In the cultures of Asia, the role of a tiger is similar to the role of a wolf in Europe and North America, and perhaps even to a greater scope. The biggest, and possibly the deadliest, of all the big cats, the tiger stands for the destructive and unknown part of the wild nature, and Amitav Ghosh's novel The Hungry Tide often features the tiger as one of the destructive aspects of nature.
To speak in a more practical sense, the entire novel shows the islands' wild nature and human civilization in constant struggle, or at least in a struggling co-existence with each other. Tigers and crocodiles, snakes and spiders, and, of course, floods and storms - all of them are just features of nature, features that cannot submit to humanity and civilization, but would easily destroy it instead. Still, the tiger in particular is both one of the most common and most colourful parts of the nature described in the novel. In fact, the author repeatedly uses the tiger image over the course of the novel to bring his point home to his readers about humanity and nature, about how humanity is simultaneously both a part of nature and at the same time should stand apart from it.
Essentially, the tiger first appears in the novel when Kanai's uncle wrote about the Sundarban islands, commenting on "the terrain's utter hostility" (The Hungry Tide, 8). To Kanai's uncle, tigers were just a part of the overall hostile terrain, and so they are to the other people in the Sundarbans, including Kanai's aunt and her neighbours and co-workers: tigers have assailed the people as far as their mutual history goes. The animals often unafraid or uncaring about the presence of people beyond the relationship of predator and prey - the fate that Kusum's father had met, shows this point perfectly.
Therefore, almost in the beginning of the book the readers learn that "[e]very year dozens of people perish in the embrace of dense foliage, killed by tigers, snakes and crocodiles" (The Hungry Tide, 8).
Moreover, as the novel's discourse progresses, the tiger's presence continues steadily on to overshadow the lives of people of Lusibari and the rest of the islands, slipping out of the reader's eye, only to dramatically and tragically to reappear later on. When Piya leaves for a second time on a dolphin-seeking expedition with Kanai, Fokir, and Hogen, Kanai's aunt has some words of wisdom to give to Kanai regarding the tigers:
"Look," she said, pointing to a sheaf of files, "I've been keeping unofficial records for years, based on word-of-mouth reports. My belief is that over a hundred people are killed by tigers here each year. [...] it means that a human being is killed by a tiger every other day in the Sundarbans - at the very least. (The Hungry Tide, 240)
Yet to the natives of the Sundarbans, the tiger was more than just an extra-large cat with a fondness for human flesh. The natives of Lusibari also consider the tiger to be the manifestation of a native demon, Dokkhin Rai, who ruled this land before the coming of Bon Bibi and her twin brother, Shah Jongoli, a pair of Muslim saints/native gods. The twins were sent to the Sundarbans "to make it fit for human habitation" (103). They do this by defeating the war host of Dokkhin Rai, yet Bon Bibi
[...] decided that one half of the tide country would remain a wilderness; this part of the forest she left to Dokkhin Rai and his demon hordes. The rest she claimed for herself, and under her rule this once-forested domain was soon made safe for human settlement. Thus order was brought to the land of eighteen tides, with its two halves, the wild and the sown, being held in careful balance. All was well until human greed intruded to upset this order. (The Hungry Tide, 103)
Essentially, this passage serves as an introduction to the story of a young boy, abandoned by the captain of a shipping flotilla to the demon in exchange for a full load of honey and wax. The unlucky lad prays to Bon Bibi, who comes to his rescue with her brother, and sends the demon running away with his tail between his legs. Consequently, this episode firstly once again defines the tiger as the wilderness that is hostile to a man: it is evil and deadly, aimed at bringing out the worst in people, as Dhona's selling-out of Dukhey demonstrates. And, secondly, it tells people that Bon Bibi and the higher civilization, culture and religion that associate with her, will triumph over Dokkhin Rai's wilderness every time.
In the novel, the tiger is not just a symbol of a reality that is wild and deadly to humanity. However, it is also a symbol that stands for a wilderness - a reality that cannot be tamed by humanity's civilization, which will always re-assert its deadly dominance, no matter what stories people will tell each other in order to feel better. (Incidentally, in real life unlike the stories, Bon Bibi's promises often run hollow, and when the storm hits, there is nothing that she can do to save her worshippers or her temples - stories can be just stories when confronted with real life.) In other words, the tiger is a symbol for more than just wilderness: it is also a stand-in symbol for death:
Kanai's head filled suddenly with visions of the ways in which the tide country dealt out death. The tiger, people said, killed you instantly, with a swipe of its forepaw, breaking the join between your shoulder and neck. [...] There was undeniably a quality of mercy to this, to the human mind, at least: wasn't this why people who lived in close proximity with tigers so often regarded them as being something more than just an animal? (The Hungry Tide, 328)
This, then, is the tiger of the Amitav Ghost's Sundarban islands: a beautiful and deadly embodiment both of the real natural world, as well as of Dokkhin Rai. It stands for the world of the Sundarbans that existed before human civilization came to it and tried to claim the islands. In short, the tiger was, is, and will be a part of the native reality, as it comes whenever it wants and it strikes at whomever and whenever it wants.
Now, when a tiger strikes, it strikes without mercy, and there is nothing that people can do about it - but there is an exception to the rule. For, according to Amitav Ghosh, when a tiger wants to die, it comes into a village, into an animal pen, and there the people kill it, equally without mercy. Perhaps in Sundarbans, the tiger is more than just an animal, perhaps it does understand justice - a version of justice at any rate...and perhaps Piya is right when she says that people should not be animals and act differently from the animals instead. For otherwise, when humans start acting like animals...it is the end of human civilization as we know it, and the tiger, as the avatar of natural order of life and death, the stand-in symbol for Dokkhin Rai, remains triumphant.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Hungry Tide. London: HarperCollinsPublishersPublishers, 2004.