Blurring of Timeline in Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tides

Nazia Kamali

- Nazia Kamali

Research Scholar, Department of Humanities, Mewar University, Chittorgarh, Rajashthan (India)

Abstract:  Time is a fluid concept. Revered scientist Dr Steven Hawkins considered time as the fourth dimension of the universe. Amitav Ghosh used this fluidity to his creative advantage in his one of the most popular novels, The Hungry Tides. He takes us on a ride through various timelines one after another without any prior notice. Epics, sharing of pasts, novella within the novel, letter, local drama theatre, flashbacks , etc all these devices have been used freely and eloquently to blur the rhythm of time.
On the surface the novel might seem a chronological narrative by an omnipresent third person narrator yet the overall structure is a complex one. There are layers within layers in the text which come up. The past rises from the dead and stares the living in the eye changing their beliefs and life events. Amitav Ghosh takes us through the epics of Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Bon Bibi all in the same novel and then he navigates the readers to the refugee camp of Morichjhapi. Amidst the silted river and island providing habitat to local inhabitants, we get a glimpse of Seattle of the past. A single past has been subdivided into many parts making the novel a complex superstructure of various timelines.
The present paper attempts to decipher all those timelines and how they are blurred within the continuity of The Hungry Tides.

Key Words:  Different, event, past, time, travel.

Amitav Ghosh is one among the postmodernists who is immensely influenced by the political and cultural milieu of post independent India. Being a social anthropologist and having the opportunity of visiting alien lands, he comments on the present scenario the world is passing through in his novels. His The Hungry Tides tells us the story of a large archipelago of islands between the sea and the plain of Bengal, on the easternmost coast of India. It is called the Sunderbans. The settlers of the area believe that anyone without a pure heart who ventures into the watery labyrinth will never return.
Piyali Roy, the lead character in the novel is a well educated scientist of Indian parentage but stubbornly American who comes to India for research on dolphins inhabiting the islands of the Sunderbans Tides country. She is bold, she travels alone, and she is independent. She meets a sophisticated Delhi businessman Kanai Dutt who has returned to the island on the request of his aunt Nilima Bose, a local figure, for the first time after the death of his uncle, a local political radical who dies mysteriously in the aftermath of a local uprising.
Piyali hires an illiterate local fisherman Fokir who guides her carefully towards the creatures of her research, the dolphins in the Sunderbans delta. Kanai becomes their translator in the process. All three begin a new voyage together which transforms their respective lives.
A timeline is basically a display of events in a chronological order to make the reader or the observer understand what happened when. They author in his novel The Hungry Tides has used time in reference to events and not dates. Also these events do not come in a serialised fashion whether chronologically or reverse chronologically. Instead the narration shows small parts of same event or incident at different times in the novel. Consecutive chapters often retell the events occurred at very different time. Hence the blurring of timeline becomes a prominent occurrence in the novel
The novel starts with the present day travels of Piyali Roy and Kanai Dutt to the interiors of Sunderbans delta.  Right after their first glimpse of each other at the Kolkata railway station and boarding a train thereafter, the author straight away takes us to the epic of the Ganges flowing through the knots of Lord Shiva. The author uses the techniques of reading a story within the novel to transport us to an entirely different land.
‘In our legends it is said that the goddess Ganga’s descent from the heavens would have split the earth had Lord Shiva not tamed her torrent by tying it into his ash-smeared lock. To hear this story one is to see the river in a certain way: as a heavenly braid, for instance, an immense rope of water, unfurling through a wide and thirsty plain.’ (THT – 6)
From there we are taken to Kanai Dutt’s past via his memory lane, his run in to his uncle in Kolkata in the 1970’s. The time being described in the narrative keeps on changing very fast. Through Kanai’s school days’ stay at Lusibari at his Aunt Nilima Bose’s place, we learn about the benevolence of Sir Daniel Canning who helped in getting the island settled to give rise to a socialist society where every man would be equal.  Again the author takes a much unanticipated leap into another time of almost a century ago describing a very different theory from what was being followed in the preceding chapters.
‘Everyone who was willing to work was welcome, S’Daniel said, but one condition. They could not bring all their petty little divisions and differences.’ (THT – 51)
Within a matter of few pages we are taken to the ride to the legends of the earth and thence to centuries earlier setting of the island making it fit for the inhabitants. An island which at present is shown too crowded. There is no specific time limit to the past that the reader is transported to; neither do we get any warning before the present changes into the past, or the description of a legend.
Interspersed within the narrative is the legend of Bon Bibi which has no mark of time on it. It is an ancient legend which suddenly appears in the novels in many forms. It is explained to us in parts. A little description in the form of performance by the local people in the island, a few times in Nirmal Bose’s book that he left to Kanai and also in the current times. Also the remainder of the legend is given through Kanai’s letter to Piyali.
Kanai’s memories take us to various times. His visit to Lusibari as a child, his aunt and uncle’s flight from Kolkata to the island in the early fifties as well his meeting with Kusum.
Kusum is one character who has been very well used to spread a matter of a few years in many people’s lives at different times. Every time she appears in the novel, we see a different time. The blur of the timeline is made very clear through the presence of Kusum. We meet her as a little girl who befriends Kanai at the island. Then we meet her as a young determined woman in the book that Nirmal Bose left for Kanai after his death. In the present times, though she has died we meet her as Fokir’s mother and in the fond memory of Horen. Thus a single character binds numerous characters at different points of time.
Her life has no one man’s description. Different parts of her life are related through the eyes of different people. Her childhood is shown from the eyes of Kanai and Nilima Bose, her youth through her own recollection as she relates to Nirmal and Horen. Her last days are vividly described by Nirmal in his book. Finally her choice of being with Horen instead of Nirmal during her final hours of life is related to us through Horen’s memory.
There is no saying which dimension of time will erupt when and where. One excellent technique that the author used is the reference to Nirmal Bose’s book. This book helps us oscillate between the present and the past. When Kanai reads it in the present, it takes him as well as the readers to the much hidden parts of his life and also to his visits to Morichjhapi.
‘The islands were close by, and in the school I was visiting there were many teachers who had witnessed the progress of the exodus; they had seen tens of thousands of settlers making their way to the island, in boats, dengis and bhotbhotis.’ (THT – 160)
There we meet various refugees fighting for their survival. These people have migrated from Bihar as well as sensitive areas of Bangladesh which was at that time fighting for its freedom from Pakistan. Thus we are transported into a mystic past where a common person is still struggling for his right to life. This same book also takes us to the time when Kusum goes to see her mother. Much earlier time of Kusum’s youth is described in her own words.
‘It was a mining town, the air was filled with smoke; the people were strangers, I’d never known their likes; their words were like iron, they rang when they spoke; when their gaze turned on you, their eyes smouldered like coal.’ (THT – 163)
The character of Kusum has actually been very cleverly used to create a blurring effect of the past. She is one character who has somehow been a part of the memories of most of the characters of the novel. Their memories also take us to various times of the past years. Kanai’s childhood days in Lusibari, Nilima;s early days on the island when she was establishing herself as well as her trust, Fokir’s childhood, Nirmal’s last days of life as well as Horen’s travels to Morichjhapi as Nirmal’s boatman.
There are flashbacks within the flashbacks. We see Piyali giving us a glimpse of Seattle, her childhood which has no link to other characters and takes us to a different world absolutely. Her father’s emigration to Seattle, her schooldays, her years as a research scientist at various places all are made a part of Kanai’s present by means of his interest in Piyali. Through her talks with Kanai readers come to know about her past right from the very beginning.
‘You see my father’s parents were Bengalis who settled in Burma – they came to India as refugees during the Second World War. Having moved around a lot my father has all these theories about immigrants and refugees.’ (THT – 250)
Piyali is an outsider in the novel as well as in the island. She is the only character who shares no history with others. Her timeline does not coincide with those of the other characters. However, the author makes sure that no part of her life is left unexplored. The author thus very skilfully weaves the story of her past into the happenings of the present, giving one more dimension to the time in his work.
Amitav Ghosh is an experienced novelist. He has intimate knowledge of Anthropology, human behaviour and history. He has very intricately used facts and fiction to his advantage in the novel. He takes us through a roller coaster ride through various timelines blurring various boundaries in the process. The author has very elegantly omitted all the dates to make the scenario look like something out of memory and not a diary or a collection of memoirs. However, the technique is so masterful that never does the reader lose track of the incidents that happened at any place or time. The timeline is very craftily blurred yet the time is very carefully preserved.

The Hungry Tides (2004) Amitav Ghosh. UK: Harper Collins.
Hawley, J.C. (2005). Amitav Ghosh. Delhi: Foundation Book
Gandhi, Leela. (1999). Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction. Delhi: Oxford
University Press.

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