The Shadow Lines is a powerful, captivating story told by an unseen narrator who relies on bits and pieces of his memory to piece the events together. The novel is divided into two parts; ‘Going away’ and ‘coming home’ and therefore portrays the image of a journey. Indeed the story takes the reader on a journey over a period of almost seventy years, and captures important historical events like the China-India war of 1962 and the Calcutta-Khulna riots of 1964. The author takes the reader back and forth through this period in a very creative manner that mystifies the reader and contributes to the complex nature of the novel. The novel touches on various themes including nationalism, freedom and political borders. The author seems to subtly question the relevance of political borders which only seem to divide people further in the face of globalization. It is the story of a middle-class Indian family living in Calcutta, India.
The narrator is a young boy who grew up in Calcutta and later moved on to Dhaka and London. Through his narrative he presents the views of various members of his immediate and extended family leading to the emergence of a variety of strong characters. His uncle Tridib travels the globe through imagination, and as such, seems unrestricted by any boundaries. The narrator’s grandmother Tha’mma is the most developed character in the novel and through her we perceive the enthusiasm and unity of purpose with which the people embarked on nation building immediately after independence. It is through her that the author is able to deliver the central theme of the story, which is to question the incredulity of demarcating lands and dividing people while in their memories they remain together.
The title ‘Shadow Lines’ is very significant in that it alludes to underlying divisions in the society that affect people in ways that even they don’t realize. The author questions the meaning of freedom in the modern world and how it is expressed by lines drawn between people and nations, lines that ultimately act as a hindrance to the maintenance of peace and harmony. The idea of nationhood also comes under question, and why the price to pay for it is war. These lines which have been used to divide us merely act as mirrors that reflect us on the other side, since before them we were one people, and even with them we remain the same. Today, these lines act to hinder the free flow of ideas. (Wanderer 12).
We have come to believe that patriotism can only be expressed by spilling blood and sacrificing one’s life in war. The author is trying to challenge this blind point of view, and is advocating for a different way of defining nations, boundaries and history. These ‘shadow lines’ separate lands which happen to be very similar in terms of culture and history. In the novel, the narrator’s grandmother cannot live with the idea of men killing each other with bombs and bullets over these borders. Having been brought up during the time of the freedom struggle, she believed that a nation can only be built when the people are bound together by a common suffering and sacrifice (Banerji 14). The shadow lines divide people into “us” and “them”, and this differentiation leads to a strong hatred towards “the other”.
The writer, Amitav Ghosh, tries to discredit this idea of “the other” by pointing out that there is a similarity in everyone, regardless of borders or religion, which is noticeable during war. He points out that during the Second World War and the 1971 riots in India, the reactions of people in England, Germany, Dhaka and Calcutta was very similar. As the narrator says; “it is like stepping through a mirror” (Ghosh 171). The effect of war on the middle class of society is apparent throughout the novel. The narrator’s grandmother becomes very bitter when “nationalist” hooligans kill her nephew and says “we must kill them before they kill us”.
The narrator’s uncle watches his brother getting killed in front of him and finds it impossible to forgive and forget such brutality. Here, the author tries to highlight the danger of our nationality forming the basis of our identity. The lines drawn to divide the world into nations serve to divide people rather than unite them; they create hatred instead of fostering peace. The lines become etched in our minds and breed animosity amongst us, a sign of the lost feeling of togetherness.
Amitav Ghosh also sets out to highlight the attraction between Tridib and May and the strong bond between the two families that defies distance and boundaries even as their respective countries are at war with each other. Ghosh is keen to expose these invisible links and “indivisible sanity” that cuts across the lines of cultural segregation, racial discrimination and nationality. Tridib is the son of an aristocrat, but the manner in which he comfortably interacts with people on the streets of Calcutta leaves them believing he is one of them from the slums. He absorbs all the knowledge he receives from other sources and brilliantly fashions himself through his personal imagination.
(Singh 17). This is what he teaches the boy narrator who grows up emulating him. Through Tridib the author shows that identity is dependent on the voluntary input of an individual, and not entirely reliant on given narratives that are self-centered and negate history. The two families have managed to overcome the various cultural, political and religious borders by focusing on the lines that bring them together, bonds of peace and humanity.
The modern day boundaries were drawn up by the colonial powers to help them in ruling the subcontinent. These boundaries disregarded the lines that united the people and instead drew up lines that caused division. Initially the people were bound by cultural, religious and historical ties that went back for generations. Such bonds are very strong and usually bring people together under a unity of purpose. The colonialists could not afford to rule such a united people. Colonial boundaries thus created artificial divisions amongst people, divisions that fostered hatred and animosity under the guise of nationalism. People erstwhile united by strong bonds going back generations in history suddenly turned against each other, ready to kill each other without realizing that all these served the interests of the colonialists.
The author deals cleverly with the theme of violence in the novel by not describing it explicitly, but rather ridiculing it as senseless and needless. From the marriage of Ila to Nick that is doomed to fail, to the riots on the streets of Calcutta in 1964, the author writes; "I opened my mouth to answer and found I had nothing to say. All I could have told them was of the sound of voices running past the walls of my school, and of a glimpse of a mob in Park Circus." (207). The author sends a strong message on how borders demarcating nations have come to divide people as well. He stresses that these borders ought to be rendered meaningless in this modern society, and instead people should strive for a borderless society held together by peace and harmony.