Borders, Violence and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines

“Everyone lives in a story… because stories are all there are to live in, it was just a question of which one you choose” (The Shadow Lines 109)


Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (TSL) is a story that arises out of the narrator’s reminiscences, recollected in tranquility and looked at with all the wisdom of the hind sight. It is about essentialization as a process, and its questioning in various ways. Essentialization is a very dangerously deceptive thing, especially when its purpose is a neat compartmentalization of human beings on the basis of subjective traits. Even then, sustaining the definition of water tight compartments of humanity becomes very difficult when homogeneity tends to erase the well defined boundaries, making them blurred and shadowy. One of the many appealing facets of TSL is the way it looks at the accident that descended on the pages of history: the creation of two nations on the basis of the incompatibility of two religious groups and their mutual hatred. East and West Pakistan were carved out of the British India on the basis of the two nation theory that totally opposed any possibility of co-existence. Boundaries were created and people were forced to alter their lives and selves to accommodate them to the conceptual nations that the powerful persons had created.


TSL shows the plight of the narrator’s grandmother and her loss of the sense of secure moorings; a point of reference to which one returns for assurance. Her loss was caused due to the borders imposed on her. In his Modern Political Geography Richard Muir defines boundaries that “occur where the vertical interfaces between state sovereignties intersect the surface of the earth…As vertical interfaces, boundaries have no horizontal extent” (qtd. inAnderson 172). Tha’mma would have been perplexed with Muir’s elegantly defined boundaries that only existed in the conceptual space. In her own simple way she “wanted to know whether she would be able to see the border between India and East Pakistan from the plane” (TSL 90). She wasn’t looking for a line as such, but for some indicator of demarcation.


Hindus and Muslims, unlike the White and Black peoples, have no phenotypical inherent traits to tell them from each other. They shared land, culture and more than a thousand years of history. They had lived together, happily or unhappily, peacefully or struggling for survival on the same resource base. They would have kept doing the same had their fates not been manipulated by those who had assumed God-head, with its power, will, means and knowledge. The gods had developed a line of reasoning that showed the two categories of Hindus and Muslims as completely irreconcilable and essentially antagonistic. Their ideas found fruition in the first nation of the world that was constructed purely on the basis of religion:Pakistan, or the land of the holy. The asserts confidently:

As early as in the beginning of the 11th century, Al-Biruni observed that Hindus differed from the Muslims in all matters and habits…The speech made by Quaid-i-Azam atMintoPark,Lahoreon March 22, 1940 was very similar to Al-Biruni’s thesis in theme and tone. In this speech, he stated that Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, with different social customs and literature…He emphasized that in spite of the passage of about 1,000 years the relations between the Hindus and Muslims could not attain the level of cordiality.

The Muslim fundamentalists were inadvertently but ably supported by the Hindu right wing. Leaders ranging from Quaid-e-Azam to Guruji had supported and established in the popular imagination the mutually exclusive and entirely essentialist categories of Hindus and Muslims. Their efforts bore fruit by contributing towards the establishment of these categories as parallels to the imagined communities of nations.Andersondefines nation as “an imagined political community… inherently limited and sovereign”(6). Despite all differences and conflicts, the members of this imagined community have a strong sense of belonging. “It is generally recognized that the intelligentsia were central to the rise of nationalism in the colonial territories… [their] vanguard role derived fro their… literacy and bilingualism” (Anderson116). It was the intelligentsia who had started the process. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was one of the first to broach the issue of fundamental incompatibility. Allama Iqbal had called the idea of territorially divided loyalties to nations as one of the modern inventions and an enemy of the solidarity of the Muslim “umma”. He was right about the imaginary and inventedness of nations, asAndersontoo would assert five decades later.


History does not prove Iqbal’s claim of the solidarity of the inherently heterogeneous Muslim umma that cuts across innumerable linguistic and geographical boundaries right, as is clear from the present unrest in Pakistan itself.  The Hindu-Muslim rift was deepened, widened and clearly defined in the decades enveloping 1900. It is from then same time period that one may trace the unbroken lineage of the monster of communal hatred – communal riots – in the Indian subcontinent. The demographics specific to the subcontinent facilitated its origin and growth. Hindus or Muslims, whether they formed an absolute majority in a geographical region and felt secure in their numerical strength, or they were a minority, and the potential victims of persecution on the basis of the religion of their birth: in each case there was a way to communalize masses. The mass paranoia of the inevitable discrimination based on religion was fed and raised to a heightened pitch by those who had the most to benefit from such circumstances. Public fear was roused in order to gain political mileage and what came out of it was natural and logical.


Ironically, the partition of the two nations joined them even more closely and strongly. So strongly, that an event inIndia’s northern most state ofJammu and Kashmircaused riots in both Indian and Pakistani parts of the subcontinent on both sides of the border. The same happened after 8 December 1992, whileIndiawas spilling its blood, so wasBangladeshwhere “Muslims attacked and burnt down Hindu temples and shops … At least 10 people have died, many Hindu women have been raped, and hundreds of Hindu homes and temples have been destroyed” (“Chronology for Hindus inBangladesh”). One strong similarity between the two riots is the presence of the desecration of the religious symbols at their core: “the sacred relic known as the Mu-i-Mubarak – believed to be a hair of the Prophet Mohammad himself” and the mosques at Ayodhya, Mathura and Kasi or Varanasi (TSL 135). Politicians were behind inciting the masses into violent action, and in keeping the government machinery inert while they went on a rampage, on both sides of the borders of time and space. TSL has a number of lines of action and the one that’s red with blood is etched very clearly in its second half.


India’s test series againstEnglandwas to begin on 10 January 1964 inMadras. It was on that fateful date that the narrator of TSL was to taste what the fear of an unknown “they” meant. In his comparatively empty school bus he was introduced to the faith inducing powers of rumors. Most of the students had not brought water that day because the rumor of “their” poisoning all the water ofCalcuttahad already spread. The very psychology of the unchallengeable and pre-validated logic of rumors brings back to my mind the post riot curfew days of 1991, when morning rumors were congealed and solidified by the evening. In those days the two dailies: Aj in the morning and Gandeev in the evening, were the only source of local information for people thirsty for any snippets that could confirm or prove wrong whatever they had heard throughout the day. More than that, they needed objective justification of their own prejudices. Just like the little boys in TSL, they “did not need to ask any question… [they] knew the answers… it was a reality that existed only in the saying” (TSL 120).


TSL show violence through its presence in the background and its pervading the atmosphere, also through its turning into silence, through its conversion into a recurring nightmare, and finally, through the narration of the one graphical act of violence that left a permanent scar on the lives of its witnesses (Robi, May and Tha’mma). The January 1964 riots, that BBC rightly called “the first incident of religious violence since 1950” in India spread on both sides of the border. They are portrayed not so much as direct acts of violence as through the tension and fear created in the minds of the children (the narrator and his schoolmates in one case and Robi in the other). This tension and the unmentioned yet ever discernible fear create an atmosphere that becomes a character in itself – an important determiner of actions and lives. It is this tension and fear in the atmosphere that brings back to my mind a series of reminiscences from the Varanasi riots of 1991-92, the chaos, the heat, and how it was felt by those on the extreme periphery of any active involvement or loss. Fear is central in both the cases: of fictional and real lives. In TSL there is an elemental fear of violence that the children in the bus feel when they hear the noise of the rioting mob, and later when they were followed by one. They could not compare it to anything else in their experience and the narrator later opines insightfully:


It is a fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the 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 (122).


Fear of that kind is ever present. Always ready to rise in the hearts of the trapped people, making them feel cornered enough to plan retaliation and contribute to the vicious cycle of violence that begets violence. A similar fear was in the air back in 1991-92 also. Instead of treating the parallel at an emotional and personal level, the present paper attempts to incorporate the analogical streams of 1964 and 1991-92 riots in showing their pattern. It does not try to hide differences, if there, e.g. one major difference between them was that the 1964 riots were relegated to the narrow columns of the last pages of the news papers, but the 1991-92 riots (coming right after the infamous 1989 Varanasi riot) was very widely covered and reported about. The narrator painfully realized it when he mentioned the riots of 1964 to his friends and they accepted being completely ignorant of it.


“Real” life enters fiction and a history treads cautiously into the orbit of narration when a historical novel touches a real life event. TSL’s narrative is woven around the historically real incidents with complete details of their occurrence. Everything is treated in such a manner that the reader is forced to suspend all disbelief willingly, effortlessly, even colluding with the narrator/writer; more so, when dates and numbers are woven into the story. 10 January 1964, when the first match of the test series was to begin, and its co-incidence with the riot’s entering the life of the narrator is a clever device. A detailed account of the events that led to the riots is given in the novel. On 27 December 1963 Mu-i-Mubarak disappeared. There were some incidents of people’s damaging public property, but their anger was directed against the government and not against any particular religious community. Moreover, the protesters belonged to all the religions. Pandit Nehru sent CBI to the valley and the relic was recovered. Yet the damage was already done. The Pakistani “religious authorities, usually so quick to condemn idolatry, declared that the theft of the relic was an attack upon the identity of Muslims.Karachiobserved 31 December as a ‘Black Day’, and soon other cities followed suit. The Pakistani newspapers declared that the theft was part of a deep-laid conspiracy for uprooting the spiritual and national hopes of Kashmiris, and rumbled darkly about ‘genocide’” (TSL 136).


In the East Pakistani town ofKhulnathe demonstrators against the disappearance of the relic turned against the minority Hindus and many lives were lost. As Trivedi reports, the riots soon spread all overEast Pakistan. The whiplash was soon felt inCalcuttaas refugees from East Pakistan fled toIndia. On 10 January, mobs went on a rampage, killing Muslims and destroying their property. Army was called when the situation went out of control. The violence was stopped and everything went back to normal, as the narrator declares: “By the end of January 1964 the riots had faded away from the pages of the newspapers, disappeared from the collective imagination of ‘responsible opinion’, vanished without leaving a trace in the histories and bookshelves. They had dropped out of memory into the crater of a volcano of silence” (TSL 138). Individual paranoia, worked onto a feverish pitch, had been and can be conjugated at macro level to create concerted and planned violent action called a riot. The Indian sub-continent had been a witness to many such planned blood baths whose origin lies in the establishment of the two nation theory in the collective psyche. Such were the fruits of the tree of hatred whose seed was sown around the beginning of the twentieth century.



Works Cited


“1964: Riots inCalcuttaleave more than 100 dead”. n.d. Web. 27 November 2011.


Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso:London, 1991. Print.


“Chronology for Hindus inBangladesh”. n.d. Web. 25 February 2012

Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. n.d. Web. 27 November 2011. DOC.


“The Ideology ofPakistan: Two-Nation Theory”. 1 June 2003. Web. 23 February 2012.


Trivedi, Rabindranath. “The Legacy of the plight of Hindus inBangladesh- Part-VII”. 23 July 2007. Web. 23 February 2012.


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