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Translating the World: Cloth, Communication, Survival

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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. (Ghosh 6)

The sari, an integral part of Indian culture, features prominently in Amitav Ghosh’s story of the Sundarbans, The Hungry Tide. In the quote above, Ghosh uses traditional Indian garments as a metaphor to talk about the shape and geography of the tide country, but the role of such textiles and of clothing in general plays many other substantial roles throughout the course of the story. As humans, we tend to take clothing for granted and forget the space it takes up in our life. Clothing is one of the major factors that distinguish humans from animals, and in many cases we use it to protect ourselves against the elements, against nature. In a book that holds so much commentary and insight about the debate of humans vs. nature (humanism/environmentalism), Ghosh gives many examples of the importance of clothing for human connection, communication, and survival.

The Hungry Tide is full of descriptions of the clothing and dress of different characters, more so than many other novels. By drawing the reader’s attention to what people are wearing, Ghosh demonstrates the use of clothing in communicating status, socioeconomic and otherwise. Kanai’s “sunglasses, corduroy trousers and suede shoes” suggest “middle-aged prosperity and metropolitan affluence” (Ghosh 4) and the man on the train gives up his seat to him after “taking in Kanai’s clothes and all the other details of his appearance.” (Gosh 5) Piya, too, is read based on her dress. Though she is visibly of Indian heritage, Kanai knows immediately that she is a foreigner, in large part because her clothes are “those of a teenage boy: loose cotton pants and an oversized white shirt” (Ghosh 3). Similarly, the Forest Service guard and the hired boat owner are very aware of the unusual mix of the familiar and the foreign, seeing it as a clear indication of her naiveté and unfamiliarity with the culture of the Sundarbans and treating her with little respect.

Clothing has long been a common indicator of culture and socioeconomic class, but The Hungry Tide illustrates other ways in which clothing communicates more than words can. Due to the language barrier, Piya is unable to communicate with most other characters in the book, including Fokir, but they connect on a different level. When they first meet, he is wearing only a loin cloth, but when he realizes Piya is a woman, he quickly covers the rest of his body. “There was a consideration in this gesture, an acknowledgement of her presence, that touched her: it seemed like the first normal human contact she had had since stepping on the launch.” (Ghosh 47) Then, when Piya is aboard Fokir’s boat, he uses a sari to create a private space for her to change out of her wet clothes. “It was as if he had chosen to include her in some simple, practised family ritual, found a way to let her know that despite the inescapable muteness of their exchanges, she was a person to him and not…a faceless, tongueless foreigner.” Using the language of modesty and the modification of traditional garments, Fokir communicates to Piya his respect for her, and this is one of the ways they find of understanding each other without a common language.

There is an implication here that clothing has the potential to serve as some sort of translator. Clare Mullaney writes about her work interrogating this function of clothing and textile:

I’ve been invested in probing the gap between fabric and flesh, cloth and body, and I wonder… what possibilities exist in this empty space…. You want a garment (typically) that doesn't bear gaps -- a piece of cloth where the thread is tightly wound, the woven threads cohesive…  The gap is where things are lost -- where words can't be spoken, where coherency fails, where access is undone.  But what presences exist within these absences? (Mullaney, n. pag.)

There is a definite gap between Piya and Fokir, and while certainly some things are lost, they use cloth to reduce the gap, and in fact they come to very different understandings of each other than they might if that gap were all together removed. As Mullaney says, “fabrics commune with us in ways different than conventional modes of communication.”(Mullaney n. pag.) We see this again when Nilima learns of the custom of wives in the tide country to change into white widow’s saris when their husbands go on fishing trips because of the high death rate in the Sundarbans and the assumption that women will be widowed by their thirties. “This assumption was woven, like a skein of dark wool, into the fabric of their lives… It was as though they were trying to hold misfortune at bay by living through it over and over again. Or was it merely a way of preparing themselves for that which they knew to be inevitable?” (Ghosh 80) This use of symbolic clothing by the women of the tide country makes evident a fact of life in a way that is far more bold and arresting than words could possibly convey.

This cultural practice has a prominent visual effect:

At the wells… there often seemed to be no one who was not a widow… there was an enormity in these acts that appalled Nilima. She knew that for her mother, her sisters, her friends, the deliberate shedding of these symbols of marriage would have been unthinkable, equivalent to wishing death upon their husbands…but for these women the imagining of early widowhood was not a wasted effort…almost without exception the fate they had prepared themselves for did indeed befall them. (Ghosh 80)

Here too, clothing proves to be capable of “conveying affects/emotions inexpressible thoughts through words….” (Mullaney n. pag.) The women of the Sundarbans are speaking through their dress, and at the same time they use it as a survival mechanism, a coping strategy for the intense fear and sadness they face daily. Furthermore, this stark imagery is the impetus of Nilima’s founding of the Badabon Trust which is responsible for the livelihood of most if not all residents of Lusibari.

These purposes of translation and communication are essential, and in some cases the particular way clothing is used even leads indirectly to survival and well-being. Yet in this story, these traditional Indian garments serve an even more directly and physically vital purpose. On three different occasions, characters save their lives in the midst of a severe storm or cyclone by tying themselves to trees using either a gamchha or a sari. Kusum tells the account of how her father was caught in a terrible storm and he survived by tying himself to a tall tree on Garjontola Island. Horen recounts how he and his uncle did the same (though on a different island) during the Agunmukha cyclone. And finally, we experience Fokir and Piya’s treacherous experience in the present day cyclone, during which they use a sari to tie themselves to a mangrove on Garjontola Island. In the last case Piya owes her life not only to the sari, which anchors them to the tree, but also to Fokir, who holds her in place when her own strength fails and whose own body shields her from flying objects, one of which causes his death. And then, even when he dies and the storm is over, Piya uses the sari to secure Fokir to the tree, ensuring that his body won’t be eaten by animals.

The sari and the gamchha are both very culturally significant garments, used and worn daily by many Bengali people and by those of the tide country. The gamchha is a checkered towel-like cloth, worn by men (particularly men of working-lower class) as a turban or scarf or sometimes just draped over the shoulder. It is often used as a towel to dry off after bathing or to wipe sweat while working (“Gamcha” Web). On seeing Fokir’s gamchha, Piya recalls that her father had one tied to the doorknob of his wardrobe, growing older and more raggedy. He would not let Piya throw it away. “It had been with him for many years, he said, it was almost a part of his body, like his hair or his nail clippings; his luck was woven into it; he could not think of parting with it…” (Ghosh 87) His gamchha ties him to his homeland just as it tied the others to the safety of land (vis-à-vis the trees). While it helps some survive the storm, it helps Piya’s father survive in America, so far from home. And even though his survival appears less physical or critical, it serves as a commentary of the overall importance of this particular garment to men of this culture.

The gamchha also appears in the story of Kusum’s father’s death, who happened to lose his gamchha on a trip shortly before being killed by a tiger. Piya’s father attributes luck to the gamchha, and then Kusum says “the only untoward thing [her father] had to report was that he had lost his gamchha.” (Ghosh 107) If we consider that untoward and unlucky are commonly synonymous, it could be inferred that the loss of the cloth was a foreshadowing of an unlucky occurrence, and that the gamchha left him unprotected from the tiger when it had previously saved him from a storm. Perhaps this is too big of a leap, but the people of the tide country place a lot of stock in superstition and spirituality so at the very least it matters to them. In a land where death waits around every corner, it makes sense that humans would look for any kind of protection they had access to.

In reference to the constant danger of the environment that includes man-eating tigers and island-swallowing cyclones, Nirmal quotes the poet Rilke, saying that “the animals ‘already know by instinct/we’re not comfortably at home/in our translated world’.” (Ghosh 206) Especially in the Sundarbans, humans must translate the world in order to survive. That is, we must build structures, kill off plants and animals, use electricity, on and on. Clothing is one of the ways we translate the world; it protects us from cold, rain, and sun. And in The Hungry Tide, we see the potential of garments to save lives even in the most dangerous situations. The use of a gamchha or a sari to anchor oneself to a tree is another form of translating the world, modifying the reality of a deathly storm to make it less deathly. Therefore, I argue that clothing has a profound capacity to translate, not only ideas or messages between people but also perhaps to translate the world, to make it more livable for humans. The real question, then, is whether or not that is a good thing, bringing us right back to the humanist vs. environmentalist debate: humans or nature? Who deserves to live?



Works Cited


"Gamchha." N.p., n.d. Web. 9 May 2014. <>.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.

"Sari." N.p., n.d. Web. 9 May 2014. <>.