The Shadow Lines
E-Zine The Reviewer
(The review appeared first in the E-Zine, "The Reviewer" On 26 September 1999)
Such moments are rare indeed these days when one takes a book in the hand and is completely captivated by it after reading the first few pages. That happened to me recently when I started reading "The Shadow Lines" by Amitav Ghosh. "The Shadow Lines," Ghosh's second novel, was published in 1988, four years after the sectarian violence that shook New Delhi in the aftermath of the Prime minister, Indira Gandhi's assassination. Written when the homes of the Sikhs were still smouldering, some of the most important questions the novel probes are the various faces of violence and the extent to which its fiery arms reach under the guise of fighting for freedom. Ghosh's treatment of violence in Calcutta and in Dhaka is valid even today, more than ten years after its publication. What has happened recently in Kosovo and in East Timor show that answers still evade the questions which Ghosh poses about freedom, about the very real yet non-existing lines which divide nations, people, and families.
Much has been written about Amitav Ghosh's novels. "The Novels of Amitav Ghosh", edited by R. K. Dhawan was published this year by Prestige Books, New Delhi. If I find it necessary to say something more about Ghosh's writing it is because this novel moved me as none other did in the recent times. The Shadow Lines is the story of the family and friends of the nameless narrator who for all his anonymity comes across as if he is the person looking at you quietly from across the table by the time the story telling is over and silence descends. Before that stage arrives the reader is catapulted to different places and times at breath taking tempo. The past, present and future combine and melt together erasing any kind of line of demarcation. Such lines are present mainly in the shadows they cast. There is no point of reference to hold on to. Thus the going away - the title of the first section of the novel - becomes coming home - the title of the second section. These two titles could easily have been exchanged.
The narrator is very much like the chronicler Pimen in Pushkin's drama Boris Godonow. But unlike Pushkin's Pimen this one is not a passive witness to all that happens in his presence, and absence. The very soul of the happenings, he is the comma which separates yet connects the various clauses of life lived in Calcuttta, London, Dhaka and elsewhere. The story starts about thirteen years before the birth of the narrator and ends on the night preceding his departure from London back to Delhi. He spends less than a year in London, researching for his doctorate work, but it is a London he knew very well even before he puts a step on its pavements.Two people have made London so very real to him - Tridib, the second son of his father's aunt, his real mentor and inspirer, and Ila his beautiful cousin who has travelled all over the world but has seen little compared to what the narrator has seen through his mental eye. London is also a very real place because of Tridib's and Ila's friends - Mrs. Price, her daughter May, and son Nick. Like London comes alive due to the stories related by Ila and Tridib, Dhaka comes alive because of all the stories of her childhood told to him by his incomparable grandmother who was born there. The tragedy is that though the narrator spends almost a year in London and thus has ample opportunity to come to terms with its role in his life, it is Dhaka which he never visits that affects him most by the violent drama that takes place on its roads, taking Tridib away as one of its most unfortunate victims. Violence has many faces in this novel - it is as much present in the marriage of Ila to Nick doomed to failure even before the "yes" word was spoken, as it is present on the riot torn streets of Calcutta or Dhaka. But the speciality of this novel is that this violence is very subtle till almost the end. When violence is dealt with, the idea is not to describe it explicitly like a voyeur but to look at it to comprehend its total senselessness.
Thus the way "violence" is brought into the pictueis extraordinarily sensitive: The narrator says, talking of the day riots tore Calcutta apart in 1964, "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." I have never experienced such a sound, but God, how these sentences get under the skin, how easy it is to hear that sound, how the heart beats faster on reading these sentences! There are many other reasons why "The Shadow Lines" is so special a book. It has many of the characteristics that elevate a book to the level of unforgettable literature.
First of all there is this simple language. These days when doing acrobatics with words and language has become equivalent to paving new directions in the literary scene, it is heart warming to read a book in which straight forward language is used to convey what the author wants to say. And what messages are conveyed, what new ideas are unearthed! I am one of those readers who likes reading because of the power inherent in words. Whenever I read a new book, I always hope that the book contains sentences and words - at least a couple of them - that illuminate the heart and mind for a long time after reading, sentences which simply make life easier to live. There is a treasure of such sentences to be discovered in "The Shadow Lines". For example, look at what Ghosh says about knowledge and ignorance: "...he knew the clarity of that image in his mind was merely the seductive clarity of ignorance; an illusion of knowledge created by a deceptive weight of remembered detail." And there is this most beautiful of all sentences I have read for a long, long time - "And yet, when I look at her (the grandmother), lying crumpled in front of me, her white thinning hair matted with her invalid's sweat, my heart fills with love for her - love and that other thing, which is not pity but something else, something the English language knows only in its absence - ruth - a tenderness which is not merely pity and not only love." It is this tenderness of feeling, this feeling of "ruth" of which the novel is so full of, which moves me. For all the violence that plays the central role in the novel, it is this abundant feeling of tenderness in the novel that the narrator feels for the people, for Tridib, for Ila, for the grandmother, for May, for Robi, that has remained with me. Ghosh is also a humorous writer. It is serious humour. Single words hide a wealth of meaning, for example, the way Tridib's father is always referred to as Shaheb, Ila's mother as Queen Victoria, or the way the grandmother's sister always remains Mayadebi without any suffix denoting the relationship. Also look at this passage that describes how the grandmother reacts on discovering that her old Jethamoshai is living with a Muslim family in Dhaka. "She exchanged a look of amazement with Mayadebi. Do you know, she whispered to Robi, there was a time when that old man was so orthodox that he wouldn't let a Muslim's shadow pass within ten feet of his food? And look at him now, paying the price of his sins."
"Ten feet! Robi explained to May in hushed whisper, marvelling at the precision of the measurement. How did he measure? he whispered back at my grandmother. Did he keep a tape in his pocket when he ate?"
"No, no", my grandmother said impatiently. "In those days many people followed rules like that; they had an instinct".
"Trignometry!", Robi cried in a triumphant aside to May. "They must have known Trignometry. They probably worked it out like a sum: if the Muslim is standing under a twenty-two foot bulding, how far is his shadow? You see, we're much cleverer than you: bet your grandfather couldn't tell when a German's shadow was passing within ten feet of his food."
As I read Robi's comments, I laughed, at first. Then I had to swallow hard at centuries old injustice these words were trying to hint at. Finally, another important reason the novel succeeds is because the main characters are very real, almost perfectly rounded. I specially love the grandmother. She is the grandmother many of us recognise. In her fierce moral standards, spartan outlook of life, intolerance of any nonsense - real and imagined, she is as real as any patriarch or matriarch worth the name. And there is this very loveable character of the narrator. It is that of a boy who warms your heart, it is that of a man who knows and has lost love - more than once in his life - and thus makes you feel like hugging him close to your heart. On all scores Amitav Ghosh's "The Shadow Lines" is a novel which must be read and re-read, thought about and discussed upon. It is a book that stays with the reader long after the last page has been turned and the light has been switched off.
The Shadow Lines
A circle is the most perfect formation in nature and a straight line, the fastest way to get from one specific point to another. If you employ these rules to navigate your world, then this book is either going to be inscrutable or provide a fresh perspective depending on your frame of reference. It starts with many a description of the narrator/ protagonist's eccentric, ethereal but always brilliant cousin Tridib, who gives him worlds to travel in and eyes to see them with, long before he leaves Calcutta. A wanderlust sets in which leaves him imagining that he is seeing the first pointed arch in Cairo or touching the stones of the great pyramids of Cheops. Ironic then, that for the woman he loves - his beautiful cousin Ila, who would always break his heart - has been all around the world and lived in many places but has not traveled at all. All she remembers of Cairo is the inconvenient location of the `ladies' at airport. But that is part of her irresistible charm.
Ghosh weaves together personal lives of the characters who populate his novel with public events of that time with a rare poignant humor, which evokes, in many cases simultaneously, a smile and a sigh. Written in first person ensures that the reader is carried, not strung along, within the frame of the author's thoughts. A unique position from which to watch the boy growing as he finds himself sucked into history: his old grandmother stuck in a family feud with members in Bengal and the soon to be `liberated' Bangladesh and all the fears and uncertainties that lie within that premise. The relationship with England that took Tridib and his parents to London, and many years later took the author down the same streets and lanes that Tridib's indelible descriptions ensured he knew like the back of his hand. Their English friends daughter May's love for Tridib with its hopeless spiral into tragedy, ultimately provides the author with a glimpse of the final redemptive mystery.
Out of an intricate web of memories, relationships and images Ghosh builds his narrative. And while it never quite takes the form of a story that a reader can recount, its greatest achievement is perhaps best bought out by the distinguished poet A.K Ramanujan, who says ``He evokes things Indian with an inwardness which is lit and darkened by an intimacy with Elsewhere.'' Stream of consciousness, is a genre which has housed some of literatures most remarkable minds. With it constant forward and backward movement between different times and realities, used to express associations that the author tends to make in different situations at different points, Ghosh has paid his dues to join that club. I liked the book for not trying to explain its eccentricities by being profound. For putting into words what, for most of us, remains a nebulous knot of understanding or a half-idea. For being focused but without the distressful need to tie loose threads up into a neat bow on the last page. In short for not being a tired potboiler.