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Twenty-five years since the publication of Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines, it continues to define the scope and constraints of our lives
The Shadow Lines, 25 years old this year, has been an epochal work of this last quarter century. In this time it has been translated into several languages. It has been reprinted numerous times. It has seeped into the consciousness of a generation so deeply that often when we think of the scope and constraints of our lives as citizens of South Asia or the world, as historically and geographically located individuals, we do not even realise how our thought is shaped by our reading, so long ago for many of us, of The Shadow Lines.
A legion of academic literary critics have found this book to be the perfect text to explicate the ideas posited by postcolonial theory. This is both fitting and, in retrospect, inevitable. The fragmentary and circumscribed nature of memory in a subcontinent scarred by the colonial experience, and the violent fissures that followed decolonisation, found an unprecedented utterance in The Shadow Lines. A significant aspect of Amitav Ghosh's project in this book, coded into the title, was to demonstrate that the calcification of national boundaries in our imaginations had brutalised our sense of who we were and, consequently, who we could be. For a generation of academics striving to overthrow the pervasive and deadening view that we subcontinentals were locked into our little nationhoods, The Shadow Lines provided the literary weaponry.
The political interrogation of the dominant discourse is achieved through a formal manoeuvre: a non-linear structure that juxtaposes different points in space and time. The novel moves from London during the war to Delhi 40 years later, Kolkata in the early Sixties, London again in the Seventies, and finally the spatio-temporal axis around which the entire book turns: Dhaka in the mid-Sixties. This technique, which Ghosh has attributed to his reading of Marcel Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu in the years before he wrote The Shadow Lines, is more effective, in my view, on the spatial front. I say this despite the author's insistence over the years that the slippage of memory, and the psychological damage that this slippage reveals, was his central concern when he set out to write this book in the aftermath of the 1984 riots in Delhi.