A Tribute to Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Shadow Lines’: The mirage of borders

There have been many moments in India’s history when it felt as if the country was coming undone. “It was deeply deranging, but you must also remember that India of the 1980s was an explosive place. It really felt like it was coming undone,” novelist Amitav Ghosh had said to mark the 25th year of the publication of his novel, The Shadow Lines.  Dr. Nazia Hasan pays a tribute to Ghosh and his seminal work of fiction in this special essay.

Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh

This day break, pockmarked- this morning, night bitten
Surely, this is not the morning we’d longed for,
In whose eager quest, all comrades
Had set out, hoping that somewhere
In the wilderness of the sky
Would emerge the ultimate destination of stars,
…somewhere will anchor the boat of heart’s grief.

(Faiz Ahmad Faiz, The morning of Freedom: August 1947)

Partition of India has been one of those turning points in the history of the subcontinent, the repercussions of which have not ended yet. It lives in memories, in monuments, in songs and stories, besides popping up now and then in various symbols, occasions and rituals. It makes the Katha and Daastaan for the coming generations for centuries perhaps, because it has everything aplenty: the joys and the sorrows (more sorrows than joys, of course for the common man) associated with it can weave sagas of its own. Amitav Ghosh in most of his novels like The Circle of Reason (1986), The Shadow Lines (1988) and The Hungry Tide (2004) takes up the theme of the Partition in its differing aspects. He looks at it from the middle class quarters in The Shadow Lines, the anonymous sufferers’ side in The Circle of Reason and the low-caste section in The Hungry Tide. Perhaps, John Berger had the same idea when he wrote; “Never again a story will be told as though it is the only one…” (Ways of Seeing: 1990).

shadow-lines1Basically Indian Independence happened as an abstract thing, because of being accompanied by Partition and its violence. It did not provide people with any perceptible, overnight overhauls. It was tangible only in a negative sense, a reality only in its violence and bloodshed. It changed the course of many lives, which would otherwise have run in their expected and customary ways. The ruling, privileged class, who kept to their abodes, or could get a lion’s share in the new territories, celebrated the August 1947 phenomenon. Whereas, majority of the common people were unable to join that; it brought a new identity to them in the form of being refugees across the border. This aspect is well attended by Ghosh in all the three novels. According to their religious identities, peoples’ national affiliation was marked. Being a Sikh, a Hindu, and a Muslim had become virtually synonymous with being a refugee and a foreign national categorically in the various parts of the subcontinent. Unfortunately they remained refugees for a long time as an ugly aspect of these new, developing societies and nations.

Amitav Ghosh being a post-colonial historian shows a natural disbelief and dislike for grand narratives like the bliss of ‘freedom’ and the power of ‘nationalism’. His struggle at the core is against historiography, dominated so far by the Westerners or the bourgeoisies. Because it has been misused and exploited to foster rhetorics like that of nationalism, unification and reconstruction of a nation anew every now and then by drawing some lines as borders here and there. Very idealistically, Thamma, the grandmother of the narrator in The Shadow Lines (1988) subscribes to these glorious tasks of nation building with an undeterred zeal. Even the central incident of the novel – assassination of Tridib, her nephew, does not unfaze her; or wake her out of the slumber caused by these grand notions of nations and borders. It is because these grand myths have been allowed to go deep as ideologies in the minds of growing children. They have been instilled in us so intensely since childhood that we kept worshiping these illusions for decades. History exhibits how this nation building and Partitions for the same sake have never led us beyond wars, misguided riots and violence. It is but obvious that Bertrand Russell finds nationalism to be undoubtedly “the most dangerous vice of our time, far more dangerous than drunkenness of drugs, of commercial dishonesty” (Freedom and Organisation:  403).

Amitav Ghosh by retelling personal histories of Thamma’s dispersed family in The Shadow Lines reveals this process of a ‘collective will’ obtained to invent a new nation. Salman Rushdie beautifully baptized it as “Imaginary homelands”(1991). Ghosh metaphorically presents the common consensus through Tridib as he says, “every one lives in a story, stories are all there to live in …” (TSL: 182). People like Thamma agreed to ‘dream’ a new nation, believing in the reality of borders beyond which existed another reality, permitting only relationship of ‘war and friendship’ (TSL: 219).

Partition, in the words of Indo-Pak poet Faiz, wreaked havoc at an unprecedented level, as he sang in pain –“The blood of how many do you need, o my motherland/ so that you’re lusterless cheek may turn crimson? / How many sighs will soothe your heart/ and how many tears make your deserts bloom?”- (Majeed: 182)

But the worst part of all partitions is the way its memory is renewed and revised with massacre of one kind or other after every few years of peace in the name of identity, religion and nationalism. In Salman Rushdie’s words, Partition needs to be “sanctified, renewed by rituals of blood” (Midnight’s Children: 112). The riots of 1964 making an important part of our history of suffering caused by partition is one such incident taken in The Shadow Lines. It killed many across borders in the Indian subcontinent. The novel specially focuses on the Khulna district’s violence in Bengal the same year and how it sparked off communal riots in Bangladesh and India simultaneously. If Khulna happened to be unforgettable for the victims of this cruel past, it was largely forgotten in nationalist lore. The people and the places scorched by the communal fires were erased over the construction of the etching memory of the war. No doubt, our knowledge of the past is marred by omissions of the most vital facts.

In the particular context of 1947, the questions of religion and ethnic identities allegedly became the central determinants of privilege– that the ‘we’ of Indian nationalism can be trusted as true nationalists whereas the other part can never be lifted out of the suspects, even after years of allegiance. Partition has not taken its place “on the frontier” only but right “inside” (151), amidst the people of India- a live memory. Such misplacing and change of identity did not take any time- but it just dawned on them. They were entrapped in this new periphery and could not lift it up any way. This silent acquiescence is at par with the loud exclaim as Thamma wonders in a shocked tone having come to know about the India-Bangladesh borders’ normalcy- “What was it all for then- partition and all the killing and everything – if there is not something in between?”(151). She finds ‘no trenches, no soldiers pointing guns at each other…’ (TSL: 151). This naïve belief in borders is reflective of nation’s definition as limited. Her dilemma is consonant with the central confusion of all nationalisms. Thus, the borders are mere shadow lines or mirage only. Thamma is informed that this Partition is rather embodied in “disembarkation cards” (151) and visa formalities instead of being on land. Partition not only took lives, it also betrayed hopes and deceived people of their dreams. It disillusioned people. Therefore, Thamma could never forgive history for the things that it denied her, “…the unity of nationhood and territory, … the self respect and national power… like all the modern middle classes the world over…”(TSL:78).

Thamma’s generation had willingly agreed to forget and ignore the ‘other’ reality beyond the newly drawn lines, to invent a new nation. The division of her ancestral house in Jindebahar lane of Dhaka owing to the two brothers in discord can be taken as an allegory for the divided nation. Once the hard wooden wall was built and each family had “moved in to their own part”, a strange and eerie silence had descended upon the house. The grandmother reflects that “instead of the peace they had so much looked forward to… the life went out of it” (TSL:123). But with maturing years, they started “liking the wall … it had become a part of them… none of them wanted to venture out into the limb of reconciliation” (124). Very much like her estranged family, the subcontinent had believed itself to be independent of all past alliances. Benedict Anderson’s theory regarding constructed nations sounds true here that it is –

“… an imagined political community – imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign…rather than an inevitable product of sociological factors such as common language, race, religion and history”(1991:06).

India and Pakistan, like all nations everywhere had believed in this vision. They claimed to be defined and identified by well-marked cultural-political boundaries. But such boundaries are not perfect in keeping the nations separate from each other. The borders can’t stop memories and personal experiences of the shared pasts flowing across, or being ruffled by the winds blowing across.

Ghosh proves these very dividing lines porous and indistinct with a reality, which makes in turn a pivotal part of our entity. He proves our assumption wrong about the national culture being a sanitized realm of unchanging monument, free from worldly affiliations. In the same way, India and Pakistan share the history and the identity together. Communities living on both sides still feel for each other, and are not limited to their own nationalisms or controlled by their respective governments. Because, the inherited memories of the past cannot be changed or erased from the minds of people entirely. It is inconceivable to think of a life and community reconstructed out of the difficult and contradictory ‘memories’ of the past. This is what The Shadow Lines unveils and thus confronts some fearful suppressed memories. This easily uncovers the simplified, seamless narrative of our national identity.

The porosity of the fences across the two nations is most obvious when the Khulna violence is triggered by the reported incident of Mui-Mubarak’s theft from Hazratbal mosque in Kashmir, hundreds of miles away from Dhaka. As the doubting finger pointed towards the other community for committing this blasphemous act to disgrace the Muslim believers, the same sects’ people in the other part of the continent boiled over with rage and revenge. Tridib happened to be in Khulna with Thamma and May, trying to rescue Jethamoshai, the old lady’s uncle from the tortures of being a refugee in one’s own land: a Bengali Hindu surrounded by Bengali Muslims was an inconceivable existence for Thamma, the old time ‘nationalist’. Jethamoshai refused to budge from his roots, disregarding ‘India-Shindia’, expressing the fear that India will draw some ‘new line’ again when he lands there for safety and homogeneity. This so-called rescue army of his family members literally lift him up to be shifted, only to witness the mob attack on young Tridib in the most fatal way. Thamma’s nephew was killed in her own previous homeland, and Khalil, the Muslim rickshaw-puller was also martyred by people of his own community. Ironically, the Dhaka Muslims were reacting to the riots of India only: causing a looking glass mirror image across the borders! That’s where, Ghosh through Robi, asks about the validity of the separating walls. The borders drawn with blood prove futile in their purpose of making new spheres away from the older ones. Because, walls or fences do not guarantee freedom from memories or the indivisible sanity and insanity spreading over people!  Ghosh remembers how during the 1947 mayhem, ‘lines meant lives’. The crisscrossing lines of protection drawn around nations, rather brings them closer, make them images of each other, acting as inverting agents. They do not float away like islands, rather water keeps moving beneath the bridge of the shadow lines.

The Shadow Lines seems to look at the world as one, as the modern technology claims to make a global village, though we still find it an extravagant description. The usual view of ‘clashes of civilizations’ is prevalent in many ways, but some parts of the same world have been unyielding to this notion of discrete living. The close relationship of Mayadebi’s family with Prices in England is one such instance. They met and lived helping each other in a desirably synergetic manner for decades and generations. This relationship attained peak during the Second World War times when Jews were breathing cautiously in hide-outs and Indians were in a  strained relationship with the English colonizers. The third generation Tridib Dutta and May Price exchanged hearts along with Ila Chander Shekhar Dutta and Nick Price’s marriage vows years afterwards. While Ila suffered racial discrimination in an exotic way and ended up lonely, May’s relationship could not blossom forth as Tridib became a riots’ victim unwittingly. Tridib’s desire to meet May at a nameless, timeless place remained unaccomplished. Perhaps, the burden of colonialism, inherent ethnic distances and racial concretizations were now unavoidable unlike 1936, once the nations have new identities and names within the circumferences of their borders.

This issue is significantly taken up by Amitav Ghosh in The Circle of Reason to present the history ‘from below’, of a very peripheral border land, the Bangla- India one. In the official records, it has been a victim of State simplification, represented with only a particular slice of social reality that served the official observers. It is usual of a tendency inherent in statecraft. The Bengal Partition has been treated as a very marginal incident compared to the other one on India’s Northwestern part – the Lahore and Punjab one. Ghosh himself has taken one such inter linked incident in The Shadow Line. As a college student Ghosh tried to read about the Khulna violence. But to his shock, he finds very little information regarding this incident in one of the biggest libraries of the Indian Capital. After all kinds of search, what Amitav Ghosh could conclude was to dub it  as the official ‘politics of forgetting’ the incident. Tathagata Roy(2007: xix) bluntly puts it as an elaborate attempt to obliterate the contested origins and nature of the borders in his book entitled A Suppressed Chapter in History.

Although Ghosh in this novel does not indulge deeply in the live border activities, in a pure Partition genre, but he gives us timely information regarding developments. He just means to recall a past under haze of forgetfulness. He sticks to his new historicist endeavour to make the readers aware of this aspect of official records. He conveys it clearly that if the 1947 partition is a mainstream history, the 1971 incident also amounts to the same stature with its losses, agony and historicity. He efficiently takes up this matter in his later novels, The Shadow Lines and The Hungry Tide.

It would be in the fitness of things to point out that Ghosh presents the strongest criticism of nation-theories and the subsequent reconstruction of nations. Change of nationality is not something that can be obtained once and for all, in some seamless form. The undercurrents keep flowing from one to the other side. Liberation by violence/ partitioning not only involves drawing of new lines on a map, unfurling of new national flags and installation of new national governments, but also comprises the tearing apart of individuals, families, homes, villages and linguistic, cultural communities that would once have been called nationalities. This also consists of the realization which comes upon gradually- that this tearing apart was permanent. It was impossibly, helplessly permanent like death. And that it required new borders, communities, identities and histories, forgetting the old ones. But this magical potion of forgetting and forgiving has not been discovered yet, so the turmoils occurring now and then, like the untimely deaths of Tridib and Khalil, make a regular feature of our unfortunately very messy, disorderly history.

In many ways, The Shadow Lines is very much about that golden word ‘freedom’ which every character desires to achieve in her/his own way. Thamma gets her national freedom but remains unhappy about the other changes around, her daughter-in-law/ narrator’s mother experiences a continuous subjugation in the shadow of the demanding Thamma. The narrator satirizes the middle class notion of achievement, where excelling in examinations and finding a job is much more important than attending a funeral or making friends of one’s own choice. Ila Dutta wants to be free of the ‘bloody Indian’ culture and traditions, their constraints but ends up belonging nowhere in her peripatetic lifestyle. Robi hates divisive lines and hopes for the development of a syncretic civilization in the presence of intercultural flows with ongoing migrations and border crossings. But it is possible only when we erase the binary division between East and West, tradition and modernity, us and them; fracturing the rigidity and the perverted value attached to borders perhaps. The present day geographical fluidity and impending cultural dislocation may prove positive if entertained in a positive sense.

Amitav Ghosh can be seen weaving the magic of his ingenious craft by recovering, by listening to the past resounding in our present history. Ghosh believes in the close interconnection between state, nation and history in its modern incarnation.  This new belief also agrees to the view that no culture, no nation or community can boast of being discreet, distinct and separate. As Ghosh himself says in one of his articles The Slave of Ms H.6, “in the geography of human history, no culture is an island” (1999 :175). Nations hinge on shared histories and communities; concomitantly, the idea of Partitions, sounds unnatural. Amitav Ghosh uses history ingenously to let us make ‘sense of our troubling present’.

Dr. Nazia Hasan is Assistant Professor, Women’s College, Aligarh MuslimUniversity and she could be reached at        naziahasanagha@gmail.com.

       Works cited

  1. Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, New York: Verso, 1991, pp- 06.
  2. Berger, John, Ways of Seeing, New York: Penguin, 1990.
  3. Faiz Ahmad Faiz, “August 1947”, Culture and Identity: Selected English Writings of Faiz, Compiled and edited by Sheema Majeed, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  4. Ghosh, Amitav, “The Slave of M.S.H 16”, Subaltern Studies: Writing on Asian History and Society: VII, (eds.) Partha Chatterji and Gyanendra Pandey, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
  5. Ghosh, Amitav, The Shadow Lines, New Delhi: Orient Longman Ltd, 1988.
  6. Rushdie, Salman, Midnight’s Children, UK: Vintage, 1995, pp- 112.
  7. Russell, Bertrand, Freedom and Organisation 1814-1914, London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1952, pp-403.


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