Title of the Book: The Shadow Lines
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Year of Publication: 1988
Place of Publication: Great Britain
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.
Khan Touseef Osman
PhD Research Scholar
University of Kashmir
Imaginary Boundaries and Post-Partition Nation-State
The Shadow Lines came out in 1988, after the success of his first novel The Circle of Reason, consolidating Amitav Ghosh’s reputation as a novelist in the English language. Written in the tradition of magical realism, The Circle of Reason went much to the same direction as most popular novels from the new frontiers of English literature did—Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie were his literary predecessors. Ghosh restrains the exuberant show of color and energy in the narrative of The Shadow Lines, attempting to depict the real world in unpretentious exploration. The novel gives off an impression of profundity of perception rather than unfettered imagination.
The Shadow Lines selects a considerable section of world history across the globe where it places the characters so as to develop as individuals born out of the conditions of time and space. People, in other words, are shown to be products of their specific temporal and social environment. Agency and deliberation, in a way, are reduced to a minimum. This, however, does not mean that characters are mere inanimate objects, responding to and floating on the waves of culture and history. Tridib, for instance, stubbornly resists the material pressures and refuses to join the educated bourgeoisie—he chooses to occupy an old family apartment in Kolkata pursuing his PhD in Archaeology (where is money in that!) when the world offered a seemingly better opportunity for material comfort.
The story is told by an unnamed narrator, Tridib’s nephew, who grows up in a corner of Kolkata city, yet with stories about other places, other times from Tridib, Ila and the Grandma. Tridib’s influence on him is so deep that it is almost as if his life is a re-enactment of the experiences of his uncle. This parallel growth in different points of history takes an obsessive form when the narrator tries to have sex with the same girl, May Price, with whom Tridib was supposed to be in love. The narrator admits that Tridib has given him a novel way of discovering the world—not only by experiencing with senses but with the precise use of imagination as well. Tridib’s stories give him an imaginative world to roam in, a world that has precise dimensions, albeit in his head. He has a mental map of the geography of pre-World War London, which is at odds with that of the present.
The novel is characterized by its portrayal of strong female characters, such as the Grandma and Ila. It is with the character of Grandma that Amitav Ghosh deals with the idea of human beings’ belonging to their respective times and places. The fact that her ancestral home is not the same as the country of nationality poses a crucial problem for her: with the artificial boundaries Partition necessitated, she is somewhat split between emotion and geopolitics. Indeed, the partition trope defines her existence: the partitioned house in Dhaka and imagining the other part as characterized by difference rather than similarity is allegorically insinuating the division of the subcontinent and its disturbing aftermath.
Grandma’s militant nationalism stems from her deep sense of injustice at the British rule and allegiance to the Nehruvian grand narrative of unity in diversity. It grows to an extent verging on obsessive nationalism particularly after Tridib is killed by a mob in Dhaka: she donates the least bit of gold she had to the cause of war with Pakistan in 1965. Freedom is collective or national as far as she is concerned, while, for Ila, it is entirely individual. Ironically, Ila lives in England rather than India to be “free” though, in Grandma’s view, nation is inextricably associated with freedom. Their starkly different outlooks result in a generational gap as far as Indian female subjectivity is concerned.
The narrative of The Shadow Lines is not a very easy one considering it is a form of mnemonic text. The narrator is a polyglot in the sense that upon the surface on his consciousness, therefore in the narrative, various voices are intertwined. Recollection of his and others’ pasts appears in the novel as they are filtered through the narrator’s consciousness. And since multiple points of pasts are being talked about and one memory may lead to other memories of events that took place before or after, readers only find glimpses of several pasts as they page through, collecting broken images and stringing them together to have a comprehensive view. This is, at times, very confusing, since the narrative meanders back and forth and back again, and it is readers who have to gather the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together until the last page of the novel. The resulting confusion, however, succeeds in blurring the artificial boundaries (shadow lines) across times and spaces, confounding the neatly compartmentalized ideas of past and present as well as regions.
The novel gives an account of the imaginative construction of Indian nation-state; it explores the ways individuals conceive of a nation. And it is shown how the imagination of ideas of a nation is at odds with the ideas used for bureaucratic and diplomatic purposes. The border between India and East Bengal, for example, is not how it is marked in different colors in the school books. The Grandma wonders what there is to be at the border which distinguishes between the two places, and when she realizes that nothing distinctive is actually there, she wonders if all this partition bloodshed and misery meant anything after all.
The Shadow Lines is a fictional representation of the various ways human beings as individuals or as a society are connected with history and location. The upheavals of history are demonstrated to have profound impact on fashioning the post-colonial, post-partition subjectivity. The brilliance of the novel lies in Amitav Ghosh’s rendering of neatly defined ideas as protean and shapeless. It is a very important text in understanding the tensions regarding the ideas of nationalism at the individual and collective level.