The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

I begin by declaring that Amitav Ghosh is my favourite Indian (American) author. His stories, often multi-layered and with many apparent strands, lead me to use the label ‘shaggy dog side stories’ – but they are always brought to a relevant cohesive narrative, and are always well written and researched to great depth and accuracy.

From the first paragraph I was drawn into the atmospheric ambience, the sweltering heat of the tidal country of the Sundarbans of the Irrawaddy delta south of Kolkata. It is the story of two disparate characters who meet on a packed Indian train heading, for different reasons, to the same backwater destination.

One is an established Delhi businessman, a translator, travelling to the village of his roots to investigate the finding of a detailed journal left by his uncle. He brings the ambience of established education and affluence, revisiting a small island community where the profound and simple lifestyle is governed by the often destructive forces of nature in this ever-changing tidal, mangrove-entangled country.

The other is a young woman, an American PhD student planning to research in detail the habitat and lifestyle of a particular subspecies of Irrawaddy dolphins – and boy, do we get detail!

Unlike several of the author’s books, this is not a multilayered story but a long (and it is long) story of two travellers whose journey allows us insight into this simple fishing community, its powerful climate-led formative influences, history and pagan culture. To some extent I felt an influence or reminiscence of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Over a period of weeks their lives become intertwined with a powerfully descriptive dénouement.