In the tide country, where life was lived on the margins of greater events, it was useful also to be reminded that no place was so remote as to escape the flood of history.
Nirmal has this thought about the Socialist International conference in Kolkata. But it is also applicable to the events on Morichjhãpi. Though Morichjhãpi is located in a marginal part of India and may seem unimportant, the refugees' struggle led to a major conflict with the government. Furthermore, though this conflict does not receive much attention in contemporary times, it continues to be extremely relevant to the characters of the novel due to its themes of the balance between conservation of nature and the protection of humanity.
It shamed [Nirmal and Nilima] to think that this man—a foreigner, a burra sahib, a rich capitalist—had taken it upon himself to address the issue of rural poverty when they themselves, despite all their radical talk, had scarcely any knowledge of life outside the city.
For Nirmal and Nilima, their discovery of the work of Sir Daniel Hamilton is a wake-up call. Though they profess to be Marxists and believe in equality for all, they have done little to actually advance this cause at this point in their lives. Instead, they've been focused on their own education in the city. Learning about Sir Daniel prompts the couple to move to Lusibari, and also highlights one of the novel's central conflicts, the conflict between theory—embodied by Nirmal and, at the time, Nilima—and practice.
They had said much about Calcutta, for instance, yet had never thought to mention that the first known specimen of Orcaella brevirostris was found there, that strange cousin of the majestic killer whales of Puget Sound.
Though Piya's parents frequently bored her with discussions about India's history and her Bengali heritage, they never brought up the one connection India had to Piya's own interests: the specimen of dolphin first found there. Though Piya resents the implication that she's interested in the dolphins because of her Indian heritage, there is a connection between the two that neither she nor her family dwells on. This connection highlights the lack of effective communication in her family, since she and her parents had been unable to identify this common area of interest.
"It doesn't matter how many languages you know...You're not a woman and you don't know him. You won't understand."
Here, Moyna highlights the novel's theme of the conflict between formal education and lived experience. Though Kanai thinks he knows everything about the world due to his travels and high level of education, Moyna believes it is simply impossible for him to understand her decision to marry Fokir despite the difficulties in their relationship because he is not an impoverished woman in the Sundarbans.
"He laughed in the cynical way of those who, having never believed in the ideals they once professed, imagine that no one else had done so either."
Despite Nirmal's faults, he is certainly loyal to his ideals, unlike the old, formerly radical friend he runs into. Yet as Nirmal realizes, he can't exactly be self-righteous, since he's accomplished little despite his ideals. The encounter highlights the hypocrisy of many of the figures in the novel, such as the local government functionaries. Though they profess to care about protecting nature, they do not care about local people, and even hit a baby dolphin with their boat, showing that their concern for animals is shallow as well.
"You live in a dream world—a haze of poetry and fuzzy ideas about revolution. To build something is not the same as dreaming of it. Building is always a matter of well-chosen compromises."
Here, Nilima lays out the conflict between theory and practice, or action, that consumes much of the novel, particularly in her relationship with Nirmal. To remain ideologically pure, Nirmal rarely takes action, while Nilima is more willing to compromise her ideals in order to achieve practical progress. This encounter highlights the futility of dreaming about revolution if those dreams are not accompanied by real action.
"Who are these people, I wondered, who love animals so much that they are willing to kill us for them? ...This whole world had become a place of animals, and our fault, our crime, was that we were just human beings, trying to live as human beings always have, from the water and the soil."
In the wake of the police attack on the refugees, Kusum articulates the crucial conflict between conservation and humanity in the novel. As Kusum points out, though the goals of conservation are understandable, the elevation of animal rights above human rights harms many people, especially the impoverished. Notably, Kusum groups herself with the refugees by saying "us" and "we," though she is not technically one of them, showing how much she has come to care for their struggle.
"Kanai, the dreamers have everyone to speak for them... But those who're patient, those who try to be strong, who try to build things—no one ever sees any poetry in that, do they?"
After Kanai tells Nilima he plans to reconstruct Nirmal's notebook, she asks him to include her perspective as well. To Nilima, the voices of those who do hard work in the background and make difficult compromises are often lost to more romantic concepts of revolutionary struggle. By asking Kanai to include her story as well, Nilima writes herself back into the narrative.
"Making us build it was probably the most important thing [Nirmal] did in his whole life. You can see the proof of that today. But if you'd told him that, he'd have laughed. He'd have said, 'It's just social service—not revolution.'"
Nilima emphasizes the importance of the cyclone shelter, which saves many, many lives when a cyclone comes at the end of the novel. Being so ideological and theory-oriented, Nirmal likely wouldn't have seen the cyclone shelter as very important, as Nilima points out. In his writing to Kanai, he never mentions it when agonizing over the question of what has been his life's work. But as Nilima points out, it is incredibly useful in practice.
But for these women the imagining of early widowhood was not a wasted effort: the hazards of life in the tide country were so great; so many perished in their youth, men especially, that almost without exception the fate that they had prepared themselves for did indeed befall them.
For women in the tide country, early widowhood is so likely that they dress as widows whenever their husbands leave for expeditions. As the quote points out, this fear is grounded in reality. The passage thus highlights the special vulnerability that women in the tide country face, which Nilima decides to address with the Women's Union.
The Hungry Tide Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Hungry Tide is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.