The Sundarbans has been a place of allure for the environmentalist. It is created by the confluence of the Ganges, Meghna and Brahmaputra and their innumerable distributaries and is located in the southern end of both Bengal and Bangladesh. This fragile ecosystem is home to a diverse range of flora and fauna within its rivers and mangrove forests. And while this romanticised image of the Sundarbans exists, it is not without conflict. The following essay is an analysis of how conflict in the Sundarbans can be understood through interactions between people (human actors) and the flora and fauna (non-human actors) through a piece of literary fiction. More specifically, it is a defence of the ecological theory namely Actor Network Theory (ANT).
The central text of this analysis is a novel by Amitav Ghosh: The Hungry Tide. The book is set in the Sundarbans and is a saga of the intertwined lives between the people and the land. Even though the book is considered fiction, it can be argued that the fabrication exists only in genre. Each character themselves are representatives of real people; groups of people; and relations between people dwelling in the Sundarbans. More importantly, the book is not false in its evocation of conflict: displacement, destabilisation and degradation. As Dr Suddhojit Chatterjee writes, “It is a unique novel with the amalgamation of anthropology, environmentalism, migration, travel, ethnography, photography and landscape wrapped under the veil of fiction.”
The Hungry Tide portrays the Human-Nature conflict in various aspects, however the most persistent and dangerously constructed one is that of the tiger. The tiger is constructed in varied ways to different groups of people who encounter the Sundarbans. Gosh creates characters to represent different cohorts of these people. Within these people one can clearly see how narratives of the tiger vary. In the line,
But even before he could say the word bagh, tiger, she slammed a hand over his mouth: No you can’t use the word–to say it is to summon it. (Ghosh 108)
‘He’ refers to Kanai, the intellectual, residing in the cosmopolitan city of Delhi but is born in Calcutta, Bengal. He visits the Sundarbans to see his aunt who runs an NGO there. As a young boy he made friends with Kusum, a native of the Sundarbans who lived in the confines of poverty, and ‘she’ refers to her. One can notice the varied impact the word ‘tiger’ has on these two actors who come from different geographical, and socio-cultural locations. Parallelly, Gosh uses two other characters to reassert this dichotomy in the line:
She made her hands into claws, as if to mime a tiger. But before she could complete the gesture, he clamped his hands on her wrists, vehemently shaking his head as if to forbid her from making a reference to the subject. (Ghosh 98)
‘She’ refers to Piya, the American (NRI) environmentalist and researcher who has come to the Sundarbans in search of dolphins. ‘He’ refers to Fokir, a fisherman in the Sundarbans, and son of Kusum. Evidently the display of fear in both the natives, as opposed to non-natives of the Sundarbans is indicative of larger attitudes toward tigers. Nillima, aunt of Kanai, is an example of how even the adventitious population of the Sundarbans, who have lived there for many years perceive the tiger. This is a line where Nilima’s narrative corresponds to that of Kusum. Her translation gives the tiger power: “the tide country’s tigers are different from anywhere else.” (Ghosh 241)
Attitudes and beliefs about the identity of the Bengal Tiger originate from these co-constructed narratives that are different for natives and non-natives.
What Ghosh is constructing through these interactions are deep tensions between humans and wildlife. This construction is substantiated by data around this conflict. Khanom informs us, between 1981 and 1992, up to four tigers were labelled ‘man eaters’ by the Forest Department and were subsequently killed for being a threat to settlements, killing a person almost every other day. The narrative of the tiger being the perpetrator of violence is corroborated by Ghosh’s novel not only through the attitudes of the native characters but the language he has chosen to relay the description of the death of Kusum’s father, “[s]he heard the sound of his bones cracking as the animal swiped a paw across his neck” (Ghosh 111). This reiterates images of violence and animosity. This important translation of conflict absolves human actors of their participatory role; placing the capacity of violence in the non-human actor alone. Tigers also partake in enrolling themselves into violent identities that are further propagated by human networks like television, news stories and even literature such as this.
And yet Khanom provides additional relational factors:“[o]n the northern border of the Sundarbans…majority of the people are directly reliant on forest resource extraction.” This involves practices such as wood-cutting that shrink forest sizes; for the Royal Bengal Tiger, male territory spans from 5-150 km. Habitat loss for the tiger, as well as depleting resources has forced tigers to cross paths with human settlements, while simultaneously creating a threat to the tiger itself.
Opposing narratives are also displayed in The Forest of Tigers which entail non-fictional accounts of Annu Jalais’ time on the islands. Recollection of Mihir narrating his understanding of why tigers kill humans were: “the greed of prawn seed collectors, the violence between ‘different parties’, and the fact that there were too many people entering the forest were causing the tigers to feel disturbed and therefore annoyed with humans.” This construction also contributes to the narrative that humans and tigers are incompatible. But here it is humans and human livelihood– instead of the violence of tigers– that is central in enabling the conflict. These differences in explanations could stem from the difference in occupation. Mihir is a tiger charmer who does not entirely depend on forest resources for his survival, unlike the characters of Fokir and Kusum–fishermen folk, who do. The translations and who they enrol in explaining human-tiger conflict seem to depend on how they perceive themselves in relation to the landscape of the Sundarbans.
These narratives help us understand the issue in a multidimensional way. This could bring to question the integrity of the claims being made through these translations. Latour however addresses this pitfall of the theory by recognising: “as for all translations it is possible and necessary to distort the meanings but not betray them entirely.” (Perreault et al. 214) The diversity in theorising the reason for human-tiger conflict is acknowledged to be distorted and subjective. However, it provides a platform to understand the complexity of the positions of people by considering experiences, feelings and occupation. Considering these variables, paints a realistic picture that allows one to empathise– an important factor in perceiving a conflict such as this in an intricate manner. Therefore it can be interpreted that the diversity of the translations is the reason for its authenticity, since what we are claiming to understand is multiple truths from different actors at the micro-level. This is something Gosh ultimately captures in the lines,
Because the animals
Already know by instinct
we’re not comfortably at home
In our translated world
- Nirmal (Ghosh 206)
Here, Gosh shows us that the translations of the people of the Sundarbans are fraught with fear of the animals but it is a world they must continue in to survive. It can be seen as the author’s recognition of the power of interaction in creating the ethos of a place and not just its physical existence in itself.
Themes of conservation conflict run as threads through the novel. A voice embodying the mystical construction of the Sundarbans, that encourages romanticisation of the delta and leads to a view that places importance in conservation initiatives, is the narrator himself. Descriptions by the author provide images of an enticing ecosystem, “A mangrove forest is a universe unto itself utterly unlike other woodlands or jungles” (Ghosh 7) and for this reason the conservation of it is imperative.
The context of this conflict emerges from socioeconomic status within the locals and can be categorised as land-owners and non-land owners (Jalais 2011), who depend more so on the forest and rivers and are affiliated with occupations of honey hunters, fishers, prawn-seed collectors etc. and are objectively poorer. They are the most adversely affected by conservation rules that include specified access to the landscape for resources in order to reach its goal of preservation. This reiterates the claim made by Adams et. al, “poverty is a critical constraint on conservation” announcing a narrative of incompatibility between the two issues.
How Ghosh’s book addresses this issue is by depicting conflict between the forest department and Fokir. Fokir can very well be defined within Jalais’s socio-economic categorisation. Fokir would be known as machh-kankra dohar lok (Jalais 34), or people who catch fish and crabs. His occupation largely depends on natural resources which makes him one of the poorer dwellers of the Sundarbans. Now that the socio-economic identity of Fokir is defined, the implications of the micro-level interaction between him and the forest department can be better understood.
The forest department is an actor that only appears in the first few chapters of the book, but is nevertheless an important actor in representing laws of the government because it recognises the role of the state and its relationship to conservation practices. Conflicting relations between these two actors are illustrated. Fokir traverses into an off-limits fishing area and regretfully meets the boat carrying Piya (the NRI environmentalist) and her helpers-the forest department.
“‘Poacher’ the guard said again, pointing his rifle at the fisherman. ‘Poacher.’” (Ghosh 138) The ‘shoot on sight’ instinct adds on to the narrative of the poor being a constraint to conservation; and it is only when poverty is annihilated can conservation be successful. However Ghosh does not disregard implications of ‘bribery’ and ‘corruption’ that accompany these encounters and reflect the relations of power between these two actors. The insinuation of wanting a bribe is one aspect of the state as an actor, exercising power in selfish pockets and not necessarily for the greater good of biodiversity conservation. However if we set aside this nuance, the translation being relayed is that conservation and poverty are incompatible, and for conservation to be successful poverty cannot prevail. The interaction between the guard and the fisherman depicted the authority of the guard surpassing the fishermans need to find crab and fish. Guards enrol themselves in this narrative acting as ‘protectors’ of the reserve through acts of violence against ‘encroachers’ who can be identified as any actor who impinges on rules of conservation. These actants are usually the local poor, who require the land to meet their economic and survival necessities.
And yet a subtle counter-narrative is also being relayed since there is a third actor- Piya the NRI- who brings a nuanced dimension in understanding the conflict along with the non-human actor: the dolphin. The character of Piya, a cetologist, addresses the pursuit of conservation as a scientific endeavour and her concerns lie in the study and conservation of aquatic life . Due to her foreign location in relation to the landscape, the forest department seems like the most suitable mediator between the outsiders and the land. But while Ghosh portrays the problematic presence of the local and poor people for conservation, he also ultimately constructs that it was none other than the fisherman who could identify Piya’s illustrations of the Irrawaddy Dolphin and could recollect where he had seen them. This contrasts the FD’s reaction to the illustrations being, “Bird?Bird?” The comical depiction of the ignorance of the FD seems to contradict their identities as protectors of the reserved areas. The importance given to Fokir’s knowledge of dolphin patterns is seen in the lines: “How could he have known that they would run into a group of Orcaella right then, and right in that place?” (Ghosh 140)
It is part of a larger narrative that realises the knowledge of the locals to be key to conservation. There is little conflict noticed between the actor of the environmental scientist and that of the fisherman because their interactions confess a dependency on the local people by the ‘outsiders’ in order to pursue any kind of research at all. The dolphin as an actor has enabled the distinction between those who know the intricacies of the Sundarban ecosystem and those who ‘pretend to know’. The forest department as actors are therefore more concerned with punishing those who break conservation protocol instead of nurturing conservation itself. The translation here would then not see poverty and conservation as so incompatible since this narrative recognises the knowledge local actors contribute to the scientific study of a landscape.
The fluidity in the role of the fisherman in both narratives can display how they are perceived both as poachers and repositories of intimate and specific knowledge. The complexity lies in the binary of both truths and that is what actor network theory recognises through opposing translations. Each translation constructs a different enrolment of each actor. The dolphin, moreover, is an actor that has enabled the understanding of the relationship each actor possesses with the landscape through interactions around the subject of the dolphin. A. Comber et.al in Actor-network theory: A suitable framework to understand how land cover mapping projects develop, comment on the role of both human and non human actors by saying, “ANT accepts humans and non-humans (objects) as actors, since all interactions between humans are mediated through objects of one type or another,” and this is suggestive of one of the strengths of ANT as it acknowledges the symbiotic relationship between human and non-human actors and locates agency in both. All objects and subjects have agency in the translation they exist in.
Another intimate understanding of conservation conflict is the lone pursuit of environmentalists themselves. After being presented an opportunity to study such rare dolphins in close proximity, the character of Piya encounters a new found sense of purpose: “it would be enough; as an alibi for life, it would do; she would not need to apologise for how she spent her time on this earth.” (Ghosh 127)
This positions Piya as the educated outsider, whose passion for marine life has manifested in ecological study of them, that in-turn provides her with a sense of vitality. Like most environmentalists the larger empathy lies within the animal world, and the loss of their kingdom implies a larger degradation of life around an ecosystem. And this empathetic construction of the natural world is in itself problematised to reach goals of conservation. The novel puts it simply when Kani says: “where you see fauna, he sees food.” (Ghosh 268)
It is problematised because while there exist large bodies of knowledge within the environmental scientist, it comes at the cost of losing sight (due to the impassioned empathy for the natural world) of the necessary use of violence for the local and indigenous dwellers. This is illustrated in the chapter ‘A killing,’ where Fokir’s real belief is, “when a tiger comes into a human settlement, it’s because it wants to die,” (Ghosh 295) where as Piya–who Gosh has constructed to be far removed, not just from actors around her but from her own cultural identity since she is an NRI–truly believes, “you can’t take revenge on an animal.” (Ghosh 294)
What is realised here is that the environmentalist approach to Sundarban conservation occurs through a normative positionality, with assumptions on how the world ought to work, whereas the dweller carries with him positivist understandings, which is the truth of how things really work. The translation here therefore is an incompatibility between the normative and the positivist, and therefore between how policy is constructed around conservation is incompatible with the practicality of it.
Finally the largest socio-political conflict to arise in the Sundarbans: the 1979 Marichjhapi Massacre. The genocide that displays, more obviously than ever, the violence of conservation. This narrative is different from the previously explored narrative of the incompatibility of the poor and biodiversity conservation due to resource dependence, access and preservation. This conflict is a deepening understanding of the state’s construction of conservation and preservation at the cost of human lives. The number of the killings have been estimated to be over 1000 but government statistics have reported 13 casualties. The Dalit refugees found a place in Morichjhapi, an island in the Sundarbans that was a part of the government demarcated tiger reserve of the Sundarbans. They were people who had been, as the novel defines for us, “exploited by Muslim communalists and by the Hindu upper castes.” (Ghosh 118)
The communist government of the time declared that their refugees were a burden to the state of Bengal. To best understand this issue, ANT may not sufficiently grasp the deep historical roots of such a massacre. Critical historical approaches consider the ‘structural’ like structures of caste and colonialism to better explain this conflict. The construction of the refugees, as Biswas and Channarayapatna state, were “environmentally unfriendly…they stood against state imposed rules and regulations for conservation.” And yet this translation of refugee actors is not enough to explain a large-scale genocide. As Jalais identifies, “[t]he government placed primacy on ecology…to legitimise their ejection from Morchijaphi.” An important node of analysis in what appears to be conservation conflict, is not. Ecology was used as a tool to justify marginalisation. Tiger conservation, if seen like this, became a political tool in perpetuating structural inequalities without consequence. “It demonstrates how state sponsored conservation can be radical and exclusionary” say Biswas and Channarayapatna. These explanations involve conditions of systemic marginalisation that led to the very possibility of such a massacre. Policing, shooting of children and the rape of women are not subjective ‘translations’ but a product of: colonial divisions; the geographical dismemberment of India into Pakistan and Bangladesh; and established caste categories that are rooted in religious faith.
However, through The Hungry Tide, we see the revolution of Morchijapi at the microlevel through the character of Nirmal. It can be seen through the narrative of environmental injustice, that Biswas and Channarayapatna identify as a discourse that sees “humans, who are in power...can bring justice to nature.” Nirmal, the educated settler and ex-principal of Lusibari school, an employer of many local dwellers chooses to be of help to the refugees. In his conversation with the refugees he was asked questions. The dialogue presents itself as such:
“Then do you know anyone with power? Policemen? Forest rangers? Politicians?”
“No” I said. “No one”
“Of what use could you be?” (Ghosh 173)
What is noticeable is that the groups of power mentioned are the same groups who are in conflict with the refugees and are the same groups who ultimately ‘succeeded in conservation’. In this discourse actors are divided into the powerful and the powerless and provide the narrative that it is only people in power who can bring about change in any shape or form. Through the Marichjhapi massacre, enrolment of actants like the police into their roles of power, happened through tools of violence that were justified by government actors. Therefore through this, ANT re-enforces structural explanations of power-relations that help understand political conflict in the Sundarbans.
Therefore what has been demonstrated through the understanding of two components of ecological conflict–human-nature and conservation– in the Sundarbans is complex. Within ANT there has been a plethora of narrations that form actor roles and vice versa. Actor roles can be different within various translations and ultimately none of them are untrue. The acknowledgement of subjectivity that exists within ANT is only a strengthening element. What is also observed is that translations are highly dependent on the location of the actors providing it, and are not value-free. But at the same time, it is not claiming to be. Additionally, structural explanations aid in providing context to micro-level interactions that are best suited to explain social outcomes. The Hungry Tide has provided a literary landscape to understand these interactions between different groups of humans and non-humans in understanding the varied nature of explaining conflict in a highly contested, extremely valued and rapidly degrading environment of the Sundarbans.
The Hungry Tide is a body of interactions that is enough for the reader to comprehend the conflicts of the Sundarbans through its characters alone. This work of fiction has here been analysed through an ecological lens to produce interpretations that holds true in a world of non-fiction. It is a representation of how the lives of human and non-human actors are sewn into their environments, and that ideas, understandings and explanations of these ecological environments cannot exist without them.
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Dipti Wadhera is a university student, born in the city of Bangalore. In her late adolescence, she gravitated towards living away from the city, closer to the rural countryside of southern India. This sparked her curiosity for the natural world and the environment she lived in. Through self-direction and the guidance of a number of books and professors, she wrote about the ecology of the Sundarbans. While she is studying Psychology and politics, she hopes to continue to learn through resources around her about ecology and the environment.