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A Wendy Doniger Reading of The Hungry Tide

Celeste Ledesma's picture

A Wendy Doniger Reading of The Hungry Tide

Growing up, I was raised in a Catholic family and attended Catholic elementary and high schools. Practically every year during Lent we as children were encouraged by family, teachers, and the Church to make personal sacrifices in preparation for the death and Resurrection of Christ. One Lenten season while I was in high school, I decided to give up eating meat, with the exception of fish. In retrospect, I can say that I had differing yet overlapping motives for wanting to abstain from eating meat for the duration of Lent. In relation to my Catholic practices of the time, I thought that the sacrifice would be a spiritually enriching experience. One of the ways in which I aimed to maintain the spiritual integrity of this Lenten goal was by not telling anyone, other than my parents, that I was not eating meat because I liked to think I was not doing it for the attention or the praise. However, I had a selfish motive as well, which was to do it just for the sake of understanding vegetarianism and pescetarianism. I wanted to reach the point where I didn’t crave meat anymore. I thought I would feel fulfilled, even relieved, to not want something that I had been socialized to think I need and should want.

This reflection on my own experience with the interplay of vegetarianism and spirituality brings to mind Wendy Doniger’s commentary on J.M. Coetzee’s The Lives of Animals. In her reflection of the theme of the text, animal rights and vegetarianism, Doniger addresses the relationship between religion and both the preservation and sacrifice of animal lives. Although it is already evident what Doniger has to say about The Lives of Animals, I think that reading Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide through the lens that Doniger has established could effectively address the question that I have posed to myself when taking into account the overlapping reasons why I decided to give up eating meat for Lent: how do humans go about seeking spiritual and even social validity in the way that we treat animals?

In Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, the elusive tiger is representative of a number of characteristics reflected in the people who share the space of this story with these creatures. In reaction to a tiger’s presence, or the remnants of such, there is the potential that one may exhibit fear, pride, or curiosity. In many ways, the knowledge of a tiger’s presence instills similar reactions as those instilled by the socialized belief in a deity or higher power. From Doniger’s perspective, the role of the tiger can be considered the spiritual focus of this text.

In The Hungry Tide, when Kanai and Fokir steer their boat along the shore of Garjontola and find what Fokir believes to be tiger tracks, although Kanai has his doubts, they set foot on land to explore. However, little is accomplished after a conflict between the two provokes Fokir to take off on the boat, leaving Kanai to fend for himself in the mud he’s fallen in. Kanai is alone and begins to wonder about the instant death that the tiger allows a human. He thinks to himself, “There was undeniably a quality of mercy to this… Wasn’t this why people who lived in close proximity with tigers so often regarded them as being something more than just animals? Because the tiger was the only animal that forgave you for being so ill at ease in your translated world? (Ghosh 271). At this point, the tiger is not seen as a hungry, unknowing beast, but is given characteristics that exceed those typically applied to animals. It is suggested that the tiger can be merciful and forgiving. These characteristically human traits thus suggest a likeness to humans, which is an idea that relates to Doniger’s concept of “Compassion for Animals as Nonother.” Doniger states that, “The belief that animals are like us in some essential way is the source of the enduring and widespread myth of a magic time or place that erases the boundary between humans and animals” (Coetzee 100). The reason that Doniger stresses that this belief is a “widespread myth” is because it is maintained by the human-centric idea that we deserve to experience peace between us and animals. In the reading of the aforementioned scene of The Hungry Tide, it is reasonable to think that the tiger kills a human in an instant in order to show mercy and forgiveness of the human’s nature of being. However, by applying this interpretation, it becomes evident that the human wants to find the value in their own death by the tiger. One wants to know that they have lost their life honorably; and of course, honor is yet another human characteristic.

We have taken the above example from The Hungry Tide into account from a very human-centric perspective. However human-centric it may be, though, there is a spiritual nature to this belief that is also worth some attention. In her essay, Doniger goes on to discuss the essence of an animal that is wholly unattainable by humans. In her closing statement, she says, “It is language, not food, that ultimately separates us from the animals, even in myths. Only by speaking their language will we really be able to know how we would think and feel if we were fish or horses” (105). Of course, we as humans can never be animals in this respect, which can thus be why we are inclined to sympathize with and advocate for them. We cannot truly know what the tiger that may be looking upon Kanai is thinking. It could have its mind set on staving its hunger or it could be overwhelmed by fear of an intruder; either instance, for a tiger, is a given reason to kill. Because one can never know, it is practical, even demonstrative of higher moral integrity, for one to respect the nature of such beasts and come to understand that humans should lead their lives in accordance the these tendencies in nature. The morality of the situation is where the spiritual aspect comes into play. It thus becomes the moral obligation of humans to protect animals.

Although we as humans may be inclined to show compassion for the lives of animals, Doniger does address the human reasoning for sacrificing them as well. She discusses different cultures’ and religions’ beliefs concerning myths and deities that justify the peoples’ killing of animals. In relation to The Hungry Tide, it is not considered immoral to kill a tiger if the human thinks it is necessary. Rather, it’s an action that is deemed honorable when the tiger proves to be a nuisance in daily human life. Evidently, respect for the tiger can also coincide with the instinctive need to satisfy the human desire for life and fulfillment.

With that, I am brought back to the initial question I posed concerning the relationship between humans and the treatment of animals. From Wendy Doniger’s perspective there is generally a human-centric drive that describes the relationship between us and animals, between Kanai and the tiger, for example. Even still, people will continue to make claims that either vegetarianism or animal sacrifices are for the sake of spiritual power greater than humans. Ultimately, though, goal is salvation and/or acknowledgment on the part of the human.


Anne Dalke's picture

Last month, you designed a course about the ecological perceptions of Latin American migrant workers, exploring a point of view distinct from that which dominates most environmental studies programs and courses. This month, you are also playing with p.o.v, applying the thinking of a critic who appears in The Lives of Animals to read another novel, The Hungry Tide.

I’d like you to slow down a little bit in this process; you move directly from your own story about Lenten vegetarianism to reading Ghosh’s novel; we (and certainly any web reader lighting on this text) need a paragraph or two inbetween summing up what Doniger says in Coetzee’s text—what is her general orientation, what her main-and-specific points?--before we can move on to see how applicable these ideas are to the second text.

That said, your perception that Doniger would recognize in the tiger “the spiritual focus of this text” seems to me apt; so too, does your calling forth Kanai’s recognition of the “mercy” inherent in quick death-by-tiger. (I’d like to hear more, though, of what you think this line means: “the tiger was the only animal that forgave you for being so ill at ease in your translated world.” Is that simple projection, of a human morality onto an animal? Especially given the quote from Doniger you use later, that “only by speaking their language will we really be able to know how we would think and feel” if we were animals?)

Your last two paragraphs are puzzling to me, because they step away from the details of (what might have been) Doniger’s analysis of the text. You say that she discusses different religious beliefs that justify the killing of animals, but then you say that, in “The Hungry Tide, it is not considered immoral to kill a tiger if the human thinks it is necessary…it’s an action that is deemed honorable when the tiger proves to be a nuisance in daily human life.” How is that reading supported by Doniger’s analysis of religious reasoning? I’m wondering, too, whether your final observation—that people claim to engage in the killing of animals “for the sake of spiritual power,” when their goal is really their own “salvation”—is Doniger’s claim or your own?

And of course I end this wanting to know whether your own Lenten sacrifice looks different to you now, having read Doniger, and used her work to analyze another…

P.S. Don’t forget the power of images in these web-events….and don’t forget to go back and re-size those you used last month…

Caleb and Celeste— give a look @ (and comment on?!) your very different (one linguistic, one religious) readings of the same scene!