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Over the past half-century, social scientists have explored the relationship between India’s Great Tradition rooted in Sanskritic culture and the myriad Little Traditions of the subcontinent’s six lakh villages. In Traditional India, Milton Singer quotes the pioneering anthropologist Robert Redfield: “In a civilization there is a great tradition of the reflective few, and there is a little tradition of the largely unreflective many.”While that framework may help outsiders make sense of India, few Indians think in terms of Great and Little Traditions. A more natural way to consider a community’s relationship to the larger culture might be in terms of India’s many rivers—small and great. Rivers run through India. Little ones are fed by the mighty: Ganga, Yamuna, Brahmaputra, Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Kaveri, Narmada …
This is a review of a novel: Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. So why all this bother about Great and Little Traditions and great and little rivers? Or as Nirmal, one of the characters in the novel, asks, “What do our old myths have in common with geology?”
Ghosh, educated at Oxford as an anthropologist, writes poetically about the Sundarbans islands. The ecosystem of the this archipelago bordering India and Bangladesh serves as a vital character, a hungry tide falling and rising. In the early pages there is a riverine legend of Ganga tamed by Shiva’s matted hair, a “heavenly braid … unfurling through a wide and thirsty plain … The islands are the trailing threads of India’s fabric, the ragged fringe of her sari, the achol that follows her, half wetted by the sea … The water stretches to the far edges of the landscape and the forest dwindles into a distant rumor of land, echoing back from the horizon. In the language of the place, such a confluence is spoken of as a mohana—an oddly seductive word, wrapped in many layers of beguilement.”
The Hungry Tide’s many layers are found in its strong character development. The Sundarbans are as real and as alive as any character in the novel. The reader is drawn into this world of mangroves, man-eaters, and mankind. It is a testament to Ghosh’s powers of description and humanistic empathy that one fully embraces the life of this place. “Sundarbans” means “beautiful forests,” but the beauty here is not for the timid. Declared a World Heritage Site for the wealth of its biodiversity, the Sundarbans are at the same time ferocious and fragile. Famous for the Bengal tiger with its taste for human flesh, these wetlands and jungles are regularly transformed: by floods that make cartography a futile science of shifting maps; and by cyclones that are like the tsunami’s wall of water that recently brought tragedy to South Asia.
The vitality of the Sundarbans, however, does not come at the expense of the novel’s humans. Ghosh has given life to several fully conceived characters. The aforementioned Nirmal and his wife, Nilima, are archetypes: she, the pragmatic builder of today; and he, the deceased dreamer of a better future, who has bequeathed to his nephew, Kanai, a journal describing his last days supporting a failed utopian settlement in Morichjhapi. This is a real location whose place on the map is notable for the 1979 massacre of dispossessed refugees who dared to find a home not sanctioned by any government.
The novel is in part about mankind’s relationship with nature. But central to the story is the possibility and impossibility of human relationships. At the core is the dynamic between Kanai, who has come to the Sundarbans to unearth the mystery behind his uncle’s journal, and Piya, an Indian-American marine biologist who is doing research on the elusive Gangetic Orcaella dolphin. Piya and Kanai have a charming inevitableness about them. From their chance encounter on a train to the open-ended closing of the novel, one feels that these two opposites may just find a home in each other’s life. Like an estuarine arranged marriage, theirs is a growing love where her sweet river water and his salty seawater may find their mohana.
Kanai and Piya are a metaphor for what Ghosh calls our “translated world.” She is an American of Bengali origin who knows only the language of her adopted country; straining for a Bangla word—gamchha—for checkered towel, Piya wonders, “How do you lose a word? Does it vanish into your memory, like an old toy in a chest, and lie hidden in the cobwebs and dust, waiting to be cleaned out or rediscovered?” Kanai uses language as an instrument of power; he is a Delhi-based translator thriving on India’s globalized economy. Coming from their own shared and different Great Traditions, both are outsiders in the Little Tradition of the Sundarbans, where the animals
Already know by instinct
We’re not comfortably at home
In our translated world.
The above three lines are translated twice: German to Bengali to English. Originally written in German by the Austrian poet Rilke, they are found by Kanai in Nirmal’s journal. But it’s more complex than the co-mingling of three Indo-European cognates.
In the 20-year-old journal, Nirmal was translating a story he had told to Fokir, an uneducated Dalit boy whose mother, Kusum, had perished in the Morichjhapi massacre. It was because of his unarticulated love for Kusum that Nirmal gave his own life to the refugees battling the government. Many translations are happening simultaneously here: history translated into fiction; oral tradition translated into text; natural ecosystem translated into battles; and muted love translated into activism. So subtle is Ghosh’s elegant interweaving of these politicized concerns that the reader is only aware of them as back-story undercurrents helping the profluence of the surface story.
The interweaving is so tight that not only do the translations not feel oppressive, but they lend themselves naturally to the serendipity of character meetings. One is not startled when the grown-up Fokir, still illiterate, emerges heroically, saving Piya from drowning and then serving as a guide, taking her to the secrets of the tide. Despite apparent differences—American, Indian; visitor, guide; cosmopolitan, rustic; Ph.D., fisherman—Piya and Fokir are able to communicate with each other when they are out in the water researching the Orcaella. Their mutual passion for, and understanding of, the dolphin and its habitat develops into a love platonically constrained by the same barriers they can overcome for the research. A more fundamental constraint is the fierce bond shared by Fokir, his upwardly mobile wife, Moyna, and their son, Tutul, who represents a future of change in the Sundarbans.
Moyna, perceiving that Fokir’s working partnership with Piya represents both a material opportunity for her impoverished family as well as a threat to her marriage, elliptically confides in Kanai: “When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard. You can’t blow on the water’s surface from below, Kanai-babu. Only someone who’s outside can do that.” In the ongoing cycle of change and continuity, Little and Great Traditions do come together to make a civilization.
Culture change is complex and disorienting. Yet with Ghosh at the height of his mastery, one feels, “Yes! That’s exactly how it is. He has captured the sentiment perfectly. He has got into my head and given voice to what I’ve experienced.” In The Hungry Tide, Ghosh has tenderly found the universal in a very particular situation. Reflecting on the Mahabharata, Nirmal writes in his journal, “Why should a schoolmaster deny that which even the old mythmakers acknowledge? Love flows deep in rivers.”
Twenty-one years ago, Rajesh met Mangla. She has made his translated worlds of Bengal and Rajasthan as real as a daughter and son.