Twenty-five years since the publication of Amitav Ghoshs The Shadow Lines,it continues to define the scope and constraints of our lives
The Shadow Lines,25 years old this year,has been an epochal work of this last quarter century. In this time it has been translated into several languages. It has been reprinted numerous times. It has seeped into the consciousness of a generation so deeply that often when we think of the scope and constraints of our lives as citizens of South Asia or the world,as historically and geographically located individuals,we do not even realise how our thought is shaped by our reading,so long ago for many of us,of The Shadow Lines.
A legion of academic literary critics have found this book to be the perfect text to explicate the ideas posited by postcolonial theory. This is both fitting and,in retrospect,inevitable. The fragmentary and circumscribed nature of memory in a subcontinent scarred by the colonial experience,and the violent fissures that followed decolonisation,found an unprecedented utterance in The Shadow Lines. A significant aspect of Amitav Ghoshs project in this book,coded into the title,was to demonstrate that the calcification of national boundaries in our imaginations had brutalised our sense of who we were and,consequently,who we could be. For a generation of academics striving to overthrow the pervasive and deadening view that we subcontinentals were locked into our little nationhoods,The Shadow Lines provided the literary weaponry.
The political interrogation of the dominant discourse is achieved through a formal manoeuvre: a non-linear structure that juxtaposes different points in space and time. The novel moves from London during the war to Delhi 40 years later,Kolkata in the early Sixties,London again in the Seventies,and finally the spatio-temporal axis around which the entire book turns: Dhaka in the mid-Sixties. This technique,which Ghosh has attributed to his reading of Marcel Prousts À la Recherche du Temps Perdu in the years before he wrote The Shadow Lines,is more effective,in my view,on the spatial front. I say this despite the authors insistence over the years that the slippage of memory,and the psychological damage that this slippage reveals,was his central concern when he set out to write this book in the aftermath of the 1984 riots in Delhi.
The movements in time work well,there is no doubt,but it is the spatial collage-making that gives The Shadow Lines its unique place in the history of Indian literature. However,the denouement of this technique comes in a register that is miles from the sophistications of the French salons literary or artistic. I am,of course,referring to the famous passage in which the narrator puts the pointed end of his compass down on Khulna where the riots that would eventually spread to Dhaka occur,puts the pencil end on Srinagar where the incident that instigated the riots took place,and draws a circle. What follows has been quoted often before,but it is only fitting that it be quoted again on this anniversary:
Beginning in Srinagar and travelling anti-clockwise,it cut through the Pakistani half of Punjab,through the tip of Rajasthan and the edge of Sind,through the Rann of Kutch,and across the Arabian Sea,through the southernmost toe of the Indian Peninsula,through Kandy,in Sri Lanka,and out into the Indian Ocean until it emerged to touch upon the northernmost finger of Sumatra,then straight through the tail of Thailand into the Gulf,to come out again in Thailand,running a little north of Phnom Penh,into the hills of Laos,past Hué in Vietnam,dipping into the Gulf of Tonkin,then swinging up again through the Chinese province of Yunnan,past Chungking,across the Yangtze Kiang,passing within sight of the Great Wall of China,through Inner Mongolia and Sinkiang,until with a final leap over the Karakoram Mountains it dropped again onto the valley of Kashmir.
The litany of names reveals a simple fact that lies hidden in open view places that lie far in the imagination are close to each other on the map. This has a fundamentally unsettling effect on the postcolonial gaze,a gaze that has hitherto looked only to the West,or inwards. This moment in The Shadow Lines is also a portent of things to come in Ghoshs own writing career as it moves forward,reopening the Burma Road as it were in The Glass Palace,reinstating the commerce of history with China in Sea of Poppies,to cite only two examples. The writers lifelong commitment to not just critiquing the way history and geography are handed down to us,but,through the act of storytelling,actually creating new ways of perceiving history and geography,is signalled clearly in this passage.
But let us leave the politics behind for a moment and focus instead on the earnestness of it,the innocence of an attack on suffocating verities undertaken with a weapon commonly found in a schoolboys geometry box. The novelist does here what the academic cannot do: he recenters the world literally,by drawing a circle with a new centre of his own choice.
The same middle-class sensibility that turns to the compass for help also imbues the notion so strongly held by the narrators uncle Tridib,the novels protagonist,that the best way to travel is by imagining your way into far-off places. We see here a continuity with a pre-Rushdie past. Amit Chaudhuri has called Salman Rushdie a hallucinatory cliff,a barrier that Indian English fiction is unable to look behind. But by rooting The Shadow Lines in a world where leathery omelettes fried in mustard oil are lovingly served to nephews,Ghosh leaps over that cliff back towards a time when written accounts of other peoples travels were the ship on which the subcontinental imagination sailed,towards Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay,who wrote a whole novel set in Africa without ever leaving the eastern part of India. As a counterpoint to those who travel only in their minds there is Ila,the narrator’s cousin,whose privileged position as the daughter of a diplomat allows her to physically travel to distant lands. But a lack of imagination reduces those places to airports and so nullifies the act of travel,and reduces her to an embarrassing interloper in the places she visits. Since Bibhutibhushans time,the Bengali has mustered up the capability to corporeally enter into the larger world,but this entry is problematic without the ability to imagine a place for herself in that larger world.
That urge to find a position for the subcontinental experience in the larger world was the engine that drove the success of Indian English writing in the West in the 1980s,a success that was spearheaded by Midnights Children. Ghoshs register of wistfulness,to use Meenakshi Mukherjees characterisation,provides a counterpoint to Rushdies exuberance,and provides a space for the earnestness and the sentimentality that are ineluctable elements of the subcontinental emotional landscape. Ghoshs invocation of the notion of sacrifice in the resolution of The Shadow Lines has made academics snort. It must seem to them to be the political equivalent of the Polish cavalry charging on horseback at Nazi tanks. But the ordinary South Asian,the person who has suffered with Nargis in Mother India for example,instinctively understands what Tridibs sacrifice means. Similarly,the resonance of the narrators unrequited love for Ila needs no explaining to a reader from the subcontinent. By employing these notions in a work that takes on Western notions of history and anthropology,Ghosh gives a South Asian sensibility an opportunity to take the larger stage and invite understanding from the world.
And for those of us who are from here,it invites us to see ourselves as who we are and who we could be. It certainly invited me,when I first read The Shadow Lines almost two decades ago,to see the place I was born in and grew up in and still live in as being a worthy subject for literature. For that,and for everything else,I want to thank the author and wish his book a happy 25th birthday.
by Amitabha Bagchi
Amitabha Bagchi is the author of The Householder. His new novel This Place,releases this year