The Hungry Tide follows Piya, an American-Indian cetologist (a scientist who studies marine mammals) and Kanai, a Delhi-based translator, as they visit the Sundarbans, an archipelago of islands in the Bay of Bengal. Piya is there to study the endangered Orcaella river dolphin; Kanai is visiting his aunt, Nilima, for the first time in forty years after the unexpected discovery of a packet of what are thought to be writings left to him by his late uncle Nirmal. As Piya and Kanai immerse themselves in their respective pursuits and form relationships with the Sundarbans locals, they both grapple with issues of language and how to form understandings with people who speak an entirely different language (even if in Kanai's case, he also speaks Bengali). Through Piya and Kanai's experiences, the novel ultimately suggests that spoken and written language are insufficient means of communication, especially when compared to a shared visual or emotional language—in this case, the language of fear.
Piya—who speaks no Hindi or Bengali, but works in a remote part of India where few people speak English—must embrace the idea that she doesn't necessarily need a common spoken or written language in order to complete her work. She finds that visual cues are a far more effective means for communicating with others. Though Piya initially begins her work on a Forest Service boat, she abandons the Forest Service as soon as possible—even though she's able to communicate with the forest guard and the boat pilot reasonably well through gestures and mime, they show little interest in listening to her. This is an early example of how sharing a language of some sort doesn't mean that two people can actually communicate effectively. Rather, understanding other people requires respect and a genuine desire to connect—two things that the Forest Service officials clearly don't care about. When Fokir, a local fisherman who doesn't speak English, rescues Piya from the Forest Service, it soon becomes clear to her that she and Fokir don't need to share a language to communicate. She's able to communicate with Fokir using gestures, drawings, and her laminated flashcards with pictures of the dolphins she's looking for, and he's more than willing to help her achieve her research goals despite the language barrier. The flashcards in particular introduce the idea that sight is a communication method that's far more effective than written or spoken language, as it allows individuals to interpret a common sight in their own language.
Kanai undergoes the most notable transformation as he discovers the limits of spoken and written language. He finds that being able to speak six languages doesn't teach him what the locals insist is the real language of the Sundarbans: the emotional language of fear. Several locals, including Fokir, Nilima, and Horen, another fisherman, explain that, according to local wisdom, to even say the word tiger is to call the beast itself—essentially, they suggest that words have the power to create the same kind of visual reality that Piya begins to get at with her flashcards of the dolphins. However, when Kanai does come face to face with a tiger, he confronts a reality that's far more real and terrifying than anything words could ever conjure. He finds that language fails him—both spoken and in his head—and instead, the tiger (which he cannot name at all, even with a euphemism) becomes "an artifact of pure intuition, so real that the thing itself could not have dreamed of existing so intensely." With this experience, Kanai discovers that fear, much like language, is something that one learns, internalizes, and then uses to make sense of one's world.
The novel acknowledges that spoken and written language, while limited, certainly hold an important place in the world—after all, this is how the story is relayed to the reader, how Piya is able to achieve funding to continue her research project after the cyclone, and how Kanai is forced to understand Nirmal's final months of life through reading his notebook. However, the novel also suggests that visual language and emotional language (in this case, the language of fear) are more universal languages, as neither requires the spoken or written word to translate.
Language Quotes in The Hungry Tide
Piya was so startled that she looked at the picture again, with fresh eyes, wondering what he might be thinking of […] Like an optical illusion, the picture seemed to change shape as she looked at it; she had the feeling that she was looking at it through his eyes.
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 was not just that he had thought to create a space for her; it was if he had chosen to include her in some simple, practiced family ritual, found a way to let her know that despite the inescapable muteness of their exchanges, she was a person to him and not, as it were, a representative of a species, a faceless, tongueless foreigner.
How do you lose a word? Does it vanish into your memory like an old toy in a chest, and lie hidden in the cobwebs and dust, waiting to be cleaned out or rediscovered?
The two of them, Fokir and she, could have been boulders or trees 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 you could see through the eyes of another being.
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?
I realized with a sense of shock that this chimerical line was, to her and to Horen, as real as a barbed-wire fence might be to me.
"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."
"Because it was people like you," said Kanai, "who made a push to protect the wildlife here, without regard for the human costs. And I'm complicit because people like me […] have chosen to hide these costs, basically in order to curry favor with their Western patrons. It's not hard to ignore the people who're dying—after all, they are the poorest of the poor."
[…] He had become a token for a vision of human beings in which a man like Fokir counted for nothing, a man whose value was less than an animal. In seeing himself in this way, it seemed perfectly comprehensible to Kanai why Fokir should want him 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.
Wasn't this why people who lived in close proximity with tigers so often regarded them as being something more than just animals? Because the tiger was the only animal that forgave you for being so ill at ease in your translated world?
The words 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 artifact of pure intuition, so real that the thing itself could not have dreamed of existing so intensely.