The novel begins with Kanai, a forty-two-year-old Indian man, observing a young woman (later revealed to be Piya) at a train station. Though Piya is of Indian descent, Kanai immediately can tell that she is a foreigner in the country because of her “neatly composed androgyny” (3). He’s surprised that a foreigner would be at this particular train station in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) because the train goes to Canning, which is rarely visited by tourists. Kanai is a translator, fascinated by language, and he listens to Piya ask another man for directions in English, then apologetically explain that she doesn’t understand Bengali. Though Kanai is from India, unlike Piya, he is also somewhat of an outsider because of his comparative affluence, which is visible because of his type of luggage and style of dress. Kanai briefly loses track of Piya in the crowd and boards the train. He asks an elderly passenger to switch seats with him so he can see his work better by the light of the window, and the passenger agrees. This interaction reveals that Kanai is outgoing and not intimidated by seeming impolite, and underscores his facility with language. It also highlights the influence Kanai wields because of his comparative wealth. Kanai begins reading a text in Bengali, which describes the Sundarbans, a set of islands in the Bay of Bengal. The text reveals that this area is also called bhatir desh, or the tide country, and quotes a passage by the German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
The next chapter focuses on Piya. She buys a cup of tea from a seller on the platform, then accidentally spills her tea on Kanai’s papers. Just as Kanai had observed her earlier, she noticed him as well, and she thinks he is “the last person she would have chosen to scald with her tea” because of his “casual self-importance” and “entitlement.” Piya apologizes to Kanai, who makes a deprecating comment about dealing with Americans, and Piya is surprised that he can tell she’s American. Kanai explains that he works as a translator and interpreter and is good with languages, and Piya is impressed, especially since she only knows English. Though Kanai already knows Piya doesn’t speak Bengali, he’s surprised she doesn’t know Hindi either, and questions how she’ll get around in Canning. She explains that she’s a cetologist, and to her surprise, Kanai knows what the word means (someone who studies marine mammals), which again emphasizes his skill with language. Because Piya is often out in the water with no one to talk to anyway, she isn’t too intimidated by the prospect of being unable to communicate verbally with others in Canning. Piya explains that no one has been able to do a comprehensive survey of the cetaceans in the Sundarbans yet because it’s difficult to get permission, but she’s planning to sneak in, hoping to evade detection since she’s alone and perhaps can use her uncle, who works in government, to her advantage. She also tells Kanai that she was born in Kolkata, but moved to the United States at only a year old. She’s surprised to hear Kanai call the city Calcutta, its British colonial name, rather than Kolkata. The two introduce themselves, and Kanai is surprised that Piya has a Bengali name, since he already knows she doesn’t speak the language. She explains that since she grew up in Seattle, she never learned her parents’ native language. Kanai, on the other hand, is traveling to Canning on the way to Lusibari, the farthest of the inhabited Sundarbans, where his aunt lives. He invites Piya to visit him there. She asks Kanai how she would find him, and he explains that his aunt founded the local hospital and the organization that runs it and is thus well-known on the island, called Mashima (“aunt”) by everyone. Kanai also reveals that his uncle, her husband, has been dead for a long time but has “risen from his ashes to summon me” since his aunt has recently found a set of papers he left for Kanai at the time of his death. Kanai explains he wasn’t eager to come to see these papers because of his work obligations. He has only been to Lusibari once, as a child as a punishment for misbehaving in school.
Piya leaves, and Kanai reflects on his past relationships. Though he is unmarried, he has rarely been single, and his last relationship ended poorly. He also remembers his last time visiting the area, when he was a child. At the time, he was surprised how crowded it was—coming from a big city, he saw the smaller city as provincial. He also recalls his final encounter with his uncle, Nirmal, which occurred when Kanai was a college student in Kolkata in the late 1970s, when the two had literally bumped into each other, causing Nirmal to drop an expensive book into a puddle. Two years later, Nirmal died, and the family thought little of the papers he said he left for Kanai since he was often delirious. Kanai remembers that his aunt, Nilima, has not even looked at the papers herself, since she’s saving them for Kanai. The reader also learns more about Nilima, the aunt known as Mashima (“aunt”) by everyone in her town. Though she does not come from an impoverished background, she happily works in the poor tide country. Kanai thinks of her as “someone who had made great sacrifices in the public interest, as a figure who was a throwback to an earlier era when people of means and education were less narrow, less selfish than now” (18). When Kanai meets Nilima at the platform, he mentions that he was reading some of his uncle’s writing on the train, but Nilima explains that these writings weren’t from the packet he left for Kanai when he died. Nilima is surprised that Kanai traveled via Canning rather than taking another route because the river has “changed” in recent years and few people travel that route nowadays. When the two reach the river, Kanai sees what she means: the once vast river is now narrow. Kanai apologizes for choosing to come through Canning, explaining that he only wanted to revisit the route from his childhood. Kanai begins reminiscing about meeting Nirmal as a child, but Nilima stops him, saying that even though it’s been decades since his death, it’s painful to think of him in the area, since he was found out there in the rain and died months later. She explains that she doesn’t exactly know why Nirmal was in Canning—it was during the chaotic time of the Morichjhãpi incident, a violent confrontation between refugees occupying an island and government agents trying to force them to return to their resettlement camp, and he often disappeared without explanation. By the time Nirmal was found, his speech was often incoherent and it was impossible for him to explain what had happened. Nilima recalls hearing Nirmal shout “The Matla will rise,” which reminds Kanai of a story Nirmal used to tell about a man who predicted that the Matla river would rise to destroy Canning, but Nilima cuts him off since the memory is too painful. Kanai remembers more about his first time visiting his aunt and uncle. He had laughed at Horen, a man who helps Nilima, believing in a forest goddess. Horen, a father of three at under twenty years old, wanted to help Nilima because she in turn had helped Kusum, a teenaged girl from his village who Horen had rescued after her father died and her mother moved to a city to find work.
The next chapter switches back to focusing on Piya, who has managed to obtain permission to carry out her study. She is required to be supervised by a forest guard, however, which she sees as a hindrance. The guard is required to carry a gun in case of a tiger attack, which Piya also dislikes. The guard leads her to a man called Mej-da, who charges an expensive fee for his boat, but Piya gives in and agrees to hire Mej-da. Piya shows Mej-da drawings of the two types of river dolphin that she hopes to investigate, but unlike most others that she’s shown the images to, he doesn’t recognize them. Piya is underwhelmed by Mej-da’s boat, an old diesel steamer very different from the type of boat usually used in river surveys. Piya is further set on edge when Mej-da gestures to his mouth and crotch, which she misinterprets as a sexual gesture.
From the start of the novel, the reader can tell that Kanai is confident, even arrogant, when it comes to dealing with others, especially women (he thinks of himself as a “connoisseur” of them.) Yet his arrogance is justified to some extent; Kanai’s observation that Piya isn’t Indian by nationality is accurate, and because of his expertise in language, he is able to learn a significant amount of information about her from a short interaction. Similarly, approaching the man on the train to ask him to move takes confidence, but Kanai is genuinely effective in the interaction, using the power he holds both due to his skill with language and his affluent, educated appearance.
The novel’s theme of the importance of language is also evident in the text Kanai reads, which is written by his late uncle, Nirmal. Nirmal frequently quotes Rilke, who wrote the Duino Elegies more than fifty years before Nirmal wrote the diary, far away from India. Though Rilke’s time and life were very different from his own, Nirmal is able to apply his writing to his own experiences, showing the fluid meaning that language can have. This fluidity is also demonstrated in the name Mashima: though it literally means “aunt,” Nilima is called Mashima by nearly everyone because of their affection for her, showing that the significance of the word transcends its literal meaning.
It’s interesting to note that Kanai mocks Americans to Piya. The distance between his lifestyle and more traditional Indian ways of life is already clear in his Western style of dress and modern career choice, and will become even more evident as the novel progresses. His affection for modernity is shown in his astonishment as a child that the Sundarbans are so well-populated when he had thought of them as unimportant due to their rural nature. But Kanai makes it abundantly clear that he doesn’t aspire to Piya’s Western, American life either.
Kanai’s reluctance to study Nirmal’s writing reinforces the lack of concern he has for life in the Sundarbans; he sees his career as more important than his uncle’s notebook, and is somewhat annoyed that he has to make the trip to such a provincial area to read it. Yet the fact that he ultimately does travel to the Sundarbans shows that Kanai does care about his family despite his career-oriented personality, and is perhaps also curious about the events documented in Nirmal’s notebook.
Nilima’s mention of the river changing since Kanai had visited the Sundarbans as a child underscores that the landscape of the Sundarbans is far from static, and that in part due to their poverty, the people of the area must adapt to it rather than the other way around—for example, the passengers have to wade through the mud. Furthermore, though Kanai does have an advantage over Piya in that he is more familiar with the Sundarbans since he’s been there before, the constant changing of the environment there shows that his knowledge of the area may not be as useful as he expects.