Shadow Lines

What makes up stories other than the living residues of human memory? Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh, explores this shifting world of memories as one flashback leads on to another, much like the labyrinthine network of thoughts. Like a mind in back-gear, the novel builds up on recollection of events from the narrator’s past as he unwinds the corpus of his mind, telling his stories in analepses and one thought weaves unto another, living behind an enmeshment of life like he saw it now, through the looking glass!

The novel which is Ghosh’s second, won the Sahitya Aademi Award in 1989. Undercurrents of political vendetta are resurface time and again in the novel – set against the backdrop of events such as the Swadeshi movement, Second World War, Partition of India and Communal riots of 1963-64 in Dhaka and Calcutta – as it serves to highlight the influence of political catastrophes in the lives of the individual and how the personal is never free from the political.

The book dissipates the bounds of time and space, juxtaposing​ events from different time frames and geographical coordinates next to each other in a jigsaw fit of an assimilating whole. Begining with his own experiences as a little boy in Kolkata the novel moves back and forth in time to Delhi and London both through the stories of others and his own experiences there as a student. The world of the novel revolves around the two families of the poet’s grandmother back in Kolkata and his grand-aunt’s back in London along with their family friend, Mrs Price’s family. As the two families, displaced in time and place, mirror each other in a progressive intertwining of events, Ghosh brings out the futility of such constructs as those of language, race and place which are but “shadow lines” cast on the canvas of an essential identical humanity.

The book is divided into two parts- “Going Away” and “Coming Home” and evokes the fundamental nature of all displacements: “what goes around, comes around!” The central character of the novel is the narrator himself who is portrayed as a splitting image of his uncle Tridib whom he idolises. Growing up under his shadow, the young narrator looks up to his uncle who taught him how to unlock the secret portal of imagination thus endowing him with worlds to travel in and eyes to see them with long before he ever leaves Calcutta.

The novel is a compendium of the lives of its characters who have lived separate yet identical lives fulcrumed on the common anvils of relationship, tragedy and love from three points of the globe- India, Bangladesh and England. The old sisterhood of the author’s Thamma and Mayadebi brings together the two families of the narrator and his cousin thus setting an interconnected web of narratives in action. The narrator’s love for Ila, admiration for the world of ancients, affectations for May Price and her family and idolations for his uncle Tridib whom he ultimately loses in a riot in Dhaka, spin from the same yearn of sisterhood that sprung long back at the heart of Bangladesh before the partition – a yarn displaced in both space and time from its spinnings in the present! Thus, Ghosh in his novel uses a sort of spin-off on the stream of consciousness method of writing as he propels the plot forward and backwards, recollecting the past, using flashbacks and travelling zigzag in terms of narrative time and space evoking ghosts from the past like he says himself:

“They were all around me, we were together at last, not ghosts at all: the ghostliness was merely the absence of time and distance- for that is all that a ghost is, a presence displaced in time.”

For Ghosh, the world is a web of narratives in which each strand leads on to the next in the web. Our thoughts both shape and are shaped by our interactions with this world.

Perspectives are born out of complex overlapping of memories that defy all notions of disparity based on social constructs of culture, race or religion.

The book stems out of mesh of lines that criss cross across time and space to drive home a poignant message: Of lines that bring people closer or drive them apart; lines that are obvious in one perspective and nonexistent in another; lines that exist in ones memory and therefore in another’s imagination; lines that rip through the contours of love, friendship and relationships, swerving all ties and bonds in wanton disregard of anything other than their own fanatic footholdings.

“It is a book that captures perspective of time and events, A narrative built out of an intricate, constantly crisscrossing web of memories of many people, it never pretends to tell a story. Instead, it invites the reader to invent one, out of the memories of those involved, memories that hold mirrors of differing shades to the same experience.”

Thus, the author seeks to paint the picture of a heterogenous global world that smashes the fodders of reified nationalism. Peering through his looking glass, the world doesn’t seem to fit squarely within its borders and any such claim to constriction or encapsulation behind man-made barrier lines and fences are made impossible by the global view of narratives, lives and happenings that inform the narrators view of the world. The constrictions are thus made to dissipate as mere “shadow lines” of an ancient world on whose blood and ashes rise the hope for a better world, devoid of these boundaries.

The book could be seen as a descriptive anthropology of a world embedded in fiction that constructs the vision of a global world, exploring the narrator’s recollections of his life and times, in a global field of conflicting narratives. Out of a miraculously intricate web of memories, recollections and images, Amitav Ghosh builds an intensely moving story that ripples with the abundance of human experience – the innocence of childhood, the stories of growing up days, the passion of a love unrequited, the idealisms of youth, political violence, the stab of tragedy and the catastrophes life hurls its way.

All in all, it is a must read for anyone who considers them a lover of books or literature. For like Khushwant Singh acclaims,

“This is how the language should be used…This is how novel should be written”

this appraisal undoubtedly forms it’s highest recommendation. 


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