In Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (SL), the issue of identity is linked to his critique of nationalism. It is a much commented upon subject, so I won’t pretend to say something new. But, however, I have a case to make, and towards that let me push my argument. The story of the unnamed narrator’s growing up in SL takes in the theme of nationalism by probing the problems confronting the development of a sense of identity. The three frameworks here, as mentioned in the previous post, are represented by Tha’mma, narrator’s grandmother, a die hard nationalist; by Ila, narrator’s desire image, a claimant of cosmopolitanism; and Tridib, narrator’s relative and role model, a ‘man without country’.
In exploring his relationships with these characters and their bearing on the way he views the world, and in cross stitching narratives of war, riots and mass mobilizations, the narrator brings the discourse of nationalism under the scanner for its exclusive claims on the identity of its subjects; the violence across time and space – world war II, communal riots in Calcutta and Dhaka – is made to speak of the divisiveness inherent in the ideology of nationalism. Tha’mma’s shrill exhortations to the narrator to not love Ila as she has deserted her mother land, Robi’s chauvinistic attempts to enforce the cultural code of ‘our country’ on Ila when she tries to dance in a hotel, the easy manner in which even small children internalize the division between us and them during a riot, the commonality of daily lives and people’s aspirations across borders – and a number of such narrative units are accumulated in the novel to weigh against the ‘shadow lines’ that nationalism draws between people; on the contrary, it brings out the bond of human (!) empathy that overcomes divisions to form relationships as between Tridib and May. And contrary to the violence that nationalist emotions unleash, it offers a kind of merciful violence and sacrificial violence that are based on ethics (as when May puts to death a suffering dog and Tridib enters a violent mob to save the old man) rather than ideological hatred.
The narrator’s negotiations with the past, his evaluation of the public history through private memory and his reconstruction of his own coming of age story expose the role ‘nationalism’ plays in the process of identity formation. The novel presents three aspects of the nationalist discourse in the Indian sub-continent: nationalism’s construction of the ‘other’, communalist character of nationalism, and exclusionary principle of ‘national’ category. The narrator’s expostulations on this issue reveal the anxiety about how the ‘other’ makes real borders in the imagination of the people – both within and beyond a territorial polity – and releases ‘terrifying violence’. The rhetoric of nationalism conceals on the one hand, transnational connections and on the other any other forms of collective identity.
However, this critique of nationalism in Ghosh follows a familiar course. That it is one which fits in with some of the postmodernist and post colonial theories have provided this novel much currency. What is seldom talked about is the unsaid aspects of nationalist discourse in the sub-continent. Ghosh’s comprehensive critique of nationalism in SL by remaining silent about the caste dimension of the constitution of nationalist discourse evades a major aspect of it. The nexus between dominant groups and the nationalist politics has achieved a hegemony that for long has rendered invisible the underlying contestations of it through history. Hence, when we read in SL a critique that feigns ignorance on the level of cultural fissures that inform the nationalist discourse, we cant help becoming a little suspicious. It would appear Ghosh’s critique of the grand narrative of nationalism is only a part of another grand narrative of critique of nationalism as it ignores very important dimensions of the politics of contestation in the nationalist discourse as it embraces the transnational theoretical positions on nationalism.