When Firdous Bamji – a veteran narrator – reads Amitav Ghosh‘s haunting novel in his ‘normal’ voice, he’s hardly memorable. But as soon as he ‘becomes’ the searching Piya, the sophisticated Kanai (“‘[s]ay it to rhyme with Hawaii’”), the contemplative Nirmal, the grounded Nilima, and the many, many other characters, Ghosh’s already lyrical, dazzling prose becomes truly transporting.
Piya, a young American marine biologist detached from her Indian heritage, and Kanai, a middle-aged Lothario translator from Delhi, meet over spilled tea on a train from Kolkata to Canning. They are both en route to the isolated Sundarbans, also known as the tide country, an archipelago of hundreds of islands in the Bay of Bengal held together by a vast mangrove forest. Piya hopes to secure the permits that will allow her to research rare river dolphins; Kanai has been summoned by his elderly Aunt Nilima to claim a package left for him by her late husband Nirmal.
What might have been a brief encounter lasts throughout the sweeping, wondrous novel. Piya’s first attempt at tracking her rare dolphin ends in near fatal disaster, and she’s rescued by a reticent local fisherman, Fokir, and his young son. They deliver her to Nilima, a ubiquitous presence in the unpredictable tide country. There on Lusibari, Piya finds Kanai poring over an aged notebook in which his late Uncle Nirmal recorded his experiences during the tumultuous, tragic clashes between the government and the refugee inhabitants of the tide country. Piya’s research in the surrounding rivers and other islands overlaps with Kanai’s quest to better understand his uncle’s troubled past, not to mention his own growing interest in Piya. Piya, in turn, finds herself strangely drawn to the nearly silent – and married – Fokir.
Ghosh remarkably manages to weave politics, history, folklore, research on rare animals and their delicate ecosystems, and even the devastating December 2004 tsunami into an exquisite, heart-thumping adventure … perfect company on the run, by the way. I confess that I so missed Kusum, Horen, Moyna, and the many others, that I now have Bamji reading Ali Sethi’s The Wish Maker to me. Stay tuned … literally.