I just finished reading The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. I quite enjoyed this novel, which is about a young Indian-American field biologist (Piya) studying Ganges River Dolphins in the tide country of the Sundarbans, off the coast of India, her interactions with the locals and one other outsider, a business man – and a ladies man – from New Delhi (Kanai), who is visiting his aunt. It’s told from two perspectives: that of the outsiders. In addition, there are diary entries from Kanai’s uncle, who died in somewhat mysterious circumstances and whose diary, which was to go to his nephew, was lost for some years. Themes include the tides and weather that overwhelmingly govern the lives of the people in the Sundarbans, the history of British-Indian relationships in the region, questions of identity, and the conflict between human populations and conservation efforts.
I found this last theme to be quite interesting, given my interests in conservation biology. Whoever thought that there was a downside to conservation efforts? The Hungry Tide explores several conflicts where humans end up on the losing side. One such conflict is when Bengali refugees settle a unpopulated island. The island happens to be part of a wildlife sanctuary and so the government sends the police in to evict the refugees. This ends in a siege of the island and ultimately in loss of lives. All in the name of conserving a natural habitat. Another quite harrowing conflict between conservation efforts and human populations is the interactions between the native Bengal tigers and humans. Basically, the tigers relentlessly attack and kill humans, consistently killing many people throughout the time humans have lived among them. Mention is made that these tigers are protected and that the money of international donors contributes to their preservation. While the local humans die regularly and are powerless to change things. One character opines that nothing is done to protect and preserve the human locals because they are poor. They have no political or economic power.
Ghosh does not offer any simple answers to such a complex problem (perhaps because there aren’t really any). Nor does he outright bash conservation efforts. Piya, a sympathetic character, is after all trying to understand why the population of the river dolphins has crashed in recent times. And one feels for her. And for the river dolphins, which often die as a result of interactions with boat propellers. But Ghosh does deftly demonstrate that there are consequences to conservation efforts which those of us in the west are quite unaware of. We are rich and comfortable enough to worry about the ecology of the very charismatic tigers while being wholly unaware that part of that ecology includes killing humans as well as livestock. We know nothing of the circumstances which force villagers to torture a tiger when it becomes entrapped in a building. We see what our own, very American, response would be to such an activity through Piya’s horror and effort to save the tiger. We are unaware of the circumstances of refugees who can come to occupy land that is supposed to be conserved or understand their frustration when they aren’t allowed to be there. Even when their expulsion results in the possibility of starvation andthe realities of their never-ending displacement.
The story of the siege of the island, known as Morichjhapi, is a true one. And it portrays a government more worried about upholding the Forest Acts (which created the wildlife sanctaury) than its citizens. Perhaps because the tiger, which inhabited the sanctuary and which symbolises national pride and is the national animal of both India and Bangladesh, was more important than Bengali Hindus of a low caste who made up the refugees. I don’t know if the story of man-eating tigers is a true one. But how better to show in stark relief how charismatic, endangered animals are treated by the Indian government and how westerns see those animals are worthy of salvation while those in power and us westerns have little use and care even less for poor, disenfranchised Bengalis. Pretty powerful stuff.