Chandan Sinha

Chandan Sinha

The Hungry Tide by Aravind Ghosh

Notable Lines

  • Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies

  • When the menfolk went fishing it was the custom for their wives to change into the garments of widowhood. They would take off their bangles and wash the vermillion from their heads. It was as though they were trying to hold misfortune at bay by living through it over and over again. Or was it merely a way of preparing themselves for that which they knew to be inevitable?

  • In a hut by the pond a woman was even said to have found a large dead fish in her bed. This was a koimachh or tree perch, a species known to be able to manipulate its spiny fins in such a way as to drag itself over-ground for short distances. It has found its way into the bed only to suffocate on the mattress. [88]

  • To preclude night-time collapses of the mosquito netting, the bindings were checked and retied every evening. The tide country being what it was, there were twists even to this commonplace household chore. Once, soon after she first came to Lusibari, Nilima had made the mistake of trying to put up the net in near-darkness. The only light was from a candle, placed on a window still at the other end of the room. Being short, as well as very short-sighted, she could not see exactly what her fingers were doing as they knotted the net to the bed’s bamboo poles: even when she stood on tiptoe the strings were far above her head. Suddenly one of the strings had come alive; to the accompaniment of a sharp hiss, it has snapped a whip-like tail across the palm of her hand. She had snatched her arm back just in time to see a long, arboreal snake that inhabited the upper branches of some of the more slender mangroves: in the poles of the mosquito net it has evidently found a perch much to its liking. [88]

  • At night, lying on his cot, Kanai would imagine that the roof had come alive; the thatch would rustle and shake and there would be frantic little outburst of squeals and hisses. From time to time there would be loud plops as creatures of various kinds slip away under the door, but every once in a while Kanai would wake up in the morning and find a dead snake or clutch of bird’s eggs lying on the ground, providing a feast for any army of beetles and ants. At times these creatures would fall right into the bed’s netting, weighing it down in the middle and shaking the posts. When this happened you had to take your pillow, shut your eyes and give the net a whack from below. Often the creature, whatever it was, would go shooting off into the air and that was the last you’d see of it. But sometimes it would just go straight up and land right back in the net and then you’d have to start all over again.

  • At this point Kanai, unable to restrain his curiosity, thrust his head through the doorway to steal a glance. The woman who had told the story was hidden from his view, and since everyone in the courtyard was looking in her direction, no one noticed Kanai – non one, that is, but Kusum, who had averted her eyes from the storyteller. Kanai and Kusum held each other’s gaze, staring across the most primeval divide in creation, each assessing the dangers that lay on the other side; it seemed scarcely imaginable that here, in the gap that separated them, lay the potential for these extremes of emotion, this violence. But the mystery of it was that the result of this assessment was nothing so simple as fear or revulsion – what he saw in her eyes was rather an awakened curiosity he knew to be a reflection of this own.

  • There was a time once when the Bengali language was an angry flood trying to break down her door. She would crawl into a wardrobe and lock herself in, stuffing her ears to shut out those sounds. But a door was no defence against her parents’ voices: it was in the language that they fought, and the sounds of their quarrels would always find ways of trickling in, under the door and through the cracks, the level rising until she thought she would drown in the flood. Their voices had a way of finding her, no matter how well she hid. The accumulated resentments of their life were always phrased in that language, so that for her, its sound had come to represent the music of unhappiness. As she lay curled in the cupboard, she would dream of washing her head of those sounds, she wanted words with the heft of stainless steel, sounds that had been boiled clean, like a surgeon’s instruments, tools with nothing attached except meanings that could be looked up in a dictionary – empty of pain and memory and inwardness. [94]

  • Piya knew that if she could establish any of this she would have a hypothesis of stunning elegance and economy – a thing of beauty, was rarely found in the messy domain of mammalian behaviour. What was more, the idea might well have profound implications for the conservation of this endangered species: protective measures would be much more effective if they could be focused on particular pools and specific corridors. But the hypothesis begged as many questions as it answered. What, for instance, were the physiological mechanisms that attuned the animals to the flow of the tides? Obviously, it could not be their circadian rhythms since the timing of the tides changed from day to day. What happened in the monsoon, when the flow of fresh water increased and the balance of salinity changed? Was the daily cycle of migration inscribed upon the palimpsest of a longer season rhythm? [124]

  • Piya remembered a study that had shown there were more species of fish in the Sundarbans than could be found in the whole continent of Europe. This proliferation of aquatic life was thought to be the result of the usually varied composition of the water itself. The waters of river and sea did not intermingle evenly in this part of the delta; rather, they interpenetrated each other, creating hundreds of different ecological niches, with streams of fresh water running along the floors of some channels, creating variations of salinity and turbidity. These micro-environments were like balloons suspended in the water, and they had their own patterns of flow. They changed position back towards the shore, at times being carried well out to sea and at others, retreating deep inland. Each balloon was a floating biodome, filled with endemic fauna and flora, and as they made their way through the waters, strings of predators followed, trailing in their wake. This proliferation of environments was responsible for creating and sustaining a dazzling variety of aquatic life forms – from gargantuan crocodiles to microscopic fish. [125]

  • Now, as she sat in the boat, thinking about these connections and interrelations, Piya had to close her eyes, so dazzling was the universe of possibilities that opened in her mind. There was so much to do, so many queries to answer, so many leads to follow: she would have to acquire a working knowledge of a whole range of subjects – hydraulics, sedimentation geology, water-chemistry, climatology; she would have to do seasonal censuses of the Orcaella population; she would have to map the dolphins’ movement corridors, she would have to scrounge for grants, apply for permits and permissions; there was no horizon to the work that lay ahead. She had been sent to the Sundarbans for a fortnight, to do a small survey, on a shoestring budget – but to follow through on the questions now buzzing in her head would take not a week or two, but years, even decades. She had perhaps fifteen to twenty years of active field research ahead of her; she sensed that this project would consume all those years and more: it was the work of a lifetime. [125-126]

  • The final run brought Fokir’s boat into shallow water, within a few metres of the shore. Piya’s guess had been amply confirmed by this time: her soundings showed that there was a kilometre-long depression in the sheltered crook of the river’s elbow. The declivity formed a gentle, kidney-shaped basin, with a rounded bottom and sides: although the drop exceeded eight metres in some places, on average it was only some five metres deeper than the rest of the riverbed. The ‘pool’, in short, was similar in most particulars, to those frequented by the Orcaella of the Mekong during the dry season. [149]

  • As he listened to its advance, it occurred to him to wonder why, in English, silence is commonly said to ‘fall’ or ‘descend’ as though it were a curtain or a knife. There was nothing precipitous about the hush that followed the shutting off the generator: the quiet was more like a fog or a mist, creeping in slowly, from a distance, wrapping itself around certain sounds while revealing others: the sawing of the cicada, a snatch of music from a distant radio, the cackle of an owl. Each of these made themselves heard briefly, only to vanish again into the creeping fog. [154]

  • The moonlight had turned it into a silvery negative of its daytime image. Now it was the darkened islands that looked like lakes of liquid, while the water lay spread across the earth like a vast slick of solid metal. [154]

  • In contrast, there was the immeasurable distance that separated her from Fokir. What was he thinking about as he stared at the moonlit river? The forest, the crabs? Whatever it was, she would never know: not just because they had no language in common but because that was how it was with human being, who came equipped, as a species, with the means of shutting each other out. The two of them, Fokir and herself, they could have been boulders or tress for all they knew of each other: and wasn’t it better in a way, more honest that they could not speak? For if you compared it to the ways in which dolphins’ echoes mirrored the world, speech was only a bag of tricks that fooled you into believing that you could see through the eyes of another being.

  • Even silence is preparation [193]

  • She understood now that for Kanai there was a certain reassurance in meeting a woman like Moyna, in such a place as Lusibari: it was as if her very existence were a validation of the choices he had made in his own life. It was important for him to believe that his values were, at bottom, egalitarian, liberal, meritocratic. It reassured him to be able to think, ‘What I want for myself is no different from what everybody wants, no matter how rich or poor; everyone who had any drive, any energy, wants to get on in the world – Moyna is the proof.’ Piya understood too that this was a looking-glass in which a man like Fokir could never be anything other than a figure glimpsed through a rear-view mirror, a rapidly diminishing presence, a ghost from the perpetual past that was Lusibari. But she guessed also that despite its newness and energy, the country Kanai inhabited was full of these ghosts, these unseen presences whose murmurings could never quite be silences no matter how loud you spoke.

  • It was in Calcutta’s Botanical Garden, Piya explained, that Roxburgh has written his famous article of 1801, announcing the discovery of the first-known river dolphin. He had called it Delphinus Gangeticus (‘Soosoo is the name it is known by amongst the Bengalese around Calcutta’), but the name had been changed later, when it was discovered that Pliny the Elder had already named the Indian river dolphin, as far back as the first century CE – he had called it Platanista. In the zoological inventory the Gangetic dolphin had come to be listed as Platanista Gangetica Roxburgh 1801. Years later, John Anderson, one of the Roxburgh’s successor at the gardens, actually adopted and infant Gangetic dolphin. He had kept it in his bathtub, and it had lived for several weeks. [227-228]

  • The figures were compiled by J. Fayrer – he was the English naturalist who coined the phrase “Royal Bengal Tiger”. [240]

  • The legend was recounted in the verse form called ‘dwipodi poyar’ – with rhymed couplets in which each line is of roughly twelve syllables, each with a break, or caesura towards the middle. [247]

Prose that had mounted the ladder of metre in order to ascend above the prosaic. [247]

  • He believes that Indian – Bengalis in particular – don’t travel well, because their eyes are always turned backwards, towards home. [250]

  • ‘Because words are just air, Kanai-babu,’ Moyna said. ‘When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard. You can’t blow on the water’s surface from below, Kanai-babu. Only someone who’s outside can do that, someone like you.’ [258]

  • The phrasing of this was simple to the point of being childlike and it seemed to Kanai that he had finally understood why Moyna felt so deeply tied to her husband, despite everything. There was something about him that was utterly unformed and it was this very quality that drew her to him: she craved it in the same way that a potter’s hands might crave the resistance of unshaped clay. [319]

  • Those words triggered a response in Kanai that was just as reflexive as the goosebumps on Fokir’s neck. The surroundings – the mangrove forest, the water, the boat – were suddenly bloated from his consciousness; he forgot where he was. It was as though his mind had decided to revert to the functions for which it had been trained and equipped by years of practice. At that moment nothing existed for him but language, the pure structure of sound that had formed Fokir’s question. He gave this inquiry the fullest attention of which his mind was capable and knew the answer almost at once: it was in the negative; the truth was that he did not feel the fear that had raised bumps on Fokir’s skin. It was not that he was a man of unusual courage – far from it. But he knew also that fear was not – contrary to what was often said – an instinct. It was something learnt, something that accumulated in the mind, through knowledge, experience and upbringing. Nothing was harder to share than another person’s fear, and at that moment he certainly did not share Fokir’s. [322]

  • Raising his head, Kanai caught a glimpse of Fokir’s eyes and the words withered on his lips. In Kanai’s professional life there had been few instances in which the act of interpretation has given him the momentary sensation of being transported out of his body and into another. In each instance it was as if the instrument of language had metamorphosed – instead of being a barrier, a curtain that divided, it had become a transparent film, a prism that allowed him to look through another set of eyes, to filter the world through a mind other than his own. These experiences had always come about unpredictably, without warning or apparent cause, and no thread of similarity linked these occasions, except in each of them he had been working as an interpreter. But he was not working now, and yet it was exactly this feeling that came upon him as he looked at Fokir: it was as though his own vision was being refracted through those opaque, unreadable eyes and he were seeing not himself, Kanai Dutt, but a great host for people – a double for the outside world, someone standing in for the men who had destroyed Fokir’s village, burnt his home and killed his mother; he had become a token for a vision of human beings in which a man such as Fokir counted for nothing, a man whose value was less than that of an animal. In seeing himself in this way, it seemed perfectly comprehensible to Kanai why Fokir should want him to be dead – but he understood also that this was not how it would be. Fokir had brought him here not because he wanted him to die, but because he wanted him to be judged. [327]

  • He could not bring himself to look around the clearing. This was where it would be, if it was here on the island – but what was he thinking of? He could not recall the word, not even the euphemisms that Fokir had used: it was as if his mind, in its panic, had emptied itself of language. The sounds and signs that had served, in combination, as the sluices between his mind and his senses, had collapsed: his mind was swamped by a flood of pure sensation. The word he had been searching for, the euphemisms that were the source of his panic, had been replaced by the thing itself, except that without words it could not be apprehended or understood. It was an artefact of pure intuition, so real that the thing itself could not have dreamed of existing so intensely. [329]

  • As she was puzzling over the dolphins’ behaviour, her mind wandered idly back to an article she had read some years before. It was by a Swiss cetologist, Professor G. Pilleri, one of the pioneers in river-dolphin studies, a doyen of the field. As far as she could recall, the article was written in the 1970s. Pilleri’s research had taken him to the Indus river, in Pakistan, and he had paid some fishermen to catch a pair of Platanista, a male and a female. The article, she remembered, had described the process in great detail. It was no easy task to capture these dolphins, for Platanista’s echo-location was so accurate that they were typically able to detect and evade a net once it had been lowered into the water. The fishermen had resorted to a strategy of luring the unwary dolphins into places where nets could be dropped on them. [366]

  • They made another turn and now Piya found herself rowing with her back to the wind. It was oddly disorientating to be hit by a wave coming from her blind side; after it had lifted her up there would be a dizzying moment when the boat seemed to hang on the crest of the watery ridge. Then suddenly she would find herself tobogganing backwards into the wave’s trough, clutching at the gunwales to keep her balance. Water came sluicing over the bow with each wave and it felt as if a bucked were being emptied on her back. [370]

Word Meaning

  • Cetologist
  • Dogsbody
  • Estuarine Sharks
  • Battery of ropes [83]
  • Rustics [90]
  • Puget sound [94]
  • Malampaya sound [96]
  • False consciousness [101]
  • Quotidian origins [126]
  • Crabby [140]
  • Congregated in a declivity [140]
  • Pinata [168]
  • Tinsel [168]
  • Augury [185]
  • Bourse [199]
  • Dalliance [220]
  • Genuflections [223]
  • Doggerel fashion [247]
  • Cordon [276]
  • Troth [303]
  • Navigable [306]
  • Amaneunsis [326]
  • Norris protocols [346]