The Hungry Tide

The Hungry Tide Summary and Analysis of Chapters 13-16: Nirmal and Nilima through Words


Nirmal and Nilima first came to Lusibari in 1950 in search of a safe place. Nirmal was from Dhaka (now the capital of Bangladesh) and came to Kolkata as a student and later a leftist intellectual and teacher of English. Nilima was a student in one of his classes and came from a very different background. Her grandfather was an important politician, while her father was a prominent lawyer. Because of her severe asthma, her family decided to send her to college nearby. Though Nirmal was popular among the students, Nilima was unique in her dedication to following him onto a bus. Eventually, the two fell in love, though her family opposed the marriage. Because of his role in leftist politics, Nirmal was detained by the police, and the two fled to the Sundarbans, attracted by the story of Sir Daniel and his ability to address rural poverty in a way that they hadn’t, despite their revolutionary ideals. The adjustment to their new life was difficult. Because of the salty ground, farming was difficult, so people hunted and fished instead, but that made them targets for animal predators and vulnerable to drowning in the stormy waters. Nirmal read Lenin, but couldn’t find the answers he was looking for, while Nilima spoke with local women and was appalled to learn that many became widows in their twenties and even preemptively dressed as widows when their husbands went out to sea. She couldn’t identify a term for these women and their plight: though she was tempted to think of them as a class, Nirmal disagreed, as that term would imply a division within the class of workers. Finally, Nilima decided that the name for the women didn’t matter as much as helping them did, and founded the Women’s Union and then the Babadon Trust, which provided many services in the area. Despite Nilima’s hard work, Nirmal was dismissive of her efforts, seeing the provision of social services as opposed to revolutionary action.

Piya notices a group of six fishing boats tied together and watches the men smoke and cook, surprised to see that they’re in the middle of the river instead of onshore. When Tutul sees the boats, he begins to talk to his father, which makes Piya think they recognize the men on the boats. Yet instead of meeting up with the other men, Fokir turns the boat, steering them in a different direction. After he anchors the boat and it grows dark, Fokir shows Piya how to bathe on the boat, rubbing Tutul down with a small cloth that looks familiar to Piya. After drying herself with a similar cloth, Piya remembers that her father owned a similar one when she was growing up, but she can’t remember the name of it.

Kanai reminisces, thinking about the area where Nirmal’s house was before, now replaced by a student hostel. The house had only two rooms, a bedroom and a study where Kanai had slept during his visit. Behind the bungalow was an open courtyard, where meetings of the Women’s Union took place. Though Kanai usually avoided the meetings because of the emotional venting they could entail, he eventually began to listen to them since he had little to do without any friends on the island. There, he first encountered Kusum, who had narrowly survived typhoid the year before and still wore a child’s clothing instead of a woman’s sari, despite being in her teens. As a woman tells of being assaulted by her father-in-law, Kanai turns his head towards the group to listen and meets Kusum’s eyes. The next day, Kusum angrily confronts Kanai for listening in on the meeting, but he refuses to show her the English book he’s reading, bragging that she wouldn’t understand it. Kusum puts a grasshopper in her mouth in response, then makes it jump out at Kanai’s face.

Piya attempts to ask Fokir what the towel that she recognizes is called, and he finally understands, telling her it’s called gamchha. Piya reflects on her experiences with the Bengali language, recalling that it was “an angry flood” for her as a child, since her parents fought in Bengali. Piya had been the center of their lives, “the altarpiece around which their lives were arranged,” and she had the largest room in the apartment as her bedroom. As her parents’ relationship devolved, Piya’s mother moved into her bedroom, and they often spent time together. Piya thinks of being asked if her interest in river dolphins was due to her family history in grad school, which had annoyed her both because it was false and because it suggested her interests had been determined by her parents. In fact, Piya had never been interested in the history and language that her parents talked about, and she notes that they never mentioned that the first Orcaella dolphin was discovered in Kolkata, their hometown. Fokir begins to cook, but Piya decides in advance that she’ll decline the food because of her bad past experiences with local cuisine, though she recalls loving Indian food as a child until her classmates made fun of it. She tries to tell Fokir that she has an upset stomach through pantomime. After dinner, Fokir tries to give Piya a sleeping mat, but she has her own, which she unrolls at the front of the boat. Fokir is worried about tigers, however, which Piya thinks is silly. Nonetheless, she acquiesces and moves towards the middle of the boat.


Nirmal and Nilima’s meeting shows that they are both intellectuals who love to learn, especially when it comes to language, since they first meet in an English class. Yet from the start, it’s clear that Nirmal has a dominant role in the marriage—he is Nilima’s teacher. Furthermore, it’s because of Nirmal’s political activity that they have to relocate to the Sundarbans. The fact that inequality, even hierarchy, is present in their relationship from the start is ironic, given how Nirmal values equality and seeks to eliminate all hierarchies through Marxism. It’s demonstrative of Nirmal’s nature that he’s unable to apply these same principles to his personal life. Their discovery of the story of Sir Daniel further underscores the division between theory and practice: while Nirmal and Nilima have grand ideals of revolution, Sir Daniel was able to actually create a more equal society through taking action. Nirmal’s decision to read Lenin when he’s overwhelmed upon arriving in the Sundarbans shows his over-reliance on theory, while Nilima’s choice to take action shows that she values more tangible change.

The cloth Fokir uses after Tutul’s bath, called a gamchha, serves a connecting force similar to the sari earlier. Just as the sari reminded Piya of her mother, the gamchha triggers recollections of her father and strengthens her relationship with both Fokir and India more broadly.

Kanai’s interaction with Kusum after the Women’s Union meeting shows that his reliance on language as a source of power may not help him in the tide country. Though he tries to triumph over Kusum by refusing to let her see his English-language book, she ultimately wins by scaring him with the grasshopper, underscoring the power of the natural world.

For Piya, Bengali is a language of conflict, and this assessment shows that language isn’t always a positive force—the entire language is tainted for Piya. But her knowledge of the gamchha, a nonverbal commonality with Fokir, is able to connect the two of them. Though Piya was never interested in the Bengali language or Indian history, her relatively limited knowledge of Indian culture strengthens her relationship with Fokir.