Sample text for The hungry tide / Amitav Ghosh.


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THE TIDE COUNTRY

Kanai spotted her the moment he stepped onto the crowded platform: he was
deceived neither by her close-cropped black hair nor by her clothes, which
were those of a teenage boy -- loose cotton pants and an oversized white
shirt. Winding unerringly through the snack vendors and tea sellers who were
hawking their wares on the station"s platform, his eyes settled on her slim,
shapely figure. Her face was long and narrow, with an elegance of line
markedly at odds with the severity of her haircut. There was no bindi on her
forehead and her arms were free of bangles and bracelets, but on one of her
ears was a silver stud, glinting brightly against the sun-deepened darkness of
her skin.
Kanai liked to think that he had the true connoisseur"s ability to
both praise and appraise women, and he was intrigued by the way she held
herself, by the unaccustomed delineation of her stance. It occurred to him
suddenly that perhaps, despite her silver ear stud and the tint of her skin, she
was not Indian, except by descent. And the moment the thought occurred to
him, he was convinced of it: she was a foreigner; it was stamped in her
posture, in the way she stood, balancing on her heels like a flyweight boxer,
with her feet planted apart. Among a crowd of college girls on Kolkata"s Park
Street she might not have looked entirely out of place, but here, against the
sooty backdrop of the commuter station at Dhakuria, the neatly composed
androgyny of her appearance seemed out of place, almost exotic.
Why would a foreigner, a young woman, be standing in a south
Kolkata commuter station, waiting for the train to Canning? It was true, of
course, that this line was the only rail connection to the Sundarbans. But so
far as he knew it was never used by tourists -- the few who traveled in that
direction usually went by boat, hiring steamers or launches on Kolkata"s
riverfront. The train was mainly used by people who did daily-passengeri,
coming in from outlying villages to work in the city.
He saw her turning to ask something of a bystander and was
seized by an urge to listen in. Language was both his livelihood and his
addiction, and he was often preyed upon by a near-irresistible compulsion to
eavesdrop on conversations in public places. Pushing his way through the
crowd, he arrived within earshot just in time to hear her finish a sentence that
ended with the words "train to Canning?" One of the onlookers began to
explain, gesticulating with an upraised arm. But the explanation was in
Bengali and it was lost on her. She stopped the man with a raised hand and
said, in apology, that she knew no Bengali: "Ami Bangla jani na." He could
tell from the awkwardness of her pronunciation that this was literally true: like
strangers everywhere, she had learned just enough of the language to be able
to provide due warning of her incomprehension.
Kanai was the one other "outsider" on the platform and he quickly
attracted his own share of attention. He was of medium height and at the age
of forty-two his hair, which was still thick, had begun to show a few streaks of
gray at the temples. In the tilt of his head, as in the width of his stance, there
was a quiet certainty, an indication of a well-grounded belief in his ability to
prevail in most circumstances. Although his face was otherwise unlined, his
eyes had fine wrinkles fanning out from their edges -- but these grooves, by
heightening the mobility of his face, emphasized more his youth than his
age. Although he was once slight of build, his waist had thickened over the
years but he still carried himself lightly, and with an alertness bred of the
traveler"s instinct for inhabiting the moment.
It so happened that Kanai was carrying a wheeled airline bag with
a telescoping handle. To the vendors and traveling salesmen who plied their
wares on the Canning line, this piece of luggage was just one of the many
details of Kanai"s appearance -- along with his sunglasses, corduroy
trousers and suede shoes -- that suggested middle-aged prosperity and
metropolitan affluence. As a result he was besieged by hawkers, urchins and
bands of youths who were raising funds for a varied assortment of causes: it
was only when the green and yellow electric train finally pulled in that he was
able to shake off this importuning entourage.
While climbing in, he noticed that the foreign girl was not without
some experience in travel: she hefted her two huge backpacks herself,
brushing aside the half-dozen porters who were hovering around her. There
was a strength in her limbs that belied her diminutive size and wispy build;
she swung the backpacks into the compartment with practiced ease and
pushed her way through a crowd of milling passengers. Briefly he wondered
whether he ought to tell her that there was a special compartment for women.
But she was swept inside and he lost sight of her.
Then the whistle blew and Kanai breasted the crowd himself. On
stepping in he glimpsed a seat and quickly lowered himself into it. He had
been planning to do some reading on this trip and in trying to get his papers
out of his suitcase it struck him that the seat he had found was not
altogether satisfactory. There was not enough light to read by and to his right
there was a woman with a wailing baby: he knew it would be hard to
concentrate if he had to fend off a pair of tiny flying fists. It occurred to him,
on reflection, that the seat on his left was preferable to his own, being right
beside the window -- the only problem was that it was occupied by a man
immersed in a Bengali newspaper. Kanai took a moment to size up the
newspaper reader and saw that he was an elderly and somewhat subdued-
looking person, someone who might well be open to a bit of persuasion.
"Are; moshai, can I just say a word?" Kanai smiled as he bore
down on his neighbor with the full force of his persuasiveness. "If it isn"t all
that important to you, would you mind changing places with me? I have a lot
of work to do and the light is better by the window."
The newspaper reader goggled in astonishment and for a moment
it seemed he might even protest or resist. But on taking in Kanai"s clothes
and all the other details of his appearance, he underwent a change of mind:
this was clearly someone with a long reach, someone who might be on
familiar terms with policemen, politicians and others of importance. Why
court trouble? He gave in gracefully and made way for Kanai to sit beside the
window.
Kanai was pleased to have achieved his end without a fuss.
Nodding his thanks to the newspaper reader, he resolved to buy him a cup of
tea when a cha"ala next appeared at the window. Then he reached into the
outer flap of his suitcase and pulled out a few sheets of paper covered in
closely written Bengali script. He smoothed the pages over his knees and
began to read.
In our legends it is said that the goddess Ganga"s descent from
the heavens would have split the earth had Lord Shiva not tamed her torrent
by tying it into his ash-smeared locks. To hear this story is to see the river in
a certain way: as a heavenly braid, for instance, an immense rope of water,
unfurling through a wide and thirsty plain. That there is a further twist to the
tale becomes apparent only in the final stages of the river"s journey -- and
this part of the story always comes as a surprise, because it is never told
and thus never imagined. It is this: there is a point at which the braid comes
undone; where Lord Shiva"s matted hair is washed apart into a vast, knotted
tangle. Once past that point the river throws off its bindings and separates
into hundreds, maybe thousands, of tangled strands.
Until you behold it for yourself, it is almost impossible to believe
that here, interposed between the sea and the plains of Bengal, lies an
immense archipelago of islands. But that is what it is: an archipelago,
stretching for almost two hundred miles, from the Hooghly River in West
Bengal to the shores of the Meghna in Bangladesh.
The islands are the trailing threads of India"s fabric, the ragged
fringe of her sari, the ãchol that follows her, half wetted by the sea. They
number in the thousands, these islands. Some are immense and some no
larger than sandbars; some have lasted through recorded history while others
were washed into being just a year or two ago. These islands are the rivers"
restitution, the offerings through which they return to the earth what they have
taken from it, but in such a form as to assert their permanent dominion over
their gift. The rivers" channels are spread across the land like a fine-mesh
net, creating a terrain where the boundaries between land and water are
always mutating, always unpredictable. Some of these channels are mighty
waterways, so wide across that one shore is invisible from the other; others
are no more than two or three miles long and only a thousand feet across.
Yet each of these channels is a river in its own right, each possessed of its
own strangely evocative name. When these channels meet, it is often in
clusters of four, five or even six: at these confluences, the water stretches to
the far edges of the landscape and the forest dwindles into a distant rumor of
land, echoing back from the horizon. In the language of the place, such a
confluence is spoken of as a mohona -- an oddly seductive word, wrapped in
many layers of beguilement.
There are no borders here to divide fresh water from salt, river from
sea. The tides reach as far as two hundred miles inland and every day
thousands of acres of forest disappear underwater, only to reemerge hours
later. The currents are so powerful as to reshape the islands almost daily --
some days the water tears away entire promontories and peninsulas; at other
times it throws up new shelves and sandbanks where there were none before.
When the tides create new land, overnight mangroves begin to
gestate, and if the conditions are right they can spread so fast as to cover a
new island within a few short years. A mangrove forest is a universe unto
itself, utterly unlike other woodlands or jungles. There are no towering, vine-
looped trees, no ferns, no wildflowers, no chattering monkeys or cockatoos.
Mangrove leaves are tough and leathery, the branches gnarled and the foliage
often impassably dense. Visibility is short and the air still and fetid. At no
moment can human beings have any doubt of the terrain"s hostility to their
presence, of its cunning and resourcefulness, of its determination to destroy
or expel them. Every year, dozens of people perish in the embrace of that
dense foliage, killed by tigers, snakes and crocodiles.
There is no prettiness here to invite the stranger in: yet to the
world at large this archipelago is known as the Sundarbans, which
means "the beautiful forest." There are some who believe the word to be
derived from the name of a common species of mangrove -- the sundari tree,
Heriteria minor.

But the word"s origin is no easier to account for than is its present
prevalence, for in the record books of the Mughal emperors this region is
named not in reference to a tree but to a tide -- bhati. And to the inhabitants
of the islands this land is known as bhatir desh -- the tide country -- except
that bhati is not just the "tide" but one tide in particular, the ebb tide, the
bhata. This is a land half submerged at high tide: it is only in falling that the
water gives birth to the forest. To look upon this strange parturition, midwifed
by the moon, is to know why the name "tide country" is not just right but
necessary. For as with Rilke"s catkins hanging from the hazel and the spring
rain upon the dark earth, when we behold the lowering tide

we, who have always thought of joy
as rising . . . feel the emotion
that almost amazes us
when a happy thing falls.


Copyright © 2005 by Amitav Ghosh. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Americans -- Sundarbans (Bangladesh and India) -- Fiction.
Ecological disturbances -- Fiction.
Women scientists -- Fiction.
Human ecology -- Fiction.
Rural poor -- Fiction.
Dolphins -- Fiction.
Tides -- Fiction.