Friday, June 26, 2009


At midday with the sun blazing overhead Piya took a break and came to sit beside Kanai in the shade of the awning. There was a troubled look in her eyes that prompted Kanai to say, “are you still thinking about the forest guards?

This seemed to startle her. “Oh no. not that.”


She tipped her head to drink from her water bottle. “The village,” she said wiping her mouth,” she said, wiping her mouth.’ Last night: I still can’t get it out of my head- I keep seeing it, again and again, - the people, the flames. It was like something from some other time-before recorded history. I feel like I will never be able to get my mind around the –‘

Kanai prompted her as she faltered. “The horror?

‘The horror. Yes. I wonder if ever I will be able to forget it?

‘Probably not’
‘But for Fakir and Haren and the others – it was just a part of everyday life, wasn’t it?’
I imagine they’ve learnt to take in their stride, Piya.They have had to.’
That’s what that haunts me’ said Piya.” In a way that makes them a part of the horror too, doesn’t it? Kanai snapped shut the note book: ‘to be fair to Fakir and Haren, I don’t think that it’s so simple, Piya. I mean aren’t we a part of the horror as well? You and me and people like us?’

Piya ran a hand through her short curly hair, ‘I don’t see how.’

‘That tiger had killed two people, Piya’ Kanai said, ‘and that was just in one village. It happens every week that people are killed by tigers, how about the horror of that? If there were killings on that scale anywhere on earth it would be called genocide, and yet here it goes almost unremarked: these killings are never reported, never written about in the papers. And the reason is just that these people are too poor to matter. We all know it, but we choose not to see it. Isn’t that a horror too- that we can feel the suffering of an animal, but not of human beings?

‘But Kanai, Piya retorted, ‘everywhere in the world dozens of people are killed everyday- on roads, in cars, in traffic. Why is this any worse?
“ Because we are complicit in this, piya. That’s why?
Piya dissociated herself with a shake of her head “I don’t see how I am complicit.’

“Because it was people like you,’ said Kanai, ‘who made a push to protect the wildlife here, without regard for human costs. And I am complicit because people like me-Indians of my class, that is, -have chosen to hide these costs, basically in order to curry favour with their western patrons. It’s, not hard to ignore the people who’re dying- after all they are the poorest of the .poor. But just ask yourself whether this would be allowed to happen anywhere else? There are more tigers living in America in captivity, than there are in all of India- what do you think would happen if they started killing human beings?

But Kanai, said Piya, ‘there’s big difference between preserving a species in captivity and keeping it in its habitat.’
‘And what’s the difference exactly?’

‘The difference Kanai,’Piya said slowly and emphatically,’ is that is what is intended-not by you or me, but by nature , by the earth, by the planet that prevents us from deciding that no other species matters except ourselves. What will be left then? Are’nt we alone enough in the universe? And do you think it will stop at that? Once we decide we can kill off other species, it will be the people next- exactly the kind of people you’re thinking of, people who are poor and unnoticed.’

‘That’s very well for you to say, Piya- but it’s not you who is paying the price in lost lives.’

Piya challenged him.’ Do you think I wouldn’t pay the price if I thought it necessary?’
‘You mean you would be willing to die?’ Kanai scoffed,’ come on Piya’
‘I’m telling you the truth,Kanai’ Piya said quietly,’ if I thought giving up my life might make the rivers safe again for Irawaddy dolphin, the answer is yes, I would.. But the trouble is that my life, your life, a thousand lives would make no difference.’

‘It’s easy to say these things-‘

‘Easy?’ There was a parched weariness in Piya’s voice ‘Kanai, tell me, do you see anything easy about what I do? Look at me. I have no money, no home and no prospects. My friends are thousands of kilometers away and get to see them may be once in year, if I am lucky. And that’s the least of it. On the top of this is the knowledge that what I am doing is more or less futile.’

She looked up and he saw that there were tears in her eyes. ‘There’s nothing easy about this, Kanai, she said. ‘You have to take that back’

He swallowed the quick retort that comes to his lips. Instead, he reached for her hand and placed it between his own. ‘I am sorry’,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t have said that.’ I take it back.’

She snatched her hand away and rose to her feet. ‘I would better get back to work.’

He called out as she was going back to her place,’ you are a brave woman. Do you know that?’

She shrugged this off, in embarrassment. ‘I am just doing my job.’

(excerpts:The Hungry Tide.Amitav Ghosh.Pp 300-302)