Sunderbans shadow lines

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By Eco-tourism will cause untold damage to the fragile forests. But nature will ensure that the mangroves are left alone, Amitav Ghosh tells Rita Bhimani
  • Published 16.07.04

He makes your circle of reason get to lands so antique

Where your brain’s hungry tide makes your shadow line peak

It’s his charmed chromosome

With its glass palace dome

Where both Imam and Indian can find what they seek.

my lily-livered limerick might seek to briefly chronicle Amitav Ghosh’s prose output, but can hardly capture the essence of an author whose substantive prose is as compelling as his limpid narrative style. A writer who does not threaten you with his knowledge, but rather invites you into his magical world of discovery, surveying you all the way with his wan, impish smile.

I have never known how to plumb the depths of that apologetic smile, from someone who is such an intense scholar as he is a riveting writer. He glides into Calcutta from New York without great ceremony; so I am always delighted when he and Debbie can quietly spend an evening over fish and frisson. Definitely more intimate and rewarding than to sit in on a book-reading of The Hungry Tide, his latest publication.

I am not quite sure what to make of these book-readings. Sure, it promotes the book, makes you see the author in the flesh and gets you some “inside information” on a writer, which you can share with the less fortunate who did not go to the reading, may never read that book, or for whom the contents would in any case be beyond comprehension.

Recall a very recent cartoon in one of the American papers? It shows Bill Clinton asking his readers: “Will you buy the book or do you want me to read it to you?” Real-time reading is, alas, at such a premium, that perhaps these interactives at Calcutta’s numerous bookstores (and multi-starred hotels, too) could just be today’s answer to the tickling of literary-wannabe palates, the signed buying of these tomes thereof and their further gracing of décor-studied bookshelves, to be nicked by the odd passing bookworm.

It was Preeti Paul who was the first to urge me to read Amitav’s book, at Oxford Bookstore, while she was all a-shimmer at the double reception for sister Priya and her own recently-concluded nuptials. “I’m convinced I would like to go and spend some time in the Sunderbans,” came her effusive response to the book she had just read. I had not seen or read it and rushed to read and finish it before I could even think of having a sitting with Amitav to ask the whys and whithers.

We seem to have such an ambivalence about the Sunderbans in Calcutta. Only a handful — the peripatetic ones who seek nearby pastures have made their forays, and at the other end of the spectrum are the big investors gearing up to rev up the region.

But when Amitav Ghosh categorically said to me: “It is absurd to have eco-tourism in the Sunderbans”, it was just an extension of what he has tried to flesh out in the pages of The Hungry Tide. He is not just an itinerant traveller to the Sunderbans. His father’s elder brother was estate manager to intrepid Scotsman Sir Daniel Hamilton, who came to India with a cushy MacKinnon and McKenzie job, but ended up in the land of tempest, tides, tigers and crocodiles where he bought 10,000 acres.

Ghosh’s cousins grew up in Gosaba in the Sunderbans, where the same uncle was also headmaster of a high school founded by Sir Daniel. Knowing it from his childhood was one thing but when he went to Satjhelia to live in a hut for several weeks, while feeding up on his novel, a different aspect of the Sunderbans was possibly revealed to him.

He is emphatic that it is a totally fragile environment, which can suffer untold damage in the name of “eco-tourism”. In these days of fragmented research that you find in fast-moving fiction, Ghosh’s deep scholarship is a strong contrast. His dusting out of historical facts about those early colonists and their true understanding of the physical and emotional environment of the swampy, labyrinthine waterwayed area, reveal how the Sunderbans cannot afford to be raped into submission. This is a fact that is borne out by the Environmental Investigation Agency, which has talked about the proposed project in the Sunderbans as something that compromises the integrity of natural resources.

And in Ghosh’s part fiction, with an overlay of fact story, the truth is the more compelling part of his current work. The mangrove forest, “a universe unto itself”, is an area where “at no moment can human beings have any doubt of the terrain’s utter hostility to their presence, of its cunning and resourcefulness, of its determination to destroy or expel them”.

It is a land “half-submerged at high tide: it is only in falling that the water gives birth to the forest. To look upon this strange parturition, midwived by the moon, is to know why the name ‘tide country’ is not just right but necessary”.

This is Ghosh’s pen at high tide. Later in the book, a character asks why people should not live in the Sunderbans again, which is no “remote and lonely frontier — this is India’s doormat, the threshold of a teeming subcontinent… almost every island in the tide country has been inhabited at some time or another. But to look at them you would never know: the speciality of mangroves is that they do not merely re-colonise land; they erase time”.

While his flowing prose tells the tales of denudation, his conviction when I speak to him, leads you into knowing that, next to the Caribbean, the Sunderbans is the worst positioned for cyclonic fury. He brings Canning into the story, when the Viceroy took it into his head to build a port that would be an alternative to Calcutta and a rival to Singapore. What no one heeded were the warnings of a lowly shipping inspector Henry Piddington, who had lived in the Caribbean and knew all about hurricanes and storms, and actually invented, says Ghosh, the word “cyclone”.

Piddington wanted the mangroves to be left alone, as they were Bengal’s defensive barrier against nature’s fury and absorbed the initial onslaught of cyclonic winds, waves and tidal surges. They went on to build a grand Canning with a strand, hotels and homes. But come 1867, the Matla river surged its fury on the new port-town, reducing it to a “bleached skeleton”.

Ghosh took four years to research and write this book, including a spell in Cambodia working closely with a cetologist on whom he bases his woman character, and learning to catch crabs. At the end of the day, quite apart from psychologically delving into the motivations of his characters, who come from disparate backgrounds, azygous individuals, the author has made a strong case for the fact that “nature will ensure that the Sunderbans is left alone”.

Strong sentiments these, but ominous when you rewind to the Piddington prediction of Canning port not lasting more than 15 years. Ghosh as author has done his telling. Are there any signals to be heeded, or are we to be merely sucked into the flow of his narrative?