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ISSN: 0974-892X


July, 2016



A Study of Multiculturism in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines

Dr. Anju Bala Agrawal
Associate Professor and Head, Deptt. of English, R.C.A. Girls’ P.G.College, Mathura
Miss Nimra Lodhi
Lecturer Deptt. of English, R.C.A. Girls’ P.G.College, Mathura


Amitav Ghosh is not only a great scholar but also a person who strives hard to contribute something substantial to Indian fiction. His writings reveal his in-depth knowledge about colonialism and especially about multiculturalism, which serve as an eye-opener to all the academicians, who wish to explore different areas in their quest for excellence. His The Shadow Lines will be remembered for its imperishable stamp of multiculturalism. To quote:

His description bring a lost world to life, from the evocatively imagined opium factory, the intricacies of women’s costumes and the lovingly enumerated fare on the opulent dining tables of the era, to the richly detailed descriptions of the Ibis and its journey.(Tharoor, Shashi,202)

A major aspect of post colonialism is the rather violent like unbuffered contact or clash of cultures as an inevitable result of former colonial times, the relationship of the colonial power to the (formerly) colonized country, its population and culture and vice versa seems extremely ambiguous and contradictory. The post-colonial reading offers us the element of ‘Multi-culturism’ that is very good to go with the postcolonial situations. The time period, after the death of colonialism was the transitional period of cultures. After the dark clouds of colonialism, a bright rainbow of cultures comes up in the postcolonial sky. It is a multi-colour culture having the colour of both-the colonizer and the colonized. Multiculturalism is the cultural diversity of communities and the policies that promote this diversity. “The legacy of postcolonial angst today appears to have settled into a potentially numbing acceptance of bi- or multi-cultural euphoria.”(Bose, Brinda,15) Amitav Ghosh can be called a master writer of multiculturism as almost all of his novels give a picture of mixed peoples, cultures and traditions.

Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines opens up space for a multicultural world and gives water to the plant of hybridity. It illustrates how diasporic displacement is not merely a loss, but a source of creativity as well, through the regeneration of a new polyglot and cosmopolitan culture that takes place as a result of it. The unnamed narrator of The Shadow Lines comes in contact with different, often contradictory versions of cultural identity through the main characters in the novel-his grandmother, Tha’mma, his cousin, Ila and his uncles Tridib and Robi. Growing up in an upwardly mobile middle class professional family in Calcutta, the narrator acquires the sensibility of a metropolitan, bi-lingual, English speaking, postcolonial subject; his interaction with his cousin and uncles whose fathers are globe-trotting diplomats, and his own stint in London for research work make his attitude and approach to issues of nation and culture more cosmopolitan. One of the most powerful influences in his life as a child is his grandmother a fiercely independent, militantly nationalist woman. Tha’mma is an embodiment of the cultural identity constructed by the dominant state ideology, which in turn is propped up by the accepted national historiography. Her austerity and rigid work ethic form an essential part of her idea of the modernity and progress of the country.

The Shadow Lines sets to uncover a plenty of culture or mingling of cultures. Here, we have Western attitude with Indian manners, Bengali culture in two forms- one takes place in Dhaka and another in Calcutta. Against a violent scenario and in the context of cross culture interactions, the author seems to express his own views through Tridib. He considers the world as a ‘global village’ of men and women where they should be trying to reach towards one another, irrespective of their culture and race. Like Fielding in Forester’s A Passage to India, Tridib believes that it can best be done with goodwill and understanding. He does not revel in the ethnicity of India; instead, he invents the West for himself and for the boys from Calcutta streets through his imagination, and his childhood experience of staying with the Prices in London. But later in the novel, when Tridib wrestles initiative from May to save the old uncle of grandmother in the riot-torn Dhaka, he unintentionally proves that his culture in not in any way less idealistic that the English culture. It will be a sad mistake to assume that the Western culture can displace thousands of years of our Indian civilization, as it gets embodied, say, in a moment of greatness that Tridib clinched. Again it is he who opened the world to the wondering eyes of the narrator and taught him to invent places through active imagination, reflecting the prophetic streak in him. His vision transcends the limitation of time and space, as he expects us to reach forth towards the other’ – be it an aspect of physical reality or a human being. But on yet another plane, Ghosh presents a limited vision in terms of higher middle class people, who work in foreign missions and agencies and have contacts abroad. Some of these characters may seem to feel concerned for Indians. For instance, when Mayadebi’s husband talks to the narrator’s mother about the shortage of kerosene and the high price of fish in Calcutta, but then, it is only a part of his polite posturing. It creates the impression as if he is really interested in people’s welfare. Unlike R.K. Narayan, the author’s vision is not rooted in ethnic India. The novel is more a study of cross-cultural relationship between India and England than anything else.

Amitav Ghosh in The Shadow Lines seems to conform the notion of cross-cultural relationship as his protagonist Tridib, an Indian, falls in love with May; and Ila, an Indian, marries Nick Price, an English man. The unnamed narrator is also friendly with May. The interaction among these characters reveals the aspirations and cultural mingling of the colonized people when they try to carve out their place in the world. The action of the novel revolves round these characters who, really belong to the two worlds. In their case the barriers seem to be breaking though there are problems also. For instance, Mrs. Price is very cordial towards Mayadebi’s husband. She addresses him as the Shaheb. She welcomes the young narrator and Ila to her home, treating them as equal. And her children May and Nick, associate with Indians, apparently without any self-conscious effort. Yet, this interface does not really bring happiness to most of them.

The anglicized gaze of the educated Indians like Ila, Tridib and the narrator points to the fact that independent India is culturally colonized still. Postcolonial trend finds a clear expression in Tridib’s and Ila’s longing for the West. Even the young boys from Calcutta streets flock to Tridib to know more about the West. On one such occasion, he tells the boys at the street corner that he had been to London to meet his English relatives by marriage. As the boys were listening to him spellbound, the narrator shouts that Tridib was in Calcutta itself and that day he had met him the other day in his room. SimIlarly, Ila tells the narrator about her sexual exploit in London to impress upon him that the West offers her a lot of freedom. Later she laughs and tells him that she is as chaste as any other Indian girl of her age. Now it is foolish on her part to copy the western manners and mannerisms and wear foreign dresses and dance to the sound of pop music, in the fond hope that it will guarantee her social recognition and acceptability in the English society.

The native’s desire to own the colonizer’s world is often accompanied by disowning the colonized world. To disown India, Ila shocks her people, particularly the grandmother by her western dresses and subsequently, she shocks Robi and the narrator by her uninhibited behavior in a hotel in Calcutta, where she wanted to dance with a stranger. Indian culture comes with flying colour through the idea of Robi who was not ready to allow Ila to behave in a Western manner:

You shouldn’t have done what you did. You ought to know that; girls don’t behave like that here. (Ghosh, Amitav, 88) To answer Ila’s Western arrogance, he reminds her that she stands in India where girls have certain boundaries which should not be crossed in anyway. You can do what you like in England, he said. But here there are certain things you cannot do. That’s our culture; that’s how we live. (88)

In this one to one conversation between Robi and Ila, Ila represents the English culture. She behaves as an English girl who is not ready to act under the command of others. On Robi’s restriction, she cries out: “Do you see now why I’ve chosen to live in London? Do you see? It’s only because I want to be free.”(88)   

In postcolonial societies even the colonizer’s attitude undergoes a change. They try to understand the colonized culture and take care not to offend those who subscribe to that culture. To illustrate this, we may cite the following incident when May Price comes to Calcutta, she greets Tridib on the railway platform by hugging and kissing him, but she soon realises her mistake, as people around them jeer at them by chanting ‘once more’. It is good that she realizes the importance of the ‘other’. But when she denounces Queen Victoria’s statue exclaiming: “It shouldn’t be here (. . .) it is an act of violence. It is obscene; she seems to be expressing her sound conviction, when Tridib says, “This is our ruin and this is where we meet.”(170) He means that the ‘ruin’ associated with Raj, will serve as their meeting place to promote love and understanding between them. When May was in Delhi, India frightened her. She did not understand it a bit and she reminded herself that she came to India out of curiosity, to know what lay beyond West Hampstead and not exclusively to meet Tridib. Subsequently, she realized that she was in love with him. But, despite, her good intentions and best efforts, she is unable to understand the colonial psyche and brings disaster on Tridib, unwittingly.

The narrator’s visit to England twenty years later shows that that the English have changed. They try to please Indians by treating them as equals, even partying with them; still, the two cultures cannot really meet. Probably multicultural and cross-border friendships are desirable, but we find that Ila’s international contacts with the friends from her international school, particularly, with the adulterous Nick, cause humiliation and pain only.

The representation of the colonizer and the colonized in the post-colonial literature can be seen as explication of Hegal’s master slave relationship. In Hegal’s paradigm, the slave must turn away from the master to forge the meaning of his existence in labour. In The shadow Lines, the narrator returns to India after interacting with the West and understanding it better. Fanon believed that decolonization was a significant period in the history of any nation, which was a part of the European empire. When the colonized people could not accept foreign values any longer, they started mocking their values, which had enabled the West to stay in power so long. The grandmother’s anxiety in The Shadow Lines to protect her grandson from Ila’s corrupting Western influence is a case in point. She thinks that Ila is misguided and that she loves the West for wrong reasons she loves West because of freedom to do whatever she likes. She calls her whore. The grandmother admires the West for its spirit of nationalism, sacrifice and courage, which the younger generation fails to understand. The grandmother when she is critical of the Western culture, echoes the voice of the 60’s and early 70’s, which is marked by anti-colonial sentiments, associated with international black consciousness. She wants India to achieve a cultural nationalism which would at once speak for and forge a national identity. To give a practical shape to her ideas, as the head mistress of her school, she initiates her students to cook food of different states of India so that they become aware of the diversity and unity of Indian culture. The grandmother wanted that Indians eschewed their perverse and self- defeating longing for the European culture.

And yet, there was a contrasting trend. What for the English could be a course of pride and a confirmation of their great civilization became for the colonized a kind of yardstick to which they must conform. For instance, when May forces Tridib to help her in putting an end to the pain of a seriously injured dog by killing it, or when she goads Tridib to save the old uncle of Tha’mma in the charged atmosphere of the riots, she tries to display the superiority of Western values. And she expects that Tridib would emulate her. But while trying to emulate her, he gets killed or shall we say, he embraced death on his own. It was a sacrifice. The fact is that the two cultures cannot meet, they remain apart. This post-colonial desire to assess one’s own culture by the standards of the Western culture is evident in the young narrator’s effort to size himself up in relation to Nick Price in the ‘mirror’.

The decolonized people, with all their complexities and traumas caused by the protracted colonial ruler can never meet the colonizer on equal terms. The colonized people try to associate with the erstwhile colonizer to boost their own ego and try to embrace their world, which seems to them not only glamourous but places them above the common natives. Basically, it is a desire to run away from a society, which is striving to define its own identity. The writer shows the futility of such efforts when Ila marries Nick Price, not for the express love of him but for the license it will give her to live in London. Ila is a perfect example of those colonized people who adopt the colonizer culture just to prove themselves superior or better than their own countrymen. Ila follows the western culture blindly and regards Indian culture nothing but a bondage. Her wedding-lock with Nick is just to certify herself an English girl. Their union is stillborn, though she refuses to admit it even to herself. Similarly, Tridib’s desire to love and marry May Price leads him to his untimely death. 

The entire storyline juxtaposes the lives of two different families or their culture, one an Indian family and the other, an English family. This sort of story structure questions the boundaries between the people and the geographical setting that they inhabit. The story that shifts from London to Calcutta to Dhaka is told through the point of view of a contemporary Indian male, although the real luminaries of the plot are the young man’s grandmother and his cousin, Tridib. The stories interweave life in Dhaka before Partition, life in London during the war and the life the narrator leads in Calcutta during the 1960s and his life in London of the 1970s. Through this novel, readers come to know about many cultures at one place. Thamma is the representative of Dhaka culture, Ila hoists the flag of Western culture and our anonymous narrator is a true Indian. The narrator recounts in flashback the people and places, Tridib had described to him twenty years before and the heady life of modern London that signified the centre of the universe.

The Shadow Lines spans three generations of the narrator’s family spread over Calcutta, Dhaka and London and his English family friends, the Prices. These three generations represent three different shades of culture. The events revolve around Mayadebi’s family, their friendship and sojourn with the English friends and Tha’mma, the narrator’s grandmother’s link with Dhaka, her ancestral city. The novel takes us into mnemonic fund of a young narrator who as a wide eyed adolescent, hero worshipped his uncle, Tridib, who fed him on the memories of his own visit to London during the war and Tha’mma, his grandmother who shared with him her nostalgia of East Bengal where she was born and spent her childhood. And then there is Ila, the daughter of Tridib’s elder brother, who travels all over the world with her diplomat globe-trotting parents and occasionally comes home to tell the wonderstruck boy the account of her peregrinations abroad. While the narrator’s experience is travelling in the mind through imagination, Ila’s experience of travelling is based on the actual travelling in person through reality. The narrator acknowledges that he has created his own secret map of the world. The narrator says that their memories form “a part of my secret map of the world, a map of which only I know the keys and co-ordinates, but which was not for that reason any more imaginary than the code of a safe to a banker.(196)

The Shadow Lines shows two types of post-colonial understanding. One is that of higher social elites like Mayadebi and the Shaheb, and second is that of characters like Ila who still live in close contact with the West. They do not have roots in the home country and want to be a part of the colonizer’s world. Such characters have no desire even to think of the colonized world, they are happy imitating the West. Ila’s mother, for instance, sits like Queen Victoria. The grandmother, on the other hand shows the other side of post-colonial understanding. She is enlightened and self-sufficient and ardently proud of being an Indian. She wants India to forge her own identity. Though she admires the nationalism and patriotism of the English, she feels it is time for Indian to act and achieve their own identity and not waste time in copying the West.

The post-colonial writer is using the colonizer’s ways-his language and culture. Despite his protest to the contrary, he knows that he can attract attention by clinging on to the colonial master’s culture and bearings and it is reflected in his writings. Is he not posturing when he claims that he is the voice of the voiceless natives? Is his whole endeavour not just a burning desire to impress his erstwhile colonial masters and be counted among the genius spokesmen of the world culture? It is for this purpose that he combines the earthy nativity of the colonized and the high avant-grade savouries of the metropolitan cultural market place. Kwame Anthony Appiah says that such post-colonial writers “meditate the trade of cultural commodities of the world capitalism at the periphery.”(Appiah, Kwame Anthony) Had he been writing in the colonized state, speaking of the colonized mind, he would not have just made his work look ‘chic’. As for his complaints and protestations of the West, they are basically hollow because he knows that his value lies in not being embroiled in the rustic idiocies of tribalism, engendered by the shackled psyche of the colonized. Most of the time the post-colonial writer does not value life as it is actually lived; it has value for him only when it gets entangled and disentangled in relation to the West. He seems to write with a squinted eye, which is consciously or unconsciously, aware of the hidden eye of the West. Ila occupies a central position in the novel in relation to the narrator’s exploration of the self-identity. The narrator’s unreturned desire for her is located in her exotic Western clothes, appearance and behavior. Through the fantasies of being accepted and popular in the Western milieu that IIa constructs for the narrator as a child and an adult, the novel focuses on her anxieties about being rejected by the Western culture that she strives to embrace while at the same time consciously repudiating her Indian background.

As the only young Indian woman in the novel, Ila bears the burden of representing a post-colonial female perspective. Although she leads an independent life in London, out of reach of the conservative, restrictive, patriarchal society of Calcutta, and makes her own rules, she is inextricably trapped between the two cultures in rejecting one and being rejected by the other in turn. Her marriage to Nick Price, rather than finally incorporating her into the dominant Western culture, only serves to perpetuate her marginalization. When the narrator, commenting on Nick’s sleeping with other women after his marriage to Ila, tells her that her sins have finally come home to roost, she replies, “I never did any of those things: I’m about as chaste, in my own way, as any woman you’ll even meet.”.(190) Ila is the only cosmopolitan woman in the novel, and her cosmopolitanism is constructed as suspect because of its not being rooted in any one culture. Unlike the inherent Indianness of Robi, or the Englishness of Nick, both of them share Ila’s globe-trotting background. Ila, then reveals herself as having shaped her values on the conservative. Indian norm even as she outwardly struggled against them. She maintained her ‘chastity’ in spite of trying to be free of (the) ‘”bloody (Indian) culture” and rebelling against the suppression of female sexuality by Indian hegemonic patriarchy. Ila gives in to pressure brought to bear upon her as an Indian woman in bearing the weight of sexual definition through the insistence on chastity, one that the narrator and Robi, who visit prostitutes in their college days, do not have to negotiate. The last time we see Ila in the novel, she too, like Tha’mma screaming in a high pitched voice that everything is fine with her marriage and banging the phone down on the narrator.

Just as Ila is imprisoned rather than liberated by her attempt to inhabit two opposing cultures simultaneously, May is the victim of her unflinching humanitarianism in its confrontation with socio-political manifestation beyond her comprehension. Talking to the narrator about the events of the day Tridib was killed, May recounts how she jumped out of the safety of the car and into the midst of the mob in an attempt to save Jethamoshai and the Muslim rickshaw driver who had been looking after him for years. She recalls:

Your grandmother screamed at me. She said I didn’t know what I was doing, and I’d get everyone killed. I didn’t listen: I was a heroine. I wasn’t going to listen to a stupid, cowardly old woman. But she knew what was going to happen. Everyone there did, except me.(250)

Thus, The Shadow Lines gives Amitav Ghosh the opportunity to give a lyrical expression to his diasporic imagination. He is interested in history, sociology and anthropology that take the Indian diaspora in embrace. He has given an apt and realistic picture of combination of various cultures in India. The novel presents people’s love for several cultures at the same time. As Brinda Bose observes:

In Ghosh's fiction, the diasporic entity continuously negotiates between two lands, separated by time and space - history and geography and attempts to redefine the present through a nuanced understanding of the past. As the narrator in The Shadow Lines embarks upon a journey of discovery of roots and reasons, the more of the one he unearths "leaves him with less of the other.(Bose, Brinda,19)

Works Cited
Bose, Brinda, Amitav Ghosh: Critical Perspectives, Pencraft Books, Delhi 2003.
Ghosh, Amitav The Shadow Lines, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, London:Methuen,1992.
Shashi Tharoor, “Review: Soldiers and Victims of the Opium War”, The Washington Post, Sunday, October 19, 2008, 10.