An early novel by my favourite author Amitav Ghosh ‘The Shadow Lines’ (1988) is a rather rambling story about two families from Dhaka (now in Bangladesh) who moved to India and the UK. His later novels mastered this art of a wide sweep across time and space. I have read all his novels with great enthusiasm. In fact I have the entire collection, including the Trilogy of opium trade spreading its tentacles from Bihar to the African continent and the far East China. He also excels in telling stories that spread across generations with a million characters that sends your head spinning at times, but leaves you routed to the main story line!
‘The Shadow Lines’ is similar in many ways to the above description, but has a very deep rooted and contemporary feel that touched me deeply. Having lived briefly in the United Sates and for 35 years in Gujarat, and being an academic who observes societies, the invisible lines that divide communities was always clearly visible to me. The invisible lines are as much on the ground and space as in the mind.
The story line in ‘The Shadow Lines’ swings between India and UK with time that spans the period before and after the partition of India. A large part of the story is seen through the eyes of a small boy. The last few chapters were moving. The author describes the riots across India during the partition period which is reflected in erstwhile East Pakistan. He describes the border between the two countries as “that line that was to set us free”. I quote a few poignant paragraphs from the book to illustrate the point.
“When I turned back to my first circle I was struck with wonder that there had really been a time, when people, sensible people of good intention, had thought that all maps were the same, that there was a special enchantment in lines; I had to remind myself that they were not to be blamed for believing that there was something admirable in moving violence to the borders and dealing with it through science and factories, for that was the pattern of the world. They had drawn their borders, believing in the 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 – the irony that killed Tridip; the simple fact that there had never been a moment in the four-thousand-year-old history of that map, when the places we know as Dhaka and Calcutta were more closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines-so closely that I, in Calcutta, had only to look into the mirror to be in Dhaka; a moment when each city was the inverted image of the other, locked into an irreversible symmetry by that line that was to set us free – our looking glass border” (p. 233).
“Free, he said, laughing. You know if you look at the front page of the newspapers at home now, all these picture of dead people – in Assam, the northeast, Punjab, Sri Lanka, Tripura – people shot by terrorists and separatists and the army and the police, you’ll find somewhere behind it all, that single word; everyone is doing it to be free.……(p.246). And then I think to myself, why don’t they draw thousands of little lines through the whole subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? It’s a mirage, the whole thing is a mirage. If freedom were possible, surely Trideb’s death would have set me free?” (p. 247)
Is the author describing the partition of 1947 or modern times? ‘How can anyone divide a memory?’ So true, if partition was the solution, if ‘cleansing’ of the city and creation of shadow lines were a solution? This story set in another time is relived again and again in the country and different parts of the world. Differences in race, caste, religion are all sought to be solved through drawing these artificial lines on maps.
Freedom from what, can freedom be created with these lines drawn, across the continent, across the country and even across the city? In University towns in the United States you are told, ‘do not go beyond the 62nd street’. In the city in India I live in, the traditional divide of the East and West of the river has been redrawn as between the ghetto and non-ghetto areas. The new shadow lines in India have been drawn between Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Hyderabad being the new bone of contention. Now just when we thought ‘jannat yahi hai, yahi hai, yahi hai’, it begins again. EU was an effort at deleting shadow lines, and the most recent Brexit is a demonstration of it’s failure. The shadow lines are only more reason to create doubt, mistrust, suspicion and worse still more reason to riot, to shoot, more reason to kill, for that illusive “freedom”.