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Discuss the interplay of memory and history in Amitav Ghosh’s The

Shadow Line, with suitable illustrations from the text.

Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Line published in the year 1988 is a moving novel which has won
two prestigious Indian prizes – the Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ananda Puraskar. It is a
story of two middle class families – the Datta Chaudharis of Bengal and the Prices of London.
The Shadow Line explores the events of the partition of Bengali culture and East Pakistan.
Ghosh has indulged himself in re-reading history and details of political decision in order to
make sense of personal and social order of life. He does not see history as mere data or facts
but as something extremely valuable that people experience and live. All the characters in the
novel tell some part of the history while narrating their respective stories. They present their
views on how freedom, nationalism and communalism during various phases of Indian history
changed the lives.

The novel consists of the memories of the characters in the two families. Through the
memories of the family members, Ghosh also explores the history of the World War II, the
bloody partition years, the Dhaka and Calcutta riots in 1963 and 1964. The novel narrates the
history of an Indian family that lives in Calcutta but has its roots in Dhaka on the East Pakistan
side of the border. The experience of Partition and of living in the nation-state of India in the
1960s is presented through symbolism of lines, be they political, communal or geographical.
Most of the stories are told by the narrator’s grandmother; his uncle Tridib and his cousins,
Robi and Ila; and the family friend May Price.

There are characters from three generations which discloses a different part of history through
his or her memory. The narrator’s grandmother who used to live in Dhaka before partition
narrates the subaltern history of militant nationalists, stressing their great contribution and
sacrifice towards the freedom of the nation from the British. During this time the grandmother
studied in Dhaka college from where these terrorist organizations recruited their members and
due such activities her college often witnessed police raid. The grandmother also narrates a
story of a shy boy who turned out to be a militant in her class. The boy was caught by the police
and later transported to the infamous prisons of Andaman and Nicobar Islands. She is seemed
to regret her ignorance of him as a militant, for otherwise she would have joined him too to
save the nation. This story could form a part of subaltern history of nationalism which remains
The next historical event discussed in the novel is the Second World War through the memory
of a nine year Tridib. In 1939, Mayadebi went to England with her husband and her son, Tridib.
Tridib tells about the bombardment of houses on Solent Road and Lymington Road. To Tridib as
a highly imaginative boy, every little bomb seemed like an earthquake. The destruction of the
house on Brick Lane in which the four Alan Tresawsen, Dan, Mike and Francesca lived is another
reminder of the war in the novel. The war also affects the character of Tridib as he encounters a
love making scene in a wrecked theatre. Later he writes a pornographic letter to May Price
expressing his wish to make love to her in a ruin. Tridib emphasizes the role of creative
imagination to retain freedom. He describes war-stricken London mixed with fiction since he
believes that we cannot invent without imagination and without this creation, we will fall prey
to the prejudices and power of others and lose our individuality.

The Partition of India is another significant historical event in the novel. Some of the characters
including the grandmother, Saifuddin and Khalil describes its effects through their memory. The
grandmother is rendered as a foreigner when the line of separation is drawn. She had never
had any news of her uncle Jethamoshai and her aunt again. The ancestral house in East Pakistan
serves as an allegory for the Partition and as a shelter for the refugees coming from India after
the line has been drawn. Saifuddin is another subaltern character displaced by the Partition. A
Muslim from Bihar who had migrated to Dhaka as a poor person with a large family. He had
been able to get accommodation in the grandmother’s ancestral house where in the courtyard
he had set up a workshop and has now become a mechanic. Also, Khalil, a migrant from West
Bengal has found some place to live in the ancestral house.

The narrator also describes his memory about the news of India-China war in 1962 as his
grandmother expresses her patriotic feelings and embrace the narrator hoping a crushing
defeat for China. For the cause, the narrator and his friends collect war fund, and their mothers
donate their bangles and earrings. Similarly, the historical event of the war between India and
Pakistan turns the grandmother hysterical to the extent of breaking her radio set and she
donates her gold chain – the enviable gift from her husband.

Also, the riots occurred in Calcutta and Dhaka because of the theft of Mu-i-Mubarak in the year
1963, the hair of the Prophet Mohammad is described through the memory of the narrator and
May Price. The novel also highlights the protest through black-flag demonstrations from
Srinagar to the Hazratbal mosque through the display of black armbands by large mobs of
people. Rumors were heard by the narrator’s family that the Muslims has poisoned the water
supply tank in the hatred emerged between Hindus and Muslims because of the theft in
Calcutta. Also, the narrator’s memory of his school bus being attacked by a violent crowd marks
this historical event. May’s memory reveals the cause for Tridib’s death and the connection
between the riots in Dhaka in 1964. When the narrator’s grandmother visited Dhaka to bring
her uncle back to India, they were attacked by a mob and Jethamoshai, Tridib and Khalil were
mob lynched to death.

1. Text ‘The Shadow line’ by Amitav Ghosh
2. Postcolonial approach to The Shadow Line by H R Kasikhan
3. The Balance of Time and Place by Gayatri Tamalapakula
4. The Shadow Line by Shodhganga

Submitted By:
Roll no. – 16/909
Sem- VI
Partition Literature Assignment
B.A.(Hons) English