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Quest for Identity in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines


Arghya Singh

Ph. D.  Research Scholar

Ranchi University

Jharkhand, India


Abstract: Trapped by the identical dualism- native self and colonized body, identical loss and crisis is common in postcolonial people. This dualism also brings about cultural dilemma leading to quest for identity. Postcolonial literature by and large depicts sufferings of postcolonial people due to half body and half soul, incomplete and fragmented. Amitav Ghosh’s celebrated novel The Shadow Lines written on the background of post partition communal holocaust in Bengal has made a well portrayal of identical conflicts that have arisen out of different settings of culture in which characters live. For this characters in the novel are flotsam always in quest of their roots. As regards identity they can be divided into several groups- localized, globalised and universalized. These groups further complicate the identical issue. Along with explicating identical issue impacted by multiplicity of division as found among characters, the paper also sheds light on psychological dilemma characters are passing through. Overall, the paper is a study of contest between self and other, conflict between two cultures- colonizer and colonized, racial conflict and last but not the least, identical question. 

Keywords: Conflict, Culture, Crisis, Dilemma, Identity, Postcolonial

Every individual is recognized with a certain identity that connects the individual to a certain culture he or she belongs to. Hence, an identity is crucial for a person’s recognition. However, identity is not a result of self-recognition, rather it is the recognition given or it may be said that the identity of an individual reaches to its proper meaning only when it finds its connection with the community and the culture to which an individual is clung. In other word, a community in which one lives and the culture of that concerned community by which one is given shape are the factors behind the formation of an individual’s identity. In this regard Sysoyev’s definition of identity on the basis of culture is worth mentioning. Identity as defined by Sysoyev is, “an individual’s realization of his or her place in the spectrum of cultures and purposeful behavior directed on his or her enrollment and acceptance into a particular group, as well as certain characteristic features of a particular group that automatically assign an individual’s group membership” (Sysoyev 37-38). The identity of an individual is thought to be safe and secured as long as he or she lives in his or her preferred community but when he or she is forced to accept other community and its culture against his or her will, the identity of the concerned person is challenged and becomes questionable. This loss of identity is very common in post colonial study. Caught between two cultures of two different communities- native culture of the colonized and the foreign culture of the colonizer, post colonial people are suffering from the fragmentation of self and identity. This loss of self and identity as regards post colonial community gives rise to crisis of psychological identity and territorial identity where the former delinks an individual from people and the later creates gap from the place. This detachment of an individual from people and place of his or her choice and preference not only problematises the identical question but also brings about cultural conflict. Amitav Ghosh’s celebrated novel The Shadow Lines written on the background of post partition communal holocaust in Bengal has made a well portrayal of cultural conflicts that have arisen out of multiplicity of identity. Characters in the novel are flotsam to find their cultural roots. As regards identity they can be divided into several groups- localized, globalised and universalized. This division problematises culture. Ghosh’s endeavour to synthesise this muti-faceted culture and identity into a single organic whole ultimately proves nothing but failure and one may call it a ‘myth’ shorn of reality.

Since characters in Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines are heavily impacted by cross-culturalism and are dissevered from culture of one community to the other, they are prone to culture they get in touch with and  suffer loss of identity and find in crisis as regards their proper identity on both psychological and territorial levels. The novel is fit as per the opinion of  Brinda Bose that “(T)the legacy of postcolonial angst today appears to have settled into a potentially numbing acceptance of bi- or multi- cultural euphoria” (Bose 15).  In the novel most of the characters make several cross-border visits and thereby get influenced by various cultures of different people and communities. Being globetrotters they are now identified with one culture and now with another due to multicultural impacts. Ila, the narrator’s cousin spent her life in Cairo, Algeria, Brisbane, London, Calcutta, Colombo and America, Tha’mma, narrator’s grandmother in Dhaka, Calcutta and London, Lionel Tresawsen in Malaysia, Fiji, Bolivia, Ceylon, Calcutta and London, Nick Price in London and Kuwait and so on. They all are deeply influenced by multiculturalism which shapes and reshapes their identity. Impacted by multiculturalism their choice of identity differs from each other. Multiculturalism exerts a variable influence upon them. Due to cultural cross connection, some prefer to get local identity, some national and some global. There are some who prefer glocal considering both local and global and there are some who are in dilemma which one to prefer and which one not.

Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines frames the story of three generations and of two families of different race, background and culture. It is the story of relation between the white British and the brown Indian in the backdrop of post-partition communal holocaust in Bengal. Cultural conflict is obvious due to their familial alliance and friendship which later turns into love, intimacy and marriage. The storyline formulates the lives of two families of different race and culture- Datta Chaudhary family of India and Price family of England. This type of storytelling brings into question every boundary drawn between the people and the geographical location to which they belong. The story that transfers from London to Calcutta to Dhaka is narrated through the viewpoint of a contemporary Indian young man, although the real panjandrums of the plot are the young man’s grandmother and his cousin, Tridib. The stories intertwine life in Dhaka before Partition, life in London during the period of war and the life the narrator spends in Calcutta during the 1960s and his life in London spent in the 1970s. Through this novel, readers learn about many cultures and their cross connection and meeting at a single place. Thamma is the representative of Dhaka culture, Ila is the ardent follower of Western culture and our nameless narrator is a true Indian. The connection and relationship between native Indian culture and foreign English culture is suggested in the very opening line of the novel; “in 1939, thirteen years before I was born, my father’s aunt, Mayadebi, went to England with her husband and her son, Tridib.” (Ghosh 1)  The line indicates Mayadebi’s visit to London and her intimate contact with the Price family which is recounted by Tridib more than two decades later to the unnamed narrator, an eight years old inquisitive child. The narrator unfolds in memories and flashbacks the people and places through which the story later develops.

In Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines each character is the prototype of some cultural impact. Characters are by and large impacted by cross border discourses. It problematises their identity. Ila, the narrator’s cousin, is comparatively impacted most for her fascination to foreign culture and her cosmopolitan outlook. She has special inclination for colonial mimicry. One may say she is the byproduct of multiculturalism. It becomes evident when she wishes to severe her inherited cultural bond with the East:

Her hair cut short, like the bristles on a toothbrush, wearing tight trousers like a free school street whore. (Ghosh 80)

She feels uncomfortable in Calcutta and finds its social environment tough and unbearable. She adapts nothing from Indian culture- “I want to be free…free of your bloody culture and free of all of you.” (Ghosh 88-89). In quest of freedom she flees Calcutta to seek a home in London, marries an Englishman Nick Price, buys a house, finds a job and tries to settle down there, but all in vain because later it is found that Nick is allegedly having an affair. Nick proves to be unfaithful to her. Later we see that Nick works in Kuwait for a brief period of time, quits his job and it is implied that he may have been fired for embezzlement. So, we find that Ila’s freedom brought rootlessness for her. Due to this ambivalence and rootlessness both Ila and Nick develop a double vision and identity which establishes their hybridity. They felt themselves neither colonizer nor colonized and hence in-betweeness and a third space identity of culture as per Bhabha produces here as a result of mimicry and hybridity.


If Ila is the manifestation of the globalization in its contorted form to some extent, the narrator and his Thamma are glocalised to a large extent, while Tridib and May are the representative of universalisation to a certain extent. Still none of them gets rid of identity crisis as they try to fix their identity from Western point of view instead of giving them generalization of idea. She does not like Indian culture which she thinks snatches one’s freedom. She wants to be free from her inherited Indian culture and wishes to be identified with the English. On the contrary, the Thamma of the narrator is moored in Indian culture. She looks Ila’s European way of life, Saheb’s habit of smoking and drinking. Ila and Thamma are the representatives of two opposite faces of identity crisis due to globalization. If Ila presents the distorted aspect of that which is in favour of one single global culture, (i.e. undoubtedly Western), Thamma represents the insignificance or hollowness of national identity as is set by the Western norms. Both of them are the victims of almost the same fate- loss of territorial as well as psychological identity.


Apart from mainstream characters, there are some off stream characters who are marginal live unvoiced but still significant are characters like Saifuddin, Khalil, Dan, Mike, people gossiping in the addas of Tridib and many other such characters. Since they are more inclined to local culture and hardly shift from their one fixed cultural setting, they are purely men of the soil and inherently belong to single identity, an identity that is supplied by the cultural surroundings in which they live and grow. Still they are also impacted by the mixed cultural tide which hardly leaves any character untouched in the novel. Khalil, on such character who gets killed in order to save the life of Jathamoshai from the fanatic mob, is the victim of split identity due to uprootedness and corresponding alienation. He is all conscious of surrounding events. However, he never shuns his inherent socio-cultural identity which is always found well-rooted in his subconscious mind. Opposite to Khalil, Mike represents the so-called superiority and chauvism of the colonial culture. Saifuddin is living up silently with his double identical loss- first as a migrated Muslim to East Pakistan, victimized with rootless and alienation and secondly, as a ‘Mohajir’ who is non-Bengali in racial origin. These marginal characters living in the periphery sometimes decentralized the protagonists emphasizing their own identity secretly and silently in the world of universality and cosmopolitanism formed by the vocal or voiced characters.


To wind up, the division of identities into several groups- localized, globalised and universalized not only presents the multi-coloured glass view of the novel but also problematises culture. Ghosh’s endeavour to synthesise this muti-faceted culture and identity into a single organic whole ultimately proves nothing but failure and one may call it a ‘myth’ shorn of reality. The gaps, discontinuity, rifts or fissures in respect to one’s own historical location or dislocation is re-interpreted in terms with glocal, universal or silenced (flat) identity in the novel. Communal disharmony, problem of homogeneity, alienation, rootlessness, Partition and diasporic feelings have been made a revisit not with the Western criterion but with what is known as ‘objectivity’, objectivity that must not be mistaken with a spurious impartiality, but that must be taken as granted as ensuing a recognition of the Independent but also at the same time reciprocal existence of ‘the other’, or with the ‘disinterestedness’ which is however, not ‘impassivity’ but the contrary of ‘self-interest’. It furthers rather a critical rethinking of the West’s so called Pluralism and ‘enlightened values’, and explores the existence of ‘non-being’ in one’s behavioural pattern that ascertains the purity of human values and unity, dismantling the concept related with the universal and the ‘absoluteness’ of truth.



Works Cited

Bose, Brinda, Amitav Ghosh: Critical Perspectives, Pencraft Books, 2003.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. Oxford University Press, 2015.


Sysoyev, P. V. Individual’s Cultural Identity in the Context of Dialogue of Cultures. The Tambov State University Press, 2001.