Essay: Nationlism in India

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€˜Nationalism€™ in India, a country of extremely diversified cultures and religions and is a witness
of a long history, it remains hardly an uncomplicated term. After the awful partition of India in
1947, the communal rights in different parts of the country have become a common sight to
witness. Even in the 21st century, when India stands in the race of the fastest developing countries
of the world, religion remains a sensitive issue. . We seem to live content in a world where only
spilling of blood can awaken patriotism in the hearts of the people and sacrificing one’s life at
the time of war is considered a martial glory. This is the point of view that we inherit blindly,
without considering alternative views that defy the idea of nationality linked to bloodshed and in
turn defines nations, national boundaries and history in a different way. Many great artists have
undertaken the task of depicting the plight in their own art forms and style. Be it the debutant
riots of partition in 1947, depicted by Khushwant Singh in Train to Pakistan (1956) or Saadat
Hasan Manto’s numerable short stories or the Gujarat riots of 2002 or the very recent riots in
Muzzafarpur and Bisada villages of Uttar Pradesh, the idea of nationalism is challenged
everywhere. Amitav Ghosh presents one such view in his brilliantly crafted second novel, The
Shadow Lines, a 1988 novel by Amitav Ghosh, based on the 1964 communal riots which took
place in Calcutta, Khulna and Dhaka, and how the demarcation of the countries remain blurred
and shadowy.
Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines depicts three generations in a family saga that spreads over three
places – Dhaka, Calcutta and London. The book is divided into two parts, “Going Away” and
“Coming Home”. In the first section, the narrator draws the picture of a war-ravaged London and
also depicts the family rapport between two families- one British and one Bengali; over multiple
time frames. Mayadebi whose son Tridib enchants the narrator with his story telling and in-
depth knowledge of many places is the central pivot of the story. A love relationship between
Tridib and May Price, the daughter of the Prices, develops when May returns to Calcutta. The
narrator learns about the war from Tridib, his inspiring mentor and uncle, who envisions the
young narrator of the far off places. In the second section of The Shadow Lines, Ghosh pays
attention to communal strife in Calcutta and Dhaka caused by the loss of the Prophet’s hair from
Hazratbal shrine, Srinagar. Throughout this novel, Ghosh attempts to draw attention to the
futility of political freedom and the ruin it causes to the general people. As the author claims
through the voice of the narrator, “it is like stepping through a mirror”. Therefore, question of
why do we need boundaries to define ourselves, which lead to wars and bloodshed is repeatedly
raised throughout the novel.
The ravages of war and the anguish it causes, especially on the middle class strata of society, is a
strain running throughout this novel.Â
In The Shadow Lines, each character is depicted from the narrator’s perspective in which the
lives of the major characters — Thamma, narrator’s grandmother; his uncle Tridib, Ila, his
distant cousin; Robi, Tridib’s brother; and May, Tridib’s English beloved— take different paths
because of changes in politics. Thamma, who supported the cause of Indian Independence during
partition, discovers the brutal side of nationalist politics when she witnesses her nephew, Tridib,
getting murdered in a 1964 communal strife in Dhaka. Tridib’s murder shell-shocks May. She
does not return to India after her lover’s death. Ila and her uncle Robi never look back to India
and decide to stay in England for the rest of their life. Jethamoshai has no interest in returning to
his birthplace Dhaka. Tridib’s death ends Thamma’s romantic notions of a life without borders.
She is an underrated nationalist who contributed her labor and money to the nationalist
movement that led to the Indian independence. Almost at the end of The Shadow Lines, the
narrator gets a ‘glimpse’( The Shadow Lines, 252) of ‘a final redemptive mystery’(TSL, 252) as
he unlocks the real reason behind Tridib’s death and also listens to May’s version of her
relationship with Tridib.
 Many critics have discussed The Shadow Lines from various perspectives. Here’s a summary of
how some of the significant critics have seen the novel. According to Kaul (1990), The Shadow
Lines is concerned with nationalism, culture and language (21). In “Theme of Partition and
Freedom in Khushwant Singh’s Train to Pakistan and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines”,
Pabby (1990) notes that the real sorrow of partition as portrayed in The Shadow Lines is that the
abrupt end of a shared communal history and cultural heritage (22). As a result of partition,
Tha’mma and her Jethamoshai are forced to live in a separate land despite sharing the same
communal history and cultural heritage. In her article, “The Parition of Bengal: A Comparative
Study of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines and Sunil Gongopadhayay’s Purba Alam 7
Paschim”, Alpana Neogy stresses that The Shadow Lines is concerned with displacement and
alienation in the adopted land and the dream of returning to homeland one day. Seema Bhadhuri,
in her article, “Of Shadows, Lines and Freedom: A Historical Reading of The Shadow Lines”
discusses the changing ethos in peoples’ mentality in post-partition eras. In “Contrasting Strands
of Political Nuances in The Shadow Lines”, Novy Kapdaia praises Amitav Ghosh for brilliantly
sketching everyone’s quest for political freedom, and the impact of rumour in violent times.
Chapter 2
The theme of Nationalism
Amitav Ghosh is considered to be one of the best Indian writers who write in English, and The
Shadow Lines is considered to be the most coveted one. It is also one of the most challenging
novels to analyze. He portrays each character of this novel brilliantly and shows how war and
other political incidents have changed their lives. Readers feel attached to the plot of this novel
because of its universal emotions that do unite the experience of quiet a few people. He depicts
incidents of 1964 riots with much minute detailing and precision, which many of the readers
must have been unknown of. This chapter analyses the issues of political conflicts, the idea of
nationalism it arises and the effect it casts over the main characters of the novel.
One of the biggest influences on the narrator, his grandmother, Tha’mma epitomizes the ideals of
the Nationalist movement and values of India’s national identity. She has a blind love for her
nation, though her nationality is certainly questionable as she is a migrant from Dhaka during the
partition of India. The inquiry into her nationality as well the determination of nationality is
made when Tha’mma has to fill out a form on her trip to Dhaka, to persuade her uncle to leave
Dhaka, which is in the midst of a revolution and come to Calcutta with her. While filling out the
form, she fills in her nationality swiftly and without hesitation as ‘Indian’ but starts wondering
about her roots and origin once she writes her place of birth as Dhaka, Bangladesh (then East
Pakistan). This raises the question, even in the reader’s mind, as to how nationality is or should
be determined. Does birth in a country give you right to nationality or should it be judged by the
country you are living in? And if so, then how does your nationality change if the borders
demarcating your nation change? The author leaves the reader questioning. Later, Tha’mma’s
uncle Jethamoshai/Ukil-babu sums it up best, when he says “I don’t believe in this India-Shindia.
[…] suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do
then? Where will you move to? […] As for me, I was born here, and I’ll die here.” It depicts the
insensitivity of the decision made by handful of people like partition on behalf of the larger strata
of society. While Tha’mma was in college she dreamt of being part of militant groups who
struck against the British imperial rule. She was fascinated by their ways, though she didn’t
know much about them and wasn’t sure how to find out more about them as they worked
clandestinely. When asked by the narrator what she would have done if she had the option of
killing the English magistrate, Tha’mma replies, “I would have been freightened….But I would
have prayed for strength, and God willing, yes, I would have killed him. It was for our freedom: I
would have done anything to be free.”(39). The young man in her college, who was arrested
inspires Tha’mma. She wants to be a part of the Indian National Movement and do everything in
her power to liberate India. Tha’mma runs secret errands for aspirant nationalists and even cooks
food for them. Tha’mma is a nationalist. She seeks freedom anyhow.
Her embrace of nationalism grows out of the insecurity she suffers in her life. She was widowed
at an early age and has had to struggle through life in a harsh society. Her fiercely independent
nature does not let her accept any kind of assistance from her close relatives. The ‘status’ that she
has earned for herself through hard work as a school head-mistress has also to be safeguarded.
She disapproves of her nephew Tridib’s laid back attitude and keeps him at a distance, because
he defies most of her cherished principles. The narrator however is fascinated by Tridib’s
effortless challenge to his dominating, self-opinionated grandmother. Thamma cannot come to
terms with the changing political scenario in post-British era. She is unable to comprehend the
idea of borders. She is not aware of the definition of ‘the modern border’ which is ‘political but
real’, according to her son. Once a staunch nationalist, she now finds the freedom of the post-
independent period to be contradictory to her idealistic notions of life without borders. Before
returning to Dhaka for a short stay, she dreams of seeing the old Dhaka that she knew in her
childhood. But she does not realize that the Dhaka she had left behind and the Dhaka she has
seen in her return visit to her homeland are no longer similar. She cannot understand why her
place of birth has come “to be messily at odds with her nationality” Her homecoming also leads
to a sudden twist of fate. Tha’mma could never expect Tridib to fall victim to the political
animosity between India and Pakistan of 1964 in her own land. Tha’mma’s attempt to take her
uncle back to India ends in a tragedy. Her own uncle, her nephew and Khalil, the rickshaw
puller, are all killed in a riot. She is left with huge despair after their assassination. Tha’mma’s
friends turn out to be her enemies. After the incident, Tha’mma tells the narrator: “I gave the
chain to the fund for the war….For your sake, for your freedom. We have to kill them before
they kill us: we have to wipe them out.”(237). In one of the conversations with the young
narrator she even exhorts him to shed blood for his nation. She says: “It took those people a long
time to build that country; hundreds of years, of wars and bloodshed. Everyone who lived there
has earned his right to be there with blood; with their brother’s blood and their father’s blood and
their son’s blood. They know they’re a nation because they have drawn their borders with
blood… War is their religion. That’s what it takes to make a country. Once that happens people
forget they were born this or that, Muslim or Hindu, Bengali or Punjabi: they become a family
born of the same pool of blood. That is what you have to do for India, don’t you see?” (TSL 77-
Ghosh depicts the politics of maps in subtle ways. In Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, the narrator
compares the drawing of boundaries with the game of houses which Ila commands her young
cousin to play. Ila says, ‘Don’t you understand? I’ve just rearranged things a little. If we pretend
it’s a house, it’ll be a house’. Similarly, ‘rearrangement’ and ‘pretension’ are key words for the
birth of nations. Most nations are created out of rearrangement, illusion and disillusion. The birth
of a nation depends on the fixing of boundaries. A new nation is born out of the destruction and
reconstruction of old boundaries, which also forms or deforms the old and new relations.
The notion of freedom is intermittently discussed in The Shadow Lines. Ghosh brings different
ideas of nationalism for everyone. Almost everyone is seen doing something to be free.
However, the concept of freedom varies from person to person.
On the one hand, Ila has a different notion of freedom. Though born an Indian, Ila opts to be
British. She seeks freedom of a different kind. She likes leading a life without restrictions. She
has an Indian body but a British mindset. She picks up a fight against Robi when she is warned
by her brother not to dance with other men at a party. However, Ila cannot lead life as freely as
she wants to. Her overwhelming passion for Nick curbs her desire to lead a free life. Ila’s
freedom is restricted after she gets married to Nick. She has to worry about Nick’s alleged
extramarital affair with another woman. Ila fails to detach herself from Nick. Because of her
devotion towards Nick, Ila at one point prevents the narrator from developing a relationship with
her. She is restricted by her own chores. Nick uses her as an object. Ila has a sacrificing nature.
She tries every means at her disposal to keep the relationship with Nick intact. At the end of the
novel, readers see her inability to attain the kind of freedom she had always desired. She is also
jealous of Magda, the white doll. Ila belongs to those kinds of people who believe that
everything white is beautiful. Speaking of Ila, N, Eakambaram (1990) says, ‘She (Ila) seems to
be the kind of person who is not attached to any particular place’ (101).
Tridib is one of the most attractive characters of The Shadow Lines. He is a charismatic figure
who helps expand the horizon of the narrator, giving him “worlds to travel in” and “eyes to see
them with”. Tridib teaches the narrator to ‘imagine with precision’ (34). He is a renaissance man.
His knowledge knows no bounds. Tridib’s knowledge of English places (despite the changing
shift of events, construction and reconstruction of places that contradicted Tridib’s knowledge of
places with the narrator’s expectations) helps the narrator to find many places similar to his
uncle’s description while he is pursuing his doctoral studies. He is ‘happiest in neutral,
impersonal places- –coffee houses, bars, street corner adda —the sort of place where people
come, talk and go away without expecting to know each other any further’(9). He has a positive
attitude towards life. Tridib likes the story of ‘a man without a country, who fell in love with a
woman across-the seas’ (186). He has an affair with May, a lady who lives in faraway England.
We are told in his correspondence with May that he desires ‘to meet as the completest of
strangers —strangers across-the seas — all the more strangers because they knew each other
already…in a place without a past, without history, free, really free, two people coming together
with the utter freedom of strangers’(144). Unfortunately, the destruction of murky politics of the
subcontinent kills his life.
Chapter -3
What would have happened if there was only one nation in the sub-continent? Was partition the
real need of that time? Did partition bring peace and harmony into the subcontinent? There
questions always vex almost everyone, and have been dealt brilliantly by Ghosh in his novel.
The antagonistic political situation of the second half of the 21st century have led to constant
turn of events and breakdown of relationships because of religious and political conflicts.
Similarly, In The Shadow Lines, pre-partition friends became enemies in the post-partition era. A
Mob in Pakistan killed Tridib because of a religious conflict in Dhaka, a part of India before
partition. In the post-partition era, India and Pakistan fought three wars in (1965, 1971) and the
Kargil war in 1999. As a result of partition, India and Pakistan broke off relationships. In the end
of the novel, the narrator finds that the massacre that changed the lives of their family, didn’t
even have a place in the prominent newspapers of Bengal. This in itself is a mockery on the
futility of such communal riots that doesn’t have any positive impact on anyone. It seems a small
incident when looked apparently, but Ghosh depicts how that one tragedy is able to scar the
memories of all the members associated with it forever. The so called authorities of the nations
make decisions for partition, for wars, but their insensitivity is responsible for the profound
negative impact it leaves behind in the minds of people.
Here it’s interesting to compare the idea of nationalism with that of Rabindranath Tagore. There
has been a similar thought process between Amitav’s and his idea of seeing India as a national
Rabindranath Tagore and Amitav Ghosh believe in universal identity that has no borderlines.
Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines shows the futility of nationalism in the global world order.
Tagore castigates nationalism in the same vein. Nationalism, to him, is a “cruel epidemic of evil
…sweeping over the human world of the present age and eating into its moral
fibre”(“Nationalism” 9).Tagore was humanitarian and internationalist in outlook. According to
him, the world will never see the sunlight of humanity as long as people shed blood for the
ownership of one’s own country.
In The Shadow Lines, Ghosh also echoes Gandhi’s view about peace and universal solidarity and
shows how these can easily be destroyed by war and violence. In each of his novels, Ghosh
critiques people who are aggressive. Like Gandhi, Ghosh castigates violent territorial battles
fought for the creation of new states in the world.
Ghosh has raised objections against peoples’ war-mongering attitude, the rushed partition,
communal frenzies, intermittent violence and clashes that resulted in the snapping of ties
between India and Pakistan. However, Ghosh also tries to depict this novel from a humanitarian
perspective, which certainly intrigues the readers’ emotions to the core.

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