Amitav Ghosh, through his women characters, perfectly portrays all the psychological and sociological trauma that the common citizen of war-torn and riot-ravaged post-Partition India suffered through. The central male characters—Tridib, Rabi, the narrator, and Nick Price—are passive in importance, whereas women characters like Tha’mma, Ila, and May Price are more active. Through their trials and tribulations, they bring to the forefront key issues like the complexities of belonging and alienation, identity crisis in postcolonial society, and the role violence plays in constructing national identity.
Tha’mma is a victim of Partition and has to carve out a space for herself in an alien land, which gives her a no-nonsense attitude to life. She struggles through life and, through hard work, finally finds a respectable niche for herself as a teacher in middle-class Bengali society. She is a woman hardened by circumstance, and her former struggles cast a shadow on her attitude toward Tridib. She is rather possessive toward the narrator and wants to give him a better life, which is why she is adamant that her grandson should not be “loafing about with Tridib.”
The character of Tha’mma gains even greater importance and dimension when we focus on her idea of nationalism and how it changes over the years. She lived through the terrorist movement in Bengal and the terrible days following independence and Partition. As she recounts to the narrator, she would have loved to help the cause of the terrorist movement against the British. What this shows is her need to construct her identity with respect to an identifiable enemy—in this case, British colonial power. Even though readers may respect her strength of character, they cannot miss her chauvinistic attitude. As A. N. Kaul points out in his essay “A Reading of The Shadow Lines,” she is a “still surviving representative of a fossilized nationalism.”
The complexity of her sense of belonging comes to the forefront when she says that she would “come” home to Bangladesh instead of “go” home. Separated from her native land by the Partition, caught between her place of birth and her adopted country, the certainties of the language of differentiation slide away from her. She asks questions that are trivial on the surface but poignant on deeper probing. Unable to understand the concept of an international border or no-man’s-land, she asks:
But if there aren’t any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where’s the difference then? And if there’s no difference both sides will be the same, it will be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day without anybody stopping us. What was it all for then—partition and all the killing and everything—if there isn’t something in between?
The Riots in Dhaka further put her off balance, as “till then she had thought of violence as the abettor of national consciousness but now she was to realize that it can be an interrogator of the same too” (Dhrubajyoti Banerjee, “Violent Cartography”). After Tridib is killed, she tries to create a new sense of belonging, a new sense of reality, as she remarks, “We have to kill them before they kill us; we have to wipe them out.” What was once her own now belongs to some other; those who were once her brothers, alongside whom she would have died happily, now becomes her enemies. The growth and development of Tha’mma’s character encapsulate the futility and meaninglessness of political freedom in what was otherwise supposed to be an era of peace and prosperity.
From the beginning of the novel, Thamma is posited as Tridib’s opposite. She may disapprove of Tridib, but Tridib is the only person who can understand her completely:
A modern middle-class woman—though not wholly, for she would not permit herself the self-deceptions that make up the fantasy world of that kind of person. 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 the 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.
In the novel, Tridib repeatedly stresses the importance of being free from other people’s inventions and stories. Both Tha’mma and Ila fail to do so, although Ila’s failure is less pardonable, as she is not a victim of history. Ila makes it clear through the stories she makes up regarding her childhood that she subscribes to a Eurocentric worldview. It seems that she was hard put to anglicize herself, be it after the fashion of the blue-eyed doll Magda or as a trendy Marxist. The narrator does not notice that she is always at the periphery in the school yearbook photos which become symbolic of her marginalized status in England. She has lived her life by deceiving the narrator and the people around her, pretending to be someone she is not. By doing so, she has deceived herself, too. Her compulsive traveling is symptomatic of her subjective dislocation. She is the epitome of cultural rootlessness, and it is her inability to belong to any culture that forces her to fabricate stories about her life in London. Her relationship with Nick Price does not have any emotional basis, and it is not surprising to the reader when Nick strays into an extramarital affair. Her position becomes all the more poignant as we remember that throughout her life, she has wanted to distance herself from the cultural milieu which the narrator inhabited. She even goes so far as rudely pointing out to him that she wants to be “free of your bloody culture and free of all of you.” The novel shows her carrying the burden of her own expectations and fabrications, and the narrator, in the end, cannot find the pertinent words “that would console her for the discovery that the squalor of the genteel little lives she had so much despised, was a part too of the free world she had tried to build for herself.”
May Price is the picture of the deluded idealism, the cultural dislocation or incomprehension, that sets the stage for personal or public tragedy. This is evident when she forces Tridib to stop the car to put a dying dog out of its misery, and later, she is the first person to jump out of the car to save the old man Jethamosai—an idealistic but reckless act that ultimately gets Tridib, Jethamosai, and Khalil killed. Her role in the novel is limited to the realization that she owes her life to Tridib; but that, too, is flawed, as in the end, she realizes that Tridib sacrificed himself.
Thus, through the broad spectrum of women characters—ranging from Tha’mma to Ila to May—Amitav Ghosh eloquently criticizes the colonial hangover and cultural dislocation in a postcolonial situation while also portraying the psychological makeup of the victims of history, who in turn counterintuitively thrive on violence.