Conflict of Rights between Humans and the Non-humans in Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide (2004) is a long river trip in search of Irrawaddy dolphin. But eventually, it becomes a combination of travel, anthropology, ethnography, migration, landscape, and environmentalism. Ghosh here intertwines humanscape and landscape. Bhatir Desh (the tidal land) possesses the power to change the course of rivers and shape and reshape lands. Ghosh addresses an environmental issue of the conflict of conservation of natural world and the human rights in his novel. Sundarbans is the home to many endangered species like the Royal Bengal Tiger and Irrawaddy dolphins. It is, also, the home for the trouble between the human and the non-human for space. On one hand, there are the dispossessed people of the tidal land. On the other hand, is the non-human world, with their rights for survival. The relation between the human settlers and the predators is exquisitely expressed in the myth of Bon Bibi, the tiger goddess. And the role of the government in protecting the environment is mocked in the episode of Piya's encounter with the forest guard. In this paper I propose to address this conflict of rights and find a way out to settle the issue of preference, focusing on the very pertinent question raised by Fokir that who actually is the outsider in the ecosystem of the tidal land, and how much responsible the "native" fishermen are for destroying the natural ecosystem than the forces of industrialisation, urbanisation, and forms of government and semi-government interference.
The story of The Hungry Tide centres around three characters—Piya, Kanai and Fokir. Piya is a young cetologist who comes from Seattle, United States, for her research over a breed of freshwater dolphin (Oecealla brevirostris). Kanai is a middle-aged linguist, and runs a translation bureau in Delhi. But the focus of the novel is not upon the development of the relation among the three characters coming from completely different circumstances. It is, as Supriya Chowdhury observes, "...about the many histories of the region they have come to". One such historical event has been recorded in Nirmal's (Kana's uncle) diary that plays a pivotal role in the whole scheme of the novel. This event is that of the deportation of the refugee settlers from the island of Marichjhapi in the Sundarbans by the Left Front government of West Bengal in 1979. These refugees fled from the Dandakaranya camp in Madhya Pradesh in 1978 and came to the island of Morichjhapi with the intention of settling there. They cleared the land for making it fit for agriculture. Kusum, Kanai's childhood playmate and Fokir's mother, was one of them. Because of Kusum, Nirmal gets involved with these refugees and becomes the witness of the eviction of these settlers through a 'brutal display of state power' (Chowdhury) in May 1979. He records his experience on the island till just before the attack. Kusum is killed that day. Nirmal is later found wandering in the port town of Canning, never recovering from the trauma of the event. This story of Marichjhapi is a very important part of the novel.
The people who came to settle in Marichjhapi were the refugees from East Pakistan who had to lose everything including their homeland because of the political decision of the partition of the country. The government of India agreed to accept responsibility for those coming from East and West Pakistan. Hundreds and hundreds of people from East and West Pakistan were forced to leave their home to save their lives due to the communal riots. And when they came to India what did they find waiting for them? After the miserable period they had to spend in the refugee camps, they were sent to Dandakaranya for settling there. Nilima describes the situation of Dandakaranya, a forest area situated in central India, taking parts from the states of Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh to Kanai: "The soil was rocky and the environment was nothing like they had ever known. They couldn't speak the languages of that area and the local people treated them as intruders, attacking them with bows, arrows and other weapons" (Ghosh 2004: 118). After spending several hopeless years there, they felt the need to think otherwise. And the vacant/unoccupied tidal lands of the Sundarbans were the alternative that came to their mind. So they headed for it 'by train and on foot', 'in the hope of settling in the Sundarbans' (Ghosh 2004: 118). A handbill of the Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti of that time says, "In May, represestatives of the Mana Udbastu Unnayanshil Samiti went by launch from Hasnabad to Marichjhapi in Gosaba police station. Opposite this 125 square miles sand bank rising out of the sea is a 100 year-old village. The people of the village told them that the tide did not rise above 5 feet… It would be possible for 16,000 families from Mana to settle just on the island, and nearby at Dutta Pasur another 30,000." (qtd. in Pal 2009: 309, translation mine).
But the government of India, along with the government of West Bengal, was not ready to allow them to settle in the island of Marichjhapi. Jyoti Basu, the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, stated in the Assembly (9/2/1979) that the refugees in Marichjhapi were being involved in illegal activities like the cutting of the trees and destroying the other forest resources etc. In this way, they were severely affecting the environment. Besides, they were distributing the lands among themselves, without any such authorisation from the government. Moreover, they were not allowing outsiders to enter into the island, not even the government officials. Thus, they were creating a parallel administrative system which the state government could not allow. In his letter to the Prime Minister on 24January 1979, Mr Basu wrote: "These deserters have felled forest trees extensively, have started fisheries and are distributing lands. They have created a sort of free zone for themselves in Marichjhapi and have expressed their determination to resist by force any attempt to repatriate them ... We have now decided to take action for containing the situation at Marichjhapi and to make every effort to repatriate the deserters" (qtd. in Pal 2009: 87). And the state government acted likewise to evict the refugees. It can be obtained from various sources that the process was not a peaceful one. Ghosh also hints at the state violence in Marichjhapi in his novel.
So, it shows that the main reason of the forceful extradition, as has been stated by the state government, is to restore the ecological balance of the island of Marichjhapi which was being disturbed for the unlawful intrusion of so many people. Now this incident once again raises the issue of prioritisation between human and nature. Meyer reflects:
Ghosh here presents an environmental issue which has come to be recognised as one of the fundamental areas in conservation—an issue Robert Cribb calls the "acute conflict" between conservation and human rights. In this conflict, a battle line has come to be drawn between environmentally conscious groups fighting on the side of non-human nature, and human rights groups on the side of the poor, the dispossessed and the underdeveloped peoples of the world, with precious little middle ground being acknowledged by either side. The Hungry Tide, with its complex mixture of people and landscape, steps out this conflict with an implied plea for moderation to both sides—a plea for the acknowledgement and understanding of the plight of the poor by environmentalists, and that of animals and nature by human rights groups.
This debate is, wonderfully, addressed by Ghosh in the chapter "Interrogation". Piya is extremely disturbed to witness the killing of a tiger by the villagers. She is more haunted by the indifference, or rather support to some extent, of Horen and especially of Fokir. Kanai's argument here is very significant: "That tiger had killed two people, Piya. And that was just in one village. It happens every week that people are killed by tigers. How about the horror of that?" (Ghosh 2004: 300). Ghosh also provides/tries to present the scale of the horror through Nilima. According to her records, at least more than hundred people are killed by tigers every year in the Sundarbans, that too only in the Indian side. And this statistics/figure is not a recent one, not the consequence of the encroachment upon their habitat, as is argued by Kanai. It is a trend that has been continuing for centuries. The report from J Fayer, the English naturalist, shows that 4,218 people were killed by tigers between the years 1860 and 1866, meaning almost two people every day. Kanai continues, "If there were killings on that scale else on earth it would be called a genocide, and here it goes almost unremarked: these killings were never reported, never written about in the papers. And the reason is just that these people are too poor to matter. We all know it, but we choose not to see it. Isn't that a horror too—that we can feel the suffering of an animal, but not of human beings?" (Ghosh 2004: 300-301)
Now, if we look back at the history of the refugees, we would see that they were dispossessed of their own place as a consequence of some political decisions. One fine morning they were told that they no longer belonged to their own country—they'd have to leave it and find out some other place for themselves. Though the politicians promised them rehabilitation, how was the place chosen for them? The people from the river-based lands of Bangladesh were supposed to live in the forest of Dandakaranya, where even water is not sufficiently available. Nilima reflects: "The soil was rocky and the environment was nothing like they had ever known" (Ghosh 2004: 118). Here I would like to ask the environmentalists (who fight in favour of non-human nature) to imagine that for the sake of the conservation, the Royal Bengal Tigers from the Sundarbans are shifted to the Himalayas, or to the desert of Rajasthan. Would they agree to it or appreciate it? Would it be logical/scientifically the right thing to do? Then how do they expect that humans who, too, are a part of nature would be able to adjust and grow/develop in an unfamiliar and adverse environment? Do these people not have the minimum right to survive within their familiar atmosphere? In this situation, can we blame them if they run from Dandakaranya for such a place that is more close to their familiar one?
Besides, this part of the country is the perfect example of practicing communal harmony between Hindus and Muslims. The folktales of the region like Bon Bibi Johuranama exhibit this spirit through an amalgamation of the two cultures. In The Hungry Tide too these tales play a very significant role. The invaluable gift that Kanai gives to Piya is an English translation of it. It is very natural that the people who are fleeing away from the flames of communal riots would prefer such a land where they can be assured of their existence, where they would have no more threats from the other community. And the cultural atmosphere of Sundarbans is the ideal refuge for them. Ecologically, too, the myth of Bon Bibi is very important. It verbalises the relationship between the humans and the predators. It is said that Gabriel endowed upon Bon Bibi and her twin Shah Jongoli the 'divine mission' of travelling to "the country of the eighteen tides—athhero bhatir desh—in order to make it fit for human habitation" (Ghosh 2004: 103). After her victory over Dokkhin Rai, the demon-king, Bon Bibi divides the region into two parts. One part she allots to the humans and the other to Dokkhin Rai or the predators. Ghosh writes, "Thus did Bon Bibi show the world the law of the forest, which was that the rich and the greedy would be punished while the poor and the righteous were awarded" (Ghosh 2004: 105). This story is the evidence of the eco-consciousness of the people of the tidal land. They never even imagine of destroying the forest and the animals including the predators that are a continuous threat to their lives. What they want is only to have the opportunity to survive among these hostilities.
The refugees were forcefully removed from Marichjhapi for the sake of restoring the ecological balance. But Ghosh has referred to so many examples scattered through the novel where the so-called 'enlightened' and environmentally-conscious people along with the negligence of the government cause more harms to the flora and the fauna of the mangroves. First of all, the ecological justification of the clearing of the mangroves and replacing them with coconut and casurina trees in the island of Marichjhapi on the part of the government is not at all beyond question. The mangrove forest has its own ecological value. So, I am not sure how wise it is to replace it with the coconut trees. Again, towards the beginning we come across Piya's encounter with the forest guard allotted to her by the forest officials. No single behaviour of this forest guard gives the readers the impression that he is a nature-lover or an environment-concerned person. Rather, some of his activities point to just the opposite. So, if the responsibility of the safety of the forest and its animals is endowed in the hands of such persons, what kind of safety can we expect? In contrast to him we see Fokir, who is so much aware of the surroundings of the tide country. He has a vast knowledge of the habitats of the creatures in the tidal lands. Most importantly, he has a sympathetic attitude towards these creatures, which is preferred and is lacking within the forest guard. Fokir, and the likes of him, live off the land. They know the rules of nature and hunt in such a way that they would never feel the scarcity of these things. It means that there is no reason of extinction of any species because of their activities. But still, the number of these fishes and crabs are decreasing. Moyna, the wife of Fokir, is aware of it and also worried for the future of her son as a consequence of it. She is also aware of the actual reason of the scarcity. The local people are in no way responsible for it. It is the curse of the advancement of technology and it's misuse. She explains to Kanai the reason behind Mashima'a speculation of the vanishing of the fish in the coming fifteen years or so: "These new nylon nets, which they use to catch chingrir mean—the spawn of tiger prawns. The nets are so fine that they catch the eggs of all the other fish as well" (Ghosh 2004: 134). Concerned people like Mashima try hard to ban these nets, but to no avail. And the reason behind the failure is also very interesting: Because there is a lot of money in prawns and the traders had paid off the politicians. And the worst victims of such irresponsible activities are the poor fishermen of the tidal countries: "It's people like us who're going to suffer" (2004: Ghosh 134). They have either to find out some other source of livelihood which is very difficult in these parts of the land, or to starve. So, it is clear that these people, who are the worst victims, can't be responsible for the destruction.
Later in the novel we come across the death of an Irrawaddy dolphin, a rare and endangered species, by the encounter with the reckless motor launch of the government. We see the motor launch hired for Piya by the forest guard emitting enormous amount of pollutants. We see the abundant use of the generators on the islands of the tidal land causing huge pollution and the government and the environmentalists taking no radical steps to stop them. Aren't these things harming the natural growth of the flora and fauna of the mangroves, and hence the whole ecology much more than the damages caused by the livelihood of these poor people?
Here I can see the shadow of the environmental politics or green postcolonialism. All the elements of our civilised life add to the pollution of the environment many times over. Hundreds and hundreds of motorcars throughout the world contribute daily to air pollution. Then we have a number of factories producing various kinds of pollutants, many of which are even fatal to human beings. So, the extent of their adverse effects upon the other elements of nature is easily seen. But we never even imagine of shutting down all those factories and vehicles, as these things have become part and parcel of our civilised, developed, modern life. We are not ready to compromise our luxuries, not even for the sake of a serene and pure environment. And we expect, rather demand that these poor people would sacrifice the basic needs for their living, so that we can save the forests from them. In other words, we expect these people to compensate for the damages done to us at the cost of their livelihood. The issue just echoes the issue of the first world countries pressurising the third world countries on environmental issues.
It has been seen that the shift of emphasis from anthropocentric to ecocentric philosophies didn't, in any case, benefit the lowest strata of society. Rather, it has marginalised them more than before. Moreover, they have been "pitted against the natural world in a new deadly competition for survival" (Meyer). In The Hungry Tide we find the people of the Sundarbans/tidal lands struggling very hard for their existence against a number of natural forces. Besides the dangers posed by the ferocious animals like the tigers and crocodiles, they have to fight against the natural calamities like cyclones which are very frequent and fatal in these places. The number of widows living in the area is the greatest evidence of the hardship of life here. The amount of life-risk they have to face each and every day is best reflected through one of the customs performed by the married women of the region. They remove their shankha and pala (white and red bangles) and the sindoor (vermillion powder), ie all the signs of their marriage, whenever their husbands go fishing. Nilima, the representative of the outer world, is utterly surprised to come across such a custom. Here, in the tide country life is so unpredictable that the women from their girlhood become mentally prepared for a very short married life and an early widowhood. They never expect to stretch it beyond their twenties and beyond thirties, if they are very lucky. Ghosh writes, "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?" (Ghosh 2004: 80). The numberless widows of the tidal land remind me of the women of the Aran Islands in J M Synge's play Riders to the Sea. Just like the menfolk of the Aran Islands, the menfolk of the tidal lands to have to go to sail the river instead of all the dangers posed by nature upon them. On the one hand, the rivers and the forest provide them their livelihood. On the other hand, it takes their lives at regular intervals as its toll. So these people never appear to me as the encroachers into the uncontaminated environment with the intensity to destroy it. Rather they are the victims of the circumstances, just puppets in the hands of nature, as the Aran Islanders were at the hand of the sea.
Choudhury, Supriya. Review: The Hungry Tide. Amitav Ghosh. n.d. Web. 8 Dec 2013. http://www.amitavghosh.com/thehungrytide-r.html
Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.
Meyer, Petrie. "Selling Nature to Humanists and Humanity to Environmentalists: Existence and Co-existence in Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide". Writing Showcase-Petrie Meyer on Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide. Nature Critical. 19 Nov 2012. Web. 5 Dec 2013.
Pal, Madhumoy, ed. Marichjhapi: Chhinno Desh, Chhinno Itihaas. Kolkata: Gangchil, 2009. Print.