This 1988 novel by Amitav Ghosh quickly became a celebrated novel and got into syllabus of University courses in Indian English literature or postcolonial literatures. There are hundreds of scholarly studies of this novel. Consequently there is not much that one can say that may sound fresh. I won’t dare to even try it. Let me just present a few stray ideas on the issue of ‘identity’ in this novel.
In Indian English literature the question of identity is often entangled with that of alienation. Ghosh in this respect treads a different path. In SL (The Shadow Lines), the question of identity is worked through integration rather than alienation. The novel presents characters who are well-entrenched in their surroundings even when they are traveling across cultures. One set of characters in the novel are alienated from their surroundings and they sort of desire that alienation: Nick and Ila; the novel not surprisingly invalidates their position as having no positive force in dealing with identity formation.
Another set of characters in the novel are the obverse of this. They are deeply rooted in their cultures. They are even chauvinistic about their positions: Th’mma and Robi; the novel does not find any positive force in their position either. The third set of characters are at once integrated in their environment as well as are open-minded in taking steps towards the ‘others’, those who are traveling beyond the shadow lines: Tridib, May and the unnamed narrator. The framework that emerges through these characters in SL is one which invalidates both alienation and chauvinism and embraces an inclusive imagination.
This strategy becomes highlighted if we compare it to its contemporary English August, An Indian Storyby Upamanyu Chatterjee. In this novel Agastya Sen finds himself alienated not only from the rural town in which he is posted as a trainee IAS officer, but also within the babudom. The novel ends with Agastya’s decision to quit the civil service job hoping to find a better one. English Augustis a hilarious read no doubt; Upamanyu Chatterjee is working with a trope that is quite well known in modern Indian English writings, especially in the poetry of Ezekiel, Adil, Daruwalla, etc.
As opposed to this is the portrayal of Tridib in SL: son of an aristocrat whose interaction with people on the
Calcuttastreets is so earthy that they believe that he lives in one of the slums. Tridib is equally interested in esoteric knowledge, is sharp in imaginatively reconstructing for himself the knowledge he receives from various sources. This is what he teaches the narrator too, who fashions himself after Tridib. The novel which projects Tridib as the ruling consciousness for the narrator’s story of growing up, thus also suggests that identity is to be actively and continuously generated by the investment of one’s volition. It is never enough to make do with the given narratives (as do Robi and Th’mma) or cynically be self-centered in negating history by living in a kind of valorized present (as do Nick and Ila).
Next post on how SL deals with the issue of nationalism.