The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
Kanai and Piya (short for Piyali) meet on a train heading for the tide country southwest of Kolkatta (Calcutta). Both are Bengali, but live their lives at a fair distance from their roots. Kanai lives in New Dehli, running his own successful translation business that caters to a growing business community. Piya grew up in Seattle where her parents immigrated and she never even learned to speak Bangla. Kanai is going to visit an aunt he hasn’t seen since childhood when he was banished to her town in the tide country because of insolence and misbehavior at school. Now she wants him to go over some papers of her deceased husband, Kanai’s uncle. Piya is a cetologist who studies river dolphins of which there are supposed to be plenty in the river delta country toward which they are heading. Kanai, a bachelor and womanizer, finds Piya attractive and a good prospect for a holiday affair. Piya is somewhat turned off by Kanai’s sophistication and air of superiority, far too independent to fall in with his plans. But he has one thing she doesn’t have—fluency in Bangla, as well as connections in the islands.
The story introduces a part of the world I didn’t know anything about, hadn’t in fact ever heard of, though I had heard of floods in Bangladesh. It’s the mouth of the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and some other rivers too at the top of the Bay of Bengal. The “tide country”, including some of both India and Bangladesh, is a series of low-lying islands called the Sundarbans. So low-lying that in order to be inhabited, they need to have embankment’s behind which it’s safe to build; otherwise just ordinary tides would flood houses and businesses. Huge crocodiles inhabit the waters and tigers roam the uninhabited land and visit civilization often enough. And like the Mississippi Delta in the US, the land is subject to powerful storms, called cyclones, not hurricanes, in Asia. The human settlements in the Sundarbands are isolated and deaths from crocodiles and tigers are common. Cyclones wash over entire islands and rearrange the land, wiping out one island and creating another. There’s much emphasis on preservation of the wild environments, sometimes to the exclusion of the people who live there; the government isn’t particularly concerned about death by tiger or even by cyclone. In a sense the lives of the tigers are more valuable to India than the lives of the people.
Piya has studied river dolphins in the Mekong and other Asian locations and is used to working alone. She hires a boat run by the militant forest police and ends up regretting it. After she’s thrown off in an unfortunate accident she hooks up with a crab fisherman and his son in a small, unpowered boat. They have no language in common, but manage to make themselves understood and under Piya’s instruction, Fokir uses the boat to track the paths of the Irawaddy Dolphins they find there. They stay out for several days and collect significant data. Piya sees a project worthy of her life’s work in describing the lives and habitats of these dolphins. She’s used to living for days in primitive conditions, consumes mostly nutrition bars and bottled water wherever she is. Fokir turns out to the be perfect research companion.
Meanwhile back at Lusibari (Lucy’s Island as named by the British, though this one is a fictional island) Kanai is focused on his uncle’s papers and the uncle, Nirmal’s, fight for the displaced people living on one of the deserted islands, Morichjhapi. Kanai’s interest is peaked because as a young boy he’d met Kuma, a young woman at the time, who’d worked with his aunt. Kuma is one of the leaders of the protest on Morichjhap who turns out to be Fokir's mother.
Separately Piya and Kanai become emotionally involved with the islands and their people, he by focusing his uncle's manuscript and on Kuma and the past, she by focusing on Fokir and the present. The climax of the book is a trip on the boat of Fokir’s uncle, with Piya along to direct the research and Kanai to translate.
Ghosh skillfully weaves Piya’s story and Kanai’s together and at the same time weaves together the fabric of the past and the present of the Sundarbans, science and literature, politics and business, public and private life.