The present paper is an attempt to analyse how Amitav Ghosh’s Sahitya Academy Award winning novel The Shadow Lines is a representative Indian English novel. It throws light on the phenomenon of communal violence and the way its roots have spread deeply and widely in the collective psyche of the Indian subcontinent. The origin of the spread of this toxin in the system of the subcontinent was the birth, spread and acceptance of the two nation theory and its culmination in the partition. From then the polarized essentialization of identities became established as truth in some corners. This paper shows how The Shadow Lines penetrates the discourse of communalism and assays it on the touchstone of rationality.
India, as a modern nation state, was born after an amputation on 15 August 1947. It was partitioned on the same day. So, we got freedom that came with a very heavy cost: the cost of generation of two nations on the basis of religion. The two nation theory was ratified fifty percent on the Indian subcontinent by the formation of Pakistan on the basis of Islam, with a vision of creating a holy state for the Muslim umma. The other fifty percent was perpetually questioned due to India’s declaring itself a secular state. Yet, the two nation theory does raise its hydra-head, time and again, in the form of violence that is somehow liked to one’s (accidental) professed religion of birth.
A Hindu or a Muslim who’s had the fortune (?) of being born in the subcontinent is handcuffed to his religion of birth. His identity formation internalizes religious prejudices and stereotypes about his own self and about others. Social programming, thus, also has the effect of magnetized domains in one’s persona, arrayed according to one’s religion. But then, there is the Enlightenment ideal of the rational man: the man who stands apart from, even against all kind of social programming and pressure, applying his reason to choose what’s right. Religion and polarities based on it are then questioned. Only truth remains at the end of such questioning.
Writers may or may not be totally or partially rational, depending on their own bent of mind.
Moreover, some may be irrational and rational in varying proportions, in different
texts/contexts at different times. Religion and reason have played their various roles in the
novels produced by the soil of the subcontinent post-1947. Indian English novel has been
enriched by the intersection of the two spheres of religion and reason, as literature
originating out of the points of intersection has proved itself as satisfying, or at least,
disturbing and interrogating at times.
Out of the cornucopia of the Indian English fiction, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines happens to be a piece of art. It has been hailed as a masterpiece and awarded the Sahitya Academy Award. It really reflects the central tendencies of the Indian English fiction and is a key representative text of the sub-genre of partition fiction. It can be linked to Chaman Nahal’s Azadi and Khushwant Singh’s A Train to Pakistan because of their themes being similar – the imposition of the two nation theory by the elite on the masses, and the violent response originating thereof. Not very strangely, all these novels end with a definite condemnation, direct or indirect, of the division of humanity on the basis of a mere accident: religion. Amitav Ghosh’s TSL goes one step ahead of earlier partition novels: it not only takes 1947 and interrogates it, it goes beyond that and touches 1963-4 to work on the theme of communal violence and riots. Moreover, it treats the question of the generation of nations and validity of the process and its results in a comprehensive manner. Thus, it turns out to be a
prototypical Indian English novel – emerging out of, and addressing the issues of the
contemporary milieu. Yet, one characteristic that distinguishes it is a strong stream of
rationality that runs through the narrative in the form of the voices of the narrator and of
his mentor and role model, his hero: Tridib. It all begins with Tridib’s declaring: “If you
believe anything people tell you, you deserve to be told anything at all” (8). Tridib teaches
the narrator, and through him, the reader, how to see and experience the world (13) by an
active creational participation of his imagination. Tridib wants his nephew to use his
“imagination with precision” (16).
Tridib puts his finger on the exact point of balance between rational self-programming and
social conditioning, with a tilt towards one’s self. He knows that the choice is clearly
Blakean. If one does not create a parallel and powerful alternative, one is designed and
destined to be a mere part of someone else’s system, and “we… [have] to try because the
alternative … [isn’t] blankness … if we didn’t try ourselves, we would never be free of
other people’s inventions” (21). Well, other people seem to be “inventing” quite a lot of
things; especially in the Indian subcontinent, and the novel takes them up – one pivotal
invention after another. In this, it happens to be an Indian English novel. One of the
inventions it effectively questions is the very idea of nationalism – both directly and
indirectly. The direct mode can be clearly seen in the narratorial comments. The indirect mode is observed when people reveal, with a lot of irony applied on them, fallacies in their
reasoning. When the narrator’s grandmother talks about the British who’ve “drawn their borders with blood” (51) approvingly, she forgets to mention that the amount of blood spilled for, while, and after drawing the lines dividing India and Pakistan has an exponential relation to that shed through all over Europe. Yet, ironically, she is shown yearning for bloodshed in war (only), as if the mode of bloodletting changes its colour or the pain while its being shed – by or from another human being. She never considers the facts that 1947 saw millions butchered in India and Pakistan because of their being Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs. Communal riots are insignificant because they are not as spectacular, memorable or permanently recorded as wars. She’s not the only one holding such opinion. There are others too. The narrator’s cousin Ila clearly declares that riots are “local things after all – not like revolutions or antifascist wars, nothing that sets a political example to the world, nothing that‘s really remembered” (8).
When reason is applied to it, one finds how Ila and the narrator’s grandmother use a devious and lopsided logic to discount the life/death of the people who do not become a part of the events that’d go on to the pages of history as wars: revolutionary or patriotic. Their life is declared meaningless, as their death is belittled compared to that of the martyrs of wars. The narrator’s class mate Malik finds riots terrible but not at all comparable to wars, and the reason he gives for that is their being local in nature (142). Theirs is the dominant discourse of history that sees events related to one another in a causal chain and that chain does not allow the existence of any less than spectacular link in it. Local events, viz. the events that are not linked directly to something of major political, economic or cultural importance, events whose agents aren’t known as names of importance, aren’t at all significant. They belong to the zone of oblivion from which they arise and into which they break down. It is the destiny of the multitudes of India – the nameless, faceless, history-less, insignificant millions with no past and no future; and absolutely no present. Their life and death generally never make it to the news, and when it does, their independent identity is not important in itself. They are used simply as tally marks in statistical tables. TSL could have risen only from such a soil that breeds only apathy arising from a colossal, disgusting and all engulfing darkness that envelops everything. It’s a major Indian English novel that carries as its theme the flavor of the subcontinent. Another major recurring theme of Indian English novels, that’s also present in TSL, is the portrayal and questioning of the polarization of mankind based on a glib essentialization of us-them type based on religion. It is this kind of misleading essentialization that creates reality that’s not at all true – “a reality that existed only in the saying, so when you heard it said, it did not matter whether you believed it or not – it only mattered that it had been said at all” (129). Thus, Hindus create their Muslims in their mind, who have nothing to do with actual individuals. Their creations are essentialized, simplified, easily understandable automatons with characteristic and responses designed for demonization of the worst kind. Muslims create their Hindus in a similar manner, albeit with different major essentialized traits, but with the same final effect – unreal and formulaic demonization.
So, be it. Hindus and Muslims, when it comes to filling in the colours within the area that makes “them”, use black colour very liberally, with its direct implicit association with evil, sinister, somber etc. In TSL, the little narrator, his friends, and many others had no problem acting on the rumors of “them” poisoning the water supply of (so ridiculously and hyperbolically) the whole Calcutta (128). Nobody had time or inclination to test the validity of the rumor masquerading as a fact on the touchstone of reason; nobody that is, but the narrator, in his revisiting of his past. Against the anonymity and amorphousness of “them”, stands the clearly and deeply etched images of the actual or would be perpetrators of communal violence on the minds of two children – Robi, who saw them butcher his brother, grand-father, and a poor rikshaw puller, and the narrator whose school bus was followed by a rioting mob who could not stop it and then stood laughing, “with their arms around each other’s shoulders” (131). One incomplete and one complete act of violence make centres around which a major part of the flashbacks is structured. These centres exist as points emanating fear in the narrative that seeps into the mind of the reader, especially when it finds resonating emotions there. It is not just any kind of fear that TSL deals with, but a very specific and unique kind of fear that’s not comparable to any other kind: “It is a fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the spaces that surround one, the streets one inhabits, can become suddenly and without warning, as hostile as a desert in a flash flood” (131). Thus is established the abnormality of a sustained state of normalcy. Thus is challenged the expectation of a common man from the society he lives in – in fact, the very foundations of the formation of social institutions and structures is shaken. Security and stability do not exist when one is not sure of one’s immediate environs in time and space. The basic needs of the physiological and psychological well being cannot be ensured in such circumstances and humanity recedes to the pre-civilization humanoidism. Such a state of being relates only to the most pressing question in hand – the question of survival the very next day. India, rather the whole subcontinent, has reached such a state, time and again, just from the end of the Second World War till today. No, not wars, this article points only towards the communal riots between Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and now, even Christians. “It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the subcontinent from the rest of the world … 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” (131).
The very idea of one’s war with one’s own mirror image may sound very reassuringly absurd and removed from the reality – far enough from reality to appear ridiculous. Yet, the Indian subcontinent has proven ridiculous as real by actually fragmenting the subject along the fault line of religion as an essential category. Thus, human subject gave rise to a Hindu/Muslim/Sikh/Christian subject in the subcontinent with their abject loneliness completely and firmly established even before their taking birth as individuals in their social set up. No material base could dictate their existence and responses as class was annihilated and the vacuum thus created was filled in by an equally arbitrary category of religion. The war to annihilation between two classes was made more lethal, dangerous and interesting in the subcontinent. It was the war between two or more religions for the establishment of their respective hegemonies in zones of their numerical majority. Zones mean land inhabited by people with radii ranging from a small muhalla to a district, state, nation, region (continent-wise) level.
Violence, or its threat, rising out of the communal rift is a common phenomenon in the subcontinent. TSL portrays violence in India and Bangladesh – in Calcutta and Dhaka; but it looks at that violence as happening in India-Bangladesh/ Calcutta-Dhaka. The hyphens perform the function of joining two different geographical entities. The “reality of space… nations and borders” is questioned very effectively (141). The ideological/mystical strain apart, the novel shows at a very materialistically observable level, how an event that took place in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir gave rise to responses in Pakistan – both East and West – and thence originated a wave of violence that travelled across borders to reach India and return, with the process continued nearly ad infinitum. The sacred relic of Muslims of the valley, Mu-i-Mubarak, was stolen from the Hazratbal mosque on 27 December 1963. There were riots against the government and the police in the valley, with no communal overtones at all. Yet, Black Day was observed in Karachi on 31 December and ramblings of violence were distant but discernible there. The relic was recovered on 4 January 1964. A demonstration protesting the theft had turned violent in a small town of East Pakistan: Khulna. From there it spread to the capitals of the pre partition East and West Bengal, the two hearts of one Bengal that was carved into two with the knife of the two nation theory. The poison ivy that had given a rich harvest in 1946-47 was in no way dry or dead. Its harvest season would come again and again, and again, in India and in the two parts of Pakistan. When India alone is considered, that too only at around the turn of the millennium, one is able to make out a definite pattern of destruction. The sphere of religious animosity that constituted Hindus and Muslims prominently was slowly but definitely enlarged to include Sikhs and Christians too. Communal violence, rather mini-genocides, spread between Hindu-Muslim/Sikh/Christian communities.
The establishment of religion as an essential and centrally defining category bore fruits of hatred and violence in the subcontinent. There were voices of protest – both secular and religious – against the madness but madness was definitely more powerful, as it was more elemental and fundamental. Madness and the lust for human blood are evolutionarily programmed in homo sapiens since their origin as hunter-gatherers. The wildness was tamed by civilizations, for the time being and never fully, only to rise its head, time and again, in the form of wars and other modes of violence. Wars were legitimized through ideology; even made to appear honourable. The same process was followed, with the same reasoning of the righteousness of violence for a “right and just” cause against an evil opponent – simplified and essentialized. Moreover, people found it very difficult to discuss communal riots once they were over, “for to look for words of any other kind would be to give them meaning, and that’s a risk we cannot take any more than we can afford to listen to madness” (147). Listening to one’s own madness is not only difficult but it also enlarges the state or level of madness itself, because there are two very definite, albeit contrasting, possibilities arising thereof: either the madness is cured by developing an understanding (change in state) or it worsens (change in level). Both the situations unsettle the status quo, thus bringing in a kind of change that is drastic. Resistance to change is another evolutionarily programmed and deeply ingrained trait of the human species. Thus a pattern, of violence followed by a mechanism to obliviate its memory, is established that cannot be easily be broken. TSL, as a representative Indian English novel tries to see through, if not break through, both the pattern and the mechanism.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]
Home and heaven are both invested with characteristics that aren’t in any objective way theirs. It is the working of the subject’s own imagination that constructs home, their home, for them. My home, I suspect by a rational application of analogy, must then be only in my own mind: a set of finally and finely imprinted image clusters that have no equivalent. In a way, it’s really only mine, with no one else to claim over or covet for. But then, as history teaches, lest all my ratiocination may turn out to be glorious nonsense in the end, let me assay it. See the image below. It’s a part of my home that’s home to countless others too, physically. When I look at the image, I see what is obviously physically visible alright. I see more than just that.
I see the railing on which I used to sit, legs dangling or one of them clinging to the railing for balance. I see the river, my river, that had always been there, as an old and predictable friend, a permanent presence. Boats I didn’t/don’t have much use of, as I avoid/ed them like plague. I can’t swim, so I am afraid of water! I see my (almost) drawing-room cum rumination area. Although hundreds shared the space with me, I used to create my own bubble whenever I needed to be alone, and nobody bothered me. I miss the place that gave me so many long uninterrupted hours of thinking and being myself. It’s been nine years I’ve left Varanasi and I have not found any place or time even remotely similar to the ghats in its effect. The place constructed me as much as I painted it in my mind. I am because I was there and then. Very humanly do I feel the need of telling the story of my thoughts and places to those who wish to hear it. If it’s all about me, I don’t think they’ll listen for long. So, let it be about the conglomerate called my temporal existence that acted as a point of intersection for various socio-psychological lines of force.
Any time of the day, the water of Gangaji had a soothing effect on (my) human mind, if the mind did not actively and consciously resist its effects. I had read somewhere (probably we’ll discard it as pseudoscience) that the high negative ion concentration near flowing water does have some such kind of positive effect. Although the spot in the image was not the only one I used to be, its unplanned appearance on the page also invites its description. Beyond the far right end of the image, there lies the exact place where corpses are cremated at Harishchandra Ghat. There’s nearly always a body burning there. Although the flourishing foreign tourism circuit has it as one of its star spots, and loads of foreigners come there every day to observe the way the Hindus cremate their dead people who live somewhere in the city and have nothing to do specifically with that ghat generally avoid going to, passing from or even mentioning it. Harishchandra Ghat is the place where those who come with the dead body sit and (most of them) chat, while the body burns. In my more than a decade’s presence there, I never witnessed more than a really handful of people actually mourning for the departed. It’s some kind of performance for nearly all present and alive, and they play their various parts. Some of them had been coming and going there for a long time. It’s normal for them. They are there because the dead one was an acquaintance or neighbour, or, often times, a relation. I’d been there a couple of times in this same role: twice with my grand parents’ bodies and a couple of times with those of my neighbours.
The very first time I went there was with my grand mother’s dead body. It was my very first time of inhaling the smoke coming from burning human flesh. I’ll not describe it. It actually physically pinches somewhere near my left eyebrow while I type this.
Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (henceforth TSL) is a very strong and clear critique of the shadow lines that divide humanity – geographically and at heart. It does so very subtly and artfully. India’s partition was the beginning of the chain of deterministically linked events whose sphere of influence had a radius of more than just a few decades or a few thousand miles. There are many ways in which the arbitrariness of the creation of frontiers that contain the modern nation states is laid bare in the novel. Moreover, the underlying principle of the two nations theory that resulted into the partition of India is challenged.
The rise and development of communalism at any place, along with the role it plays in an individual’s self-recognition and respect is a very complex phenomenon. TSLshows how the partition of Bengal drove Hindus away from East Bengal and Muslims from even up to Bihar just because of a cruel joke of their fate. Jethamoshai and the Muslim mechanic’s father resisted all attempts at identity revision through indoctrination in the name of communalism and stayed exactly where they had spent the largest part of their lives. But then, they were very strongly indoctrinated in their own way and their old identity acted as an antidote to the invading variety.
Hindus and Muslims as two distinct and different categories, nay totally antagonistic entities, were “created” in the modern times. In the past, the identities of people came naturally through their immediate geographical and human environment, and not through the imagined categories of nationality or religion. People had roots in the soil of their places, that they had been inhabiting for generations. For them, those who belonged to the “us” category were generally those with whom they shared their present and past – the people around whom they had grown up. Then the ties were more local in nature and also more immediate and tangible. As Anderson puts it, nations – the imagined communities – were artificially created in the modern times.
From Al Biruni to Jinnah, it has been asserted that Hindus and Muslims are two distinct, even antipodal, identities. The line of thought existed from the beginning of their communal contiguity and bore fruits in the form of partition. The very process of an individual’s identity formation was coloured from the base. Through an unprecedented demagogic effort of colossal proportions religion and aggressive defense of the same were linked to the very identity of an individual as a highly desirable trait. The narrator of TSL obliquely points towards the importance of an elemental kind of power to unleash the inner violent animal as a kind of boon. He admires Robi because he is the unacknowledged king of the campus, also because “ while they had to find their way through a fog of ordinary confusions … he … was wiling to defend those inconvenient, often ridiculous, scruples which they could only too easily be persuaded to forget. That was why they, and I, both admired and feared him” (TSL 51).
Robi’s strong defense of his position without any hesitation, when compared to the weakness of will and resolve of those who admired his will, reveals a curious and nearly universal social phenomenon. Human beings have an instinct, like that of many other mammals, by which they recognize alpha males and then follow his lead. It is evolutionarily programmed and increases the chances of the survival of the species. The alpha male has some acknowledged superiority over others – something that makes others fear and respect him and look at him as a natural leader in times of need. In normal times social transactions that involve the acceptance of leader in times of need. In normal times, social transactions that involve the acceptance of leader-follower position take place within boundaries created by rational thought and the characteristics needed to be chosen as a leader fall in the realm of what is seen as cultivated behavior.
Therefore, social/intellectual skills learnt in the process of growing up in the society decide one’s position as a leader. In the times governed by irrationality or in the circles whose main logic is arbitrariness, the social/intellectual skills are substituted with the very fundamental kind of physical power and one’s capacity and willingness to use that power. In other words, the capacity for violent action determines one’s acceptance as an alpha male in the group. Their power is directly proportional to the actual damage they are believed to be capable of doing to the system and their level of ferociousness is inversely proportional to their rational control over their own self. In fact, they flaunt their irrationality and accentuate the traits of ferociousness through which they define themselves, differentiate their identity from that of others and assert their superiority and direct hegemony.
Their position is never permanent as there’s always a possibility of the rise of someone else to their position or of the group’s rejecting their claims to superiority. Yet, for the span in which they command, their position is unassailable. In a given social dynamics, such persons also happen to be those who get the backing and support of the political and economic edifice of the society,as the elite needs to keep them under their indirect control most of the times and under direct control in times of crisis when they actually need to unleash the power of violence upon the society. The history of riots in post-partition India indicates that such elements and their nexus with the elite play important role in either starting communal riots or blowing them out of proportion.
Communal riots are planned in the Indian subcontinent. It’s a very dangerous and sweeping kind of a generalization, and I am fully aware of the possible existence of many very strong exceptions. Yet, until I assert: communal riots are planned events. Aligarh, Varanasi, Delhi, Garhmukteshwar, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, the Punjab – in “n” number of cases, it has been proven beyond any doubt – riots are planned and executed with a precision and focus that surgeons show in an operation theatre. The exact mechanism of the process leading to the massacre of tens, hundreds, thousands … millions of people may vary, but there always is a mechanism. Without a perfected mechanism it becomes impossible to damage the society at such a large scale. The planner of riots get success because the pattern is decentralized and self-propagating. Train to Pakistan is always mirrored in train to India, both full of corpses. Narrations of arson and killing of Hindus find echo in those perpetrated upon Muslims. Performed in cold blood, not at all for religion or revenge, such mirrorings are nothing but planned.
The abnormality of the violence of the normal people lies precisely in its being there, more so, in case of the forms of large scale violence. Communal violence may be seen as polarization based on religion but it is never simply so. Politics and economics are almost always involved with religion. An incident of the theft of the Prophet’s relics was first politicized and then transported to the other side of the subcontinent to finally being used for the economic gains of the powerful: all in the name of religion. In TSL the motorcycle mechanic wants Ukil Babu out of the equation, so that he can have the whole house under his control. The common people and thoroughfare suddenly turn hostile. Robi finds “trouble” for which he had been on a look out since morning. The heightened emotional state of the rioting mob was planned as they had been waiting for the car they had planned to ambush. A similar state is visible in case of those who’s attacked the narrator’s school bus in Calcutta. In the simplistic way of thinking, acts of atrocity are attributed to communities as such, without any kind of discrimination regarding those who were involved and responsible for it and those the majority that was not. A common Hindu or Muslim does not suddenly turns violent, at least, not commonly. There are key persons who plan riots with the people linked to them to execute the plan. Thus, riots follow a pattern and their success depends on either the failure of the government machinery or its passive/ active involvement in them.
The failure of the administrative machinery originates from the very nature of the system. The Indian police force and administrative system aren’t grass-root type. Their basic function is to act on the basis of the information received after the event has taken place. Although informants are there and they do provide prior warning and indications, preemptive action has never been the forte of the Indian system of administration. Moreover, the active involvement of some arms of the forces has been proven in many cases. In the novel too, the rioters are shown to converge at the point of action in a silent and methodical manner, and the police is never shown intervening in any way. This definitely puts a big question mark in front of the very idea of humanness in its essence as being a definite and positive, or even an existent, thing.
Liberal humanism sees the essence of human nature: something universally and definitely present in human beings without any exceptions. If it is true, divisions on any basis must be fundamentally unjustified. The two nations theory would fall flat. Many years before postmodernism started challenging essentializing grand narratives, there was a large body of thinkers doing the thing in a similar manner, drawing arsenal from history and philosophy alike, along with from theology. Muslims and Hindus were portrayed by some as culturally mutually exclusive categories. They had lived for over a millennium sharing the same geographical space. Those who wanted to prove the universality of something like human nature wrong emphasized how their religious practices, social institutions and customs and historical orientation were distinctly different. The human subject was substituted with the Muslim/Hindu/Sikh subject. Thus they created a fragmented metanarrative (and not many mini narratives) with each fragment essentialized and presumed to be unquestionably homogeneous. Against the monolithic and the fragmented metanarratives stood the mini narratives of regional affiliations – each claiming its independent validity. “Everyone lives in a story… because stories are all there are to live in, it was just the question of which one you choose” (TSL 118).
A story is not always fictitious. Nevertheless, it bears the cross of fictitiousness. Otherwise, there’d be no need to add a qualifier before it as in “the true story of his life”. The truth quotient (TQ) of a story notwithstanding, narratives, that too, episodic ones, are what we remember of our own life and that of the other people’s. The mind looks at the drama enacted on the stage of the world and stores images and impressions to make sense of the whole thing after arranging it in some sort of pattern for later recollection. The pattern is of narratives. These narratives keep maturing with time and addition or deletion of details keeps being done. Stories are very real and they perform the function of storing data for quick retrieval. Moreover, the events, things and people receive colouring and get filtered with the passage of time. A coherent version of “truth” is formed in the process. It has its own TQ and is independent of what had really or originally happened. Past lives in stories only. So does future, and the present time is so fleeting that its slippage into the past is just a matter of moments. Thus, it is stories we live in, either our own or that of other people.
Finally, the metanarratives proved more powerful and Pakistan was created as a Muslim state and India emerged as a secular body. Both engulfed all mini narratives. Sixty-five years after independence/partition, both unitary and two nations theories stand belied and belittled by the harsh realities of internal colonization of the subaltern by the elite. The ideal of a multicultural spectrum has been challenged by one colour fighting the others in order to engulf the whole range and to convert the spectrum into a monochrome. It calls for a validity and veracity check of a multi-nation theory that’d replace the inadequate two nations theory and annihilate all universalizing claims of liberal humanism. The time has come, not to see whether the two nations theory was right or wrong, but to analyse whether it had courage enough to call for a full disintegration of all megaliths in favour of region/caste/class/tribe/language based group.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 2006. Print.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]
Amit Chaudhuri’s A New World is novel about a modern (rather, postmodern) man and his life, or a slice of his life that he spent in his native city of Kolkata in one of his vacations. Minute details are used to underscore big issues. Language, as a means of sharing one’s life with one’s dear ones versus language as a well sterilized set of surgical instruments to be used in social operations with those relatively far away, is very cleverly brought out in the very beginning of the novel. On the very first page of the novel one witnesses that Joyajit’s son uses the Bangla term for father to call him. It indicates not only that the father, who is a modern man, accepts his mother tongue’s claim to a special position through its partial acceptance in private spheres: a language he rarely uses in his public sphere in the US of A. Later, Thamma switches over from her natural outburst of joy in Bangla to a more composed strain of English. The Admiral too uses English to create a sort of formality in his relationship with his son “that excluded the tenderness of the mother-son relationship – the latter finding expression in the mother’s homely, slightly irritating Bengali” (7). This is the predicament of the modern man. The two spheres of existence between which he scuttles – public and private – also necessitate the scuttling between various sets of behaviour, so much so, that he appears to be using masks or playing some kind of a game. The effortlessness with which Joyajit and his parents shift in language use, with the changing patterns of behaviour, is a case to score the point. The mother uses Bangla and the father English with the son, who, spoke to his wife in English but “had decided to retain, as far as their son was concerned, the Bengali … ‘ma’ and ‘baba’” (3). Bangla, then, is the language of the private sphere at Kolkata house of theirs and is paid respect through its signal use in the US. English happens to be the language used both public and private spheres, yet inclined more towards the formality of the public sphere.
The modern man slides between the two languages according to the need of the hour. The use of the key word modern is very crucial and central here. It’s directly linked with the injection of English into an otherwise Bengali heartland of Kolkata way back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Bangla itself had taken generations to finally grow up to its modern form and to acquire the position of the language of the soil of Bengal. Once it was established through, it was undoubtedly and unchallengeably the language used in the public and private spheres. English arrived with the East India Company’s buying the villages on which they established their fort later on. First of all, commerce was a the reason behind their arrival to India and later to Kolkata. It remained the sole reason for some time, after which the politics of the country sucked them in. moreover, the missionaries had also started their activities (without any encouragement from the Company) from Serampore etc. the first Bengalis to be exposed to English language must have been those with whom the Englishmen needed to interact in the public sphere. They’d have picked up the language for nearly exclusive use in the same sphere. They’d have taken up smatterings of English in the beginning, and later on, the elite of the Bengali society may have utilized their resources to learn the one language that had a definite advantage in the future expansion of their trade with the Englishmen, yet it had not entered the larger public sphere of the majority of their transactions, especially with their countrymen. Ram Mohan Roy and Macaulay, both represented the streams of thought that merged in support of English language and the Western education. Gradually, English had entered the larger public sphere, and in some cases, even the private one, e.g. in the hpmes of Anglicized Indians of Bengal, to a large extent, as is proven by their command over a hitherto alien language. The Dutt family may be taken as an instance that was not very rare.
The Mughal Empire favoured Persian and the British Raj, naturally favoured English. Macaulay’s plan had succeeded in producing the generation of interpreters – the mimic men – Indian by their brown skin and Western through their white masks. These were the people lampooned in the popular art and literature. The desi babu had arrived loudly and conspicuously in the public sphere and he acted as if to shame even the Englishmen through his Englishness. Yet, in the more private sphere of his house, in the core of his being and in handling over the responsibility of raising children to his traditional wife, he kept himself brown at heart despite his white mask in public. Like Thamma with Bonny and with her own son, the lady of the house was the one who gave love and care to her husband, children and grandchildren, and to the elderly of the family. Thus, she was the heart of the house and the heart hadn’t started wearing the white mask yet. In fact, the heart remained more or less the traditional brown forever due to various socioeconomic factors. Despite the Western and Brahmo influences, the Bengali male preferred his females to remain protected and free of the Western bad influences and the new corrupted versions of Hinduism, i.e. all attempts were made to “protect” them from the aftermath of the Bengal Renaissance and of the Imperial control over their public sphere. Joyajit’s father was the westernized Indian, the relic from the British past, who’d surrendered his house to his wife and had taken the public sphere as his sole domain. This polarity had resulted into his inept handling of his personal relations and ease with his son, wife, or even his grandson. But then, this special kind of the division of labour is quite common in South Asia where fathers remain distant and aloof figures and mothers act as buffers and go-betweens in households, especially in joint families of the traditional types.
India’s getting independence was of central importance to the whole British imperial machinery – for both the British and Indian parts. It came close on the heels of the second world war, i.e. the postmodern and postcolonial set of factors converged on those linked with the Indian subcontinent – those who left, those who chose to stay, and those for whom there were no alternatives to choose from. The Admiral was one of those left behind. He could never come at terms with the fact that the kind of system the Raj had created, maintained and handed over to Macaulay’s class of interpreters – Indian in descent yet intellectually western – was defunct long before the British decided to leave. The racial superiority that the British wanted to assert over th brown man was substituted with the positional superiority that the brown babus of India wanted to assert over the masses. Reminiscent of the way the British had used employment opportunities in public sector to create a system of checks and balances through their divide and rule policy, the new native Indian government continued doing the same. The few privileged ones got the much coveted public sector jobs, especially in the army and the bureaucracy. These were the attendants and aides of the new rulers of India. The colonist’s racial superiority theory was replaced with the internal colonist’s social/positional superiority theory – with adverse effects both upon the strong and the weak. Taking cue from Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks, it can be shown that this belief in the divide that translated into a definite sense of differential/preferential positioning in the social ladder may be linked historically to the Indian’s love for a secure government job that Hindus and Muslims coveted for in the colonial era and that was used by the government to control and manipulate the people. The kind of inherent superiority that the white man felt and the power that emanated from it, were transferred and translated into the brown sahib’s power and sense of superiority over the lesser mortals. Conversely, the brown man’s sense of inferiority (real or expected/projected) was translated into the lesser mortal’s sense of inadequacy, insecurity and powerlessness.
The Admiral, Joyajit’s father, had a double advantage over others: he had had the fortune of securing a government job, that too in the armed forces. He had the natural advantage that he had acquired in the gradual process of having a life lived in the circle of definiteness – a universe in which each unit had its exact place and was related in a well defined chain of command with others. It was a universe in which he had nearly the topmost rank and had enjoyed the sense of security impossible to be found as a civilian. Moreover, the brown sahib’s arrogance with which he used to expect and get a preferential treatment from the masses was not to be had anymore. The system had failed him and he couldn’t do anything about it. While in his universe – that centred at him – he was the master who dominated and controlled everything. He was a sahib and expected his wife to be a mem sahib. Her failure in it brought him disappointment. “He was one of those men who, after independence, had inherited the colonial’s authority and position, his club cuisine and table manners, his board meetings and discipline” (7), and in no way did he show even the slightest reluctance in accepting a privileged position. There were two factors involved in the new relationship between the brown sahib and the other brown people under his authority. The first one was the nature of power itself, and the second one , the kind of power according to its source. The brown man was perpetuating the old colonial hierarchical structure of the society – as was institutionalized in the more than century long Raj. Moreover, the hierarchical structure itself was a neutral product of the social transactions whose currency is power.
The voluntary give and take of power in exchange of some tangible or intangible thing is quite “natural” in all the societies (at least, in all human societies). There is one, or a set of individuals who are recognized by the other members of the social organization as special due to some due to some inherited or acquired trait. These persons are then handed over, officially or unofficially, the running of the society. They control the external affairs, resource allocation, finance, defense etc. even in democracies in which points had to be proven on an open platform, like in the ancient Greece, there were few who were given the power to run the whole system. The same is true of the mahajanpada of the ancient India. Some kind of quality decided that the set of rulers would have some such people who’d not inherited their position but acquired it. Ideally speaking, in such a system, everybody would have an equal opportunity, but practically, after the pattern had been set, it became more and more difficult for those who’d been kept out of power for long to enter the power structure. Human beings, being greedy and manipulative, corrupted the functioning of the systems that were sound fundamentally.
The Newtonian law of inertia apparently governed social institutions too. Once a system started running in a corrupt manner, its inertia of corruption made it imperative for the system’s units to keep it functioning ion the same way. Any change, small or big, necessitated a change that could only happen if there was enough force applied on the system, so that its inertia may be effectively challenged and finally altered. Moreover, many a time, the efforts of that external force are mistakenly directed at changing the dominating-exploiting active top. They fail, in general and in cases of most of the revolutions and rebellions, including the struggle for our country’s independence, to see that power itself corrupts and that any concentration of power in the hands of few – howsoever it began, will eventually corrupt the fresh new system that comes into power. The post 1947 India, with its basically colonizing administrative system, only saw perpetuation of the process of colonization, not its substitution with a better system. The narrator comments that in relation to the rich people, those who had power, muscle and money, “Independence, the subsequent changes of history, did not seem to matter” (54).
Chaudhuri, Amit. A New World. New Delhi: Picador, 2001. Print.
Academically oriented non-populist kind of writing needn’t always be boring and impersonal, contrary to what Q had prescribed nearly a century ago in his guidebook on style. “I” may transgress its boundaries and enter the scholarly discourse meant for an exclusive and elite clientele: the scholars in any specific field. All this, without totally sacrificing the apparent objective and the non-narrative nature of what is generally and normally accepted as a scholarly article. The article that aims at and claims to have a disinterested safe distance from “I”, is actually radiating from it. More the reason to embrace it wholeheartedly and letting it enter the discourse. Therefore, “I” has sailed the sea of doubts and come to the core of the I-dentity expression problem in scholarly discourse and I write on Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (henceforth TSL), while relating my article to the idea of nation and to its meaning emerging out of the volcano of the violence of 1947 and afterward in the Indian subcontinent.
I grew up in quite non-Wordsworthian, densely packed and populated localities (called the mohallas) of the Varanasi riverbank. Our mohalla and the neighbouring ones were blessed (or cursed) with a very heterogeneous communal constitution. My grand-paternal house is in a lane that has a purely, and for its inhabitants proudly so, Hindu population till date . The lane that runs parallel to it and the two lanes that follow, are purely Muslim populated. Long years of co-existence in a competitive decade (I can’t go beyond my personal experience, in order to avoid errors and to stay close to “I”) had given rise to a very ambiguous and confusing kind of a Janus like friend-foe relationship with an equal proportion of both the antagonist feelings in a very dangerous kind of equilibrium. The fear, or paranoia, of death in the hands of the “Other” was always overhead, dangling with the thread of provisional normalcy. I found it to be firmly founded: the fear, not normalcy, in a system of citizen protection that nobody trusted. I very vividly remember how my impressionable years were filled with an unplanned, effective and ever pervasive propaganda aimed at the centre (me) from many important adult care-givers and from my peers. Creation of identity, that very much depends on the us-them divide and the clear-cut definitions of the periphery of the circle of life named “us”, and the centre “I” is a long and subtle process. I, in a sense, was confirmed in my Hinduness just because there was a need felt by the points belonging to the circle of us, to let every individual point of the so believed same essence fall within it – fixed strongly and forever in location. Ironically,at least, the clear cut phenotypical contrast between the poles of black and white races does not exist in the Indian subcontinent between the followers of Hinduism or Islam. Any one may very easily pass for the other, as far as the externally observable features are concerned. Thus, confirming the us-then identity separation becomes critically and centrally linked to the survival of the collective identities of the communities. It is at this point where the narrative of TSLintersects the narrative of my “becoming’ a Hindu.
A school bus, a normal looking street with normal looking people on it, even one’s safe class room in the modern sacred sanctum of school: they may all suddenly turn threateningly hostile and dangerous, as happens in life and TSL. The narrator’s experiencing fear and his first exposure to the us-then divide is very much proto/arche typical and may even be seen as having some essentially and universally present traits. The two-nations theory, highly artificial and invented relatively recently, that was projected as primordial by those who traced it back to the medieval period of Indian history, had founded its way into the Jungian collective un/sub conscious and established itself there firmly. Although Fanon rejects the “un” part of the term, the idea continues to live. So, the presence of the two nationss in one’s geographical sphere, quite naturally, leads to a sharing of space and mutual mistrust, enmity and hatred (as love is not proven through any stretch of history/imagination). The Andersonian axiom of the nation’s being imagined in nature finds its full vindication in the Indian subcontinent as Hindus and Muslims – almost identical in all respects but one – try to give definition, fixity, permanence, currency,and finally, reality to it. To do that, shadow lines ought to be drawn. Lines between the two nations confirm them in their own eyes be they drawn with ink or with blood, be they solid and clear, or just shadow lines.
The Indian nationalism and the two nations theory, both found fruition on the same day by a strangely vulgar (for some people) quirk of destiny. Were they born of the people – the masses – or of the select few with vested interest. In other words, who benefited the most after the drawing of the shadow lines, the masses or the elite? There are some related and relevant questions that accompany the previous one. Whose movement were these – of the elite or the masses? In cruder terms, what percentage of Indians actually participated in India’s Struggle for Freedom? What percentage of the Hindus/ Muslims were actively involved in the two nations debate? And the crudest question of them all: what percent of the Hindu/Muslim/Sikh population was actually slaughtering, burning and raping their “other” in the communal riots that the subcontinent witnessed in the first half of the twentieth century? Who will reply? Risking irrelevance and unrelatedness, even absurdity,another question may be asked in expectation of finding a parallel to the previous ones: what percent of the present indians were actively involved in the anti-corruption Anna Hazare movement? What percent of Hindus/ Muslims/ Sikhs were involved in the communal violence that happened in 1984, 1989-92, after 2000 etc.? Is there any answer? And if there isn’t any, how can one be so sure about the mass appeal and acceptance of an idea (as plebiscite or voting are not available to make the picture clear)?
In the face of such an insurmountable theoretical obstacle, one is tempted to use personal experience as an incomplete yet viable alternative. Introspection, oral interviews of a representative sample population, analysis and comparison of the reports in newspapers, use of statistical data etc. are the possible means that may throw some light on the situation. They help the best when the past is close enough to be recalled accurately and vividly. Literature happens to be an account of life in many instances. Partition was an event that gave rise to a huge body of literature – factual and fictitious – related to what people had seen and experienced in those times. In its magnitude and reach it far surpasses the Holocaust, yet, it has never been presented in a comparably adequate manner. TSL takes up the theme of communal violence that was the most predominant one in partition literature and relocates it in 1964, as seen and experienced mostly through the eyes of two ten year old children: the narrator and Robi. Both the children had experiences fear of the most visceral kind – the fear of death resulting out of violence. Such a cruelly arbitrary and unpredictable termination of one’s life as a very strong and immediate possibility is bound to generate fear that sinks deep into the unconscious to return later, whenever the waves of trauma rock the one who had felt it long after the actual event had occurred. Robi admits being tormented by the scene of Tridib’s death long after the event. He could never be free of the effects of that trauma. The narrator too could never forget the chasing mob and his predicament in the school bus. Such experiences – rare and very strong – shape one’s personality; or, to put it properly: scar one’s psyche forever. Now, transpose the children’s experience to a real life one. Presume (realistically) that there’s a heterogeneous population of Hindus and Muslims who had lived for generations at the same permanent address in close proximity – close enough to be important for their contrapuntal identity formation, yet, not close enough to have understood one another properly. Such people, in the time of crisis, essentialize the identities of themselves and of others – with a swift, crystallization like process. Of course, the potential, or memory in its seed form, of such polar identity imposition and fixation is always present in their minds. The mechanism of such polarity actualization can also be seen in the supporters of various political personalities and sports fans pitted against one another. Violence isn’t unheard of in such “matches”. The same mechanism, albeit in a magnified and more heinous form, is seen in action in case of communal violence.
The Indian subcontinent was partitioned on the reason of the most irrational thing in the assembly line of human creations: religion. Thus originated the “loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one’s image in the mirror” (TLS 131). There’s one very special quality of a mirror image that differentiates it from its original, despite its being a near replica. The image is inverted at the point that joins it with the original. So, it’s the same and the opposite at the same time. Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent belong to the same racial and sociocultural stock: if not from the very beginning, then, at least, after all these years of homogenization, those who originally were of a different racial stock or sociocultural background were assimilated in the main body of population and culture. From his similarity was created contrast by an inverted Godlike power of creating ex nihilo. It was essential that the contrast be created, both for those coloured saffron and those coloured green. As the flag of secular India has both the colours with in equal areas of importance and prominence, the extremists with vested interests needed to tear the flag apart and hijack the constituent religions away for their personal gains. Religion – or a pretence of it – took over the nation and the two nations theory was established. From Al Beruni to Allama Iqbal, a line of thought was traced that proved theory naturally right. The rise of Hindu nationalism too helped it in no small manner. Although its aim was an “Akhand Bharat”, i.e. an undivided India, it did subscribe to the the two nations theory with its objective being a “natural” Hindu dominance over all the minorities in the Hindu India. As extreme position is always more shocking and its methods more spectacular than that of the moderate advocates of reason.
The extremists could call for “Direct Action Day” and actually convert rural and urban purely civilian spaces, untouched by the mania even of the two world wars, into battlegrounds, or worse, slaughterhouses. Millions were butchered before and after the partition of 47, either to expedite the partition or to gain maximum mileage from it. The epicentre of a riot could lie in the actual zone of rioting or thousands of miles away. Irrespective of that it caused considerable and irreparable damage. Quite normal people were transformed into thoughtless, mindless and conscienceless killing machines that murdered their targets identified as “them”, and then, effortlessly slided back to their very normal day-to-day functioning self. The ambiguity of this enmity – its artificiality – was underscored by the fact that the majority, like all the other times, remained naturally inert spectators and commentators only. Moreover, although statistically insignificant, yet a sizeable proportion of people chose to prove the two nations theory wrong by actually collaborating with their “them”, and by saving lives that they should have taken theoretically, or at least, allowed to be taken by remaining inert. The two nations theory finds its strongest critique in the multicultural models of nation thriving (with its own problems and limitations) not only in India, but also in democracies like the USA. Even up to the third quarter of the twentieth century, racial polarity and hatred based on it existed in the mainstream. Today, even if they do exist, they do not rule the collective consciousness of the people. Their ground realities may be different, but what they achieved may inspire and encourage us for a similar success in the subcontinent despite the chain of confrontations projected as rising from an essentialist and absolute contrast of religious identities. Until that is done, heterogeneously populated regions will always have a very strong probability of erupting into violent bloodshed even tomorrow. A mirror image can reflect exactly what appears on the other side because it is linked to it permanently.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]
The states of rootlessness and being rooted are the two options to choose from when it comes to one’s existence at macro level. One is not totally free to choose in most of the cases, but the hard determinism that absolutely denies free will as totally powerless against social programming finds its refutation in the pattern of exceptions and in the absence of any set pattern of the development of one’s relation to one’s roots. As Anderson very rightly pointed out, the sense of belonging to a nation, nay, even the idea of a nation are constructed. Their not being natural or innate is very clearly proven by the infection of the two nations theory that set into the system of the two newly constructed nations of India and Pakistan in 1947. Neither is superior in any way. Any claim to superiority is based upon the hidden assumption of the now established modern tradition of secularism’s being better than the state’s preferring any specific religion over others.
India is a secular democracy and Pakistan is a Muslim one – on paper. Any state can declare itself secular, but nations are their people and no state has the power to make people internalize secularism and make it their faith over and above their religion of birth. India and Pakistan arise from the same stock, and the way religion is observed by a common man doesn’t differ much just because someone decided to draw an arbitrary line separating them. Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (henceforth The Shadow Lines) proves the same through its narrator’s and comments and through the words and actions of its main characters viz. Tridib and Tha’mma. The novel, just like the history of the two nations, proves the two nations theory totally wrong. In fact, theories work only as long as they are able to keep up with practice. They ought to be discarded when they fail doing so. The nineteenth and even the twentieth centuries saw the establishment of racial discrimination. People believed in the race theory and acted on the basis of their beliefs. What happened then may help understanding the common mechanism of the rejection of theories that are prescriptive and prohibitive. The Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity were used against racial discrimination by those being discriminated against. Public opinion was moulded against racial superiority or inferiority and, finally, the theory was discarded. It may appear so simple on paper but it took centuries of struggle and sacrifices by people, both celebrated and unknown. The struggle is by no means over yet, but it has achieved considerable success. The same is not the case with national/religious essentialization and polarization. India-Pakistan, Islam-Hinduism, Friend-Enemy… these categories are fed and programmed in the minds for such a long time span that they finally create the illusion of being eternal and natural. Jethamoshai in TSL rightly challenges the assurance of the polarities that the arbitrary and ephemeral (if time is taken in its entirety) shadow lines of national frontiers create.
How do people claim that a “natural/inborn” incompatibility exists between Hindus and Muslims? How, even if that incompatibility does exist, also means that it’ll result into a separation that will encroach all over the public sphere, beginning from the extremely private one? Whether one worships Ishwar or Allah or one’s an atheist, how does it affect one’s productivity, performance, job satisfaction, leadership qualities etc. – all the little practical things that account for the most sizeable part of a person’s life? Observing certain religious customs and rites does not mean that a person is fundamentally incompatible with another. The two nations theory was fundamentally flawed in being non-progressive and oriented towards past with blindness towards present and future. Today’s future oriented, gainfully employed and satisfied citizens of a democracy wouldn’t yield their life, reason and free will to any such theory. Conservatives are declining in proportion to total population as youth today is more career oriented and (thankfully) materialistic. Material success and spiritual fulfilment with a progressive view of the world is what they want. Media has created s definite environment that lets the belief mentioned in the previous line flourish in minds.
Yet, it was media that had planted the damaging idea of polar division in the minds of the masses in the first place. The whole charade of the pan-continental religious solidarity could be created and maintained owing to the fact that people could know the existence of any such idea through its dissemination. The history of occurrence of communal violence has been sporadic, located in pockets that are geo-temporally separated in the past. With the development of the means of transport and communication, news and ideas travelled and spread over large areas very fast. Thus it became possible to indoctrinate the impressionable masses and to mobilize them by calling for Direct Action or Black Days that cause the violence that’s shown in TSL. Rumours too could spread at an alarmingly fast pace as technology made it easier. Communal riots, in their most terrible and lethal form, affecting a very large area became possible only when they could be so orchestrated. They follow a pattern. Places have histories of riot patterns that’s repeated in many ways as time goes by. The violence that 1964 saw, and that’s portrayed in TSL has a point of inception and growth, similar to a random instance in Varanasi from 1977 when the religious processions of one community passing from a densely populated locality of the other community had been the point from which riots are reported to have begun – be it the Muharram tazias or Durga/Kali idols.
Moreover, it has also been reported that the police (or, at least the PAC) had played crucial role in either actively assisting the rioters of their own religion actively/passively or carrying out the whole thing themselves. Their absence is the common factor between Robi’s and the little narrator’s trysts with communal violence in TSL. So, the question that needs to be answered is: “How is even the police indoctrinated?” If that is naïve then another question may be asked: “How does one expect any force’s not being indoctrinated when it is composed of social beings?” The indoctrination and initiation into religious allegiances, and later into bigotry, begins in the childhood. As the members of the police force also belong to a religious community, if they aren’t inoculated against religious indoctrination through its secular counterparts. Although both secularism and religions are man made and demand faith from their followers, secularism is freedom crystallized in comparison to the amorphous anarchy of religion. Is that so?
Now, freedom’s desirability is a post Enlightenment value, and it’s socially constructed too. Therefore, no choice between secularism and religions can be made as both are inherently equally good or bad. There are opinions against religions giving justifications in their being inherently violent, which is true in case of the Abrahamic religions with their faith in the old teastament. Religion was used to justify the Crusades and many wars. So, religion is bad. All the modern wars, including the two World Wars, were fought for non-religious reasons by secular armies. So, secularism is equally bad. But then, wars aren’t started by the people who are killed in them. Their real origin lies in the heads of those in power, and their real reason is the nature of power itself. The same can be said of violence in its many modern manifestations – communal riots being one of them. They are linked to religion but they do not purely originate from it. Their roots lie in the socio-economic soil of the given time and place. People who indulge in violence during the riots do not do so because of their strong faith in their religion. They do so because of a mass paranoia leading to their involvement in mass violence in the majority of cases. The planning and leading masterminds do not fall under the category mentioned just now.
Theirs may be another kind of psycho/socio-pathology. They plan arson, looting and bloodshed in cold blood and their motivation combines economic, political and social factors. This is clearly reflected in TSL through the Mu-i-Mubarak theft and its use by the politicians who wanted personal political benefits out of it. The incident occurred in Kashmir where there were no cases of communal violence . Instead, all the communities protested against the government together. There was a reaction in West Pakistan and Black Day was declared in both its parts. Khulna in East Pakistan was the first place where violence erupted. Soon, the chain reaction covered the whole of Bengal: West and its mirror image, the erstwhile East one. Time and again a stray incident’s being used as the nucleus of call to action that’s translated into violent and planned action has been seen being repeated. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and now, Christians – all have been victims of communal hatred and violence in the Indian subcontinent. No community is an island and no event or country is isolated. The shadow lines of the frontiers ironically linked Pakistan, Bangladesh and India even more strongly, in a very intimate kind of love-hate relationship.
“With the making of Pakistan the Muslims … threw off the yoke of double chain of slavery, viz., British imperialism and Hindu dominance in the South Asian sub-continent ” (Mirza 2). What is the chain of slavery being mentioned here? The one of British imperialism is obvious and easy to understand. The other one of Hindu dominance needs a thorough analysis and justification before its claim is accepted as established. Islam had entered India shortly after its birth in the deserts of Arabia. Its full impact was felt only when those following Islam presented a clear danger to the predominantly non-Islamic India. I’ve abstained from using the word Hindu here because it’ll take some definition before the term is applied retroactively. Obviously, at least some of the people designated as Hindus today did not know themselves to be so, some five centuries ago. The genealogy of the very word Hindu derives from a foreign imposition, that too, a corruption of the word Sindhu (Indus) designating geographically those who inhabited the lands beyond the indus river, as seen from th Arabian peninsula. It had nothing to do with their religion. The heterogeneity of the peoples who inhabited the land known at that time as India defied any attempt at a simplistic and monolithic categorization. A land that gave birth to thousands of sects following the devotion of thirty-three crore gods and goddesses and infinite number of local deities and traditions, could never be given a name that denied it the variety. The British were the first to insist upon this kind of clasification on a large and systematized scale. Before them, the Mughals and the Marathas did recognize the categories of Muslims and non-Muslims, for the payment of additional taxes viz.the zaziya, but they did not put all the non-Muslims under the umbrella term of the Hindus. Neither did the British do it. They only categorized the colonized people on the basis of caste, creed, tribe etc.
It was the Hindu nationalists themselves who had created and applied the term retroactively for self-referentiality. The rise of Hindu nationalism, that Nehru saw as communalism, owed a lot to the European idea of nationalism and its bases – religion, culture, language and a shared past, and the most central of all – a constant circulation of an idea (viz. Hinduism) to make it permanent in the minds of both Hindus and Muslims. Ironically, around the same time emerged the coherent ideas of Sikkhism and of the solidarity of the untouchables too, that undermined the territoriality of a monolithic Hinduism. Essentialization was essential for those who propounded that solidarity amongst the co-religionists was essential for standing strongly against their opponents. They assumed homogeneity and tried to erase all kind of differences, at least when it came to the acceptance of the existence of those fissures in public. The upper caste/class Hindus dominated the discourse of Hinduism as the subaltern could/did not speak – probably because he did not even enter the arena of the discourse as he existed on a completely different plane and the fundamental question for him was not of an India, Hinduism or freedom. The question was of his survival. He didn’t have the luxury to sit back and think of the big issues like nation and religion when they only belonged to his internal/external colonizers – the white and brown masters-enemies. Te same is true about the later designated scheduled tribes of India. Thus enters the fissure of questioning in the structure of nationalism. Doubt over the validity of the idea of nation, be it from an unnamed subaltern or Jethamoshai of TSL, is useful in exposing the fallacy of assuming a homogenized and equal spread of the acceptance of the idea.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]
Mirza, Sarfaraz Hussain. Hindu-Muslim Confrontation: A Case Study of Pakistan 712-1947. Lahore: Nazaria-i-Pakistan Trust, 2009.
In Taza Khudaon Mein Bara Sub Se Watan Hai
Jo Pairhan Iss Ka Hai, Woh Mazhab Ka Kafan Hai
[Country, is the biggest among these new gods!
/ What is its shirt is the shroud of Religion.] (Iqbal)
Nationalism is the grandest of all essentializing grand narratives originating out of the Enlightenment Project. Reconciling it with reason must’ve been very tricky, to say the least. Reason, applied ruthlessly and to its logical conclusion, has the power to lay bare any designs to counter or hide truth. It’s not a faculty, but a method, in which mind has to be trained and then kept on guard and in constant practice so that its use is ingrained in habit. Liberty, equality and fraternity – the progeny of the Enlightenment thought – were more of romantic inventions than pure hard reason. Equality isn’t natural at all. Neither is it desirable evolutionarily, or else, there’d be no natural variations. Nature produces things inherently unequal, yet essentially integral parts of the overall system for which even a microscopic unicellular amoeba is vitally important. Human beings imposed themselves on nature while creating their civilizations and their anthropocentric values. So, they “reasoned” that “all are born equal and should remain equal” or some such formulaic slogan. Repeated chantings and printings of the slogan fixed it in the collective consciousness in such a manner that the creation and establishment of the myth of its naturalness was the very next naturally logical step in the process. Left to its own resources, history proves that human beings have a natural tendency to form mutually exclusive groups and indulge in cruelty and violence against those who make “them”. Greed and violence being evolutionarily ingrained in human nature, it becomes imperative that fraternity be invented and invested with naturalness. It was done.
Democracies all over the world pride themselves for providing “liberty” to their citizens. Liberty: of and for what? What does a dispossessed gond tribal, relocated because of inhabiting the inundation zone of a huge hydroelectricity dam that’ll produce electricity to run air conditioners of those who have money and voice, do with liberty? What kind of liberty does he have? Liberty to end his miserable life? Even that has been snatched by the society that has made it unlawful and sinful. So, the overrated triad of liberty, equality and fraternity were wrong fundamentally, and unnatural too. On that weak foundation was erected the whole social edifice of the modern age. It had to lead to crises that we are facing today, not to mention the two world wars only. The very identity of the modern man is associated with nationalism. Any jolt to this foundational identity bolstering idea may cause irreparable damage, as the narrator of The Shadow Lines (henceforth TSL) points out about Tha’mma, a “modern middle class woman… [who] would thrive believing in the unity of nationhood and territory… that history had denied her in its fullness” (TSL 48). The imagined nature of nationhood makes it entirely artificial. Moreover, this invention of the Enlightenment Europe had always been challenged in many ways by events that go against its basic tenets. The already existing groups based on language, religion,culture etc. are all man made and they have to be subsumed into one large body built on a strong sense of belonging to the nation. All the bases for group identity and solidarity formation mentioned above are artificial, but the chronology of their introduction according to the need of humanity, individual or group, makes one more important than the other, e.g. language is the means through which we understand religion, culture and nation. So, it is more fundamentally required than others, and so on. Their artificiality remains hidden and to the common sense they appear innate. Yet, in the novel it is Tha’mma who ironically exposes the charade called nation by equating the effectiveness of its establishment with bloodshed all around.
She tells the narrator: “They know they’re a nation because they’ve drawn their borders with blood… War is their religion. That’s what it takes to make a country. Once that happens people forget they were born this or that … That is what you have to achieve for India” (TSL 47-8). how much blood will be enough to draw the borders? Will that of nearly six million people do? Did the English give more? War as a form of rationalized or fetishized violence may be their religion but they do not seem to take so much of pleasure, pride and interest in bloodshed as to specialize in it. India and Pakistan have done so with gusto with wars that were declared and have dates, and the undeclared and more dangerous warfare being carried out even today. Moreover, they have institutionalized another form of bloodshed – just to counter Tha’mma’s homogenizing powers of wars. They have drawn communal riots as a line that runs parallel to wars in the same colour: red. At least the secular pretensions of India aren’t maintained by Pakistan – it was created on religious grounds. Yet, as far as communal violence is concerned, India that’s secular by its constitution lags behind in no way. So, what has all the bloodshed achieved for the subcontinent: just the convenient rallying cries of religious fanaticism used to distract the eyes of people from the internal problems? Huge chasms based on region, language, caste, class and religion are discernible in the intranational conflicts in the whole subcontinent. What has war, or violence taken to the doorsteps of the common man achieved for them? Tha’mma’s theorization sounds good and may have appeal for the irrational part of mind, but once it is seen through the lenses of reason, its weakness becomes obvious. Europe and Enlightenment gave the idol of nation to us, but we have been worshiping our various gods parallely to the newly born god. The emotional appeal of nationalism that saw the creation of the whole modern Europe may be said to have failed to produce similar effect in the Indian subcontinent. The fundamental reason behind the failure of the European brand of nationalism may be because the European brand of secularism, the son of Enlightenment that’s given sustenance by reason, had no place here.
Interestingly, religion itself, as a coherent construct, as against the secular sphere, is a European infusion. Its Sanskrit equivalent dharma is just as much oriented towards one’s conduct in the world as it is oriented towards one’s position secured in heaven after death. Secularism, as understood in Europe, could never survive in the nation that took every area of life as belonging to different circles of a Venn diagram intersecting to from a complete central section that must, by definition, have religion in it. Of course, Hinduism may not have been the taxonomic category provided to that “religion”, yet the very heterogeneous sect based body of thoughts and practices later designated as Hinduism could easily be discerned from other religions of the subcontinent. Islam was the very first firmly monotheistic religion of the book reached the soil of India as early as the eighth century. Recorded instances of differences with Islam posit something like a religion (Hinduism) contrapuntally. India was inhabited by a very diverse set of peoples, as history reports. Even those who could be categorized as Hindus were by no means a homogeneous category. Yet, when it came to the creation of essence based on differences, they did see themselves as belonging to a stream that was not the same as that of Islam.
Therefore, the constructionists’ clam of the modern/ colonial construction of Hinduism does not hold water. The idea that took centuries to develop and solidify, even though it hadn’t its modern name,could never be denied the acknowledgment of its existence. The huge body of Hindu literature – both religious and secular in the European’s eyes – that didn’t make a part of the Buddhist, Islamic etc. heritage, as a set of difference, did make a concrete and coherent body. The existence of the body isn’t questioned or questionable. It’s there for all to see. Various un- Islamic/ Buddhist etc. religious practices fell in the category of Hindu practices that that the Christian missionaries were so fond of attacking e.g. sahmaran (later named suttee). Such practices were never confused with any other religion’s arena by those who belonged to Christianity or to any other popular Indian religion. Instead of being a religion of book with definite and solidified codes, Hindu dharma was fluid till its interaction with the modern world, especially with Christianity that necessitated its taking a definite form. That there was a need for it to claim its fixed centre is proven by the fact that all varieties of socio-religious reformers of Hinduism either accepted the Vedas/ Upanishadas as its fixed centre or synthesized such a centre by reinterpreting older forms in more modern ways e. g. Satyarth Prakash. As a reaction to the monolithic religions of the books, Hinduism (as the reformers saw it) was projected in its essence as monotheistic, revealed and of a book. The English interaction with Indians in the capacity of colonizers/ proselytizers/ civilizers did become the root cause of this change by providing a platform for interaction between Christianity and Hinduism. Thus they acted as catalysts, if not as reacting substances.
Even after getting the fixed centre and working definition, the points at the periphery of Hinduism could never be fixed or defined. Even today, unlike Islam or Christianity, it is very difficult for a Hindu to lay hands on a book that’d teach him the basic tenets of his religion. At least for an average Hindu, there isn’t any such guide. Moreover, an atheist Christian is a self-contradictory term, so is an atheist Muslim. An atheist Hindu is quite logical, possible and acceptable. I am one. There are so many totally contradictory flows of currents in what is known as Hinduism today that even a Hindu will find it difficult to distinctly define himself. A Muslim has no such difficulty or uncertainty because he a strong footing. India undermined the strength of that footing. It saw a fusion of religious practices to such and extent that the Hindu-Muslim-Sikh division was blurred. Of course, a Hindu did not praise Allah or a Muslim Wahe Guru, but in their daily life and social practices, there emerged a hybridization, e. g. the Meos of Alwar remained nearly undefined till 1947 they had converted to Islam yet had retained the traditions and practices of their Hindu past (Pandey 39). The tribals of India, a site contested by the newly formed proselytizing spirit of Hinduism pitted against the religions of the book, still remain a highly sensitive topic. The tombs of Sufi saints had strong following from among the followers of all religions. The Christian missionaries had seen it themselves that Roman Catholicism in India had to adapt itself by assimilating local customs etc.
Despite all the heterogeneity and a history of assimilation, the twentieth century witnessed the construction of monolithically projected religious affiliations and ideologies that held the sway over one quarter of the world’s population i.e. South Asia. It was the Indian subcontinent on which the seeds of communal hatred were sown and naturally, the harvest of the communal riots was rich. A communal riot is both a force of nature and (un)civilization. It is very much a force of nature that, ironically, is artificial in origin. Its naturalness lies in the collectivisation of the raw, evolutionarily ingrained animal instincts of survival and self-propagation at all costs, even at the cost of blood- own or others’. It is a force originating in one’s social programming that engraves the us-them divide very deeply in human minds. Therefore, it belongs to the human (un)civilizations too. As a mark of indictment, (un) must be placed before anything that originates a riot. This natural (un)civilized force raises its Hydra like heads only when it’s a time of a clearly perceived and widely recognized and accepted threat that leads to crisis. Hence, it may be termed as a kind of whiplash generated due to a collective paranoia that is pre-designed in the individual human being’s psychological hardware, as it’s human nature to be gregarious and to strive for continuation of life: that of the individual and that of those in the sphere of “us”. Thus, a collective paranoia, based on a collective memory of the communal history – as shaped by the political and media powers of the time – results into a communal riot. The land that gives sustenance to such a phenomenon can never claim its being civilized.Thus was negated South Asia’s centuries old claim of its inherent and essential spirituality, humanity and its ancient and great civilization.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]
Iqbal, Muhammad. “Bang e Dra”. Web. n.d. iqbalurdu.blogspot.in. 12 November 2012.
Pandey, Gyanendra. Remembering Partition. Cambridge: CUP, 2001. Print.
The innateness of the survival instinct shouldn’t be confused with the social constructedness of the antagonistic identities in the so called struggle for survival – the clashing communities/ castes/ classes. One depends on genetic coding, refined and passed on through evolution, whereas, the other is just social programming. Once the “us-them” circumference is well defines, violence may easily be engineered by an appeal to the basic instinct of self-preservation in a pre-emptive or reactive manner. A man who repudiates his past will soon have no present or future either. The present moment is but slipping into the past and the future onto the present. So, the one sure thing about time, as it is lived and understood, is the past that casts its shadow over the present and future. It is the mirror in which one’s images and actions are permanently etched. By looking at the past closely, one may understand oneself better. The narrator of The Shadow Lines (henceforth TSL)is doing something similar. He is doing more than just that. He is also exposing the collective, conscious, even planned oblivion of the riots of January 1964 in particular, and riots in general, and using language to convey his inner life and that of his Tha’mma in words that he knows will never be adequate.
His knowledge of the inadequacy of language comes from his experience of the fact that “Every language assumes a centrality, a fixed and settled point to go away from and come back to… which permits the proper use of verbs of movement” (TSL 98). Home is the point from which one goes away and comes back to. It is that fixed and settling point that guarantees not only the proper functioning of the central verbs of movement but also of identity formation and preservation. When that fixed point itself went away from their lives, the refugees faced not only a crisis in their language but also in their identities and lives. The emotional succour that the idea of home provides. Even when one is away from home, just by being there, was lost for them forever. It had taken generations to build the sense of belonging and attachment to home. The alienness imposed on their home and the imposed home in an alien land created a dilemma for them. They had to decide whether to keep or leave the idea of their old home as home. They also had to decide whether to transpose or reject the idea of home onto the new houses of theirs.
Some chose to leave their homes of centuries to go to an unknown land that was now their only designated and acknowledged motherland: India. Some chose otherwise and stuck to their choice tenaciously till the very end. Tha’mma’s Jethamoshai was one such person. He chose to stay back and not to obey the diktats of those in power. He decided to walk his own path and make it in the walking. Guided by his animal instincts of insecurity and hatred, he stayed back and on. When his son came to take him to India, he said: “suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere?… Where will you move to?” (TSL 139). Ravings of a lunatic? Empty blithering of a defunct brain? Or, an incisive indictment of the way power is snatched away from the common modern man by the nearly omnipotent state? Or, even deeper and more fundamental than that: the powerlessness of an individual – any individual – compared to the power of the society and its institutions? The individual sacrificed to the altar of collective will has been the story of civilizations, or, at least, the stories allowed to survive. Militantly individualistic social and political strains of action were erased from the pages of history; their intellectual foundations pushed towards the abyss of oblivion – so that history could not be formed with them, thus, obviating any chance of its repetition.
Jethamoshai happens to be the only individual in TSL who refuses playing with the hand fate had dealt through the decisions of the powerful. He resists to write his own mini narrative against the grand narrative of nationalism. He doesn’t subscribe to the idea of “India Shindia” (TSL 139), and has only contempt for his sons who moved away just because somebody decided to draw a line on a map – a line that had nothing to prove its existence on the real, tangible and material plane of being. A line, the unseen line, the shadow line, that existed only in one’s imagination, became central to the formation of millions of scarred lives. Jethamoshau used “his” imagination to undo the creation of those lines and the aftermath too. He stepped aside and back at the same time and let the net of time and space pass through – without ever catching him and delivering him to the basket called India(Shindia!). He stayed where he’d recognized his identity and died there too; making no compromise with his identity, keeping it intact in face of all adversity.
It’s true that his malignity towards his brother’s family and his will power sustained him, yet, his one act of rebellion converts him from an individual to a symbol. He becomes the symbol of the crisis of modernity – of the idea of an individual’s independent, “local” roots,as against his national affiliations and loyalties. Most of the people drifted towards their national identity – willingly or unwillingly – but Jethamoshai remained resolutely locally oriented and rooted. For him, the only space he cared to exist in, to spend his remaining span of life in, was his intimate local sphere of Dhaka – circumscribed by his house and the High Court – with his identity at the centre. Both the periphery and centre were simultaneously dissolved by and for those who chose to move. The common people just went on living their kind of life of powerlessness after they shifted. They knew their powerlessness and acknowledged it too.
There were few who stuck to their old pattern of life. They knew their power and got it acknowledged by time. The narrator’s grandmother had wanted to know whether there’d be any indicator to show that one had crossed the border. She wanted to know what the partition had actually achieved and created. She found out that both the sides looked the same as before and the partition did not change the soil and climate. Puzzled, she asks: “What was it all for then – Partition and all the killing and everything” (TSL 97). She wanted to know the reasons. The question presupposes the presence of a logic in history, presuming history provides justifications in the hindsight. Well, it does not,because it is just a narrative, and like any other narrative, its justifications originate in the minds of those who arrange events in a meaningful manner to validate their interpretations and justifications. The curious case of the Partition provides historically significant fuel sufficient to run the machines of justification of both secular and religious zealots of all hues. In Pakistan, it was the culmination of what history had always been pointing to – the holy land, exclusively reserved for the umma, as dark green side saw it. In India, it was like snatching away of the topping from the cake for many, especially on the dark saffron side. In both the countries, for those who remained undecided or for those decidedly for the undivided secular tricolour, it was nothing short of a national tragedy and a painful lesson history had taught. Yet, history happens to be just another human convenience, an invention like religion, and teaches only what one wants to learn from it; nothing more or less.
Jethamoshai says to his son who had come to take him to India: “I don’t believe in this India-Shindia” (TSL 138). He places a very fundamental and relevant question mark against the very concept of nation, also against the national fervour and conviction due to which people have faith, upon which they centre their identity. The old Ukil Babu questioned his son’s certainty about absurdly and inherently uncertain things – the shadow lines. The logic behind the drawing of lines separating one nation from another defies the very definition of logic, at least, in the Indian subcontinent. Partition (the second one) of Bengal into the West Bengal and East Pakistan was based on an apparently logical reasoning – the Muslim dense districts went to Pakistan and India got the Hindu majority ones. So simple, yet, when the history of the two partitions of Bengal is looked into, the veneer of simplicity vanishes and the real, rich complexity of the scenario becomes clear. The 1905 Lord Curzon’s partition of Bengal saw nation wide protests with such vehemence and tenacity that in 1911 it had to be repealed. But, within a span of just three decades, that very Bengal raised an even louder voice, backed with action that included violence, for the partition of Bengal.
The mechanism of such a change was not discernible to the masses that were swayed by the calls of the demagogues or the so called leaders of the respective communities. Jethamoshai calls for an opening of eyes and a hard and long look into the very mechanism that led to the creation of “India-Shindia”. How could he believe in it – just another social construct, self-divided, hastily created, promptly altered and completely preposterous? If it wasn’t self-divided, how did it create mutually exclusive lines of thought on both the poles of the communal structure? If it wasn’t hastily created, then how, within just thirty years (1905-35-71) there was seen a volte face in the Bengali geopilitical idea of India? If it’s not preposterous, then how does one explain the Hindus of Bengal both opposing and favouring communalism both on the basis of logic and emotion, and the Muslims doing the same? The masses do not sit back and analyse before they actually start responding to the calls of the masters of propaganda – their political opinion moulders and leaders. The British rightly believed that the self-designated leaders, or, even those with mass appeal and acceptance could and would exploit and mislead the masses for either their personal material gains or for ideological games. The fallacious identification of an individual known as leader with those appropriated/designated as followers dangerously simplifies a very complex scenario. Moreover, assuming or imposing selflessness on them is again fallacious. So, the elite hijacked the whole social apparatus that raised sound against injustice. They did so for and on the behalf of their definite inferiors. The Bengali bhadralok propagandized that they were representing the chhotolok too, i.e. there was a monolithic structure of the society. After the communal award of 1935 the urban monopoly on leadership was severely undermined and there appeard a whole set of leaders from the rural Bengal. Yet, neither urban nor rural leaders spoke for the subaltern – although they claimed to be doing so all the time. So, when the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha asked for a partition of Bengal on communal lines, it should not be assumed that they were speaking for the subaltern, although they would have people believe exactly that.
There were definite advantages for the elite – both Hindu and Muslim, traditionally established or newly sprung up – in partition and the creation of two units that’d be led by the elite itself. It happened exactly they’d planned. The controllers and wielders of power got what they wanted if “not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially” (Nehru). Probably, even they had not expected to get success in such a short span to such an extent. For the common man, the White European imperial power finally gave reins to the brown Indian internal colonizers. The truth remains that colonization, entrenched systemically, remained where it was. Jethamoshai’s incisive and shrewd mistrust of the arbitrariness of the internal colonizers is quite natural and correct. He points towards the unnatural arbitrariness of the very concept of nation, and,even more, of its boundaries. It proleptically points towards the partition of Pakistan itself. With the birth of Bangladesh language, culture and belonging to the sonar bangla would finally prove more powerful than the basic premises of religion and homogeneity of the two nations theory. Yet, ironically, the plight of the minority did not change due to the change in the fundamental reason of the nation’s formation.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]
Nehru, Jawaharlal. “Tryst With Destiny”. Web. 14 August 2011. wethepeople-barakvalley.com. 12 November 2012.
Violence – its genealogical and archaeological analysis and its open or hidden incitement – happens to be an important part of both TSL and MNC. So does the challenges it poses to the internal world and its anchorage in an externally verifiable and absolute reality. 1964 and 1971 in East Pakistan provide the centres for the set of events that lead to violence and a challenge to what the narrators see as real in the two novels. Religion as the rallying point for propaganda happens to be the common strategy in both the cases. MNC is directly linked to TLC at two crucial points of ’64 and ’71. Dr. Aadam Aziz, insinuates Saleem in MNC, was the person responsible for the disappearance of Mu-i-Mubarak that lead to the widespread riots of 1964, one that took Tridib’s life at the climax of TSL.
1971 was definitely a turning point in Saleem’s internal life. It was the year of his return to his own old self. It was the year that completed his war experience and that of his life. By the end of that year they’d witnessed with their own eyes “many things which were [simply] not true … not possible” (191). How could they see what wasn’t true? Or, how could they witness that which was impossible? But they did. He was destined to meet the magicians and Picture Singhji, the people “whose hold on reality was so absolute … they never forgot what it was” (203). The very people who performed them did not believe in the reality of magic tricks. That’s why Parvati – the real witch – never reveals her true secret to them; as her powers do not fit in with the things of everyday reality, just as Snotnose’s revelation of his hearing (before left was equal to the right one) the voices of the angels. The clever witch lived but the naïve boy preferred truth unknowingly and instinctively. Did he learn from his experiences and start mixing plausible lies with possible truths, substituting the impossible truths? Did he learn that truth is, what’s taken as truth, and there’s nothing like truth per se. Eloquence and craft as necessities for survival in the real world must have shown their strength to him. Or, did they just fail to register their importance in his mind? Because he continued revealing all the impossible truth – or lies that were probable, who knows? Wisdom came with a lot of experience. Thus he explains the boy soldiers of buddha’s team falling victims to “the influence of legends and gossips” (178). The world is understood through a process of continuous reimagining that connects one’s past memory with the grasp of one’s present and projection of the future.
The question asked in MNC is answered in TSL as “people … who have no home but in memory, learn to be very skilled in the art of recollection” (TSL 124). It is recollection that infuses life into the life that they had lost to the past – where they want to return but can’t, ever. The recollection of an idealized past is the only salve available to them that they apply on the wounds of separation at the points of severance from the nucleus of their identity. Of course, they can’t remember every detail related to every thing or person of their past. It’s neither needed nor desirable. Too many details about too many things will just clutter the memory. They have very strong and vivid recollection of few things and persons deemed fit for such a remembrance. They reconstruct their homes and people, years after both have been lost, just to be able to live their moments of happiness that they’d thought to be eternal and had lost due to a cruel joke of those in power, that sent them to a permanent nightmare on the very night the rest of India was celebrating as its biggest festival. Thus they also reconstruct reality and the root cause behind all happens to be the violence that violently uprooted them from their home in reality and transplanted them across the shadow lines to some other realm where everything had a new face, a new definition.
Independence too was invested with some new shades of meaning. What kind of independence was it? Independence to hate “them” whose identity had been fixed recently by the accident of their lying on the other side of the mirror/border/shadow lines? It was not the first time that theory was preceding practice, that preplanned, concerted action was undertaken for a kind of psychological warfare whose only objective was to create mass paranoia and hysteria due to intensified and purely induced fear psychosis. They need to recollect, as they had lost what they had valued so highly. They had lost because of their being powerless and because the powerful had chosen to first divide and then rule their separate, newly acquired domains. The task of division on paper was left to the “civilized” men but the task of actual drawing away of the mask from the face of separation, dark blood red in colour because it was filled with the blood of millions of innocents, was left to those who wanted blood of their newly established enemies. The chain of murders did not stop there. The bloodlust had entered the lives of “normal” people. It was there to stay, as one permissible, nay, desirable kind of violence in the collective subconscious, only to lay dormant until the time came for its rise. The time did come, again and again, in the subcontinent of hatred. The very normal people, the inhabitants of Dhanmundi, killed Robi’s brother and other two innocent persons before going back to normal, quotidian, even boring existence of theirs, or like the people who first chased the narrator’s bus and then stood smiling at its escape: the blood shedding machines. The two nations theory, famously revived and reinvented by the Muslim and Hindu extremists of the subcontinent in the first half of the twentieth century, so ingenious and so insidious in taking hold of both the communities, had gained its final end by galvanizing masses into action. Blood was shed again and again, proving Pygmalion like, that the two nations theory was finally proven right.
January 1964 saw communal riots on both sides of the border of India and East Pakistan. It had all started with an incident that had taken place thousands of kilometres away in Kashmir. Curiously, there was no blood shedding in the valley itself. Propaganda had created ripples that had travelled to Khulna and from there to Kolkata, and from there, spread throughout Bengal as days of madness filled with blood. There was nothing curious or new about it. That very process keeps on repeating itself to the present date in the Indian subcontinent. People kill for the arbitrary and absurdly rigidly essentialized categories imposed on them from the outside. They find it adequate as an explanation that “they” have to be pre-emptively or reactively butchered before they are able to do any more damage to the body of persons that belong to “I and us”. There are various voices against such madness, but who listens while the blood lust is working on their mind? It is a writer’s duty, penance and acceptance of powerlessness on face of such an opposition that he chooses (only) to portray, with his own stand written all over, at times, the violence he fears or hates so much; as is believed. It may also be because he is fascinated by it so much: the primal blood lust rising its hundred heads somewhere deep in the recesses of the unconscious. Probably he does it in hope of raising the voice of sanity – belated, or as a very small step towards accepting his helplessness as a representative of reason against the powers of the lower parts of the human nature. Maybe it’s just a voyeur’s way of getting sadistic pleasure out of a vivid portrayal of violence and cruelty; unconsciously programmed of course. After all, writers are human too. The novels that portray communal violence have this feature in common. The violence is not there to aesthetically embellish the plot, although it does perform that function. It is there primarily because it has been the seed from which the very novel has sprouted. Or, rather, not the actual bloodshed, but the fear of danger to one’s own life, “that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the spaces that surround one… can become suddenly and without warning as hostile as a desert in a flash flood” (TSL 131). Once one’s moorings are lost, there’s no surety of anything. The fundamental needs of physiological and psychological security are impossible to maintain or guarantee when madness enters the collective consciousness, pushing the doors of the unconscious forcibly open. The private spaces merge with the public ones and the private identities become one with the public ones to create an ugly blob of congealed (in)humanity that feeds on life to grow in size and power to kill more. One’s life is in danger even in the once safe house of theirs. So, the private space and identity have to be relinquished, with reason, for some time. It is essential before one adopts the identity and goals of a mass on rampage. No rational and fully functional mind can agree to bloodshed with such a scant consideration and with a complete lack of any respect for life. Reason must be relinquished sine die to do so. The absence of normalcy acts as a catalyst to this process and perpetuates both itself and its products in a manner analogous to the chain reaction in nuclear fission. Although there are many who never participate in the actual violence, and there are some who are against it – they generally remain inert. Thus they support their mad brethren indirectly. In rare cases, when one finds courage or madness enough to risk one’s life, following the diktats of reason and standing against communal bloodshed, one doesn’t find support, either from people or the government.
But then, how can a “sovereign, secular, democratic republic”, as the preamble of our constitution claims India is, allow riots rage in pockets of hatred and violence, year after year, death after death? Theory comes in handy here. It was assumed by the makers of the Imperial Administrative System that the members of the elite, chosen to rule in the name of the Queen, would act as machines programmed by the codes printed/instilled by training, i.e. purely theory based action with little room for an individual’s personal judgement and initiative. It suited the imperial machinery as the Raj had to be uniformly structured, firmly established and continuously asserted through the system. The external colonizers went away but they handed over the reins to the elite that they had constructed right out of the plans of Macauley. The new elite was free to colonize and exploit those who had been marginalized since the Raj era. The new colonizers perpetuated the efficient old colonial system of IAS and its state wise replicas. Therefore, the administration and policing of India depends on one assumption that’s very impractical and naïve in nature that the rulers, the holders of power over millions, will remain uncorrupted, because they are incorruptible even under all kinds of personal, institutional and social pressures.
Well, it is simply not happening. The parts that make the whole administrative system belong to the sea of humanity and they remain stubbornly like those they govern. No utopian class of administrator-philosophers are created here, as Plato had envisioned in his Republic. Instead, those who secure certain position in tests of certain mental skills are given the power to rule in India. Power only intensifies their natural (un)civilized traits and their paranoia and confirmed prejudices finally lead them towards a whole spectrum of violent actions that may even be indirect, at times, but is always dangerous and toxic. Their violence carries their authority and is used to support their “us” against their “them”. The mechanism has been seen in action time and again in India. The involvement of politicians and administrators in planning, executing and intensifying, at least, many of the communal riots that India has seen, has been proven beyond even a modicum of doubt. In the Varanasi riots, that I had been a witness to myself, and had followed the later developments first in the form of rumours, and then newspaper reports on the events in Varanasi and also in other cities in India, PAC and home guards, along with the police, to a large extent, acted en masse against “them” of their (and my) own community of birth: Hinduism. Thus, they clearly broke down the periphery of theory to enter the boundless arena of chaotic action that hadn’t one but several centres in those days of fear and blood lust. The very in(f/t)ernal mechanism of how it all starts and then goes on is shown in the Hazratbal incidence in TSLthat resulted into riots in India and Bangladesh through a kind of reflecting surface: their borders. Religion and violence, although not linked inherently, are linked with demagogues whose vested interests make it imperative for them. Be it communal riots of TSL or wars of MNC, violence is linked with religion in both the novels, not because of any conscious plan of the authors, but because of the reality of the Indian subcontinent.
Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Web. n.d. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. Scribd.com. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [MNC in the text.]