The Shadow Lines

by Amitav Ghosh

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How are maps and borders symbolically used in The Shadow Lines?

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In The Shadow Lines, maps and borders symbolize the often arbitrary nature of countries. The boundaries of a country are portrayed not as inevitable but as arbitrary and flimsy. Someone can “draw another line somewhere,” and suddenly there's another separate country or territory. The mutability of boundaries might be further symbolized in Tridib’s trans-cultural tales and in London's immigrant communities.

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The title of the book indicates Ghosh's attitude towards national borders. They are arbitrary symbols of equally arbitrary divisions, mere “shadow lines” that don't do justice to the complexities of inter-ethnic relations. Borders are the invention of politicians, devised as a method of control; and maps exist to codify and articulate the artificial political units into which people all across the world are divided.

The intrinsically contrived nature of political borders is illustrated by a highly amusing scene in the book, when the narrator's grandmother expects to see the border between India and East Pakistan from her vantage point aboard a plane. If there aren't any visible trenches between the two states, then how are people to know which side is which, she muses. If there are no visible signs of demarcation between India and East Pakistan, then there are effectively no differences between them, and if there are no differences between them then the notion of having border is meaningless.

The futility of having borders is powerfully expressed in the speech of the narrator's uncle Jethamoshai, who insists in the fundamental rootedness of identities and nations. For him, as for so many others across the length and breadth of the Indian sub-continent, home is where the heart is; and home is where one chooses to live and die. In practical terms, Jethamoshai also instinctively recognizes that if politicians, rather than the people, decide where to put the borders, then potentially there's no end to where and how often people will be expected to move.

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In his novel The Shadow Lines, you could argue Amitav Ghosh offers borders and maps as symbols of mutability and uncertainty. The title itself suggests that maps and borders should be questioned more and adhered to less. While borders and boundaries might seem to have happened naturally or effortlessly, they are indeed constructs of humans.

Think about the scene when the narrator’s grandma tries to get her uncle to come back to Calcutta. “I don’t believe in this India-Shindia,” the uncle (Jethamoshai) replies.

It’s all very well, you’re going away now, but suppose when you get there, they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then?

In the above quote, I’m focused on the “they.” The “they” indicates the arbitrary, uninformed nature of creating boundaries and countries. It hints at how “they” are often people with very little knowledge of how a country is organized. The “they” are frequently anonymous outsiders, foreigners, or, to put it bluntly, white colonists.

I should also address the “draw another line” phrase. That seems to reinforce the rudimentary and almost childlike act of boundary-making. It’s almost as if the uncle is talking about toddlers doodling and not adults creating and carving out new territories.

I also think you could say something about how the phrase “shadow lines” symbolizes the psychological or abstract nature of boundaries. I’m trying to talk about Tridib. For me, Tridib exemplifies how easy it is to cross boundaries and cultures and countries in one’s own mind. Tridib has a lot of stories. He tells the narrator about tropical snakes, Irish myths, and various London rumors. None of these topics can be restricted to a single country or territory. One could say that Tridib’s knowledge crosses boundaries.

Another way to talk about the shadowy or mutable symbolism of borders is to talk about how Hindu life is replicated in London. Think about the presence of mosques and Hindu movie posters. If boundaries and maps were such strong, powerful symbols, it shouldn’t be so easy to move the customs and culture associated with one country into another.

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Shadow Lines uses the symbolism of maps and in particular borders throughout its  novel to identify and explore a key postcolonial theme. Postcolonial criticism examines and criticises man-made boundaries and borders as attempts to define a particular group as against another group ("the other"). Postcolonial criticism attempts to rupture these apparently secure boundaries by examining those who live on the margins of these boundaries and also deconstructing (taking apart) the notion of the other. This is particularly true of the "invention" of India the nation, with the Partition of 1947 which drew imaginary lines across India, creating the countries of Pakistan, Bangladesh and India and also causing much death from the resulting riots.

The narrative in Shadow Lines is constantly transgressing boundaries of space and time, thus giving the novel its title, as the lines that divide places and even times are shown to be easily transgressed - "Shadow Lines." Borders are thus shown to be "illusory" and "shadowy" and often "born out of different strands of nationalism and ideology" that in turn give birth to violence. In this novel as in life there are multiple boundaries and dividing lines, not just national boundaries, but borders that separate the coloniser from the colonised, the "us" from the "them", and borders also in time, separating the past from the present. These borders are ever changing as the perspective from which we look at them changes.

Consider this quote regarding the inherent fragility of boundaries:

[About seeing the border from the air] 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 . . . (151)

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