The Hungry Tide: Language and Silence

The Hungry Tide

I just read The Hungry Tide, a novel by Amitav Ghosh, published in 2004. It has taken me a long time to find out about it, as well as its author, but, as they say, better late than never.
Such a well-written, well-researched, good read! But the added reason I bring it here is that it includes, among a number of other topics, the story of a Bengali refugee group, settled on Morichjhanpi island of the Sundarbans, forced to flee by the newly elected government of West Bengal, and the massacre of 1978-79. I have an interest in refugee groups, their experiences, itineraries and development – a refugee group appears in my forthcoming novel, Alexandrias’ 40: In the Shade of the Lemon Tree, as well as the one I am currently working on – and Ghosh’s story describes one such group, in a different part of the world, in a sensitive and engaging manner. In such a manner, in fact, that one might say that the refugees find a home and a voice in Ghosh’s novel. While they flee one way, and then the other, like the ebb and flow of the tide, they are given a presence, a ‘stable’ place in history by Ghosh.
He writes in English, weaving fact and fiction into a wonderfully clear, informed and at the same time enchanting tale.
While the refugee group is an important pivot to the story, the ebb and flow of the tides in the Sundarban islands off the easternmost coast of India, and the ebb and flow of language and silence, are the true stars of the novel. The main characters, an American Indian female researcher, an Indian male translator and an Indian male illiterate fisherman, carry the tidal shifts and currents between language and the areas around it, those places which inhabit the heart and the elemental areas of the psyche shared by all humans. This shared humanity provides the ground for the – unfortunately often undervalued – capacity to communicate with one another. “…Words are just air,” a character says, “When the wind blows on the water, you see ripples and waves, but the real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard.” (see also my comment:  http://bit.ly/aGNY1P)

Ghosh’s achievement in this novel is to illustrate this ability through the relationships between these three characters and someone who, through his diary, is telling the tale of the refugees, using political, philosophical, and religious themes linked with passages from Rilke. In this novel, history, politics, poetry, biography, religion and myth are brought together in their varying forms of narrative language and yes, narrative silence, to tell a seamless story of incredible beauty.
More than that, however, the novel – through its metaphorical and symbolic richness and its assumption of the perspective of the American Indian scientist and the Indian translator, while contrasting them with the different qualities of the Indian fisherman’s discourse, and its unfortunate reception – reaches further into the colonial and post-colonial waters and invites critical reflection.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, especially for the outstanding achievement of bringing together so many strands, including the horrific tale of the refugee group, loss, history and a love story with so much humanity and humility.

One thought on “The Hungry Tide: Language and Silence”

  1. I was especially intrigued by you saying that “The main characters … carry the tidal shifts and currents between language and the areas around it, those places which inhabit the heart and the elemental areas of the psyche shared by all humans. This shared humanity provides the ground for the – unfortunately often undervalued – capacity to communicate with one another.”

    This made me think of a theme in my own line of work, where we are interested in investigating the principles and ‘units’ of our perceptual representation of the world and our ability to share this with others. Our perceptual apparatus represents the world in terms of separable categories, some of which are ‘innate’, such as the dimensions of color, motion, etc., while others are acquired through sharing them with others.

    While a shared language is clearly important for the latter (learning to classify the world and the objects it contains in terms of semantic categories), the sharing would not work without our being able to share attention. In my view, the capacity to take into account the other and his/her perspective (to develop what is referred to as a ‘Theory of Mind’) and to establish ‘joint attention’ sets us apart from non-human primates (though some of these have evolved it to some degree). Just like language, this capacity, while innate, must be developed in childhood, for which the mother-child interaction – e.g., pointing to and looking at objects of common interest – is most important (failure to develop it leads to autistic behavior). And it is elemental, in that it even underpins communication by means of language, which allows us to refer to objects symbolically. In this sense, it is an essential ingredient of the ‘amniotic fluid’ in which linguistic communication – and ultimately also works of literature (novels, poems, etc.) – can take on shape.

    While some of these themes have been explored in disparate strands of research (ranging from psychoanalytically inspired investigations of child development to psycho-linguistics), our understanding of these issues may be advanced by a more integrated approach that draws on recent advances in the social-cognitive neuroscience of attention.

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