‘A fascinating, moving novel of one man’s ambition against the forces of nature’.
This one-liner appears on the cover of the book but I beg to differ from it. This is not a story of one man or for that matter, any man (or woman). The protagonist of this book, I feel, is its setting, the Sunderban or “the beautiful forest”. Yes, it is the story of Kanai and Piya, Fokir and Kussum, Nirmal and Nilima but their stories exist only because of the Sunderban or the ‘tide country’.
The Sunderban is 'a complex ecosystem comprising one of the three largest single tracts of mangrove forests of the world. Situated mostly in Bangladesh, a small portion of it lies in India'. (Source: Wikipedia). This natural wonder is explained in great detail by the author in the very beginning, "A mangrove forest is a universe unto itself, utterly unlike other woodlands or jungles. There are no towering, vine-looped trees, no ferns, no wildflowers, no chattering monkeys or cockatoos. Mangrove leaves are tough and leathery, the branches gnarled and the foliage often impassably dense. Visibility is short and the air still and fetid. Every year, dozens of people perish in the embrace of that dense foliage, killed by tigers, snakes and crocodiles".
Where there are people, there are stories and in this bleak and somewhat scary landscape there is a story of refugees, massacre, women trafficking, and tiger attacks, folk-tales and superstitions. The principal characters of the novel are Piya, Kanai and Fokir. Piya is a young cetologist of Bengali heritage who has come from USA to conduct a survey on the marine mammals of the Sunderbans. While in search of the Irrawady dolphin she meets and befriends two completely opposite men, Kanai and Fokir.
Kanai, a translator by profession based in New Delhi, comes to Lusibari (a fictional village)on the request of his aunt Nilima. Nilima, or Mashima, runs the Badabon Trust in the village. She wants Kanai to look into the contents of a sealed packet which her late husband Nirmal, Kanai’s uncle, left him in his will. The sealed packet contains a diary which describes in detail, among other things, the incident of Morichjhapi or Marichjhanpi, which is mostly remembered today for the massacre of 1979. (For more details of the actual incident read here).
Fokir, on the other hand, is a local fisherman. Illiterate and simple, Fokir is one with the mangrove forests. Unlike Kanai and Piya who have come to the tide country to seek something, Fokir belongs to this land. Both Kanai and Piya are dependent on his knowledge for their survival and are connected to him, Piya more so as Fokir is her guide and it is he who rescues her, leads her to the dolphins and saves her life. "Love flows deep in rivers" and Piya does develop feelings for the uneducated fisherman who is both married and a father. Language does not act as a barrier but draws her closer to him for she believed"..speech was only a bag of tricks that fooled you into believing that you could see through the eyes of another being".
The author has divided the book into two parts; The Ebb and The Flood. The flow of the narrative follows these two words to the letter. The first part drags a bit in places where there is a lot of scientific details about the dolphins (some of the details are fascinating though). The pace of the book is faster in the second part where there is more action due to interaction among all the characters.
Woven into the story are a lot of rich details of life in the mangrove forests. How the wildlife, especially the tiger, affects the lives of the people. This is a land where even the mere mention of a tiger is considered an ill omen. As the author said in an interview (read the entire interview here): ‘The mangroves are so thick you can’t see the tigers but the tiger is always watching you’.
At the heart of this book is the search for identity. It is more obviously stated in case of the Morichjapi settlers who demand from the authorities at one point, “Who are we? We are the dispossessed”. Nirmal is also haunted by questions of identity which is obvious from the notes in his diary, “Who was I? Where did I belong? In Calcutta or in the tide country? In India or across the border? In prose or in poetry?”
The tide country affects both Kanai and Piya and at the end of the book both characters change considerably from the people on the train station in the opening chapters. The only person who remains unchanged is Fokir, a man who belonged to the Sunderbans; body, heart and soul.
It is a moving and very well researched novel and its simple prose makes it a pleasing read. Reading about the mangroves inspired me to conduct a little search on the mangrove forests of the coastal areas of Sindh. WWF has a detailed research on the condition of our mangroves which is available on their website. It is sad how we are destroying (and have destroyed) this amazing ecosystem but in a country where not much value is put on the lives of humans, there is very little hope for both the mangroves and the wildlife which inhabits it.
Book Cover: Google Images
Note: Excerpts from the book are in italics.