38 pages • 1 hour read
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The Shadow Lines is a novel by Indian author Amitav Ghosh. Upon its publication in 1988, the book was praised for its ingenious structure and challenging style. Most novels tell a story. The Shadow Lines does not pretend to have a concrete plot. Rather, it is a series of stream-of-consciousness memories delivered to the reader by an unnamed character known as the Narrator. Jumping back and forth between 1939 and the mid-1970s, the Narrator reminisces about various family members and friends, and how their lives intersected with a series of fatal riots in Calcutta and Pakistan in 1963 and 1964.
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The novel has no chapters or scenes, but is structured in two parts: “Going Away” and “Coming Home.” “Coming Home” begins as the Narrator relates the story of several of his family members and how they came to live in Calcutta. The Narrator makes it clear that he is writing about the past from some undetermined point in the 1970s as he works on a Doctoral degree in London. Oddly, his mother and father are scarcely mentioned in the novel. Part 1, “Going Away,” focuses primarily on his relationship with his grandmother Tha’mma, his tutelage under the care of an intellectual named Tridib, and the daughter of an Indian diplomat, Ila.
Tha’mma is a force of nature who insists that all in the family adhere to the old Indian traditions. She is appalled to learn that the Narrator occasionally visits prostitutes and takes measures to have him expelled from college by notifying the Dean of his activities. The Dean lets him stay, but Tha’mma is relentless in her condemnation of the Narrator’s increasingly liberated ideas, and of the company he keeps. Ila, who has moved to London, receives particular scorn for her short hair and her propensity for wearing blue jeans.
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The Narrator bounces back and forth between past and present, hinting at disasters to come while not revealing their nature. As a child, and then as a young man, he falls in love with Ila. But when he reveals his feelings, she rejects him and leaves. He vacillates between their conversation in the past and at several different periods in the future, but at no point is it implied that they will be a couple. After studying for years in London, the Narrator returns home and Part 2, “Coming Home,” begins.
In Part 2, the Narrator focuses primarily on the political turmoil that will eventually engulf India and Pakistan in riots, and on the efforts of his grandmother to bring her uncle back to India from his home in the city of Dhaka. It is also revealed that Ila has entered into an unhappy marriage with Nick Price. As Ila flirts with bohemian idealism, Tridib falls deeper into melancholy as he pursues his own studies. There are hints that he has fallen in love with May Price, Nick’s sister. But again, there is no sense that this will have a happy ending for either of them.
At the novel’s climax, the Narrator learns that Tridib’s death—mentioned but never explained—was not an accident. He was killed in a riot that overtook the town of Dhaka on the trip when Tha’mma went to retrieve her uncle. At this point, the Narrator must question the quality and truth of his own memories and those of everyone else. As he has written his chronicle, he has always been reliant on the stories of others. But stories from others are reliant on their own memories, which may be as fallible as his. As the novel ends, he is in bed with May Price, who has begun to act as a mother figure—and possibly a lover—to him. It is unclear whether he will view his future with optimism because what is real to him today will soon become an untrustworthy memory.
The Shadow Lines received great acclaim, despite its challenging style. It is not a book that can be read quickly or haphazardly, given the Narrator’s tendency to switch cities, years, and sometimes even decades, all in the same paragraph. But read carefully, the novel is an ingenious, occasionally frustrating nesting structure—much like memory itself.
By Amitav Ghosh