‘The river was like a pavement, lying at its feet, while its crest reared high above, dwarfing the tallest trees. It was a tidal wave, sweeping in from the sea; everything in its path disappeared as it came thundering towards them... But now it was as if death had announced its arrival and there was nothing to do but to wait for its arrival...’
The book deals with the indestructibility of the human spirit in the face of adversity. It also takes up the ecological disasters that threaten the last wildernesses on our little jewel drifting through space.
The Sunderbans are a vast delta with forests, swamps, tigers and rich bio-diversity to the south of Calcutta at the mouth of the river Ganga emptying into the Bay of Bengal. The forest is under threat because of denudation and human progress. In the British Raj, Sir Daniel Hamilton attempted to set up a sort of Utopia in the Sunderbans, but failed. Today, it is a beehive of activity, trade, fishermen and villagers, amidst the scenic beauty.
In the book, Piya Roy, an American marine biologist visits the Sunderbans to study the Orcaella, riverine dolphins who frequent the region. She has grown up in Seattle and is unexposed to the challenges of life in the wild, among the under-globalized. Her researches bring her into contact with the book's other major character, Kanai Dutt, an urban, urbane professional, who is visiting his aunt in an island in the Sunderbans to discover the life he left behind.
His uncle, wonsuponatime a Socialist revolutionary, retreated to the villages and became headmaster of a village school. He has left his memoirs to his nephew, and the tale of a life lived through passion, strife and striving. Kanai, searching for his own true identity, is attracted to Piya, and accompanies her on a trip through the Sunderbans, along with their boatman, Fokir, a simple illiterate villager, who is more in tune with nature and life than his boatmates.
The trip is a journey of the mind, the heart and the spirit. The urban sensitivities of the protagonists, who come from a structured, black and white world are confronted with a fluid, everchanging environment, reshaped daily by the 'hungry tides', where tigers kill villagers by the hundreds, but if a tiger is killed by a villager, the government metes out punishment for killing a representative of an endangered species.
The confluence of Western trends and old values is brought out at every turn. Kanai runs a school in New Delhi for accent modification of call center employees. His aunt is rooted in the past, with all the contradictions of the past. Piya sees them all as alien - the people, the land and above all, the language. Like most of Amitav Ghosh's books, language and its mutability are a key theme. The language of science versus the language of the jungle, Bengali versus English. Kanai, himself, is more a 'textual scholar' than businessman. He is enraptured by the richness of the language in the Sunderbans, land of many waves of migrants. "Bengali, English, Arabic, Hindi, Arakanese and who knows what else?" occupy him, sifting through the dialects as if through a sieve, looking for meaning in the confusion.
The challenges arise when language is insufficient to convey meaning, when progress turns full circle, and when the self encounters the other, finding itself.
Amitav Ghosh, one of the best Indian writers writing in English today, just returned from the Andamans, where he was part of a relief team. He spoke of his experiences there.
“As I walk around the refugee camps in Port Blair, I see true tragedy. It’s a lost world out here. The people have nothing, their eyes are yearning, they only have water to drink. I talk to them. I’m shocked by the attitude of the civilians, they’re so confident. ‘We have everything. We don’t need help,’ they tell me. This attitude astonishes me. At relief camps, the water and food is being provided by private organisations. I ask the authorities: How can I help? What can we contribute? ‘Nothing, we have everything,’ is the reply. It only gets tougher as I reach Nicobar. There are areas we can’t even reach. We don’t know how many are trapped in the labyrinth of waterways. Here, even small things become the world in microcosm. I know Nicobar is very badly affected, yet we don’t know the extent of the damage. There are dozens of smaller islands, there’s no connectivity with them. But what is really worrying is the acceleration of seismic activity in the Andamans. I hear unconfirmed reports of eruptions in Diglipur in the north Andamans. The administration doesn’t have the machinery to warn people of a disaster, nor does it seem to be bothered. In all this sadness, the military is the only hope. I was impressed with the district collector of Nagapattinum; she is welcoming all the help she can get. That’s the attitude we need to adopt."