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Devoured by the Hungry Tide of Language

sara.gladwin's picture

“It is as though the word itself were an island, born of the meeting of two great rivers of language…” (69)


“…the Bengali language was an angry flood…” (79)


“river of words” (83)


“…her words have come flooding back to me in a torrent.” (134)


I was most struck by metaphors such as those quoted above, which depict language as the tide. By paralleling the qualities of water with that of language, these metaphors function in several ways. The mutating tides invoke the fluidity of language; and it’s ability to harbor complexities, as the sea becomes home to many intertwining, complex, ecosystems. Badabon, the word loved by Nirmal for it’s cohesion of Arabic and Sanskrit languages, embodies these aspects of mutation and complexity. The metaphors portray the power that language has, which, like the rivers that braiding through the islands and tides reshaping the earth, can mold and recreate the world we live in. When Kanai returns to Lusibari, he is submerged in memories of the words of his uncle, words that shape his interactions with and understanding of the environment. At times, Ghosh lends a similar power of creation to particular words, such as “Lusibari” and “Mashima”- the only words that Piya can think to utter to Fokir. However, these are the only words that she needs, as it is enough to communicate her desire to get away from the guard. Like the cyclones and storms that render the tide country at times, inhabitable, words can also be a force of destruction. Fear of this destructive capability is evident in the refusal of tide country people to even speak the name “tiger”- as the very act of uttering the word is believed to call upon the living animal. Words so powerful that they are believed to perform actions merely by their enunciation. 

The tide is given further human likeness in Ghosh’s metaphors that depict it as a part of the body:

“limb of the sea”  “mouths of other rivers” “body of water” (31)

“shore curved like the inside of an arm” (95)

“rivers elbow” “kidney shaped basin” (124)


These connections between the tide and human qualities implicate language and the body as both a source of creation and destruction upon the land. Though my first leap was to view the consequences of human invention and interaction as becoming synonymous with the destruction of the environment… I recognized that the tide is considered “natural” and so human life and it’s influence in creation and destruction is also part of nature.


I’m still making sense of some of the connections above, and there are many pieces still floating on the peripheries of this post, not yet mentioned - such as the multilayered meaning of “hunger”; the relationship of hunger to the body; the juxtaposition of “hunger” as greed and “hunger” as starvation….


Jenna Myers's picture

Perception and Translation

I definitely agree with sara.gladwin about Ghosh's use of language and metaphors. As Jessica said Ghost describes everything beautifully and I can picture every scene. One of the scenes that I kept picturing was when Kanai was describing the Matla River and how it looks during low and high tide. I pictured "the women [hitching] up their saris and the men [rolling] up their lungis and trousers" and stepping off of the plant and sinking into the mud (21). I started thinking of the mud as quick sand and that the people were stuck in their old ways. I related it back to the earlier scene when Kanai was on the train and first saw Piya and thought how "he ought to tell her that there was a special compartment for women" (5). The way men treat women in India even today seems to be the same as the past. People are "stuck in the mud" and are refusing to change their ways. 

The other scene I was picturing was when Piya was showing the guard a picture of the Gangetic dolphin and "he asked if it was a bird" (29). For me I always think of language and translation and how meaning can be altered and perceived differently after it has been translated. I thought it was interesting that Ghosh showed how people with two different backgrounds could perceive things differently. It is somewhat similar to the hockey stick graph. To a scientist it makes sense and they can read it, whereas a person not in the sciences might see a line of trees within the graph.

aphorisnt's picture

I definitely got the same

I definitely got the same sense as Sara–Ghosh's syntax is just so visceral and intense and the words themselves are lent so much power not only through Ghosh's descrptions but also within the context of the novel itself (just the word "tiger" has enough power to summon the animal).

At the same time, though, I found it interesting that in a context where words hold so much power and meaning there also exists the interesting juxtaposition of Kanai, the translator and master of many languages, and Piya, the  purposefully monolingual scientist. Kanai brags about his mastery of words and how he "likes to think [his] ears are tuned to the nuances of spoken language" (9). Yet for all this understanding, Kanai seems to lack a basic understanding of the people and world around him from any position outside the cold, analytical judgement he levels against everyone he encounters. Piya, on the other hand, prefers English and only English as her language prefering "words with the heft of stainless steel, sounds that had been boiled clean...empty of pain and memory and inwardness" (78). Bengali especially invokes only childhood saddness and isolation, not to mention the sound of her parents arguing, leaving her averse to learning the words of even her own heritage. However, she and Fokir employ a wordless form of communication, speaking with body language and tone alone in a fashion that acknowledges the differences and gaps between them yet still builds a bridge of understanding. Words seem to work both both ways, connection and isolation.

sara.gladwin's picture

juxtaposition of silence and language

 it is interesting that you bring up the relationships between kanaii/piya and piya/fokir, as I definitely found that there was a juxtapositioning of silence and language being portrayed... however when I was first reading, I actually did not have the sense that piya and kanai were positioned entirely as opposites. In fact, in my initial notes, I wrote (a little forgiveness is necessary because this is taken directly from my spontoneous notes, therefore is jumbled/inarticulate):


"I’m still trying to figure out why these two characters- why Kanai and Piya? They are interesting because conventional literary tools seems to want them to be foils in my mind but their aren’t foils of one another… there isn’t necessarily a sense of “balance”- They are alike in many ways… in that they both have insider/outsider status; they are both educated; they are both observant/perceptive…"


Basically, as I was first reading, I was having the strangest sense that some dynamic was missing in the relationship between Kanaii and Piya... at first I related/attributed this sense to a conventional device used in literature- a "foil"- two characters whose personalities/identities/etc serve the purpose of highlighting the differences between them... but in Kanai and Piya's first encounter, although there are clear differences which set them apart, it is their similarities that seem to be forefronted. Which lead me to ask why Kanai and Piya? Where is this relationship going, how will these two characters push one another forward? Where is the balance in the text, the character whose identity diverges in a much more pronounced nature, so that the characters might be forced to rethink their existence? In fact, the first encounter between Piya and Kanai appears to have moments in which the characters are doing the exact opposite of re-thinking... as Piya "feigns admiration" to “mollify” Kanai’s irritation she also serves to boost his ego and consequently reassure his sense of self; in addition, their conversation is structured so that they are asserting/reconfirming particular aspects of their identities.

And then, we encountered Fokir. Through Fokir, it becomes clearer the ways that Piya diverges from Kanai as she relishes the silence; as much as it becomes clear that she is also still bound by language… despite a growing comfort with the silent friendship that is developing between her and Fokir, she is distinctly unable to trust this silence… Piya spends many moments fretting anxiously about what Fokir must be thinking- about whether or not he was impatient waiting for her to collect data; worrying about what he must be thinking during their silent encounters; not wanting to wake him in out of fear that he would be angered. In these moments, Piya cannot help but berate herself with questions- with language- ultimately disrupting the ease of silence itself. In her speculation, she also reveals some potentially “kanai-like” assumptions about her silent friend, such as how he must have never met his wife before marrying her; though this contradicts our knowledge as readers, who have been informed by a conversation between Kanai and Moyna that Fokir and Moyna had known each other before marriage. However, "reading" the silence in the interactions between Fokir and Piya, her anxieties seem incredibly unfounded, as he appears contented and unbothered in many of the situations where Piya (inwardly) expresses concern.


I agree that words seem to work in both ways- and that together, Kanai, Piya and Fokir seem to exist on a spectrum, going from heavily linguistic to almost completely wordless. Their differing relationships highlights the complicated and at times, seemingly contradictory aspects of power and uselessness in language/silence.

Kelsey's picture

Language and Silence

sara.gladwin, I really appreciate your thoughtful analysis of the use of language in this novel- it's really helped me to think about things in a way that I wasn't when I was engrossed in the plot.  I am especially interested by your point that "Kanai, Piya, and Fokir seem to exist on a spectrum, going from heavily linguistic to almost completely wordless."  The Hungry Tide is of course written in English, and Kanai and Piya- who both speak more than Fokir- are the ones who know English, while Fokir doesn't.  Fokir is also the one character of the three whose "mind" we are never given the chance to occupy- while Kanai and Piya have 3rd person sections from their POVs, Fokir doesn't.  But there are multiple indications throughout the text that Fokir can and does speak, even if he can't read and write- we are just not privy to those interactions.  Fokir isn't wordless, but the opportunity for his words- in his native language, in interactions with people who speak his language- to be heard, hasn't existed so far in the book.  So perhaps it could be said that the relationships between Kanai, Piya, and Fokir exist on a spectrum from heavily linguistic to almost wordless?  
In a way, it feels like Kanai and Piya are being positioned as the characters we can relate to, at least in some way, while Fokir is being portrayed as an other, an outsider.  Piya says (p. 132) that "there was the immeasurable distance that separated her from Fokir", and, if Piya is supposed to be the character we can relate to, then isn't there immeasurable distance separating us from Fokir as well?  But, of course, Piya also says on the same page, "speech was only a bag of tricks that fooled you into believing that you could see through the eyes of another being."  Maybe that's what The Hungry Tide is doing- fooling us.  Using speech, using the language of English that we as readers must know to read the text untranslated, to make us think that we can understand Kanai and Piya because we can understand their language (and that we can't understand Fokir because we can't understand his), and then abruptly reminding us that this isn't true.  Reminds me of our discussions about empathy, and I have to wonder what Amitav Ghosh would have to say about that.    

pbernal's picture

The amount of detail the

The amount of detail the author of The Hungry Tide writes makes me want to swallow into the scenes. I really like how vivid the descriptions are and I feel like I have to read it slower than usual to really impersonate the characters, especially Kanai. I really enjoy how Ghosh makes with the tides and the maps. He uses the nature's forces to depict turmoil and destruction and brings in the use of maps and directions in the scenes where ghosh wants to draw connections within the characters.