The Shadow Lines is a novel by Amitav Ghosh and it interrogates the notion of borders. As implied in the title itself, it shows borders not as concrete but as shadows. This interrogation is done through one of the main characters in the text, the narrator’s grandmother, Thamma.
Thamma is the narrator’s grandmother and a staunch believer in the kind of militaristic nationalism that is defined by boundaries, by us-and-them, by wars and sacrifice. As someone who grew up witnessing the freedom struggle in India, had a strong desire to join the struggle, and was there to witness the moment where the dream of independence from colonial powers became a reality, only for it to be tarnished with the immense violence and loss of the partition – Thamma believes in the nationalism that struggles to justify the violence and pain by othering those on the different side of the border, by marking them as enemies, by thinking that blood and sacrifice form the foundations of a nation. This can be seen in her enthusiasm when India goes to war with China in 1962.
The novel questions her idea of nationalism, however, when she decides to bring her Jethomoshai (uncle) to India. Thamma was born in Dhaka in British India. She moved to Calcutta after the death of her husband in an accident and took up the position of a teacher in a school to support herself and her son. When Partition happened, she was on the ‘right’ side of the border, on the side that became a part of India – her birthplace was not. While she was aware of this, she never really had to confront the implications of this reality until she ran into an old acquaintance in a chance encounter. After running into an old acquaintance she finds out that some of her relatives from Dhaka were now living in Calcutta. She later goes to meet them and finds her cousin’s wife who tells her that Thamma’s Jethomoshai (her father’s brother) still lived in their ancestral home in Dhaka. After hearing about this, Thamma resolves to go to Dhaka and bring her Jethomoshai to India, where he ‘belongs’.
At this point, I would like to add some context about Thamma’s childhood. Thamma grew up in an ancestral home that was shared by her father and his brother and their respective families. Due to disputes the two brothers decided to ‘partition’ the house and divide it between them. This was Thamma’s first introduction to the idea of partition and division and the hostility between the two families went on to shape her viewpoint of nation-states and borders in the future. Because of the immense hostility between the families, Thamma and her younger sister, Mayadebi, never visited that other side of the house beyond the lone of division, the boundary, that separated it from their part of the house. Instead, it became a part of stories that Thamma told her sister, stories where that section became the “upside-down house”, where everything was strange and “upside-down”. This is the way that she as a child understood the difference between what existed on two different sides of a line of division and this is how she grew up to view nations on different sides of the border.
Coming back to the part where Thamma heard that Jethomoshai still lived in Dhaka, Thamma seems to forget the differences between the different parts of the family and decides to bring him to the ‘correct’ side of the border. She starts making preparations to go to Dhaka and part of these preparations are getting a passport. It is as she is filling a form for these arrangements that she comes to realise that her place of birth is at odds with the identity she has created for herself. The realisation that she needs to fill numerous forms, go through procedures, cross the national border, to go to the place she was born, a place mere hours away, is unsettling for her. This is further enforced when she asks her son if she will be able to see the border from the plane to which her son replies that there are no concrete barriers demarcating the border. This leaves Thamma flabbergasted and she asks “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 … what was it all for then – partition and all the killing and everything – if there isn’t something in between?”.
Finally when Thamma visits her Jethomoshai and realises that the “upside-down house” was actually quite normal, and when Jethomoshai refuses to come to India with her questioning the idea of borders – asking what if after he came with her and the government decided to draw another border, how many times will they have to move to be on what someone else considered to be the place where they belonged instead of the space where they were born and lived – the idea of borders is proved to be illusory. While the reality of their existence and their implications are never denied, Ghosh questions the principles behind the creation of these borders.