Post-colonial Indian literature has generally been infused with a refreshing enthusiasm for a new outlook. Political freedom thus brought with it dynamism, distinct voices, vigour and self-reliance in the form of prolific writers such as Vikram Seth and Amitav Ghosh. Among the works of the latter is the novel ‘The Shadow Lines’ (1988) which explores in it the concepts of identity and nationality. National identity can be defined as the sense of belonging of an individual to a nation and a feeling one shares with their society, and it is the idea of this and how it is formed that Ghosh deals with in his novel.
He uses the trauma induced by partition and riots as a theme, and even has an important character of the novel, the narrator’s second cousin once removed Tridib, killed in the Dhaka riots (1963-64). He implies the partition however not in a linear manner as Ghosh’s novel is written in the non- linear or disjointed narrative mode– an aspect which implies its title also, with the shadowiness of the border line. But this border line, as an abstract construction, only adds problems for a large number of people across it. Also explored in the novel is the issue of nationhood and diaspora- involving relationships between people belonging to the same or different communities that transgress or transcend the “shadowy” border lines, such as the relationship between the characters Nick and Ila and that between May and Tridib. The word diaspora literally means a scattering or dispersion and so every character’s movement outside of their homeland would be a diaspora or spread of said individuals. In this way the novel is able to deal with both nationalism and national identity, as well as a character’s personal identity.
Thus Ghosh writes The Shadow Lines with the backdrop of an impending identity crisis for individuals belonging to India, whether physically in India or around the world, due to problems of rootlessness stemming from the multiple partitions. An individual’s identity is always tied to the physical space they come from and with partition, this is brought into jeopardy. Just as Manto dealt in his story Toba Tek Singh with the eponymous character being deeply connected with the village he came from and questioning the validity of partition, Ghosh brings in similar concepts too, bringing out the senseless chaos and confusion that came with the partition.
Identity does, however, tend to be a debatable concept in itself, even when not associated with the nation. Differing schools of thought have different perspectives to offer on identity and critic Pratibha Bharali thus feels like through the ages, “identity construction has been debated [multiple times] but one must acknowledge that an individual’s identity is to as large an extent formed by [their] social location,” including race, class, gender, et cetera. (Bharali, P. 2012) Thus the formation of a nation impacts any individual’s identity formation as well. The title of the novel itself suggests the unreality and invalidity of the constructions of identity and nation. To quote P. Bharali once more, “The Shadowiness of the border line puts a question mark to the geographic boundary between countries and thus its identity.” (2012) Identity formation and shaping is implied by the name of the novel.
The title lends itself also to the idea of nation formation, referring to the shadow-like figures exclusive to human imagination (as they do not actually – physically – exist) that divide nations. The reader thus may get a sense that Ghosh finds nation formation to be a fluid concept, due to his equating borders with “shadows.” Tridib however, wished to transcend these boundaries, viewing them as limitations. He wished to be at a place without border between oneself and one’s image in a mirror. (32) This refers on one level to the personal identity of an individual, who do not wish to be divided within themselves. Simultaneously, this refers to the physical aspect of the borders between nations, since partition of a country (particularly India’s partition into India and Pakistan, East as well as West, and then the subsequent creation of Bangladesh, on the national level, and the partition of Bengal into East and West Bengal on the state level, the former of which became East Pakistan and then Bangladesh) tends to split apart a country into lands that are mirror images of each other, since they both are of the same (once unified) country.
Some critics however are of the view that personal identity is illuminated and given precedence over the idea of nation formation or national identity. Sukanta Das writes that Ghosh “problematises nationalism in his search for identity.” In his novel, he deals with the division of a nation due to political struggles and agendas, and highlights the emerging new world. A “world beyond nation” is postulated as ideal in the text. This is a necessary step forward for the country and was so particularly at the time this novel is set, after independence from the British when India had just become a country of its own, and Pakistan and Bangladesh had newly been formed. This ‘world beyond nation’ was required since productive growth of international business demands this, so there is no obstruction from national boundaries hindering development and efficiency.
The formation of a national identity tends to be a result of dual (homogenising as well as differentiating) dynamics. The homogenising dynamic implies the idea of a nation or community as unified and single, and thus differing from others. This solidarity of sorts is seen in The Shadow Lines with the close identification of the community with one another, despite the Western influences on Ila, she still identifies with her culture and the narrator believes the Price family in London to be “more Indian than” his grandmother. However, differentiation in core values or common aspiration, that separate one from a community, also work in the balance and serve to differentiate an individual from one country from that of another. Therefore Ghosh shows that nation construction can be misleading as an idea. He refutes the idea of the nation as a homogenous entity.
He exposes the concept of a nation borders as a mirage, as a nation exists as a concept beyond physical boundaries. (Mirages can be seen as an important motif in the text as the character Robi finds even the word “free” a mirage.) A nation is created with the emotions and memories of people belonging to a community, and ghosh brings this out through the journey of the narrator from childhood to adulthood. Their deceptive nature is constructed for the purpose of differentiating political divisions. The narrator’s grandmother believes in the ability of these borders to separate communities from one another. She wonders whether she would be able to see the border from the air, and if she cannot, if there are no trenches “or soldiers pointing guns at each other,” the partition itself seems absurd. She questions, like Manto’s Toba Tek Singh, the point of the partition at all. She wonders “What was it all for then?” questioning the wars and the riots.
Benedict Anderson also comments on this, saying, “The nation is an imagined political community. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. This makes it possible for emotional affinities to transcend some disruptive dissonances, thereby making space for a sense of nationness and nationalism”. The narrator’s grandmother, for instance, is one such character who conforms to this thinking and for whom the nation is a clear marker of identity. She was born in Dhaka but moved to Calcutta before Independence and later was separated from her homeland, among millions of others. Though she lives in the frozen past, the reality of nationhood is largely stable in her case. As a fervent and militant nationalist, she worries about her old uncle dying in a country not his own, almost abandoned and alone in old age. She tells her son, “It doesn’t matter whether we recognise each other or not. We are the same flesh, the same blood, the same bone and now at last, after all these years, perhaps we’ll be able to make amends for all that bitterness and hatred” (129). It is clear that she cares for the ties of blood and nationhood, and is prepared to let go the bitter memories of family feuds. It is interesting to note that the terrorists fascinated her, and she wanted to act like them for her freedom. Her militant nationalism, possibly stemming from her years of serving as a nurse at war, can be seen.
The novel can be compared with Tagore’s The Home and the World (1916), since there are clear resonances and parallels between the protagonists of both texts. Ghosh’s Tridib is reminiscent of Sandip in his fiery nationalism with complete disregard for consequences. Both their enthusiasm tends to take on a violent and extremist route, seen in Tridib’s dying in the Dhaka riots and Sandip’s overcharged, rousing speeches. There are similarities between Ila and Tagore’s Bimala, who are both the prominent strong female characters in their respective novels. They both have trouble relating to their respective communities (Ila associates more with Western, particularly European culture, and Bimala has trouble making a place for herself in the outside world beyond the domestic sphere) but ultimately find their place and are comfortable. The narrator in Ghosh’s novel and Nikhil in Tagore’s both have a tendency to be slightly passive characters, in comparison with the others, and function outside of the societal norms. Nikhil, in taking a more modern approach, defies the patriarchy and and allows his wife a lot more freedom than the prevalent custom and thus becomes passive in his interaction with her, while she becomes more and more distant from him. Ghosh’s narrator inquires into the past, into events occurring before he was born, too, and therefore not being able to participate in them, like Nikhil becomes unable to participate in Tagore’s novel.
In the above illustrated ways, Ghosh is able to, in his novel The Shadow Lines, portray the notions of identity and nation. He questions and reveals as arbitrary physical borders; shows scenes of violence across the border on one hand and juxtaposes this image with feelings of oneness and unity on the other; and illustrates the idea of the nation as a whole. He captures perspective of time and events, of lines that bring people together and hold them apart, that are clearly visible from one perspective and nonexistent from another, that exist in the memory of one in another’s imagination, using a narrative built out of an intricate, constantly crisscrossing web of memories of many people.
Ghosh, A. The Shadow Lines, 1988.
Manto, S. H. Toba Tek Singh, 1955.
3. Hawley, J. C. Amitav Ghosh: An Introduction, 2005.
4. Malathi, R. Postmodernism in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, 2013.
5. Malathi, R. Nation as Identity in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, 2013.
6. Bharali, P. Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: Problematics of National Identity, 2012.
7. Das, S. Beyond the Frontiers: Quest for Identity in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, 2009.
8. Benedict, Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflecting on the origin and Spread of Nationalism, 1983.
9. Tagore, R. The Home and the World, 1916.