Perhaps the most prominent theme of the novel is the importance, as well as the difficulties, of language. Language is an important issue from the start of the novel: as a translator and interpreter, Kanai uses language for his life's work, while Piya, who understands no Hindi or Bengali, recognizes that she is not fully prepared to navigate the Sundarbans. Piya thus embraces nonverbal communication, which allows her to form a strong relationship with Fokir, an illiterate fisherman, despite the language barrier between them. Though Kanai learns about the Sundarbans from the written journal of his late uncle, Nirmal, his most transformative experiences occur at moments when language is insufficient, such as his terrifying encounter with a tiger, which leaves him babbling. Ultimately, Kanai and Piya use their experiences to transform their approaches to language as Piya modifies her view towards conservation and writes grant proposals to begin a new sort of work, while Kanai integrates the experiences of his aunt Nilima into his recreation of his uncle's journal.
Conflict between humankind and the natural world
In the Sundarbans, people are constantly at odds with nature, living in a world full of dangerous rivers, vicious tigers, and the risk of floods and cyclones. Though the natural world is revered and believed to be protected by the goddess Bon Bibi, conservation efforts implemented by the government have increased the conflict between people, especially the poor, and the local environment as they try to preserve nature at the cost of humans' livelihoods and even lives. Meanwhile, the forest department, part of the government, does nothing to stop the deadly tiger attacks in the area. Fokir and Piya are both deeply connected to nature as a fisherman and a marine biologist, respectively, but they take drastically different approaches to this conservation issue at first. Furthermore, the characters constantly face danger from the unpredictable tides of the Sundarbans, crocodiles and tigers, and in the climax of the novel, a cyclone.
The human cost of environmental protections
Related to the theme of the conflict between people and the natural world is that of the human cost of environmental conservation. One of the central issues of the novel is the plight of a group of refugees who settle on one of the islands of the Sundarbans, but are ordered to leave, then violently removed, by the government in order to preserve the land and environment. For these mostly impoverished refugees, the benefits of conservation come at the cost of their basic needs. Another example of this conflict is the killing of a tiger, which is illegal in the Sundarbans. Piya initially opposes this killing strongly, even though the tiger has already killed two people and threatened more. As Kanai points out, it's again the most impoverished people who suffer from these conservation efforts. Ultimately, Piya revises her views and creates a new sort of conservation organization that will work with local people rather than against them.
Theory vs. practice
The central conflict of the lives, and the marriage, of Nirmal and Nilima is that of theory and practice. For Nirmal, a Marxist intellectual, nothing is more important than the radical theory he studies. When he struggles to adjust after moving to the tide country, he turns to Lenin's writing. Nilima, on the other hand, takes action, setting up an organization to empower the women of the area, as well as a hospital. Though she shares her husband's political beliefs, Nilima is willing to compromise with the government to take what she sees as necessary action and use her theoretical analysis of problems in order to come up with practical solutions, while Nirmal struggles to remain ideologically pure. Nirmal's final attempt to implement the theory he follows comes in his involvement in the plight of the refugees, which he sees as a revolutionary struggle, but the conflict ultimately falls into obscurity.
Education vs. experience
Throughout the novel, the formal education of some characters is contrasted with the knowledge gained from the lived experiences of others. Though Piya has studied marine biology in universities for years, there are basic things she doesn't understand without the aid of Fokir, an illiterate fisherman, who has a deep understanding of the waters of the Sundarbans. Similarly, though Kanai is confident in his knowledge of the world and believes he can understand anything given his knowledge of multiple languages and cultures, Moyna admonishes him for this arrogance, telling him that he cannot understand her experiences as an impoverished woman in the Sundarbans. The conflict between education and experience comes to a head over the future of Moyna and Fokir's son, Tutul. Moyna wants Tutul to be formally educated in the hope that he can become something other than a fisherman as the prospects for such careers fades, while Fokir wants Tutul to learn from experience and follow in his footsteps.
Gender and the subjugation of women
Though the men in the novel are often marginalized by their status as formerly colonized people, impoverished people, or even subversive intellectuals, women face the additional issue of sexism and patriarchy. When Kusum's father is killed, her mother, it is implied, is sold into sexual slavery when she attempts to find a job to support her daughter. Kusum herself relies on male relatives to support her, which allows her to escape the same fate. Furthermore, despite her education and the wealth of the family she comes from, Nilima finds herself marginalized in her marriage to Nirmal, who does not respect her work or see it as revolutionary. Ultimately, Nilima is able to reclaim her role in history by insisting that Kanai include her side of the story when he rewrites Nirmal's journal.
Throughout The Hungry Tide, characters have run-ins with government bureaucracy that are inconvenient at best and often even dangerous. For example, the forest guard and Mej-da, who accompany Piya, seem to care little for her safety, take money from Fokir even though he isn't poaching, and sexually harass Piya. The forest guards also do nothing about frequent tiger attacks because the victims are poor. They're even ineffective at their actual job (ensuring the safety of wildlife in the region): one of their boats hits a dolphin calf, killing it.
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.