The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh

In his essay on the anti Sikh riots of Delhi (The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi), this is what Amitav Ghosh has to say about “The Shadow Lines”:

a book that led me backward in time to earlier memories of riots, ones witnessed in childhood. It became a book not about any one event but about the meaning of such events and their effects on the individuals who live through them.

It is difficult to describe the book any better this. While the central, climactic event – that of a single riot which changed the lives of several people unwillingly pulled into its vortex – is only revealed in the end, the narrator’s journey through the “shadow lines” of geopolitical boundaries, through the past and present, is really an attempt to find some meaning of such meaningless (at least to the victims) violence.


At one level, it is all about personal relationships. There are a surprising number of characters, given the relatively short length (less than 250 pages in the first hardcover American edition), and I found myself fumbling between family hierarchies. Essentially there’s the narrator’s family, and the family of their close English friends.






As evident, the characters span three generations. I have highlighted the ones of central interest.


Grandmother and Mayadebi are sisters, who grew up in Dhaka before the partition. While Mayadebi, the more gregarious of the two, marries a diplomat and enjoys a life of stature abroad, Grandmother loses her husband in Kolkata and has to fend for herself and her only son, the narrator’s father. She’s a fighter, refuses any charity, and manages to raise her son, the narrator’s father, who eventually becomes a successful executive.


The narrator and Ila, to whom he is attracted, are thus distant cousins. His yearning for her however goes unrequited. The narrator’s character and that of Ila are an antithesis. While he tries to solve a puzzle of the past, she attempts, in her evasion, to obliterate it, at least for herself. She assumedly falls in love with Nick, and the two are engaged.

Then there’s Tridib and May, their unconsummated love, Tridib’s death and May’s guilt. Tridib, May and the narrator stand at the the opposite ends of perception defined by Ila and Nick.


Robi, who is closer in age to the narrator and Ila rather than his much elder brother Tridib, comprises the third character, along with the narrator and Ila, who reflect on the past, in the present from where the novel takes off. The three get together in London, where the narrator is a student and where Ila lives, and where Robi is in transit en route to Boston.


The story unfolds through flashbacks, then progresses occasionally in the present. The narrative is intricate, and Ghosh is laudable for handling the complex flow of time, from starkly different historical perspectives, masterfully.

In this setting, between the buildup of generations of history, the hitherto unknown circumstances of Tridib’s death is revealed to the narrator (and also to us) in the final phases of the book. To those having undergone the trauma of such riots and even to those living in the shadow of it, which essentially includes people of the entire subcontinent, the book poses a simple yet challenging question: Was it really worth it?

In Robi’s own words:

“…why don’t they draw thousands of little lines through the subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? It’s a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide a memory?”


If there’s one book of Amitav Ghosh that’s undeniable, it is this. Here Ghosh the fiction writer takes precedence over Ghosh the researcher/academic, and by a wide margin. Unlike his later works – where the story sometimes takes turns that seem like props for a grander scheme on which it relies, unfortunately, like a crutch – there is clear focus, a deep, driving intent to unfold truth in the true novelistic style.

In the end, the futility of subcontinental politics intending to erase the truth of human lives by inventing “shadow lines” of divisions emerges acutely through the work. Therein lies its greatest success.

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26 thoughts on “The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh

  1. Yes, sub-continental politics and riots loom large in the novel, as do the shadow lines of borders. But what I found most appealing in the novel was the portrayal of imagination; the shadow lines between imagination and reality; the reality of lines on maps; of stories.
    For instance, even though Ila travelled extensively, for her the world was just a series of airports, her fixed points being the Ladies’ in different airports. On the other hand, the young narrator remembers vividly whatever he’s told by others of faraway places and people. Imagination with precision. Remember the scene when as an adult he goes to London and remembers street and place names that Ila and Tridib had only told him about?

    Some of are like that, no? Our imagination is more vivid than other people’s actual observation of places and events.

    Nice review.


  2. Thanks Smoke Screen, for elaborating on the point. Tridib, who has a strong influence on the narrator character, certainly sees things in a different light. It allows him (and the narrator) to blend into a time and place much more deeply. It is a rare quality.

    I also especially liked the part when the narrator finds places on the map which are geographically close, yet political events in a place even farther away has a greater effect. The Dhaka riots were sparked off by an upheaval in Kashmir over the prophet’s hair. Kashmir is further away from Dhaka than Indonesia. The reality of people seem to be bound by these imaginary lines.


  3. shadow lines by ghosh is an epitome of hw complications can be made simple and interesting. Very serious themes of politics has affected humanity since ages .caste and creed has been influencing politics in this indian subcontinent-riots-communal conflicts;partition of nation and states on the basis of religion, language;rupturing humanity, incising brother hood, corrupting the consciousness and coscience; people are left in state of utter confusion regarding there roots and identity.people born in lahore now living in delhi , people born in dhaka now living in calcutta, such displaced , migrated or to be more precise the uprooted families are the main focus in this novel by ghosh…i ,exploring how politics has been commented upon by contemporary indian english novelists in their novel ,found this piece as politics mingle and amalgamate with the human lives and effect them ?how politics has become so major a theme to be discussed in this celebrated literary genre.politics is not discussed in shadow lines but one can not be unaware of the fact or can not hold oneself from asking question as to why riots in bangladesh were followed by the same in calcutta…….{the circles … the novels…raise so much questions to be asked…}what amitav has sought to ask is the reason why muslims living in india are hated suddenly …why there are kept by some in india and killled by others simulataneously.whether india wants to remain secular or it needs to be a single religion state.what is there to be suspected if some person whowas born in lahore before pakistan was declared separate nation and now wants to visit that place… nostalgia a crime or seditions… they need to show there love and faith or to prove that every time……will they never be allowed to feel at home or they have to keep “moving on” as ghosh wrote…{jetomosha}.can emotions be manipulated by politics as they have been in india,pakistan,bangladesh for many can memories be formatted/patterned according to the location… the reality of people seem to be bound by these imaginary lines….{imaginary circles….?}


  4. Thanks Sudhir.
    It is indeed disturbing to note that such politics are continuing unabated to this day. The idea of nationhood, instead of rising with the nation’s maturity, appears to be on the decline instead. Sometimes I shudder to think in what state we shall see the “India” we knew in fifty, or even twenty, years.


  5. I think this is a fantastic review of the book, very nuanced and very enlightening. I read Shadow Lines with a host of conflicted feelings – I admit to also having had to grapple with the complex family hierarchies, and was also struck by the deliberate chronologically disordered presentation of time – linear time here is in a splendid, deliberate, careful disarray, and I think that’s the point of the whole novel.

    What struck me was how the novel’s form – a distinctly Proustian exploration of time through memory – becomes a potent metaphor for the larger political questions the novel asks.

    How can one divide memory itself? No matter how far into the future it resurfaces, memory can never be divided. ‘Felt’ time is different from linear time, ‘felt’ time implies subjectivity and emotion, and memory is infused with emotion. The epiphany of such moments – the collective moment of shared human reception to memory, whether reluctant or in earnest, causes the entire enterprise of politicized divisions to fall to the ground.

    I think the point of the novel is to highlight how time might seem divided but memory essentially severs divides, pointing to their futility in the face of human nature, and herein lies his exploration the ‘shadowiness’ of such divisions – their essentially phantom, ludicrous nature.

    I also found the most interesting his exploration (albeit subtle) of the constructed, divided lines between individual, human trajectories of selfhood – his love for Ila, for instance. I thought that was the most fascinating part of the novel. ‘Need is not transitive, one may need without oneself being needed’ and when she rebuffs him, how ‘history’ comes into play as a panacea to pain – ‘I ceased to exist, except as a chronicle’.


  6. it is very interesting, romantic, patriotic, terrorist, memorable, moralistic. and what is more attracting is that all this in one single work. i love it. thanks to the English literature and Amitavji.


  7. Ghosh is primarily an academician with a historiographical and anthropological training and he is a sarcastic observer the unnamed narrator here > I think these 2 points are missing in this analysis


  8. The Shadow Lines of Amitav Ghosh is a wonderful mingling of memory,history,family,past and politics with a fantastic story telling style that can enchant and arrest the attention
    of any reader.I really like it.
    Altaf Biplab.


  9. The Shadow Lines of Amitav Ghosh is a wonderful mingling of memory,
    history,family,past and politics that can easily enchant and arrest the attention of any reader,I really like this book.


  10. I was interested by the ‘clamour of voices’ inside the narrator’s head, and the idea that his identity made up of the stories of other people – much like the India depicted in Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ where the the narrator has many parents, and many voices inside his head.

    What I’m struggling to understand is what Ghosh means by ‘oneself and one’s image in the mirror’?


  11. I liked the idea of the narrator being made up of a ‘clamour of voices’ and being absorbed into other people’s stories – something which seems allegorical for the nation in which he lives.

    But what does Ghosh mean by ‘oneself and one’s image in the mirror’?


  12. Saheb isn’t Mayadebi’s husband but Ila’s father. Remember when he touches the narrator’s grandma’s feet when he is first introduced in the novel.


  13. Amitabh Ghosh is addressing crucial issues concerning the writing,and the role of historiography in relation to the ways in which national identities are constructed. He is attempting to uncover the silences and omissions of the dominent historiography and the influence of these suppressed memories on the commonly received notions about the nation and its past. I like the narrative strategy used by ghosh to explore the then people who faced the parting in all aspects.


  14. I like the narrative strategy used by ghosh to explore the then people who faced the parting in all aspects.


  15. terrible facts we can never imagine through such reading but only can put ourselves into that particular thought..that amitav ghosh has tried to put into his characters…


  16. I started reading Ghosh with ‘The Glass Palace’ and that remained my favourite among his works – The Calcutta Chromosome (brilliant work too!), Sea of Poppies and The Hungry Tide. Until I read ‘The Shadow Lines’.

    It reads beautifully, like any Amitav Ghosh work. When it comes to using language, he is easily one of the best. Unlike most of his other works, there is much less research as such that has gone in. So he basically plays with different kinds of people – right up his alley being an anthropologist. While there is the narrator who hasn’t traveled physically, but transcends all borders mentally when listening to stories from people and from his favourite Tridib, there is Ila, who sees the other end, traveling non-stop dragged all around the world by her diplomat parents. All she seems to know is where the women’s room in each airport is, which is her marker for the places. Her life and problems are different and the description of the racist attack by fellow students leaves you gasping. For an avid reader, that passage is pure orgasm as Amitav switches across three different timelines with just one event and its narrative.

    For me, this is by far Ghosh’s best work. From what I am seeing with his later works like Sea of Poppies etc, this might even remain so. Not to put down his really good other works, but here he’s on a totally different level. These days the amount of research that he puts into the story and the settings in a way inhibit his main strength – people.


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