Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Reflections: The Hungry Tide

Marine biologist Piya travels to the Sundarbans to study the rare Irrawaddy dolphins. Through her research and friendships she learns about the history of the islands in the Sundarbans and the dangers and realities of the people living their fragile lives in a place that’s equally menacing as it is beautiful. With Nature’s sleight of hand, Piya is pulled into unique friendships and an everlasting bond with the people and the place in a way that realizes her true calling. In this engaging and extremely readable novel, Amitav Ghosh lays out the breathtaking landscape of the Sundarbans and walks the reader through its beautiful terrain and ugly patches of history. 

World Life Conservation has a self-righteous and virtuous ring to it. Everyone (almost, everyone) agrees with it and vehemently advocates it. Ghosh asks a very simple question through this book – would you believe in wildlife conservation to the same degree if your family, your livelihood, and your home were nonchalantly treated as being disposable, or rather, considered inevitable sacrifices in the light of protecting endangered animals in a beautiful landscape? Hundreds of thousands of people live in the Sundarbans. However, these people are mostly viewed as inconveniences, for they come in the way of protecting the tigers and many other exotic species. Even though people are routinely killed, and their livelihoods are routinely trampled on, the conservation project carries more priority than human existence. Something is not right – at least from the perspective of us humans thinking of human survival. That’s not to say that protecting animals in their natural habitat is not important. Conserving nature and wildlife is as important as treating fellow human beings with equal dignity. It doesn’t seem right to callously sacrifice certain human lives because they are considered expendable, and then call it the way of nature. Ghosh’s suggestion is for a more symbiotic, mutually beneficial, mutually helpful approach that aims at a mostly peaceful co-existence. This is surely the most obvious “answer” to a complicated situation, but unfortunately not as simple to execute. But it has to start somewhere. 

I have briefly wondered of these repercussions and conflict of interest between human survival and the survival of the eco-system, and it really just boils down to primarily safeguarding the survival of human-beings whilst being as responsible and sensitive as possible to other animals and the ecosystem. Human survival really trumps the card at a deadlock situation, for I am a human being and it's in me to want to protect my species.

So the crux of the book explores how and in what ways Wildlife and Nature Conservationism affects human lives. But Ghosh doesn’t take sides or push his agenda. He has characters to represent either sides of the argument, but the arguments are always subtly presented in the background. The book tells a seemingly simple story of love and loss without hard-hitting arguments or explicit social commentary strewn across the pages. Also, the unfolding story navigates the reader through real historical events, and questions the morality behind the occurrences

Since I love marine beings, I loved that the protagonist was researching on dolphins, that too on Irrawaddy dolphins, a species I hadn’t heard of before. It was fascinating to learn about these dolphins. Ghosh vividly recreates the Sundarbans and sensitively portrays the characters and their lives. The forest is portrayed with mysticism and reverence, as if it were a nurturing being of itself. While I was expecting Ghosh’s writing to be cerebral, pretentious, and convoluted, I was pleasantly surprised (and grateful) that it was simple, lucid, and extremely engaging. Although there were aspects of the book that I thought were too drawn out or uncharacteristically romantic or idealistic, I still enjoyed reading the book. And it was refreshing to read a story that teases out significant social themes without weighing down the reading experience with too many layers of complexity. 


Restive Mind said...

Hi, I have taken a lot of books you have reviewed here and have enjoyed a lot of them. So I came back here to drop a line about The Elephant Whisperer. In case you have not read it, you can consider the book, it is a lovely and moving book. However reading the review of The Hungry Tide I paused for a minute. I dont feel righteous but somehow I believe that it is ok to give priority to conservation of wildlife in a few areas, because as humans we can adjust to different surroundings, while an animal might not have that capacity due to its physical limitations and also because it probably cannot reason like we can. Even if my family lived in an area which is earmarked for a sanctuary, I will still feel the same way, for no development like factories and roads and dams can happen because there will always be some living in those areas who need to be moved out. And symbiotic relationship between human beings and endangered species is quite difficult, since we cannot really be sure that people allowed to live there have the welfare and protection of the animals in their mind. We have proved ourselves to be the most dangerous animal to have walked this planet :) Of course, I too dont believe that some families need to sacrifice in order for the animals to live, I think it is the government's and WWF's responsibilities to see that they are more than adequately compensated for having to shift out , with a guaranteed income and a comfortable place to live. This book is about how a bunch of elephants come, accustomed and live on a resort in South Africa. A few incidents described by the author also strengthens my belief that human interaction causes quite a bit of harm. In case you liked the storyline, I am sure you ll love the book!

Neeraja said...

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and recommending Elephant Whisperer. I'll be checking it out for sure!

I agree with you - man has proved to be the most dangerous and callous animal of all! And it's true that sometimes some of us humans have to compromise for the greater good. But, I do believe that the compromise has to be reasonable in some measure. As you point out, if the government or other conservation agencies don't regard the compromises as being worthy of consideration and compensation, then there's always a section of people that's oppressed and treated with no dignity. Such a situation cannot be justified through arguments on wildlife conservation. I think that's mainly the point of the book. The irony it brings out is that human lives are valued much less than an endangered animals'.

And yes, symbiotic relationship with certain kinds of animals is hard due to lack of knowledge and resources, and most importantly due to our survival instinct. But, with certain endangered animals (such as dolphins) that don't threaten human survival, it is possible to strike a win-win situation. This might also motivate and educate the people to respect and safeguard the animals, and find ways to co-habitate more peacefully.

This story is an example of it: