"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 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.