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Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines: A Critical Response to the Colonial Historiography


Dr. Elham Hossain

Associate Professor of English

Dhaka City College

Dhaka, Bangladesh


Amitav Ghosh, an Indian master storyteller, is best known for his fictions worldwide. His concentration on several serious issues has made him very relevant to the international readership. His non-fictions also address various serious issues relevant to the people of the world. Of all his nine fictions The Shadow Lines draws special attention of the readers of the subcontinent for the way the author re-examines its historiography. Not only this text but also his whole oeuvre is relevant to the readers for a wide range of his subject-matter. It has encompassed cultural crises, the issues of climate change and its impact on culture, re-reading and rethinking of the historiography of the subcontinent, our colonial experiences, postcolonial response to our history, Bengal partition of 1905, Indian partition of 1947, communal riots of 1963-64 in Calcutta and Dhaka, the rise of capitalism, corrosive impact of imperialism upon the idea of nation-state, the colonial project of transforming the natives into subjects, the study of the subaltern realities and many more. Like an archeologist, as we find in Michel Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge (1966), he digs deeper into the history of this part of the world. He brings the issue of climate change and its impact on the cultural realities of the people of the world in his seminal non-fiction, The Great Derangement: climate change and the unthinkable (2016). Besides, his works concentrate the regions adjacent to the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. His narratology offers multi-faceted and multi-layered works that can be studied in historical, cultural, ecological, eco-critical, structuralist and many more perspectives. This paper seeks to show how Amitav Ghosh examines the response of the Hindus and the Muslims to the colonial historiography even during the postcolonial period.

Key words: historiography, narratology, riot, communalism, borders, partition, hegemony

Like his other novels, The shadow Lines (1988) produces a narrative which is closely relevant to the historical realities of the people living in this subcontinent. He is a master storyteller but his stories make his readers acquainted with the realities that shape their identity. In an interview with Stella Levantes for an Italian newspaper named il manifesto which was published on 17 May 2020, Ghosh has said, “A novel should reflect the reality in which it is written. The task of a novelist is not produce propaganda.”

In this connection an extensive exploration of The Shadow Lines (1988) reveals that Ghosh has offered a historiography that challenges the colonial historiography of our subcontinent. The historiography produced by James Mill, Max Mueller and Macaulay sowed the seed of bitter fruit of communal violence, two nation theory, the Bengal partition of 1905, Indian partition of 1947 and the successive riots in both the parts across the whimsical borders demarcated on the basis of religious demography by the British lawyer Cyril Radcliff who had not even visited India before 1947. Only within seven weeks Mr. Radcliff demarcated the borders whimsically. He made haste because of suffocating temperature of this region and he was under the pressure of dysentery. He did not even have any idea of district, thana, tafsil, communal harmony, temperament of the people of this region. But whimsically he demarcated borders, made millions of people refugees overnight and sowed the permanent seed of communal violence and hostility which is still posing a threat to our developing nationalism and identity and inducing the threat of ostracism. W. H. Auden has coercively and sarcastically criticized this audacious and imprudent act of demarcation in his poem ‘Partition’ in 1966:

Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away,
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate
Of millions. The maps at his disposal were out of date
And the Census Returns almost certainly incorrect,
But there was no time to check them, no time to inspect
Contested areas. The weather was frightfully hot,
And a bout of dysentery kept him constantly on the trot,
But in seven weeks it was done, the frontiers decided,
A continent for better or worse divided.


Without examining the issues of cultural, communal, linguistic and above all, geographic realities the borders between India and Pakistan were demarcated only on the basis of religious demography. Actually, this cursory and imprudent task of dividing a huge geographical location proves that it was done deliberately to put one country against another country in terms of contention and hostility upon many unsettled issues that might have the chances to be settled before partition but it required only sincerity and good will.

This very sordid historical reality has been incorporated into The shadow Lines through its narrative. It is a story of two families. Thamma’s family lives in Calcutta. Her sister Mayadevi with her husband Mr. Datta Choudhury goes to London at one phase of her life and there her family develops intimacy with an English family, that is, Price family. And Thamma’s Jethamoshai lives in Dhaka. The story of the novel develops in a non-linear fashion, through an excellent narratology emanating from the narrator who is a minor boy of eleven. He has learnt to imagine a broader world from his uncle Tridib who is subsequently killed in a riot in Dhaka in 1964. Now the reaction that Thamma exhibits after the killing of Tridib invites the readers to explore the historical realities that have shaped the dubious identity and divided nationalism of Thamma.

A New historicist interpretation of Thamma’s character reveals that she was born in Dhaka located in the then East Bengal in 1902. She spends first two decades of her life there. Afterwards she settles in Calcutta desperately desiring for liberty. She even decides to join the terrorist group for fighting against the British colonizers for liberty. But after liberty in 1947 she still, to her dismay, finds that communal violence is corrosively challenging the issue of identity. She attempts to bring things together and so she goes to Dhaka in 1964 along with Tridib, May price and Mayadevi to bring her Jethamosai back home to Calcutta. But in the surge of communal riot Tridib and ninety years old Jethamosai are killed. Khalil, the rickshaw puller, who looks after Jethamosai is also killed. Now Thamma, out of fury, decides to sell her beloved gold chain and donate the money to the war fund to fight against the Muslims. Her euphoria fades into fury and confusion. She says, “We have to kill them before they kill us; we have to wipe them out” (261). Dhaka that she considered to be her home before is now alien to her. Her home turns into her memory.

Thamma’s character represents the ambivalence of Indian mind, psychology, identity and culture which are affected by British colonialism. Homi K. Bhabha is true when in his Location of culture (1994) says that colonialism affects the culture and identity of the natives and makes them sway between belonging and citizenship. To lend weight to this view it requires a critical look at the colonial policy in India. Before the advent of colonialism religious faiths did not work as a potential drive in political activities in India. The Hindus and Muslims worked side by side. Accommodation of differences is a typical characteristic of India. Swami Vivekananda declared in the World Parliament of Religion in Chicago that acceptance of difference is central to the Indian experience throughout its long civilizational history. The affinity between the Hindus and Muslims constructed a syncretic culture in India. Muslim poets, musicians and singers wrote or sang Hindu devotional songs and Hindus thronged Sufi shrines of the Muslims. Muslim soldiers worked under Maratha leader Shivaji and Hindu soldiers worked under even extremely Islamist ruler Auranjeeb. So, there are hundreds of examples of Hindu-Muslim amity in India. Large scale conflicts between Hindus and Muslims began only under colonial rule. (Tharoor 135).

Even in 1857 the Hindu and Muslim soldiers rebelled against the British Raj together. That was a cause of headache for the British rulers. In 1859 Lord Elphinstone, the British governor of Bombay told London that they would practice divide and rule policy in India. A few decades later sir John Strachey said that ‘the existence of hostile creeds among the Indian people would fortify the political position of the British Raj in India. The rebellion that took place in 1857 is considered overtly as the first battle for independence. Even Karl Marx has called it the first battle of Indian independence. But colonial historiography has branded it as ‘Sepoy Mutiny’ and degraded its importance to the level of a crime against the sovereign power of East India Company which unjustly transformed their trade into taxation in India. Naming, branding and labeling are a colonial project of transforming the natives into subjects. The purpose that worked behind all these attempts of the colonial enterprises was to put the people of different religions against each other in terms of hostility.

The harrowing hostility among the creeds was also an outcome and construction of the deliberate project of Warren Hastings who was the first de facto Governor General of India. He can be inculpated for punditocracy in India. He hired eleven pundits and asked them to develop the Ordinations of the pundits. His purpose was to divide the Hindus deliberately on the basis of their casteism by using their old traditional texts and scriptures. Hastings was successful in introducing hierarchy among the Hindus and set them against one another and fortify the divide and rule policy. In this connection, Shashi Tharoor asserts:

Nor was religion in the past necessarily the overall basis for collective action, let alone political mobilization:  caste, community, jati and biradari played their parts. But by encroaching on the terrain of the various communities, thereby invalidating indigenous social relations, the colonial state loosened the bonds that had held them together for generations across those divides. (135)

Consequently, many kinds of social strife began due to the colonialist assumption that religion was the fundamental division in Indian society. Many may argue that the tension between the Hindus and the Muslims existed for 1200 years, beginning from 712 CE with the invasion of Sindh, a Hindu state by Muhammad Bin Qasim, an Arab warrior and many temples were exterminated to dust by the Muslim rulers in various periods. It is true but all these destructive enterprises were done from political motif, not from religious fundamentalism. Shashi Tharoor has asserted this information in his An Era of Darkness with a reference to the historian Eaton who researched on this particular topic in Andhra Pradesh (135-136). Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal have that after the conquest of Mir Qasim till eleventh century religious conversion was gradual and the Muslims concentrated on trades and commerce and economic benefit.  Accumulated treasure and precious bullion made India vital to the Islamic world during eighth and ninth centuries.  India’s prosperity and the declination of West-Asia attracted Gahaznivid invasions into this subcontinent. The series of raids that went on under the leadership of Mahmud of Ghazni (997-1030) targeted economic benefit, not religious fanaticism. Sugata Bose and Ayesha Jalal assert:

The accumulated treasure in the palaces and temples of northern India was a prime target of a series of raids(997-1030) by Mahmud of Ghazni into north-western India, which, interestingly enough, were roughly coterminous with and not too dissimilar from Rajendra Chola’s northern campaigns from his south Indian base. On one of his raids Mahmud of Ghazni looted and demolished the famous temple at Somnath in Gujarat. The looting raids of this period were motivated less by aniconoclastic zeal fired by religion than by more hard-headed economic and political motives. In Mahmud’s case it was a need to finance his imperial ambitions in Central Asia that led him to devastate well-endowed religious places of worship. (27)

But the Sufis who represented the mystical branch of Islam played a remarkable role in converting the local lower caste Hindus into Muslims, specially enchanting them with the egalitarian spirit of religion. And we find a Hindu counter-discourse emerging side by side with this Sufi discourse. Bhakti strand and Sufi strand have many things common in them. One of bhakti leaders, Kabir in northern India proclaimed himself to be the son of Allah and also of Ram. Like Kabir, Guru Nanak rejected casteism. Kabir sought to equate the Hindu and Muslim conceptions of God in eclectic fashion.

Even the reformations-initiatives that the East India Company took up in the nineteenth century deliberately excluded the interest of the common mass. Both the British and the local leaders did not think of them in the least while campaigning with the issues of Widow Remarriage and suttee.  Widow Remarriage Act was passed in 1856 and allowed Hindu widows to remarry but forfeited their right to inherit the property of their deceased husbands. In fact, “[W]idow remarriage and suttee reform alike failed to take into account the differences between practice in elite and in poor families” (Levine 72). Neither British nor the local reformers felt any need to consult with women, too. All these Acts presumed that women were lesser than men in status in Indian culture and tradition. Besides, British policy of interpreting Hinduism on the basis of Brahminist texts widened the gap among the Hindus and they fell apart into divisive castes.

The colonial policy kept the Muslims out of the narratives of India, too. Colonial historiography divided Indian History into Hindu rule, Muslim rule and British rule. Thus, they deliberately put these two major communities against each other. Actually, this colonial historiography sowed the seed of two nation theory that subsequently divided India. Even in 1905 the Bengal was divided by Lord Curzon to set one community against another community whose language and the root of cultural tradition are same. And finally in 1947 India was divided on the basis of religious demography which is still a fatal blow on the cultural unity. During the leadership period of Congress and Muslim League a very important issue was neglected by both the Hindu and Muslim elite leaders. That very fatal issue was that these elite leaders kept the toiling people out of their negotiation in the process of devolution of power by the British. Besides, whenever these Hindu and Muslim leaders met the British politicians in the negotiation table “…each section fought for a larger share of the British concessions and tried to rally its co-religionists to add strength to its demands” (Ghosh 15). This difference between two groups of leaders gave rise to ‘bitter dissensions’ among the masses. Actually, the leaders evaded the truth that both the political and economic interests of both the communities were the same. Churchill, the then British Prime Minister very shrewdly considered “the Hindu-Moslem feud as a bulwark of British rule in India” (Ghosh 16).

Again the political mobilization among the people was taken as a prestige issue by Indian Congress Party which claimed the sole credit for developing nationalism among the people. That very claim was put not only against “the colonial regime but also against all its indigenous rivals such as the Muslim League and some of the left-nationalist and socialist parties” (Guha 152). Even the nationalist ideology was manipulated by varieties of tendencies. The political protagonists of the first half of twentieth century did not hold as homogeneous conception of Indian historiography. In this connection, Ranajit Guha puts:

With Rabindranath Tagore, for instance, the emphasis came to rest on an idealized past in which an autonomous and self-reliant civil society lived in peace with itself. With Gandhi, on the other hand, all that was good and great about that past lay in its spiritual achievement and moral superiority; with Nehru- in the secular unity of its politics and the synthesis of its diverse cultures. (153)

This syncopated view of Indian nationalism emanated from its historiography manipulated by the colonial hegemony. For reckoning a fortified form of nationalism India required a fortified historiography that would liberate them from the stereotypical identity of the colonial Other. It was first realized by Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay who in 1880 in Bangadarshan put:

Bengal must have her own history. Otherwise there is no hope for Bengal. Who is to write it? All of us have to write it. Anyone who is a Bengali has to write it. Come, let us join our efforts in investigating the history of Bengal… It is not a task that can be done by any one person alone; it is a task for all of us to do together. (Guha154)

Bankimchandra could realize that Indian historiography produced by the colonizers incarnated colonial power with which the colonizers exercised hegemony upon the Indians. So, a counter historiography produced by the Indians could significantly contribute to the development of nationalism.  But due to the lack of a presumably unified structure of nationalism on the basis of the past of India, Indian historiography was proved fragile in 1947. While India was heading towards 1947, the disintegration among the political protagonists of that time told upon the homogeneity of nationalism. Rabindranath Tagore was overwhelmed by the past of India that he idealized. Gandhi was fascinated by the past of India which was marked for spirituality and morality and Nehru dreamt of a secular India. Congress was a powerful nationalist party but it could not accommodate all and due to this weakness Muslim League was formed in 1906, during the days of Swadeshi Movement. The rise of communalism that ultimately led Muhammad Ali Jinnah and the Muslim League to propagate two-nation concept could not be aptly handled by the Congress Party. Ranajit Guha sums up all these incidents in the following words:

The outcome of all this was that even Jawaharlal Nehru, whose aversion to separatism was often indistinguishable from a wishful thinking which denied the existence of any communal problem except as a peripheral nuisance created by British intrigue, had ultimately come to terms with the fact that the Indian National Congress alone did not represent the whole of India. (132)

With all these anomalies a twelve hundred long frontier thwarted a five-millennia-old past of India and Pakistan who shared history marked by lots of commonalities and differences in 1947. Yet after liberty from British colonial rule Congress Party claimed to inherit “the unitary central apparatus and international personality of British India” and Pakistan inherited regionalism and communalism out of which Bangladesh emerged as a secular state in 1971 under the leadership of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujubur Rahman. But after his assassination in 1975 very soon the country slid into communalism again.

The seed of communal antagonism which was sowed in 1947, germinated successively in the form of cleansing violence and riots. One of such corrosive riots has been depicted as a major incident in The Shadow Lines. The ethnic cleansing violence started in Dhaka followed by the rumor of stealing of the sacred hair of Prophet Muhammad from Hazrat Bal Shrine in Sri Nagar in December 1963. Ayub Khan, the then president of Pakistan, fuelled the riot. While returning to Islamabad in Dhaka airport he said that he would not to be blamed for whatever the outcome of Sri Nagar incident followed in East Pakistan. Feeling instigated many enthusiastic Muslims grabbed the business centres, houses, and local properties of the Hindus. Even the then communication minister of Pakistan Abdus Sabur Khan grabbed three bighas of land of a Hindu business man, Rup Chand Biswas, in Khulna and made a three storied building on it. In such a very crucial situation Thamma, one of the major characters of the novel, came to Dhaka to take her Jethamosai back to Calcutta. But tragically Tridib and Jethamosai were killed in the riot. Khalil, the rickshaw puller, who used to take care of more than ninety years old Jathamosai was savagely killed by the goons.

Amitav Ghosh has invited his readers to re-read and re-think of our historiography, and a true investigation of our historiography will reveal the factors responsible for communal violence and our identity crisis. The re-reading of the colonial historiography also reveals, that Ranajit Guha puts in his book Dominance without Hegemony (1997), how the British colonizers attempted to transform the natives into subjects, not citizens that they used to do in Europe and how this corrosive project tells upon and retards our nationalism and instigates xenophobia and disintegration among the natives from which we are still suffering. This colonial project has put shadow lines in the form of arbitrary cartographic demarcations, communal or ideological differences, mutual hatred and violence. It dislocated millions of people like Thamma who has no home but memory; like many other people “who have no home but in memory, learn to be very skilled in the art of recollection” (194). Like such people she sways between the sense of belonging and nationality. So, after many years when she came back Dhaka she could not recognize it. Again and again she questions, “Where’s Dhaka?”(194)  Space of time and geographical borders put shadow lines between Thamma and her memory.  They have created socio-cultural differences across nations. A space or a gap is created between nations that the narrator of this novel has discovered. In his words:

 I believed in the reality of space; I believed that distance separates, that it is corporeal substance; I believed in the reality of nations and borders; I believed across the borders there existed another reality. The only relationship my vocabulary permitted between those separate realities was war or friendship. (219)

But besides war or friendship there are other realities that Amitav Ghosh has ‘acknowledged, yet blithely ignored’ in the novel (Kaul 304).The nationalism that Thamma cherishes and dreams of uniting Dhaka with Calcutta is next to pantisocracy, a social system where all are equally treated. She and her Jathamosai after 1947 belonged to new topography and new realities. The vision of a global accommodation is also a failure in the perspective of political realities and it is proved futile through the character of Ila whose struggle for pluming herself with the signage of a cosmopolitan proves futile at the end. A new place binds its dwellers with a new structure of power system which includes political, social, religious, moral, psychological and many other existential realities that define their identity and shape their nationality. But the nationality is usually challenged and exacerbated by the trauma and the timeframe that accommodates them. Seeing and experiencing are not equal. Ila has seen much but experienced nothing. Thamma has seen much and experienced immensely but she fails to relate her experiences with the changing realities. From aero plane above she desires to see the borders that have divided India from Pakistan. This longing reveals her gross perception of compartmentalization of individuals, communities and nations. Tridib has both seen and experienced much but his Quixotian approach to the realities has doomed him into the pit of futility.

Actually, the partition of India is a partition of memories that both the Hindus and the Muslims shared in colonial India. The memories and stories create a nation’s identity. But these are divided by the shadow lines of space and time. Shadow lines or geographical borders can divide two countries but not memories and cannot make people oblivious about their past they went through. So, the narrator questions, “How can anyone divide a memory?” (247) Vindictiveness begets vindictiveness and bitterness, rigor and resentment.  Killing begets killing. Only a sincere search for memories and stories can help us overcome the bigotry, parochialism and prejudice against each other. This search will develop a counter historiography and challenge the colonial historiography that deliberately puts numerous shadow lines among us and set us in antagonism against each other.

Works Cited

Bose, Sugata and Ayesha Jalal. Modern South Asia: History, Culture, Political Economy. Oxford University Press, 1999.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Oxford University Press, 1988.

Ghosh, Suniti Kumar. India and the Raj: 1919-1947 (Vol. 2).  Prachi, 1995.

Guha, Ranajit.  Dominance without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Harvard University Press, 1997.

https//scroll.in>article>wh-an, Retrieved on 30 May 2020 at 9 pm.

https://www.livemint.com, Retrieved on 20 May 2020 at 19 am.

Kaul, A. N. “A Reading of The Shadow Lines”. The Shadow Lines. (Ed) New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Lwevine, Philippa. The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset. Pearson Education Limited, 2007.

Tharoor, Shashi. An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India. Aleph Book Company, 2016.