The shadow lines
Ravi Dayal 1988 / Permanent Black (distr: Orient Longman), 2001, 252 pages
ISBN 8175300434, 9788175300439
topics: | fiction | india | english
As I was writing this review for one of my favourite Indenglish novels, I thought I should see where my favuorites lie. This list seems to have been stable for some years now, so here goes...
(from july 2010) It's midnight and I've just typed in these excerpts from my pencilled-on-the-mragins book, but now I can't sleep. So I though I might as well make the list of my top ten Indian novels. Let's see. 1. About number one spot, there is no choice, it is Arundhati Roy's GOST, no two ways about it. The greatest works of fiction have to invent their language. Combined with a superb plot and a coming of age story in the backwaters of malayalam deserves every accolade. See my incomplete catalogue of Arundhati's Inventive Language. 2. For number two... hmmmm - I think I would put Shadow Lines around here. It is an intricate web that reveals much of the depth in human relationships. 3. Three? Does Vikram Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay qualify as fiction? Perhaps not. Then I'll plump for Upamanyu Chatterjee's English, August. I first read it in 1980, then again around 2000. it stood up that second time as well, so it goes here. 4. Salman Rushdie with Satanic Verses. I am a big fan of both the scholarship and the skilled takes. See my extensive excerpts. 5. Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Yes, I know, there is a lot of ground swell behind this, but I liked SV more. After this it gets fuzzy. Anita Desai's In Custody is up there. Shashi Tharoor's Riot I liked as well. RK Narayan? Vendor of Sweets and Swami and Friends should both make it to the list somewhere. Vikram Chandra? Maybe his best work is Love and Longing in Bombay, and that's not quite a novel. I am sorry, I haven't read any Amit Chaudhuri or Rohinton Mistry. Guess I am not as well-read as I would like to think. What else? Do I include Naipaul? Maybe Elvira? Nah. I am getting quite disillusioned with his curmudgeony ways... This is the first time I am doing this. Maybe will get a chance to revisit? Meanwhile, I am not alone in my high regard for Shadow Lines. Here is Jon Mee, from An illustrated history of Indian Literature in English: The most impressive of Ghosh's novels remains his second book, The Shadow Lines (1988), which deals with relations between the different arms of a prospering bhadralok family, the Datta-Chaudhuris, displaced from Dhaka to Calcutta by the Partition. At the centre of the novel is the figure of Tridib who teaches the nameless narrator that all communities, indeed all identities, are imagined or narrated... "Everyone lives in a story... they all lived in stories, because stories are all there are to live in, it was just a question of which story.' (SL p.182)
A book that so well captures the perspectival view 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 criss-crossing web of memories of many people, it never pretends to tell a story. Rather 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. The book chronicles one series of events lived differently by different people. The narrator has this unusual fascination for a distant cousin Tridib, the eldest son of an Indian diplomat abroad, Tridib who never "lives" the story, except through memories of others -- the narrator's, brother Robi's, and lover May's. He is a link that connects them, a shadow line that never materialises. Beginning with the narrator's memories of his early interactions with Tridib, who had "given me eyes" to see the world with, the narrative keeps travelling back and forth in time as well as space, moving along with the train of thoughts that shift wildly from Calcutta's Gole Park to Ballygunge, and farther into London's Brick Lane of the War, or Lymington Road of today. The outlines of these places are as vivid to the reader as to those who lived in them, or those who didn't actually live in them, but could nevertheless invent them through memories of those who did. The lines that divide places and even times are mere shadows, and hence forever trespassed. [AC]
[Every now and then a rumble in his bowels would catch him unawares and he would have to sprint for the nearest clean lavatory. This condition was known as Tridib's gastric. Once every few months or so we would answer the doorbell and find him leaning against the wall, his legs tightly crossed, the sweat starting from his forehead. But he wouldn't come in right away; there was a careful etiquette attached to these occasions. My parents and grandmother would collect at the doorway and, ignoring his writhings, would proceed to ask him about his family's doings and whereabouts, and he in turn, smiling fixedly, would ask them how they were, and how I was, and finally, when it had been established to everyone's satisfaction that he had come on a Family Visit, he would shoot through the door straight into the lavatory. (3-4) [My grandmother] believed [Tridib] capable of exerting his influence at a distance, like a baneful planet -- and since she also believed the male, as a species, to be naturally frail and wayward she would not allow herself to take the risk of having him for long in our flat where I, or my father, might be tempted to move into his orbit. (4) He (Tridib) did not seem to want to make friends with the people he was talking to, and that perhaps was why he was happiest in neutral, impersonal places - coffee houses, bars, street-corner addas - the sort of place where people come, talk and go away without expecting to know each other any further. This was also why he chose to come all the way from Ballygunge to Gole Park for his addas . . . (9) The truth was that in his own way, Tridib was something of a recluse: even as a child I could tell that he was happiest in that book-lined room of his, right at the top of their old family house. It was that Tridib whom I liked best; I was a bit unsure of the Tridib of street corners. (18) [Ila is Tridib's younger sister,and the narrator's secret, unrequitted longing] I tried to tell her but neither then nor later, though we talked about it often, did I ever succeed in telling her that I could not forget because Tridib had given me worlds to travel in, and he had given me eyes to see them with; she who had been travelling around the world since she was a child, could never understand what those hours in Tridib's room had meant to me, a boy who had never been more than a few hundred miles from Calcutta. I used to listen to her talking sometimes to her father and grandfather about cafes in the Plaza Mayor in Madrid, or the crispness of the air in Cuzco, and I could see that those names, which to me were a set of magical talismans because Tridib had pointed them out to me on his tattered old Bartholomew's Atlas, had for her a familiarity no less dull than the Lake (in Calcutta) had for me and my friends; the same tired intimacy that made us stop on our way back from the park in the evening and unbutton our shorts and aim our piss through the rusty wrought-iron railings. (20) I began to tell her how I longed to visit Cairo, to see the world's first pointed arch in the mosque of Ibn Tulun, and touch the stones of the great Pyramid of Cheops. . . . I watched her, waiting eagerly to hear what she would have to say. Suddenly she clicked her fingers, gave herself a satisfied nod, and said aloud, inadvertently: Oh yes, Cairo, the Ladies is way away on the other side of the departure lounge. I had a glimpse at that moment, of those other names on the map as they appeared to her: a worldwide string of departure lounges . . . each of them strikingly different, distinctively individual, each with its Ladies hidden away in some yet more unexpected corner of the hall . . . . I imagined her alighting on these daydream names - Addis Ababa, Algiers, Brisbane - and running around the airport to look for the Ladies, not because she wanted to go, but because those were the only fixed points in the shifting landscapes of her childhood. (20) I could not persuade her that a place does not merely 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 less true, only very far apart. It was not her fault that she could not understand, for as Tridib often said of her, the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places, she had never travelled at all.(21) [In] my own small, puritanical world, in which children were sent to school to learn how to cling to their gentility by proving themselves in the examination hall.  Ila lived so intensely in the present that she would not have believed that there were people like Tridib, who could experience the world in their imaginations as concretely as she did through her senses, more so if anything, since to them those experiences were permanently available in their memories, whereas with her, when she spoke of her last lover's legs, the words had nothing to with an excitement stored in her senses, but were just a string of words that she would remember while they sounded funny and then forget as completely as she had the lover and his legs. (30) If we didn't try ourselves [to invent what we saw] we would never be free of other people's inventions.  I don't know what the matter with him is, my mother said, he has been waiting for her (Ila) for days . . . At that moment I hated my mother. For the first time in my life she had betrayed me. She had given me away, she had made public, then and for ever, the inequality of our needs; she had given Ila the knowledge of her power and she had left me defenceless; naked, in the face of that unthinkable, adult truth, that need is not transitive, that one may need without oneself being needed. (44) After that day Nick Price, whom I had never seen, and would, as far as I knew, never see, became a spectral presence beside me in my looking glass; growing with me, but always bigger and better, and in some way more desirable - I did not know what, except that it was so in Ila's eyes and therefore true. (50) There is something strikingly different about the quality of photographs of that time. It has nothing to do with age or colour, or the feel of paper. . . . In modern family photographs the camera pretends to circulate like a friend, clicking its shutters at those moments when its subjects have disarranged themselves to present to it those postures which they would like to think f as informal. But in pictures of that time, the camera is still a public and alien eye, faced with which people feel bound either to challenge the intrusion by striking postures of defiant hilarity, or else to compose their faces, and straighten their shoulders, not always formally, but usually with just that hint of stiffness which suggests a public face. (60) . . . they knew that their world, and in all probability they themselves, would not survive the war. What is the colour of that knowledge? Nobody knows, nobody can ever know, no even in memory, because there are moments in time that are not knowable: nobody can ever know what it was like to be yound and intelligent in the summer of 1939 in London or Berlin. And in the meanwhile, there they are, in that gilded summer, laughing and singing their way back to Brick Lane. (68) Ila has no right to live there, she said hoarsely. She doesn't belong there. It took those people a long time to build that country; hundreds of years, years and years of war and bloodshed. Everyone who has lived there has earned his right to be there with blood: with their brother's blood and their father's blood and their son's blood. They know they're a nation because they've drawn their borders with blood. (77-78) [grandmother; about Ila] her hair cut short, like the bristles on a toothbrush, wearing titght trousers like a Free School Street whore. (80) [abundant physical courage - Robi does not join the strike. Why?] Because a rule's a rule; if you break one you have to be willing to pay the price. But is it a good rule? I asked. I could not get him to answer my question. I saw Ila's face again as I had seen it that night in the taxi, wet with tears, twisted with anger and hatred, and I thought of how much they wanted to be free; how they went mad wanting their freedom; I began to wonder whether it was I that was mad because I was happy to be bound: whether I was alone in knowing that I could not live without the clammer of the voices within me. (88) There seemed to be something fitting, after all, in the manner in which I learnt of my grandmother's death: she had always been too passionate a person to find real place in my tidy late-bourgeois world, the world that I had inherited, in which examinations were more important than death. (92) I began to marvel at the easy arrogance with which she believed that her experience could encompass other moments simply because it had come later; that times and places are the same because they happen to look alike, like airport lounges. (103-104) I saw Ila again and again as she was when she stepped out of that car at Gole Park, eighteen years ago; on that morning when she wrenched me into adulthood by demonstrating for the first time, and forever, the inequality of our needs. And when she did not come back to the cellar that night, I knew she had taken my life hostage yet again; I knew that a part of my life as a human being had ceased: that I no longer existed, but as a chronicle. (112) But he (Tridib) did know that that was how he wanted to meet her, May -- a stranger, in a ruin. He wanted them to meet as the completest of strangers -- strangers-across-the-seas -- all the more strangers because they knew each other already. He wanted them to meet far from their friends and relatives -- in a place without a past, without history, free, really free, two people coming together with the utter freedom of strangers. (144) at bottom she thought the Shaheb was . . . weak, essentially weak, backbone-less; it was impossible to think of him being firm under threat, of reacting to a difficult or dangerous situation with that controlled accurate violence which was the quality she prized above all others in men who had to deal with matters of state. (147) [About seeing the border from the air] But if there aren't any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where's the difference then? And if there's no difference both sides will be the same; it'll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day . . . (151) Everyone lives in a story, he says, my grandmother, my father, his father, Lenin, Einstein, and lots of other names I hadn't heard of; they all lived in stories, because stories are all there are to live in, it was just a question of which one you chose. . .  I tried to see Dhaka as she (grandmother) must have seen it that night, sitting by her window.But I hadn't been to Dhaka, and in any case her Dhaka had long since vanished into the past. I had only her memories to go on, and those put together could give me a faint, sepia-tinted picture of her arrivals in Dhaka, decades ago: a picture in which I could see dimly in the middle distance, a black steaming engine, puffing smoke, and a long line of carriages . . . . I can guess at the outlines of the image that lived in her mind, but I have no inkling at all of the sounds and smells she remembered. Perhaps they were no different from those in any of the thousands of railway stations in the subcontinent. Perhaps, on the other hand, they consisted of of some unusual alchemical mixture of the sound of the dialect and the smell of the vast, mile-wide rivers, which alone had the power to bring upon her that comfortable lassitude which we call a sense of homecoming. (193) Years later, I used to wonder at my mother's odd relationship with her little transistor radio. It was given a place of singular honour in her room: it stood on the same shelf on which she kept framed pictures of her dead parents. She never missed the morning news if she could help it: those bulletins were the liturgy of the ritual of our breakfast.  He cried like that all the way home, for all of us. It would not be enough to say we were afraid; we were stupefied with fear. That particular fear has the texture you can neither forget nor describe. It is like the fear of the victims of an earthquake, of people who have lost faith in the stillness of the earth. And yet it is not the same. It is without analogy for it is not comparable to the fear of nature, which is the most universal of human fears, nor to the fear of violence of the state, which is the commonest of modern fears. It is the fear that comes from the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that spaces that surround one, the streets that one inhabits, can become, suddenly and without warning, as hostile as a desert in a flash flood. It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the subcontinent from the rest of the world - not language, not food, not music - it is the special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one's image in the mirror. (204*) Every word I write about those events of 1964 is the product of a struggle with silence. It is a struggle I am destined to lose - have already lost - for even after all these years, I do not know where within me, in which corner of my world, this silence lies. All I know of is what this silence is not. It is not for example, a silence of imperfect memory. Nor is it a silence enforced by a ruthless state - nothng like that, no barbed wire, no checkpoints to tell me where my boundaries lie. I know nothing of this silence except that it lies outside the reach of my intelligence, beyond words - that is why this silence must win, must inevitably defeat me, because it is not a presence at all; it is simply a gap, a hole, an emptiness in which there are no words. (218) On the whole in the whole of the valley there was not one single recorded incident of animosity between Kashmiri Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. There is a note of surprise -- so thin is our belief in the power of syncretic civilizations -- in the newspaper reports which tell us that the theft of the relic had brought together the people of Kashmir as never before.  There is nothing quite as evocative as an old newspaper. There is something in its urgent contemporaneity -- the weather reports, the list of that day's engagements in the city, the advertisements for half remembered films, still crying out in bold print as though it were all happening now, today -- and the feeling besides, that one may once have handled, if not that very paper, then its exact likelness, its twin, which transports one in time as nothing else can.  There are no reliable estimates of how many people were killed in the riots of 1964. The number could stretch from several hundred to several thousand: at any rate not very many less than were killed in the war of 1962.  From the evidence of the newspapers, it is clear that once the riots had started both governments did everything they could to put a stop to them . . . for the madness of a riot is a pathological inversion, but also therefore a reminder, of that indivisible sanity that binds people to each other independently of their governments. And that prior, indpendent relationship is the natural enemy of government, for it is in the logic o states to exist at all they must claim the monopoly of all relationships between peoples.  The theatre of war, where generals meet, is the stage on which states disport themselves: they have no use for memories of riots. (230) I discovered that Khulna is about as far from Srinagar as Tokyo is from Beijing, or Moscow from Venice, or Washington from Havana, or Cairo from Naples. (1200 km)  Chiang Mai in Thailand was much nearer to Calcutta than Delhi is; that Chengdu in China is nearer than Srinagar is. . . Yet did the people of Khulna care at all about the fate of mosques in Vietnam and South China (a mere stone's throw away)? I doubted it. But in this other direction, it took no more than a week . . .  They had drawn their borders, believing in that pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping perhaps taht once they had etched their borders upon the map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other . . . What had they felt, I wondered, when they discovered that they had created not a separation, but a yet-undiscovered irony - the irony taht killed Tridib: the simple fact that there had never been a moment in the four-thousand-year-old history of that map, when places like Dhaka and Calcutta were more closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines . . . (233) Robi told us stories about his colleagues in the Indian Administrative Service -- funny stories about lonely young men who lived in huge colonial mansions in remote districts and spent their time writing symbolist poetry and masturbating. [241 - shades of English, August] And then I think to myself why don't they draw thousands of little lines through the whole subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? It is a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide memory? If freedom were possible then Tridib's death would have set me free. And yet all it takes to set my hand shaking like a leaf, fifteen years later, thousands of miles away, is a chance remark by a waiter in a restaurant. (247)
by John Thieme: Ghosh's second novel, The Shadow Lines (1988), focuses on a very particular personal history – the experience of a single family – as a microcosm for a broader national and international experience. The lives of the narrator's family have been irrevocably changed as a consequence of Bengal's Partition between India and Pakistan at the time of Independence and the subsequent experience of the East Pakistan Civil War of 1971, which led to the creation of Bangladesh. The "shadow lines" of the title are the borders that divide people and, as in all Ghosh's work, one of the main emphases is on the arbitrariness of cartographic demarcations. Towards the end, when members of the family are about to undertake a journey from Calcutta to their former home in Dhaka, the narrator's grandmother asks whether she will be able to see the border between India and East Pakistan from the plane, an ingenuous response which nevertheless foregrounds the absurdity of the revisionist map-making of the politicians responsible for Partition. The family journey to Dhaka to rescue an aged relative and, in the climax of this episode, the narrator – when his second cousin, Tridib, a figure who has always exercised a particularly potent hold on his imagination, is killed amid the communal violence – ponders the deadly effects of borders. Although he concedes that the political map-makers were well-intentioned, he is struck by the fact that the bonds that link Dhaka and Calcutta are closer than ever. Shadow-lines are, however, more than just the frontiers constructed by politicians. They have other resonances in the text as the lines of demarcation that separate colonizer and colonized, present and past, self and image. Ultimately they are the signifying acts that construct notions of discrete identity. As always, Ghosh is not only at pains to demonstrate the porousness of geographical borders, but also the artificiality of a range of binary categorizations of culture and areas of the human psyche. The narrator refers to the frontier dividing the two halves of Bengal as a "looking-glass border" and this notion extends outwards into the novel as a whole. When the narrator comes to see himself as the mirror-image of an English character he has never met, Nick Price, his experience recalls forms of colonial discourse that define non-European subjectivity as the inferior partner in a two-way power relationship. The narrator's twinning with Nick Price suggests both complicity in the hierarchized binaries constructed by such discourse, and also, in a manner typical of Ghosh's recurrent erosion of culturally constructed borders in favour of a broader humanism, affinities which transcend such divisions. Despite ostensible acquiescence in the role of inferior partner in the colonial equation, moreover, the narrator emerges as epistemologically superior. As a colonial, his knowledge of the colonizer's culture far exceeds the colonizer's knowledge of his.
--- Bhupinder singh: http://bhupindersingh.blogspot.com/2006/12/shadow-lines-by-amitav-ghosh.html: There are two streams in the novel- one that of the narrator who has heard about England from a cousin who lived there for sometime and his own discovery of the country when he visits it later in life. The other stream is that of his grandmother visiting her old home in Dhaka, her nostalgia and the discovery of alienation from what she had remembered before Dhaka became part of Pakistan. I found the second stream to be far more readable than the first one, especially the grandmother's character as seen by her young grandson (the narrator). The grandmother goes to Dhaka to bring 'home' her uncle who had decided to stay on in Dhaka after the partition in 1947. He obdurately refuses, delivering one of the finest dialogs in the novel: Move? the old man said incredulously. Move to what? It's not safe for you here, my grandmother said urgently. I know these people look after you well, but it's not the same thing. You don't understand. I understand very well, the old man muttered. I know everything, I understand everything. Once you start moving, you never stop. That's what I told my sons when they took the trains. I don't believe in this India- Shindia. It's all very well, you are going away now, but suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then? Where will you move to? No one will have you anywhere. As for me, I was born here, and will die here. what I found disconcerting at the end of the novel is the author's treatment of the modern nation in South Asia as a given, and not historically formed entity. So the madness of the continuing riots is seen as inexplicable, and the humanist effort on part of his cousin to rescue his grandfather from the rioting mob, as fatal and meaningless. Take this rumination of Tridib's brother when he is reminded of Tridib's death in a Bangladeshi restaurant in England, fifteen years later. It more then sums up the cynicism towards the nation states, towards the borders- the 'shadow lines.' And then I think to myself why don't they draw thousands of little lines through the whole subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? The whole thing is a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide memory? If freedom was possible, surely Tridib's death would have set me free. after finishing it my immediate urge was to reach out for VS Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now, because I think it helps to explain better the significance of shadow lines and why they are being continually redrawn, in physical geography as well as geographies of minds.