Zero Types of Ambiguity: Early Amitav Ghosh

By Abhrajyoti ChakrabortyJuly 14, 2013

Zero Types of Ambiguity: Early Amitav Ghosh

The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh

Triptych image: Isabel Herguera, "Accident Revisited" 2012

THIS YEAR MARKS the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Shadow Lines, the second, and without doubt, the most reactionary of Amitav Ghosh’s novels. Although the horrific events that were formative to the book’s conception have long since passed (and are, indeed, likely to be unknown to the more recent readers), something about its frank indictment of violence has always left a mark. This has a lot to do, I think, with the book’s language, although the larger canvas that the story dips in and out of — the local and the foreign, or the East and the West — will never stop speaking to a particular kind of reader. With his later work, of course, Amitav Ghosh would evolve into a different writer — much more versatile, playful, and restrained in his enquiries — but The Shadow Lines is perhaps the book that, like Sons and Lovers for D.H. Lawrence or The Good Soldier for Ford Madox Ford, many of his long-standing enthusiasts still wish to see him repeat.

For once — and this is seldom repeated in Ghosh’s later fiction — the novel does not just invoke or broaden an argument, but clarifies its own position in the stakes; it rejects, as a way of coming to terms with its central theme of human violence, a novelist’s familiar recourse to ambiguity — the condemnation is both heartfelt and explicit. Perhaps that explains the powerful impact a first reading seems to have, not just among those who have witnessed or been shattered by the frequent conflicts amongst faiths or communities or nations, but for a generation of late adolescents born in and around when the novel was written, a generation that came of age in cities and towns — outside of Europe and the United States — as they were themselves in the process of being taken over by the asymmetrical demands of globalization (with the older tensions not as much dissolved as flattened, and in a number of instances, beginning to fit into the liberal market’s new incongruities), a generation whose experience of war and riots was likely to be marginally less volatile than their fathers, and yet, would have observed the resultant shadows and divisions all around them. The special quality of fear that the narrator of the novel thinks is particular to the subcontinent, one that is borne of

the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the spaces that surround one, the streets that one inhabits, can become, suddenly and without warning, as hostile as a desert in a flash flood.

This is a fear that anyone who has grown up in a country that was once a 20th-century colony, can never fail to recognize.


Ghosh’s second novel recalls, on the surface, the intertwined fates of two friendly families — the narrator’s connected family tree spreads from Calcutta to Dhaka to Lymington Road, London — beginning at the brink of World War II in England, 13 years before the narrator is born, and culminating around 1979, when the narrator visits London for a year and returns having pieced together his “final redemptive mystery.” However, when the book came out in India in 1988, four years after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated by her Sikh bodyguard (in the aftermath of a military operation in the premises of Golden Temple, Amritsar, a place sacrosanct to the religion), and following a terrible riot had broken out against the Sikhs in Delhi, it was correctly identified at once as a response to those killings. In an essay written in 1995, called The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi, Ghosh informs us that he took part in many of the protests and relief programs after the disturbances of 1984, and he started The Shadow Lines “within a few months.” The essay described a bus journey that he took through the city on the day of the assassination, with incensed mobs searching every car and house and setting them alight if they contained men with swollen turbans and a single steel bangle on the wrist. The incident bears more than a passing resonance in the book to a scene when the narrator, as a child in 1964, finds his school bus being chased on the way home in Calcutta, unsuccessfully, by a group of men who nevertheless keep “laughing, with their arms around each other’s shoulders,” or a few days later in Dhaka, in the devastating central episode of the novel, where a rickshaw is seen from a distance to be “reaching heavenwards, like a gigantic anthill, and its sides are seething with hundreds of little men.” Although the 1984 riots are never once mentioned — the narrative constantly flits through time, much like the crisscrossing form of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance Of Things Past, though not always as effortlessly — there is little doubt that the book would never have been conceived without them, and the larger question that emerges a quarter of a century later is about the perception of authorial distance: the length of time and space that contemporary fiction seems to demand, by widespread consensus, in order to effectively translate and process spontaneous responses and sentiments. One cannot help wondering how different the novel would have read if it had been begun much later, well after the riots had shrunk from public consciousness — whether it would have retained any tremors from the witnessed atrocities on the page, whether the sentences would not have been ironed out of every obvious wrinkle. However the language might deceive us though, the book does have a vital aesthetic, one that, among other things, appears distrustful of the novelist’s usual excuses for aloofness.

Elsewhere, Ghosh has attributed the continuous success of writers from South Asia to their willingness to explore emotion, especially compared to their American counterparts. The Shadow Lines, due to its insistence on exploring sentiment in a language that is unpolished and often unsorted, seems equably replete with examples, some with trompe l’oeil precision, some left short by the conventional phrasing. D.H. Lawrence, while writing Women In Love, is known to have deliberately imposed repetitions and unhampered scraps of writing in the manuscript, because he wanted the page to reflect the inevitable tussle of the novel’s characters with what lay beyond their interiorities, a certain mixture of forces, mystical if not downright religious, that he called the “unknown.” While Ghosh may not have intended to do something similar with emotion, to capture the imprecision and indeed banality of fear or anger or giddiness with his language, it is tempting to wonder, especially after the narrator informs you at the outset that a certain name comes “readily off my pen” and a few pages later, when he recalls himself as an eight-year-old, “close to bursting with pride.”

In fact, one of the foremost characteristics that you notice about the unnamed narrator — another nod to Proust — is that even by the tender age of 16, he is burdened, and recalls himself being so, almost to a Talmudic decree, by this inexplicable longing to remember. (“Do you remember?” “How could you not remember?” are his usual refrains in conversations.) As a child, he is in awe of his uncle Tridib, an eccentric man in his 20s when we meet him, whom the narrator last recalls seeing as a 12-year-old, boarding a plane to Dhaka. It is clear that Tridib’s oblique curiosity about the world has had a formative influence, so much so that when the narrator later goes to London, he finds himself looking at the streets through the prism of those childhood stories. Tridib is, in many ways, the antithesis of a sansaree — a sansaree has a permanent job and marriage by the time he is 30, and the rest of his life is devoted to making certain that he holds on, steadily, to these two supports. This life arc is expected from men in the mid-rungs of Bengali society; they are well-versed in shying away from affairs beyond their immediate compass. (The protagonist Apu’s father, in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, relentlessly fails to become one.)

There was a reason, though, for that pattern. Through much of the 1930s and 1940s, Bengal was plagued by devastating famines and scarcities. The eastern part became a dominion of Pakistan after independence in 1947, and there were constant riots between the Hindus and the Muslims everywhere. A family’s sense of place in the society was always slippery and vulnerable to collapse. The narrator hints at these conditions when he is taken to visit an impoverished relative in a distant part of the city:

The ground fell away sharply from the edges of the building and then levelled out into a patchwork of stagnant pools, dotted with islands of low raised ground. Clinging to these islands were little clumps of shanties, their beaten tin roofs glistening rustily in the midday sun. The pools were covered with a sludge so thick that it had defeated even the ubiquitous carpets of water hyacinth. I could see women squatting at the edges of the pools, splashing with both hands to drive back the layers of sludge, scooping up the cleaner water underneath to scrub their babies and wash their clothes and cooking utensils.

A little later, the narrator tells us “that landscape was the quicksand that seethed beneath the polished floors of our house; it was that sludge which gave our gentle decorum its fine edge of frenzy.”

Notice the innate turmoil of the “seethed beneath” and the “edge of frenzy” or the “clinging” that gives way without harmony to “clumps”; the book is replete with such instances of clumsiness. Elsewhere, the narrator remembers a room full of “honeycombs of cobwebs” and admires another female character for “she had not spared herself the sight of herself as seen through my eyes”; almost every couple of pages, one encounters these examples that are in such patent friction with accepted literary aesthetics. Verbs are appropriated without due thought from nouns (“breasted”) and are invested with a coarsened flamboyance — a rickshaw shoots down a yard, hands snake out of pockets, and heads are frequently cocked up in anger. Then there is the “accumulated spleen of quarrels” and “the limbo of reconciliation.” It is at these instants that the trauma and discontent of the characters seem to have been inflicted, without modulation, upon the page.

In the essay on the 1984 riots, Ghosh has meditated on the pervasive representations of violence in our age (“the bloody detail or the elegantly staged conflagration that closes a chapter or effects a climax”) so that the slightest feint towards mayhem induces an element of luridness; indeed, it is instructive how routinely such scenes in contemporary films are referred to as graphic. Violent scenes are condemned for failing to leave some residue for our imagination; an equal sharpness of attention in a more placid scene seldom draws that charge. At the same time, we are all too familiar, and wearied, by the soppiness lurking beneath scenes of impending cruelty, with a lady’s helpless voice coming out of a dark room or children hidden under the bed or flushed into the cellar during a raid. An unspoken pact amongst artists and writers is to tiptoe around these scenes, work their way around them, for the emotions they evoke are bound to lapse into extremities. Ghosh quotes the Bosnian writer Dzevad Karahasan who has a rather combative viewpoint on this:

The decision to perceive literally everything as an aesthetic phenomenon — completely sidestepping questions about goodness and truth — is an artistic decision. That decision started in the realm of art, and went on to become characteristic of the contemporary world.

There are, of course, plenty of arguments against this, most notably the fact that an artistic decision need not always flinch from anxieties of “goodness and truth”; the latter half of the 20th century, that most disillusioned of times, abounds in examples of writers who have a fierce sense of this goodness and truth, who employ it without any sign of disenchantment. With V.S. Naipaul, for instance, you implicitly know that when he uses the adjective great, what he precisely means by it; there are no great experiences in his terrain, but there are always great men and great civilizations. Similarly, Salman Rushdie’s sense of the false is quite stringent and is to be founded in Enlightenment precepts of reason and logic.

Nevertheless, Ghosh’s choice of weapon in the novel — written five years before he could have read Karahasan’s essay — is to enquire spontaneously into that violence and allow the language to get to its own inelegant feet, a stern refusal to let words take over the discourse at any point, for as the narrator admits about acts of sudden brutality,

[W]e can only use words of descriptions when they happen and then fall silent, for to look for words of any other kind would be to give them meaning, and that is a risk we cannot take any more than we can afford to listen to madness.

And so, when the narrator’s friend starts crying as their school bus is chased by a mob, there is “an ocean of desolation in his sobs,” and just before another car is chased in Dhaka, there is the expected silence at the street corner, and the little boy inside can sense “a chill [...] spreading outwards from the pit of his stomach.” Ghosh is only trying here to be faithful to the tactile immediacy of these emotions and eschew the prose stylist’s distaste for verbosity. He keeps his language accessible to the extent that it sometimes just about qualifies a cliché — “sink to the bottom of the sea of heartbreak,” a female character that has “to raise her hand to wipe away the tear that was rolling down her cheek.” None of this is intended to be read with anything less than earnestness. But a certain kind of reader, saturated by the repetitive articulation of these images, cannot be faulted if she finds some of it excessive. That reader will be further confounded when she runs into something similar in the quieter parts of the narrative: “I sprinted down the street and up the stairs, jammed my finger into our doorbell and kept it there till my mother opened the door.”

This is just after the narrator has spotted what appears to be a turbaned stranger behind his grandmother’s window — it turns out to be the grandmother herself, her head draped in a cloth to prevent hair from falling out. No drop in temperature can be detected, however, between the “chill spreading outwards” of earned, blatant fear and the finger jammed into the doorbell of a smaller anxiety. There is a palpable gracelessness to the prose on many of these occasions, when the artistic decision to be made is too far-flung to sidestep any of Karahasan’s questions.


Tridib’s apparition hovers throughout the story: he is present when May Price confesses that the television is kept on all the time in her bedsit in Islington Green (“It is my only indulgence”); he is chuckling with us from another table when Ila takes relatives to an Indian restaurant in London, warning them “not to expect anything familiar.” There is good evidence that the narrator has inherited his uncle’s eagerness for the world, particularly when he evaluates Ila’s relationship to the cities she has inhabited as “the same tired intimacy that made us stop on our way back from the park in the evening and unbutton our shorts and aim our piss through the rusty wrought-iron railings.”

Or this, where he is thinking back, wispy-eyed, at how his mother would react if his father came home exhausted from work:

[H]er ability to modulate the volumes and harmonies of our house down to a whisper, while making sure that its rhythms kept ticking over, in perfect time, in much the way that a great conductor can sometimes produce, within a vast tumult of music, one perfect semi-breve of silence.

But with Ghosh, one does not get the impression that his concern lies in the pulse of the sentence; there are other things, more ambitious matters of structure to be attended to. In his later work, meticulous diary entries (The Hungry Tide) and long, unsparing correspondences between characters (River of Smoke) shoulder the narrative forward. Another book, In an Antique Land, attempts a merger of factual and fictional form based on a yearlong stay in Egypt and occupies the woolly interstitia between the two that we also see in Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot and Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival. The protagonist of The Shadow Lines is allowed to flutter between the characters’ memories — he remembers what his uncle Tridib had seen (and afterwards told him) as an eight-year-old in pre-war London; while being in Calcutta, he can recall what another relative felt when he got up one day in Dhaka, or how, around the same time, a girl in London failed to tell her mother that she had been sent a pornographic letter by a family friend. Much of this fluidity is of course Proustian, but Ghosh finds a way to leap into remembrances that are not his own, without forfeiting the intimacy of a first-person account. Unlike Proust, Ghosh’s interest is rarely in the pictorial and spatial debris; every detail that is evoked is there to ascribe some portent, often finding itself recalled for some purpose in a later scene. One of the characters begins his memory of a fateful day, recalling how when he woke up, he wanted to be the first to see any “trouble”; he concludes with the sight of a number of men burning tires in a street corner, knowing “that trouble had come to him at last.” In another section, the narrator remembers a time from his childhood when Tridib was missing from his Calcutta neighborhood for a couple of months. When he appears again, he tells everyone that he has been to London to visit May Price, “a family friend,” but his bluff is quite pathetically exposed. The narrator goes to London years later and meets May Price; she tells him that Tridib had sent her a Christmas card when she was an adolescent, and they had soon begun to send each other letters and photographs.

The narrator then proclaims: “I like to think that Tridib received May’s photograph the day he came to Gole Park and told us that made-up story.” There is a strange circularity at work in all of this, the underlying assumption being that our memories can be no more than mammoth jigsaw puzzles, made up of random fragments that go on floating until they are united with their exact looking-glass counterparts. The same narrator, who reminds us of the “the silence of an absolute, impenetrable banality” that often begins to color our memories of riots, is strangely unaware of the banality of his own pursuit, the sense of completion he is seeking in different places for his loss. As a consequence, there is nowhere an absence of resolution, no split ends, none of the awkwardnesses that you come to expect from a novel that borrows so much from early modernism.              


Early in the novel, the narrator’s cousin Ila, the daughter of a diplomat who is dispatched every few years to a different part of the globe, asserts that the events of Asia and Africa are unmistakably “local” in influence, when compared to the heady revolutions and wars in the West. This is not an inherent belief in a region’s supremacy, as much as a mawkish glee at having inhabited a place that is assured of its location in history, of being “really remembered”; far from being a character who has strayed aside from the realm of subcontinental mores, she emerges as someone whose existence seems to depend, however unknowingly, upon them — she has a clearer idea, more than anything, that she wants to be free of them. Ila's point also hints at a larger theme that the novel is clearly in opposition to: the diminished fates of the lesser events in the timeline — a riot, in this case, that finds itself dwarfed by two monumental wars before and after — even within our private memories. (Perhaps the narrator is himself unaware of the extent to which Ila might have permeated his attitudes. He can recall, clearly, the documented wars India fought in 1962 and 1971, but not the neighborhood — or “local” — riots.) Riot or war, we seem bound to affix the acts of collective violence we live through with these adjectives of comparison, if only to make sense of them in the end, align them somehow with our need to comprehend. Efforts can be made to wrest oneself out of this compulsion, as Ghosh does by choosing to situate the novel far away from the disturbances of 1984. That choice appears partial after all these years; one cannot help but notice now the absence of 1984 throughout the book. It is difficult not to look at the writing too as an extension of the same unprompted struggle.


Abhrajyoti Chakraborty lives and writes, as of now, between Bombay and New Delhi.

LARB Contributor

Abhrajyoti Chakraborty lives and writes, as of now, between Bombay and New Delhi. He is joining the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall.


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