Critical Analysis of Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines, Story of an Indian family and an English family in the Transitional Days of 1960's



Simply, Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines (1988), is about an Indian family and an   English  family in the transitional days of 1960's covering three  cities- Calcutta, London and Dhaka.  Ghosh primarily focuses on the meaning of political freedom in the modern world and the force of nationalism. One might struck by the  complexity of themes, destiny of narrative texture, or use of language in The Shadow Lines. But critics observe that Ghosh puts the very concept of nationalism and nationality, as it were, under the microscope, and analyses the ideologies, exigencies and implications inherent in it.  In fact,  Ghosh even questions the idea of nationalism and national boundaries while at the same time granting its existence an its operation upon human minds.  

 The novel, according to the blurb, focuses on "nationalism, the Shadow Lines we draw between people and nations, which is both  absurd illusion and a source of terrifying violence." Through the description of various political movements, with the introduction with some nationalists and with the description of the effect of such nationalist movements, the novelist sends the readers the question of the validity of such nationalism.




Nationalism, in modern history, movement in which the nation-state is regarded as paramount for the realization of social, economic, and cultural aspirations of a people. Nationalism is characterized principally by a feeling of community among a people, based on common descent, language, and religion. ( Hans )

Congress was the first ever biggest Indian political party that included all kinds of religious people. And they had unitedly fought against the British Raj under nationalistic banner and the movement turned a success resulting the division of India. Pakistan was united for the religious nationalism instead of cultural nationalism. Read More Novel The Hindus of Erstwhile East Pakistan started shifting to West Bengal and the Muslims of West Bengal started coming to East Pakistan because of religious affinity. But the division did not make any success because the people (Hindus and Muslims) of East and West Bengal started fighting with each other. As a result of this Tridib, the narrator's mentor who had given him the eyes to see the world, was killed in the riot of East Pakistan in 1964.

 Ghosh in The Shadow Lines not only gives the readers the idea of nationalism but questions the so-called nationalism. The fundamental nationalism also emerged from the character of the narrator's grandmother. She is a fundamental nationalist and wants freedom. She is very passionate for freedom. As we see that when she was young during the Swadeshi movement, she wanted to john it and could do anything for the country.  She says, "I would have killed his.  It was for our freedom." But the author shows that the so called nationalism has no value at all. Here Thamma fails to see that nationalism has destroyed her home and spilled her kin's blood. As she says, "we have to kill them, before they kill us." Till the end she fails to realize that national liberty in no war guarantees individual liberty.


Image: Wikipedia
The event of the story-personal and political are set in many countries especially England, India and Bangladesh. The raw material is provided by World War II, Indian Independence, and the partition of country and subsequent riots, against which Ghosh studies the historical truths. Ghosh uses multiple narrators from whose point of vies the story or novel is described. Hence, the novel falls under the study of narratology. Read More Indian English The novel, while it is being ‘narrated t6hrough different narrators, creates a picture of their stored experiences of their past, or their memory in front of the reader. Hence, these narrators’ narrative technique relies on the way in which Amitav Ghosh wants them to narrate the things. The narrator grandmother's nationalist faiths fail her because she comes to realize that borders have a tenuous existence, and that not even a history of bloodshed can make then real and impermeable. Lines on the map are the handiwork of administrators and cartographers. In 1964, as she ramp to fly to Dhaka, she wonders he she would be able to see the border between India and East Pakistan from the plane. When her son laughs at her, she replies "where's the difference then? And if there is no difference, both sides will be the same; it will be just like it used to be before." The grandmother has a typical view about nationalism, what she is unable to realize that one can be unsafe even in one's own country.

On the other hand, the new generation is in the belief of internationalism. Tridib is an idealist and he dreams of a better place, "a place without borders and countries." Tridib also do not believe in the borders and map and, in fact, in the nationalism. Read More Novel He really wants a world without a border. Read More Indian English Tridib had told the narrator of the desire that can "carry one beyond the limits of one's mind to other times and other places and, if one was lucky, to a place where there was no border between oneself and one's image in the mirror."

When May comes down from England, he wants to meet her in a ruin, in a place "without a past, without grumpy, free, really free, two people coming together with the utter freedom of strangers."


The novel has an unnamed narrator relating the story of his experience, or to be precise, his uncle Tridib’s experience most of the times. Tridib was the narrator’s guiding spirit and mentor, who taught him how to use his imagination with precision who gave him worlds to travel in and eyes to see them with. Read More Novel The action of the novel has as its starting point the narrator’s memories of Tridib (then 8 years old) being taken to London during wartime and his experiences there with the Price family. Through the narrator’s grandmother and memories of her girlhood days in Dhaka, and her later return to the city in search of an old relative, the narrator is made aware of the tragic and violent consequences of the partition. Essentially the narrative ends with the incident, ghastly and tragic, of Tridib’s death in Dhaka riot.  

Although the narrator himself goes to London later as a student and makes contact with the Prices and his cousin Ila, it is more a relieving of Tridib’s experiences and trying to make sense of, in particular, the mystery that was his death. Read More Novel The personal dramas are played out against the canvas of sweeping historical events, the freedom movement and the rise of insurgency in Bengal, England’s war against Germany, the Chinese aggression and the Indo-Pak war, the desecration of the Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar in 1963, and the communal riots in Khulna and Calcutta in 1964 – each of which directly or indirectly impinges on the adolescent narrator’s experience. 

Here the author shows that the borders those are drawn on the surface of the earth are so called borders which can not divide one's mind and imagination and the sense of nativity and origin. The borders between India and Pakistan were drawn by administrators who believed in "the enchantment of lines, hoping perhaps that once they had etched their borders on lie map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other like the shifting tectonic plates of the prehistoric Gondwanaland." Read More Novel But as the simultaneous riots show, there is a profound historical irony at work: " there had never been a moment in the 4000 year old history of that map when the places we know as Dhaka and Culcutta were more closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines- so closely that, I, in Calcutta, only had to look upon the mirror to be in Dhaka; a moment when each city was the inverted image of the other, locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free- our looking- glass border." The family of Dutta Choudhury and Price in London defy the borders between them, in fact, they defy nationalism and there is a continuous to and fro movement between them. So, the novel questions the efficacy of borders. Read More Indian English Again, although Thamma is in the ride of nationalism and wants self identity, but for a person locked in the present - like Ila -maps and memory are equally irrelevant.


Since the central concern of the novel is not what happened, but the meaning of what had happened, and the meaning emerges only when the past and present are considered together, the narrative does not have a linear sequence.   It shuttles back and forth in time indicating amongst other things, that the dividing line between past and present only a shadow line. And importantly, the two instances of the destructive force of nationalism in 1939 and 1964 mark not the actual times-pan of the novel but it’s hero’s growth from childhood to maturity. 
The narrator’s knowledge of war and war-time London was not gained from books but from its uncle Tridib’s experience. Tridib taught him how to use his imagination, by which he conjured up certain vivid pictures which by imperceptible degrees merged into a perception of history. Read More Indian English Likewise, the narrator’s knowledge of the 1964 riots and their causes was neither first-hand although as a boy he had a brush with the violence associated with it when an ordinary school day turned into a nightmare with rioting mobs on rampage in the streets giving his school bus chase. The narrator, being a boy then, was just told that Tridib’s death was due to an accident in Dhaka. It is Tridib who explains to him how one could be carried beyond the limits of one’s mind to other times other places.
 The Shadow Lines  is a novel which stands out for its powerful imagination. Both Tridib and narrator are extraordinary men with magnificent memory and dominant imagination. Narrator visits the house of the mentor and it is there that he is shown the places on the Atlas and told stories about them, about faraway places in central America, Africa, England and Sri Lanka so that even before he had moved out of Calcutta his vision had broadened to include these places. He could imagine very precisely sloping walls of Sri Lankan houses, which differed from theirs. Read More Indian English And it is here that he differed with his cousin ILA. She was a globe-trotting woman who had visited lots of places on the globe but actually speaking she had not travelled at all as she was a woman who lacked the power of imagination, to see the life in a story. Narrator could not persuade her to believe that a place does not merely exist, but has to be invented in one’s imagination:
“I could not persuade her that a place doesn’t really exist, that it has to be invented in one’s imagination; that her practical bustling London was no less invented than mine, neither more or nor less true, only very far apart. It was not her fault that she could not understand, for as Tridib often said of her, the invention she lived in moved with her that although she had lived in many places, she had never travelled at all.”
Tridib fires boy’s imagination and his London visit is nothing but the reliving of Tridib’s experiences and fulfillment of the visions that he had in Calcutta with him. Tridib had told him of the desire, real desire which was pure, painful and primitive that could carry one beyond the limits of one’s mind to other places and other times, and if, one was lucky , to a place where there was no border between oneself and one’s image in the mirror. The narrator perfected this so well that he could conjure up the details once told so lively and precisely as if he had lived with them. It surprises everyone when on his visit to London, he finds the house of Mrs. Price without anybody’s help nd once inside he is able to tell the way to the kitchen or where the Cherry tree was. Read More Indian English To Nick, he tells, though to his disbelief and perplexity that he was not meeting him for the first time but had actually grown with him. Ila had once told him about Nick in Raibazar when they were playing houses under the big table. After that day Nick Price whom he had never seen, and would, as far as he knew, never see, became a shadowy presence beside him, growing with him, but always bigger and better and in some way, more desirable. He did not know what, except that it was so in Ila’s eyes and therefore true. He would look into the glass and there he would be, growing always faster, always a head taller than him, with hair on his arms and chest and crotch while his were still pitifully bare. And yet he tried to look into the face of that ghostly presence , to see its nose, its teeth, its ears, there was never anything there, it had no features, no form; he would shut his eyes and try to see its face, but all he would see was a shock of yellow hair falling over a pair of bright blue eyes. Such a magnificent ability to visualize is certainly creditable.
Narrator has placed very meticulously the location of 44 Lymington Road and without help of Nick or Ila he goes on to find his own. He says, “It was easy enough on the A to Z street Atlas of London that my father had brought for me. Read More Novel I knew page 43 2F by heart; Lymington Road ought to have been right across the road from where we were. But now that we had reached the place I knew best, I was suddenly uncertain. The road opposite us was lined with terraces of cheerfully grimy, redbrick houses, stretching all the way down the length of the road. The houses were not as high or as singular as I had expected.
But still as I could tell that was where Lymington Road should have been, so I pointed to it and asked whether that was it. Yes said Nick. Good bye. Got it first time.” These spectacular feats of the narrator make Nick exclaim, “You are positively a mystic from the East. You have done it again.” And the narrator does it yet again by telling that they had a cherry tree in their house. Read More Indian English Thus, it is seen that the novel brings on the two aspects of desire and curiosity. They become food for thought for Tridib as well as the narrator and together they make a history in the novel.
Sources:
 1. Kohn, Hans. "Nationalism." Microsoft® Student 2007 [DVD]. Redmond, WA: Microsoft Corporation 2006. 
2. Kinder, Herrton. Politics in South Asian Novels. ABS publication, 2011.  3.The Shadow Lines.
 
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