The status given by people to different animals was not a result of one-day research. There were different studies, disciplines and cases, in which the main objective was assessing the position of different animals, and evaluating human actions that were conducted against them. In that regard, a polarity of views exists, not only in the scientific and academic circles, but also within different cultures, societies, and communities. To some extent a part of the contrast between people and nature has been portrayed in the novel The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh (2005), a story placed in the setting of the Sundarbans, a forest between the Bengal and India. The story provides a narration of the intersection of different people with different perspectives, and different cultures, all placed in the setting of a beautiful environment, and different animals living in such environment which provides a particular focus for the novel. In that regard, the present paper will attempt to provide a comparison between Piya, a cetologist and one of the main protagonists in the novel, and the people she met while in the Sundarbans. Such differences will be used to outline the different perspectives on the status of tigers, answering the question of whether they are animals or persons.
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First of all, a contrast can be seen in the way knowledge is framed in the novel, between Piya and the Lusibarian people. For Piya, such knowledge was materialistic, as opposed to the spiritual frame of the knowledge of Lusibarian. Such contrast can be explained in that Piya might have viewed objects according to their physical features and attributes which are bound in the theoretical frameworks set by scientists. Lusibarian people, on the other hand, understand objects according to their intangible relations to stories and myths, which are bound in their cultural heritage. An example of the latter can be seen through the way both viewed the tiger in the novel. On the one hand, Piya viewed the tiger as an animal, which is protected by the government. For Lusibarians, the tiger was a demon in disguise, Dokkhin Rai (Ghosh 2005, 88). Both sides possessed knowledge on the same subject, but such knowledge differed along with the relation to such subject. Such differences in perceiving similar subjects can be traced throughout the novel. One apparent difference in views can be seen through the views on dolphins. For Piya, they are the subject of her research, animals, species, and environment inhabitant. Although having certain sentiments towards them, she did not perceive them as anything more than they are (Ghosh 2005, 28). For Lusibarians, on the other hand, dolphins might be perceived as messengers, or Bon Bibi messengers, as Kusum calls them (Ghosh 2005, 194). Bon Bibi, in that regard, is another element of the spiritual perception of Lusibarians of their environment. Bon Bibi is the goddess of the forest, which is believed to rule over the animals in this part of the world (Ghosh 2005, 24).
Another striking contrast can be seen in the approaches toward scientific study in the cooperation between Piya and Fokir. As much as the contrast was evident in their personalities and biographies, such as the fact that she was a researcher, while he was an illiterate fisherman, they could not understand each other as well. Nevertheless, the cooperation between them was fruitful, and despite her involvement in such concepts as keystone species and biomass, it was Fokir who led her to the pool in which she found her dolphin (Ghosh 2005, 119). Her knowledge practice was through studying aspects attributable to nature, rather than nature itself. On the other hand, Fokir understood the environment as it is, being a part of it.
In a philosophical context, a contrast can be seen through the way different perceptions of revenge exist in the novel. For Piya, a tiger is an animal, which makes it an absurd idea of taking revenge on an animal (Ghosh 2005, 242). For the villagers, it was not about revenge, but about balanced coexistence, similar to the circle of life; “when a tiger comes into a human settlement, it’s because it wants to die (Ghosh 2005, 244). Such difference in view is similarly linked to the differences between the spiritual and the scientific approach to knowledge. Another element that can be added to such differences can be seen through the emphasis on a holistic outlook of the world. Looking at the tiger as a part of the environment and how it fits within the history and the myth of the realm of Dokkhin Rai and the “jungles of the county of eighteen tides” (Ghosh 2005, 244). The knowledge practices of Piya might resemble those of reductionism, where the tiger, i.e., the subject of revenge is taken without consideration to the relation to the elements of the realm in which it exists.
Another philosophical challenge to Piya’s perceptions can be seen through the apparent differences in the values of human life and the way such value is contextualized and decontextualized in the novel. In the world from which Piya came, the fact that people die every day would have been a big issue, “it would be called “a genocide” (Ghosh 2005, 248). However, the fact that almost every day a person is killed by tigers is almost common in Lusibaria, providing a wider context for the struggle between humans and nature in this part of the world. The differences, in that regard, can be seen through the inclusion of context as a part of the knowledge. Stripping the incidents in Lusibaria from the context of being preservation, omitting the fact that tigers in this part of the world are endangered species, and that people are low caste immigrants, the killing becomes casualties – merely statistics in a factbook on this particular island. For people in Lusibaria, there is always a context for every aspect. There is a context for killing a tiger, and there is also a context for people in the village being killed by the tiger.
The Status of Tigers
It should be noted that taking the scientific view of Piya, it is likely that the tiger might be denoted as an animal rather than a person. Such argument might be based on Piya’s reasoning which can be derived from the novel. The statement that an animal cannot be taken revenge on, just because it is an animal can be seen as a reference to the law (Midgley 1996, 114). Accordingly, the law itself will be driven from an assessment of behavior, in which ethnology principles might be followed. Assessing the behavior of tigers, namely killing as one of the central points of the novel, Piya might approach the identification of the tiger’s status through asking several sets of questions, such as:
- What causes this behavior? (Tinbergen 1963, 413)
- What is this good for?” and in “How does it work (417)
- Is this behavior innate or acquired? (424).
- Has selection and evolution contributed to the present state behavior of the animal?
Using such an approach, Piya might be able to scientifically approach the definition of whether a tiger is an animal or a person through explaining such behavior as killing. In that regard, it can be assumed that because of Piya’s statement that animals cannot be taken revenge on the explanation of killing might be linked to the absence of self-conscious, emotions, mental capacity and driven only by instincts. The latter does not emphasize that cruel treatment is allowed to be applied to them, nor does it imply that they are persons because of such fact. It is merely a typical human attitude, which sometimes can be directed at humans as well (Midgley 1996). In fact, cruelty toward animals and toward humans is largely mixed in the novel. Another factor supporting the use of such an approach can be seen through the role Piya plays in the novel. Being a cetologist, part of Piya’s interest in observed animals is their behavior. Although cetology is connected only to marine mammals, it can be assumed that understanding behavior can be seen as a part of her interest in tigers as well. In that regard, the main question that Piya will ask when classifying tigers in the novel will be: “Why do these animals behave as they do?” (Tinbergen 1963, 411). In that regard, understanding behavior as a part of the objective of ethology implies that classifying animals is one of its purposes, which is similar to what Piya might intend to do. In that regard, the occurrence of ethology as a science of understanding behavior is related to the intention to reduce the reliance on comparative and descriptive data to classify animals (Tinbergen 1963). In that regard, such classification might link tigers to the way tigers are predators at the top of their food chain, the fact that belong to a family of big cats, the role of tigers, in particular, and predators in general in maintaining the balance in the ecosystem, and the difficulty of coexistence of tigers and humans. All of the aforementioned characteristics, which will result from the way Piya might approach the classification of tigers, might also lead to considering tigers as animals, rather than persons.
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The approach that might be taken by Lusibarians, on the other hand, is more inclined to consider tigers as humans. The spiritual practice of knowledge might imply that tigers and humans are equally competing species, both of which equally deserve respect. The fact that they are killed can be seen as a part of the negotiation process, in which retribution is one of the processes, just as with humans. Looking to the way Kusum called dolphins as messengers and tigers being an incarnation of an evil demon, it is more likely that those animals are closer to being classified as humans rather than as animals. Although messengers of a goddess and a demon incarnation are hardly human forms, the main point in such classification is that both animals are closer to being equal to humans, even despite being killed by Lusibarians. The way there was a sort of exchange between fishermen and dolphins in the novel can be attributed to such equal treatment, which Piya scientifically described as a “remarkable instance of symbiosis between human beings and a population of wild animals (Ghosh 2005, 140).
Paralleling moral reasoning for tigers to the case of dolphins, it should be noted that neither in the novel nor in real life such retribution is justifiable. While in some societies such retribution is acceptable, it does not imply that tigers are not persons for Lusibarians. There are simply differences between the basic needs of humans and the basic needs of tigers, understanding the similarities and the differences of which is vital (White 2007, 188). Accordingly, it should be noted that despite being killed in the novel by Lusibarians, tigers have moral standing. In that regard, it can be stated that accepting that tigers have moral standing, Lusibarians acknowledge that tigers just as humans sense a feeling of justice, coming to the village to be killed, just as criminals surrender when committing a crime. The focus on mutual needs for tigers and humans can be seen as one of the approaches for which Lusibarians might consider tigers as humans.
The approach taken by Lusibarians, as opposed to the scientific knowledge tradition practiced by Piya, is unique in its essence. The novel makes it clear that the scientific approach of the modern man is not better than that followed by Lusibarians. In that regard, the example of dolphins might as one of the main focuses of the novel illuminate the fallacies that can be made when following the scientific method.
This paper provided an analysis of the novel The Hungry Tide Amitav Ghosh (2005), contrasting the knowledge practices found in the novel. Additionally, the paper utilized such differences to explain how the protagonists of the novel would have defined the status of tigers, as animals or as persons. The paper concluded that despite the protection of tigers in the novel, it is likely that tigers would have been considered animals by the groups that protect them, namely the main protagonist of the novel Piya. Lusibarians, on the other hand, using their spiritual approach would have defined tigers as persons who, despite being killed by them are treated as equals. In that regard, different perspectives in knowledge practices outlined in the novel serve to illuminate the way people coexist with nature, each within its own realm. The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh showed how the co-existence of humans and nature can be both harmful to each party and the way people justify the actions they take from their own perspective.
Ghosh, Amitav. 2005. The hungry tide. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Midgley, M. 1996. Utopias, dolphins, and computers: Problems of philosophical plumbing: Routledge.
Tinbergen, N. 1963. On aims and methods in ethology. Zeitschrift fur Tierpsychologie 20, no. 4: 410-433.
White, Thomas I. 2007. In defense of dolphins: The new moral frontier. Blackwell public philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.