Sunday, March 19, 2006

Amitav Ghosh

A political novelist reminiscent of V. S. Naipaul, Amitav Ghosh describes in THE HUNGRY TIDE the struggles of the people of the Sundarbans, a group of islands off the eastern coast of India. Nature is their biggest foe: tigers attack men in the mangrove forests; storms and tidal waves destroy villages; women expect to be widowed at a young age. But government policy has also been their enemy.

Ghosh interweaves the stories of Kanai Dutt, an interpreter, Piya, a marine biologist, Fokir, a poor fisherman, and Kanai’s uncle, illuminating the political policies that have conspired to destroy lives and the environment. Ghosh’s description of the massacre of Bengali refugees in Morichjhapi in the 1970s gives us a terrifying glimpse of an incident virtually unknown outside of India, according to Ghosh, who says the only published historical treatment in English is an article in the 1999 JOURNAL OF ASIAN STUDIES.

The following two passages are not about the massacre of the Bengali refugees, however. One is about passion for work, the other about ecology.

In the passage below, Kanai, an interpreter and businessman, makes a fascinating connection between marine biology and translation while observing Piya, a marine biologist, at work.

“...she was back in position with her binoculars fixed to her eyes, watching the water with a closeness of attention that reminded Kanai of a textual scholar poring over a yet undeciphered manuscript: it was as though she were puzzling over a codex that had been authored by the earth itself. He had almost forgotten what it meant to look at something so ardently--an immaterial thing, not a commodity nor a convenience nor an object of erotic interest. He remembered that he too had once concentrated his mind in this way; he too had peered into the unknown as if through an eyeglass--but the vistas he had been looking at lay deep in the interior of other languages. Those horizons had filled him with the desire to learn of the ways in which other realities were conjugated.”

The next passage describes the dwindling Orcaella (river dolphin) population in the Mekong, where Piya had worked before journeying to India.

“The Orcaella population of the Mekong was known to be declining rapidly and was expected soon to fall below sustainable levels. The Mekong Orcaella had shared Cambodia’s misfortunes: in the 1970s they had suffered the ravages of indiscriminate American carpet bombing. Later they too had been massacred by Khmer Rouge cadres, who had hit upon the idea of using dolphin oil to supplement their dwindling supplies of petroleum. The once abundant population of Orcaella in the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s great fresh-water lake, had been reduced almost to extinction. These dolphins were hunted with rifles and explosives and their carcasses were hung up in the sun so their fat would drip into buckets. This oil was used to run boats and motorcycles.”

The horror of the massacre of the dolphins, in a spooky way, parallels the massacre of the Bengali. Ghosh also captures the commitment and frustration of the activists as they attempt to rescue people and the environment.

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