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The Shadow Lines: Representation of History and Memory

Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.

These oft quoted lines from Donne’s poem encapsulate the crux of Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Shadow Lines. Although places ‘exist’ for some people and are ‘imagined’ by others, both are inventions; and this act of inventing entails not only the creation of worlds, but also the history of those worlds. These histories may or may not be in concurrence with those available in the records but that, in no way, can diminish the veracity of these histories.

Amitav Gosh, the writer of Shadow Lines

Intimately connected with the attempts of historiography is the exercising of memory. In a way, each mnemonic effort is an attempt at historicizing and each recollecting individual is an amateur historian. The narrator in The Shadow Lines states, “People like my grandfather who have no home but in memory, learn to be skilled in the art of recollection”. So is Tridib and Ila. This idea, Fred Weinstein observes as a shift in the novel’s concerns vis-à-vis history and claims that unlike the earlier generation novelists, who did not like history or historians, the contemporary novelists have come to appreciate history. Several among them, however, seek to claim history for their own. The list is endless, starting from Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and continuing with Carlos Fuentes, Allan Sealy, Maxine Hong Kingston et al.

All the characters in The Shadow Lines appear to have an infinite relation with history. Tridib pursues a Ph.D. in Archaeology, Thamma has lived through the Partition, and the narrator’s visit to London is prompted by the need to collect materials from the India Office Library’s colonial archives for a Ph.D. thesis on 19th Century textile trade between England and India. The opening of The Shadow Lines, appears to be an attempt at historiography, as does the background of wars against which the narrator unfolds his story and that of others. The narrator refers to the newspapers in the archives regarding the riots of 1964 and the political condition of India during the period, the ostensible fragments, from which mainstream history is constructed. On the other hand, he effectively presents his bewilderment as a child during the riots, his estrangement from his best friend Montu, a Muslim and the death of Tridib, which form the “real world” of ordinary people who “live” history. Though not available in the recorded chronicles, these events are not fabrications. The history which Amitav Ghosh refers to is the history which is recorded only in our imaginations.

There are many instances in the novel where the thoughts, regarding the past, are Tridib’s while the narrator goes on a mnemonic journey visiting the places and the people which figure in Tridib’s past. In this regard, the narrator becomes the historian while Tridib appears as his authoritative source. However, it is true that an individual’s stream of thought cannot be replicated by the historian. Never the less, what matters is “the act of thought itself, in it, survival and revival at different times and in different persons: once in the historian’s own life, once in the life of the person whose history he is narrating”,(S.N.Mukherjee, Citizen Historian:Explorations in Historiography). Tridib’s comments on Ila’s imperviousness to places which matches the narrator’s own feelings (Pg. 20-21), Mary’s comment on Nick (“He is not at all like us”) and the narrator’s eventual realization of the truth of the statement, and Thamma’s comment regarding the narrator’s obsession with Ila and the narrator’s subsequent discovery of it—all these instances appropriately establish the idea. However, the only resources which the narrator-historian possesses are memories, photographs and Tridib’s stories which are difficult to dismiss because of their factual correctness yet set in a medium of fiction.

From a different perspective, one may see that, Tridib weaves a thread of fiction into facts available to him through an urge to escape the confines of “other people’s stories”. His concocted story of having gone to London can be cited as an instance. It is in this “document” that the narrator-historian has to separate facts from fiction. It is interesting to see how Amitav Ghosh never lets us rest in the certainty of knowing the facts from the fiction; having stressed the validity of mnemonic activity. Tridib’s visit to London and Mary’s physical description are presented as facts that have been arbitrarily unified in the author’s imagination, rendering them credible. The readers know from the narrator’s record that Tridib had gone to London as a child, and as May tells him later, she had sent a photograph to Tridib. The narrator conjectures, “I like to think that Tridib received Mary’s photograph the day he came to Gole Park and told us that made up story.”

the shadow lines
Calcutta Riots, 1964

There are, however, other characters in The Shadow Lines where historical memory functions as the obverse of factual history recorded in chronicles. Thamma, who is technically a refugee from Bangladesh (though she vehemently denies it) is a living testimonial of the Partition in 1947. The narrator himself is an eyewitness of the Riots in Calcutta during 1964. However, when he tries to prove it to his colleagues using the newspaper archives, he initially gets disappointed. While material on war with Pakistan flooded the newspapers, there was no visible record of the narrator’s mnemonic history: “I nodded silently unnerved by the possibility that I had lived for all those years with a memory of an imagined moment.” He further discovers that the main historical events such as the trouble in East Pakistan, and the restoration of the sacred relic in Kashmir find no mention in the local newspapers. He comments: “It was after all, a Calcutta paper, run by people who believed in the power of distance no less than I did”.

According to Meenakshi Mukherjee, the main purpose of the novel is to interrogate the public chronicles of nations, highlighting the reality of the fiction that people create around their lives, recording the verifiable graphic details of individual memories which may not tally with recorded versions of history. It is owing to the latter that Tridib’s unreliability as a source of history becomes acceptable. Just like boundaries flow into each other, history gets dispersed into multiplicity of ‘histories’. There is also the acceptance of the fact that there are continuities, fissures, gaps in history which can only be filled up by silence. This is highlighted in the last section of The Shadow Lines, where the narrator confers his inability to describe the circumstances of Tridib’s demise since he has not received it first hand from Tridib: “I can only describe at second hand the manner of Tridib’s death”.

Finally, by the end of the novel, the narrator realizes that the construction of history as time-bound and nation-specific is ridden with contradictions. He problematizes the lines dividing not just nations as shadowy, but the ones dividing time as well. He talks about a spatio-temporal politics of over-shadowing. His shadow lines are three dimensional, elusive boundaries of deference. Through his imaginative legacy, the narrator goes on to project an image of history, which cuts across these “shadow lines”, and has little to do with the pronouncements of the chronicler.

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