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Shreya Mudgil

Professor Manjeet Rathee

Ph.D. English 2019-21

M.D.U., Rohtak

28 February 2019

Violence, Sacrifice and Guilt in The Shadow Lines

The Shadow Lines (1988) by Amitav Ghosh (b. 1956) is a novel inspired by the 1984 riots that fol-

lowed the assassination of the then Indian Prime Minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. In a 1995 article,

“The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi” published in The New Yorker, Ghosh gives a chilling account of the

riots that had disrupted the peace between Sikhs and Hindus in the city of Delhi and a number of

other places in North India.

The narrator and the writer both witness the beginning of the riots, while travelling in a bus,

hurtling through the streets that take on sinister characteristics as faceless mobs wait around to kill,

loot and plunder. The character of Robi, the narrator and Ghosh himself, all find it difficult to narrate

the account of the various riots they had witnessed, and their final articulation is “the product of a

struggle with silence” (240).


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Critic Suvir Kaul states in his essay “Separation Anxiety: Growing Up Inter/National in

Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines” that the novel is “an archaeology of silences, a slow brushing

away of some of the cobwebs of modern Indian memory, a repeated return to those absences and fis-

sures that mark the sites of personal and national trauma.”

He further explains that “to articulate these silences, to give them a language, to ascribe to

them a causal structural place within the syntax of the modern nation, is to acknowledge a difficult

and often repressed truth, that states, and ‘citizens’, are founded in violence. However, to

acknowledge is to take the first step in the process of mourning, and perhaps of recovery, and it is

this process that The Shadow Lines represents to its readers.” All the major characters are affected by

Tridib’s death and haunted by his memories. According to Kaul, ”All the various narrators in the

novel- Tridib, Ila, Robi, May, Tha’mma and the narrator- are “constantly engaged in the imaginative

renewal of times, places, events and people past.”

Ghosh recounts the events of the 1984 riots, eleven years after the fact. They are all trauma-

tised as they witness the wrath of an uncontrollable mob that murders innocent people and endangers

their own lives. In the article, Ghosh declares- “Writers don't join crowds…But what do you do

when the Constitutional authority fails to act. You join, and in joining bear all the responsibility and

obligations and guilt that joining represents.” Here, guilt acts as a positive emotion that drives and

motivates the people to fight back against injustice.

Here Kaul essentially says that “This remembering is often tinted with the sepia tones of nos-

talgia, often darkened by the dull shades of grief, but in each case it is fundamentally a search for

meaning, explanations, and reasons for the elusive formal and causal logic that will allow the narra-

tor’s autobiography and equally, the national biography that is interwoven with it in the novel to co-
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here, to make sense.” Moreover, “The narrator’s contact with other characters and their lives traces

the political, social, intellectual and emotional parameters of an English-speaking, bilingual, metro-

politan, middle-class subjectivity.”

Robi is troubled by frequent nightmares of the riots that killed his brother, Tridib, and for

years he is unable to relate the events to others. His sudden outbursts of anger and physical violence

are a product of the helplessness that he felt as a child, seeing his elder brother being murdered by a

mob and being unable to do anything. He could but look on in horror. He also experiences guilt be-

cause he believes that had he not declared that there was no sign of “trouble”(225), they would have

cancelled their plan and Tridib would still be alive.

The narrator’s grandmother is also unable to cope with the death of Tridib, whom she con-

stantly criticises for “loafing about” (4) and not using his time productively. A year-and-a-half after

his death, during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, she shatters her radio with her bare hands and stares

“bemusedly as the blood dripped down the sides of her sari dyeing it a gentle, batik-like crimson”

(262) giving the young narrator such a fright that the little boy had to be given a tranquilliser.

She is attracted by militant nationalism that had spread throughout the country against the

British forces in India. A well-respected and now retired principal and teacher, Tha’mma still be-

lieves that she would have shot a British officer in her youth in order to gain freedom as she poign-

antly tells her grandson, “I would have done anything to be free.” This statement is also made by Ila,

albeit in a different fashion. Both their ideas of freedom are markedly disparate, but show a similar

desperation- to be able achieve some sense of freedom. As Ernest Renan said, “Forgetting, I would

even go so far as to say historical error is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why

progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger [the principle of] nationality.” Tha’mma was
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impressed by the quiet strength and the “clear, direct and challenging” gaze of her shy, nationalist

classmate who got himself arrested calmly by the police.

The novel also brings to light a different kind of violence that is faced by Ila. She is bullied at

the hands of racist Denise who physically assaults her in the street. In this violent act, “there are un-

dertones of envy, racial hatred and the fear of the ascendency of the ‘other’” (Neogy, 77). This event

traumatises the already timid Ila, and Nick, who she hopes would rescue her, ignores her and walks

on home. His racism makes him afraid and embarrassed of being seen walking with an Indian.

Ila is unable to comprehend the psychological violence that Nick puts her through, not only

in their childhood, but also when they are married. He has extra-marital affairs and convinces her

that she is being “silly” (274) for thinking he would do anything to upset her. Theirs is a marriage

replete with mistrust, taunts and sarcasm. There is no one that Ila turns to for compassion and sym-

pathy except the narrator and Tridib. By the end, however, she loses the sympathy and love that the

narrator feels for her, and is finally really alone in her one-sided love for Nick. She convinces and

comforts herself by telling the narrator that she had “made it all up” (274) and believes a “little holi-

day” (274) is all that is needed to set things right.

Ghosh describes the events of Tridib’s death, through May Price, in short, jerky sentences

that do not allow the violence of the act to be seen as “an apocalyptic spectacle” (The New Yorker)

but as a horrifying act that haunts its spectators for life, as is the case with Robi, May and the narra-

tor’s grandmother:

Tridib ran into the mob, and fell upon their backs. He was trying to

push his way through to the old man, I think. Then the mob dragged
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him in. He vanished. I could only see their backs. It took less than a

moment…They were all dead. They’d cut Khalil’s stomach open.

The old man’s head had been hacked off. And they’d cut Tridib’s throat,

from ear to ear. That was that; that’s all there is to tell. (276)

Ghosh advocates the recognition and celebration of the sacrifices that people make and “the risks

that perfectly ordinary people [are] willing to take for one another” (The New Yorker).

The article, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi” refers to a document called Who are the Guilty?

(PUCL, 2003), which is described as a “Report of a joint inquiry into the causes and impact of the

riots in Delhi from 31 October to 10 November 1984”. This report shows how State-sanctioned vio-

lence can wreak havoc on an otherwise avoidable situation. There are numerous accounts of Hindus

sheltering Sikhs during the violence, usually at great personal cost to their own lives and property.

This humane aspect of war, Ghosh believes, is seen “as mere sentimentality, or worse, as pathetic or

absurd” by those who glorify violence in their writings and films.

He questions: “Is that all there was to it? Or is it possible that the authors of these descrip-

tions failed to find a form - or a style or a voice of a plot - that could accommodate both violence and

the civilised, willed response to it?” Much like Ghosh, the unnamed narrator of The Shadow Lines is

bewildered by the fact that during the times of violence and war, the common people who protect the

victims, are hardly given recognition, either by the State or by those who record these events, name-

ly, writers and historians. He believes that such acts of bravery are akin to soldiers fighting on the

frontiers, and the common people’s sacrifice may be even more profound because it is not expected

of them. The only driving force of the common people is the natural sympathy they feel towards

their fellow human beings, one that is not adulterated by prejudices and hatred.
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The narration of The Shadow Lines reminds one of the investigative journalistic style of the

Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981). This work also has an un-

named narrator who constantly questions all the other characters about what they remember of the

day Santiago Nasar was murdered. Here the questions are being asked twenty seven years later,

while in Ghosh’s novel, the questions mould themselves according to the narrator’s age and geo-

graphical location.

There is also a difference in the quality of the two sets of characters’ memories. Ghosh’s

characters have near-perfect memories and are often told in vivid detail, while Marquez’s characters

agree on one thing only- that everyone, except himself, knew of Santiago Nasar’s death before it oc-

curred. “Memory is, above all, a restless, energetic, troubling power; the price, and the limitation, of

freedom; the abettor and the interrogator o the form and existence of the modern nation state.” (Kaul)

Marquez’s narrator, as is often noted by critics, ever so slightly, hints at the possibility of a

deep sense of guilt he feels on being the actual lover of Angela Vicario. Ghosh’s characters also ex-

perience guilt as they remember the role they played in Tridib’s death. Unlike in Marquez, whose

narrator’s guilt feels elusive, the characters in Ghosh wear their guilt on their sleeves, at least when

in conversation with the narrator.

Magic and superstition in Marquez are such natural parts of the characters’ lives and lan-

guage that there are rules and phrases that safeguard them. The novella’s title, ironically, refers to a

“death”, not a “murder”, similar to the Spanish title, Cronica de una muerte anunciada, where muer-

te also means death. Thus, it is a death that has been foretold, which can also refer to a murder being

planned. All the superstition does not, however, save Santiago as his mother said of his dreams,
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“Any dream about birds means good health.” She looks at clues in hindsight, lying in her hammock,

as superstition is the only thing that eases her anxiety.

In The Shadow Lines, Tha’mma knows instinctively that the narrator, in his college days, has

visited whorehouses. This is a puzzling mystery for the narrator who had to bring his grandmother’s

sanity into question or be expelled by an angry principal. Here too, magic is channeled through an

old woman, on her deathbed.

Tridib’s ultimate “sacrifice”, as May calls it, is reminiscent of “the women staring down the

mob” during the peaceful protest against the 1984 violence, of which Ghosh was a part. He states

that he is “not filled with writerly wonder” at this action of the women protecting the men from the

mob, but is “reminded of [his] gratitude for being saved from injury”. In that terrifying moment of

realisation that death might strike any second, the bravery of those who stop the violence is not im-

mediately praised or even realised, but the self’s survival is cherished.

May tries to find peace in this realisation:

For years I was arrogant enough to think I owed him his life.

But I know now I didn’t kill him; I couldn’t have, if I’d wanted.

He gave himself up; it was a sacrifice. I know I can’t understand it,

I know I mustn’t try, any real sacrifice is a mystery.

In the end, it is not violence that brings people together, but the preservation of life, achieved

through peace. This peace can be helped along when people’s stories are heard and imagined accord-

ing to the self’s experiences. Tridib, ultimately, wants to teach the narrator to “use [his] imagination

with precision, which means to be able to recognise the contemporaneity of the past, to be able to see
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historical memory as vital to any understanding to the present and to be able to see different times

and places an inextricably intertwined with one’s own.”

In conclusion, it appears that the lives of the characters are riddled with violence, sacrifice

and a guilt that only survivors may feel. Tridib, a beloved part of the family, no matter his discre-

tions, is made the pivot around which the mental lives of the characters revolve, years after his death.
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Works Cited

 Bagchi, Nivedita. “The Process Of Validation In Relation To Materiality And Historical

Reconstruction in Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Shadow Lines.’” Modern Fiction

Studies vol. 39, no. 1, 1993, pp. 187–202. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26284403.

 Ghosh, Amitav. “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi”, The New Yorker, 1995 July 17, pp. 35-45.

 Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Sonipat: Penguin, 1988. Print.

 Kaul, Suvir. “Separation Anxiety: Growing Up Inter/National in Amitav Ghosh's ‘The

Shadow Lines.’” Oxford Literary Review, vol. 16, no. 1/2, 1994, pp. 125–145. JSTOR,

www.jstor.org/stable/44244503.

 Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Translated by Gregory Rabassa.

Penguin Books, 1996.

 Mongia, Padmini. “Postcolonial Identity and Gender Boundaries in Amitav Ghosh's ‘The

Shadow Lines.’” College Literature, 19/20, no. 3/1, 1992, pp. 225–228. JSTOR,

www.jstor.org/stable/25112007.

 Neogy, Alapana. “The Shadow Lines between Freedom and Violence”.

Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines Critical Essays. Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and

Distributors, 2008. Print.

 PUCL. “Who are the Guilty?”

www.pucl.org/Topics/Religion-communalism/2003/who-are-guilty.htm. PUCL. 2003.

 Spyra, Ania. “Is Cosmopolitanism Not for Women?: Migration in Qurratulain Hyder's Sita

Betrayed and Amitav Ghosh's the Shadow Lines.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Stud-

ies, vol. 27, no. 2, 2006, pp. 1–26. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4137419.