Animals in The Hungry Tide and the real Sundarbans

Unknown, ‘Scene from the Gazi scrolls of Bengal (18th or 19th century). Depicts the legend of Pir Gazi and his tiger in the Sundarbans‘, painting in a scroll, 18th/19th century.

In 1987, the Sundarbans mangrove forest, one of the world’s largest, is included on the Unesco World Heritage list. This vast mangrove forest may be found in a river delta near the Bay of Bengal. This complicated network of tidal rivers, mudflats, small islands, and mangrove forests is home to both humans and wildlife. Many different animal species may call this place home, including over 260 bird species, the Bengal tiger, crocodiles, snakes, and dolphins.[1]

The Sundarbans is a collection of three separate wildlife sanctuaries. The protection of this region may be traced back to the early nineteenth century, when the British controlled over this area. One of the most essential components of this conservation endeavor is preserving the area’s biodiversity, aesthetic qualities, and integrity. This area of nature, however, is populated by humans. Humans reside in a little village across the Sundarbans and work as fishermen, honey gatherers, wood cutters, leaf and grass gatherers, and so on.[2] Therefore human-animal interactions are bound to happen.

The Sundarbans are also the backdrop for Amitav Ghosh’s (1956) novel The Hungry Tide (2004). At the start of this novel, we meet the main protagonists Kanai Dutt and Piya Roy, who are both traveling by rail to the city of Canning. They both embark and travel individually through a delta full with mangrove woods and animals from this city on the outskirts of the Sundarabans. The protagonists in Amitav Ghosh’s Sundarbans cannot escape interacting with nature since they are literally traveling through a large forest teeming with wildlife. As a result, animals play an essential role in the plot. This book, however, is a representation of reality, not reality itself. As a result, the novels’ depiction of animals may differ from the actual interaction between animals and people.

This is why this article will address the following question: ‘How does the portrayal of animal-human interaction in Amitav Ghosh’s depiction of rural India, particularly the Sundarbans, compare to reality?’. The essay must study human-animal relationship in order to address this issue. This form of research is known as anthrozoology, and this article will focus on it first by looking at some academic articles. The following section of this article will go into The Hungry Tide itself. This section will focus on an analysis of the role of animals in the novel, how they are treated, and how they interact with humans. Following that, this article will look at reality through the lens of academic literature. This allows a comparison to be established between the fictional Sundarbans and reality.

Animal Studies

Anthrozoology is a branch of Animal Studies that studies human attitudes toward and interactions with non-human animals. The way individuals interact in these interactions indicates something about human identity, about what it means to be human. The question of how and why animals are represented in a particular way is central to this; it is thus, in some respects, about agency. Nonetheless, Samantha Hurn, an anthropology associate professor, argues that this field of research continues to objectify nonhuman beings. She says that anthrozoological research prioritizes the human perspective and, in essence, objectifies the animals involved.[3]

However, another sub-discipline known as human-animal studies (HAS) incorporates the animal side and focuses on the interdependence of humans and other living species. As a result, this profession attempts to perceive the world via both eyes, not only the human eyes. It is about understanding animals as performers. As a result, they desire to know how humans and other animals communicate with one another.[4] Thus, the distinction between the sub-disciplines is that human-animal studies attempts to give animals greater agency than anthrozoology. Animals are also nowadays reconceptualised to active participants in all sorts of cultural production.[5]

According to scholar Susan Mchugh, animals have appeared throughout history in literature. They serve a variety of purposes, such as serving as a metaphor for the poetic imagination, and are hence referred to as textual animal.[6] Literature is also the place for negotiating the representational problems of animals like genetic modification and cloning.[7] Sometimes literature also shows evidence of speciesism. This is bias against other species of animals in favor of humans.[8]

The Hungry tide

Amitav Ghosh’s book depicts a range of non-human creatures interacting with people. These encounters might be classified as exploitation or conflict. These situations and categories will now be detailed.

As stated previously in the theory chapter, animals fulfill a variety of functions in literature. One of these objectives was to serve as metaphors, and hence as literary creatures. These analogies are also used in Hungry Tide. For example, on page 22, one of the major characters, Kanai, uses the metaphor of a long-legged waterbird, a heron, to depict his aunt. He compares her outfit to a feather robe.[9] Throughout the narrative, there is a connection between an object or person that resembles something from the non-human animal world. On page 26, officialdom is described as a bureaucratic “honeycomb”[10] There are also some negative analogies, such as ‘these rat-eaten islands,’ which relate to the poor living conditions on parts of the Sundarbans’ islands.[11] Thus animals are used to emphasize likeness to an animal and/or to dirty or bad things like rats.

Animals are also mentioned in the mythology of Bon Bibi. In this theater story, people dress up like tigers. This narrative cautions people about the perils of the jungle, most notably on pages 83-92 when the story’s tiger maims and murders people, but it also uses animals to teach a lesson. As a result, animals are employed as a literary construct.[12]

In addition to metaphors and literary constructs, there are genuine human-animal relationships. On page 10, for example, it is established that the main character Piyali Roy is a cetologist. As a result, she researches marine animals. Piya traveled to the Sundarbans to research the cetacean population, particularly the Gangetic and Irrawaddy river dolphins.[13] On pages 94-96, she also engages with a bunch of Irrawaddy river dolphins. Nothing occurs because it is quite hazy, save for some dolphins rubbing up against the boat. Nonetheless, in this chapter, Piya provides some insider information regarding dolphin behavior. By doing so, she adds another dimension to the dolphins, making them more than just a study object, but also actors that travel and act according to their own patterns of behavior. She also attempts to figure out what causes the animals to come to this location, and she considers ways to safeguard them.[14] As a result, animals in these pieces serve as a study object with some agency.

In addition to study, there are people that exploit, harm, and exploit animals. People who operate as fishermen or poachers. Several fisherman and fishing boats are referenced in the story. For example, on page 35, Piya notices a fishing boat somewhere in the Sundarban reserve. As a result, he is fishing illegally, which is considered poaching. In these fragments, it is clear that people hunt for animals to eat and sell in areas that are actually off limits to them.[15] On page 112, it is also stated that the fishermen utilize very successful methods that decrease the fish population, resulting in natural fatigue.[16] These excerpts demonstrate animal exploitation and the difficulties they endure, even in protected regions. Nonetheless, the book depicts fisherman and dolphins working together to catch fish, demonstrating a symbiotic relationship.[17]

Nonetheless, there are wildlife protection officials who fight poaching. This is especially noticeable when Piya departs Canning with a Forest Department-assigned wildlife ranger.[18] This officers actually also intervenes in the novel, he gives the poachers, which Piya encountered in the reservation, a fine and send them away.[19] The book also states that many islands were forcibly depopulated to make room for wildlife conservation projects.[20] Therefore protection of the animals against exploitation in the form of poaching and other forms is also featured.

Human antagonistic opponents, for example, tigers and crocodiles frightened humans away, which is why certain Sundarbans islands are abandoned, are discussed on page 43. The text goes on to say that tigers, snakes, and crocodiles murder and maim hundreds of people. The text does not explain why they did this; it merely cites this one-dimensional vision of the adversary and threat.[21] This is demonstrated again towards the end of Part One, when Piya is almost murdered by a crocodile, but the crocodile just appears and then vanishes. As a result, it mostly serves as a prop to advance the plot.[22]

Although the book depicts several animals, including a cetologist at work, it does not depict the creatures’ agency or motive. As a result, they are essentially ornaments that may be used by people and must be protected by humans; they also function as instruments to advance the tale. As a result, the tale has a speciesist undertone, because humans are presented to be masters of the animal’s fate, implying a certain superiority of people over animals.


Reality, on the other hand, bears certain resemblances to Amitav Ghosh’s book The Hungry Tide. Many people work and reside in the region. These people work as farmers, fishermen, and foresters. As a result, they engage with the natural world on a regular basis.[23]

Like Piya in the novel there are also research institutions which research and study many different elements of the Sundarbans. According to UNESCO, significant research has been conducted on the fauna and habitat of the Sundarbans mangrove wetlands. Not only do local institutions such as the National Zoological Park contribute, but so do international organizations such as the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Smithsonian Institution, and others. These organizations have contributed in the development of operating plans for the property, with an emphasis on animal conservation and management.[24]

Human activity is also a hazard to the Sundarbans, which should be studied. Massive upriver pollution and large-scale shrimp cultivation endanger the Sundarbans’ mangrove habitats. Shrimp farms altered the natural environment, altering the ecology. Water pollution, on the other hand, kills the mangrove trees. In addition, over 50,000 fishermen visit the Sundarbans on a daily basis to fish and harvest natural resources. This is far more than the few fisherman shown in Amitav Ghosh’s novel.[25]

Poaching is another danger. Several groups of tiger murderers have been identified via studies of tiger poaching. Villagers who wish to be safe. Other organizations, such as poachers and pirates, kill tigers for money, status derived from donating tiger parts for traditional medicine, or as a community protection service. In addition, there is a growing worldwide commerce in tiger bones.[26]

Nonetheless, there is a little more upbeat message. The authorities are working hard to keep the Sundarbans safe. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has created a nationwide wetlands policy framework. They also established the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO), who is in charge of wetland conservation. They also have authority over silvicultural standards, forest product sales, industry, and liaison. They operate four range-based offices who are solely responsible for the protection and management of the Sundarbans’ wildlife sanctuaries.[27]


Therefore one can conclude that the answer to the following question; ‘’How does the portrayal of animal-human interaction in Amitav Ghosh’s depiction of rural India, particularly the Sundarbans, compare to reality?’ is complicated. The book and reality show clear parallels.

Both reality and the book portray exploitation of animals, poaching, fishing, protection, and study. Nevertheless the book neglects the role of the tiger. The Sundarbans are for example the last habitat of the Bengal tiger. Next to that there is a lack of emphasis on human destruction of nature which causes the downfall of animals in the region. For example humans pollute the water, which in course causes the decline of the entire ecosystem.

Therefore the conclusion is that the book and reality mostly compare, but there are some small differences. For example than humans are literally destroying the Mangrove wetlands with forestry, shrimp farming and water pollution is not mentioned.

[1] UNESCO, ‘The Sundarbans’, (9-11-2021).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Samantha Hurn, ‘WHAT’S IN A NAME? Anthrozoology, human-animal studies, animal studies or…?’, Anthropology Today 26 (2010 3, 27-28, there 27.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Susan McHugh, ‘Literary Animal. Agents’, Modern Language Association 124 (2009) 2, 487-495, there 490.

[6] Ibid., 487.

[7] Ibid, 491.

[8] Kim Socha and Les Mitchell, ‘Critical Animal Studies as an Interdisciplinary Field: A Holistic Approach to Confronting Oppression’, Counterpoints 448 (2014), 110-132, there 127.

[9] Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide (Boston/New York 2005), 22.

[10] Ibid., 26.

[11] Ibid., 46.

[12] Ibid., 83-92.

[13] Ibid., 10, 19 and 28.

[14] Ibid., 94-96, and 103-104.

[15] Ibid., 35-37.

[16] Ibid., 112.

[17] Ibid., 138-139.

[18] Ibid., 26-29.

[19] Ibid., 38-41.

[20] Ibid., 50.

[21] Ibid., 43-44.

[22] Ibid., 144-145.

[23] Maureen Mitra, ‘Tides, Tigers and Tears’, Economic and Political Weekly 45 (2010) 26/27, 41-43, there 41.

[24] UNESCO, ‘The Sundarbans’.

[25]Shafi Noor Islam, ‘Threats to the Sundarbans Mangrove Wetland Ecosystems from Transboundary Water Allocation in the Ganges Basin: A Preliminary Problem Analysis.’, International Journal of Ecological Economics & Statistics 13 (2009) 9, 64-78, there 73.

[26] Samia Saif and Douglas Craig Macmillan, ‘Tiger poaching in Bangladesh Sundarban’, Conference: Green Criminology Conference at London, UK (2014), 1-9, there 1.

[27] Islam, ‘Threats to the Sundarbans Mangrove Wetland Ecosystems from Transboundary Water Allocation in the Ganges Basin’, 75.

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