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Nov 2, 2011

The Shadow Lines: Amitav Ghosh


"The Shadow Lines," Ghosh's second novel, was published in 1988, four years after the sectarian violence that shook New Delhi in the aftermath of the Prime minister, Indira Gandhi's assassination. Written when the homes of the Sikhs were still smouldering, some of the most important questions the novel probes are the various faces of violence in Calcutta and in Dhaka which is valid even today. What has happened recently in Kosovo and in East Timor show that answers still evade the questions which Ghosh poses about freedom, about the very real yet non-existing lines which divide nations, people, and families.

The Shadow Lines is the story of the family and friends of the nameless narrator who for all his anonymity comes across as if he is the person looking at you quietly from across the table by the time the story telling is over and silence descends. The past, present and future combine and melt together erasing any kind of line of demarcation. Such lines are present mainly in the shadows they cast.

The way "violence" is brought into the pictures extraordinarily sensitive: The narrator says, talking of the day riots tore Calcutta apart in 1964, "I opened my mouth to answer and found I had nothing to say." The narrator is very much like the chronicler Pimen in Pushkin's drama Boris Godonow. The story starts about thirteen years before the birth of the narrator and ends on the night preceding his departure from London back to Delhi.

A wanderlust sets in which leaves him imagining that he is seeing the first pointed arch in Cairo or touching the stones of the great pyramids of Cheops. Ironic then, that for the woman he loves - his beautiful cousin Ila, who would always break his heart - has been all around the world and lived in many places but has not traveled at all. Out of an intricate web of memories, relationships and images Ghosh builds his narrative. And while it never quite takes the form of a story that a reader can recount, its greatest achievement is perhaps best bought out by the distinguished poet A.K Ramanujan, who says ``He evokes things Indian with an inwardness which is lit and darkened by an intimacy with Elsewhere.''

The story starts about thirteen years before the birth of the narrator and ends on the night preceding his departure from London back to Delhi. He spends less than a year in London, researching for his doctorate work, but it is a London he knew very well even before he puts a step on its pavements.

The tragedy is that though the narrator spends almost a year in London and thus has ample opportunity to come to terms with its role in his life, it is Dhaka which he never visits that affects him most by the violent drama that takes place on its roads, taking Tridib away as one of its most unfortunate victims.

There is no point of reference to hold on to. Thus the going away - the title of the first section of the novel - becomes coming home - the title of the second section. These two titles could easily have been exchanged.

The Shadow Lines is a book that captures perspective of time and events, of lines that bring people together and hold them apart, lines that are clearly visible on one perspective and nonexistent on another. Lines that exist in the memory of one, and therefore in another's imagination. A narrative built out of an intricate, constantly crisscrossing web of memories of many people, it never pretends to tell a story. The novel is set against the backdrop of historical events like Swadeshi movement, Second World War, Partition of India and Communal riots of 1963-64 in Dhaka and Calcutta. All in all, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines presents a tension between the public and the private world.


  1. This read has been extremely helpful. The English is crystal clear and I have been able to understand in a very clear cut way, just what the entire novel is about. Thank you ever so much

  2. Thanks for the overview. I have read the novel and was searching for some critical essays when i stumbled on this blog.

    You touched upon demarcations here, I think the whole novel is centered on the meaninglessness of fixing geo- political boundaries when the longings and memories of people migrating cannot be erased. Various instances like partition of India, when nobody was happy, peopled troubled, women were raped, properties were lost, men were in mortal agony and killed bring us to the motivation of this novel. Amitav Ghosh, distressed over the communal riots, Delhi, 1984, wrote this novel after realizing the fissures that existed even in a "seperate" country. No country is homogenous. On what grounds do we divide them then?

    Also, what happens after a country is divided? Do the former countrymen adopt strange goblin like countenance and live a radically different life just because they are separated? NO! The comic relief in this novel comes when the narrator's grandmother and her sister visualize the parted half of their Dhaka house to have become inverted. And later when the grandmother is set to leave for Dhaka she has an opinion that cannons and gunmen would be seen guarding the boundaries of India and Bangladesh respectively. After narrator tells her that all she shall is green fields, unlike paper maps delude to think, she sighs wondering what the point of all drama is, if the mutilation of borders is not visible.

    Similarly Ghosh has referred to WW while writing about the blown apart theaters of London. The futility of extremist nationalism when deep currents of solidarity runs in humans.

  3. The Shadow lines convey the message that it is the lines and boundries which divide people into different groups and nations. they become fanatics of their religion,language,nation and culture. Ghosh seems to say that when these lines become mere shadows, people will get united forever, forgetting all their differences.There are number of charcters in the novel. It is all about peersonal relationships.

  4. The Shadow Lines can be viewed as a story of Bengali family through which the author presents,analy ses and problematises many issues that are being debated in contemporary India. There are suprising number of characters in the novel. At one level,it is all about personal relationships. The characters spanning three generations of this family. Grandmother, Mayadebi and Saheb are the representative of the first generations. The father and the mother are the representative of second generations.Ila , Nick Price and May Price are the representative of the third generations. The relationship that exist between human beings are the outcome of an invisible lines. Tha’mma , the grandmother of the Narrator through whom the issue of the Bengal partition and the whole idea of nation,nationalism and nationhood gets discussed. Tridib,cousin of the Narrator through whom the idea of history being problematic gets discussed. Ila, the narrator’s second cousin through whom the issue of diaspora and racism gets discussed.

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