mind takes for his own youthful radical vision and partly with Kusum, one of the settlers. His passion opens a rift with his wife. The government, supporter of her work, is about to remove the settlers; she cannot afford to offend it.

The Nirmal story, deeply touching and, with the final bloody police raid, horrifying, is the most powerful tributary among many in Ghosh's tidal novel. There are intricate connecting channels (Fokir, the gentle fisherman, is Kusum's son) and then a flowing back into the main story.

Kanai falls in love with Piya and serves as translator on a second expedition. A cyclone and tidal wave, narrated with breathtaking power and resplendent detail, hit the area. The results are transforming to a number of lives and, for one of them, fatal. With Piya and Kanai, the transformation is not just in their destinies but in their deepest sense of who they are, of their place in the world, and the world's place in them.

Ghosh's novel is in some sense an epic. The principal characters, and some of the minor ones, are splendidly human and varied, yet they carry suggestions of the emblematic roles, the cosmic questionings, of India's own epic Bhagavad-Gita. The questionings speak of the relations between nature and mankind.

Ghosh's is no commonplace ecology: His reverence for nature extends to the mortal struggle of the impoverished hundreds of millions who live -- and die -- by it. Incidents like a village tiger hunt that shocks Piya and the savage eviction of squatters by corrupt agents of the state's wildlife police raise questions more profound and more carnally dramatized than we are used to.

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