The Unadorned

My literary blog to keep track of my creative mood swings with poems n short stories, book reviews n humorous prose, travelogues n photography, reflections n translations, both in English n Hindi.

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I'm a peace-loving married Indian male on the right side of '50 with college-going children, and presently employed under government. Educationally I've a master's degree in History, and another in Computer Application. Besides, I've a post graduate diploma in Management. My published works are:- (1)"In Harness", ISBN 81-8157-183-5, a poetry collections and (2) "The Remix of Orchid", ISBN 978-81-7525-729-0, a short story collections with a foreword by Mr. Ruskin Bond, (3) "Virasat", ISBN 978-81-7525-982-9, again a short story collection but in Hindi, (4) "Ek Saal Baad," ISBN 978-81-906496-8-1, my second Story Collection in Hindi.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh: Into the Labyrinthine Text


The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh: Into the Labyrinthine Text
While going through the convoluted storyline of Amitav Ghosh’s “The Shadow Lines”, I was reminded of something that I had once studied in an entirely different context. It was about the structured third generation computer language which was designed to enable writing of “Go-to-free” programs. What does that mean? It simply means that computer programs should be readable, and that for readability consideration, their implementation trace should not allow a one-way transfer of control by an abrupt commandline statement “goto”, say by abandoning a traceable computing point in favour of certain remote or rather unconnected point back and forth. By this act of abruptness, the control of a program is just deflected to flounder in the maze of code with no promise of return to the line of code from where the digression takes place. Prior to that, the style of programming used “go-to” quite facilely and sometimes with fatal computing fiascos and as such computer scientists simply rejected that style. The instant novel of Amitav Ghosh, like those messy ‘go-to’-ridden programs, goes through too many context shifts, and the return to the point of digression is not always seamless. Back stories dominate with patches of text unexpectedly importing fresh characters and remotely connected events, so much so that it is but natural for the readers to often forget the principal storyline. There are far too many tense shifts, and the punctuational distinction between plain narratives and the dialogues has been consciously omitted for stylistic reason, perhaps. The POV is first person, a fact that makes it difficult to distinguish if the particular text in first person is the version of the narrator or the statement of some other character. The confusion persists despite the speech tags provided as elements of clarity in the text. The timeline is not sequentially drawn and unless one is ready with a notebook to jot down dates of happenings and connect them manually, he is bound to resort to frequent regressions. In a way the opus, despite the lucidity of its prose, evocative similes and brilliant appositives, is not meant just for any reader but for the experienced ones who have the ability to remember the context howsoever abrupt the shifts may be and for those who have the homing instinct of coming back to the origin at will.

One can see through the compulsion of the writer though. The narrator starts the story from the middle and traces the events of the past that he has not himself witnessed. It is a first-person narrative and, as such, past materials and the materials about happenings in his absence are culled from the versions of others and reproduced to supplement what the narrator has personally experienced or felt about them. Again, Amitav Ghosh not only narrates what he has gathered but also states how he has done that. All in all he is not an all-knowing observer of the events; he was just an actor in it doing the difficult job of recapitulation of others’ experience.

The story begins with the narrator’s grandmother’s sister Mayadevi going to England with her husband and son Tridib in the year 1939, thirteen years before the narrator is born. Tridib, the protagonist of the story was just a seven-year old boy then.

The narrator’s grandmother is a widow, struggling as a school teacher in Calcutta to give financial support to her family consisting of one son, his wife and the narrator. She hails from Dhaka, and her bag of life experience is full of multifarious exposures. As a girl groomed in a joint family she has witnessed fierce legal battles for lands, an experience that makes her attribute a special meaning to the euphemism called brotherly relationship. As a student in Dhaka she used to feel romantically attached to or rather sympathized with the cause of patriots who took to the path of violence against the British colonial rulers, yet as a girl she had no way to give vent to such feeling. On the other hand, like any other girl of her time, she was fond of jewelries. She is shown to be extremely strict with her grandson in study matters, a stickler of discipline. With her husband dead, she grows even stricter cultivating a fiercely self-respecting image, a person who has spurned the offer of anybody among her relatives to come to her rescue at her times of need. Especially she is strict in this matter with her own sister Mayadevi, a rich and famous lady, foreclosing any option of help from her. Sibling rivalry is the basis of such distrust, or maybe she has taken her affairs to be her exclusive domain, enjoying every inch her struggle for respectful existence.

Tridib, Mayadevi’s son, related to the narrator as uncle, is a fellow of bohemian temperament, one that does not have any inhibition to go to street corner at Gole Park and start lecturing on random topics to people who are willing to listen to just anything. Otherwise, he is into some archeological research for his Ph. D. when his parents move about foreign lands in pursuance of a career in Foreign Service. And as a person eminently accessible to the narrator in his childhood, Tridib is the latter’s primary source of knowledge about England. Earlier. Tridib had accompanied his parents to England in 1939 when his father went there for his treatment, stayed there for a year, at a time when England was going through a very crucial period of her history. And as such his account is unassailably authentic in the eyes of the narrator. As Tridib shares his experience, the narrator’s imagination is whetted to an extent that he begins to carry mental picture of the places

Mayadevi’s husband Mr Himangshusekhar Dattachaudhury alias Saheb has a close family friendship with one Mrs Price of West Hampstead, London. The friendship dates back to the British days when Mrs Price’s father Tresawsen actually lived in India cultivating an intimate friendship with Mayadevi’s father-in-law who was a judge of the Calcutta High Court. Tresawsen’s daughter, after her marriage with one Mr Price, became Mrs Price. That is how Trdib as a seven-year old boy goes to London with his parents and stays in the house of Mr Price. There he has the chance to see May, the baby daughter of Mrs and Mr Price. Back in Calcutta, he keeps contact with Mrs Price through a Christmas card every year and after nineteen years of such formal friendship suddenly starts to include May into its fold. The pen friendship continues for at least two years and then there is an exchange of photographs. Then after two years that is in December 1963, May pays a visit to Calcutta on the request of Tridib, when the narrator is only an eleven-year old boy. There develops a peculiar kind of love between them, a kind of feeling that blends curiosity with condescension.

There is another important character in the novel. She is Ila, the granddaughter of Mayadevi. Since Ila’s father Jatin has a globe-trotting career, Ila has the multi-cultural exposure. She is a votary of western way of life, quite mercurial in her temperament. The narrator and Ila are the two cousins, for Ila’s grandmother and that of the narrator are the sisters hailing from a family of advocates in Dhaka. She is an exquisitely beautiful lady, permissive in her attitude to sex and alcohol etc but her most important role in the novel is that she is responsible for whetting sexual fantasy in the narrator’s mind. There are occasions the cousins go very close to the acts of sex thanks to the seduction of Ila, say for example once when they are under a huge table of British provenance in the cellar of Jatin’s Rajabazar mansion and on another occasion when they stay overnight in the cellar of Mrs Price’s house in London, but on both the occasions the matter does not advance owing to the indecisiveness and timidity of the narrator. Maybe Amitav Ghosh has stopped short of incest as he is conscious that what he is writing has abundant correlation with actual happenings in his life. However, the narrator’s upbringing as an imaginative boy owes in a substantial measure to Ila who shares her foreign way of living through the photographs and yearbooks and by narrating the many interesting episodes. Whether it is through her description of her encounter with the monitor lizard in her bungalow of Colombo or her intimate childhood games with Nick, she exercises an intense stimulating experience. She gets some smalltime job and loves Nick, the son of Mrs Price and finally enters the wedlock. The narrator is left in the midst of a peculiar feeling of loss, losing something that he is not prepared to own.

Then there is one May, the daughter of Mrs Elizabeth Price and Mr S. N. Price. She is a musician, but at her heart she is an altruist, helping Amnesty and Oxfam as a Good Worker in their philanthropic effort in the famine-stricken areas of Africa. The love between Trdib, the narrator’s uncle and May Price has a peculiar tinge. It is neither a love at first sight, nor a feeling of fondness born out of longstanding association, nor a result of mutual dependence. This has nothing to do with mutual appreciation, nor with gratefulness. It is rather a love born out of careless fantasy, the maiden overtures of which is made by Tridib. Amitav Ghosh makes May narrate her own love in the following words: ‘I don’t know whether any of it was real, whether I was in love with him, or merely fascinated by the sense of defeat that surrounded him [Tridib]. An eight-year old boy happens to meet one-year old baby girl and thereafter a long nineteen year elapses with neither contact nor remembrance. Suddenly the contact is revived through pen-friendship followed by a series of one-sided smutty letters and then she visits India to meet her friend. The invitation to visit India is extended by Tridib, though. Here in Calcutta she searches for the ruins where the smutty letters of Tridib have pen-pictured their sexual encounters and the Victoria Memorial where Tridib takes her for a sight-seeing does not match her mental picture. May is shown to be honest, kind and affectionate. It is not the way she snaps the vein of a severely injured dog on the road to save him from pain alone that shows her compassion. Rather she maintains her magnanimity even against the gravest of provocations. The day Ila and May’s brother Nick get married, a mood of frustration comes over the narrator who goes dead drunk. May takes pity on him and takes him to her house at Islington to stay overnight and get sober before he can go to his house at Fulham. But the narrator does not stop himself from molesting May. Despite that May maintains her notional relationship—I’m old enough to be your spinster aunt—and excuses him the next day when he wakes up to a feeling of remorse.

We have another character in the novel with serious role in shaping the story. He is Robi, the younger brother of Tridib. He is physically stout to an extent that he likens the toughness of those extremists among the freedom fighters of Dhaka in the eyes of the narrator’s grandmother. He is sanctimonious as seen from the way he prevents his niece Ila from dancing in a cabaret organized in Grand Hotel, Calcutta. He is successful in clicking a premium job in the Indian Administrative Service. He has the experience of staying abroad with his parents, of a hostel life in early childhood. And finally he is the eyewitness of the tragic death of his elder brother Tridib in Dhaka.

The story ends in January 1964. Earlier in 1962 the grandmother of the narrator retires from her job of a Principal of the school in Deshapriya Park in Calcutta. Initially she suffers from her ennui but soon she gets something important to accomplish. Her father’s elder brother, Jethamoshai, is now left in Jindabahar Lane, Dhaka and living a life of helplessness, almost at the mercy of a refugee family that has squatted in his house. So she wants to rescue him and afford him a life of comfort for the rest of his life. By January 1964 she was ready to embark upon that job. It is exactly at that time that May Price comes to Calcutta to meet Trdib. And a further coincidence is that Mr Himangshusekhar alias Saheb, the husband of Mayadevi comes to Dhaka on promotion as the Counsellor in the deputy high commission. And all three of them, May, Tridib and the narrator’s grandmother, set out for Dhaka on 3rd January 1964. The law and order situation in Dhaka is not calm at all, yet they accompanied by Robi who is already in Dhaka, go to Jindabahar Lane in Shador-bajar leaving their safe diplomatic enclave of Dhanmundi. The CD-plated diplomatic car is spotted by the hooligans and they wait in the middle with a view to intercepting the car in its return trip and to harm the passengers. While they return the car drives slowly so that Jethamoshai, the rescued old man riding a rickshaw can follow them. And in the middle the hooligans attack the car but the driver tries his best to steer clear. Then the hooligans attack the rickshaw fellow and the old man and around that time May, in an act of foolhardy, goes to save the old man. Trdib follows him just to be hacked to death.

The novel is in the form of a first-person narrative. If we take into consideration the birth of Amitav Ghosh in 1956 and of the narrator in 1952—almost around the same time, his scholarship trip to Oxford similar to that of the narrator in the novel, we will find in the novel much that seems to have been taken from the author’s life, mutatis mutandis. There is an adage, widely prevalent in literary circle: everybody can pen at least one novel in his or her life. Well, autobiographical stuff ever appears immensely authentic—its tone says it all.

Amitav Ghosh has a penchant for propounding theories in course of his fictional narratives. I remember in his “Hungry Tides” he says that a sweet called ledkin was launched by a sweetmeat vendor of Calcutta naming it after Lady Canning! In this book, too, he says that there is a happening circle centring Khulna in Bangladesh with a radius of 1200 miles, the one with Srinagar in its circumference, its circumference line further cutting through the Pakistan half of the Punjab, through the tip of Rajasthan, through the Rann of Kutch across the Arabian Sea, through the southernmost tip of Indian peninsula, through Kandy in Sri Lanka, and out into the Indian Ocean until it emerges to touch upon the northernmost  finger of Sumatra, then straight through the tail of Thailand, running through a little north of Phnom Penh, into the hills of Laos, past Hue in Vietnam, dipping into the Gulf of Tonking, then swinging up again through the Chinese province of Yunnan, past Chungking, across the Yangtze Kiang, passing within sight of the Great Wall of China, through Inner Mongolia and Sinkiang, until with a final leap over the Karakoram Mountains to drop into the valley of Kashmir. No other 1200-mile circle on the atlas can have more happening than the above circle that centres Khulna. The boundary line is a line of enchantment where any event in one spot can have its ripples on the other spots. Other 1200-mile circles can be drawn in the map but there one can see only states and citizens whereas the circle with Khulna as the centre has people within it. Quite interesting—we may await Amitav Ghosh to elaborate on it in his future novels!

Sometimes, this novel of Amitav Ghosh is taken to be his voice against the folly of creating several nation states on the basis of religion. Well, there is much in the text that points to such a conclusion, but then, in my reading it is more a fiction based on human relationship than a voice against the folly of separation in the subcontinent. When we compare this novel of Ghosh with Khushwant Singh’s “Train to Pakistan” this point gets even clearer. The author has relied on the riots in the erstwhile East Pakistan to help him reach a readable denouement, and that is all about that. Much before that, the predominant human-relation tone of the novel has been set and nowhere in its intial chapters we get such a hint that the novel is going to assume a political overtone.

All in all, the element of incompatible love is the mainstay of the theme in the novel. The narrator and Ila cannot go any deeper in their relationship because they are cousins. There are some touch-and-go scenes though. The relationship between the narrator and May has no support of the latter as she thinks herself to be the spinster aunt of the former. There is an invasion of modesty yet nothing far-reaching emerges out of that. Tridib’s love is only a fantasy: it however creates curiosity in the mind of May but Tridib is too timid to carry it forward. The love between Ila and Nick Price goes to some extent; they enter into holy matrimony but Nick is too fickle and by the time the novel runs short of words Ila is poised to assert her freedom. There seems to be a sort of exchange acrimony between Nick and May, the brother-sister duo on the one hand and the narrator and Ila, the cousins on the other. Nick Price marries the sister of the narrator and the narrators harbours a romantic felling for May Price, the sister of Nick. Passion is given voice through this incompatibility of souls and situations…and for this reason alone, it turns out to be an immensely evocative reading at that. And everything is for an experienced reader alone.  
A N Nanda



Blogger Unknown said...

I love your comments on this book! Keep up the good work!

8:46 PM  
Blogger A_N_Nanda said...

Thanks, oodles of it. I'm happy that you spared your valuable time to read the post.

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Rahul said...

This was my fourth of his novels after Hungry Tide, Glass Palace and The Sea of Poppies and I was not disappointed yet again! Rather of all the four I have read, this one is my favorite and so much so that I completed reading it in one day!

1:44 AM  
Blogger Anant Nanda said...

Yes Rahul. "The Shadow Lines" is a novel that would have entailed a lot of creative efforts from the novelist. One just enjoys the story while reading it and more than that, reflecting on it for the post-reading recapitulation.

8:02 PM  
Anonymous Neha said...

A moving account of a Bengali family visiting Dhaka in Bangladesh during the times of India’s partition with Bangladesh, Second World War events, and the communal riots in the early 1960s. A thoroughly researched book by one of the greatest of great writers I have ever read. The novel won a Sahitya Akademi Award for its portrayal of the great events of the time.

10:10 PM  
Blogger Anant Nanda said...

Yes, Neha, that constitutes the mainstay of the storyline. And that's the most engrossing stuff in the entire book too. However, the author's narratives seem to be belabouring the reminiscences--sometimes criss-crossing a lot. A smoother line of progression of the story might have made it even more readable.

1:08 AM  
Blogger ANSH PRADHAN said...

I hat dis novel.boring

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What an amazing review. I have read about 50 pages of the book and was feeling quite lost with the odd style of storytelling but your review has cleared it all up. Thanks

1:08 PM  
Blogger Anant Nanda said...

Thanks a lot. Happy to learn my review of the book struck a chord with you. It's always a challenge before a novelist how to set the chronology right, especially when he himself is a character in the narratives.

8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

a very lucid and clear overview of the novel. thanks

2:09 AM  
Blogger Anant Nanda said...

Thank you for sparing your precious minutes for my text.

2:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

you really did this great favour
on me , because after reading your point of view now i'm able to understand what happen in this novel , and why this novel get shahtya akadami award

11:08 PM  
Blogger Anant Nanda said...

You're welcome.

12:46 AM  

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