Constructedness of Nation and The Shadow Lines

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. 12 October 2012. Pdf. [TSL in the text.]

Nehru, Jawaharlal. “Tryst With Destiny”. Web. 14 August 2011. 12 November 2012.


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