Shadow Lines, by Amitav Ghosh, is the story of a middle-class boy from India and how he grows into a young adult. By showing us how the narrator absorbs the perceptions of the people around them and how he gradually forms a whole picture out of bits and pieces, he shows us that lines are not always as clear as they first seem to be, because each person draws lines, or makes decisions about people and places, differently.
Saying that this book is about how a middle-class Indian boy grows up is far too simple, because India is a complex country. India is made up of many cultures and languages. The country could be subdivided in several ways. It could be divided along religious lines, as it was at "The Partition," when India was separated into the countries of India and Pakistan. The new India was largely Hindu while the new Pakistan was largely Moslem. Or, it could be divided along lines of income. Or, it could be divided by languages, as there are many languages spoken in India. So, just saying the novel is about a boy growing up in India doesn't say much more than saying "This novel was written using words." Ghosh uses real and made-up events from history to help connect the story to the times in which it is placed.
Ghosh immediately pulls the reader into the story by presenting two very interesting family members. Tribdib is a cousin who is about 20 years older than the protagonist. He is fascinating because he seems so changeable. Every person in the novel seems to see him differently. Another person very important to the narrator is "Tha'mma," his grandmother. The reader meets both of these characters early in the story, and sees that Tha'mma and Tribdib see the world very differently. This demonstrates one of the main traits of this book: nothing is clear, and things are not always what they seem to be. It reminds the reader of a water color painting. In a water color painting, often one line blends into another. In an oil painting one might see every leaf on a tree distinctly, but in a watercolor painting, the viewer sees the idea of the leaves, blurred together and indistinct.
This blurring of mental images might be what the author means about "shadow lines," which are not always clear either. Through each person, the narrator sees a shadow image of the person, and eventually he pieces all the images together and decides what he thinks the person is like.
Introducing Tha'mma and Tridib early also helps the reader understand that the book will contain many personal perspectives, and that no one person will see any issue completely, and that there may be more than one truth. Also, the author creates very different people in Tha'mma and Tridib. Tha'mma is older and Tridib younger. Tridib has traveled widely and Tha'mma stays at home. Tha'mma lives by stern rules, believing that time must not be wasted, and sees Tridib, who seems to have no job, as good for nothing and living off his father's hard work.
As a young boy the narrator lives in Calcutta, and there is no sign at first that the family has ever lived anywhere else. He describes his neighborhood, but uses descriptive words that are not geographically precise, emphasizing the idea of blurred lines. Although he only travels around his neighborhood, going to school, his math tutor's, and neighborhood haunts, he learns about the world from other people's descriptions, especially Tridib. He uses other people's memories like water colories, adding layers of information until finally a clear picture emerges for him, but the lines are still not distinct. Through Tha'mma's memories he creates a vision in his mind of what her life was like in Dhaka when she was young. He begins to understand some of the frictions within the family. Through Tridib, he begins to see what London is like, although he does not always know what to believe. Through the eyes of his cousin Ila he begins to understand what it was like to live all over the world, experience racism, and live in a place where one doesn't completely fit in. Seeing the world this way fits the novel well, because the images are blurred and not precise. He has not really been to these places.
We also see some vagueness regarding the narrator, in the relationship he has to Nick, who is blonde and tall. Nick can also develop a close relationship with Ila, because the narrator is part of Ila's family, so any romantic relationship between them is forbidden (Mongia, PAGE).
The author emphasizes this kind of vagueness by using a stream of conscious writing style. Nothing has real permanence. The story shifts over years of time, sometimes in the middle of a sentence: "Later, when we were eating our dinner, I discovered that in 1959, when he was twenty-seven and she nineteen, they had begun a long correspondence." (Ghosh, p. 17) By the end of the sentence, the speaker has traveled back to 1940.
Another issue highlighted by the author's ability to blur lines is that there can be more than one truth about an event. The issue of what is and is not true is important in the story even though the narrator's vague observations make the truth hard to detect. Ghosh establishes this early when he has the narrator blurt out some truths that show how Tridib has lied to some people who were hanging on his every word. Later, a debate in the neighborhood erupts over where Tridib lives. One version is true and one is false, and the people discussing him decide that the false story must be the accurate one because the real truth about Tridib, that he is the son of a wealthy diplomat, is ridiculous and unbelievable. So in this instance, when a clear line is drawn and people think they know exactly what is true, they have the facts wrong.
Shifting back and forth through time and space, the author reveals that the family, the Datta-Chowdharys, are originally from Bengal, not Calcutta. The issues surrounding their move from Bengal to Calcutta emphasize the varieties of cultures in India, and their connections to a family in London make the story international. The author capitalizes on this to explore intercultural communication (Gupta, PAGE), which fits in well with the tendency to blur differences rather than emphasizing them. The Shadow Lines is a novel that exists in a time when national boundaries are shifting (Mongia, PAGE). This in turn points out that perceptions and reality are not always the same thing. Tha'mma has trouble, for instance, grasping that Bengal has been divided. The family relationships are still what they were before that happened. In fact it turns out that the family fled Dhaka to get away from the turmoil in Bhaka. However, when Tha'mma finally goes back, she expects it to all look the same as when she left. She has done more than blur lines. She has ignored them completely.
Through the character of Ila, the novel looks at lines and boundaries in a different way. Ila has lived all over the world, and she has experienced racism. She has seen people draw a line between her and them that was very clear but that did not have to exist.
Ghosh uses characters skillfully to reveal truths about other characters. Ila, a world traveler, wants to have in Calcutta the kind of freedom she has in London, to go to discos, dance, and drink if she chooses to. Tha'mma does not see this as real freedom. The narrator says of her, "I should have known that she would have nothing but contempt for a freedom that could be bought for the price of an air ticket. For she too had once wanted to be free; she had dreamt of killing for her freedom;" (Ghosh, p. 87). As the story unfolds, historical events explain why Tha'mma might have had such violent images. The strife and riots that occur do not always make sense. Eventually Tha'mma emphasizes the author's theme of what the lines that divide us really are. As she flies over the area where she grew up, she expects to see a literal line on the ground showing where India and Pakistan have been separated. Of course she sees no such line, but many people in the region see the kinds of lines Ila sometimes saw when she experienced racism. The people separate themselves, and a lot of unhappiness and suffering follows.
Nothing has clear borders in the novel unless the book is looked at as a whole. Even then, one person could see the events in one way while someone else would read something different. Even time is not a straight line in this book. The speaker jumps back and forth from childhood to events occurring decades later, almost as if he is daydreaming about his life…