Heteroganeity, the Two Nations and The Shadow Lines

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.]



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