Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines as an Indian English Novel

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

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