“Until It Lives in Our Hands and in Our Eyes, and It’s Ours”: Rewriting Historical Fiction and The Hungry Tide
Narrative strategies that register the “alienation” (in Edward Said’s sense) of Asiatic cultural tropes in historical fiction are usually associated with mainstream Anglo-American and European literary traditions. Spatial or temporal imaginative scaffoldings in such cases assume subjectivization. In this context, the relevance of Antonio Gramsci’s prophetic advice to historiographers—“[e]very trace of independent initiative on the part of subaltern groups should … be of incalculable value for the integral historian”—must apply equally to purveyors of historical fiction, especially in geographies and cultures that have been shaped by European colonial activity in the last four centuries. Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004) displays seamless juxtaposition of cultural and sociological exigencies of both a specific place and moment within a timeless scope. The narrative moves between the land and waterscapes of the Sundarbans; the great riverine delta of Bengal (politically, a part of India and Bangladesh) and an endangered biosphere; between characters separated by privilege, and social rank, and a nineteenth-century Scotsman’s dream of a utopian settlement on an uninhabited island in the Sundarbans. The dark, controversial disappearance of a number of dispossessed Hindu refugees from Bangladesh (East Pakistan) from around the island (circa 1978) underscores these interconnected narratives. In examining the complex structural form of The Hungry Tide, this essay suggests that far from creating a “fragmented” novel, Ghosh’s narrative strategy achieves a balance both unique to and assimilative of an indigenous imaginative tradition.