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Modassar Warsi

MA, 1st Semester.

English and Foreign Language University

Date: January 17, 2011

Re-writing History: Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines


In this essay I would like to present history as has been perceived by Amitav Ghosh in

The Shadow Lines. He rejects the generally accepted definition of history; considering it to be

authentic facts and authoritative chronology. Ghosh challenges it by declaring such a conception

to be a Western notion. He asserts that though it is true that history is written by victors, it might

not be true for it could as biased as a subjective human being is capable of. In this essay, I would

stress upon various sections in the novel where the dividing lines drawn between the real facts

and unreal fiction fades into a shadow with the help of narrative technique used by the author.

The whole endeavor of the narrator during the events of the novel to re-invent the

forgotten history shows what happens generally. It has now become an accepted norm that the

minor events and the unwanted episodes have to make way for the interesting rumours and

scandalous happenings. Ghosh has tried to re-write the history displaying the concealed elements

assigning the different voices to diverse characters while narrating a story. Thus, this essay will

mainly analyze Ghosh’s narrative technique and its purpose

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History has never been such as it emerged in the twentieth century. With the advent of

post colonialism the way history was perceived and how it was later seen changed drastically,

having nothing in common. History has been considered synonymous to past in earlier times;

that is it was thought to be authentic and remained unchallenged. No one questioned the validity

of the chronicles and the archives that formed the foundation of this branch of study. This trend

stopped but with the massive changes brought in by the Marxist approach that became prevalent.

History was objective no more and therefore it had to prove itself to be true. In the old times,

history was never judged to be a form of literature but it was thought to be carrying greater

importance and was never critiqued. However, it was realized that after all history is written by

human being and no eternal creature. This led to the inference that the historiographers are but a

bunch of people with their own subjectivities, their choices and their favorites. The history

writing is then a complex combination of selection; rejection and addition. So, when a victor

writes history, it is not an absolute replica of what happened but only one version of the same.

The voices that are loud are made to reverberate in the world whereas the feeble ones and

whispers are silenced. The world never gets to know about them.

This newly, revised version of history that has taken a bold step to challenge the so called

mainstream history is what is depicted in Amitav Ghosh’s famous work The Shadow Lines. The

author has cleverly presented his point of view that though every society has its own history; the

individual (who is the smallest building block of this society) has his own share to contribute

towards the greater history. Without him it is obvious that there remains a gap and the picture

won’t surface completely with the blank spaces left by individuals. Helpless as for filling these

fissures one has to rely upon the sources that are not at all factual. The fictional mediums of

imagination, dreams and a much unreliable memory have to be made use of to complete the
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vacancies. It is interesting to note how through his narration Ghosh shows that at times these

sources could be more authentic. He speaks through one of his characters that everybody lives in

a story and stories are bound to be oscillating between realities and untruth. The character of

Tridib further states: “If you believe anything people tell you, you deserve to be told anything at

all….” This is what the author speaks to his reader to not accept as true whatever is told to them,

whatever is presented as history.

When a story is told or written, the most important role, after the plot, is played by the

narrator. It is through narrator’s eye and through his perspective that we visualize the whole

story. The change in perception changes the meaning. This story has been told by a small boy

who grows up to find himself bound by the draconian clutches of history. But for Tridib’s vision,

he would have been like any other commoner, accepting the history in its crude form. Narrator’s

mentor, Tridib has been behind his bend of mind towards “imagination with precision”. In the

whole course of the novel, he is drenched in memories for his narration is overflowing with

recollections, dates, anecdotes and an unanswered or a rather rhetorical, often repeated question:

“Do you remember?” The narrator speaks about his experience with truth and facts very early in

life. Although he tried to justify what he said regarding the unknown truth about his uncle, Tridib

yet it was the story fabricated by his uncle that the people at the corner of the Gole Park tend to


The narrator learnt from his mentor that “a place does not merely exist. That it has to be

invented in one’s imagination”. This was how he has been able to journey through London

before he even actually stepped out of Calcutta. He is even enticed to take up Indian History as

his subject in college. Tha’amma thought nostalgia to be weakness but the narrator was nostalgic

in a different way where it rather became his strength. He attempted to discover the presence of
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past in the present. That was how Victor Gollancz’s publishing house co-existed with the office

that stood at the same spot after about forty years. Therefore, “past seemed concurrent with its

present” for him. He lies between other two characters in the novel. Ila believed in all that was

current while his grandmother in her later age did not pay any heed to what was present. The

narrator tries to give voice to what has been silenced and remained unheard with such insight

installed in him by the author.

It was thus, sitting in the airconditioned calm of an exclusive library, that I

began on my strangest journey: a voyage into a land outside space, an expanse

without distances; a land of looking-glass events. (224)

Tridib has told the narrator, the way the faculty of imagination worked. He highlighted in

the novel that even an imagination presented in an accurate manner would pass for a fact. It is

what made his speech believable and wholeheartedly acceptable by the narrator in his life.

Imagination being bound by no boundary allowed the speaker a greater degree of possibilities.

Reality and Recollection get to fight it out whilst the narrator roams around in England. The

former is trivial for him compared to his memory of the description that Tridib has given him of

the same place. Tridib bestowed his qualities of story-telling to his nephew who used to make

sundry stories on one of his favorite photographs. The stories tend to end on how people in the

photograph were posing. So, could one still believe a photograph to be an authentic source for


The technique of narration used by Ghosh is not at all simplistic for the narrator is not the

only narrator in the novel. There are many minor narrators who tell a small section of the story. It

is owing to this that one finds the narratology to be very complex; intertwining into each other.
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This makes it difficult for the reader who is never prepare to be instantaneously transferred to

different places and different times, finding himself confused between reality and dream, dream

and imagination, and imagination and memory. There are lots of people through which the

information reaching the reader gets filtered through. The reader is then unable to decide whether

to believe what is said for there is no surety of its authenticity but he is also void of any reasons

to disbelieve the same for they appear to be true.

The help that various characters in the novel render towards the narrator is very important

for he is not at all omniscient and is ignorant of many facts. Thus, the others lend their stories to

him so that he could integrate them into his narratology and complete the empty spaces that were

left by his unknowingness. He gave voice to those silent fables. Ila acted like a connecting link

between the families of Price in England and Mayadebi’s in India. She defies those customs that

has long been considered as the core of history by going against them. In her stories she placed

herself as different characters and tried to live her dream life through it by modifying the

happenings. The story that she tells while playing the game of House has Magda playing her role

while Nick Price saving him whereas that was not what happened in reality. Robi, on the other

hand, comes up with his nightmare that has haunted him ever since Tridib’s demise. This dream

could but be taken for a genuine account of the accident that took away his brother’s life. Later,

May confirmed to the same. Narrator’s grandmother has different stories to tell. On one hand,

she has her childhood recollection of the “upside down house” and the different stories she made

on them. It still holds importance for Mayadebi and her when they get a chance to enter that

house. She rejects nationality as a true source of history in how she acts on the whole trip to her

home, uttering the same question: “But where is Dhaka?”

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The novel primarily tries to re-invent the riots that happened in Calcutta. Ila has already

said that riots are a local thing and the same transpired in a discussion that took after a

conference on the Indo-China War at Teen Murti Library. The opinion about the same event is

different for some people who have witnessed such events. The narrator and Tha’amma could

never agree to the same outlook as Ila and narrator’s friends. Riots are “extraordinary history”

for them. The others are just ignorant about these events that otherwise would certainly have

taken more life than even the War of 1961. Even the section on War in the library bypassed such

episodes of riots suggesting their insignificance and actually contributing towards the silencing

of this portion of life. The people and heroes of such events are soon forgotten, “faded(ing) away

from the pages of the newspapers, disappearing from the collective imagination of ‘responsible

opinion’, vanished, without leaving a trace in the histories and bookshelves” (230). The narrator

reveals his experience of struggle in highlighting the concealed facet of the events of the riots of

1964 that nevertheless it is only a RE-presentation. This account could also be taken for his

narration in the novel.

Every word I write about those events of 1964 is a product of a struggle

with silence. It is a struggle I am destined to lose- have already lost- for even after

all these years, I do not know where within me, in which corner of my world, this

silence lies… it is simply a gap, a hole, an emptiness in which there are no words.


The realization of the narrator after fifteen years of the riots was enough to make him

think. Although there has been a border between two places- Calcutta and Khulna- they both

were hit by riots at the same time. This helped him to understand the bond shared by human

being, their history that is united into one irrespective of the artificial borders drawn by humans.
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The shadow lines drawn between two nations could not divide people for “how can anyone

divide a memory?” Even when the language, culture and custom of different nations differ, there

are yet times when two appear like images of each other and at times the line dissolves to give a

taste of prehistoric times when history did not corrupted human bond. History dominates today

only because it has been taken as a criterion to determine one’s identity. The section where the

narrator elaborates upon his experiments with the Bartholomew’s Atlas should be read to cure

the disease of intense Nationalism. Ghosh tries to change it with a wider idea of Humanity.

Today, one might not be aware of the actions taking place in near vicinity only because there is

some line drawn between such two places. What narrator believes is that these happenings, even

with all the discordance between, are related and unites the divided section into one,

unconsciously, without our knowledge.

Thus, Ghosh has tried in his novel, by his narratology to unite those which are actually

one. The history that generally gets to the common masses is anything but bias with a lot of gaps

that nobody cares to fill. One version of history gets a validity as an absolute one and so

convincingly it is done that people tend even to overlook the truth, as happened to the narrator as

a child also. The author uses his characters with their stories as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which

he made his narrator to complete. Even when the picture is complete there are yet gaps where the

parts were connected. Imaginations, memories and dreams are not such a fictional source as

could be deciphered by Ghosh’s narratology. Therefore, one must need to differentiate between

what is true and what is partially true and endeavor to reach the former with whatever resources

one could.