The Shadow Lines

by Amitav Ghosh
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Summary and analysis of The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh?

The novel The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh follows the lives of two families, English and Indian, intertwined with each other. Historical events such as World War II and the Partition of India provide a backdrop to the characters' personal experiences. The title comes from the novel's exploration of lines, how they draw connections and also create divisions. Similarly, the postcolonial nature of the narrative deals with how lines become blurred when it comes to such subjects as ethnicity, nationality, geography, and culture.

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The Shadow Lines is a novel about a boy and his family. The boy and his family live in India during tumultuous times. There are riots throughout India due to how British partitioned the country.

Yet India is not the only thing that is partitioned or broken up. In the early 1900s, the father of the narrator’s grandma, Tha’mma, started fighting with his brother. They divided the huge communal house with a wall. The two sides were not on speaking terms. The narrator grandma’s called the uncle’s side “the upside-down house.”

Tha’mma wanted to join the terrorist groups that were battling England for India’s independence. Alas, her husband died, so she had to bring up the narrator’s dad by herself.

The narrator’s dad gets married and Tha’mma lets the narrator’s mom run the household.

As for the narrator, he develops a big crush on his worldly cousin Ila. Ila has a crush on a boy named Nick Price. She met Nick in London. Ila implies that Nick saved her from xenophobic children.

Meanwhile, Tridib, the narrator’s older, loquacious uncle, has a crush on Nick’s older sister May. The two communicate through letters, some of which are quite sexual.

Unfortunately, Tridib, as well as Tha’mma’s uncle and his caretaker, are killed by rioters.

Later on, the narrator heads to London for school. By recalling Tridib’s vivid stories, the narrator navigates London quite impressively.

The narrator develops his own relationship with May. He has nonconsensual sex with her. Although, she appears to forgive him. Later, they have consensual sex.

As for the narrator’s first significant crush Ila—she marries Nick Price. Nick maintains many side girlfriends. Ila is aware of them. She won’t divorce him. However, she will demean him in public.

To analyze the story, you could highlight the importance of borders and boundaries. You could talk about how the borders and boundaries of India create violence and conflict. You can also talk about how the borders and boundaries of the narrator’s family create conflict.

You could also analyze the centrality of stories. Think about Tidib’s many stories, as well as the story Ila tells the narrator about being saved by Nick. You could analyze how stories help the characters revise history in order to make it more tolerable.

Lastly, you could analyze the role of gender in the novel. You could analyze how Amitav Ghosh both undercuts and reinforces gender norms. Tha’mma’s wish to be a part of the war against colonial England could be interrupted as a break from gender norms. Yet her obligation to raise her son could be seen as an adherence to gender norms.

Additionally, the worldly natures of May and Ila could be seen as a deviation from gender norms. Yet what the narrator does to May perpetuates terrible gender norms. More so, Ila’s tolerance of Nick’s affairs preserves harmful gender norms.

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A summary of Shadown Lines is one thing, but an analysis is another.  We can summarize the story quite easily, but for analysis one must understand a bit about post colonial criticism because that is exactly the theme that Ghosh is addressing.

In its simplest form, the story is about a young boy in India (who is the narrator).  The story begins in India and later transfers to London.  The story moves through the young boy's memories and especially concentrates on the memory of his cousin, Ila, who he is attracted to; however, because of the social constrictions of his society, the narrator stays with a platonic relationship.  Another interaction Ghosh focuses on is that of the narrator's relationship with another male cousin:  Tridib.  This part of the story focuses on the love between the Indian and the English.  As the narrator goes on in his personal narrative many historic events in India's history are revealed (even the second world war and incidents in Calcutta).

But in analyzing the title of the work, the real truth comes in the delineation of borders and boundaries between nations, hence the term "shadow lines."  The author shows how these lines are created, kept, broken, and even invisible.  The concept of Post Colonial Criticism talks about the negativity of borders made by man.  Why?  They pit one society against another.  As is evidenced by the story, this was especially true in India when it was divided into three sections:  India (proper), Pakistan, and Bangladesh.  Only conflict resulted in that division.

The novel not only deals with the boundaries of space, but also of time.  For example.  Look at this quotation about seeing boundaries from above:

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'll 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.

Further, if you put this analysis next to the actual plot of the story, you will begin to connect the two together.  For example, look at the character of Robi and his thoughts here:

Why don’t they draw thousands of little lines through the subcontinent and give every little place a new name? What would it change? It’s a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage. How can anyone divide a memory?

Here is a perfect example of those boundaries becoming a simple illusion.  Here, there is some kind of collective consciousness that can't be changed no matter what.  The government has no power in this way.  Such was the case of the subdivided India, ... the tumultuous India divided into three parts.

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The award-winning novel tells the story of a young Indian boy and his life there and, later, in London. The narrative is based on the memories of the main characters. The narrator (the boy) is sexually attracted to his cousin, Ila, but he prefers to maintain his present friendly relationship. The boy admires Tridib, a cousin, who falls in love with May, a Londoner who is also a relative. The story encompasses several historic events in India's history, including World War II, the Swadeshi movement, and the 1963-64 riots in Calcutta.

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