Tuesday 25 January 2011

Shadow Lines...

I think it is time for a new post, and this is not so much a book review as a book summary. Erm... view it as something like a book club, because I am going to include excerpts from the book which particularly intrigued me and which I found very profound; and my interpretations of the same.

Now as the title must have revealed, this post revels around the book Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh, who has managed to spear-head his way into my list of favourite authors, both Indian and otherwise. Two other books which have held my attention are Hungry Tide and The Glass Palace.

Amitav has a way of depicting places in the North east, Burma and Bangladesh in a way that makes the story feel very grounded, which is what mesmerizes me.

Anyway, the area ahead is cordoned off for you, if you haven't read the book, or at least consider it a spoiler alert (I can't control your cursor obviously :P )

Well, first of all, I think the title itself is misleading or at least it intrigues you, because one can't readily figure out what Shadow Lines refers to. Shadow Lines refers to the boundaries of the countries, the supposed lines that divide the giant mass of water-free fraction of the globe.

The story is set in the era of the World War II, and the story jumps back and forth on the protagonist's lifetime's timeline. The protagonist lives in Calcutta with his parents and grandmother, and his grandmother's sister and her family also form an important part of the narrative. Tribid, one of her sons and his uncle, is very close to him, and once when Tribid was showing him photographs of the time he spent in London when his father was ill and they were staying with a kind lady whose husband was an acquaintance, he talks about the fact that they and their friends knew about the impending dangers of the war, the constant bombing and the destruction...

The realities of the bombs and torpedoes and the dying was easy enough to imagine- mere events, after all, recorded in thousands of films and photographs and comic books. But not that infinitely more important reality: the fact that they knew, that even walking down the street that evening, they knew what was coming- not the details or the timing perhaps, but they knew, all four of them, that their world, and in all probability they themselves, would not survive the war. What is the colour of that knowledge? Nobody knows, nobody can ever know, not even in memory, because there are moments in time that are not 'knowable': nobody can ever know what it was like to be young and intelligent in the summer of 1939 in London or Berlin.

Now, I find this very profound because although the author has emphasised upon the power of imagination, and has asserted that it is one of the most important qualities that one can possess, he says that knowledge is something intangible. One can visualise a lot of corporeal things, but what shall you do of that, whose only record can be in that stuff between the ears...

The author has a cousin named Ila, who chooses to stay in London, and once when she is confronted as to why she chooses to stay not in her own country but that of the foreigners, she answers that she wants to be free, free of the bloody culture, and free of all people she feels are hypocrites because even though they (her uncle who is the same age as the author and not much older to her) would like their freedom, and are not in the least disturbed when they consume alcohol or go to parties, they want the women (Ila) to not do the same... A book written in 1988, speaks volumes for two decades (and counting) into the future.

His grandmother has a different opinion though:

Ila has no right to live there. She doesn't belong there. It took those people a long time to build their country; hundreds of years, years and years of war and bloodshed. Everyone who lives there has earned his right to be there with blood: with their brother's blood, with their father's blood, with their son's blood. They will know they're a nation because they have drawn their borders with blood. Regimental flags hang in their cathedrals and churches are lined with memorials to men who died in wars, all around the world. 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 achieve for India.

When the author talks about the class of people, where education is considered to be one of the key ingredients of a youngster's life, he says:

The only weapon that people like us had was our brains, and if we didn't use them like claws to cling to what we'd got, that was where we'd end up, marooned in that landscape.

And when he talks about 'that landscape' he says:

I was already well schooled in looking away, the jungle craft of gentility.

The geographical reference is to a slum-like area that he happens to visit with his grandmother, to meet a distant impoverished relative. And the education-is-the-key is I believe, self explanatory.

When the author is talking about the mobs during a riot that takes place in Calcutta, when he is in school, his description goes thus:

There is a uniquely frightening note in the sound of those voices- not elemental, not powerful, like the roar of an angry crowd- rather, a torn, ragged quality; a crescendo of discords which you know, because of the slippery formlessness of the fear it creates within you, to be the authentic sound of chaos the moment you hear it.

This creates such a bang-on visualisation! Almost cinematic...

And at another instance:

The streets had turned themselves inside out: our city had turned against us.

It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the subcontinent from the rest of the world- not language, not food, not music- it is the special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of war between oneself and one's image in the mirror.

The madness of riot is a pathological inversion, but also therefore a reminder, of that indivisible sanity that binds people to each other independently of their governments. And that prior, independent relationship is the natural enemy of government, for it is in the logic of states that to exist at all, they must claim monopoly of all relationships between people. The theatre of war, where generals meet, is the stage on which the states disport themselves: they have no use for the memories of riots.

A grown up author picks up old newspapers once to find out news reports about the riots which were held in his city, and which got reverberated in Bangladesh as well, where his grandmother and Tribid were, and in the event, Tribid became a victim of the mob, getting lynched by the anomie, one that had long forgone rationality. This was during the time when Bangladesh was struggling to lose its identity as East Pakistan.

There is nothing quite as evocative as an old newspaper. There is something in its urgent contemporaneity- the weather reports, the list of that day's engagement in the city, the advertisement for half remembered films, still crying out in bold print as though it were all happening now, today- and the feeling besides, that one may once have handled, if not that very paper, then it's exact likeness, its twin, which transports one in time as nothing else can.

The author finds himself very disturbed by these reports and all those memories of the riots and the death of Tridib. So he picks up an atlas and a compass and placing the sharp tip at Khulna (about a hundred miles from Calcutta) and the pencil end at Srinagar, he draws a circle on the map, and learns the meaning of distance.

The simple fact that there had never been a moment in the four-thousand-year-old history of that map, when the places we know as Dhaka and Calcutta were more closely bound to each other than after they had drawn their lines- so closely that I, in Calcutta, had only to look into the mirror to be in Dhaka; a moment when each city was the inverted image of the other, locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free- our looking glass-border.

And: How can anyone divide a memory...?

The book is well written, a very intense narrative and a spot on message.

P.S. I am really not jobless. But this post is equivalent to marking your favorite abstracts from the text so you can re-visit them.

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