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ISSN: 0974-892X


January, 2018



Understanding and Transcending Borders in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines

Vinayak Yashraj, Research Scholar, Dept. of HSS, IIT Patna
Smriti Singh, Associate Professor (English), Dept. of HSS, IIT Patna


With ‘The Shadow Lines’, Amitav Ghosh has challenged one of the most dehumanised creations of human society, the concept of borders and the basis on which nations are created and nationalities are outlined. The narrative follows a non linear style with the story moving into flashbacks, moving forward, going to and fro and in and out of contexts, situations and episodes, indicating symbolically that borders have, in one sense, non linearity. Thus borders have been metaphorically represented by shadows in the title. The narrative traverses with the stories of the characters like Tridib, the Narrator and Thamma in particular and the plot is structured around the deeply impacting tragedies of war, riots, partition, displacement, killings in the backdrop of the formation of nations like Bangladesh, India and Pakistan and  the swadeshi movement on the one hand and the blow of the world war on England, on the other hand. Through "The Shadow Lines", Amitav Ghosh has sought to critically examine and question the concept of nation, which has also been criticised by the likes of Benedict Anderson in his path breaking concept in his book, "Imagined Communities” that he formulated to analyse Nationalism. Benedict Anderson posits that:

In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose...: it is an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

It is imagined because... yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion... 'Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.'...that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates 'invention' to 'fabrication' and 'falsity', rather than to imagining and creation. (49)

In this way Benedict Anderson has defined the artificiality of the premise or the basis of nation formation as also pointed out by Ernest Gellnar in his book Nations and Nationalism. As a by product of modernity, the concept of nation generalises the community and the fraternity with its sovereignty and imagined identity, and marginalises the essentialist distinctiveness of individuals based on their uniqueness. This underlying idea is manifest in this novel by Amitav Ghosh as well. The novel very starkly questions and attacks the perceptive notions of units like nation, borders and cross examine it in the background trauma and deepening scars that the characters of the storyline undergo in the aftermath of partition, war, riots, carnage and political rife. The concept of nation and border is laboriously explored both from the perspectives of political science and geography to etch out a narrative which denounces the futility of selfish establishment of such entities in the first place. Directly debating the notions of nation theory, Ghosh brings to fore the problems of identity as a human being is staunchly rooted to his/her nationality or homeland. The incongruities innate in the idea of nation are delved in complex dimensions in the novel. As the characters of the novel are unable to make any meaning of these intrinsic inconsistencies in relation to nations, the very of idea it becomes obscure and strikingly shadowy. This is the thematic message that Ghosh has been able to drive home that political contexts mostly dominate personal events thus making an upsetting and troublesome impact on people's lives. He questions nations which are formed on the generic basis of only religion and other political agendas by delving into the turn of events or history that people face, and seeks to illustrate how individual's subjective experience seem incongruous to the conception of nation state which claims to benefit them. The idea that communities can be fixated because of man's imaginary creations is a myth and for a thriving and flourishing nation or society, it is imperative for the masses to intermix, the boundaries to blur and the rigidity of aligning to only one single unit like nation or religion or language to break. The Shadow Lines are thus merely illusory and superficial in their entirety and nothing can divide people who find and form formidable cultural, emotional oneness and bonds. 

The different facets of how space, paradoxically represented in the novel through representation of  borders, places, cities, maps, atlas, game of houses and a variety of real houses depicted in various cities, from Colombo to the ones in Raibajar, to Brick Lane, Dhanamundi, Ballygunge etc are juxtaposed with other aspects like fluidity in the notions of identity, mirror images, awareness of and anonymity of characters, subjectivity versus the objectification of history, illusory and imagined dolls, the private and public account etc makes this an interesting read. All these interrelate with each other to create a sort of an enigmatic series of events, inviting the reader to interpret and evaluate on their own terms, the premise drawn by the Amitav Ghosh, in an attempt to humanise bonds traversed in time and space as it is reflected in the lines  by Meenakshi Mukherjee in her essay titled 'Maps and Mirrors: Coordinates of Meaning in The Shadow Lines. She states: " Just as cartography is the science of codifying space, history is the discipline of narrativizing time"(255). She feels that the author, Amitav Ghosh,  has very clearly merged memory with history, fiction with reality to symbolise that the supposed purposeful lines created by humans are nothing but shadows understood in the subjective perspective of individual who inhabit both sides of it constantly facing the devastating aftermath of their creation thus suggesting the meaninglessness of it.

She has earnestly exemplified what Ghosh has attempted to portray in the novel that has the concurrent presence of precision of maps and shared memory or mirror of a mirage where reader readjusts her clarity and perspective of both moments and places. Although people constantly keep examining the national accounts solidified in time, they keep referring to it along with the stories which they keep conjuring and perhaps there may not be semblance between the two. Thus understanding of borders gets shadowed by the personally slanted views of space as opposed to the orderly exactness of 'Bartholomew atlas.

Amitav Ghosh through the very title depicts the unjustified idea of border which he has depicted through shadow. This is clearly elucidated in his novel The Shadow Lines when the narrator says of Ila:

I could not persuade her that a place does not merely exist, that it has to be invented in one's imagination;... Tridib often said of her, the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places, she had never travelled at all. (21)           

Through the above lines the author is indicating that the inventions or the emergence of nations are through one's own imagination, creation and understanding and not through forced and falsified creation of mere imaginary shadows by few self serving people. Also one does not become a so called caged by the nation to such an extent that one is unable to relate to other places or nations with one's imagination and experience wholly and similarly, with mere physical movement or travelling to different parts of the world, one does not really achieve complete understanding of places. Here Tridib is laying great importance on imagination and memory in the experience and understanding of places and by doing so, he is liberating the individual and celebrating freedom and independence from everything which makes people slave to things which are imposed upon. He not only encourages the Narrator to create one's own perception about places but he also hints that by doing so one transcends borders, time, spaces in a non restricting way. The Narrator's detailed study of the Bartholomew's atlas helps him rise above borders to see how one can interpret maps and borders in context to what is perceived of them from the perspective of closeness and distances of spaces.

The narrator also while in conversation with Ila and Robi during a visit to a pub filled with high flying bankers and professionals, opens up to them with what was suggested to him by Tridib that one should be able to perceive the world not from the perspective of inventions of the people rather from one's own standpoint and viewpoint so as to be able to be liberated from the clutches of the other people's dictates.

In another instance, the Narrator is emphasizing on the absurdity of following the notions created by other and collective group to understand and interpret places and foreign cities, and emphasises on individual subjective perspective of places,  thus highlighting his key idea that borders which are formed to represent nationalistic ideas based on representing imagined fraternity do not hold much meaning in contrast to individual desires to interpret them.  This is also seen of the narrator when he is able to compose through his imaginations the nitty-gritty of London as a young school boy merely through his imagination so much so that when he visits the city later during his college time he is able to spot location instantly without much difficulty and with graphic accuracy. The narrator heightens this aspect of understanding places from one's own perspective so much so that he opines that the places needed to felt from the inner, pure desires of individual so that one is able to relate with by gone times or history or far away spaces or territory in such way that one is not able to dissect it from his own being or imagination. At this juncture it is important to bring to fore the reference from the article by Pabitra Bharali titled "Amitav Ghosh's "The Shadow Lines": Problematic of National Identity" where the writer states: "The Shadowiness of the border line puts a question mark to the geographic boundary line between countries / nations and thus its identity. Ghosh considers space/place as a non neutral, non objective" (45).

If the title is critically analysed, the futility of the shadowiness of the lines is established in a sense that they merely divide nations and in a sense, maybe not as well. In this context it is important to quote from the article by S Kokila, titled "Borders and Boundaries in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines". She writes: "Borders drawn out of some political interest affects the harmonious environment. This kind of division brings out nothing but wars, massacres, riots and unhappiness among the people" (1679). Further, author confronts the territorial boundaries and their existence and identity as for him borders can't be merely objective, rather they have a very emphatic subjective and personal meaning in context to individuals and their identities. The boundaries which are based on political hegemony and leanings problematise the idea of identity and homogeneity of nation. The unsound concept of borders is a mere delusion and it is fortified in the novel through the experiences and the sensibilities of the characters like Thamma and the Narrator himself.

The journey of Thamma's life starts from her nest and the idea of home back in Dhannamundi where she was living in this distinctive Dhaka house, its distinctiveness originating from the sporadic addition of sections to accommodate increasing members in the family and also from its mystical quality denoted by its inhabitants never in complete grasp of information regarding other inhabitants of the house.  This was the place where Thamma belonged to and associated the idea of Dhaka with, as her home city where she and her sister Mayadebi had spent their formative years in the psychological security. She lives in the past and yet, she is a firm believer in the modern idea of nation. In the undivided India, she deeply appreciates the  activities of  the freedom fighters and relates to them when she feels in the following manner in the  novel The Shadow Lines:
I would have been frightened, she said. But I would have prayed for strength, and God willing, yes, I would have killed him. It was for our freedom: I would have done anything to be free. (39)

She, in another incident is seen passionately giving up one of her most coveted possessions, a necklace, given to her by her husband during their early days of matrimony in Rangoon, for the nationalistic cause of the struggle for freedom. She very boastfully explains this to her grandson.

Later too, her traditional and stereotypical  idea of invention of nations and their glorification through war memorials is exemplified through her stand in the context of England. She elaborates on the idea of true nationalism by emphasizing that the core religion or the value on which nation is based is war itself and when nations go to war to protect their territorial integrity, they unify irrespective of  their religion and it does not matter whether a person is a Muslim or a Hindu or for that matter he is a Bengali or a Punjabi and a fraternity is formed of sorts and India has to be constructed in similar perspective. She upholds tragically that to free oneself from the colonial clutches one has to first form a community based on overcoming diversity with unified objectives and by resisting multiplicity.

It is interesting to mention from the article by R Malathi titled "Nation as Identity in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines" where she articulates: "The conceptualisation of terms like nation-making, nationalism, nationality and their bearing on identity seems to be in flux rather than fixed, they are processes rather than finished products" (302).  In this perspective it is significant to put forth the  staunch and narrow understanding of nationalistic fervour as it is turned around for Thamma interestingly,  as the plot jostles with time, history and fate of events in her life. After traumatising partition, she settles down in Calcutta, struggling for existence in  life independently as a widow and  post her displacement. It is seen that the she is unable to reconcile with the idea of what borders mean or the rationale behind the forced division. It is observed in this context that Thamma is, for instance, unable to relate with the so called imaginary lines created by the governments and her notions get a jerk as she shares while travelling from Calcutta to Dhaka on a rescue mission to evict her Jethamoshai still surviving in his abode of origin. While talking about this imaginary border shadowed by shallowness of its basis of conception, she remarks that she at least expects to see guns pointed at each other or a so called no man's land or some trenches where there is none. In a sense of lament or introspection she says to  Robi after moments of thought that if actually there are no trenches or demarcating elements then how do the population of both sides agree upon the status of border and agree to accept the physical divide. And if this is not the case then what was the foundation on which it was created primarily as her character points out in The Shadow Lines

But if there aren't any trenches or anything,... it'll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day without anybody stopping us. What was it all for then - partition and all the killings and everything - if there isn't something in between. (151)

            The novel also deliberates on the understanding that borders can't change situations much and to an extent, the cities of Dhaka and Calcutta are the mirror images of each other in the context, because despite assurance that borders have been created to serve the best interest of the people on both sides, there are  ongoing riots and their traumatic effect in both the cities. Thamma's  confusion gains more momentum as she finds the arbitrariness in the fact that actually the frontiers do not exist in some physically marked borders, rather at the airports where she will embark to Dhaka post the government formalities of filling up some forms and papers.

Thamma ponders as she realises that it is only her memory which can never be divided as it was her own, but this is a weak consolation in light of the loss that she has to suffer. This is denoted in her consistent insistence to find out where in Dhaka she is, when she lands in Bangladesh and is not able to relate to most of the new developments which is bereft of all the nostalgic memories that she has of Dhaka. Earlier going and coming home was much more easier for her from Rangoon to Dhaka or from Calcutta to Dhaka, then of what benefit or good does it hold to divide the nation for the sake of inventions of nations based on narrow political and economic gains of the government when the people have really not attained the freedom but ironically lost it to these same governments and their sense of space and identity. Ironically her 'going away 'from her home and also the undivided nation from Dhaka to Calcutta is much more happier than her 'coming home' post partition from Calcutta to Dhaka.  To state from the article by G Youveniya and Dr Sumathy K Swamy titled "Brotherhood Beyond Borders - 'A Reality' in  The Shadow Lines"  where the writers' mention: "The Dhaka or East Pakistan as it is called after partition is a new land. Though her favourite places remained the same she could no longer feel at home as the people who inhabited the place are starngers" (65).

The author also indicates through the two main characters of Tridib and the Narrator, in which the former is the alter ego of the later, that they have studied archaeology and history respectively thus symbolising memory and imagination and their pivotal role in interpreting space, place, time, relationships, nations. Further, a complete and clear detail of the name, appearance, physical attributes of Tridib and the absence or anonymity of the same regarding the Narrator again denotes the two divergent ways of representing characters. This aspect of the novel shows extremes of clarity and ambiguity to enable the readers to either look up to in clear terms with what Tridib embodies with his liberating and alternative ideologies or to be able to relate with the Narrator because he remains in bits and pieces and is rather like a collage of the other characters in the novel without achieving  exactness as he also keeps looking up to, like others, to Tridib.

The division of the novel into two halves of 'Going Away' and 'Coming  Home' by Amitav Ghosh asserts both the journeys could be engulfed with happiness and also full of despair depending on the reasons which propel them. Thus if the journey of individuals is ambitioned by choice for exploring the world, advancement of life, seeing cultures, for economic, financial livelihood objectives then the same could be fruitful but if the journeys are forced and sadly coupled with displacement, pressured by partition then it is marked by suffering and ordeals.

The common thread between the way the author has categorically chosen to represent the Narrator and the narrative technique, with the former with a certain sense of vagueness and ambiguity where one is never able to conceptualise him in appearance and attributes; and the later with constantly changing contexts, perspectives, time frames, spaces to establish the non linearity and a frequently changing frames of reference that it seems that the author believes that a lot should be left to the imagination of the reader and the audience to delve in to the story and take from it bits and pieces, the fiction and history weave their own lives into it and formulate specific individual interpretation thus freeing the reader from the clutches of imposing the author’s view point. This entire approach also establishes the importance given to individuality of perspectives. 

We see through the narrative of this novel that characters keep constantly crossing borders, some for the sake of identity, some for stability, some searching for homes, some looking for economic ambition in fast paced world that it seems that borders start to lose their meaning and evoke a sense that we might create borders to meet certain political needs but to meet certain other human needs, one needs to transcend them too sometimes symbolically through memories or imagination, sometimes by embarking from airports and, sometimes by accepting cultures and through many other multitudinous ways which questions as to why then in first place we needed to create borders when there is constant urge to transcend them.

The novel attempts to put forth that all efforts in the world are underlined with humanism and if in any way they get bereft of it, the consequences are prejudiced, devastating and myopic. That humanity sees beyond what is created and invented by selfish needs of humans and the utopian concerns of the author is taken forward by understanding that borders don't matter in context of creating bonds, relationships and forming and nourishing cultures. Home is bound by emotion and unbound by practicalities of the world. The unique diversities and the special commonalties of culture is beyond the control and basis of borders, it rather emerges from celebrating and nurturing them to create a fabric of life where the wharf and weft is symbolised by individual capacity to imagine and to create memories in an ever transcending nature.



Ghosh, Amitav. "The Shadow lines with critical essays by A N Kaul, Meenakshi Mukherjee and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan." Oxford University Press, 2015.

Anderson, Benedict. "Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism." Verso, 1993.

Gellner, Ernest. "Nations and Nationalism". Cornell University Press, 2006.

Kokila, S. "Borders and Boundaries in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow lines'' Life Science Journal. 2013, pp. 1679-1687.

Youveniya, Swamy. ''Brotherhood beyond borders - A reality in the Shadow Lines'' Journal of English Language and Literature (JOELL) vol. 3, issue 3, 2016, pp. 61-65.

Malathi, R. ''Nation as Identity in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines'', The Dawn Journal. vol. 2, no 1 Jan - June 2013, pp. 301- 308.

Bharali, Pabitra. ''Amitav Ghosh's "The Shadow Lines'': Problematics of National Identity'' Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. vol 2, issue 2, Sept-Oct 2012, pp. 44-46.