FROM REVERENCE TO DESTRUCTION: AN ECO-CRITICAL APPROACH TO AMITAV GHOSH'S 'THE HUNGRY TIDE'
Nature and literature goes hand in hand. The world of literature throngs with works dealing with beauty and power of nature. However, the concern for ecology and the threat that the continuous misuse of our environment poses on humanity has only recently caught the attention of the writers. This sense of concern has given rise to a new branch of literary theory, namely Eco-criticism. The word eco-criticism first appeared in William Ruekert's essay "Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism" in 1978. Yet it remained inactive in critical vocabulary. Literary criticism examines the relations between writers, texts and the world. The world is synonymous with society. Ecocriticism expands the idea of the world to include the entire ecosphere. Ecocriticism takes an earth centered approach to literary criticism.
India is a country with variety of ecosystems which ranges from Himalayas in the north to plateaus of south and from the dynamic Sunderbans in the east to dry Thar of the west. With time, however, these ecosystems have been adversely affected due to increasing population and avarice of mankind. Literature could not remain unaffected from this depletion and my paper focuses on how concern for nature changes in Indian literature from reverence to destruction.
There are not many novels in Indian fiction that deals with the theme of ecocriticism though; nature has been used as a backdrop against which the story develops. It is because a serious concern with ecology seems to be lacking in the works of earlier writers. Of late, writers prefer to create awareness of the consequences of human actions which damages the planets basic life support system. Amitav Ghosh's 'The Hungry Tide' deals with the study of nature writing. The book is about one of the most dynamic ecological systems of the world. This novel clearly brings out the wrath of nature and fragility of humans at the mercy of nature.
'The Hungry Tide' unfolds through the eyes of two upwardly mobile, educated individuals who undertake a journey to the tide country. Kanai Dutt, the Bengali born, Delhi- settled businessman arrives in Lusibari to visit his aunt Nilima and claim the package left for him by his uncle, Nirmal. The package, he discovers is an account of his uncle's last days, which revolved around Kusum and her son Fokir, who are portrayed as the victims of eviction from the island of Morichjhapi. Ghosh weaves together two temporal narratives: one unfolding through Nirmals's journals recounting the Morichjhapi episode that happened 28 years earlier and the second through Piya's expedition, to study the threatened Gangetic River dolphins. The juxtaposition of these two narratives highlights the problems and issues of wilderness conservation and its related social costs in areas populated by the socially and economically disprivileged both in the past and the present
Water is of special significance in Hindu mythology. Water is chiefly associated with fertility, immortality, place, creation and the feminine. Running water is deemed sacred in Indian mythology. According to the Rig Veda, the river is a continuation of the divine waters that flow from heaven to earth. Mythology has it that when the Ganges descended from the heavens, so mighty were its currents that it threatened to drown the earth itself. Shiva anticipating the deluge captured the river in his dreadlocks. It is only when the river nears the sea that it untangles into a thousand strands forming a vast archipelago of the Sunderbans. The water that shelters tigers, crocodiles and snakes and nurtures the mangrove tree also protects the area from large-scale deforestation and even frequent natural calamities like storms and typhoons.
By contrast, the post colonial Sunderbans witnessed increasing human activity, declining bio-diversity and recognition and marketing of the uniqueness of the Sunderbans. At present the bio network of the Sundarbans witnesses the shift from a threatening ecosystem to a threatened ecosystem. The tides reach more than two hundred miles inland, and every day thousands of acres of mangrove forest disappear only to re-emerge hours later. For hundreds of years, only the truly dispossessed and the hopeless dreamers of the world have braved the man eaters and the crocodiles who rule there, to eke a precarious existence from the unyielding mud.
The settlers in this land were refugees from Bangladesh like Kusum, Fokir and Moyna and people of rare interest who wish to serve humanity like Nirmal, Nilima and Piya, the cetologist. For settlers here, life is extremely precarious. Attacks by deadly tigers are common. Unrest and eviction are constant threats. Without warning, at any time, tidal floods rise and surge over the land, leaving devastation in their wake. The island has suffered much hardships, poverty, famine, catastrophes and failed dreams. Death is a stalk reality. In spite of these dangers people like Kusum feel at home in these islands and even while on exile in Bihar ' she had dreamed of returning to this place, of seeing once more these rich fields of mud, these trembling tides'(HT 21).
Fokir in the novel is a forest guide who accompanies hunters and woodcutters on their expedition to the forest. The hunters and woodcutters are so superstitious that they will not venture into the forest unaccompanied by a fakir. 'Fakir' is the anglicized form of 'Fokir', the forest guide. Fokir guides Piya and Kanai through the waterways. He loses his life in the process of steering the outsiders safely through the forests. He fits the archetype of the hapless and illiterate native, exposed to man-eating tigers, sharks, crocodiles and snakes inhabiting the tide country and also to bribe taking officials of the state who are constant threat to his survival. Ghosh empowers him in his familiarity with the tide country, and its creatures and the legacy of centuries old oral traditions he inherits. Despite the technological advancements and educational background the outsiders depend on a fakir to navigate the waters. Ghosh portrays fakir as the epitome of an ecological pioneer.
Another reason for concern is the expanding tourism industry in India. Sahara India Parivar's mega tourism project proposes to take over large areas of the Sundarbans to construct floatels, restaurants, shops, business centres, cinemas, and theatres which would disturb the fragile ecosystem and further threaten the already endangered biodiversity of the region. Ghosh vehemently oppose this gigantic hotel project in the name of conservation.
The publication of 'The Hungry Tide' plays a crucial role in garnering worldwide support against the Sahara Project, which led the Central Ministry of Environment and Forests to terminate the project. The novels publication is in this sense political to the extent that the fictional narrative gave Ghosh the liberty to talk about the violence meted out to the natives, the flora and fauna of the Sunderbans. Ghosh's 'The Hungry Tide' reveals how ecological concerns and conservation efforts served as a mere disguises to camouflage the pursuit of political ends.