“You live in a dream world – a haze of poetry and fuzzy ideas about revolution. To build something is not the same thing as dreaming of it: building is always a matter of well-chosen compromises.” (214)
One of the themes of Amitav Ghosh’s novel, The Hungry Tide, is the futility of effete idealism and the inevitable need for compromises. Nirmal Bose is the effete idealist to whom his wife, Nilima, speaks the above words. A brief detention by the police for participating in the 1948 conference of Socialist International unsettled Nirmal so much that he could not continue his job as English lecturer in a Calcutta college anymore. His physical condition deteriorated so much that his doctors advised a life outside the city. The couple chose Sunderbans where Nirmal took up job as the headmaster of a school in Lusibari, one of the islands. Nilima founded a Trust which built up a hospital for the people of the islands.
Romantic dreamers like Nirmal will never be happy in life unless they see in reality the utopia of their dreams. They fail to realise that utopia is an impossible ideal, that there is no reality on the earth which is not a mixture of good and evil. The fate of such people is to cling to their illusion and die in despair.
Nilima is diametrically opposed to Nirmal, though she had fallen in love with him because of his revolutionary ideas. She soon understands the futility of utopian ideologies. Hers is a simple vision: do something that is real and useful to the people around. There is no need of any ideology for that. Simple humanity is enough. Compromises are also inevitable, she knows. “... you have no idea,” she admonishes her husband, “how hard we’ve had to work to stay on the right side of the government. If the politicians turn against us, we’re finished. I can’t take that chance.” (214)
Nirmal, an ardent fan of Rilke’s poetry, thinks that people like Nilima live a prose-life, while he lives poetry. Poetry is about dreams. Revolution is the materialisation of a dream.
In 1979, a chance for a revolution turns up again when one of the islands is taken over by refugees and the government wants to evacuate them since the island is a reserved forest. Kusum, one of the leaders of the movement, becomes Nirmal’s new “muse”, much as he is attached to his wife. “I felt myself torn between my wife and the woman who had become the muse I’d never had;” says Nirmal, “between the quiet persistence of everyday change and the heady excitement of revolution – between prose and poetry.” (216)
This new revolution costs Nirmal his life. He dies for a cause that he perceived as noble. Nilima lives on for a cause which she perceives as practical and more useful.
Piyali Roy, a young research scholar doing a survey of the dolphins in the waters of Sunderbans, is the protagonist of the novel. She successfully combines prose and poetry in her vision of life. She works in such a way that the wildlife is preserved and the ecology is well taken care of, but without compromising the welfare of the people living in the place.
Fokir, the other chief character, lives the poetry of mythology. If he had more gyan (knowledge) than gaan (singing) he would have been successful in life, according to Moyna, his wife. But Fokir is happy with his songs about the mythical Bon Bibi (the deity of the islands). In the dolphins he sees the messengers of Bon Bibi. He is sure that the deity will protect him from all harms. But his faith does not save him when the area is struck by a cyclone. His death, however, saves Piyali’s life. Fokir, the metaphorical poet, also dies for a noble cause.
Kanai and Horen, the other major characters, know how to “get on” in life. They are practical in their own ways. They live a purely prose-life.
Which way of living is right? Prose or poetry or a combination of both?
It’s not about right and wrong, the novel suggests. It’s about what makes each one of us happy about our existence. It’s about what adds meaning to our existence. When Piyali says that for her home is where the dolphins are, Nilima says, “That’s the difference between us. For me home is wherever I can brew a pot of good tea.”
A cup of good tea can make one’s life as happy as the passion for dolphins makes another. What a utopian dream does to one may be done to another by the poetry of myths. It’s better to let people find their own joys, their own meanings in life.