There are no borders here to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea. The tides reach as far as two hundred miles inland and every day thousands of acres of forest disappear underwater, only to reemerge hours later. The currents are so powerful as to reshape the islands almost daily some days the water tears away entire promontories and peninsulas; at other times it throws up new shelves and sandbanks where there were none before.
When the tides create new land, overnight mangroves begin to gestate, and if the conditions are right they can spread so fast as to cover a new island within a few short years. A mangrove forest is a universe unto itself, utterly unlike other woodlands or jungles. There are no towering, vine- looped trees, no ferns, no wildflowers, no chattering monkeys or cockatoos. Mangrove leaves are tough and leathery, the branches gnarled and the foliage often impassably dense. Visibility is short and the air still and fetid. At no moment can human beings have any doubt of the terrains hostility to their presence, of its cunning and resourcefulness, of its determination to destroy or expel them. Every year, dozens of people perish in the embrace of that dense foliage, killed by tigers, snakes and crocodiles.
There is no prettiness here to invite the stranger in: yet to the world at large this archipelago is known as the Sundarbans, which means the beautiful forest. There are some who believe the word to be derived from the name of a common species of mangrove the sundari tree, Heriteria minor.
But the words origin is no easier to account for than is its present br> prevalence, for in the record books of the Mughal emperors this region is named not in reference to a tree but to a tide bhati. And to the inhabitants of the islands this land is known as bhatir desh the tide country except that bhati is not just the tide but one tide in particular, the ebb tide, the bhata. This is a land half submerged at high tide: it is only in falling that the water gives birth to the forest. To look upon this strange parturition, midwifed by the moon, is to know why the name tide country is not just right but necessary. For as with Rilkes catkins hanging from the hazel and the spring rain upon the dark earth, when we behold the lowering tide
we, who have always thought of joy
as rising . . . feel the emotion
that almost amazes us
when a happy thing falls.
From The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh pages 3-7. Copyright © 2005 by Amitav Ghosh. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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