THE HUNGRY TIDE
By Amitav Ghosh. Houghton Mifflin. 333 pp. $25
Environmental fiction usually makes its case with the subtlety of a rhinoceros. Rising oceans, a holey ozone, vanishing biodiversity -- we're just one turn of the shrew away from ecological collapse. But it's not only the tree-huggers who preach to the choir through a bullhorn. State of Fea r, Michael Crichton's recent bestseller about wicked environmentalists, drove nuance to the edge of extinction.
The shrill tone of that debate makes Amitav Ghosh's new novel all the more appealing. The Hungry Tide is a great swirl of political, social and environmental issues, presented through a story that's full of romance, suspense and poetry. It doesn't have all the answers, but it frames the problems with great energy and sympathy (and, unfortunately, some laughably corny dialogue).
Ghosh takes us into the Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest on the coast of India and Bangladesh where the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Irrawaddy rivers empty into the Bay of Bengal. The rivers create an immense and constantly evolving archipelago of islands, large and small, permanent and short-lived. The tide reaches as far as 200 miles inland, drowning thousands of acres everyday and remaking the land. "The very rhythms of the earth," Ghosh writes, "were quickened here so that they unfolded at an accelerated pace." This constantly changing biome poses a challenge that an exotic collection of animals has evolved to survive. Though it's impossibly remote and impassable, in Ghosh's treatment this beautiful, treacherous and dynamic place becomes a provocative symbol of the modern world.
The novel opens with the chance meeting of Kanai, a wealthy translator from Delhi, and Piya, a young marine biologist of Indian descent who's just arrived from Seattle to study the elusive Irrawaddy dolphins. Kanai, always on the lookout for attractive women, invites her to stay with him at his aunt's house on the farthest inhabited island of the Sundarbans, where he's going to retrieve a recently found journal written by his late uncle. Piya has no intention of accepting this invitation. She considers him "an example of a certain kind of Indian male, overbearing, vain, self-centered." But after a harrowing betrayal by her official guides, she finds herself seeking refuge with Kanai's aunt after all.
Quickly, the novel feathers out into a complex network of interconnected stories, myths and histories, a fitting reflection of the tributaries that run through this region. We're drawn into the tangled politics of corrupt administrators and desperately poor people who compete for resources with animals beloved by environmentalists in the West. We follow the sad tales of women sold into sex slavery, children forced into dangerous work, and men swallowed by tigers, crocodiles and the hungry tide.
All of this flows in and around the story of Piya as she enters the mangrove forest to look for the Irrawaddy dolphins, which seem capable of living in either salt or fresh water. Without denying the tedium of real field research, Ghosh conveys the incredible excitement of watching these strange creatures in a place of "epic mutability." The night air is so humid that Piya can see a rainbow drawn by the moon. She's captivated by the uniformed pulsing of glowworms in the mangroves. She's struck cold by the roar of man-eating tigers that stalk these root-bound waters.
With a less scientific eye, she also watches her new guide, a local fisherman named Fokir, who speaks no English but knows the dolphins' behavior well. She's realistic about the unlikely potential of their relationship -- even ignoring for a moment that he's married, with a child -- but this is a novel all about transcending barriers. "It was surprising enough," Ghosh writes, "that their jobs had not proved to be utterly incompatible -- especially considering that one of the tasks required the input of geostationary satellites while the other depended on bits of shark bone and broken tile. But that it had proved possible for two such different people to pursue their own ends simultaneously -- people who could not exchange a word with each other and had no idea of what was going on in one another's heads -- was far more than surprising: it seemed almost miraculous."
That fluid movement between different realms is also familiar to Kanai as a translator, but he's still caught up in class and cultural distinctions that are as starkly drawn in India as anywhere in the world. Too proud to admit that he's competing with an ignorant fisherman for Piya's attention, he bides his time by reading his uncle's journal, which forms a dramatic parallel narrative in the novel. Kanai and his aunt expected the journal to be a work of poetry, but instead Kanai discovers a fevered description of violent conflict between the government and a group of refugees on a nature preserve in the 1970s. It was written almost in a single sitting at the end of the uncle's life, and it's soaked in the old man's bitter disappointment that he could never contribute to the Marxist revolution he hoped to witness. While his wife went about the practical, pedestrian steps of helping local families and eventually building a hospital, he frittered away his life as a school administrator, scoffing at his wife's mere social services and waiting naively for the masses to revolt. It's a fascinating subplot that explores the collision between different kinds of idealism. And the final disastrous battle that inspires him to fill his journal forces us to consider the cost paid by the world's poorest people to fulfill the West's environmental goals.
Ghosh sometimes poses these problems a little too self-consciously, less like a novelist and more like a good teacher (he's a professor at Harvard). And when his characters talk to one another, we're likely to endure dialogue like this:
" 'You're a brave woman. Do you know that?'
" 'I'm just doing my job.' "
But fortunately, major sections of the novel involve people who don't speak the same language, which keeps them quiet. Besides, at heart Ghosh is a storyteller, not a dramatist, and this is a novel of compelling stories, both beautiful and harrowing. His energy appears to recede toward the end, but that's just the quiet before the storm, a spectacular climax that puts the force of nature on full display, rendering irrelevant all the little barriers that human beings fret about when skies are clear. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.