This novelistic portrait of the Sundarbans, the massive swamp delta and mangrove forest at the mouth the Ganges on the border of India and Bangladesh, overflows with riches, including a smartly-handled love triangle that involves an American grad student doing field work on river dolphins, a fisherman with whom she shares no common language, and an urbane, egotistical translator who is also a descendent of the idealistic Indian couple who built the only hospital in the area. Plus a wonderful political back-plot of exploitation and eco-politics, a through-line about translation of Rilke, some gorgeous descriptive writing, and perhaps the best storm scene I’ve come across in 21c English prose.
No reason not to start with the storm. It arrives as a plot-mechanism and in due course clears the overcrowded decks of the love plot. But part of the appeal of this novel is to employ traditional devices — poetic allegory? symbolic animals? a brutal land-grab? — in ways that don’t have to be novel to be moving. When our triad gets separated by the storm, with the wordly translator wading ashore in Lusibari and losing an important manuscript in the flood, while the dolphin-researcher and the fisherman cling to the top of a tree during the two phases of the cyclone — first before, then after, the stillness of the eye — it’s impossible not to be transfixed by sheer narrative force, a whirlwind in itself. What happens simply must happen, or so the narrative makes us believe in the middle of the storm —
But something had changed and it took Piya a moment to register the difference. The wind was now coming at them from the opposite direction. Where she had had the tree trunk to shelter her before, now there was only Fokir’s body. Was this why he had been looking for a branch on another tree? Had he known right from the start that his own body would have to become her shield when the eye had passed?…She could feel the bones of his cheeks as if they had been superimposed on her own; it was as if the storm had given them what life could not; it had fused them together and made them one. (321)
There are other great touches here, including a wonderful description of a grad student finding a life’s project in obscure but meaningful research — “it would be enough; as an alibi for a life, it would do” (106) — plus a great poetic image of the tide country as a book whose pages dissolve everything they encounter, including themselves (186).
An interesting eco-twist on the political plot also: poor refugees are displaced and eventually massacre because the area on which they are squatting must be preserved as a wildlife refuge. Which leads to some interesting speculation about political, if not biological, differences between humans and animals —
As I thought of these things, it seemed to me that this whole world had become a place of animals, and our fault, our crime, was that we were just human beings, trying to live as human beings always have, from the water and the soil. No one could think this a crime unless they have forgotten that this is how humans have always lived — by fishing, clearing land, and by planting to soil. (217)
Plus I have always loved river dolphins, ever since I caught the barest glimpse of one on the Mahakahm River in Borneo, when I was sitting on top of a river ferry in early 1990. Ghosh, oddly, does not mention that the Orcaella brevirostris also lives in Indonesia.