Sunday, September 18, 2005

Tide Country

Is there some sort of trend in Indian fiction in English to set a novel in an "out of the way" place?  Or is it just me, because I happen to have read The Hungry Tide almost immediately after Siddhartha Deb's two novels?  The concern is that explorations of the national "margins" could just as easily lapse into anthropological fodder for the book's readers, at least the Indians among whom are overwhelmingly in the "major metros."

That being said, both Deb and Ghosh (who is himself an anthropologist by training, incidentally, and wrote a fantastically imagined history called In an Antique Land, an expansion on an earlier essay titled The Slave of MsH6) are astute writers, and although one could perhaps fault them for having somewhat of an instrumental relation to "margins," their end appears to be to unsettle notions of the "mainstream," or perhaps better yet to call into question the mainstream's privilege to ignore that which would, if acknowledged, pose uncomfortable questions with no easy answers.

The Hungry Tide is set in the Bhathirdesh, the tide country of the Sundarbans in West Bengal, and Ghosh's evocation of its physical instability, its daily churning of land to water to land and back again, above all the sheer malleability of its landscape, is wonderful.  It is very hard to stay grounded here, in more ways than one, as the book's two protagonists, an American cetologist of Indian origin (Piyali Roy) and a Bengali who runs a translation and interpretation service in New Delhi (Kanai), learn soon enough.  Roy is in the Sundarbans to study the elusive Irrawady dolphin, while Kanai comes in response to a summons from his aunt, whom he hasn't seen since his only previous visit decades ago.  Looming in the backdrop are two attempts to build utopias on one or another island in the Sundarbans, the first of these the work of a colonial capitalist, the second a more democratic idea that sweeps through refugees from Bangladesh who have been shut in a camp in central India for years.  Both attempts meet tragic ends (and one of them brutally so).

One of the aspects of the book that is most striking (at least to this reader, though also to Roy) is the inapplicability of the traditional communal categories to the inhabitants of the Sundarbans.  The reigning deity here is Bon Bibi who, we learn, has a decidedly Islamic origin, and who is honored in a way that would be unrecognizable to most Bengali Muslims not too far away in, for instance, Kolkatta.  People's names too (Fokir, Tutul, Moyna, Horen) don't reveal religious affiliations for the most part, and one is some way into the book before one realizes that is fitting, since a religious affiliation of the sort that is the lifeblood of the orthodox, and among the less devout the default assumption of the modern, is foreign to the world conjured by Ghosh.  The Hungry Tide infuses a sort of timelessness into what is nevertheless a very contemporary mileu, though I couldn't help but grow wistful at the thought of all the other "liminal" identities that have come under great stress in modern times, identities the biggest transgression associated with which is that they defy easy classification. (To get a sense of what I mean, browse through the writings of Yoginder Sikand online, although he's written a number of books and pamphlets too; also check out Shail Mayaram's Resisting Regimes: Myth, Memory and the Shaping of a Muslim Identity, perhaps my post too if you are a glutton for punishment).  Don't get me wrong: in Ghosh's view of the world too, it is precisely the most rooted, the most "local," who are ever threatened with displacement, as citizens who may most easily be overlooked or sacrificed.  Yet Ghosh (perhaps unwittingly) depicts the culture of the Bhathirdesh as eternal, or at least as no less so than its unique geography, implicitly contrasting it with the material tenuousness of its inhabitant's existence.  The latter is bad enough, but the cultural fate of many analogously situated Indian communities over the course of the twentieth century (not to mention what has replaced it) should also give pause.

It is not that Ghosh is insensitive to the fragility of the Sundarbans and its people so much as he seems to regard the political dimension of the situation as secondary to the natural.  This overarching focus can come across as philosophic detachment, despite the presence of several finely wrought passages:

I remembered how, when I first came to Lusibari, the sky would be darkened by birds at sunset,  Many years had passed since I'd seen such flights of birds.  When I first noticed their absence, I thought they would soon come back but they had not.  I remembered a time when at low tide the mudbanks would turn scarlet with millions of swarming crabs.  That color began to fade long ago and now it is never seen anymore.  Where had they gone, I wondered, those millions of swarming crabs, those birds? . . .

In what way would I ever do justice to this place?  What could I write of it that would equal the power of their longing and their dreams?  What indeed would be the form of the lines?  Even this I could not resolve: would they flow, as the rivers did, or would they follow rhythms, as did the tides?

The words are Nirmal's, not Ghosh's, but even the latter appears to have no doubt that his lines will take their cue from the tide country.  To put it another way, Ghosh's pre-occupation is not so much the instability (of language, of identity) that has by now become a "post-modern" fixation so much as it is ceaseless mutability -- of things, of people, and in the Bhathirdesh, even of the physical landscape.  Ghosh's conceit -- the landscape as mother and mirror to its inhabitants -- is a powerful one, but Ghosh comes close to enshrining it as immutable natural law, and the overall effect can come across as remote, which perhaps brought to mind the concern I began with.  The result is a novel rich in texture, yet one that leaves the reader wishing for a more human scale.


Satyam said...

" is precisely the most rooted, the most "local," who are ever threatened with displacement..."

This is a marvellously suggestive line and not least for its Heideggerian resonances.

Sumita said...

Hi there

Indian writing in english sounds hollow even while lyrically metaphorical, for one reason and one reason only. The disconnect with the cultural roots of what exactly it means to be an Indian somehow seeps into those educated in English, with not an equal coomand over a local language, not close familiarity with the socio-religious-cultural ethos which i typically Indian.

Most writing is in the voice of an observer, who clinically dissects just like a westerner would. Not that there is anything wrong with it, this is important too. But eventually its the native voice, who has experienced the anguishes of the competing dynamics that is India and chooses to write about it in a very personal voice who will resonate.

As of now, its all very cold and clinical and does not touch the core of a reader.

Am waiting for writing like tht. am sure it is in the making.


Qalandar said...

"Am waiting for writing like tht. am sure it is in the making."
Sumita: I am sure writing like what you are referring to must already exist in Inidan languages, but unfortunately much of that wealth of literature (actually most of it) lies untranslated...