Saturday, July 24, 2004

The Hungry Tide 

I am watching a program on The Travel Channel on - get this - the World's 10 best Ancient Cultures still in existence today. Japan is number 9, India is number 8, and the entire continent of North America is at number 8. The concept of ranking cultures is quixotic, but oddly suspenseful. Papua New Guinea is at number 2, and I waited to see who was number 1. The envelope, please? And the winner is "Central Asia".

Meanwhile, here is Alok Rai in Outlook with a nice review of Amitav Ghosh's "The Hungry Tide", a story based on what is probably the world's best river delta.

Dreams come easy in this magic land. And part of what is at play in Nirmal's notebook is the contrast between the original utopian impulse that prompted the initial "colonial" settlements of the Sunderbans by Daniel Hamilton in the 1920s, and the subaltern-utopian motivation that underlay the appropriation of Marichjhapi island by doubly displaced Bangladeshis in 1979. Hamilton's is a sort of "Nehruvian" ambition, to make a place where people would shed their atavistic baggage of custom and prejudice and avail of the blessings of modernity.

Nature and bureaucracy - also a kind of Nature? - grind that into the mud, because of course there is little dust in the Sunderbans. Marichjhapi island was settled, briefly, by desperate refugees from the resettlement colony of Dandakaranya. The heroic and ineluctable community of these doubly-distressed Dalits was of little avail against the guns of the "leftist" government of Kolkata, deployed in defence of the "environment" but also, it is strongly implied, against subaltern presumption. Dreams are soon dead, too - in this nightmare land. Nirmal's quondam-leftist yearning for heroic, revolutionary transformation is contrasted with Nilima's modest "liberal" ambition to "make a few little things a little better in one small place... after all these years, it has amounted to something: it's helped people; it's made a few people's lives a little better. But that was never enough for Nirmal..."