Skip to content

Book Review : The Shadow Lines

The Shadow Lines

Amitav Ghosh


Lionel Tresawsen didn’t know of the intricate web he was weaving when he became good friends with a Bengali judge of the Calcutta High Court during India’s colonial days. It was a friendship that was passed on to the next generation which is how the Datta Chaudharis stayed with his daughter, Mrs. Price, as lodgers at 44 Lymington Road, London. As a result Tridib, their son, remembered the  bombing of London so well and also May, Mrs. Price’s daughter, whom he was to see again when she visited his family in Calcutta and Dhaka. In part it is why Ela Datta-Chaudhari became what she became, a brown- complexioned Indian girl in an English dress, idolizing blond- haired Nick Price who runs away rather than defend her from the racist taunt of a schoolmate.

As the story unfolds it brings to mind what the Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti once said; the present is nothing but the past and the future nothing but the present because in each is the making of the other. Like a shadowy thread this runs true as Ghosh tells us that we are what we have become and there is no running away from the past as it is inextricably woven into the present. In a way it is what many Indo-Anglian writers are reiterating. As a nation or as individuals the Indian cannot reject his colonial past even as he tries to regenerate the spirit that went before it for each condition is an outcome of the other. Or else why do so many Indians think in English and seek self—expression in what is now supposedly a foreign language but which in actuality is so interwoven into what they have inherited that it is as much theirs as that of any Englishman’s.

Ghosh seeks to resolve the pull of conflicting loyalties and cultures by letting each of his characters affect a different set of values and attitudes which can in reality reflect the composite complexes of just one person. By doing this he doesn’t try to provide an answer to that conflict, but tries to rationalize the Indian dilemma in the manner of at least putting it all down on board leaving one to take what makes most sense.

Each of his characters represents a portion of our inheritance–There is the semi-autobiographical hero growing up in that desperately wonderful, intellectual, anarchical city of Calcutta where everyone leads and no one follows feeling the tugs of his Indo-Anglian heritage. Into his orderly, virtuous boring middle class world comes his cousin Tridib to open a few windows and set his imagination free. His widowed grandmother, convinced and self-righteous, has seen the family pass the span from bungalow to tenement to bungalow but is largely untouched by the colonial past even though she loses her childhood home in Dhaka as a result of Partition. But Ela his much-travelled sophisticated cousin who has seen it all while he yearns for just a glimpse. It is Ela who rejects the country of her birth in her desire to be free. And the success story of the family, diplomat – uncle of aristocratic lineage, Shaheb Datta Chaudhari who seems more English than the English is told sardonically—“ You don’t look much of an Indian to me. Killed any Englishmen yet”.  It is against the likes of him that the writer levels subtle disdain.

Throughout Ghosh seems to ask, does Ela become free of her Indianness by living in England ? Is the Shaheb any less Indian for sporting a tweed jacket and tie for isn’t that too a part of the India he inherited. And if he isn’t Indian, he’s not English is he? So what would his kind qualify as; the derogatory term- a wog, a brown saheb, surely not. Ghosh’s  novel isn’t as trite as that. Yet he seems to indirectly agree when he holds the greatest respect for the Grandmother who vehemently spits out against Ela for becoming in her words- a whore for fancied freedom.

The answers seem to come nearer towards the end. It is after his stay in London, a veritable Valhalla to him before he arrived, that he realises there too, the double weave runs strong. That more and more there are people who don’t belong to any one place: really and it is here where he arrives at the focal point of his questioning. He finally knows there cannot be one satisfactory answer because of the Shadow Lines that run through the lives of nations and as such its peoples. This is what makes his writing particularly fine for it is these nuances that haunt a generation of people because the histories of their countries have criss-crossed in the past making hazy the newly defined frontiers of today.