book excerptise:   a book unexamined is wasting trees

The shadow lines

Amitav Ghosh

Ghosh, Amitav;

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...

My top ten Indian English novels

(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

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

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

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
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. [23]

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. [31]

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

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. . . [182]

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.  [198]

   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.  [225]

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.  [227]

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. [229]

  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. [230]
   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) [231]
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 . . . [232]

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)

Other reviews

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: 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.

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This review by Amit Mukerjee was last updated on : 2015 Jul 24