On a sunny afternoon a few weekends ago, I discovered the pleasure of second hand bookstores. Normally I like my books to be nice and new, but apart from an entire wall filled with musty Penguin Classics, this stall (it was at the markets) also had a shelf of shiny paperbacks, some with their original price tags still on them. At half price. How my heart fluttered when I saw Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide sitting there, in all its beautiful blueness.
Though I had not, in any way, anticipated myself reading this book (and though I hardly needed another book to add to my list of books for August) I knew that I would fall in love with this book. And I did. I had never even heard of the Sundarbans before, and that hidden away world of marshes and intertwining rivers, tigers and crocodiles, monsoons and river dolphins enchanted me. The characters were thought out well enough, though they were perhaps a little too cookie-cutter: the arrogant middle-aged bachelor who thinks he can snag and shag all the ladies, the fiery strong-willed young woman with a rare – and every interesting, and extremely specialised – occupation (how many people in the world track dolphin movements for a living?). And, well, Fokir. I quite liked Fokir, and the big guy too, though I forget his name – Horen? Horesh?
Ghosh has an easy-breezy laid back style of writing which I quite liked. The writing wasn’t what I would call beautiful (like Ondaatje’s, for instance), but there was quite a strong sense of place/atmosphere.This is the type of book I absolutely devour in the summertime. Not too heavy, with interesting characters and a steady, evenly-paced plot. Yet it was far from seamless. Though it wasn’t that distracting, I noticed raw edges and threads and loosely sewn plots everywhere. What I mean is that there were many times when the plot was propelled on in an extremely contrived and artificial way. For instance, at one stage in the novel, Ghosh wants to introduce a background character, but the way he provides the history of this character annoyed me. It was along the lines of –
“What? Who is so-and-so?”
“Oh, she was so-and-so’s mother, didn’t you know? They came from such-and-such a place, however many years ago.”
“Oh, I have never heard of this place. Is it interesting, I wonder?”
“Well, let me tell you about it then, and about her too, while I’m at it. It happened like this …”
And quite early on in the novel, the protagonist is stranded on a fishing boat with a man who only speaks Bengali. She is at a loss – then, “quite suddenly the word arose in her mind: ‘Lusibari’“. I know that happens often in real life – all of a sudden! We recall something important. But it seemed so contrived. Also, at times it felt like Ghosh had done lots of solid research, and he felt like it was a waste to leave it out, so:
“Look! That’s a so-and-so type of dolphin!”
“Why is it acting in that peculiar manner?”
The dolphins acted that way because of this and that, Piya explained (… followed by 500 pages of dolphin research)
Yes, Ghosh often switches to third person in the middle of his dialogues. Another thing which I found jarring. Apart from those things (and those are quite minor things, considering how picky I normally am with my books), I found The Hungry Tide a lovely experience. Alas, while books at half price are charming, it’s back to the bookstores and The Book Depository for me. Because while I was reading, I discovered several dark red-brown stains which, disconcertingly enough, resembled specks of dried blood. Or something less sinister, but equally gross on the page of a book.