Just Wanna Know

Revolutionary Propaganda Organ

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Hungry Tide

The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh is a very timely book. It's a love story, of course, this time with a very restrained four-way quadrangle of mutual attraction and fear. What's really going to keep you going, though, is the backdrop: mangrove swamps along the India/Bangladesh border during a typhoon and tidal wave. The details and explanations of how these things work--how mangroves, tigers, crabs, and dolphins relate to each other--are really helpful as we keep having these floods and storms around the world.

I was most interested in the central conflict between ecological and humanitarian approaches to wildlife. Through flashbacks the novel tells of Morichjhapi, an island that was settled by starving refugees in the 1970s in direct contravention of Indian government plans to maintain it as a refuge for tigers and other wildlife. The book illustrates really well how the best-intentioned efforts on the part of progressive Western activists to save the world can turn into violent police riots, as threatened national governments seek to appease the neocolonial Western governments that are pressured by their well-meaning but clueless constituents to enforce land restrictions in these parks in the midst of famine. In the case of Morichjhapi, there really was a massacre when the government sent in troops first to blockade the settlers and then to forcibly remove them. Over 4,000 people died.

Whether the government attacked its citizens to save the tiger habitat, to save face with Western donors (who were probably quite sparse for 1970s nationalistic India), or to face down what became a direct challenge to its authority, I'm not so interested in finding out. What is interesting, though, with regard to the novel, is that Piya, the cetologist who loves the animals, is much less vividly drawn than her interlocutor Kasai, a businessman and former scholar/poet who has sold out everything he ever valued, although he never valued the animals. I felt the ending, in which almost everyone reconciled, was too sweet and neat--unwarranted by the height and pressure of previous violence and desire.


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