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The Shadow Lines: Going Away, and Coming Home

July 31, 2012

I think it was a May afternoon back in 2007. I was in a bus with my father. We were on our way to Dehradun from the ISBT at Kashmere Gate, Delhi. We had been to Chennai for my admission into an engineering college and after submitting some documents at that college and taking up a B.Tech. in mechanical engineering, I had voiced my doubts about the course. I told him I wasn’t sure I really wanted to do it. Perhaps I could do physics at Delhi University instead? He thought I was confused and I should give it some time before deciding either way. I had occupied the window seat and my father sat next to me. Before the bus started to move, a young girl (in her twenties perhaps) came and took the seat next to my father, near the aisle. I don’t remember how our conversation really started, but soon enough I was chatting with her about my predicament — how I was unsure of my future plans, and what could she tell me about Delhi University? She was a second year English Honors student at one of the undergraduate colleges in DU and so I thought I should ask her what the university was like. She told me it was a lot of fun, showing me some pictures of her college and friends. It did seem like a lot of fun, college and all. Then she told me how she had dropped a year after school to prepare for Medical entrance exams, and how a year later she decided she instead wanted to do English literature. I could relate to that story of hers and since I didn’t want to drop a year before realizing what I wanted to do, I sort of figured I should give physics a try and decided to apply to Delhi University that summer. We talked about a lot of things and among them, books. She mentioned Amitav Ghosh, and a particular book, The Shadow Lines, during the course of the conversation. She said I should read it.

I never met her again after that bus ride. But when I finished reading The Shadow Lines while travelling in trains this summer, I thought of her. I wasn’t much of a fiction reader back then. I used to read nonfiction usually. Fiction, I thought, did not really count towards giving me an understanding of the real world, and so I largely kept away from it. In college, once I joined DU for physics, I started reading more fiction. But The Shadow Lines never really ‘happened’. So when I finished reading it this summer and reflected upon what I had read, I realized it was a really good recommendation from that fellow traveller of yore. Allow me to share, then, some of these reflections. And if at all ‘book reviews’ of this sort can be dedicated to anyone, I dedicate it to that fellow traveller on that bus ride back home.

If I were to make an attempt at sketching the story of The Shadow Lines in a few words, I would not do a good job of it. The reason being, the narrative is so interwoven between the past and the present, with constant jumps back-and-forth, that you come to appreciate the whole of it only towards the end when it all seems to make a coherent whole, and even though I have a sense of how the story goes, I’ll only do this commendable book a disservice by writing a bad summary. Instead, I shall just write about a few things that caught my attention and which I think I should share.

The narrator, a child of eight or so, is fascinated by his uncle, Tridib. That is a name you will often hear throughout the novel, for it holds the narrative together as the narrator weaves various strands of his past and present into a moving picture of shifting times, changing borders, childhood memories, and a nostalgia that speaks of a child’s imagination kindled by an uncle who helps him see the world — a place has to be invented, he tells him:

Tridib had given me worlds to travel in and he had given me eyes to see them with: she who had been travelling around the world since she was a child, could never understand what those hours in Tridib’s room had meant to me, a boy who had never been more than a few hundred miles from Calcutta.

‘She’ is the narrator’s cousin, Ila, who travels the world as her family keeps moving ever so often from one country to another.

I could not persuade her that a place does not merely exist, that it has to be invented in one’s imagination; that her practical, bustling London was no less invented than mine, neither more nor less true, only very far apart. It was not her fault that she could not understand, for as Tridib often said of her, the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places, she had never travelled at all.

Ila questions the need to try to invent what is already there: ‘Why? Why should we try, why not take the world as it is?’

I told her we had to try because the alternative wasn’t blankness — it only meant that if we didn’t try ourselves, we would never be free of other people’s inventions.

Gems like those are scattered all over the book, and I point out a few only to nudge the reader into picking up the book and reading it — also, to point out a few themes that make The Shadow Lines a meditation of sorts: on seeing the world, on the arbitrariness of national boundaries, on love and on nostalgia. 

The narrator’s grandmother is another character that appears throughout the novel, from his childhood to adulthood. When she is nearing her death, and the narrator is by her bedside, this is how he feels for her:

my heart fills with love for her — love and that other thing, which is not pity but something else, something the English language knows only in its absence — ruth — a tenderness which is not merely pity and not only love.

On another occasion the narrator meditates on the love he inadvertently feels for Ila:

that state, love, is so utterly alien to that other idea without which we cannot live as human beings — the idea of justice. It is only because love is so profoundly the enemy of justice that our minds, shrinking in horror from its true nature, try to tame it by uniting it with its opposite: it is as though we say to ourselves — he bought her a diamond worth exactly so much, or she gave up a career that earned her precisely so much — in the hope that if we apply all the metaphors of normality, that if we heap them high enough, we shall, in the end, be able to approximate that state metaphorically. And yet between the state and its metaphors there is no more connection than there is between a word, such as mat, and the thing itself: they are utterly indifferent to each other, so that we may heap the metaphors — the diamonds, the suicides, the miles, the suffering — till the end of our abilities, and yet find no trace at all of the state itself. And equally we may find the opposite.

It’s been a while since I finished reading the book and I might be missing a few things that I thought I would share while I reflected upon it, so it is with some reluctance — for I fear that I may be missing on some very important things, which I almost surely am —  that I’m finishing this account with a particular kind of silence that the narrator has to deal with:

when we try to speak of events of which we do not know the meaning, we must lose ourselves in the silence that lies in the gap between words and the world…

… And things which did not fit my vocabulary were merely pushed over the edge into the chasm of that silence.

On that note, I think, I will give in to that other kind of silence — one which stems from an inability to verbalize the exact nature of what one feels about something, in this case The Shadow Lines — and let the (prospective?) reader of the book figure out for herself if she can break that silence any more than I can after reading the book. I think a book too has to be invented while you’re reading it, and if you don’t do that, you won’t be free of the inventions of others. What I invented for myself while I read this book was a relationship that I’m increasingly beginning to see between the world of literary fiction and that of literal facts — that fiction doesn’t have to live in isolation from facts, and that much of fiction is a reflection on, and influenced by, the real world, and that there is something valuable that one may learn from reading fiction, namely, the ability to switch contexts from the real world to a fictional one and play within this fictional space with concepts (like love and death and silence and many others) that one can’t really play with in the real world.

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