The Hungry Tide takes place in the Sundarbans, the archipelago of islands that forms the Ganges Delta. The islands of the Sundarbans vary in size from tiny spits of land to landmasses of considerable size, though they're constantly made and remade by the ever-changing tides and regularly occurring cyclones. The islands and rivers are covered in mangrove forests that shelter man-eating crocodiles, snakes, and Bengal tigers, all of which constantly threaten the lives of the Sundarbans' residents. The novel suggests that while outside or human conflicts certainly affect life in the Sundarbans, the struggle to survive in a natural world that seems entirely inhospitable to humans is a far more pressing concern.
For the people who call the Sundarbans their home, the natural world is an essential, respected, and revered part of life. Kusum, a young woman who left the Sundarbans as a teen and returns to the island of Morichjhãpi with Fokir, her son, travels with Bangladeshi refugees who talk about the Sundarbans. Many of these refugees were originally from the Sundarbans and were forcibly removed after the partition of India in 1947, but they affirm that the mud of the Sundarbans still flows through their veins—a sentiment she shares. This shows that for Kusum, Fokir, and Horen, the specific environment of the Sundarbans is as much a part of them as their language, religious beliefs, or indeed, their human biology. This offers some reasoning for shocked outsiders like Piya and Nirmal as to why people want to live there in the first place—the locals see themselves as intrinsically part of nature.
Despite the locals' deep connections to the land and the environment, it's also important to recognize that the residents of the Sundarbans still live in fear of their environment. Upon her arrival on Lusibari in 1950, Nilima is shocked when she learns that wives dress as widows when their husbands go out fishing or to gather honey—at least one woman is guaranteed to be widowed after every outing, given the aggressive and dangerous crocodiles and tigers that attack and kill humans with tragic regularity. To address this, locals rely heavily on the story of the goddess Bon Bibi, whom they believe watches over the islands. According to legend, she long ago drew a line through the islands to separate her "good" realm from the "evil" realm of a tiger demon, Dokkhin Rai, who had an insatiable desire for human flesh. When a greedy captain made a deal with Dokkhin-Rai that promised the demon a boy, Dukhey, in exchange for an island's natural resources, Dukhey called on Bon Bibi to save him from the tiger's jaws—and she did. Because of this, shrines to Bon Bibi pepper the Sundarbans, and locals regularly pray and leave offerings at the shrines. They believe that people who are good at heart can't be harmed (at least by tigers) in places where Bon Bibi is present. Indeed, during the novel's two sightings on an island where a shrine is present, nothing happens. This is especially telling given the local wisdom that if a person sees a tiger, they're already as good as dead and certainly won't live to tell the tale.
Although the prevalence and the apparent power of the Bon Bibi legend certainly offers the illusion that humans are able to gain the upper hand in the fight against nature, the local characters repeatedly affirm (and even demonstrate with their lives) that they live at the mercy of the natural world, which seems overwhelmingly indifferent to human life. Despite several efforts to curb tiger attacks, local women in the present (the early 2000s) still expect to be widowed in their twenties. Likewise, when cyclones roll through, they destroy boats, kill livestock and people, and submerge entire islands. The novel even offers the historical anecdote of Henry Piddington, the Englishman who coined the term "cyclone," as a cautionary tale to not underestimate the power of the storms—he correctly predicted that a cyclone would lay the carefully planned port city of Canning flat within fifteen years of its construction. In illustrating both the beauty of the Sundarbans and the region's danger, violence, and indifference to human life, The Hungry Tide suggests that all humans can do is to hope, pray, and live with respect and reverence for a place that can kill them as easily as it can provide the resources for human life to thrive.
Man vs. Nature ThemeTracker
Man vs. Nature Quotes in The Hungry Tide
"It is common knowledge that almost every island in the tide country has been inhabited at some time or another. But to look at them you would never know: the specialty of mangroves is that they do not merely recolonize land; they erase time. Every generation creates its own population of ghosts."
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.
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."
"My friend, not only could it happen again—it will happen again. A storm will come, the waters will rise, and the bãdh will succumb, in part or in whole. It is only a matter of time."
"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."
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.
"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."
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?
"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.'"