Showing posts with label Amitav Ghosh. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Amitav Ghosh. Show all posts

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Amitav Ghosh's River of Smoke: A Detailed Summary and Analysis

River of Smoke (2011), the second book of the Ibis trilogy, takes the readers to China between October 1838 and July 1839. As Sea of Poppies mostly takes place in India, River of Smoke takes place in various places up the Chinese Pearl River System, especially in Fanqui town, a settlement just outside of the vibrant international trading city Canton, “one of the most developed and populous cities in China in the early nineteenth century” (Batra). Like the previous book, River of Smoke is also divided into three parts: Islands, Canton, and Commissioner Lin. The protagonist of this book is a Parsi merchant from Bombay, Mr. Bahram Modi who sets off for Canton from Bombay with an enormous cargo of opium. Mr. Modi has come to that the Chinese government is shortly going to stop the opium trade in their country. But Mr. Modi believes that the Chinese government will not be able to do this and ultimately, the price of opium will go up and he hopes to make a huge profit on the market because he's done that several times before. So, he's on his flagship, which is called the Anahita, a very large trading ship built in the Bombay shipyard, which was among the best in the world. Apart from Mr. Modi, most of the other leading characters of the book come from the previous book, Sea of Poppies. The novel is narrated mainly from the perspective of four foreigners: Neel, Paulette, Robin, and Deeti. While the novel brings in many of the issues from the previous book, it introduces some new issues like the tension between the Chinese authority and the British and Indian opium traders, the British plant hunting in China, and the inner life of the traveling merchants. 

Islands: The novel begins with Deeti, the most powerful woman character that we find in Sea of Poppies. The section of the book initially narrates the parallel journey of three ships (Anahita, Redruth, and the Ibis) from India to China amid a cyclone that rages in the Bay of Bengal. In my discussion, I want to highlight the following issues from the first section of River of Smoke: memory as a narrative tool, connection with the past, narrative is taken over by Neel, rise of Bahram Modi (River 49), Neel and Ah Fatt meet in Singapore, dual life of Zadig and Bahram, hunting for native plants, Friendship between Bahram and Zadig, European plants hunters, Paulette and Robin friendship, etc.

The novel opens in Deeti’s shrine, which is “hidden in a cliff, in a far corner of Mauritius” (3). The time seems to be years after where Sea of Poppies ended. Now, Deeti has established a whole clan, which is known as La Fami Colver, after the name of their forefather Kalua. Soon Neel steps into the story. Amitav Ghosh uses two of his favorite narrative techniques in this section: memory and letter. The narrative is soon taken by Neel. The opium trade did not only help the British traders make great fortune. Many Indian also joined the trade and became rich overnight. Bahram Modi, a Parsi merchant, is one of them who made great fortune out of the opium trade in China. Bahram Modi lives a dual life: “his wife Shireen, in Bombay, and their two daughters; of his mistress, Chi-mei who had died some years before, in Canton; and of the son he had had with her” (River 29).

The narration also links Bahram with "Fitcher" Penrose, a horticulturist who wants to study China's medicinal plants. Though apparently both Bahram and Penrose have different missions, their aim is basically same because Bahram’s “opium trade and horticulturalist Fitcher Penrose's mercantile explorations to secure Chinese botanical curiosities for Europe” (Batra 326) are inspired by the same imperial mission. 

Canton: Ghosh uses the epistolary technique to tell much of book two and three. Main developments of the stories include the use of epistolary technique, Anahita’s  arrival at Canton, Chinese’s policy change about the British opium trade, Robin’s search for golden camellia, Allow’s meeting with Bahram and his execution by the Chinese, China’s first visible resistance to the opium trade, the traders’ annoyance with Captain Elliot’s promise to the Chinese authority about stopping the opium business, etc. 

Most of the impressions of the city (Canton) “in…the novel are conveyed through the painter Robin Chinnery and Bahram's scribe Neel on their tours out of the factory premises into Canton and its surroundings” (Batra 324). The Fanqui town turns out to be a true international business hub where people from around the word meet. Relationships between different races and nationalities are forged in the city. We can, for an example, talk about “the romantic relationships between the boat-woman Chi-mei and the Parsee opium trader Bahram Moddie; between the Bengali Asha-didi and her Chinese husband, Ah Bao (nicknamed Baburao); and between the Anglo-Indian painter Robin Chinnery and his Chinese counterpart Jacqua” (Batra 324). 

Commissioner Lin:


The chapter focusses on the aftermath of riots in Canton and Captain’s Eliot’s role after the riot. Captain’s action is self-contradictory as it goes against the opium trade run by the British merchants. 

The saddest experience was that Chinnery’s friend Jacqua had his arm broken by the lascar rioters. 

Chinnery suddenly finds himself stranded by Jacqua’s boys, who verbally abuse him with racial prejudices against the fanquis. He feels like leaving Canton, which no longer welcomes him. 

Chinnery also describes the long cultural ties between Canton and India. It is found that “people from Hindustan, Arabia and Persia” (352) built temples in Canton, a land that is apparently forbidden to foreigners. 

The mass killing swept away all the foreigners from Canton. 

The Chinese are always suspicious about Europeans who tried to dupe them many a time and wanted to capture the Chinese lands. 

Baharam is so upset because of Allow’s (Ho Lao-kin) death and hallucinates Allow’s image. 

Charles King proposes Baharam to surrender all stored drugs to the Chinese authority. 

Lin Tse-hsu, the new governor, arrives at Canton. His title is Imperial High Commissioner (364).

Accidentally, Baboo Nab Kissin and Neel are reunited. It is revealed that Baboo helped him escape from the Ibis. Through Baboo, Neel also has come to know about the recent condition of his wife and son.  

Mr. Burnham and Mr. Bahram meet at Jardine’s great farewell party. Captain Elliot is hated by the foreign traders for his stand against the Opium trade. 

Mr. Jardine and Mr. Dinyar Ferdoonjee hypocritically accuse the Chinese of the smuggling and glorify the East India Company. The grand party ends with a quarrel between the English and Bombay traders.


Robin meets Mr. Chan to deliver him the photos sent by Mr. Penrose. But Mr. Chan offers Robin to copy the Portrait of an Eurasian (drawn by Mr. Chinnery) for him.  Robin accepts the offer. 82-84

The traders propose to establish a settlement in the west China. Imperialism and coloniazation go hand in hand. 

Lin has arrived, and the traders are alerted. They decide not to move first and let the Chinese take the first move. 

The new commissioner has declared a decree putting a complete ban on opium, and an urgent meeting is summoned which ends in a decision of sending a representative to the commissioner with a request to extend some time to decide on the matters declared by the Chinese authority.


The relationship between Robin and Pancqua deepens, and they work together in their artistic endeavors. Robin hands over the painting to Mr. Chan. Robin also takes opium upon Chan’s request and narrates Chan’s journey to London in opium-induced dream. 

Robin’s artistic life is disrupted by the turmoil in Canton. He also ponders on China’s thinking about the linkage between Christianity and opium. China thinks that there is a strong connection between Christianity and Opium. The opium traders debate over the surrender of opium to the Chinese authority. But finally, they decide to defer the situation further. 


Paulette is asked to send five trees to Mr. Chan. She feels a motherly attachment to the trees. 

The committee still bargains about the surrender. They propose to surrender one thousand crates of opium, which is turned down by the commissioner. Instead, he orders to arrent Dent and Bahram. But upon Neel’s diplomacy, Bahram’s name was dropped from the list in the last minute. Dent refuses to surrender. Meanwhile, Captain Elliot has arrived at Capton. 

At one point, Neel succeeds to convince Capton that both the Chinese and the Indians are the equal victims of the Opium trade run by the British merchants. 


Paulette succeeds in sending the precious plants to Canton through Baburao. 

The situation worsens as the Commissioner has decided to act against the traders. He issues no travel ban from Canton and decides to confront Mr. Dent, the biggest opium smuggler. 

The maidan is cleared and all Chinese are asked to leave the area. It is indicative of the Chinese action against the smugglers. A final warning is given by the commissioner to Captain Elliot, who hurriedly summons a meeting and convinces the traders to surrender the goods to the Chinese authority. 


All goods are surrendered to the Chinese authority. 

Robin mentions the names of flowers that have been spread from Canton around the world. The commissioner sends a letter to Queen Victoria urging to stop opium trade to china. Bahram suffers from inward guilt and commits suicide in his hallucination. Neel meets paullete and Robin informs Paulette that Zachary is on his way to China. The novel ends with Neel’s conversation with Deeti who he informs that he visited Canton thirty years after the incident and found the city changed into a new look. A new foreign enclave was built whose name is Shamian island. It is also clear that the Europeans waged a war on Canton and did not stop smuggling opium to china. 

Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies: A Detailed Summary and Analysis

The first book of Amitav Ghosh’s the Ibis trilogy, Sea of Poppies (2008); which is divided into three parts: Land, River, and Sea; is hard to classify as a novel. History, which is a key “preoccupation(s) of his early work” (Arora 23), also plays a central role in the novel. But it can also easily be classified as a “nautical novel, travel, and adventure fiction” (Arora 21). The novel is set in 19th century India, more specifically in 1838 in Calcutta. Historically, the time was so crucial for the East India Company, because it was a budding moment for the company’s opium trade to China. The East India Company, which practically governed India from 1757, introduced opium cultivation in India at the beginning of the 19th century and forced the natives to replace their native cultivation with opium cultivation in many parts of the country. Sea of Poppies shows how this opium trade created a complex historical moment in India, when “the histories of slavery, Opium trade, British Empire and migration” (Arora 21) became interwoven. In my discussion of the book, I will touch upon these issues together with some other things like forced cultivation, environmental degradation, the deplorable condition of women, etc. which constitute the central themes of the book. I also intend to arrange my discussion according to the chapter division of the book. 

Land: The first book of Sea of Poppies, which is set along the banks of the great Indian river Ganges, mainly focuses on the following issues: Forced cultivation, Indentured laborers: lascars and coolies, fluid identity, British Imperialism, British Language policy, globalization, religious hypocrisy, British dependency on the monopoly of Opium, the factory system, environmental pollution, condition of women, connection between land and women, judicial tyranny, history from local perspectives, nature and human relationship, etc.
From the beginning of the novel, we see a tension between the British rulers and the native Indians. The first character we meet in the novel is Deeti, a housewife who is married to Hukam Singh, an ex-sepoy. In the book one, we observe how Deeti’s life has been variously destabilized by the visible and invisible British colonial policies. Deeti and her family are forced to cultivate opium, which provides them with just the minimum sustenance for their survival. Soon the novel is populated with “mongrel characters with complex histories” (Arora 21) who belong to different classes, religions, and geographical areas. We meet Zachary, an African-American freedman; Serang Ali, a lascar; Mr. Burnham, an English merchant; Raja Neel Ratan, a local Zamindar; Paulette, a French girl born and brought up in India; etc. The interesting thing about these characters is that they bear a fluid identity. Zachary, who was treated no less than a slave in Baltimore, has suddenly been treated as a white in India; the Lascars like Serang Ali, who contributed to the building of the British empire around the world, are treated as slaves; Mr. Burnham, a greedy religious hypocrite, is treated with high respects both by the Indians and the British; and Neel, a local Raja, finds himself in a difficult situation where he cannot fight with the larger than life colonial forces. The novel also narrates the dependency of the British empire on the opium trade and their inhuman treatment of the local people and environment for the production of opium. The novel exhibits “the destructive strategy of the (British) colonizers to accumulate wealth through ecological imperialism” (Amjad 30). The narration of the story gives us an alternative, local perspective to see the British colonization of India. The section ends with Kalua’s rescue of Deeti from the pyre. 

River: As the title of the section indicates, this part of the novel takes us to river. The Ibis is temporarily berthed in Kidderpore before she finally starts for China. I would like to highlight the following from this part of the book: British judicial policy, forced cultivation and shortage of foods, Caste, lascars and fluid identity, divide and rule, women double colonized, Neel is robbed of his property, dehumanization in jail, etc. 

This section of the book exposes another tyranny of the colonizers, namely, the judicial tyranny. Mr. Burnham has Neel, the Raja of Raskhali, arrested on a false accusation of forgery. At first, Neel is treated very well in the prison which gives a false impression that he will get justice in the court. However, soon the true intension of the court is visible, and Neel’s property is forfeited with a sentence of seven years banishment with labor. We also see the dehumanizing treatment of Neel in the prison, which is a symbol of the British tyranny. The section of the novel also focusses on the native food shortage as a direct result of the forced cultivation of opium in India. A good part of the novel is devoted to the portrayal of women characters from the lower level of the society. The suffering of these women, who already live in a patriarchal society, is worsen by the colonial policy, especially the opium cultivation which depends on the hard labour of women. Another important part of this section is the friendship between Jodu and Paulette and also between Paullete and Zachary. 

Sea: The final section of the book takes us to the see. The Ibis started for China with so many characters from so many different backgrounds on board. I want to highlight the following issues from this section: Resistance by women, the journey of the indentures, lascars and prisoners, transnational racism (468), Kalua’s resistance, the great escape, etc. 

The chief officials of the ship consist of Captain Chillingworth and other two mates, Mr. Crowle and Zachary, the first and second mates respectively. Zachary is maltreated by Crowle for his racial identity. Now, most of the major characters of the trilogy are on board: Neel, Zachary, Deeti, Paulette, Jodu, Babo Naba Kissin, Ah Fatt, Serang Ali, etc. One thing that hinges their identity is their uprootedness from their own palaces. In this way, they form parallel identities “each of them with their stories of displacement, who come together by chance and end up forming alliances that transcend social categories, time and the original spatial distances that divided them” (Alexandru 148). This section of the novel sheds lights on the great resistance shown by Deeti, Kalua and Ah Fatt to the authorities. The presence of Deeti and Kalua in the ship is soon discovered by Bhyro Singh, who wants to punish both Kalua and Deeti. Deeti has found out that she is pregnant with Kalua’s child. One day when Bhyro Singh tries to beat Deeti, Kalu rescues her again. But accidentally he has thrown one of Bhyro’s huards overboard, and as a result, Bhyro Singh tries to flog Kalua death. Kalua, however, manages to break free and kills Bhyro. Afterwards, Kalua is sentenced to death by Captain Chillingworth. Before the execution takes place, Kalu along with Neel, Serang Ali, Jodu, and Ah Fatt disappear on a stolen longboat, heading to Singapore. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Significance of the Title of the Novel ‘The Shadow Lines’ by Amitav Ghosh

The title ‘The Shadow Lines’ is evocative of one of the major concerns of the novel: that of the creation of nations with boundaries that are both arbitrary and invented. This issue becomes more pertinent when viewed in the context of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent. That which, on surface, is projected as completely opposed to another is actually a part of it. The author uses the trope of house to explain this. As children, Tha’mma and Mayadebi witness the family dispute between their father and his elder brother (Jethamoshai) that leads to the division of the house.

Tha’mma as a child in Dhaka house makes stories about the upside down house (the other half of the house occupied by the uncle’s family) and narrates them to the younger sister. In the other half of the house, these stories talk of everything as being upside-down. The artificial constructedness of the ‘otherness’ of the house is very evident and gives to the keen reader a foretaste of a similar exercise in constructing the difference between the two sides of a partitioned nation. What is significant is that the two nations were united at one time but the course of history (or failure of vision) makes them two and for sustaining their separation this difference has to be invented. It is ironic therefore that Tha’mma who was herself a creator of that artificial difference cannot see through the strategy of the
state. “But if there aren’t any trenches or anything, how are the people to know?” The case of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent has been very different because the state has been forced to create a difference where none existed and show the two nations as inherently opposed.

      ''It is the fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the spaces that
      surround one,the streets that one inhabits,can suddenly and without warning become as hostile as
      a desert in a flash flood. It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the           subcontinent from the rest of the world-not language,not food,not music-it is the special quality of
      loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one’s image in the mirror.''

Perhaps this oblivion on Tha’mma’s part is tantamount to a deliberate non-admission of facts that are deeply disturbing. The oblivion of Tha’mma therefore becomes her survival strategy.. Nationalism too gets redefined in various ways through experience. Whereas the great historical project of nationalism first undermines community (here the Bengali Community that is common between the East and the West Bengal.) to formulate nation, it then ‘narrates the nation.’ The theorist Bhaba sees this project as comprising of the creation of ‘the narratives … that signify a sense of ‘nationness’: the…pleasures of one’s hearth and the… terror of the space of the other.’ This idea however in the context of the Indian subcontinent gets problematised because the otherness being talked of has to be created rather than merely alluded to. People in the newly formed nations of Pakistan and Bangladesh are prompted through narration ‘language, signifiers, textuality, rhetoric’ to create a difference where none exists. Therefore what the book looks at is the createion of artificial difference between two nations that are inherently one.

Another subtle manner in which the author exposes this strategy is by describing the experience of an Indian (Ila) outside India (London). While in London, she inhabits that space where the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh differentiation melts down. During their visit to London she takes Robi and the narrator out for dinner ‘at my (Ila’s) favourite Indian restaurant.’ As it turns out the ‘Indian place’ that she has been talking about is a small Bangladeshi place in Clapham!
A seemingly insignificant incident ridicules the intense feeling of difference that these two countries otherwise harbour and how these differences are reduced to a naught if viewed from a space that is outside the two. So these boundaries that are created due to political reasons seem tangible enough to be called lines but if analysed closely, fade away like shadows.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Shadow Lines: Short Summary and Analysis

The Shadow Lines (1988) can be viewed at one level as a story of a Bengali family through which  Amitav Ghosh presents, analyses and problematises many issues that are being debated in contemporary India. The story cleverly engages in its main body characters spanning three generations of this family. 

The story of these characters is not told in a contextual vacuum, it instead corresponds to the growth of Calcutta as a city and India as a nation over a period of three decades or more. Significantly, private events in the author’s life and other important characters take place in the shadow of events of immense political significance. The family too is not there typically as a spectacle but as a means to ‘discuss’ these issues that are at the heart of this work. So there is Tha’mma, the grandmother of the unnamed narrator through whom the issue of the Bengal Partition and the whole idea of Nation, Nationalism and Nationhood gets discussed. 

There is Tridib, the eccentric Historian cousin through whom the idea of history being problematic gets highlighted. Then there is the third generation Ila, the narrator’s second cousin through whom the author brings to fore the issues of diaspora and racism. The role of the narrator is also central to the extent that it is he who articulates the ideas held by these characters and also integrates these subjective viewpoints and experiences to highlight that both public discourses like history and personal discourse like anecdotes are incomplete till they are integrated. The role of the narrator is also crucial to the structure of the novel, which is one of story within story told in a non-linear way. The novel has also been analysed by the critic Suvir Kaul in the essay “Separation Anxiety:

Growing Up Inter/National in The Shadow Lines” as embodying elements from the bildungsroman (coming of age) tradition of the novel. M.H.Abrams describes the term bildungsroman as a ‘novel of formation’… ‘the subject of these novels is the development of the protagonist’s mind and character, as he passes from childhood through varied experiences –and usually through a spiritual crisis – into maturity and recognition of his identity and role in the world.’

The Shadow Lines witnesses the growth of the narrator from an impressionable 8 yr.old in the Gole Park flat in Calcutta to an assured adult through the book. However, the growth of the narrator is not physical alone but seen in relation with the growth of ideas on ‘… nationalism, nation states and international relations…the narrator’s itinerary into adulthood …is necessarily framed by these larger public questions…it becomes not merely a male bildungsroman, an authorized autobiography, with its obvious agendas and priorities, but also a dialogic, more open-ended telling of the difficult interdependencies and inequalities that compose any biography of a nation.’

The novel begins with the eight-year-old narrator talking of his experiences as a schoolboy living in the Gole-Park neighbourhood in Calcutta. He introduces the reader to the two branches of his family tree- the families of his Grandmother Tha’mma and that of the Grandmother’s sister, Mayadebi. According to the acclaimed critic Meenakshi Mukherjee this rendition in the novel amongst other details helps the reader feel the ‘concreteness of the existential and emotional milieu…the precise class location of his family, Bengali bhadralok, starting at the lower edge of the spectrum and ascending to its higher reaches in one generation, with family connections above and below its own
station…’ The grandmother is a schoolteacher and the father is a middle rung manager in a tyre company. 

The family of Mayadebi is more affluent, her husband being a high-ranking official in the foreign services, with one son, Jatin being an economist with the UN and the younger one Robi being a Civil Servant. Only Tridib of her sons is not successful in the material sense, however of his ability the reader is left in no doubt as even though eccentric, he is the one who is the repository of all the esoteric knowledge. He can talk on length about issues as diverse as the sloping roofs of Columbian houses and the culture of the Incas with equal ease. He is also the one who transfers to the young narrator a profound love for knowledge. 

The sisters Tha’mma and Mayadebi are thick with each other, however the former is perennially on her guard on the issue of accepting help from the latter. In this regard it is important to talk about her past experiences. As a young woman living in Dhaka (prior to Bengal Partition) she is married off to an Engineer posted in Burma. However she loses her husband very early and is left with the prospect of raising her only son single handedly. What follows is her struggle to make ends meet and her subsequent career as a schoolteacher in Bengal. She raises her only child independently and lives a spartan life where wasted time stinks. Her self worth goads her to abstain from becoming dependent on her affluent relations. In the midst of the narrative she retires from school and her life really comes a full circle. 

One of the important facets of Tha’mma’s worldview that we have to consider is her perception of historical events and her notions of Nationhood and Nationalism. As a young woman she finds herself in the greatly charged milieu of 19th century Bengal when the Extremist strand of Nationalism was in its full glory. As a college going young woman she upholds these young extremists as her true heroes and secretly desires to be a part of such extremist organizations as Anushilan and Jugantar. She idealises these young men who indulge in clandestine extremism with the larger goal of Independence in mind. At the same time as a product of Western Education, her idea of Nation as an entity is borrowed in its entirety from England. She tends to associate gory wars passion, sacrifice and blood baths with the creation and grandeur of nations.

 ‘War is their (the English) religion. That’s what it takes to make a country. Once that happens people forget they were born this or that…that’s what you have to achieve for India.’ She particularly likes her nephew Robi who, according to her, has besides, a fine education a fine body that is essential for the enterprise of nation building. To the fact that she is a dislocated Bengali (from the Eastern side) she does not pay much attention and like a typical middle class character is too involved in matters of livelihood to bother about these issues. Life is simple for her- she believes in the values of honesty and hard-work and has been a tremendously scrupulous teacher and mother. She believes so completely in the ideal of hard work that when she meets her poor migrant relatives she can think of no other reason but lack of hard work as the reason for their penury. 

She gives no thought to the event of Partition that is partly responsible for the dislocation and destitution of the family. It is only when she plans to visit her sister in Dhaka and when she has to undergo the usual procedure of compiling her immigration papers that she is jolted into recognizing the reality of the Partition of her state. The author here delves into the whole idea behind physical and psychological spaces. Here the author talks of Phantom distances through the shadow lines that the state machinery creates in order to reinforce the idea of nation. Whereas in a large country like India where diversity abounds in every aspect of cultural, economic, social and linguistic existence nationhood is imposed over these imagined communities and ironically where communities exist naturally (like in the pre-partitioned Bengal) they are thrown apart with barbed wire fencing, passports and papers reinforcing a much greater psychological distance between the two. Her visit to her erstwhile home in Dhaka also turns out to be poignant in ways more than one. 

Her uncle (father’s brother) is the only one languishing in that house because he is completely out of touch with reality and refuses to believe the fact that the country has split. Here the author echoes the idea of collective madness and normalcy. Whereas the uncle who refuses to believe in the Partition of the country is labelled mad by the so called normal people, it is in a way a collective madness that has endorsed the highly abnormal act of Partition and then driven the non conformists to the edge of madness. This old man also portrays the violence that history perpetrates. Whereas this violence is a part of the life of all the people who underwent the distresses of dislocation during Partition, it can only find an expression through the grotesque means of madness. And there is escape from it also through madness. 

The character of Tha’mma is crucial to the narrative in the manner in which it brings out some of these concepts and also provides a rallying point around which other ways of looking at these are built. Tha’mma embodies a conventional even though interesting belief system, which is challenged by the other characters as well as the novelist himself. For most part of the book she comes across as a frugal, no-nonsense woman for whom any wastage of time or money is abhorrence. She is a principled old woman whose views on nation and nation building are remarkably simplistic. She doesn’t consider herself as a migrant belonging to the other side of the border; she has no sympathy for her refugee relatives living in a state of utter penury. Her notions of nation, nation building are straight from history books. She considers healthy young people like Robi as ideal nation builders. She is remarkably free from all traces of cynicism so evocative of victims of partition.

She does not consciously criticize the phenomenon of Partition even once, there are no lengthy harangues: her critique of the Partition, nation and nationalism lies in her anecdotes. Often it is the anecdotes and the personal experiences that make her acknowledge the cracks and contradictions in her beliefs. Tha’mma as a child in Dhaka house makes stories about the disputed upside down house (the other half of the house occupied by the uncle’s family) The artificial constructedness of the ‘otherness’ of the house is very evident and many critics have seen it as a foretaste of a similar exercise that the state indulges in when the Partition of a nation has to be justified and difference has to be created if it does not exist. The two nations just like the two parts of a household were united at one time but the course of history (or failure of vision) divides them and for sustaining their separation the difference has to be created. The case of the Partition of the Indian subcontinent has been very different because the state has been forced to create a difference where none existed and show the two nations as inherently opposed.

It is the fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the spaces that surround one, the streets that one inhabits,can suddenly and without warning become as hostile as a desert in a flash flood. It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the subcontinent from the rest of the world-not language, not food, not music-it is the special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one’s image in the mirror. The house trope used in the novel is for obvious reasons of making the reader see through such an act when it comen to the country : what is ironic is that Tha’mma who should have seen through it is blissfully oblivious of the strategy. Perhaps this oblivion is tantamount to a deliberate non-admission of facts that are deeply disturbing to her. Here the two reactions of madness that we examined earlier can be compared to the non admission of events, a denial that the individual resorts to in order to avoid the madness that is bound to follow later. 

The oblivion of Tha’mma therefore becomes her survival strategy. However an indicator of this deep complex does surface later. Her decision to go to Dhaka in order to bring back her old sick uncle is a very upsetting time for her. Routine activity of furnishing her personal details while finishing the documentation for her visa forms raise fundamental doubts within her about her identity. The sane formulations of her life are threatened by some dull looking External Affairs Ministry forms. For the first time the sure shot, unruffled Tha’mma goes through pangs of some fundamentally disturbing introspection. She wonders as to how the ‘place of her birth had come to be messily at odds with her nationality’. She cannot resolve the chaos that surfaces in the patterns that are so essential to her identity. The narrator at this point cleverly talks of certain language constructions in the Bengali language:
You see, in our family we don’t know whether we are coming or going- It’s all my grandmother’s fault… But of course the fault wasn’t hers at all: it lay in the language. Every language assumes a centrality fixed and settled point to go away and come back to, and what my grandmother was looking for was a word for a journey which was not coming or going at all : a journey that was a search for precisely that fixed point which permits the proper use of verbs of movement. According to Nivedita Bagchi there is ‘ a peculiar construction in the Bengali language which allows the speaker to say “aaschi” (coming) instead of “jachchhi” (going)’…which is ‘especially used as an equivalent to “good-bye”.

Thus a Bengali speaker while leaving a place is apt to say, “I am coming (back) instead of “I am going.”‘ The grandmother’s Bengali verbs that confuse the simple acts of coming and going become a part of the family’s lore. Young people in the family joke about this language feature that confuses movement of two opposite kinds. But interestingly, within this feature of the Bengali language lies a critique of the migration of populations during the Partition of 1947. If, therefore Tha’mma says “aaschi” (I am coming) before leaving for Dhaka, it is to be read as an announcement of her arrival to her erstwhile home rather than a faux pas that confuses coming and going.

 All going away therefore culminates only in a coming of a very different kind. The fault therefore obliquely points at the chaos of coming and going that there is in Tha’mma’s world rather than in her language. This claim is further confirmed by the fact that the book has two sub-sections: Going Away and Coming home. Both phrases indicate the queer sense of home and homelessness that the Partition victims have experienced that allows them to dispense with a fixed point that signifies a point of departure. It is also interesting to note why a common language feature should invite ridicule from the speakers themselves. It is foregrounded to draw the reader’s attention towards the fault of Partition, neither that of the language nor that of Tha’mma. Specific addresses are remarkably highlighted in The Shadow Lines, the house at Raibajar, the narrator’s house in Gole Park, 44, Lymington Road, the Price household, the Shodor bazaar in Dhaka and the feud-ridden Dhaka house. 

All these are real enough to be plotted on a street atlas. These intricate addresses have a strong power of evocation and add to the verisimilitude of the narrative. Infact these specific addresses have a power that emanates from their permanence. These addresses are more than a mere assistance in discovering location, they are the units that survive civil political and private strife and yet remain unchanged. In this way if compared to nations as entities, specific locations outdo them in endurance. Nations are born, nations die, the cartographers and politicians rearrange political spaces but these locations are remarkably immune to these designs. They thus become the fixities and entities with ‘semiotic signification’ that provide meaning to several characters, their concerns and their identities. This further becomes an instance of a personal space (and if these addresses can be seen as personal narratives) outdoing a public one. Specific addresses in the novel subvert the idea of the nation in the novel.

The narrator’s eccentric cousin Tridib is an unconventional character who does not fit into the genteel society of his family. He is conducting research into the ancient Sena dynasty of Bengal and is repeatedly shown engrossed in his study. Tridib does not merely happen to be a scholar of Ancient history writing a thesis on the lost Sena Empire, his’ is indeed a voice that bears the burden of a historical vision. Right from the beginning of the novel there is in him a deep consciousness about the enterprise of knowledge. He not only collects esoteric bits of knowledge, the range of which stretches from East European Jazz to the intricate sociological patterning of the Incas religiously but also shapes his own and the narrator’s orientation towards it. 

Tridib is a stock character Bengali literature and folklore is replete with. Images of such figures abound, so whether it is the distant uncle in Satyajeet Ray’s film Agantuk or as Meenakshi Mukherjee in the essay ‘Maps and Mirrors: Coordinates of Meaning in The Shadow Lines’ points out the ‘traveller/imaginist reminding the Bengali reader occasionally of the Ghana –da stories by Premananda Mitra and …Pheluda stories by Satyajeet Ray in both of which a boy is held spell bound by a somewhat older person’s encyclopedic knowledge of other lands and civilizations.’

The narrator gets his first lessons on the business of scholarship from Tridib-he is presented with a Bartholomew’s Atlas as a childhood gift which remains a symbol of this transference and which resurfaces years later in the author’s hostel room in Delhi-thus signifying a lasting influence that Tridib has on the narrator and the uncle’s symbolic gift of the worlds to travel in and the eyes to see them with. That he receives Tridib’s gift of this knowledge thereafter becomes a kind of metanarrative that the author will subsequently want to break out of and interrogate.

However there is another aspect of Tridib that the author shows- that of a glib talker. Tridib, the eccentric uncle of the narrator has an audience in the people of the addas in the Calcutta neighbourhood of Gole Park. Nivedita Bagchi in the essay ‘The Process of Validation In Relation To Materiality and Historical Reconstruction in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines ’ defines the Bengali word adda which is seen as the place of dissemination of the historian’s (Tridib’s) discourse. According to Bagchi the Bengali word describes ‘long, leisurely conversations within a group of people which characterises a Bengali day.’ 

She further states that the acknowledgement of the Bengali community within the narrative is a feature of the oral narrative where the narrative is the secret of the community which further links to the idea that narratives are connected to an identifiable group. He takes on the center stage in these public street corners where people pour over chai and talk quotidian concerns. He is more of a performer than historian in these spaces. The Tridib of the addas exaggerates and manipulates information for an audience that listens to him in rapt attention with their mouths gaped in awe of his knowledge. 

There is another space that Tridib occupies, that of his book lined quiet room in his family house in Calcutta. The narrator confesses ‘it was that Tridib that I liked the best: I was a bit unsure of the Tridib of the street corners.’ Tha’mma, too thinks this behaviour at the addas as totally abominable and a way of making his time stink. What is it about Tridib of the addas that is distrustful? The book in describing Tridib of the addas and his behavioural pattern there and by ascribing to him certain statements (he lies to the audience about his just concluded trip to London) only highlights a very important issue that the book deals with:

that of the seat of the Historian and how he occupies it in disseminating knowledge. It is also significant to note that here we come into contact with two facets of a historian: the diligent, quiet fact-finder and the powerful, loud mouthed one in public sphere and through the latter the book goes on to throw some questions about the political role of history. The narrator gets a lesson in combining precision and imagination as a strategy of gaining knowledge from Tridib.

The employment of imagination being necessary because a historian does not and cannot possibly has an access to all the relevant sites of the event all the time. The time and space of a historically important event may be removed many throws from the historian in which case the quality of his mastery on the event becomes dependent on his own imagination or either the imagination of historians before him. The compound word precise-imagination also becomes a paradox in bringing the limiting, exacting precision to bear upon the soaring, sky kissing imagination. 

The perspicuity of vision that the narrator cultivates thereafter by this lesson is evident in his extraordinary reactions to the space of London during his visit. He not only recognizes old buildings that Tridib had merely mentioned to him as a child, but with the same eloquence questions missing ones, the ones bombed out in action and the like. The old club building that Tridib had fondly talked about to the narrator years ago is intact in his imagination decades later while on a visit to London. His suggestions of its existence are brushed aside by his cousin Ila whose opinion is supported by the club’s absence, however the external evidence fails to satisfy him and after much effort they find out from an old timer that the club had indeed existed at the exact spot that he had pointed out and that it had been targetted during a war and reduced to rubble. 

The author’s theoretical knowledge, therefore, of the existence of the building beats the Ila’s very real but thoughtless existence. Tridib’s vision works, at the same time he has the historian’s itch to classify and know events completely rather than experience them spontaneously as Ila does. Tridib as a young man falls in love with May who is the daughter of the Price family of England. The friendship of the Datta- Chaudhary family and the Prices goes back to the Colonial times when their English grandfather, Tresawsen had come to Calcutta as an agent of a steel-manufacturing company and had later become a factory owner. 

The relationship between Tridib and May starts from exchange of friendly letters till the one that Tridib writes. In his letter he proposes to her by elaborately describing an intimate lovemaking episode between two people in a war ravaged theatre house in London. He proposes to meet her ‘as a stranger in a ruin…. as completest of strangers, strangers-across seas’ without context or history. May is initially perplexed but cannot resist his ‘invitation’ and finally reaches India to see him. However soon the romance in the relationship is replaced by discord. 

They assign meanings to happenings and things around them differently. While driving along with the child narrator towards Diamond Harbour they come across an injured, profusely bleeding and badly mauled dog. While the narrator shuts his eyes to escape the ugly sight, Tridib drives on with a nonchalance that shocks May completely. She asks him to drive back to the mangled animal after which follows her extraordinary show of endurance and fortitude with which she relieves the animal of its pain by assisting it to a peaceful death. Exasperated by the whole experience she tells Tridib in a huff that he is worth words alone.

The quality of activism that we see in May resurfaces in London years later when she collects donations for destitute children. This is in sharp contrast to Tridib who is an armchair historian and lives and feeds on ideas alone. A similar situation arises in Dhaka while they along with Tha’mma, Mayadebi and child Robi are trapped in the communal frenzy that takes place while they are bringing back the old uncle left behind in Dhaka since Independence. While they meander through the riot ravaged streets of the city in their chauffeur driven car, the old uncle is following them in a rickshaw steered by the Muslim who looks after him. May observes how the mob which first turned to them, on being repulsed, attacked the old man on the rickshaw and instead of saving him, Tha’mma displays the same nonchalance that Tridib had earlier shown towards the dog and asks the driver to drive on without looking back. 

May is struck with the old impulse and getting out of the car, she heads towards the mob to save the old man. Tridib cannot allow her to embrace death and therefore follows her. In the melee, the mob attacks Tridib and he is killed. The incident powerfully evokes the earlier dog episode and the promise that Tridib gets from May at that time, about giving him too the peaceful death like the dog if a situation ever arose, uncannily turns true. Of this incident the narrator gets to know only in the end when dissatisfied with other people’s versions, he asks May to recount to him the cause of Tridib’s death. The incident as recounted by May becomes like that missing part of the jigsaw puzzle of Tridib’s death that the author is trying to look for.

Ila, the narrator’s cousin is another important influence on the young, impressionable narrator. She, owing to her father’s job is a globetrotter and comes to settle in London. Her experience of places as diverse as Colombo and Cairo and her school years at all these exotic places woven into delightful anecdotes for the child narrator initiate for the latter his first ever flights of imagination. Along with Tridib’s encyclopedic knowledge, it is cousin Ila’s descriptions of her vibrant life abroad that give the narrator a flight outside the confines of his drab Gole Park flat. 

The cousin’s colourful Annual Schoolbooks become his initiators into an unseen but alluring world outside. For Ila the immediacy of experience –personal/political is so overwhelmingly important that its context and historicity remains suspended in the background. Earlier the mere description of the city of Cairo brings to the mind of the atlas educated, historically aware narrator, the first pointed arch in the history of mankind whereas for Ila ‘Cairo is merely a place to piss in.’ She flits from experience to experience with a heightened sensual gusto but failing to ‘arrive’ at any stage in the novel to a state of greater knowledge, insight or evolution. Tridib often said of her that ‘the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places she had not travelled at all.’ ‘For Ila the current was the real: it was as though she lived in a present which was like an airlock in a canal, shut away from the tidewaters of past and future by steel flood gates.’

However this uninhibited flow of experience in her throws up certain questions that the other narratives have either suppressed, not acknowledged or either failed to account for. This realm does not have history’s linear progression of and no casts to mould and reshape experience. Her experience as an Indian in London becomes another model of citizenship that the book explores along with Partition Diaspora and the modern Calcutta Middle class. However her personal experience first as a student in London and later that of marrying a white man throws up an entire polemics about the diasporic communities. 

When she narrates the story about the fantasy child Magda to the narrator, it is quite evident that the child is a consequence of her mixed marriage (owing to the child’s blue eyes and fair complexion). The absolute dread that she associates with the imagined classroom of the child betrays her own sense of complexity as a woman faced with questions about race in a mixed marriage. In this regard it is important that Ila in this conversation displays a hyper emotionality, enough indication of some deep complex of feelings within her about race. Finally when Nick betrays her, her insecurity as a woman and especially as a one disadvantaged due to her race comes out in the open. Her life comes full circle from that anxious schoolgirl boasting about nonexistent boyfriends to the distraught adult finding it difficult to come to terms with an unfaithful husband.
‘You see you’ve never understood; you’ve always been taken in by the way I used to talk in college. I only talked like that to shock you and because you seemed to expect it of me somehow. I never did any of those things: I’m about as chaste …as any woman you’ll ever meet.’The narrator is introduced as an eight-year-old child who is ensconced in a genteel middle-class existence where young children are concerned only with doing well in studies. However the narrator finds means to escape it through
his uncle Tridib who sensitizes him to the exciting enterprise of acquiring knowledge.

The narrator is gifted an Atlas as a birthday gift and that becomes a symbol of sorts for the ‘transference of knowledge’ that takes place between the two. What the narrator acquires from Tridib is an extraordinary sensitivity towards knowledge, which later becomes crucial to the role of narration that he undertakes. The narrator is not only a storyteller but also the strand that brings together other available versions in order to make a complete picture. It is significant that the author himself comes across as more of a storyteller than a historian or an anecdote teller. Stories in this book are in circuitry, without definite beginnings and endings, they are indiscreet and seem to belong to no one. Here it is pertinent to point out that the author, inspite of his omniscience, is unnamed and his stories are mostly in the form of renderings of the other characters. 

These stories become more intelligible when the narrator joins them into meaningful wholes after collecting all the possible versions of the incident described from various sources. A case in point is the truth behind Tridib’s death in Dhaka. Tha’mma, Mayadebi, Tridib’s girlfriend May and Robi are the eyewitnesses to the lynching of Tridib during the Dhaka riots. His death, its cause and manner is however not made known to the narrator in its entirety: the parents are reluctant to reveal anything just like middle class people are used to avoiding all the talk of death in front of young children. The child Robi talks of the experience with a hyper emotionality characteristic of a traumatic childhood experience that he hasn’t let go off even as an adult.

 At a later time Robi as an adult recounts all that happens while on an evening out with the narrator and Ila. His account is complete to the extent that he as a child can only observe partially. His partial perception is not only a result of his intellectual inadequacy but also due to the fact that he is physically limited- ‘an effect of that difference in perspective which causes all objects recalled from childhood to undergo an illusory enlargement of scale’- this makes him incapable of even observing the incident objectively. His account of the incident is therefore more of a cathartic outburst because it has been long repressed than an informative or insightful reconstruction of the past. The last strand in the experience is May to whom the narrator then turns for an adequate explanation. It is in London that the narrator gets to know the truth behind the death.

Another aspect of modern India that the narrator brings out through the novel is the typical 20th Century phenomenon of Civil strife and rioting especially the one that results from communal discord. It is important to mention here that The Shadow Lines written in 1988 was the author’s response to another unprecedented event in Post-Colonial Indian scene: the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots that swept the nation after the then Prime minister Mrs.Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. To begin with allegedly State sponsored these riots in their magnitude were comparable to the earlier communal frenzy of 1947 partition. 

The novel situates the 1964 communal riots in Calcutta experienced by the narrator as a young school going boy centrally in the boy’s psyche as well as in his analysis of the difference of perception that pervades the recording of such incidents. In the book these riots and the riots at Dhaka become the occasion for the acid test of our recording systems whether of our history or of our newspapers. The author does a brilliant job by the use of excessive and mundane journalese that drowns the powerful dominance that it exerts in the author’s consciousness. The author finds an inadequate portrayal of such historical events in these sources and then goes on to analyze the reasons behind such silences:

By the end of January 1964 the riots had faded away from the pages of the newspapers,disappeared
from the collective imagination of ‘responsible opinion’, vanished without leaving a trace in the histories and bookshelves.They had dropped out of memory into the crater of a volcano of silence. The theatre of war where the Generals meet is the stage on which the states disport themselves :they
have no use for the memory of riots.

Through an extensive description of a day during the 1964 Calcutta riots, the narrator tells us of his experiences of the day as a school student. Through the day he along with the other children are caught in a fear psychosis while going to school. He describes the empty bus ride home where the driver falters, drives into wrong lanes and makes all the unexpected detours into unknown, deserted lanes of Calcutta to escape the mad mob. Years later while talking of the incident to his College friends in Delhi he is surprised to find that none of them seem to remember the fateful day. Eager to prove his memory right he leads some of them to the archives where he digs out old papers to support his memory. 

To his dismay, the newspapers paint the incident in regular journalese. While reading retrospectively about his own experience of communal riots in Calcutta as a child, he stumbles upon other events of the fateful day, one of which is a description of a similar riot in Dhaka. It is at this time that he is able to link up the two seemingly unrelated events and the fact strikes him that it was indeed the same riot in Dhaka that had claimed its victim in Tridib. What the others in his college cannot even seem to remember owing to their location in places that are far from Calcutta, is ironically a mirror experience of people in another country (Khulna, Bangladesh, then in Pakistan), ‘the two cities face each other at a watchful equidistance across the border.’ 

What follows is the author’s meditation on the idea of distance as a physical reality and as a political and psychological construct. The insignificant physical distance between the two cities (earlier one community) is stretched to an unfathomable, unconquerable political and psychological distance, often making them as different as two civilisations. Returning to civil strife and its portrayal, why are there these silences in History? Probably because, the author says, these do not cohere well with constructs like a nation that the state has so painfully nurtured earlier: ‘the madness of a riot is a pathological inversion, but also therefore, a reminder of that indivisible sanity that binds people independently of their governments. And that prior, independent relationship is the natural enemy of the government, for it is the logic of states that to exist at all they must claim the monopoly of all relation between people... ’

Is history, then an objective telling of the past events or choosing what to write in order that the underlying form is not distorted? It chooses to write about that which serves it while the rest is irretrievably silenced. The author points out that the silence he sees in history results when happenings cannot be accounted for in a given manner ‘the kind of natural silence that descends when nearness /distance, friend /enemy become terms that are impossible to define.

However these definitions in the first place become difficult because artificial differences are imposed by the state. Riots and their memory become a case in point because as Ghosh puts it they are an instance of ‘pathological inversion’ -i.e. violence of a state turning inwards unlike in other conflicts like war where it turns outwards. The clear definition of enemy/friend, ingroup/outgroup, I/other becomes difficult. Who is to be described as a perpetrator and who the victim becomes problematic for the state and also the reasons, if documented, subvert the idea of the idea of the nation, therefore having no value for the governments as historical object. 

It is because of this choice based reportage that history is said to have an underlying literary structure. In the event of wars, on the other hand there is a well-defined enemy, a self-righteous we group and a legitimate action that reaffirms our notions of nationhood and our projected ideology. So there is a glory to wars, which is also violence, but one that makes sense within our defined notions of the ideas described above.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Theme of nationalsim in The Shadow Lines

An important theme of the novel The Shadow Lines is the concept of nationalism that is gaining ground in today’s world. The author has held the extreme form of nationalism responsible for many a problem these days. The separatist and secessionist tendencies are the outcome of it. Love of the country, passion inspired nationalism and intoxication of patriotism cannot but lead to jingoism. Thus nationalism which had and which has great uses can become the greatest obstacle to world unity and world peace. This tribal instinct has been magnified beyond all measures resulting in political and economic megalomania. And the novel in its enthusiasm to prove the point has gone a little too far to proclaim that nationalism is a defunct force and in this background Tha’mma is ridiculed as ‘a still surviving specimen of fossilized nationalism.

Significance of Maps and Borders in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines

The Shadow Lines uses the symbolism of maps and in particular borders throughout its  novel to identify and explore a key postcolonial theme. Postcolonial criticism examines and criticises man-made boundaries and borders as attempts to define a particular group as against another group ("the other"). Postcolonial criticism attempts to rupture these apparently secure boundaries by examining those who live on the margins of these boundaries and also deconstructing (taking apart) the notion of the other. This is particularly true of the "invention" of India the nation, with the Partition of 1947 which drew imaginary lines across India, creating the countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India and also causing much death from the resulting riots.

The narrative in The Shadow Lines is constantly transgressing boundaries of space and time, thus giving the novel its title, as the lines that divide places and even times are shown to be easily transgressed - "Shadow Lines." Borders are thus shown to be "illusory" and "shadowy" and often "born out of different strands of nationalism and ideology" that in turn give birth to violence. In this novel as in life there are multiple boundaries and dividing lines, not just national boundaries, but borders that separate the coloniser from the colonised, the "us" from the "them", and borders also in time, separating the past from the present. These borders are ever changing as the perspective from which we look at them changes.