Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

L'autre

 | 
Janine Dove-Rumé
, 
Michel Naumann
, 
Tri Tran

IV. Nouvelles littératures

The Other Woman in The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

Lalita Jagtiani Naumann

Texte intégral

  • 1 p. 111, Piya thought: ‘it was almost as if this other woman....’

1The other woman raises the question as to what makes one the other. In one sense, this is a matter of point of view, as the novel makes clear.1 It also asks: Is the Other the desire to be that which one is not and cannot be? I shall use the letter ‘o’ in the word ‘other’ in the lower case to signify an other and in the upper case to denote the concept. The Other is the centre, the place that everyone is trying to get to.

  • 2 One is reminded of Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things, which narrates the story of the (...)
  • 3 Literally, this means beautiful forests.

2The novel, on one level, is a love story with all its complexities and its intertextuality2 with other tragic love stories as it offers us the emotions of jealousy and hatred that form the negative underside of love as well as the more positive ones of patience and the wordless happiness that the presence of the loved one brings. Different facets of love as self-centred or selfless emerge as the characters undergo their rites of initiation or purification in the rivers and islands that form the spatial setting of the novel, the Sundarbans3: the tide country that lies between India and Bangla Desh.

  • 4 I am tempted to regard the primitive and natural state of the tide country uncontrolled by man as (...)

3Amitav Ghosh devotes three of the first six pages of the novel to a description of the Sundarbans, the rivers and the archipelago, where not merely the outlines of islands but the islands themselves that disappear or are created and/or recreated by the tides. The Sundarbans becomes a metaphor for the changing lives of the characters as they traverse its rivers4. It may also be a metaphor for the ID, one of the layers of the unconscious, while the islands may be read as ‘I’lands in one’s search for the ‘I’/self.

  • 5 This is the name of a flower.
  • 6 I use this word in its more general sense of the settling of present-day people in lands away from (...)

4The main character in the novel is Piyali5 Roy, who is at one level the other woman in that she is not the wife of the man with whom she falls in love. Piya, a cetologist, a scientist who studies marine mammals, hears by chance of the existence of dolphins in the Ganges and return to the homeland of her parents from the land where she has lived and studied as a member of the Indian diaspora.6 Thus, Piya becomes the other woman in her adopted land, the U. S. A., where the smells of curry follow her, identifying her as the other, as well as in the land of her parents where, though she looks the same, she dresses and eats differently from the others. Furthermore, as she has not absorbed the culture of the Bengali, she can neither speak the language nor comport herself like a member of the middle-class to which she belongs.

5Unknown to Piya, her search for the dolphin, a mammal often seen as a symbol of the phallus, will parallel her search for her self and will take her below the surface of her conscious life in which she is in full control of herself and her research instruments, especially the heavy binoculars through which she sees life. Through the use of metaphors the writer takes Piya and the reader through the three Lacanian stages that make one a human being: the Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic until Piya is able to come to grips with the other within her. However, a metaphor has several layers of meanings as it is based on language that slips and slides like the sandbanks of the Sundarban islands, so Piya and the reader will be entangled with the stories of others in the novel.

  • 7 p. 199 ff refer to the changes going on in India, especially in the outsourcing of software.
  • 8 The novelist has used an intricate system of almost alternate chapters to narrate stories that run (...)

6I discern two main, interconnected threads in the novel: the first is the psychoanalytic one, especially the concepts of the Real, Imaginary and the Symbolic and the second which refers to the well-worn post-colonial theories built up on the notions of globalisation7 and hybridity, the binary concepts of superior and inferior and their deconstruction through several narrative techniques used by the writer.8

7I shall, however, limit this paper to the first approach.

THE PSYCHOANALYTIC APPROACH: THE DISCOVERY OF THE SELF

8If we take the Symbolic stage as the final one in the phases of the development of the human being, a stage that is dominated by the Word and Culture, then Piya has already entered it. She is a child of Bengali parents who migrated to the U. S. A. Her father has insisted that she speak English so that she will integrate into and succeed in their adopted land. English becomes the language literally imposed by the ‘Law of the Father’ and not the coloniser. Her earliest memories of Bengali centre on her parents arguing in that language. ‘The accumulated hatreds of their life were always phrased in that language, so that for her, its sound had come to represent unhappiness.’(93-94). Language comes to symbolise both the barrier to emotion as she shuts out her mother’s regression into herself in a land in which she, the mother, is an exile, and the gateway to success. Language for Piya is signified by absence and presence.

9As a first step to a recovery of ‘self’, Piya needs to move away from this ambiguity imposed by language back to the stage of the Real, which is wordless and closer to Nature, but it is also the state in which a baby does not recognise itself as a Self with an individual identity. The writer contrives this rebirth for Piya by having her fall into the river accidentally pushed into it by the corrupt guard of her boat while on the expedition searching for the Irrawaddy dolphin. From near death by drowning she is rescued by the incorruptible, illiterate fisherman, Fokir, who refuses all but a single note of the money she offers him as compensation for the money stolen by the guard. The waters of the river may be likened to those of the womb but they also symbolise the move away from the fraudulent world of the official guard. While water symbolises the female element, in this case, the water is not clear, it is disturbed and so is Piya as she fights against it in panic.

  • 9 This closely resembles a mirror.
  • 10 p. 56

10When Piya falls into the muddy river waters the usual Snell’s Window of an inverted cone of light which provides an opening in an otherwise ‘unbroken expanse of shimmering silver that forms the water’s surface as seen (by dolphins) from below’(54)9 is distorted by the silt. Fokir pulls her out from the water like a doctor helping in the birth of a baby and resuscitates her, breathing life into her, ‘pumping air into her lungs’10. He gives her life as in the end he will give his life for her.

  • 11 In the Bengali language the letter ‘a’ in some syllables is pronounced ‘o’
  • 12 This word is used by both Hindu and Muslim communities. This serves underline the plea for interco (...)
  • 13 In Lacan’s stage of the Imaginary, the child sees its image in a mirror as a but this concept of t (...)

11In the new and unfamiliar world of the shanty-like boat, which has not escaped a touch of globalisation as indicated by the use of a plastic grey U. S. mailbag as a hood, Piya feels safer with this unknown fisherman and his young son, Tutul, than she did in the world of the thieving guard with his obscene sexual gestures. The name Fokir11 resembles the Hindi word Fakir12 which describes a man who has renounced the world to live with the barest minimum in order to be closer to god and away from the materialism of the world. Fokir understands Piya’s needs without words and a strong physical attraction develops between them as their needs, his crab fishing and her research are both centred around the river and appear complementary13. Fokir offers her shelter and protection from their awareness of each other by using his wife’s sari as a curtain to protect her modesty and later the sari becomes the pillow on which she lays her head. Piya, shaking from the memory of her fall, accepts the warmth of Fokir’s body, an encounter with strong sexual overtones but ‘no wrong’ has been done and ‘nothing at all had happened’. (111). She smells ‘the presence of the garment’s owner: it was almost as if the other woman had suddenly materialised in the boat.’ From Piya’s perspective, the wife is the other woman.

  • 14 The myth of this goddess runs through the book and although it is chanted by Fokir in Bengali, it (...)

12When Fokir takes Piya to the island of Garjontola, attentive to Piya’s every move, he uses his body to protect her from falling into the mud bank of the island. To reach the interior they have to cross the first barrier of mangroves working their way through dense foliage, symbolising the difficult crossing from the real to the imaginary, the mirror stage, in which the child begins to see itself as a whole, told by the mother that the image is the child, it misidentifies its image with its ‘self’. The image on this island is that of the good mother, for they emerge into a clearing that houses the shrine to Bon Bibi and her brother, Shah Jongoli14. Fokir has taken her to his special place of worship letting her into the inner sanctum of his being, his centre. Fokir has come here because his dead mother, Kusum, has requested him to bring his son for her to see. Piya’s reaction shows no recognition of the gift he has offered her and seems stereotypical of a western woman observing an anthropological ceremony: she is glad to be a witness ‘to this strange ritual.’(153). Therefore, while she is seen through the eyes of the other, she, too, sees with the eyes of the outsider other. Though she senses the fear aroused by the tiger that lurks within the forest of her unconscious, she does not feel the need to merge with the other yet. Flowever, the lack of words renders impossible the true depth of the experience for her. It is the reader who is provided with the link with the past and Fokir’s mother, Kusum, who is the (m)Other with whom Fokir wants to be reunited.

  • 15 This means aunt. She is Kauai’s aunt.

13During the observation of a dolphin and its calf, Piya has her moment of epiphany; she has found her vocation, she has decided to dedicate her life to a study of the Irrawaddy dolphin. The events that Piya has lived through with intensity in the few days on the boat with Fokir have changed her; she is still a scientist but one with ‘an alibi for a life.’(129). The attack by a crocodile, which in psychological terms symbolises a vagina with teeth, finally breaks the spell of dolphin observation as once more Fokir comes to her rescue and they make their way to Mashima’s15 house on the island of Lusibari. From the wordless relationship with Fokir, Piya realises that the fact that she and Fokir cannot speak to each other was ‘more honest’ (159) as ‘speech was only a bag of tricks that fooled you into believing that you could see through the eyes of another being.’ Nevertheless, it is time to return to the world of the symbolic, to language, to Lusibari and Kanai who had invited the American, met by chance on a train, to visit him at his aunt’s home.

  • 16 Kanai is another name for Lord Krishna and this reference is borne out by statements concerning Ka (...)
  • 17 Kanai when he falls into the mud requires a change of clothes and borrows a lungi. The writer uses (...)
  • 18 The lack or gap between the Self and the Other is sometimes referred to as Desire and Ghosh’s use (...)

14Kanai,16 the owner of a New Delhi translating agency, has mastered six languages but his job as interpreter means he speaks only the words of another. Piya is to learn to love him, too. She will be torn between the lungi-clad, wordless fisherman who is close to nature and the worldly translator in his western garb, who, ironically, is to be the one who interprets the words and songs of the other man. ’In the depths of her heart she knew that she would always be torn between the one and the other.’(360). In her inward journey to the self, Piya in the silence of Fokir’s company has been brought up against painful memories of her childhood. But it is to the man of words, Kanai, that she discloses the incident which had made her lose her confidence in men and turned her inwards (314). Fokir becomes the other for both Piya and Kanai. For Piya, Fokir is the Other that she longs for but cannot merge with. Kanai wants to be the one that Piya loves and that is Fokir. However, Kanai/Krishna in his worldly garb cannot be a fakir.17 Kanai loves Piya as he loves Languages. While the need to master words and their sequencing was like ‘pure desire that had quickened his mind then and he could feel the thrill of it even now — except that now the desire was incarnated in the woman... a language made flesh.’ Her intense study of dolphins reminds him of himself. Kanai’s love for Piya has elements of the Self desiring to merge with the Other.18

  • 19 Piya hires Fokir to take her out again dolphin hunting and this time the fisherman s boat is towed (...)
  • 20 In Kusum’s story, which runs parallel to that of Piya’s, we learn that Kusum and Horen do merge on (...)

15Merger or fusion with the Other comes with Death and it is Fokir who achieves this goal with his death. The writer creates the situation to fit naturally into the narrative19. We are told that Fokir has been dreaming that he will soon join his dead mother and he loses his life sheltering Piya from the ravages of the cyclone, which destroys the shrine at which he used to worship. The fulfilment of their sexual desire would not have brought either of them closer to the other.20 The cyclone symbolises the trauma that comes with the reaching into the unconscious as well as with the knowledge that we cannot close the gap or Lack between the self and the Other.

CONCLUSION

16Piya herself finds her way out of the island using her remaining Western instrument, a GPS monitor. She was briefly united with the uneducated Fokir who gives his life for her, but she is brought back to safety by the education that enables her to read her scientific instrument. The traditional knowledge that comes with experience is safeguarded in this instrument of globalisation. The two women he loved are drawn together by his death. The writer has Piya dress in Moyna’s colourful saris as the latter now a widow will not wear them and Piya’s clothes have been lost. The two begin to resemble each other as they sit silently side by side. ‘Nilima had even mistaken the one for the other.’ (394). The writer informs us that the two express their grief differently, the distressed wife weeps, the other traumatised by her ordeal ‘retreat (s) deep within herself.’ (395).

  • 21 There are further symbolic interpretations of the word Sari that I have left unexploited. It is, f (...)

17If wearing the wife’s clothes is meant to signify that Piya is now in the wife’s position and thus no longer the other woman, I find the metaphor tasteless. We could, however, read this as symbolising the swaddling of the child in the clothes of the mother. Piya had once been ashamed of the saris her mother wore and of the old towel or ‘Gamchaa’ that her father used, which was similar to the one that Fokir had. Piya’s donning of the sari21 symbolises the necessary acceptance of the mother she had once rejected. I use the word necessary to indicate that Piya’s ordeal in the unexplored territory of India has brought about a balance in her self.

18Piya eventually returns to her conscious world with her habitual fieldwork garb of trousers and shirt. She returns to Lusibari, for this will be her new ‘home’, with donations collected through the Internet, which links us to the globalised world, to educate Moyna and her son and to continue with her research on the Orcaella brevirostris and a determination to learn Bengali. We remember that Piya first fell into the river while trying to offer Fokir money that he refuses for his values are different and now she can offer it to his more practical wife. Piya has regained her libido, her creative urge has returned and she is no longer the repressed female fieldworker who has suppressed her desires, however, Piya remains a part of the world where even one’s vocation is linked with the value of money. Only Fokir is permitted a move away from the materialistic world, a fulfilment of his desire for a merger with the Other. From a non-Western perspective this merger with the Other is not an annihilation of one’s self. It is Life not Death.

Bibliographie

BIBLIOGRAPHY

GHOSH Amitav, The Hungry Tide, Delhi, Ravi Dayal Publisher, 2004

MORFAUX Louis-Marie, Vocabulaire de la philosophie et des sciences humaines, Paris, Armand Colin, 1980

Notes

1 p. 111, Piya thought: ‘it was almost as if this other woman....’

2 One is reminded of Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things, which narrates the story of the love of an upper caste woman and an ‘untouchable’ man.

3 Literally, this means beautiful forests.

4 I am tempted to regard the primitive and natural state of the tide country uncontrolled by man as a metaphor for the unconscious which in Freud’s topography of the mind represents mental processes that cannot be controlled by direct means and comes in brief flashes to the surface through trauma, in this novel, the cyclone and whose danger is represented by the symbol of the tiger so feared by man that its name may not be pronounced. Following this argument the surface ripples of the rivers represent the conscious with its awareness of the exterior world and its capacity to receive information concerning for example feelings of pleasure and non-pleasure from the interior. The second layer is the pre-conscious that can at any moment become conscious aided by ‘mots inducteurs’ or free associations that make the subject speak of what has been repressed, the ‘real river lies beneath, unseen and unheard,’ (p. 258). The unconscious lies beneath even this imposing its ethical values and censureship with severity. In a later interpretation of Freud’s theory, it is the superego that guides moral values.

5 This is the name of a flower.

6 I use this word in its more general sense of the settling of present-day people in lands away from their original locale.

7 p. 199 ff refer to the changes going on in India, especially in the outsourcing of software.

8 The novelist has used an intricate system of almost alternate chapters to narrate stories that run parallel to that of the main characters and it is with regret that I do not refer to these.

9 This closely resembles a mirror.

10 p. 56

11 In the Bengali language the letter ‘a’ in some syllables is pronounced ‘o’

12 This word is used by both Hindu and Muslim communities. This serves underline the plea for intercommunal harmony that runs through the novel. Fokir, moreover, prays to a goddess in words that sound like a prayer to Allah.

13 In Lacan’s stage of the Imaginary, the child sees its image in a mirror as a but this concept of the self that inner being that we designate by “I” is based on a misidentification with the image of an other.

14 The myth of this goddess runs through the book and although it is chanted by Fokir in Bengali, it is translated by Kanai.

15 This means aunt. She is Kauai’s aunt.

16 Kanai is another name for Lord Krishna and this reference is borne out by statements concerning Kanai’s sexual conquests. This name can easily be made to sound like ‘Can I?’

17 Kanai when he falls into the mud requires a change of clothes and borrows a lungi. The writer uses the change of garb to signify a change in the character.

18 The lack or gap between the Self and the Other is sometimes referred to as Desire and Ghosh’s use of the word indicates a deliberate use of psychoanalysis.

19 Piya hires Fokir to take her out again dolphin hunting and this time the fisherman s boat is towed along by the motor boat belonging to, Horen, the man who has brought him up. Much to the relief of Moyna, Fokir’s wife, Kanai as their translator accompanies them. Moyna, an ambitious hardworking woman training to be a nurse, married to Fokir who comes from the same island as her, explains to Kanai, who wonders why she has married an illiterate man with no ambitions, that not being a woman he would not understand. (156). Kanai, after a metaphorical duel with Fokir that he loses, along with his temper, and an undignified fall in the mud, faces his fears, decides to return to Delhi and requests Horen to take him to Lusibari. He has accepted the futility of his attempts to win Piya over from Fokir. Before he leaves, he tells Piya of Moyna’s fears that Piya might take Fokir away from her. Fokir rows Piya through the creeks where he has often sighted the dolphins and she uses her GPS monitor to keep track of the labyrinth-like paths.
At nightfall, Fokir anchors the boat at an island though, as we learn from Horen, he could easily have rowed on to Garjontola. In love with Piya, he had chosen to spend the night alone with her. However, the romantic lunar rainbow, reminds Piya of Moyna and he asks herself ‘What could she offer him that would amount to even a small part of what he already had?’(352). The sight of the lunar rainbow breaks something between them filling them with the nameless pain that comes with the knowledge that we cannot be part of the Other for it is beyond us. Piya and Fokir return through the storm to Garjontola the next morning, losing most of Piya’s sophisticated scientific equipment and the U. S. mailbag hood of the boat. Fokir ties himself and Piya to a sturdy branch with his wife’s sari to wait for the cyclone to die down. The force of the wind and the objects that come hurling at them, the wave that breaks over them may denote the dangers that come with an illicit love affair but on a deeper level they signify the trauma of reaching into the unconscious and the fears that accompany this. Tying himself to Piya with his wife’s sari cannot make Piya one with him. The wind turns to come at them from another direction and Fokir’s body shelters Piya from the worst but he dies crushed into her, understanding her expressions of love ‘even without words’. (393).

20 In Kusum’s story, which runs parallel to that of Piya’s, we learn that Kusum and Horen do merge once one into the other like the mingling of fresh water and salt water, but Kusum is killed the following day.

21 There are further symbolic interpretations of the word Sari that I have left unexploited. It is, for example, the garment worn by Draupadi in the Mahabharata. Draupadi calls to Lord Krishna for help and this seamless garment never ends when the Kaurava brothers try to undress her.

Auteur

Université du Havre

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2008

Conditions d’utilisation : http://www.openedition.org/6540