Petrie Meyer on Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide

Selling Nature to Humanists and Humanity to Environmentalists: Existence and Co-existence  in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide

Petrie Meyer, University of Stellenbosch

Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!

Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!

Earth of departed sunset—earth of the mountains misty-topt!

Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!

Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!

Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!

Far-swooping elbow’d earth—rich apple-blossom’d earth!

Smile, for your lover comes.

-Walt Whitman – Song of Myself

The indeterminate, fluid space of the Sundarbans in southern Bangladesh, where land and sea constantly yield to each other in a daily, elemental cycle, is the space Amitav Ghosh chooses to situate his 2005 novel, The Hungry Tide. This river delta, consisting of innumerable islands which appear and disappear according to the whims of tides and seasons, “a terrain where the boundaries between land and water are always mutating, always unpredictable” (18), is a landscape in which the sea, the river, the land, humans and animals all co-exist – sometimes in harmony, but often in competition. Within this space Ghosh, with the same beautiful sensitivity and balance with which he brings together cultures in An Antique Land, presents an environmental issue which has come to be recognized as one of the fundamental problem areas in conservationism – an issue Robert Cribb calls the “acute conflict” between conservation and human rights (Huggan and Tiffin, 4). In this conflict, a battle line has come to be been drawn between environmentally conscious groups fighting on the side of non-human nature, and human-rights groups on the side of the poor, the dispossessed and underdeveloped peoples of the world, with precious little middle ground  being acknowledged by either side. The Hungry Tide, with its complex mixture of people and landscape, steps into this conflict with an implied plea for moderation to both sides – a plea for the acknowledgement and understanding of the plight of the poor by environmentalists, and that of animals and nature by human-rights groups. To achieve this, Ghosh uses human history, human relationships and the desperation of human survival in a hostile natural environment to highlight the ‘humane’ in humanity and remind environmentalists of their own human nature, and myth and descriptions of the landscape, together with the plight of the endangered Ganges dolphin and tiger, to highlight the elemental, beautiful and fragile in Nature, in that way reaching out to the innate sense of connection that humans have with nature.

In their paper “Green Postcolonialism”, in which they pay particular attention to the conflict between dispossessed humans and the Ganges tiger in The Hungry Tide, Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin quote Robert Cribb:

a separate conflict between conservation and human rights has become more acute. The conflict is based on the compelling argument that conservation measures inevitably focus on areas which have been relatively unaffected by development. These areas are often those parts of the globe where indigenous peoples are struggling to preserve their livelihoods and cultures against external encroachment (4).

Recent history shows abundant examples of this conflict – focal points where centuries of Western scientific and ecological knowledge meet the human need for simple survival. It is of note that the battle is often most intensely fought between groups which are both equally removed from what they are representing, namely nature in the case of the environmentalists, and the underdeveloped peoples in the case of the human-rights groups – both groups often sitting comfortably in a technologically advanced Western world. Ironically, it is the group most intimately connected to nature. i.e. the underdeveloped rural poor, which in their desperate struggle for survival, is perceived to be destroying non-replaceable ecosystems.

In The Hungry Tide, Ghosh offers readers a brilliant treatment of this highly complex and historically loaded problem, reflecting light from each of the various facets which people often prefer to view only in isolation. Pramod Nayar, for instance, primarily selects the human-rights aspect as focus in his paper “The Postcolonial Uncanny; The Politics of Dispossession in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide“, noting that “The Hungry Tide offers a humanist critique of dispossession in the postcolonial world [, dealing] with people who are “out of place” and seeking a “home” (89). Nayar argues “that Ghosh’s critique of the politics of possession /dispossession is worked out effectively through a postcolonial uncanny”, the “uncanny” being the “perception of a space where the perceiver finds herself simultaneously “at home” and “not at home”, [the] experience of double perception of any space which is at once familiar and strange, safe and threatening, “mine” and “not mine” (89). For the “Western-technologized gaze”, Nayar denies a true understanding, or a true “at home” position.  For him, a view through the glasses of Western knowledge can only ever perceive the space of the Sundarbans as the “uncanny”, the un-knowable, and only the indigenous, dispossessed population are able to experience it as “canny”. This, of course, is in sharp contrast to a Western perception that indigenous peoples are in fact not in touch with their natural environment, and are indeed destroying it through a lack of knowledge which leads to over-exploitation.  

Huggan and Tiffin, on the other hand, focus primarily on the way they see the novel as advocating “the sensible policy of no conservation without local consultation and participation” (5), and use the novel to investigate the concept of ‘green post-colonialism’. For them, the environmental conflict in The Hungry Tide has at its root the “incursion of Europeans into other areas of the world from the fifteenth century onwards [which] catastrophically resulted in genocide or the dispossession and marginalization of indigenous peoples across the globe”, and that this incursion can be identified as “both prime cause and continuing consequence of environmental change incurred through the post-1492 European diasporic intrusions” (1). For Huggan and Tiffin, the dispossession of people is therefore not the primary end result of colonialism, such dispossession rather forming a link in a chain that ends with environmental disaster. As they note, “the dispossessed frequently faced poverty and starvation, and the original accommodated relations between environment, humans and animals were fractured, sometimes beyond repair” (1). Thus the “poorer majority are cut off from traditional forms of subsistence while still being denied access to the profits of their own resources” (2). Tracing the growth of conservationism, Huggan and Tiffin discuss how the growing awareness in the developed countries of a rapidly dwindling ‘natural’ environment during the 19th and 20th centuries, caused a “shift in emphasis from anthropocentric to environment-based (ecocentric) philosophies and practices” in order to “preserve non-human animal and plant species, and what ‘pristine’ environments remained”(3). Unfortunately, this shift in general did not benefit the indigenous population in most cases, marginalising them even more than before, and effectively created a hierarchical position for them below that of the needs of animals and plants. While Huggan and Tiffin here echo Nayar, for them there exists a further tragedy – that these indigenous peoples, as a result of the “shift in emphasis”, have by the actions of developed countries been pitted against the natural world in a new deadly competition for survival.  The contrast to the position of Nayar is quite clear, yet both find ample support in The Hungry Tide – a tribute to the fine multi-faceted view with which Ghosh presents his subject.

Ghosh introduces the Sundarbans not only as a location, but as a living entity, endowed with human and animal qualities, and rooted in myth – connecting in this way to an elemental side of our human psyche which extends beyond mere rational understanding. Humans, since time immemorial, have attributed larger-than-life, mythical human and animal characteristics to inanimate nature in order to deal with what for them was a world of incomprehensible vagaries – such attributes then making possible a link between humanity and a natural world which often seemed decidedly anti-human.  In The Hungry Tide, Ghosh brings the river and the islands to life through the myth of the goddess Ganga, whose “descent from the heavens” was tamed by Shiva by “tying it into his ash-smeared locks”, forming a “heavenly braid” – the godly river Ganges. Where the delta starts, is where Shiva’s “braid becomes undone”, where his “matted hair is washed apart into a vast, knotted tangle” (18). This point is for Ghosh also the dividing line between a space where the land contains the river, and where the river becomes free and “undone”,  indeed a “knotted tangle” where few fixed points can be said to exist. The river is intimately connected to the country it traverses, indeed transports, as it gouges away at the land only to lay it down again in the form of thousands of islands – islands which form “the trailing threads of India’s fabric, the ragged fringe of her sari, the ãchol that follows her, half wetted by the sea”. Almost sentient beings, the rivers of the delta deposit the islands as “restitution” – “offerings through which they return to the earth what they have taken from it, but in such a form as to assert their permanent dominion over their gift” (18). Where the rivers meet the sea, “there are no borders […] to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea”, only the ever-changing tide-country where water daily “gives birth to the forest” anew. For Ghosh, the river not only becomes a ‘living being’, but the ebb and flow of the whole landscape resonates strongly with ebb and flow of human energies and emotions. In a very real sense, the space becomes a protagonist in The Hungry Tide, as suggested by the title itself. Nayar indeed notes that “[t]he “story” of the novel is inseparable, in what is surely a brilliant narrative strategy in Ghosh, from the shape, form, texture and history of the Sundarbans land” (92).

The ‘living’ space of the Sundarbans contains more than just water and land, but animals and humans as well. Virtually untouched by human influences before the arrival of the English visionary, Daniel Hamilton, the first settlers discovered that the region played host to a huge number of predators. In the words of Mashima, the ‘mother’ of the community: “in the beginning […] there was nothing but forest here. There were no people, no embankments, no fields. Just kādā ār bādā, mud and mangrove. […] And everywhere you looked there were predators — tigers, crocodiles, sharks, leopards” (107). At a time “when people were so desperate for land that they were willing to sell themselves in exchange for a bigha or two” (107), Hamilton proceeded to establish a settlement where there “would be no Brahmins or Untouchables, no Bengalis and no Oriyas”, where “[e]veryone would have to live and work together” (109) – a truly noble human-centred endeavour, “a model for all of India [,] a new kind of country” (110), unfortunately ignoring the animal ecosystem completely. The settlement sees people, “pouring in […] from northern Orissa, from eastern Bengal, from the Santhal Parganas [coming in] boats and dinghies and whatever else they could lay their hands on” (109) – an underdeveloped mass of humanity bursting through the cracks of a continent even then already filled to the brim. The conflict with the predators is immediate – the inpouring of humans creating “a feast for them”, with the animals killing “hundreds of people” (109). And as with battles all over, once the killing starts, it gathers its own madness in an ever-increasing spiral. Hamilton offers rewards to “anyone who kill[s] a tiger or crocodile.”, which unleashes a killing spree, with people killing animals “[w]ith their hands. With knives. With bamboo spears. [With] whatever they could find at hand.” (109). Such is the human ‘paradise’ Hamilton creates, a world which offers virtually no space for animal life, let alone a fierce predator like the Ganges tiger. 

The relationship between the human settlers and the predators is nowhere more clearly verbalized than in the myth of Bon Bibi, the tiger goddess, who “rules over the jungle, that the tigers, crocodiles and other animals do her bidding” (210). Born from a “pious Muslim [t]hrough the intervention of the archangel Gabriel”, Bon Bibi and her twin are tasked by Gabriel himself to perform the “divine mission” of making “the country of eighteen tides […] fit for human habitation” (213) – a region under the sway of the demon-king Dokkhin Rai. Bon Bibi defeats Dokkhin Rai in a battle, and divides the region into two parts – one for humans, and one for Dokkhin Rai “and his demon hordes”. Ever since, Bon Bibi rules over both animals and humans, showing the world “the law of the forest, which was that the rich and greedy would be punished while the poor and righteous were rewarded” (217). On the surface fairly innocuous, this myth gains enormous importance by the fact that humanity is intimately associated with the divine, while Dokkhin Rai, the demon-king, is associated with specifically the Ganges tiger. Dokkhin Rai has an “insatiable desire” and a “craving that [knows] no limit” for the “pleasures afforded by human flesh” (213), and appears to the boy Dukhey in the form of a fearsome tiger with an “immense body and […] vast jowls” – a tiger which “[shakes] the earth with a roar as he start[s] his charge” (217). So powerful is this association, that Piya is not even allowed to say the word ‘tiger’ out load, as “to say it is to call it” (255). For the indigenous population of the Sundarbans, the myth of Bob Bibi is so important that it is indeed celebrated yearly, and yearly affirms the hostilities between the ‘demon’ tigers and ‘divine’ humankind.  This continuous  ‘state-of-war’ is the final legacy of  Daniel Hamilton, who in the Sundarbans creates not only a space where both animals and a mass of humanity have to exist on land continuously threatened by the vagaries of the river and the sea, but where these groups are forced to co-exist in some way. It is of note that Ghosh, in these descriptions,  never stray into the romanticised pastoral where man and beast co-exist in happy harmony – rather choosing an honesty and realism which makes the impact of The Hungry Tide so much more striking.    

The final component Ghosh introduces into the complex mix that constitutes life in the Sundarbans, is a cast of characters who will represent to a more or lesser extent the reasoning and technologically developed world of science, intellect, and government. Each of these characters will be seen to represent one or more of the various positions which can be held in the nature versus human-rights debate, yet each remains intensely human, with his/her personal fears and joys, emotions, successes and failures. We first meet Kanai, the suave Indian city-dweller on his way to visit his family, and Piya, the Seattle-raised Indian-born cetologist who is set on finding and studying the Ganges river-dolphin. For Piya, Kanai is immediately categorized as belonging to a class of people who “seemed to share the assumption that they had been granted some kind of entitlement […] that allowed them to expect that life’s little obstacles and annoyances would always be swept away to suit their convenience” due to their “class or their education” (25). Kanai is a learned, well-read linguist who is as far removed from both nature and the poor masses of India as is possible, spending his time almost exclusively in the city and only conceding to venture into the Sundarbans as a result of moral pressure by his family. Kanai is to become the observer in this story – slowly making a transition from his aloof position to one of deep awareness of both human and environmental issues. Piya, on the other hand, is the personification of the naturalist explorer, and represents Western science, knowledge and concern for the environment. With her  “neatly composed androgyny of […] appearance”, her “close-cropped hair”, clothes “of a teenage boy”, “balancing on her heels like a flyweight boxer, with her feet planted apart” (11), with a “strength in her limbs that belied her diminutive size and wispy build” (15), she is at first almost asexual in both appearance and in her single-minded approach to her research. Piya’s Western personae is balanced by the fisherman, Fokir, who is part of the masses, yet set apart from them by his intense and deep understanding of and connection to the sea, the river, and the animals, and even more importantly, a wisdom which Western civilization is often reluctant to attribute to ‘underdeveloped peoples’. As with Piya and Kanai, Fokir’s appearance is chosen by Ghosh to reflect his part in the novel  – a man whose “frame was skeletal, almost wasted, in the way of a man who’d grown old on the water, slowly yielding his flesh to the wind and the sun.” (90)

The importance of Kanai, Piya and Fokir as characters who represent certain positions, yet are able to see across the boundaries between the  ‘underdeveloped’ indigenous  and ‘developed’ Western ‘gazes’, cannot be over-emphasized.  Indeed, Nayar argues that the while the “contest (and defeat) of the Westernized-technologized gaze of Kanai-Piya with/by Fokir’s indigenous canny” (91) is what allows Ghosh to make the “uncanny” position of Kanai and Piya evident, it is their willingness to be influenced that allows them to move towards a “canny” position. At first Piya and Kanai “find it difficult to really “see” the tide country”, even though they are “armed with texts, data and equipment”, while Fokir can see the country clearly, “equipped with nothing other than a deep sensitivity and inherited knowledge” (97). Instead of finding accurate scientific knowledge in this land of change, they realize that “what is available is a fund of apocryphal stories and a collection of myths” (97), a realization that enables understanding instead of merely ‘knowing’. Nayar notes that

The modulation of [the] uncanny into the “indigenous canny” is driven by the local, folkloric, mystical and ungraspable forms of knowing embodied in Fokir’s life and death. The dispossessed and their mystic, mythic knowledge, the constituents of what I am calling the “indigenous canny,” are what make the frightening uncanny of the Sunderbans a home” (91).

Ghosh reserves a particular criticism for local government, which instead of being the protective force idealism would expect, emerges as a corrupt and violent force which cares for neither the environment or the people. Piya, for instance, is only able to obtain a permit because of an uncle in Calcutta, and even this does not guarantee a smooth process. Instead, she is saddled with a guard and a skipper, one Mejda, “squat of build [with] many shiny chains and amulets hanging beneath his large, fleshy face” (68).The complete lack of interest with which her research is viewed locally, is made abundantly clear by the boat she is assigned – emitting a “stench of diesel fuel [that] struck her like a slap in the face” and “deafening” engine noise (73). The excessive show of force when they spot a lone fisherman (Fokir)  ‘poaching’ and the blatant robbery of both the child and Piya make a complete mockery out of the role of government protecting the environment against illegal activities. After ‘escaping’ from the boat, the guard, as a final insult treats Piya to an exhibition of “lurid gestures, pumping his pelvis and milking his finger with his fist” (123). As the novel unfolds, the insensitive behaviour of the government will also become evident through the Morichjhãpi incident, where refugees who occupied the forest were forced back with “a lot of violence” to a “resettlement camp” in central India (56), as well as the barricade and clearing-up of the island Garjontola near the end of the novel, a government action which occurs together with the final savage storm, and indeed seems to take its violence from the storm.

It is typical of Ghosh that he also introduces into this novel an in-between entity, a connecting force between all the various groups. In The Hungry Tide, this entity is the married couple Mashima and Saar (Nilima and Nirma Bose) who occupy a position somewhere between government and the local people, indeed  the ‘mother’ and ‘father’ of the community. Their intimate connection with the people is seen in their names, Mashima meaning ‘aunt’ and Saar meaning ‘Sir’, and the way no-one ever refers to them in any other way. Mashima founded the hospital and heads the organization that runs it, the Badabon Trust, and Saar was the headmaster of the local school. Even between Mashima and Saar there exists a difference of attitude, with Saar viewing his work as teacher not nearly as important as Mashima views her social work – Saar instead leaning towards a more revolutionary involvement, and Mashima viewing the official approach as the only sustainable one. In this, Mashima moves so close to government that “the president had actually decorated her with one of the nation’s highest honors” (44). Yet she is still seen by the community as a “figure of maternal nurture” (48). The problematic of this in-between position is that the incumbent is often accused by both sides of taking the part of the other, and it is indeed true for Mashima, with even her husband accusing her that she has “joined the rulers; [and has] begun to think like them”, that she has “lost sight of the important things” (248). Nevertheless, a ‘Mashima’ and a ‘Saar’ are present in every society in which people are rendered powerless by lack of education or financial means, and in The Hungry Tide,  these two characters play a fundamental role as the ‘good’ in official governing bodies.

Using all these characters, the sea, the river, the land, the Ganges tiger and dolphin, bound together through myth, folklore and science, Ghosh weaves an intricate pattern of inter-dependence and mutual influence – a co-existence which although not romantically pastoral, nevertheless offers existence for all. The search for the dolphins becomes the key event which offers Piya, by representation the world of science, the possibility of understanding the world beyond science, a chance to experience the “modulation” from the “uncanny” to the “canny”, in the words of Nayar. This transition is concluded by the death of Fokir, giving his life to shelter her from the storm, and in the process seen to infuse her with his connection to nature. Kanai achieves a similar “modulation” through his near-death encounter with a tiger, and applies this new-found “knowing” of his “home” to setting right the broken relationship left behind by the death of Saar. In this “connected” way, Gosh also makes it clear that the plight of the Ganges dolphin is as serious as the plight of the Ganges tiger, that being as serious again as the plight of the dispossessed mass of humanity. 

Pramod Nayar proposes that The Hungry Tide can be read as a critique of Postcolonialism and the role it played in the dispossession of people, and that in his view, “Ghosh […] proposes a deeply humanist critique of the postcolonial condition here” (105). Huggan and Tiffin conclude at the end of their discussion that “Ghosh appears to argue [that people] must necessarily take precedence over animals” (5), and that for the environmental problems in The Hungry Tide, “neither a practical nor a philosophical management of the problem is offered”(5). A more nuanced reading of the text is however also possible, recognising that Ghosh presents this intractable problem with an amazing sensitivity. The rich variety of characters in The Hungry Tide, as they emerge from intertwined historical and mythical tales, enables Ghosh to create a subtle novel which, with much empathy, forces the reader to acknowledge the immense difficulties inherent in the sharing of a planet. Ghosh uses human history and human relationships to highlight the ‘humane’ in humanity, and myth and descriptions of the landscape to highlight the elemental and beautiful in Nature, both eminently of value, yet always in competition, and often in conflict. The Hungry Tide does indeed not pose a solution to this conflict, only requests an awareness, an empathy, for both human and animal, by both environmentalist and humanist respectively. Existence is at the end not possible without co-existence.


Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide. 2005. Penguin Canada.

Tiffin, HM and Huggan, G.  “Editorial: Green Postcolonialism”. 2007. Interventions, 9 (1). pp. 1-11.

Nayar, Pramod K. “The Postcolonial Uncanny; The Politics of Dispossession in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide”. College Literature 37.4 [Fall 2010]. pp. 88-119.


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