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Partition and Its Aftermath: A Postcolonial Reading of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines


Partition and Its Aftermath: A Postcolonial Reading of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines

Dr. P. Indira Devi

Associate Professor of English & Principal

Govt. Degree College,

Huzurabad, Karimnagar, Telangana, India




Amitav Ghosh, a contemporary Indian novelist, is primarily obsessed with history. His writings focus on issues related to politics and history. He is mostly influenced by the stories of his father which deal with the World War and British Indian Army. The silences of his father's generations and the writer's memories were crystallized into the   form of novels. His best novel The Shadow Lines is based on the theme of partition. Three generations of a family are weaved in the story. The narrator journeys from Calcutta to Bangladesh and onto England. Through the journeys Ghosh tries to explore the impact of violence on human life in the post colonial era. The novel illustrates the growth of Calcutta as a city and India as a nation over a period of three decades or more. The present paper tries to explore the issue of partition of Bengal and ties to describe the plights of the migrants. The paper also tries to focus on the effects of partition and describe the narrative technique employed by the novelist.


Keywords: Partition, Violence, Migrants, Plights, Narrative Technique

Amitav Ghosh, one of the prolific Indian writers in English. His works deals with a number of issues and won him acclaim and honors throughout the world. Despite the panoramic scope of his novels, both in terms of the issues and settings, he has been persistently exploring the issues of identity and its formation in his works. He obtained a doctorate from Oxford University. He contributed scholarly articles for The Hindu and The New Yorker. In 2007 he was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India, for his outstanding contribution in the field of literature. As a prolific writer, Ghosh is not only dealt with a number of issues but also experimented with different styles and conventions. Despite the panoramic scope of his novels, both in terms of the issues and settings, Ghosh has been persistently exploring the issues of identity and its formation in his works. He has combined history with a contemporary vision of a world free from divisions of all sorts. Travel motif has been used to create a neutral space where barriers dissolve, and borders are blurred. Further, Ghosh has made a unique experiment to amalgamate Literature, Science, Philosophy, History, Psychology, Anthropology, and Sociology. As a fiction-historian, he celebrates and explores diversity and shows his concern is largely with historical movements and events, which are beyond the control of individuals, at the same time concentrating upon the predicament of the individual under such circumstances.

            Ghosh’s novel The Shadow Lines advocates for universal political freedom and individual’s response to aggression and nationalism. The novel traces about fifty years of relations among three generations of two families of India and England. The narrator, a young school boy in Calcutta listens to the stories told by his cousin Tridib. The stories provide a new kind of experience for the boy to understand the outside world. The first instance of different layers of political occurrences in the novel appears in the memories of the grandmother of the narrator about her old hometown Dhaka. The grandmother had to leave Dhaka as a result of partition and settles in Calcutta. She always remembers her childhood days and her experience as an adult in Dhaka. Her stories portrays her memories in Dhaka. The tranquil vision of her ancestral home in Dhaka is devastated with the political and communal turmoil of India and Pakistan partition. The novel reflects the violence of partition and concept of nationalism through the characters Tridib and his grandmother.

            The communal riots in 1964 in Dhaka lead to the death of Tridib. The grandmother talks of communal riots as, "We have to kill them, before they kill us, "(237) Her ancestral home in Dhaka was like a ‘pastoral retreat’ now turned to be a reminder of ‘communal violence’. Her golden vision is devastated with the aftermath of India and Pakistan partition. The death of Tridib is the pinnacle incident in the political turmoil of the novel The Shadow Lines.

            The focus of the novel is on the political overtones, Communal strife and irresistible urge of nationalism. The narrative technique is very interesting and the political insights did not hamper the flow of the story. This makes the novel very distinctive in narration and characterization. The narrative technique echoes intricate layering with its looping and nestling of story within the story and place within the place. The private crisis mirrors public turmoil at various incidents of the novel. The grandmother's response to Ila is not sympathetic one, she tells the narrator, “Ila has no right to live there. [...] She doesn't belong there. It took those people a long time to build that country. [...] years and years of war and bloodshed. Everyone who lives there has earned his right to be there with blood War in their religion. That's what it takes to make a country.” (77-78)

            The feelings of nationalism can only be developed through the process of war and sustained bloodshed. The time of the novel moves backwards and forwards that makes the political incidents very realistic. The unnamed narrator with his universal consciousness wallows in an empowering sense of simultaneity and correspondence. The narrator aptly rejects such easy generalizations and recalls the more worldly-wise Tridib's observations,

All she wanted was a middle class life in which, like the middle classes the world over, she would thrive believing in the unity of nationhood and territory, of self respect and national power: that was all she wanted a modern middle class life, a small thing that history had denied her in its fullness and for which she could never forgive it. (178)

            Tridib feels that the grandmother was not a fascist, but a middle class woman of the modern who is living in fantasy. The grandmother had a bitter experience of the British rule and the terrorist movement in Bengal, "clandestine network and home-made bombs." She wanted to be free, so she never understands lla's desire to live in London.

            Ila has a few radical friends in London, who protest on political issues. Another facet of nationalism is revealed in Nick Price, who later marries lla. Nick gave up his job as a C.A. in Kuwait because of his out-of-date management practices and undue interference of the Arab business partners. He was still under the influence of British colonial practices which provides opportunities for enjoying the power. The grandmother's desire for freedom, May's concept of internationalism, Nick's longing for colonial hangover, Ila's striving for personal freedom the important features of the novel. Generally, the quest for freedom becomes the source of violence in the history.  The shadow lines are drawn between people and nations is often a mere illusion. The force and appeal of nationalism cannot be wished away, just as death by a communal mob in the by lanes of old Dhaka. Robi, an IAS officer, in charge of a district, philosophies to lla and the narrator near a derelict church in Clapham, London.

You know, if you look at the picture on the front pages of the newspapers at home now, all those pictures of deal people in Assam, the north-east, Punjab, Sri Lanka, Tripura-people shot by terrorists and separatists and a the army and the police, you'll find somewhere behind it all, that single word, everyone's doing it to be free. (246)

            Amitav Ghosh portrays the characters like the grandmother and Ila, who did not indulge in violence are on the verge of it. The grandmother does some household activities for the Bengal terrorists kill the English magistrate at Khulna during her student days. Another important feature of the novel is Ila separation from her family in order to adapt to cosmopolitan lifestyle of London. Ghosh with his extraordinary skills of using language and narrative techniques highlights the irrational behavior of the characters. The narrator recalls these events as a research student during 1980s. The author was very successful to convey that events of the novel are similar to the historical incidents of 1980s. The schoolboys strongly believe that a certain community has poisoned the water in Calcutta. Later as a research student, the narrator tries to recall the motivation for riots in Calcutta by reading newspaper reports

In Calcutta rumours were in the air especially that familiar old rumour, the harbinger of     every serious riot that the trains from Pakistan were arriving packed with corpses [...] with refugees still pouring in, rumours began to flow like floodwaters through the city and angry crowds began to gather at the stations. (229)

            Ghosh believes the impact of rumours in communal riots which are authenticated by the illustrious historian Prof. Sumit Sarkar of University of Delhi. Prof.  Sarkar shows the effectiveness of rumour in any mass movement.

From out of their misery and hope, varied sections of the Indian people seems to have       fashioned their own images of Gandhi, particularly in the early days whom he was still to most people a distant, vaguely-glimpsed or heard-of tale of a holy man with miracle working powers [...] peasants were giving vague rumours about Gandhi a radical, anti-zamindar twist. (181)

            The Shadow Lines explains the cultural separation; communal riots are in a state of crisis in India. The political allegory, the contemporary situation and motivation for riots is very sensitively dealt with. The rumour on poisoning of water and of a train full of dead bodies is recurring feature in the political turmoil and these rumours are not confined to a particular place or time. Ghosh discloses that on 27 December 1963, two hundred and sixty-three years after the Mu-i-Mubarak, believed to be heir of the Prophet Mohammed, was brought to Kashmir, it was stolen. The newspaper reports, read by the narrator, indicate that "there was not one single recorded incident of animosity Seven Kashmiri Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs." (225)

            The protests in Pakistan were subsided except in Khulna which is a small town in east wing of Pakistan where a demonstration turned violent and a few shops were burnt into ashes and a few people were also killed. The headlines in newspapers reported, "Fourteen die in the frenzy off Khulna" (228). Gradually the riots were spread from Khulna to Dhaka. There were rumours about the poisoning of water, trains full of dead bodies. They initiated the communal frenzy and violence. The novel depicts the communal conflict in Calcutta and erstwhile East Pakistan which is followed in some parts of contemporary India. Amitav’s narrative technique tries to bring compactness to the novel. Communal strife was expressed wonderfully without describing the violence. The narrator was shocked with the violent incidents which triggered off which resulted in the death of his cousin Tridib. 

            The riots of 1964 in Calcutta were similar to 1984 Delhi riots and 1987 Meerut riots. The scheme of these riots is more or less same. The technique of newspaper reporting triggers at a continuity of the communal strife. The violence in Calcutta is presented as the memories of the narrator.  The overall distrust is stressed, facts which have a bearing on communal trouble in the current decade also. Such treatment adds to the immediate relevant of The Shadow Lines. Two, the fragmented, disjointed and discontinuous mode of experience which is delineated in the text is characteristic of postmodern subjectivity. To illustrate, different characters experience Tridib's death in the novel in a disjointed and discontinuous manner. Its fuller implications are understood when different characters bring their partial perspectives on this very painful and poignant incident. (Ashcroft 196)

            May narrates the death details of Tridib to the narrator in London after many years of his death. She also had the guilty feeling that she was responsible for Tridib's death. The narrator believed that accident was the reason for Tridib’s death. Tridib's saved May and could save himself but fell as the prey to the mad mob which led to his death. Tridib dies as he lived, an iconoclast, a mystery.

            The absence of pessimism and narrative technique made The Shadow Lines a very interesting and convincing novel. The novelist described the political freedom in the contemporary period without any easy solutions. Ghosh shows how different cultures and communities are becoming antagonistic to a point of no return.  The novel was told in first person narration and was about a growing boy, who lives in the shadow of the man he idealizes and of an individual drawn into history as well as social and political turbulences. Tridib gives the boy, who is the narrator of the novel-worlds to travel in mind...eyes to see with them with. The narrator's grandmothers, Tha'mma is the third central character to the structure in the novel. As an eight-year old child, the narrator (35) sees England through the eyes of Ila and Tridib as a 26 years old, he realizes the truth when merges from the shadows of Ila. Tridib and Tha'mma. Tha'mma is an important character, as she plays a foil to the younger generation and also a critic of those who she thinks have deviated from Indian mores. She is the grandmother of a narrator, a retired headmistress, a disciplinarian head of the family. Like old persons, she has faith in old accepted values of life and looks down upon those who do not fall in line with her. She was born and brought up in a joint family in Dhaka. Tha'mma was married to an engineer with railways in Burma, therefore she passed the first twelve years of her married life in railway colonies. The protagonist of the character belongs to a boy, who grows up in a middle- class family; he is the narrator's uncle. He is in love with May and occupies the central place in several incidents of the novel.

Works Cited

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffith and Helen Tiffin, eds. The Post-Cotontal Studies Reader London. Routledge, 1995. Print.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. (abbreviated as TSL) New Delhi: Oxford U P, 1988. Print.

Sarkar, Sumit. Modern India 1885-1947. Madras: Macmillan India, 1983. Print.