Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Retelling Nature: Realism and the Postcolonial-Environmental Imaginary in Amitav Ghosh's the Hungry Tide

Academic journal article Transnational Literature

Retelling Nature: Realism and the Postcolonial-Environmental Imaginary in Amitav Ghosh's the Hungry Tide

Article excerpt

Since its publication in 2005, The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh has been the privileged vantage point that has defined the intersection of the large fields of postcolonial studies and ecocriticism.1 Its thematic concerns - such as the interplay of land use, academic scientific enterprise, the long history of colonial settlement, state policies of environmental conservation, migration and refugee settlement, the overlapping of religious and state boundaries of Hindus and Muslims, subaltern and indigenous populations - have made it the originary text for scholars to work through key debates and 'mutually constituted silences'2 between the two influential fields of postcolonialism and ecocriticism.3

As Upamanyu Pablo Mukherjee puts it, this novel 'tells the tale of belonging through a meditation on the issues of language, representation and mimetic techniques that can be read as a meta-textual commentary on the form of his postcolonial novel itself.'4 Where this current essay seeks to be different from the existent large scholarly corpus on The Hungry Tide is through shifting from a theoretical accounting of the novel, to a more internal aesthetically attuned reading. The elements of this essay negotiate the questions of how the complexity of such a rich historical situation can only be captured by a complex amalgam of realism, narrative, historical fiction, myth, intertextuality, and linguistic texture.5 The essay thus moves beyond suggesting that there is a simple representation of a range of multiple voices (the traditional social realist mode of representing everything from the metropole to the forest), to recognising that this representation of multiplicity will never be able to entirely overcome hierarchy. The Hungry Tide succeeds to the extent that it can represent, within the mode of a stretched social realism, both multiplicity and hierarchy. The many competing micro-narratives in the novel resist universalisation into the modes of either the 'global-scientific', or the generic 'regionalsubaltern'. I argue that it is the representation of this range of competing aesthetic and narrative registers that form the key political point of the novel - that the multiplicity of subaltern narratives are neither reducible to each other (the interest of the refugee is not the interest of the fisherwoman), nor can they be meaningfully universalised against a global, singular Other (be it of capitalism, or science, or the State).

Nature as the Absence of History?

Amitav Ghosh has often voiced his discomfort with the term 'postcolonial', calling it an essentially negative one and preferring to replace the word 'postcolony' with 'place', and discusses how typically a terrain gets defined as 'nature' and thus 'the absence of history'.6 But where the place is burdened by colonial history, the negotiation between the two can be a slippery one. Set in the Sunderbans, The Hungry Tide explores one such compelling cusp of place and history. The Sunderbans, a tropical moist forest ecoregion located in the eastern fringes of India and extending into Bangladesh, which literally translates into 'beautiful forest', is an archipelago that hosts the largest estuarine mangrove forest in the world, a unique ecosystem of tidal waterways and islands that is home to a wide variety of plant and animal species, including a large population of tigers. Listed on UNESCO's World Heritage Sites and declared a Biosphere Reserve for its exceptional biodiversity, the Sunderbans is also a fascinating geohistorical location, a landscape steeped in a plurality of narratives that encompass collective memory, oral traditions, mythologies, colonial legacies, scientific ventures, nationalist politics and environmental concerns.7

Situated in this vortex of nature, history and imagination are the protagonists of The Hungry Tide, characters from disparate worlds gravitating to each other: an American scientist, an urban Indian translator and entrepreneur, and a local fisherman, each having to contend with issues of identity and the forces of nature within the confines of this place. …

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