Most helpful positive review
45 of 47 people found the following review helpful
Catapulted 2 different places, times at breath taking tempo!
on December 3, 2003
"The Shadow Lines" by Amitav Ghosh was written when the homes of the Sikhs were still smoldering, some of the most important questions the novel probes are the various faces of violence and the extent to which its fiery arms reach under the guise of fighting for freedom. Ghosh's treatment of violence in Calcutta and in Dhaka is valid even today, more than ten years after its publication. What has happened recently in Kosovo and in East Timor show that answers still evade the questions, which Ghosh poses about freedom, about the very real yet non-existing lines, which divide nations, people, and families.
The story of the family and friends of the nameless narrator who for all his anonymity comes across as if he is the person looking at you quietly from across the table by the time the story telling is over and silence descends. Before that stage arrives the reader is catapulted to different places and times at breath taking tempo. The past, present and future combine and melt together erasing any kind of line of demarcation. Such lines are present mainly in the shadows they cast. There is no point of reference to hold on to. Thus the going away - the title of the first section of the novel - becomes coming home - the title of the second section. These two titles could easily have been exchanged.
The narrator is very much like the chronicler Pimen in Pushkin's drama Boris Godonow. But unlike Pushkin's Pimen this one is not a passive witness to all that happens in his presence, and absence. The very soul of the happenings, he is the comma which separates yet connects the various clauses of life lived in Calcutta, London, Dhaka and elsewhere. The story starts about thirteen years before the birth of the narrator and ends on the night preceding his departure from London back to Delhi. He spends less than a year in London, researching for his doctorate work, but it is a London he knew very well even before he puts a step on its pavements. Two people have made London so very real to him - Tridib, the second son of his father's aunt, his real mentor and inspirer, and Ila his beautiful cousin who has traveled all over the world but has seen little compared to what the narrator has seen through his mental eye. London is also a very real place because of Tridib's and Ila's friends - Mrs. Price, her daughter May, and son Nick. Like London comes alive due to the stories related by Ila and Tridib, Dhaka comes alive because of all the stories of her childhood told to him by his incomparable grandmother who was born there. The tragedy is that though the narrator spends almost a year in London and thus has ample opportunity to come to terms with its role in his life, it is Dhaka which he never visits that affects him most by the violent drama that takes place on its roads, taking Tridib away as one of its most unfortunate victims.
Violence has many faces in this novel - it is as much present in the marriage of Ila to Nick doomed to failure even before the "yes" word was spoken, as it is present on the riot torn streets of Calcutta or Dhaka. But the specialty of this novel is that this violence is very subtle till almost the end. When violence is dealt with, the idea is not to describe it explicitly like a voyeur but to look at it to comprehend its total senselessness. Thus the way "violence" is brought into the picture is extraordinarily sensitive: The narrator says, talking of the day riots tore Calcutta apart in 1964, "I opened my mouth to answer and found I had nothing to say. All I could have told them was of the sound of voices running past the walls of my school, and of a glimpse of a mob in Park Circus." I have never experienced such a sound, but God, how these sentences get under the skin, how easy it is to hear that sound, how the heart beats faster on reading these sentences!
Ghosh is also a humorous writer. It is serious humor. Single words hide a wealth of meaning, for example, the way Tridib's father is always referred to as Shaheb, Ila's mother as Queen Victoria, or the way the grandmother's sister always remains Mayadebi without any suffix denoting the relationship. Also look at this passage that describes how the grandmother reacts on discovering that her old Jethamoshai is living with a Muslim family in Dhaka is outstanding and must be read to enjoy
The main characters are very real, almost perfectly rounded. I specially love the grandmother. She is the grandmother many of us recognize. In her fierce moral standards, Spartan outlook of life, and intolerance of any nonsense - real and imagined, she is as real as any patriarch or matriarch worth the name. And there is this very loveable character of the narrator. It is that of a boy who warms your heart, it is that of a man who knows and has lost love - more than once in his life - and thus makes you feel like hugging him close to your heart.
Some of the most important questions the novel probes are the various faces of violence and the extent to which its fiery arms reach under the guise of fighting for freedom. Ghosh's treatment of violence in Calcutta and in Dhaka is valid even today, more than ten years after its publication. What has happened recently in Kosovo and in East Timor show that answers still evade the modern world. On all scores, Ghosh's novel is excellent reading and would make a very impressive film. Excellent Must Read!