Traveling to India on 'The Hungry Tide'

Alan Cheuse reviews The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. The book's characters inhabit a region of thousands of islands in the Ganges Delta on the India-Bangladesh border.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

The Sunderbans is a region of thousands of islands in the Ganges delta on the India-Bangladesh border. It serves as the setting for a new novel by Amitav Ghosh. Alan Cheuse has a review of "The Hungry Tide."

ALAN CHEUSE reporting:

The Sunderbans are like our Florida Everglades but much, much larger, `the trailing threads of India's fabric,' as one character in this hypnotic novel writes about the region--`the ragged fringe of her sari.' It's an evanescent land and waterscape where the Ganges flows deep and far out into the Bay of Bengal, and biology, mythology and geology mingle.

It's here that a smart, compelling, young Indian-American woman from Seattle named Piyali Roy arrives to do groundbreaking work in the study of freshwater mammals and, not so incidentally, meets Calcutta translator and businessman and self-styled Bengali Casanova Kanai Dutt. Dutt's visiting his aunt, a social activist who has established a hospital on Lusibari, one of the fragile outlying islands in this ever-shifting region of strong but fickle tides and ravenous aquatic tigers and crocodiles.

Though the officious government bureaucracy of the region is only a little less dangerous, years before, when squatters from Bangladesh settled on the nearby island, the Indian government brutally flushed them out, bringing about the death of Dutt's uncle in the process. Now, as Piyali Roy hooks up with a smart local fisherman named Fokir to navigate the multiple waterways in search of freshwater dolphins, Kanai, attracted to her and to the waterscape, tags along.

Hovering over all of the characters--Piyala, Kanai, his aunt, the fisherman and his family and other islanders--is an impending sense of life change and transformation and the threat of a disastrous, once-in-a-lifetime cyclone. Like the river that gave birth to the region, their stories run deep and will, like the powerful tides of the Sunderbans, possibly even pull you under.

BLOCK: The book is "The Hungry Tide" by Amitav Ghosh. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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