Author Amitav Ghosh introduced me to both the Sundarban Islands and Irrawaddy dolphins. The islands are at the easternmost part of India and continue into Bangladesh. I first discovered Ghosh’s unique style of environmentally conscious fiction in Gun Island. That book refers back to elements in my most recent read from his backlist, The Hungry Tide. Despite reading them out of order, I found them both captivating and contemplative.

In The Hungry Tide, we meet a young, American-born marine scientist named Piya Roy. She arrives in the Sundarbans to study river-dwelling dolphins called Irrawaddy. Piya’s parents emigrated to the US from India, but she speaks no Bangla or Hindi. Because of this, she meets Kanai Dutt as she travels to the islands. He’s a translator and businessman headed to see his aunt in the fictional Sundarban village of Lusibari. It’s a fortuitous meeting for both of them.

Ghosh blends the stories of Piya, Kanai, his aunt Nilima, as well as several local residents. As Piya hunts for her dolphins, she learns about the ecology of the area. More than that, Kanai assumes a teaching role and explains the legends and history of the Sundarbans. So, as readers, we learn along with Piya.

The Sundarbans are prone to extremes, whether water shortages, cyclones, or tiger attacks. Its people are both resilient and wary of outsiders with savior complexes. In some cases, their inclination is to rise up against colonizers. Ghosh combines these various elements into a readable and unique story.

My conclusions

Ever since I read Gun Island, Amitav Ghosh has become one of my favorite authors. His book The Glass Palace is quite different from these two, but also excellent. I love how gracefully he teaches and informs in the context of a fictional story. His work doesn’t feel like a lecture. Rather, it’s a genuine conversation among equals.

In The Hungry Tide, Ghosh creates an enduring character in Piya. She’s a quintessential scientist, focusing intently on her subjects, the Irrawaddy dolphins. On the other hand, she’s not always conscious of caste-related nuances or of human psychology. Kanai is a good balance for her, despite his own blind spots and prejudices.

Reading this book makes me want to revisit Gun Island and see how the characters’ lives connect through the two books. However, I’m reluctant to reread because life is short and there are always new books.

If a book that’s part travelogue, part social commentary, and part ecological history, interests you then I heartily recommend The Hungry Tide. Amitav Ghosh is an author with the perfect blend of smarts and heart.

Pair with Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents or with the aforementioned Gun Island.



Photo credits for images above:

Book cover: HarperCollins and Amitav Ghosh
Top dolphin photo:
Middle dolphin photo:
Bottom dolphin photo: