Crossing the Shadow Lines


Silvia Albertazzi (University of Bologna)


In my opinion, Amitav Ghosh's novel The Shadow Lines is probably the most important fictional work to have appeared in South Asian literature in the last decade: it sums up and fictionalises all the major issues of Postcolonial literature – the search for identity, the need for independence and the difficult relationship with colonial culture, the rewriting of colonial past, an attempt at creating a new language and a new narrative form and the use of personal memory to understand communal past. I will try to show how Ghosh manages to do so by continually transforming the title metaphor, thus ever changing its meaning.

In none of the critical studies and reviews of Ghosh's book I've read, have I found a comparison between The Shadow Lines and Conrad's novella The Shadow Line. Critics do not seem to be curious enough to wonder why Ghosh borrows his title from Conrad and then turns it from singular to plural. In Conrad, the shadow line is a very cryptic image: it refers both to the moment of interior darkness and confusion which precedes maturity - and the taking of great decisions - in human life and to the line which divides us from our family and literary ancestors. "One goes on recognising the landmarks of the predecessors, excited, amused, taking the hard luck and the good luck together" Conrad writes, "[...] And the time, too, goes on - till one perceives ahead a shadow-line warning one that the region of early youth, too, must be left behind". Actually, like Conrad's novella, Ghosh's novel, too, is first of all a story of young people, and describes that moment of epiphany when certain events in a young man's (or woman's) life suddenly acquire a deeper meaning, while his/her way of relating to the past changes completely and for good. Ghosh's unnamed narrator is very similar to Conrad's young captain: they are not only the same age at the time they start telling their stories, but they relate their narratives in an oblique way which cannot but create an ambiguous feeling towards them in the reader, and the more the narration goes on, the more we realise that this ambiguity parallels one's very feelings about oneself. Yet, like in Conrad's text, in Ghosh's, too, the shadow lines are also a political symbol. Difficult to perceive, "shadowy", Conrad's line is also a metaphor for human weakness, "designed to affirm that only on the basis of a consciousness of weakness can the edifice of the human world be secured" Not by chance, The Shadow Line was published during the first world war and is dedicated to Conrad's son "Borys and all others who like himself have crossed in early youth the shadow-line of their generation", that is to say, young men who joined the army during the war. In the very same way, not only in Ghosh's novel "World war II functions [...] as a European fracturing experience that parallels the South Asian experience of Partition", as John Thieme once noted, but these experiences are confronted by a young man who wasn't alive when either of them happened, but whose family has been deeply influenced by both.

Actually, the plural in the title of Ghosh's novel marks the passage from the personal to the national in the story, while stressing the coming of age both of a man and of a nation (and, implicitly, of a whole literature). This passage is achieved by a particular use of memory, which is clearly reminiscent of what Conrad says about chronological perspective in the "Author's Note" to The Shadow Line:

The effect of perspective in memory is to make things loom large because the essentials stand out isolated from their surroundings of insignificant daily facts which have naturally faded out of one's mind. (41)

What is really new is that in his Shadow Lines, Ghosh offers us not only a conjugation of the personal and the national, setting the personal conflict against the backdrop of national turmoil, but very often he deals with other people's memories of times and places the narrator has never known, thus showing on one hand that the lines dividing peoples and countries have always existed and, on the other, that these invisible borders are - and have always been - 'shadowy', 'illusory', often born out of "different strands of nationalism and ideology" which can be potential and often disrupting sources of violence. It's no more a matter of a single 'shadow line', then: there are innumerable borders which divide peoples from others and from themselves, borders separating the coloniser and colonised in the past and 'us' from 'them' in the present; borders changing continuously, as the perspective from which we look at them changes. Moreover, there are other invisible mental lines separating past and present, memory and reality, identity and mask, and, last but not least, there are critical and historiographic borders marking the territories of literature, the different genres, of course, but also, less obviously, the demarcations separating central canon and peripheral productions, British writers and postcolonial authors. In this sense, it has been noted that Ghosh's novel can be considered a sort of "palimpsest offering shadow lines of earlier Western texts, of which the Conrad novella alluded to in its title is only one." It is as if the Indian author were literally "going on recognising the landmarks of the predecessors", until a shadow line ahead warns him that the season of learning and imitation is over, and it's high time to reach maturity and his own distinctive voice.

It is no mere chance that in this novel we find the clearest formulation of Ghosh's poetics, expressed by a character, cousin Tridib, who acts - at least theoretically - as the writer's mouthpiece.

At the basis of this theory is the idea that "... a place does not merely exist, [...] it has to be invented in one's imagination" and that, consequently, we cannot see without inventing what we see. The alternative to imagination is not blankness, but being imprisoned in other people's inventions. Here is an obvious reference to the relationship between the canon of the colonisers and the literature produced by the colonised. As Salman Rushdie wrote in the same year of the publication of The Shadow Lines, "They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct." Useless to say, here "they" are the ex-colonisers, the British, and "we" all the former colonial subjects. Metafictionally speaking, the postcolonial writer must learn to invent his own stories, to describe by himself, without imitating the descriptions of the British canon. From a political point of view, moreover, the important thing is to invent one's own story, not to succumb to the stories invented by a central power. Eventually, psychologically speaking, acquiring maturity is learning how to build the right story for oneself: "Everyone lives in a story", Tridib says, "my grandmother, my father, his father, Lenin, Einstein [...] they all lived in stories, because stories are all there are to live in, it was just a question of which one you choose ..." (179)

Therefore, we start to realise that the shadow lines of the title can also signify the borderline between reality and imagination, which is never well defined, since, as reality is not only a matter of physicality and chronology, in the same way imagination can - and must - deal with everyday things and historical deeds. Actually, psychology says that reality is formed by many threads coming from the most different sources and woven upon an ancient canvas, which constitutes the personal story of everyone. In this sense, our life could be mapped by a multiplicity of intricate lines, and we are only aware of those which find a name, which can be told and listened to. In Ghosh's novel, we not only find a meditation on the uselessness of the lines which separate countries on the geographical maps (as all critics have underlined), but we also experience the sensation of crossing those very lines by a merging of space, time and memory. Again, we can find an explanation for this phenomenon in Joseph Conrad's "Author's Note" to The Shadow Lines: "... when we begin to meditate on the meaning of our own past", Conrad writes, "it seems to fill all the world in its profundity and its magnitude." (40) This is surely why Ghosh's unnamed narrator can travel in time and space and even live other people's lives in his mind: the past he is always thinking of (not only his own, but mainly his cousin's, his grandmother's and his relatives') fills all his world, overcoming all possible borders - be they geographical, historical, psychological. In this sense, all travels in the books are, first of all, travels of the mind: like in fairy tales, no one leaves to leave something or someone behind: all characters leave to find something, and all departures imply a return, all separations a reunion.

The last sentence can - and must - apply also to geographical and historical changes: seen as departures from the established order, the Second World War, the Independence of India, Partition and the Bangladesh War are all violent ruptures in the normal course of life, 'departures' which must lead to a 'return' of the order, a 'reunion' of those who were separated. As the French writer Daniel Pennac once wrote, "Writing history means upsetting geography", and both the narrator's cousin, Tridib, and his grandmother experience this truth in the two sections of Ghosh's novel, which are called: "Going Away" and "Coming Back", to suggest that each departure must be followed by a return and at the same time to imply the upsetting of geography, even at a linguistic level. As is always the case in this novel, we can find many interpretations for a single formula. In the first part, it is the narrator who, at the end, literally 'goes away', to that England he has so much heard of during his childhood; actually, he refers to himself when at the end of that section he says: "I knew that a part of my life as a human being had ceased; that I no longer existed, but as a chronicle." (110) Yet, other people had already 'gone away' before him, setting in motion the chain of events which leads to his own trip overseas. In the same way, apparently the person who 'comes home' in the second part of the novel is his grandmother, going to Dakha, where she was born when it was still an Indian town, and which, after Partition, belongs to Pakistan. However, as a critic once noticed, "in a permanently unsettled world, 'home' is what we create only through a combination of memory and desire": therefore, paradoxically, the London the narrator creates in his own imagination is no less home for him that the Dakha his grandmother has never ceased to dream of in all her years in Calcutta. To stress this point, in a much quoted scene of his novel, Ghosh shows us his narrator walking through the streets of London for the first time, and yet finding his way better than even a native: the city he had created in his imagination was so real that he has no problem in recognising all its features in reality. Metaphorically, here the narrator is finding his way in everyday life, an ability you don't achieve once and for good, but which you learn day by day, always at the risk of experiencing the uncanny, when you lose your inner sense of direction. At another level, here Ghosh is conveying the hegemony of the colonial education received by the young Indian man at 'home', by representing "the way Indian subjectivity is constructed through linguistic as well as other discursive shadow lines"

This representation of linguistic 'shadow lines' is carried on throughout the second part, when grandmother is going to leave India to go to Dakha. The problem which most haunts her is that she would have to fill in 'Dhaka', Pakistan, as her place of birth on all forms, and then state 'Indian' as her nationality: she is not able "to understand how her place of birth had come to be so messily at odds with her nationality" (149). This situation leads her to a confusion in the use of the verbs of movement: she says she is 'coming' to Dakha after so many years and her grandson cannot but tease her, a retired Headmistress, for making such a mistake.

I teased her with that phrase for years afterwards. If she happened to say she was going to teach me Bengali grammar, for example, I would laugh and say: But Tha'mma, how can you teach me grammar? You don't know the difference between coming and going. [...] But, of course, the fault wasn't hers at all: it lay in the language. Every language assumes a centrality, a fixed and settled point to go away and to come back to, and what my grandmother was looking for was a word for a journey which was not a coming or a going at all; a journey that was a search for precisely that fixed point which permits the proper use of the verbs of movement. (150)

As Ghosh implies in this passage, the language of the coloniser cannot express the shifting world of the colonised: it is a language based on concepts like 'centrality', 'certitude', 'stability', which are lost for the ex-colonies. Yet, a wrong use of that very language can become a distinctive feature of a particular familiar lexicon, "a part of its secret lore; a barb in that fence we buil[d] to shut off ourselves from others" (150) Trespassing the linguistic 'shadow lines', the colonial subject creates his own language, and uses it to keep non-native intruders out of his world. Here we see, too, how language shifts exactly like man-made geographical borders; how it can divide some people, while linking others; how, in a word, it is 'shadowy', exactly like the lines separating countries on a map.

It is again the narrator's grandmother who wonders how people are to know where the border between Pakistan and India lies, if there are no trenches to mark it: "I mean, where's the difference, then?", she asks her son, "And if there's no difference, both sides will be the same; it will be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day without anybody stopping us. What was it all for then - Partition and the killing and everything - if there isn't something in between?" (148-149)

Years later, after her death, her grandson revises her idea of lines, maps and borders, coming to the conclusion that you cannot separate two countries so simply as by drawing a line on a map:

I was struck with wonder that there had really been a time, not so long ago, when people, sensible people, of good intention, had thought that all maps were the same, that there was a special enchantment in lines [...] They had drawn their borders, believing in that pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping perhaps that once they had etched their borders upon the map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other like the shifting tectonic plates of the prehistoric Gondwanaland. What had they felt, I wondered, when they discovered that they had created not a separation, but a yet-undiscovered irony [...] a moment when each city was the inverted image of the other, locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free - our looking-glass border. (228)

Acknowledging the existence of this 'looking-glass border' implies the problem of the impact of politics (and, consequently, history) on everyday lives. As we all know, this is one of the most controversial issues of postmodernism, often solved by recurring to a device which has been labelled 'historiographic metafiction' by the Canadian critic Linda Hutcheon. Yet, the way Ghosh deals with the writing of history in The Shadow Lines is quite different from, say, Ondaatje's, Rushdie's or Marquez's - the authors Hutcheon quotes as typical representatives of the postmodern revision of history. Being more interested in an analysis of the nature of memory and the persistence of the past in the present than in a magical description of reality, Ghosh refers to violent events of the historical past to show how the lessons of history have never been learnt. Novy Kapadia comments: "The 1964 Calcutta riots could be the Delhi riots or the 1987 Meerut riots. They all follow a similar pattern, suspicion, distrust, tumour activating conditioned minds, all sources of terrifying communal violence." Talking about those facts is showing how violence repeats itself throughout space and time as in a play of looking-glasses: an unpleasant realisation which it would be easier to avoid by keeping a shameful silence on it. Referring to the Calcutta riots of 1964, the narrator of The Shadow Lines confesses: "Every word I write about those events of 1964 is the product of a struggle with silence. And then he wonders where this silence comes from, which kind of silence it is. "It is not [...] the silence of an imperfect memory", he reflects, "Nor is it a silence enforced by a ruthless state [...] it is simply a gap, a hole, an emptiness in which there are no words", actually, it is "The silence that lies in the gap between words and the world [...] a silence that is proof against any conceivable act of scorn or courage [...] the silence of an absolute, impenetrable banality." (213-214)

According to the authors of The Empire Writes Back, "it is this concept of silence, not any specific cultural concept of meaning, which is the active characteristic linking all post-colonial texts. It is the same silence which also challenges metropolitan notions of polysemity, and which resists the absorption of post-colonial literatures into the new universalist paradigms which emerge in the wake of post-structuralist accounts of language and text." Yet, at a political level, this silence also implies man's inability to learn the lessons of history, his passivity in front of its violence, its unwillingness to take sides. Therefore, breaking the silence, like the narrator does regarding the 1964 riots, is a political act - metaphorically, this is his way of crossing his own shadow line. "A man has to learn everything", is the moral teaching of Conrad's The Shadow Line. And Ghosh's narrator, speaking about Tridib's death, shows that he has learnt how to face the past and live the present, at the end of his story. Therefore, in the very last page of the novel, realising that Tridib's death was a sacrifice, and for this reason cannot be understood, "for any real sacrifice is a mystery" (246), he links the end of his cousin's life to all great religious mysteries, thus creating an extreme shadow line which connects the countries instead of dividing them.