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The Shadow Lines And The Indian History English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 5573 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Ghosh is an extraordinary writer of Indian writing in English because he has a different and vibrant approach to post colonialism as he “gives agency to those who are seen as objects and not subjects of history. His critique of Eurocentrism is through giving a voice to the lost or suppressed histories.” [1] Although he is not as extensively critiqued as Salman Rushdie, he is equally if not more celebrated and read by critics and readers. His novels have always been intriguing and highly complex as they deal with the emotional aspects of his characters and his work is imbued with intricate details of the given time and circumstance. The Shadow Lines is Ghosh’s second novel and having written several novels, he is easily able to reinvent himself repeatedly.

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The title of the novel, The Shadow Lines, hints at the lines and borders drawn by people to separate nations and these boundaries only exist in one’s imagination. Nature makes no borders similarly human thinking traverses these physical boundaries easily and without documents. Ghosh does not limit the use of the shadow lines to delineate maps and boundaries; he takes the metaphor further to indicate the “transition from youth to maturity, the past from the present, and those intangible but deeply felt markers of identity that mark oneself off from others, one’s own community from others.” [2] These shadow lines have no physical presence as they are ‘invisible borders’ which create a sense of division in the minds of the people. Therefore Tha’mma, the narrator’s grandmother ‘wanted to know whether she would be able to see the border between India and East Pakistan from the plane.’ She is shocked to realize that ‘if there is no difference both sides will be the same.’ [3] 

Ghosh manages to speak excessively of shadows, darkness and light, weaving them subtly into the context of his story. He uses the terms both realistically and metaphorically that what we believe in the first understanding may not be true because it is half told. He cleverly uses the meaning related to shadows to show the fact that human relations are like shadows although they are a part of us they are still detached from us. The novel outlines the intertwined threads of historical incidents and its predicament on unsuspecting individuals who do not shape history but are victims of its meandering course. The shadow lines are not just the borders separating two countries but have significance beyond the title.

The writer is interested in going beyond the limited information written in history books and political occurrence to the myriad of human relationships and people that are affected by historical events. History is made subjective and each character articulates historical accounts through his or her own personal experience. Likewise as Mondal says that as far as history is concerned “Ghosh shares the postmodern disavowal of universal historical narratives that encode ideas about modernity, development and progress, focusing instead on those fragments of human experience that have been occluded from the historical record, and which find no place in such grand designs.” [4] As he writes the novel, the narrator wrestles with a chronological view of history, passed on by the ruling English and now part of the Indian national consciousness. This historical model needs a linear narrative to describe its cause and effect and is a very narrow and strait jacketed way of history telling as one already knows the end and is merely linking it retrospectively to its beginning. The act of creating and writing down of history then becomes an ideological act, designed to support political and moral systems. The narrative of the novel clearly demystifies, overrules and disrupts a chronological narration and the established systems of narration in general and creating of histories in particular.

Further, Ghosh was deeply disturbed by the assassination of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her own bodyguards and the subsequent riot and pogrom that culminated in mass murder of innocents. This event shook the entire fabric around which the newly independent state of India was constructed. The narratives and valorization of India’s struggle against the colonial rule seemed to be fabricated as its own people were suffering at the hands of the powerful. Most importantly the belief in national unity and Nehru’s dream of a secular and democratic India were completely shattered. The disillusionment with the current political scenario and the communal disharmony became the catalyst for the writing of The Shadow Lines and in this novel Ghosh categorically deplores, exposes and critiques any kind of disharmony and bloodshed caused due to political, religious or territorial disputes.

Moreover, the single most defining historical event of partition has deeply impacted the psyche of millions of people on both the sides of the border of India and Bangladesh. The violence and resulting bloodshed is still fresh in the memory of its people and this same theme of violence and suspicion is the underlying thread that runs throughout the novel. The description of communal violence and riots is detailed towards the end of the text highlighting the fact that a disturbing incident and in this case the traumatic experience of partition never fades away from the memory of the people. In the novel we see the way violence moves from the public to the private lives of the individuals forcing us to question ourselves whether we are really free from the dormant sense of bloodshed and basal bestial instincts. For many Indians especially those who suffered and uprooted from their homes due to the partition, the bifurcation and formation of new nations does not signify independence rather it is a day that marks a division of communities and the futility of demarcating and separating nations based on religious affinities.

The city of Dhaka comes alive to the narrator due to the childhood stories told to him by his incomparable grandmother who was born there. Although he never visits Dhaka but it is the city that affects him the most because of the violence that unfolded on its streets and took away Tridib, the narrator’s uncle. Violence is depicted differently in the novel and a palpable sense of violence is subtly present till the end. Its description is not voyeuristic rather Ghosh correctly comprehends the absolute senselessness that engulfs any violent act. The narrator describes a calculated and numbing riot that tore Calcutta apart in his childhood in the year 1964 and seemed as if ‘the streets had turned themselves inside out: our city had turned against us.’ He also invokes the idea that the two communities are a mirror image of each other, yet there is a prevalent and underlying sense of distrust, hate and anger, which leads to confrontation between the communities leading to a “special kind of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one’s image in the mirror.” [5] Meenakshi Mukherjee reflects that “Private and public narratives interpenetrate in the novel, history surging around ordinary lives to determine their colour and shape and both are perceived through the image of reflections in mirrors.” [6] 

Baseless violence and disruption of human beings in the name of divergent religious affinities is debated and heavily critiqued by Ghosh. He comprehends the politics behind it and explicates the fact that dividing nations on the basis of religious beliefs is a specious method of appeasing a few and creating an emotional, psychological and physical divide for the rest. No fundamental group could ever be satisfied by the arrangements made and their demands could never be fulfilled; also a ubiquitous sense of unavoidable violence will always be felt and the social fabric of communal harmony and peace will be easily overthrown by perpetual sense of distrust and suspicion among various communities. Mondal asserts that “The Shadow Lines probably represents Ghosh’s most direct confrontation with nationalism and national identity. It is unsurprising, therefore, that the motif of the map appears throughout the text.” [7] 

National identity is not limited by only one’s religious beliefs rather it encompasses customs, traditions, rituals and language of a particular place. It is also a work of mental construct that recognizes one community and a place as of one’s own and “Nations are both real and imaginary, material and immaterial.” [8] Hence drawing a line on land and separating people by demarcating borders is a futile attempt at creating divisions and these borders are mere shadow lines. In the words of Meenakshi Mukherjee distance in the novel is “a challenge to be overcome through the use of imagination and desire until space gets dissolved.” [9] Further, the implication of the term ‘shadow’ in the title could also hint at the things that the characters in the novel have hidden from one another. The pivotal incidence of the brutal death of the narrator’s uncle Tridib is hidden from the narrator and he is given only bits and pieces of information that he pieces together to arrive at a poignant conclusion.

Besides, the city of Calcutta has been a great influence on Ghosh’s imagination and the novel is full of reference to numerous places in the city. He admits that the city of Calcutta is a “kind of constant that runs through all his my books […] the centre of my imaginative world.” [10] The status of Calcutta as being a cultural and intellectual centre is reflected in his works. The Shadow Lines talks about the bhadralok or the middle class gentility that is formed by the political, cultural and intellectual elite. Calcutta is one of the oldest port cities of the world and the British Empire set up its company here first. There has been a great impact of western education and culture on the Bengali society because of its colonial wealth and privilege and the traffic between Indian and European ideas helped construct a vibrant and modern culture. In the novel we see a steady rise of the narrator’s family in society, as the narrator’s father rises up from being a clerk to holding important office in his field of work and becoming a part of the bhadralok community. Meenakshi Mukherjee describes the narrator family’s social mobility as “The spatial movement, from a flat in Gole Park to a house in Southern Avenue with the ‘conversation loving stretch’ of Gariahat Road occupying a central space, charts his Calcutta moorings precisely. The relentless educational compulsions of this class and the tension of conflicting values between its dominant and deviant members are evoked with as much telling detail as the frequent shifts of locale and the sequence of public events that frame his life.” [11] Even as the narrator grows up in Calcutta his imaginative potential is not restricted to this city only because he is to travel to far flung places through the stories told to him by his uncle and his cousin Ila.

A subtle influence of Tagore’s ideal of nationalism is apparent in Ghosh’s work as well. Tagore’s idea of nationalism as being above and devoid of petty notions of political nations is upheld in The Shadow Lines. The writer condemns and lashes against the division of nations based on a misguided understanding of freedom and sovereignty, ‘people shot by terrorists and separatists and the army and the police, you’ll find somewhere behind it all, that single word; everyone is doing it to be free.’ [12] Ghosh exposes the truth behind forging borders between people and dividing by illuminating the fact an incidence occurring in remotest part of a country affects people miles away who are not related to that place of the mishap. Tridib is killed in a mob attack on the minority community in Bangladesh during an agitation caused due to the missing relic in Srinagar. The unreasonable death of Tridib underscores the fact that violence and a sense of hatred does not distinguish between the culprits and the innocents.

The Shadow Lines depicts the lives of people during and after India’s independence and the effect partition of the nation has on those who are tied to their roots. Much of Ghosh’s work focuses on families. The novel centers on the lives of a middle class Bengali family that is sucked into riots and violence which ruptures and disorients their placid, uneventful lives. Ghosh’s novel has multiple narrators and begins in the voice of an unnamed young narrator who remembers the story for the readers in a haphazard, unreliable and non- linear way. He is willing to share the burden of narration with five other narrators. The story seems to be a jigsaw puzzle overtly and the reader has to make the connections, yet it is tightly framed and extremely cohesive, where everything falls in its correct place towards the end. The precision with which the narrator remembers particular incidents on particular significant dates is noteworthy, however, he falters at times owing to the back and forth workings of his memory and is corrected by the other narrators. According to critic Meenakshi Mukherjee in the novel there is “a repeated insistence for the freedom of each individual to be able to create his own stories in order to prevent getting trapped in someone else’s construction of reality.” [13] 

The narrative also depends on historical records, research in libraries and newspaper articles. They chart out a very different trajectory as they reflect merely the mega narratives and the big events unlike individuals who give important to sundry things. The history has a massive and sweeping method of unfolding itself and at times it is prejudiced too. The narrator reminiscences an indelible incident of his childhood and struggles to find any record for the day that the tragedy occurred but the newspaper has only a fleeting reference to it because to the framers of history individual histories are easily and readily overlooked

Quickly we turned the limp, yellowing pages back until we came

to the front page.

So where’s your riot ? said Malik.

The lead story had nothing to do with riots of any kind nor with

Calcutta […] It’s really strange that you should remember a riot that

happened in Pakistan. [14] 

By trying to uncover the reason for his uncle’s murder the narrator embarks on a painstaking journey of reading newspaper articles of that day and trying to find an explanation for the silence about the communal riots in documents and the media. Finally he arrives at the conclusion that difficult facts are not revealed for the good of the nation and only defining moments are publicized to maintain the nation’s sense of self- image and semblance of unity and coherence. The public memory is very short and old tragedies are quickly forgotten and completely erased when new incidences occur. Ghosh is questioning the whole process of narrativising a national identity which involves a linear and strait jacketed structure of progress. Thus, in a broader sense The Shadow Lines unfolds a trajectory of events that is peculiar to certain individuals and the impact of larger history and happenings that shape and alter the lives of people.

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It is important to note that the novel spans forty one years but the action is limited to only thirty one days which is detailed and singled out. The narrator constant question to other characters in the novel is whether he or she remembers a particular incident or conversation. Suvir Kaul explains that the question posed by the narrator “shapes the narrator’s search for connection for the recovery of lost information or repressed experience, for the details of the great trauma or joy that have receded into the archives of public or private memory.” [15] The novel starts when the narrator is twenty seven and he reflects back on his childhood days and on the life of the most important character of the novel – Tridib, the narrator’s uncle and his alter ego. He is an archaeologist and an interesting narrator of tales who teaches the narrator to view stories and history differently. Tridib has an overarching presence throughout the novel. The whole sequence of his death is the crux of the narrative and the narrator joins the divergent facts together to learn more about the circumstances leading up to it. His death is a filial tragedy that affects only the family members, yet through his death we analyze the whole idea of nation states, we shift from the private to the collective memory.

The narrator’s quest to piece the circumstances leading to Tridib’s death is problematic because those who were present during the death wish to forget about it as its reminiscence cause them a great amount of grief and torment. It is only towards the end of the novel that the narrator pieces together the jigsaw puzzle of Tridib’s death with the help of Robi, Tridib’s younger brother and May, Tridib’s girlfriend, who retell the circumstances of his death. Similarly there are certain events and failures too that nations wish to erase and these events are not published in the newspapers and are deliberately hidden from public scrutiny. The narrator hopes to reconstruct the history of his family and the historically significant times they lived through. Hence, as the narrative progresses we realize that the novel is not merely concerned with death of Tridib but with the birth of nations. Within which there are important questions of its failures – partition, communalism, riots, violence and militancy. The facts presented to us conceals these set backs and failures because there is a lot of angst and misery attached with its recollection.

Tridib encourages the narrator to use his imagination while he describes a place to the young narrator. He also tells the narrator to build the ability to be able to tell his own story so that he is not trapped and constricted by the stories created by others. It is a legacy bequeathed on the young narrator to look beyond the master narratives that are available through the experience of the majority. He instills in the narrator the archaeological habit of digging deep to find results as ‘one could never know anything except through desire […] there was no border between oneself and one’s image in the mirror.’ [16] Further, Tridib’s romance with May is continued by the narrator. The letter which he sends May is a semi- pornographic letter in which he expresses the desire to meet her ‘ as the completest of strangers – strangers across the seas […] in a place without a past, without history, free, really free.’ [17] His desire to meet her at a place without history, borders and timeless can be understood to be a need for the colonized to meet the colonizer on equal terms, without a pre- existing hierarchy. His idea of the world is almost utopian, in which he wishes to transcend the barriers created by nationality, colour and culture.

As we read the novel, the general perception that we construct for the character of Tridib, is that of a humanistic and idealistic person. His eccentricities, especially the practical jokes that he plays on those who are gullible enough to take his nonsensical advice seriously, make his personality more realistic and endearing. He is killed by a mob in Bangladesh while trying to rescue May and Jethomoshai, which seems to be a selfless act and a huge sacrifice. Tridib, who generally remains passive rapidly changes and becomes proactive, regretfully falling prey to communal violence. May, who has lived her entire life with the guilt of being the one responsible for his death, finally redeems herself by confessing to the narrator that ‘He gave himself up; it was a sacrifice’ [18] and reasoning to herself that no one would have harmed her because she is white English lady in a third world nation Tridib’s death also brings to fore the fact how easily the world conspires to destroy an innocuous idealist because of political maneuvers and fuelling of communal misunderstandings and nationalist fundamentalism. Significantly, in the end of the novel the narrator consummates the unfinished sexual relationship between Tridib and May and continues the bonds that Tridib had established between past and present and between people and communities.

As Meenakshi Mukherjee calls the narrator a ‘porous space’ [19] and highlights the fact that “We never get to know the narrator’s name nor can we visualize what he looks like, except through occasional glimpses of the various other persons whose mirror image he is supposed to be.” [20] . He is a reservoir of memories and stories and about his family. The narrative of the novel mimics the way human mind functions, Ghosh uses the ‘stream of consciousness’ method of narration “in which time and space is fluid and constantly shifting from one location to another, and from one given moment to another without any forced transition.” [21] The novel is to a large extent a narrative in reminiscence and it successfully intersects historical happenings with personal events. In his journey to recapitulate Tridib’s death the narrator realizes the proximity of cities separated by cartographical demarcations but bond together: ‘each city was the inverted image of the other, locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free – our looking-glass border.’ [22] John Thieme elaborates that the notion of looking glass does not only illustrate a sense of distance as well as similarity and between two nations but also between the narrator and an English character, Nick Price, who becomes a ‘spectral presence[…] always bigger and better and in some ways more desirable.’ [23] Although the narrator views himself as the inferior partner, his knowledge of the colonizer’s world is far superior. It becomes his duty to narrate the stories imaginatively where remembrance and nostalgia become a reason to find meaning, connection and enables him to define the present through the workings of his memories. All individual memories are supposed to come together and make sense, to complete the picture. To recollect a traumatic event is therapeutic and enables the characters to overcome the pain caused by that event.

The novel debunks the idea that one should live and believe in the narrative of another person. Ila, the narrator’s cousin, lives only in the present as the past to her means a reservoir of unpleasant memories. She does not want to relive her past through the stories of other characters and is focused only on living in the present. The incident in the novel in which Ila narrates the racial attack on her by constructing a fabricated tale about Magda is retold by May Price and the narrator senses the hurt and discrimination felt by the young Ila. She is a misfit in both the societies, Bengali and English of which has inadvertently become a part. She wants to be free of patriarchal norms and expectation created for the sexes in the Indian society and tells the narrator that she aims to be ‘Free of [his] bloody culture’ [24] which forces her to be docile and imposed numerous inhibitions.

For the young narrator Ila is an adolescent fantasy because of her western clothes, appearance and behavior which make her look ‘improbably exotic’ [25] to him. She awakens the repressed sexual desire in the narrator as Suvir Kaul elucidates that the narrator “learns all manner of lessons from his relationship with her, lessons about asymmetrical emotional relationships, about cultural dislocations and maladjustments, about the compromises that accompany life lived at home and abroad.” [26] She also occupies a central position for the narrator’s search of identity. She is an object of desire for the narrator and remains at the level of an erotic desire and is a symbol of unrequited love. Her life is a complete contrast to the life of the narrator, who is brought up in a strict, middle class conventional way in which success is recognized through one’s academic achievement and a stable government employment. While Ila, ostensibly lives an adventurous life abroad, lacks imagination like the narrator and visits various places without ‘worlds to travel in’. Her vain attempts to find roots in the English society are exposed to us through her insignificant political activities. Unlike Ila, the narrator remains rooted to the Bengali society. Ghosh seems to be critical of the concept of the ‘global citizen’ through his characterization of Ila and her situation reveals the shallowness of a Western world that is only superficially non- racist.

She marries Nick Price, May’s unemployed younger brother but they have a failed marriage. Nick is unfaithful to her and he is etched out as a colonial exploiter who marries her to exploit her resources, in this case her father’s money, thus replicating the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. She is entrapped in the marriage deluding herself that she has left behind the squalor and restrictions of a third world country behind her. She is exoticized and is also objectified by Nick who sees her as ‘a bit of variety’ in his endeavor to travel and traverse cultures. She is ‘othered’ by him and even through their marriage she is not accepted in the Western culture. They are not on equal terms and she is a victim of Nick’s desire for variety. Her predicament is that of a failed cosmopolitanism as she is unaccepted and caught between the two cultural contradictions and finds herself a misfit in the upper class Bengali milieu and English society.

The Indian society has always been conflicted in completely accepting the western culture and norms. Since independence there has been a growing concern about the portrayal and role of Indian women in the society. As is true in all patriarchal societies that women are the bearers of cultural responsibility, therefore, there is a need to control women’s sexuality and impose restrictions on them. Women are forced to be docile, virtuous, and chaste and sacrificing by the society so that the next generation is clean and pure. They bear the burden of a community’s honor and with their contamination there is a fear of the whole community’s contamination. Hence Ila is at odds with the cultural control on her as she wants to distance herself from societal expectations. She is portrayed as a nomadic figure, rootless and always on the move. Ila is perceived as a threat to Tha’mma as she epitomizes the figure of a nomad who exists on the fringes of the society without adhering to any rules or regulations.

Tha’mma belongs to the generation that suffered the most due to partition as they had to leave their homes, property and at times relatives behind. Her generation paid a heavy price for independence and to her nationalism and freedom has a very different meaning and connotation. To her understanding and belief the sacrifices of so many people should not go in vain and has to be protected and reinforced in the society through religious and cultural rigidity. She lives in India and believes it to be her home and wants to bring back her uncle back home. Her senile uncle’s views on the issue of nationhood and migration reveal the inherent contradiction and futility of creating borders between communities: ‘I don’t believe in this India-Shindia. It’s all very well, you’re going away now, but suppose when you get there, they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then?’ [27] 

In the description of Tha’mma’s journey to Dhaka after independence to bring back her Jethomoshai, Ghosh touches on the issue of migrancy and the way memories are attached with one’s place of descent that it seems to be from a different time and place. Tha’mma ‘had not been able to quite understand how her place of birth had come to be so messily at odds with her nationality.’ [28] Her constant search for the Dhaka she remembers is futile. To the migrant the place of one’s origin remains in her imagination as a place of opportunity and promise from the land she has been exiled. In case of Tha’mma the journey back is unfulfilling and disenchanting because the new place that she visit contrasts and contradicts the image which she had created for her place of birth. Diasporic literature highlights the dichotomy between one’s reminiscence and imagination of one’s place of origin and the place to which one has now become a resident of. The difference between the cultures, traditions and language of a western country and an eastern country is obviously stark, and in case of Tha’mma the difference is not extremely exaggerated as the cultural difference between East and West Bengal is minimal. Yet she is at lost and keeps looking for the Dhaka she knew and constantly repeats, ‘I’ve never seen any of this. Where is Dhaka?’ hinting at her sense of bereavement and loss with the place she had attached a lot of fond memories.

Interestingly, Tha’mma symbolizes extreme nationalistic fervor and to her Ila is an aberration and a corrupting influence on the narrator. She has an extreme


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