Nation and Violence in The Shadow Lines and Midnight’s Children

The 1971 generation of Bangladesh (and the Indo-Pak wars) gave The Shadow Lines (henceforth TSL) an opening to the theme of nationalism. The 1971 war gave Midnight’s Children (henceforth MNC) the beginning of its rise towards its climax. Although riots (the core of the action of TSL) and wars (the core of the action of MNC, or, at least, of death) are two distinctly different things in themselves and have no surface relation with nation, there’s a method in their mad dance. That method and the violence are shared by the two novels. They also share the questioning of truth-lie, real-unreal polarities.

To begin with, the theme of nationalism will be appropriate. Theory versus practice polarity allows the existence of metaxy (that Avramenko sees as, the permanent middle ground) where one isn’t exactly and purely theoretical nor entirely practical. It is this metaxy where the idea of nation resides elusively and gleefully for a critical thinker to enter. For an individual who agrees to or is unwillingly moved by the collective will of the masses, there’s no theory, only practice both while performing individual role and also while acting as a unit of the masses: because to do is much easier than to sit back, to refrain from all external action in order to understand the real reason behind action. What does a nation mean in itself? What does it mean for one who believes in it? For me? Who gave me India and me to India? When? How? And, the biggest question of all: Why? My experience teaches me to steer clear (as Eliot would recommend with his Scylla and Charybdis analogy) of involvement with any extreme while reasoning.

So, I’ll not subscribe to the primordiality or inventedness of nation. I’ll assay my theory (to give it a discernible and respectable identity) on the touchstone of my personal experience to reach my (I admit in a postmodern, relativistic and anti-grand-narratives vein) version of truth. Religion, caste, nation: all are accidental, and not genetically embedded. Even then, the manifestation of whatever is genetically embedded depends on these. The external finally proves to be stronger than the core in this ironical and paradoxical case. Those externals are ascribed through the process of socialization during one’s identity formation. Unlike the claims made by the demagogues, no child is born an / Pakistani or a Hindu/Muslim. They are programmed carefully, preferably through co-option, by those who are already programmed. Respecting one’s national flag, anthem and history are taught and later assimilated, to be seen finally as arising naturally from within. The imagined nature of nationalism makes it possible to question the need and validity of such “imagination”. As Anderson, in his Imagined Communities, puts so insightfully, precisely and logically, that the birth of the print mass media coincided with that of nationalism as a common factor determining the identities of people imprisoned within the shadow lines of arbitrarily created national frontiers. Despite all heterogeneity, a kind of commonality, an essence, was said to be present in the people of a nation. The “us-them” dichotomy was established absolutely because of the vested interests that benefited from such kind of polarization. Nationalism substituted religion as the opiate of masses and the substitution was made possible by the Enlightenment dethroning of religion through a persistent rational questioning. Plato was proven right. It’s very unnatural for human beings, or, at least, for a majority, to remain rational for a long span of time, that too, consistently. Lapsing into the basic animalistic irrationality is quite natural. Any attempt at equating natural-unnatural with superior-inferior or good-bad will be misleading, although logically and culturally inferred and implied. So, the natural, illogical and real part of the psyche that controls the artificial, rational part most of the times, also happens to collectively control peoples and systems that have been generated initially by individuals and then become self-perpetuating and all sub/con-suming. Nation – the creation of man – subsumes individuals in its body to finally become the creator – father/mother-land – superior even to another son of man – God. In fact, the masses need creating such behemoths, such conceptual, multidimensional, monolithic juggeranuts, with a complementary need of sacrificing themselves on the altar of their own creations. Blood is the best and most powerful aphrodisiac for the satanic orgy of violence with cold-blooded mass extermination machines and methods, and riots and wars act as festivals that humanity(?) has been celebrating again and again in order to show its real nature to itself. History’s repeating itself – first as a tragedy and then as a farce – turns into some sort of redundancy when its repetition is repeated indefinite number of times. All calculations fail and history is obliterated from the minds of those who don’t have mind suitable enough to experience it, or memory capable enough to hold it.

Strangely, the protagonists of both TSL and MNC find it out for themselves that violence and humanity don’t speak the same language, and theirs is the language of humanity. Strangely and counter intuitively, the two novels also tend to indicate that nation and humanity don’t speak the same language by their treatment of the relation of their protagonists with the idea and reality called nation, people and the collective memory of a nation. The narrator of TSL finds it very strange that “we can only use words of description when they [riots] happen and then fall silent, for to look for words of any other kind would be to give them meaning, and that is the risk we cannot take any more than we can afford to listen to madness” (147). For want of comprehension, one tends to look for easy escape routes towards a semblance of coherence, as incoherence is very disturbing. Chaos inside the head that rings continuously as the raucous early morning alarm clock indicates that there’s something wrong with the state of one’s being. Meaning is the key to any such situation. Only meaning can magnetize the domain of chaos to finally arrange them in a manner that mind is able to comprehend. It takes a lot of courage – moral and intellectual – to wander in the dark deep caverns of the unconscious mind where the central meaning of all chaos can be found. It’s neither easy nor very pleasant to descend to that underworld, because facing one’s animal self is a veritable crisis that a person wants to avoid, or, at least, delay at all costs. Language, as Lacan puts it, and unconscious are structured in a similar manner. The meaning of the phenomenal world is deciphered using the system of language, the basic building block of life. The world is understood through language, and language falters in its job at many places in these novels.

In TSL there are people who compare riots and wars. For Ila, a riot is “nothing that sets a political example to the world, nothing that’s really remembered” (TSL 68). For Malik: “All riots are terrible… But… a local thing… hardly comparable to a war” (TSL 142). The local, (so) unimportant, ephemeral to the collective consciousness, politically insignificant riots lose in the contest for popular remembrance and portrayal to wars. Wars are written and sung about. They provide the opportunity to show one’s patriotism and to die for the father/mother land. War is an industry, a religion, even a way of life. A riot is not like a war. People try to push it to the unconscious; sweep it clean off the floor under the carpet, so that it isn’t seen, ergo remembered by anyone any more. There are some who try to remind others of riots but a common man never does so because he has a vested interest in continuation of the normal way of life with a boring consistency and predictability in the repetition of its cycles year after year. This phenomenon has a parallel in miniature in many families with a secret that has to be hidden at all costs. A riot has a parallel. It is not written or talked about freely and openly by common people who had shed blood or witnessed bloodshed. These people, directly or indirectly responsible, try to avoid reliving their collective shame and guilt by denying the existence of any such thing. Now wars are a class apart. They have been ideologically established. In more than two millenia of the recorded human history, wars have been accepted into the hearts of humanity as something that is glorious, especially the dulce et decorum est pro patria mori thing. The righteous war is an essential from of bloodshed- desirable in all ways. The Vedas extol Indra, the lord of war who destroys the enemy forts, without any kind of reservation. The Puranas and Smritis are all praise for the kshatriyas, the warrior clans descending directly (and very believably) from the sun or the moon. Histories, till the end of the the o;d historiography’s emphasis on individuals, were biographies of kings, generals and warriors. The epics – Greek or Hindu – are all about wars and the exploits of their heroes.

Thus, wars have been glorified in an established and systematic manner and have been written about ad nauseum. The huge volume of literature covering the two world wars is sufficient to prove the point. As Tha’mma tells the narrator, those dying for their nation get medals and “churches are lined with memorials to men who died in wars, all around the world… That’s what it takes to make a country” (TSL 48). The same never happens for those who sacrifice their lives fighting against communal disharmony. They never get any bravery award. That kind of respect is reserved strictly for those who sacrifice their lives selflessly and violently, following their superiors’ orders. For them are composed verses and it is with their story that films are made. It’s because they get their names permanently established that they are remembered – the martyrs of war. It’s because their individual and collected memories are effaced that they are not remembered – the martyrs and victims of communal riots. MNC shows the merciless and unbelievable betrayal of the trust of the warriors of faith by the Pakistani government through the way buddha’s companion reacts to what he clearly sees happening on the streets of Dhaka. He finds it impossible to believe, and even more difficult to put his ides in words. As if he is doubly struck by forces of modified nature of the modern times: violence and shock of the loss of faith. His state of mind is comparable to that of the little boys in TSL., the boys whose lives were changed because of riots that are different from wars because in wars the frontiers on which violence and madness reign generally exist somewhere “there”: at far away places. Riots remove all frontiers and their intervening distances. Violence and madness enter the sacred and safe domains of one’s neighbourhoods, and, very terrorizingly, threaten to touch one’s citadel: one’s home.

Murder – glorified and institutionalized in wars – seen at close quarters, does not appear so appealing or glorious any more. Transposed on one’s own self, unconsciously or consciously, violence loses its lustre and can only generate phobia or mania ranging from mild to intermediate to any of their extreme varieties. The constant tension generated due to the presence of antagonistic factions in proximity may have psychological manifestations ranging from temporary to permanent changes in one’s way of thought and action. Yet, “By the end of January 1964 the riots had faded away from the pages of the newspapers, disappeared from the collective imagination of ‘responsible opinion’, vanished without leaving any trace in the histories and bookshelves. They had dropped out of memory into the crater of a volcano of silence” (TSL 149). Why? Why is the pattern repeated again and again? Although it is about only riots in TSL, and wars in MNC, in the outside world’s context too, it can be seen happening with many other “sensational” pieces of news. The public interest is aroused and sustained for a short span only, after which must come something new. There have been few instances in which media and the intelligentsia have focussed on a moral outrage consistently, but such instances can be easily counted on fingers. Generally, people have a very short attention span, and the media, even shorter.

I can recall very vividly the riots of the 1990’s in Uttar Pradesh. There used to be curfews in the aftermath and newspapers and radio were the most popular and trustworthy sources of information for the masses hungry for it. What happened? Who attacked or murdered whom? How much more time would it take for normalcy to return? All these questions surfaced again and again. Earlier people had looked for the signs of trouble. In the later stages, once the shock value had given place to a settled ennui, people open their newspapers or turned on the radio with the hope that all signs of trouble would fade away. How long could the children have enjoyed their curfew imposed holidays? Not sine die. How long could the adults afford to stay away from their economic activities? Not sine die. But how long?




Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 2006. Print.

Avramenko, Richard G. “Bedeviled by Boredom: A Voegelinian Reading of Dostoevsky’s Possessed”. Web. n.d. 12 October 2012. Pdf.

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

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

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