There are two streams in the novel- one that of the narrator who has heard about England from a cousin who lived there for sometime and his own discovery of the country when he visits it later in life.
The other stream is that of his grandmother visiting her old home in Dhaka, her nostalgia and the discovery of alienation from what she had remembered before Dhaka became part of Pakistan. I found the second stream to be far more readable than the first one, especially the grandmother’s character as seen by her young grandson (the narrator).
The grandmother goes to Dhaka to bring ‘home’ her uncle who had decided to stay on in Dhaka after the partition in 1947. He obdurately refuses, delivering one of the finest dialogs in the novel:
Move? the old man said incredulously. Move to what?
It’s not safe for you here, my grandmother said urgently. I know these people look after you well, but it’s not the same thing. You don’t understand.
I understand very well, the old man muttered. I know everything, I understand everything. Once you start moving, you never stop. That’s what I told my sons when they took the trains. I don’t believe in this India- Shindia. It’s all very well, you are going away now, but suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then? Where will you move to? No one will have you anywhere. As for me, I was born here, and will die here.
Even then, the grandmother tries to take her away from Dhaka when riots break out in the city and he is killed along with the narrator’s cousin Tridib and the rickshaw puller Khalil who had been looking after the old man.
It is an engrossing read, and shares a few elements with Midnight’s Children, though the latter is on a broader canvas. The Shadow Lines is written effortlessly and without the baggage of ‘magical realism’ that Rushdie carried even in his first novel. Ghosh’s prose is evocative and realist.
Nevertheless, what I found disconcerting at the end of the novel is the author’s treatment of the modern nation in South Asia as a given, and not historically formed entity. So the madness of the continuing riots is seen as inexplicable, and the humanist effort on part of his cousin to rescue his grandfather from the rioting mob, as fatal and meaningless.
Take this rumination of Tridib’s brother when he is reminded of Tridib’s death in a Bangladeshi restaurant in England, fifteen years later. It more then sums up the cynicism towards the nation states, towards the borders- the ‘shadow lines.’
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? The whole thing is a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide memory? If freedom was possible, surely Tridib’s death would have set me free.
For some reason, after finishing it my immediate urge was to reach out for VS Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now, because I think it helps to explain better the significance of shadow lines and why they are being continually redrawn, in physical geography as well as geographies of minds.