Imagination and Reality in The Shadow Lines and Midnight’s Children

Like a patient etherized upon table” (“Prufrock”) waiting for the surgeon’s scalpel to make its first, second, third… nth incision, a novel waits in quivering anticipation for the critic’s omniscient and omnitoment (taking roots from omnis for all and tomos for cutting) gaze to cut through the veneer of words to reach the core of the problem literature poses: and in quite a similar state of mind. How can it be otherwise when the doctor’s/ critic’s only avowed and declared focus is on the problem at hand and not on the body that has the problem? The western development of allopathy and surgical intervention/ invasion, along with a parallel development of a critical, as different from the readerly gaze and critical dissection (or, shall it be called autopsy?) of the body on the table have drained the life-blood of joy from the experience of life/ reading. The polarities of white-black, high-low, mature-immature, proper-improper, specialist-commonsensical, licensed-unlicensed, reaper-grower etc. is established in the sphere of literary enjoyment too.

Gone are the Arnoldian days of a critic’s also being a cultivator of minds- his own and that of those who reached the objects he criticized after experiencing the secondary work. The word critic became so much loaded with negativity that in some circles it substituted the more frequent four letter words. Enjoying literature without any specialist’s attention to its genre, theme, narrator, narrative technique, plot, prolepsis, paradox etc. was looked down upon by the specialists. The golden age of critical dissection and the stone age of readerly joy had arrived. Tomes were written about Salman Rushdie’s MNC and Amitav Ghosh’s TSL (I’ve read a few myself) by those who knew that they knew how to analyse after reading a text. Theirs became the dominant discourse – the one that got to be heard, printed and circulated through the arteries of academia and media. The recessive discourse that couldn’t be heard, as it was neither articulate, nor aware of any need for breaking silence – was that of the readers who took MNC or TSL up, read and enjoyed/ hated it, and later remembered it only when reliving those lucidly vivid moments of joy/ antipathic disgust. They had no thought for a frame by frame technical analysis of the thing for them, it was only a stream to be waded through – to see what lay on the other side – or simply to experience the thrill of folding the stream for the first, second… nth time. They didn’t care for the chemical formulae of various molecules that constituted the water of that stream – they only tasted the water, despite the risk of toxicity, as they were adventurous by nature. Well, an amalgam of the extremes may come in handy for both enjoying and understanding the nuances of the aesthetic pleasure the text offers. The Blakean loss of ignorance has altered the state consciousness of the reading-enjoying part of an individual. It has been tainted/ altered as, “After such knowledge, what forgiveness” (“Gerontion”)? The burden of experience encumbers the shoulders of reckless enjoyer and prods that part towards equanimous analysis. A golden mean may well be the way out – or, the way into the text – by exploring its full aesthetic potential – critical and creative.

Here I propose to go for a thorough golden mean kind of perusal of MNC and TSL i. e. a record of whatever arose in my mind, as an informed reader enjoying the text, along with an analysis with a slant towards what is called critical/ theoretical. The novel begins with what Dr. Johnson would call a veritable pyrotechnics of dazzling wit that sets the mood and tone for what’s to come on the pages that follow. In a way reminiscent of the Elizabethan/ Jacobean drama’s display of playful wit that sometimes bordered the intellectual limits, MNC foregrounds the style much more conspicuously than TSL. When the narrator addresses the reader and interests him by declaring: “by the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks [he]… had been mysteriously handcuffed to history … at the best of times a dangerous sort of involvement” (1), he sets in motion a chain reaction of expectations that grow in magnitude as one moves from one thought-nucleus to the next one.

Style is the man, or man is style? Whether the narrator (here we’d restrict ourselves to the conscious minds, that too without any psychoanalysis of the writer’s unconscious) affects wit while telling us his story, or he is simply a witty man telling his story? Has he been hiding something behind the screen of words and sentences or he has been lifting the veil from the unknown/ unknowable with his words and sentences? And, finally, why does the writer make the narrator do so – consciously or unconsciously? Why?

Well, the wit part may be due to either the writer’s tendency to show off (and not just of this writer, in one way or the other, all writers tend to show at least something off – including the one who wrote this paper), or due to the market’s demand over the barest minimum eligibility criterion kind of a thing (sticking to the paradigmatic stream of theory and using technical jargon being the unwritten eligibility criteria for publication). Introspection tends to precede, accompany and follow pro-, circum- and post- spection. So does inspection, followed by destruction using one of the most dangerous lawful devices that kills – words. Juxtaposing tyranny with saluting clocks is kind of antithetical, even shockingly so. It declares the intention of the writer, or, to avoid the intentional fallacy, of the narrator. He foregrounds language by attempting to fill it up to the brim with literariness. He is no common man, the writer of ours. So, he makes his men and women uncommon, nay, extraordinary in many ways. Then again, the critic too is no common man. So, the objects of his attention must be uncommon, nay, extraordinary in many ways – positive and negative. Where can he find aesthetic objects as worthy as MNC and TSL?

Unlike Rushdie, Ghosh plays less with words than with the process of the translation of the concrete world into abstract ideas. He plays with time and space and travels through them in his narrative. For him “a place does not merely exist… it has to be invented in one’s imagination” (TSL 14). Looking back at times past and far, thinking of places that used to be there, and doing it all accurately, takes a very strong and vivid power of recollection. To be precise, in bringing the past back to life, one has to live it in the present moment and also live in it. Thus, there are times when one inhabits two distinctly different places and times simultaneously, defying the basic law of physics that a body can occupy only one space at any given point of time. Memory has its own physics, and its own chemistry too. And then, there is future – a time one hasn’t ever experienced, and places one’s never visited. To think of any one of these uses memory, as one composes the unlived in or unseen, using the units of that which is known. That again takes a lot of imagination combining the functions of an architect and a builder. The time and space in which one exists at any given moment may be seen and experienced in many ways. At the most materialistically oriented mundane level, the level of the physically verifiable sensorily experienced world, things and people are neutral snapshots kept in shelves, neatly arranged, not reacting with any other snapshot, each sealed within its boundaries. The parallel ends here, because the shelves are always inert in the physical world; but the shelves that contain these snapshots start acting as chemicals that chemicals that dissolve and change not only the pigments of colours but also the basic substance of the snapshots, that too, with the lapse of a very short time period. It is the re-creation of an experience of a time and place that is done through various processes of an active brain, that the new snapshots emerge. They are generally composite, not-so-true-yet-truer copies of the real originals. Or, in other words, reality takes birth after having killed and devoured “the real” and imagination is the weapon used. It does not just annihilate but also re-create and the sustain what it destroyed. Thus it takes the functions of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh.

What is real anyway? For a “localist” (as against a nationalist or internationalist) getting just the news of their place of birth (like Dhaka’s for Tha’mma) brings to life a whole set of past experiences more tangibly and more vividly than any present time could ever be. It is the realness of such an experience that enables others touched by it to ”see” the same places and people as imagination invents. Refugees are more than just migrants, because theirs is a moving out out of compulsion, most often due to a threat to their life or way of life. They carry the pain of separation from their homeland and doomed with a yearning that is nearly impossible: to return to their old life and times. Such was the case of the millions of the post-partition refugees in the Indian subcontinent, for whom the present was a time that existed only while they performed certain functions to sustain their lives on a daily basis. They lived in a painful present and found solace in reminiscing about their past with the ache of the now familiar, almost physically registered nostalgia. They imagined, at times (here personal enters the arena of impersonal and neutral and transgresses the boundaries of normative scholarly writing), and I say this with the analogical introspection and conviction of my own miniature refugeeness, their being present in their past times and places, living a life coloured brighter and better when looked at in the hindsight. They, like Tha’mm, and, in a way, Tridib, did pass on their invented pasts in vivid details to the next generation too – to those who’d never be there or experience their real, and not imaginary homelands. Then, there’s a special case of people endowed with a lot of common sense, who have strong and deep roots in the material reality, and for whom using imagination to transcend the real is an anathema or impossibility. Ila is one such case – the foil to the narrator – in The Shadow Lines. Tridib gave the narrator eyes to see the world never seen, in contrast to Ila whose senses never fully imbibe the cornucopia of stimuli ever present all around. In her single minded determination, she only used the world and tended to remember only what fit in her pattern of use, e.g. for her Cairo was just another place remembers because of her memory of (astonishingly for the narrator) the exact location of the ladies’. History dies for such people and become a catacomb with slabs bearing names and dates only. Literature has no relish for them because people and places can’t be if they aren’t “real”. Philosophy is just a taxonomical positioning of nature and civilizations psot-mortmed. It is imagination that creates time and space, and it is time and space, as categories, in which life is lived in a succession of lived experiences. As Kant would have it – time and space, being existent a priori are there before any kind of experince. Imagination performs the function of the mechanism that makes experiences meaningful by arranging them in time and space.


There’s a thin line between imagination that produces the world and that which brings forth hallucinating, non-existent entities in a vacuous world made of nothing. Using “imagination with precision” (TSL 16) enables one to fill details and colours in the world whose outlines are etched on the slate of mind. The unconscious like structure of language, if Lacan was not wrong, makes it possible for one to meaningfully understand the world and one’s experiences in it. It also makes it possible for different people to experience, see and understand the same thing in different ways, as thing-in-itself is approached through the use of one’s imagination on the phenomenal world and reason comes for its help, as and when one’s emotions warrant in most of the cases. A common man is not Plato’s ideal type, governed by reason alone. He is governed by emotions justified by reason ex post facto. If one does not put full effort in creating a system that explains the world of sense experiences using one’s own imagination, then, as Blake had warned against, other people’s inventions flow in to fill the outlines and lend colours and details that aren’t one’s own “because the alternative[isn’t]… blankness[and]…we would never be free of other people’s inventions” (TSL 21).




Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Web. n.d. 12 November 2012.

—. “Gerontion”. Web. n.d. 12 November 2012.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [MNC in the text.]


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