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.