Continued from "The Circle of Reason"
All criticism is personal or at least that is what I feel. Right from choice of an author, or a book, how it works on one's mind, how one takes it, adjusts and balances its impressions on one's mind and finally how one comments on it-it is all terribly personal. ‘The Shadow Lines’ has been no ordinary experience for me. It brings a ticklish, sad, sweet sensation with it. It is difficult to comment on this book just because it is so good. Many papers have been written on it. It has received the Sahitya Academy Award way back in 1989. But I am not going to talk about the rich technical structure of this book, or mixing of past, present and future in this book. What I am going to do is much simpler but at the same time very difficult. I will try to answer one question in the coming pages-why does the book affect the reader so much? I wish to say all the things that I like in this novel. By the way, I have not disliked anything in it.
To begin with, let us talk about the sweet, sad sensation that the book arouses. You just cannot keep back your smile as you go through the pages. The book is written on an emotional plane, underlining and explaining the small, universal truths of life. Fascinatingly true depiction of the mental condition of children is so remarkable. The author, it seems, has relived his childhood in this book. At the psychological plane, the book roots personality and identity in childhood. The narrator stands out as an adult rooted in his childhood experiences. Whenever he experiences life, his reaction to it stems out of his childhood impressions. How does he take cities like London, Calcutta or Dhaka or people like his cousin Ila, or acquaintances like May or Nick -everything springs from his childhood perceptions. It seems so natural. It seems the only honest way of taking life and its experiences. So, if I may take the conventional critical term, childhood is a major theme of this book. The treatment of the subject is simply overwhelming. Tridib is the narrator’s older cousin. His impact on the narrator's life is immense. Tridib and the narrator-child have a special bond. They have in a way, conspired to look at the world with their own eyes or rather Tridib's eccentric, rational, detached eyes. When Tridib tells the narrator about his childhood at London, the child-narrator tries to imagine Tridib as a small child. He tries hard but cannot imagine Tridib as a small boy and finally 'I had decided he had looked like me' (3). So while listening stories of London, Cairo, and other exotic places, the narrator travels, identifying himself completely with the bigger, (almost perfect to his child's eyes) role model. The narrator's identification with his hero i.e., Tridib is so intense that when asked for a response, the narrator says 'I was nervous now: I could see that he (Tridib) was waiting to hear what I'd have to say and I didn't want to disappoint him' (28). Thus, begins his training at looking at things by Tridib's standards. It is not that Tridib is trying to bulldoze his presence on the narrator. In the area where the narrator lives, Gariahat and Gole Park in Calcutta, Tridib is very well known on the streets. All pan shop owners, sweet shop owners, boys on the street know Tridib because the place is his favourite 'adda' or 'haunt’, we may say in English. The narrator is enveloped in the protective presence of Tridib, 'I was grateful for the small privileges his presence secured for me on those streets: For the odd sweet given to me by a shopkeeper of his acquaintance; For being rescued from a fight in the park by some young fellow who knew him' (8). The narrator has a pure child-like love for Tridib. As a child he bursts with pride at Tridib's show of intellect and superior knowledge on those roadside haunts. The narrator's sense of pride expands when Tridib treats him like an equal, like an adult and shares secrets with him. He fiercely defends Tridib when people ridicule him on his back for all his made-up or real wonder stories. The child in the narrator is so dominant that when years later May, Tridib's beloved, spots him in London in the crowd after her performance in an orchestra, ‘suddenly she smiled, rose on tiptoe, pulled my head down and kissed me on my cheeks' (15). He is an adult here, treated as a child.
Great fiction, I have noticed, always patterns itself on psychological truths. Sometimes I wonder whether these great novelists really smuggle the psychological precepts directly from texts of psychology. For example, castration fear in male children is a major childhood theme in psychoanalytical literature. Tridib encashes this while telling a story to the narrator and his younger brother Robi, 'He (Tridib) had smiled and gone on to tell us in ghastly detail about the circumcision rites of one of the desert tribes. And then, spectacles glinting, he had said: So before you leave you'd better decide whether you would care to have all that done to your little wee-wees, just in case you're captured' (19). Another psychological truth that Ghosh successfully demonstrates is accumulation of complexes in childhood and growing years. Rich and influential relatives in the form of Mayadebi, Shaheb and Ila come to middle class household of the narrator. To add to it, they come from different parts of the world with strange tales. The complex is so deep rooted in the narrator that he cannot think of these big relatives as blood relation. He says, 'I would not bring myself to believe that their worth in my eyes could be reduced to something so arbitrary and unimportant as a blood relationship' (3). This can be taken as clue to the narrator's unsuccessful relationship with Ila. He reduces himself so much in his own eyes that Ila never actually notices him except of course, after she has permanently damaged herself by marrying Nick. The narrator loves Ila but he cannot say so. He is in awe of her. The inequality of their needs arises out of his sense of small worth. She introduces him to Nick as a child and immediately he heaps it on himself as another feather in his complexive cap. It is almost painful to see him as a child falling a prey to inferiority complex. Ila says, 'He's very big. Much bigger than you: much stronger too. He's twelve, three years older than us' (49). After these words of Ila, life never remains the same for the narrator, 'after that day Nick Price, whom I had never seen [...] became a spectral presence beside me in my looking glass; growing with me, but always bigger and better, and in some way more desirable-I did not know what, except that it was so in Ila's eyes and therefore true' (50).
The narrator's fascination for Ila is well known to everyone in the family. As a child he gulps humiliation when his mother exposes his obsession with Ila's expected visit to India. The child is exposed as being vulnerable before Ila's charms. Ila comes to know early in life that the narrator needs her, not she him. It is an unequal relationship, right from the beginning and the origin very much lies in the narrator's middle class background.
It is not that these descriptions of childhood are fraught with pain only. In fact, some pain is part of every stage of life. Ila's pain is that Nick ignores her. No one's situation is perfect and that is life. Some pages beautifully fill us with childhood joys, 'I pushed her (Ila), urging her on, my belly churning with a breathless hide and seek excitement' (46).
Another subtle aspect of childhood is specific world of the girl child. It is lovely. Girls and their eternal longing for beauty and home are delicately picturized. Girls equate beauty with desirability and acceptance. Ila tells her own sad experience at school in London where Nick does not come to help her. She narrates it through her doll's name, Magda. Ila and the narrator are playing house-house and Magda is their child. Magda, their little kid, has gone to school and everyone is struck by Magda's beauty. We may easily read Ila in place of Magda because it is her own failure to get Nick's attention that she is actually narrating, 'You couldn't blame them for staring: they'd never seen anyone as beautiful as Magda.' And her very next sentence links beauty in a girl to her popularity and likeability, 'And they liked her too: they all wanted to be friends with her-girls, boys, and teachers, all of them' (73). It is the eternal feminine datum that beauty gets you everything, just everything. This game also tells about the urge of children to grow up, be adults, play Mamma and Papa and for once be in the controlling, guiding position.
When we see the world through the eyes of the narrator child, we come to realize their worries as well. Nothing frightens kids more than anxiety and agitation in adults; adults are expected to hold their world together. When May is expected at Railway station, Tridib gets nervous. 'Tridib was less sanguine now; he was beginning to bite his fingernails. I (narrator-child) was close to tears' (104).
Another rare peep into child-psychology comes when the child-narrator gets to know that Tridib had died. Tridib was very close to him, his friend, philosopher and guide. His influence on the narrator as a child was absolutely absolute. Yet when he listens of his death, 'I felt nothing-no shock, no grief. I did not understand that I would never see him again; my mind was not large enough to accommodate so complete an absence' (239). In our lives also, when children for the first time ask, 'what is dying' or 'why Dadaji or Naniji is lying like that' or 'why are you crying,' we do not know what to say. We do not realize that children do not know what is meant by death.
The mention of Tridib's death brings us to him. Tridib is such a unique character that again it is difficult to limit him with adjectives. He is a good student. He is eccentric. He is tricky. He is a loafer. He is sincere. He is all these and much more. But above everything else he is the man who gave the narrator the keen ability to perceive things, to go for minute and relevant details, to build his own world, to see places and not just visit them, to 'know' people and not just meet them. Tridib has a special kind of presence. Positively or negatively, he has the capacity to affect people. The narrator's grandmother, Tha'mma is almost scared of Tridib's influencing quality, '[...] my grandmother would not let him stay long. She believed him to be capable of exerting his influence at a distance, like a baneful planet' (5). At another point, the narrator declares, 'But even as a child I could tell she didn't pity him at all-she feared him.' He has something for everyone-tips for examinations to students, or tips on how to face an interview to a shaken candidate and things like that. He also misuses his power. Once he tells a young man to go to interview dressed in a dhoti because the firm had been taken over by an orthodox 'marvari.' When, the boy does so, he is not allowed within the firm's premises! And yet Tridib is always above the mundane, the common and the ordinary. As the narrator realizes he comes to these roadside haunts just to distract himself after exhaustive studies. Tridib's currency is his unpredictability. No one knows where she/he stands with him. He is a bundle of contradictions. In any case Tha'mma's plans to keep the narrator out of Tridib's orbit fail. The narrator drops at Tridib’s home on and off escaping school or tuition. Tridib tells him all the stories, his stay in England and the experiences in installments. The narrator receives every bit of Tridib's influence happily. He literally shapes the narrator's vision. The whole process of training the narrator is deliberate on Tridib's part and spontaneous on the narrator's part, '[...] among other things Tridib was an archaeologist, he was not interested in fairy lands: the one thing he wanted to teach me, he used to say, was to use my imagination with precision' (24). His impact is so substantial that when the narrator visits England he feels captive to Tridib's perceptions.
Tridib's relationship with May is essentially tragic. They are attracted to each other. He writes a highly provocative letter to her. But May is hooked by this man who could write a pornographic letter to her. She comes to India and finds that Tridib is not a monster after all. She finds him lovable. When she first spots him at the railway station, 'He looked awkward' , absurdly young, and somehow very reassuring. Also a little funny, because those glasses of his hugely magnified his eyes and he kept blinking in an anxious embarrassed kind of way. She hadn't been able to help throwing her arms around him; it was just pure relief. She knew at last why she had come and she was glad. It had nothing to do with curiosity' (167). She had come for her love, Tridib.
But May is a girl with an extra edge. Her sense of justice, right and wrong is developed. In a very simple explanation to Tridibs death, I wish to say that May's desire to save the weak worked as a catalyst on Tridib's mind when he got out of the Mercedes in Dhaka among rioters to save the old, invalid Jethamoshai. He acts on May's standards, her rule of what is right and what is not. Prior to their visit to Dhaka, while excursing in Calcutta, May forces Tridib to stop his car and save a dying roadside dog. First Tridib resents but later accepts that she did the right thing and that she need not be apologetic about the inconvenience she caused. Once in Dhaka among frenzied rioters, May once again cries in horror that they are acting selfishly, saving themselves while endangering Jethamoshai. Tridib gets down to save Jethamoshai and he is cut ear to ear by Muslim rioters. His end is brutal. May, as she tells the narrator years later, does not realize that she as a white 'mem' was safe but Tridib was their enemy, ‘a Hindu from India’. But interpretation cannot stop at material level only. As his name suggests, Tridib is trinity. In an act to save others, he dies. Therefore, he is Jesus. Tridib is the sacrifice of human race at the altar of illogical hatred. Tridib is definitely a prophetic figure. When May saves the stray dog in Calcutta, 'He raised his chin and ran his forefinger down his neck like a barber stropping a razor. Promise me, he said' that you'll do it for me too, if I should ever need it' (174)'
Well, May on her part, is on a penance ever since Tridib's death. She sleeps on floor. She fasts. She works for earthquake relief and things like that. She collects money from streets with all her banners, and posters for social welfare. May, like a true disciple of Christ, suffers his death like hell. She is literally on a self-torturing spree. It is only at the very end of the novel she realizes the meaning of sacrifice. She frees herself of her burden of guilt, 'But I know now I didn't kill him; I couldn't have, if I'd wanted. He gave himself up; it was a sacrifice. I know I can't understand it, I know I mustn't try, for any real sacrifice is a mystery' (251-252).
If May is acutely conscious of her duties and faults, Ila is just the opposite, self-absorbed, oblivious of others' needs and irresistibly charming. Ila's portrait is a typical drawing of a modern, beautiful, attractive, foolish girl. She is stubborn. She lives in her own world. She has no sense of commitment as such. Due to lack of depth, she lacks identity. Ila is fluid, flowing and taking different shapes. The narrator comes with a very telling remark on the photos Ila shows him in their childhood, 'But somehow, though Ila could tell me everything about those parties and dances, what she said and what she did and what she wore, she herself was always unaccountably absent in the pictures' (22).The core of Ila's existence in this book is her spell over the narrator. And it is not for nothing. When she comes to meet the narrator at Trafalgar Square, 'she looked up at the church, spotted me and smiled. A couple of tourists standing beside me gasped. She was so improbably, absurdly beautiful, I began to laugh' (18). She turns the narrator crazy. He is helpless before her. It is a repeated pattern in this book. The narrator is again and again defeated by her. He knows his weakness and cannot do anything about it. Ila, on her part, is enthralled by Nick. Nick is white. He is strong and big. So in a sense we can say that Ila's condition in relation to Nick is the same as the narrator's in relation to her. This careless, self-willed, pampered, beautiful girl has actually taken the narrator's life hostage. At one point, when her hurting, ignoring goes beyond limits, 'I felt the tears running down my cheeks' (111). After consoling him a bit, she again goes to Nick and when she does not come back 'I knew she had taken my life hostage yet again; I knew that a part of my life as a human being had ceased: that I no longer existed, but as a chronicle' (112).
Ila is bent upon carrying her self-damaging attraction for undeserving Nick. He is her weakness. She wants him, and fantasizes about him. Finally, she succeeds in getting married to him but the price she pays is heavy indeed. She acts blindly. She cannot see that she is clearly being exploited. Right from the beginning Nick has plans to start a business where Ila's parents are expected to invest (97). Later, as expected, Ila's father purchases a flat for them in London. Even the expenditure for their honeymoon is borne by her father. Mockery is evident in the tone when the narrator describes plans of Ila's parents to buy them a flat, arrange honeymoon and after formal registration of marriage in London, go to Calcutta for 'one of the most lavish weddings' (154). All this fairytale stuff soon ends in Ila's swollen eyes over Nick sleeping with another woman. All her father's aura, rank and money, her own beauty and job turn against her. Her husband gets complexive. Ila tells the narrator, 'He wanted to make a point; to let me know that I shouldn't take anything for granted just because we're living in a flat my father bought for me. And because I have a job and he doesn't' (188). Poison has already entered their marriage as it normally does into so many marriages. Ila's marriage can be taken as a comment on the institution of marriage as such. So much hatred breeds within this pious, religious and social bond. It is almost hell to be continuously on war with your own mate, to continuously humiliate and be humiliated in turn. Ila, for all her softness and sophistication, does not spare her husband after her revelation about his promiscuity. Before everyone, she remarks, 'Do you know? Nick's had another of his ideas? He's trying to get my father to buy him a partnership in a warehousing business.
She gave him a long look, her face going hard in a way I had never before noticed in her '[...]. Nick's face crumpled, and he looked down at the carpet, hanging his head' (189). The future lies for Ila, bitter, hard and very painful. But then, there is no one else to blame for it except she, herself. It is pathetic to watch her making up excuses to the narrator about her marriage. She says that whatever she said was wrong and that Nick and she are as happy as ever and the narrator replies, 'of course I believe you, I said. Why shouldn't I? I hope you have a nice time' (248). The tragedy of it tears you apart. Three lives are utterly wasted due to irony of fate.
Irony of fate works in matters of love. Love is a major source of pain in this novel. The state of being in love, the actual mental state of love is a very elusive subject. Love, as it is depicted in popular movies, T.V. serials and popular fiction is not convincing. It is a stereotype that is being repeated a thousand times over. Love is an overplayed and yet not at all understood emotion. To begin with, love is an emotion that centers around one single individual. Now that individual can be anyone-mother, father, beloved, and brother, just anyone. So the very first popular belief that love is only for a suitable mating partner of the opposite sex is wrong. The emotion as such is very wide in its scope. Secondly, love denotes suspension of logic. Love and logic are natural enemies. It also implies that love and every type of rationality i.e., justice, equality etc. are antagonistically placed. Thirdly, by being irrational, love implies an uncertain, excited and confused state of mind. When one individual becomes the focal point of one's existence, everything and everyone else becomes secondary. Sensible prioritizing in life's agenda is not possible. There is lack of control over emotional life. If we go by the above short description of the emotion of love, we can safely state that the narrator is in love with Tridib, Tha'mma and above everyone else, with Ila, his silly, beautiful cousin. And I wish to make a sweeping remark here that with none of them he gets his due, just reciprocity. Tridib reciprocates his unconditional hero-worship but only to an extent. Soon May comes and takes the all important eloquence and centrality in his life. The narrator is left high and dry. 'I was jealous, achingly jealous, as only a child can be, because it had always been my unique privilege to understand Tridib, and that day at the Victoria Memorial I knew I had lost that privilege; somehow May had stolen it from me' (170).
With Tha'mma, the pattern takes a different course. As a child, he is soothingly wrapped in her warm protective presence. He gets hysterical once when Tha'mma is hurt. Tha'mma is the narrator's eternal maternal figure with whom he wants to be united. But as he grows, Tha'mma's rules, her unchangeable standards threaten the narrator's identity. He does not want to be engulfed by her. His visits to cheap houses can be taken as his rebellious efforts to free himself from Tha'mma. The narrator goes back to Delhi when Tha'mma's condition improves a little, he tries to unchain his body as well as mind from her powerful grip, 'I jerked my head out of her hands. She met my gaze and smiled. I could not believe that this withered, wasted, powerless woman was the same person that I had so much 'loved and feared' (91). So, here the umbilical chord between Tha'mma and the narrator breaks.
Finally, with Ila, there never existed any possibility of reciprocity because right from the beginning the scales were so heavily bending to her side. In London many times he walks miles and miles to get to Ila's place, to see her, her laughter, her eyes, to feel her near him but nothing, just nothing comes from her side. The author beautifully explains the connection between love and our tendency to 'enumerate and quantify' (95). We buy heavy physical, material things like jewels or cars to show how much we love. Why does this contradiction exist? Love is the very opposite of these. But the author goes on to explain that just because love is the opposite of justice that we try to apply ordinary rules of wealth and power to normalize it. By applying 'metaphors of normality,' we expect justice in love (96). But it does not happen so. The narrator throws all that he has, his education, appearance, his sweet temperament at Ila's disposal but what he gets, ‘she would open the door and say Nice to see you, come in but I hope you're not expecting any dinner-and I would tell her, smiling brightly-I've walked eight miles, it took me exactly two hours and ten minutes-and she would arch her eyebrows in surprise and say: why? Is it some kind of health kick?' (96). So, that is what it is. She does not pay any attention to the one who loves her madly and loves the one (Nick) who is not capable of any sincere love. Indeed, there is no logic, no justice in love.
Tha'mma is another pillar of this novel. In her, Ghosh depicts all the peculiarities of a suffering, braving middle class Indian woman. For all her extremes, she is a real life heroine. She is made of that substance that goes in producing strong, disciplined children and coherent family. Tha'mma became a widow at the age of thirty-two. She joined a school to run her family. She has given her life to her school. She retires from the school as its headmistress. She is sincere, devoted, hardworking, disciplined, all that a teacher is expected to be. She is truly a no-nonsense woman. She cannot see anyone idle in her home. She tells the narrator, her grandson that if anyone wastes time, it starts stinking. She has a militant's attitude to life. She is always on the defensive. There is a very touching incident where Tha'mma does not want any favor even from her own sister, Mayadebi. Mayadebi offers to take them to a place in her car. But Tha'mma does not agree readily to it. The narrator senses, ‘the fears she had accumulated in the long years after my grandfather's premature death, when she had to take her school teaching job in order to educate my father: I could guess at a little of what it had cost her then to refuse her rich sister's help and of the wealth of pride it had earned her and I knew intuitively that all that had kept her from agreeing at once was her fear of accepting anything from anyone that she could not return in exact measure' (33). This is typical middle class mindset. The upper class is used to receiving favors. The lower class cannot refuse them because it needs them badly. The middle class measures favors and wants to treat them justly.
It is only the upright middle class that tries to balance the scales. Tha'mma's whole worldview is around defending herself and her family against a hostile world. We can even call her a feminist in her own way because of her low opinion of men, '[...] at heart she believed that all men would be like him (Tridib) if it were not for their mothers and wives' (6).
Her job becomes her second self. When she gives the narrator a broad, warm smile after her retirement he feels awkward because it was so different from her head mistress's tight-lipped smile. Her involvement in her job is complete. Her farewell at school is very touching. She is full of those small projects, little techniques that a teacher develops in order to improve her/his students. The narrator says, 'when she was headmistress, my grandmother had decided once that every girl who opted for Home Science ought to be taught how to cook at least one dish that was a specialty of some part of the country other than her own. It would be a good way, she thought, of teaching them about the diversity and vastness of the country' (116). Tha'mma's character is a tribute to so many unrecognized women of India who are holding the world of their children and near and dear ones together by their toil and labor. She brought up her son alone. But she never showed her vulnerability. Her extraordinarily keen observation and the unbending steel of her personality set her in a class of her own. When the narrator is studying at Delhi, Tha'mma gets sick. He comes home to see her. But what does he receive? Tha'mma accuses him of unnecessarily worshipping Ila and also of going to cheep women in Delhi. It is so shocking. The narrator is almost disgusted at the cruelty of her remarks. And when she dies, just a day before, she writes in her firm handwriting to the Principal of the narrator's college that her grandson is visiting cheap houses, that she tried to talk to him but he showed no signs of repentance and that he should be ousted from the college even though he is her own grandson. Can anyone really believe this? The narrator manages to convince the principal of his good conduct and of the sickness that might have affected Tha'mma's mind. After convincing the principal, the narrator writes, 'I have never understood how she learnt of the women I had visited a couple of times, with my friends; nor do I know how she saw that I was in love with Ila so long before I dared to admit it to myself (93). But her character, her behavior and the consequences of it, like everything else in this book, have a tragic tinge. Basically Tha'mma is a person who has kept her relatives at bay. She never allows relatives to influence her immediate family. Except for her sister, Mayadebi's family, there is hardly anyone who matters to her. But after retirement with 'stinking time,' she derails from her regular path. The family, blood relatives-these ideas somehow overpower her. The very relatives who have been so hostile, almost inimical, become important to her. The old ghosts come to her that finally claim a precious, young, promising life. But then, life goes on its own course; who can claim to control it. She finds a mission in her old age. The mission is to go back and find about her uncle Jethamoshai and help him if she can. So a lady who 'never pretended to have much family feeling,' suddenly bursts out, 'It doesn't matter whether we recognize each other or not. We're 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). Hardly does she realize that malevolence in human nature does not die. No one, no earthly force can end old bitterness. There is no soap or wash that can clean a heart of its past injuries, humiliation and venom. When she finally gets to meet Jethamoshai, she finds that he has lost his memory. He does not recognize her. But when Tridib reminds him in a loud voice that they are the daughters of his brother who lived in the other part of the house, 'The old man's face lit up. They died! He said, his voice quivering in triumph. They had two daughters: one with a face like a vulture, and another one who was as poisonous as a cobra but all pretty and goody, goody to look at' (214). Just see the irony of it! They have come to rescue him. They are going to lose their child in order to save him and the old man is still spitting venom on them after all those long years. He has not forgotten; he has not forgiven. Old age does not bring nobility with it; it only brings weakness and so perhaps people bend a little due to compulsions. Whatever the truth may be, Tha'mma's visit to Dhaka and her new passion for relatives is the tragic flaw of her personality. And she pays for it. In the end, she has only to say, 'We have to kill them before they kill us' (237).
So, this is the worldly lesson Tha'mma draws from her experiences in life that one has to attack the world before it attacks one. Her defensive posture takes a more rigid form. There are many such ideas that the book suggests. Through trans-border situations Ghosh at times comes with remarkable and relevant ideas regarding civilization, growth and international borders. As the title of the book suggests, all lines are shadow lines; they are not real. Ghosh questions the very basis of modern nation states. It does not matter how many states exist in a continent or sub-continent. It does not change the well being of its people. Nationhood itself is a mirage because it is not based on any logic. When nature draws lines in form of mountains, oceans, rivers, it is real. But man-made borders are shallow and unjustifiable. Jethamoshai speaks well when Tha'mma and others persuade him to go to India, 'Once you start moving you never stop. That's what I told my sons when they took the trains. I said: I don't believe in this India- Shindia. It's all very well, you're going away now but suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then? Where will you move? No one will have you anywhere. As for me, I was born here, and I'll die here' (215). In fact, being rooted at a place is a constant thought with Ghosh. It is through Tha'mma that he conveys the idea of self and belonging. When Tha'mma listens to Ila's sad experience at school, when she is not taken care of, by Nick, she only blames Maya and others for living in an alien land, 'it was bound to happen: anyone can see that she has no right to be there. She doesn't belong there.' The message is that one should live with respect where one belongs. Tha'mma believes that those who go and settle abroad do so for money, just for money, nothing else. But with people like Ila, it is perhaps different. Ila wants to live life on the edge. She wants to live dangerously, doing things unconventionally. She tells the narrator that she wants to be part of great events. In her eyes the small events of a backward country like India have no relevance whatsoever. The depth-less-ness of the present culture is something the author cannot ignore. When the narrator, Ila and Robi go to a nightclub in Calcutta, Ila exerts her freedom. She goes to two businessmen and starts flirting with them. Robi is a physically strong boy. He simply throws away one of the two businessmen. The singing and dancing stops and our trio move out. Ila is humiliated. She shouts, 'Do you see now why I've chosen to live in London? Do you see? It's only because I want to be free.
Free of what? I said.
Free of you! She shouted back. Free, of your bloody culture and free of all of you' (88-89).
So, this is what modern civilization is all about; to be free of commitments, of relationships, of duties, of everything. Live for one's own self-that seems to be the motto. Certainly these crazy, mad, free generations do not wish to taste the joy of surrender, unconditional love and acceptance. I found great symbolism in the incident where Tha'mma searches her house in Dhaka. 'My grandmother, thrown into a sudden panic, began to protest. This couldn't be it, she cried. It can't be our Lane, for where's Kana-babu's sweet shop? That shop over there is selling hammers and hardware: where's the sweet shop gone?' (206). The sweetness of past is gone when the milk of human kindness flooded hearts; this is the age of hammers with which we butcher fellow human beings in the name of religion, caste or boundaries.
Communal hatred and the mechanics of riots is another important dimension of ‘The Shadow Lines’. Panic, rumor, fear and hatred are universal components of riots. Riots are the same everywhere. There is a very moving account of riots in Calcutta. We see riots as they come to children. Children, narrator as one of them, are struck with fear. He climbs his school bus and everyone stares at his water bottle. He gets unnerved. Then he comes to know that everyone is advised to drink soda as water supply itself has been poisoned. Strange, loud noises are coming to their classroom when Mrs. Anderson is teaching them. They are deported back to their houses amidst a drama of terror and violence. Experiencing the riot, the narrator says, 'The streets had turned themselves inside out: our city had turned against us' (203).
We can compare this to Robi's mental state that resulted from watching the murder of his own brother, Tridib by frenzied rioters. He is unable to free himself from memories of that terrible event. It comes to him in ghastly forms in his dreams.
We like this book also because of its treatment of India. There are all sorts of pictures of our country but the author is never on the other side; he is always with India. His compassion for his country, howsoever imperfect, does not leave him. So, may be our narcissistic tendencies make us love this book. Right from the importance of Hindi film songs in our lives to centrality of cricket in Indian psyche to the fascination of Indian men for Western dresses to Indian women's love for jewellery - everything is so lovelingly wrapped in this book. When the narrator is going through an acute sensation of love for Ila, he is haunted by an old Hindi film song- 'bequraar karke hame yun no jaiyen' (94). He is simply unable to free himself from this recurring tune in his mind. The reader at once identifies with the narrator because with most of the Indians, humming popular film songs to suit their mental condition is a very natural and spontaneous way of purging emotions. Similarly one is amused to see the narrator's desire to see Ila in Western outfits. When she comes like a true Bengali in a white sari with red border, he is disappointed because it makes her an ordinary next-door girl. Again and again the narrator comments on Ila and her flamboyant Western dresses, 'She was wearing clothes like the one of which I had never seen before, English clothes [...]' (43). Again, 'she looked improbably exotic to me, dressed in a faded blue jeans and a T shirt like no girl I had ever seen before except in pictures in American magazines' (8l). It is a regular fantasy of most Indian men to get a Westernized, modern, jeans clad girl and the author so correctly points it here. I cannot help mentioning here the author's portrayal of the exclusive male pleasure of watching girls and women and their spontaneously feminine movements and curves. Our culture perhaps does not condition our women to get the sensuous joy of watching boys and men. It is purely a male domain-'birds watching' as it is popularly known. All these cultural connotations came to my mind reading the narrator's account of watching Ila, 'she was walking slowly, looking down at the pavement, preoccupied, oblivious of the people who stopped to stare at her. I pushed myself back against the pillar, willing her not to see me; I wanted to watch her walking, unselfconscious, for as long as possible'(180).
Similarly, we get valuable information regarding women in India and also women in general. For example, the narrator's mother is fascinated by Shaheb's high-ranking job and his power. He is in foreign services. His photos come in newspapers. When Shaheb makes a polite conversation with her, 'my mother was touched that so important and distinguished a man should take so keen an interest in such trivial and unlikely matters [...]' (40-41). While Shaheb is only making use of his long learned charming social skills, his mother is fascinated. Women are naturally attracted by power. They unconsciously want to conquer the world through the power of the male, their male. This can again be traced back to our culture where outward success and worldly power is associated with men and domestic domain is given to women. So women have no option but to dream of success through men. But domestic domain often creates women with extraordinary worldliness and even cunningness. One cannot help in agreeing with the narrator when he says that housewives accumulate 'manipulative worldliness' (169) and it increases when they are distanced from outside world. We can take the analysis a little further by adding that this manipulative worldliness is the only tool these women have for survival. They have to control their husbands, sons and grandsons in order to secure and maintain their place in the family. Howsoever contradictory it may sound but exposure to the world actually allows space for innocence in a woman's psyche. She can be herself. But if she is grinded in the chores and routine works of domestic existence, she is bound to develop her cunning mechanisms.
But it is not that the author is blind to the grace and joy that an Indian housewife brings to her family. Any man with a working wife can be jealous of the kind of attention and care that the narrator's mother showers on his father. His father is getting rewards of living by convention. His mother eagerly waits for his father to return from office. Transistor and other noises are shunned off. In this serene, wifely atmosphere, she brings 'a clean, fresh kurta and a pair of pyjamas and gently nudge(s) him into the bathroom' (128). And then like a king he sits in an easy chair and she narrates soothingly the events of the day. What a perfect picture!
Now we can think of concluding this discussion on ‘The Shadow Lines’. The two parts of the book are named (i) Going Away and (ii) Coming Home. These names are very significant. In fact, coming and going, arriving and leaving, meeting and parting-all metaphors of movement are very important with Amitav Ghosh. His vision seems to hover around these two polarities-coming and going. Going Away section comes to an end with Ila's marriage and her going on honeymoon. Coming Home section begins with Tha'mma's retirement, farewell, her coming home and ends in the narrator and May lying arms in arms having unfolded the whole truth of Tridib's death. Going Away to me symbolizes the author's going away from his real self. Ila is a mirage. His futile chase to get her is nothing but his drifting apart from his self. It symbolizes deviation from self. Coming Home, it naturally follows, is the narrator's coming to terms with his self and life. It is a journey back home; not running away from roots. After Tha'mma's retirement, the priority comes to family roots and her Dhaka trip. One cannot go on living just like that. One has to sort out one's past for one self. And family is part of one's self. Tha’mma and Tridib are part and parcel of the narrator's self. Therefore he comes home with his understanding of Tridib's death. We must remember that the narrator has no name. He has no personality, no identity, and no mark of his own. It is his childhood desire to be Tridib, to be in Tridib's shoes. And that is exactly what he does at the end of the novel, '[...] when we (he and May) lay in each other's arms quietly (252). The un-named narrator’s core desire to become his icon (Tridib) is fulfilled. He has graduated at last in his own eyes. In fact, it is graduation in one’s own eyes that is the most important thing. You are what you perceive yourself to be. I do not have words to say that this is a great novel about the fluidity of human life. Shadow boundaries, movement, travel, flimsy identities, and unsaid realities are the themes of this extraordinary work of literary art.
Ghosh, Amitav. 1988. ‘The Shadow Lines’. New Delhi : Ravi Dayal Publisher.
Continued to: "In an Antique Land"