The most famous passage in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, 25 years old this year, is the one where the narrator discovers the limitations of borders and boundaries.
All it takes to challenge his understanding of nations and frontiers is a pair of compasses, describing a circle on the map where places stand revealed in a new relationship to one another.
When we read The Shadow Lines as teenagers, back in 1988, that was the passage that my generation “by-hearted”. Ghosh unsettled everything we thought we knew, drawing startling new connections and associations: “Chiang Mai in Thailand was much nearer Calcutta than Delhi is… Hanoi and Chungking are nearer Khulna than Srinagar…”
This ability to change the way you understood history, or geography, or the world, marks Ghosh’s fiction all the way through to The Ibis Trilogy. It’s a gamechanging inversion, like the story of people who keep an upside-down globe in their children’s room, so that they will never take the geography of the world for granted.
Reading The Shadow Lines 25 years later, what stays with me is a completely different passage. Ghosh said in several interviews that it was the experience of living through the Delhi of the 1984 riots that marked him, permanently, as it marked everyone who witnessed the events of that dark and cold month.
He wrote about the 1964 Calcutta riots in the post-1984 years. In one scene, a group of schoolboys try to get home as their bus winds through the streets of a city exploding into violence. The fear the narrator describes is not the fear of nature (“the most universal of human fears”) or the fear of the state (“the commonest of modern fears”).
It is, Ghosh wrote, “a fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent”. He could have stopped here, but his acute sense of history took him further still: “It is this that sets apart the thousand people of the subcontinent from the rest of the world—not language, not food, not music—it is the special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one’s image in the mirror.” Some years later, when Mukul Kesavan wrote his only novel, another intelligent classic, it seemed fitting that it was titled Looking Through Glass.
The pleasures of The Shadow Lines have remained timeless, which is not a claim that can be made for other classics: the prose of GV Desani’s All About H Hatterr, or even RK Narayan’s Swami and Friends, has aged well, but it has aged.
You could publish the novel today and pass it off as a contemporary classic; Ila, the diplomat’s daughter who markes the world’s cities by the state of the Ladies in a succession of airports, the gangling, awkward narrator, so hungry for other people’s lives that he can trace the streets of a London he knows only through stories, and Tridib, the quintessential graceful if slightly useless aantel.
Across that gap of 25 years, the quieter passages remain just as memorable—details about post-war London streets, about the careful but staged wardrobe of Ila’s father, the Shaheb. Early on, Tridib and the narrator are being told anecdotes about life in Sri Lanka. One of the stories is dramatic, flashy, about an encounter between a snake and a monitor lizard, but the detail Tridib fastens on is minor, apparently trivial. “Did you notice that Ila’s house has a sloping roof?” The narrator is puzzled, until Tridib makes him see how different that life might be from the one he knows, how people might shape their lives without the assured privacy and neighbourliness of the roofs of Calcutta. Tridib’s short commentary lasts no longer than a few paragraphs, but is worth much more than most longform How To Write lectures.
And then there are harder lessons, especially this one, so relevant to a time when “1984” and “2002” have become shorthand for bitter and banal arguments. “Every word I write about those events of 1964 is the product of a struggle with silence…. It is not the silence of an imperfect memory. Nor is it a silence enforced by a ruthless state—nothing like that, no barbed wire, no checkpoints to tell me where its boundaries lie…. Where there is no meaning, there is banality and that is what this silence consists in, that is why it cannot be defeated—because it is the silence of an absolute, impenetrable banality.”
In 1998, ten years after The Shadow Lines had been published by Ravi Dayal, I was embarrassed to see how much of the novel I had internalized—it seemed such an uncritical, emotional response.
And then a visiting friend from Calcutta told a fine story about his cousin, who suffered from unpredictable stomach troubles and would often drop in at his home. Both parties engaged in a polite pretence that the cousin was there to meet the family, and relief in the form of a bathroom visit was only available once he had completed the formalities of a quick chat.
Around the dinner table, we listened in startled recognition, and then another Calcuttan said: “But you have stolen Tridib’s Gastric!”
It was an unwitting theft. The Shadow Lines had sunk deep into this friend’s memory, as it would for many readers, and he had not stolen Tridib’s Gastric from the novel so much as transferred it into the pool of his own memories. There will be far greater tributes to Ghosh’s skill as a writer, but perhaps this might stand its ground among the usual platitudes.