Friday, 1 July 2011

the hungry tide [amitav ghosh]

This is one of those books that arrived at a time of need. When you don't really know what you're doing yourself and you can't understand why things are happening as they are and you can't think about reading anything but then you do and the voice of the author anchors you. This is the world. Not the things that happen. But the things that are written. Which exist like a permanent rainbow overhead, a pot of gold which is constantly within reach.

In the end, oddly, Ghosh's book left me feeling disappointed. But in the beginning, it was a revelation. To say this reveals that reading this writer is to embark on a journey. Fittingly, the book's two principle characters, Piya, the US cetologist and Kanai, an Indian translator, meet on a train as they are about to begin a journey to the Sundarbans, a series of mangrove swamp islands in the Bay of Benghal, not all that far from Calcutta. Piya is hoping to study river dolphins; Kanai is returning to visit his aunt, whose late husband's notebook has been discovered and bequeathed to Kanai, for reasons he doesn't entirely understand.

Immediately the reader is thrown into rich novelistic territory. What will Kanai discover in the journal? Will Piya find the dolphins and what will happen if she does? How are these two seemingly disconnected persons due to become connected? Ghosh's book is so well formed, it's foundations laid with the cunning and art of a mason, that it's an immediate delight to feel oneself, as a reader, caught up in his tide, rolling down the river with his effortless narrative. In addition to all this, the book feels as though it's hard-wired into the land he's talking about: the people's myths; the presence of nature, above all in the shape of the mercurial, murderous tigers; the influence of the British; and finally, the force of the weather, which shapes the land as well as the stories of those who inhabit this land. Including all the characters we will meet. At one point, the narrative even finds a way to inform the reader of how the birth of the continent, so far away and yet so present, the island that was India colliding with Asia, forming the Himalayas and its rivers, helped to shape this land, and its people.

At times this is bravura writing, the novelist providing the perspective for his characters' stories (and our own) which day-to-day life has no time for. Ghosh achieves this without imposing his voice upon this audience: the information he conveys resides within the dreams, folklore and learning of the people he writes about. You come out of the book feeling as though you too have visited the Sundarbans and walked in the shadow of the tiger. The moment Fokir, the local fisherman, explains to Piya, distraught at the killing of a tiger, why the tiger has allowed itself to be killed, is a remarkable one, the inherited knowledge of the land trumping everything our liberal Western sensibilities have taught us (with our inherited knowledge) to feel.

Perhaps strangely, it felt to me as though the book's denouement was its least convincing aspect. As though the mechanics of the story are in danger of taking hold. There are moments in this book when you can see the gears moving. Perhaps because he had done such a job of luring me into his trap, it's closing felt like an anti-climax. Nevertheless, the job had been done. I had been taken out of my world, a world without sense, and escorted through another one. The act of separation helping to lend perspective to my own. Reading being the opposite of escapism; instead a space for contemplation, the novelist's acute presentation of the parameters of his described world allowing one to spy the parameters of one's own.

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