Part One: Animals and Humans
Have you ever seen one of those adverts on television, the ones with faded photo montages accompanied by poignant music and a solemn voice informing you that a certain species- of tiger, perhaps, or elephant- is on the verge of extinction, but with a small monthly donation you could help to save it?
Or maybe when you were a kid you were given one of those stuffed animals with a little booklet attached congratulating you on ‘adopting’ an endangered animal, vaguely giving you the sense of having done a good deed?
Before I read The Hungry Tide, this was the extent of my awareness of animal conservationism. When I happened to think about it, I wholeheartedly supported the ideal of rescuing these animals from the damaging actions of humans, in destroying their habitats and hunting them for sport.
“There’s a big difference between preserving a species in captivity and keeping it in its habitat…it was what was intended – not by you or me, but by nature, by the earth, by the planet that keeps us all alive. Just suppose we crossed that imaginary line that prevents us from deciding that no other species matters except ourselves. What’ll be left then?”
Of course, I still believe that animals have as much as a right to this planet as humans do, and are beings which deserve care and respect. However, this novel also opened to me the complexities that can arise when carrying out this vision in practice, particularly the devastatingly brutal consequences when a government decides that the lives of animals are worth more than the lives of its human citizens.
The Hungry Tide takes place on the fictional island of Lusibari in the Sundarbans, an archipelago of islands in the Bay of Bengal: a swamp of mangrove forests, mud, and waterways of freshwater and saltwater. It is home to tigers, crocodiles, dolphins, crabs, birds, reptiles, and deer- including many species which cannot be found elsewhere on the planet– and, of course, humans.
The novel considers is the relationship between humans and animals in a place where the boundaries of human and animal territory are not clearly demarcated; where people must venture into the forest and on the water to make a living, but in doing so risk the very real prospect of being attacked by a tiger. It also meditates on how this environment can expose certain underlying truths in society, making it a highly thought-provoking read.
“There are more tigers living in America, in captivity, than there are in all of India – what do you think would happen if they started killing human beings?”
There is a scene in the novel when a group of refugees who have settled on an island belonging to the government are forcibly evicted to make way for a tiger reserve, “paid for by people from all around the world”. The experience of these refugees is told with great pathos, through the narration of a middle-class character with a tendency to romanticise, which also raises an interesting point about whether it is possible for someone of a wealthier and higher class background to speak about these issues without putting their own words into the mouths of people they are speaking for.
The novel highlights the authoritarian manner in which they are treated, making a point about the country’s treatment of certain citizens, as well as on the silence around this issue in the local and international media.
Essentially, it suggests that the way India is viewed by the rest of the world, as an enlightened and humane country with an environmental ethos, may be of greater importance to the government than the lives of those who lack the money and power to challenge them.
However, the impression you are left with by the end is that there is no easy answer to any of these issues; namely, how to reconcile the needs of the animal and human inhabitants. They are woven into the very fabric of the place, into its basic structures, which are themselves a microcosm of the power structures that govern the world.
I’m wary of saying something grossly ill-informed or misleading, or myself speaking for those who live there.
But, something that I certainly learned from reading this novel is that we should be careful, and try to think a little more about the people whose lives we may be impacting when we give to a charity or campaign for a cause, however indirectly that may be.