Upon returning to Lusibari for the first time since he was a child, Kanai receives a packet left to him by his late uncle Nirmal, a dreamy, idealistic Communist who became involved in the 1979 Morichjhãpi conflict, much to his wife Nilima's chagrin. Unlike her husband, Nilima took it upon herself to work with the government to form the Babadon Trust, which sought to provide much-needed services to locals in a way her husband found wholly distasteful. By considering the ways in which idealism bogs Nirmal down and paralyzes him from taking meaningful action, and comparing that paralysis to Nilima's life of action, The Hungry Tide makes the case that theory, idealism, and good intentions are relatively meaningless if they're never put into practice.
Upon their arrival in the Sundarbans, Nirmal is simultaneously entranced and repulsed by the history of Sir Daniel Hamilton, a wealthy Scotsman who developed the Hamilton Estate on Gosaba. There, he implemented a cooperative system and did his best to distance Gosaba from India's rigid caste system in the name of creating an ideal society in which everyone could profit. Though Hamilton is frequently described as having been a wealthy capitalist, his estate seems Communist in nature, which is what intrigues Nirmal. For the time that Hamilton was alive, the experiment worked relatively well, which provides Nirmal with proof that his beloved class and political theories can indeed work in the real world.
When faced with the corruption of the landowners and the poverty of the locals upon his and Nilima's arrival in Lusibari, ten years after Hamilton's death, Nirmal is overwhelmed and entirely unable to function. The narrator notes that he turned to his copy of Lenin's pamphlet, which he rereads over and over again in search of answers as to how to help the impoverished locals. Nilima, on the other hand, begins talking to the local women and listening to their stories, and then forms a union to help them and bring services to the island. Though Nirmal is dismissive of Nilima's methods (she works with the government to secure funding and assistance, which he finds unacceptable given his political leanings), Nirmal is forced to recognize that his wife was actually able to orchestrate a great deal of positive change on Lusibari. Through her work, Nilima is able to break up the landholdings, eject the corrupt land managers, and build a hospital capable of serving an extraordinary number of people. Through Nirmal's notebook, it's clear that he believes Nilima is just as dismissive of his politics as he is of hers. However, Nilima tells Kanai on several occasions—and Kanai infers himself—that what actually drove Nilima and Nirmal apart was Nirmal's complete inability to act, write, or work within a system he found distasteful to create any change. For him, his theory was too important to compromise on, even if it meant that nothing got done because of that.
These conflicts between action and inaction finally came to a head when Nirmal became involved with the Morichjhãpi conflict. His writing in his journal shows clearly that he was entranced by the idea of the perfect, Hamilton-esque society that the refugees on Morichjhãpi sought to create. Further, while he desperately wanted to be of help and felt he could help (given his background as a schoolteacher and a once-prominent member of the Marxist academic circles in Calcutta), he again was bogged down in thinking about what should be done. Nirmal died not long after the police invade Morichjhãpi and massacre the refugees in 1979, leaving only his account of the events in one small notebook to Kanai upon his death. In the notebook, Nirmal speaks again and again about how he recognizes that inaction throughout his life has been his undoing, and yet he still finds himself unable to do anything but record his experiences of the conflict through the lens of idealized theory. Essentially, the novel suggests that the notebook, as Nirmal's final contribution, really only serves the purpose of unraveling personal mysteries for his family members and proving that Nirmal was entirely capable of meaningful action. It's telling, then, that Nirmal's notebook doesn't even survive to the end of the novel—it gets swept away in the cyclone's floodwaters. His one lasting contribution, on the other hand, is the cyclone shelter he insisted Nilima include in the hospital—something he pushed for because of his interest in storms and meteorological theory. The cyclone shelter stands as proof that Nirmal's idealism and good intentions were impotent until and unless they were joined with action, practicality, and funding.
Idealism and Theory vs. Practicality and Action ThemeTracker
Idealism and Theory vs. Practicality and Action Quotes in The Hungry Tide
"What he wanted was to build a new society, a new kind of country. It would be a country run by cooperatives, he said. Here people wouldn't exploit each other and everyone would have a share in the land.
But these elements of an ordinary rural existence did not entirely conceal the fact that life in Lusibari was lived at the sufferance of a single feature of its topography. This was its bãdh, the tall embankment that encircled its perimeter, holding back the twice-daily flood.
There is nothing I can do to stop what lies ahead. But I was once a writer; perhaps I can make sure at least that what happened here leaves some trace, some hold upon the memory of the world. The thought of this, along with the fear that preceded it, has made it possible for me to do what I have not been able to do for the last thirty years—to put my pen to paper again.
It shamed them to think that this man—a foreigner, a burra sahib, a rich capitalist—had taken it upon himself to address the issue of rural poverty when they themselves, despite all their radical talk, had scarcely any knowledge of life outside the city.
But for these women the imagining of early widowhood was not a wasted effort: the hazards of life in the tide country were so great; so many perished in their youth, men especially, that almost without exception the fate that they had prepared themselves for did indeed befall them.
"Why else?" she said. "Because there's a lot of money in prawns and the traders had paid off the politicians. What do they care—or the politicians, for that matter? It's people like us who're going to suffer and it's up to us to think ahead."
I felt something change within me: how astonishing it was that I, an aging, bookish schoolmaster, should live to see this, an experiment, imagined not by those with learning and power, but by those without!
I was tempted to tell him what I thought of him, but it struck me with great force that I had no business to be self-righteous about these matters. Nilima—she had achieved a great deal. What had I done? What was the work of my life? I tried to find an answer but none would come to mind.
"Nirmal, you have no idea of what it takes to do anything practical," she said. "You live in a dream world—a haze of poetry and fuzzy ideas about revolution. To build something is not the same as dreaming it. Building is always a matter of well-chosen compromises."
The sight was almost unbearable for me at the moment; I felt myself torn between my wife and the woman who had become the muse I'd never had; between the quiet persistence of everyday change and the heady excitement of revolution—between prose and poetry.
Most haunting of all, was I overreaching myself even in conceiving of these confusions? What had I ever done to earn the right to address such questions?
"He loved the work of Rainer Maria Rilke […] Rilke said 'life is lived in transformation,' and I think Nirmal soaked this idea into himself in the way cloth absorbs ink. To him, what Kusum stood for was the embodiment of Rilke's idea of transformation."
"Yes," said Nilima. "Making us build it was probably the most important thing he did in his whole life. You can see the proof of that today. But if you'd told him that, he'd have laughed. He'd have said, 'It's just social service—not revolution.'"