Book Review: The Shadow Lines

Describing the chaos of daily life through the string of words is anyways difficult. And beautifying such description requires a rarely found texture of language, one which is earnest yet dispassionate. Amitav Ghosh has compellingly coloured that texture in “The Shadow Lines”.  Perhaps, while writing this book Amitav Ghosh would have lived only that moment, without thinking about how the story will develop.  And perhaps because of that, the flow of the story in the book is as smooth as breathing of a breath.


The Shadow Lines is a collection of day to day stories across the blurring timelines of past and present. Through an anonymous narrator, Amitav Ghosh takes the reader to a journey across London, Dhaka and Calcutta, a journey which cranes into the past and at the very next moment looks in to the present.  Ghosh has allowed his narrator’s mind and memory to freely wander across the experiences and weave layers of stories inside a story.   And this is what makes the read beautiful, as this is what happens in real life too, when one sits to share one’s experiences – the memories unfold, making time and distance irrelevant.

On the language front, Amitav Ghosh is arguably unparalleled.  The analogies, the adjectives and the verbs blissfully coalesce into each other, making even day to day indescribable emotions look simplistic.

Once the narrator feels being exposed to the world by his mother and this is how he describes his feelings:

  • I don’t know what the matter with him is, my mother said, he has been waiting for her (Ila) for days . . . At that moment I hated my mother. For the first time in my life she had betrayed me. She had given me away, she had made public, then and for ever, the inequality of our needs; she had given Ila the knowledge of her power and she had left me defenceless; naked, in the face of that unthinkable, adult truth, that need is not transitive, that one may need without oneself being needed. 

This is how a simple but unthinkable fact of life is being described:

  • Everyone lives in a story, he says, my grandmother, my father, his father, Lenin, Einstein, and lots of other names I hadn’t heard of; they all lived in stories, because stories are all there are to live in, it was just a question of which one you chose. 

And this is how narrator describes his struggle with silence. Only after reading these lines, I realised that this kind of feelings do exist:

  • Every word I write about those events of 1964 is the product of a struggle with silence. It is a struggle I am destined to lose – have already lost – for even after all these years, I do not know where within me, in which corner of my world, this silence lies. All I know of is what this silence is not. It is not for example, a silence of imperfect memory. Nor is it a silence enforced by a ruthless state – nothing like that, no barbed wire, no checkpoints to tell me where my boundaries lie. I know nothing of this silence except that it lies outside the reach of my intelligence, beyond words – that is why this silence must win, must inevitably defeat me.

The several small anecdotes of the book are garnished by many such descriptions.  The plot noticeably takes a grave mood in the later parts of the book – when the focus shifts to war and riots- but the flow of the plot  is so smooth that it is impossible to pin point the position of the mood swing. And Ghosh’s take on these subjects of wars and riots are pleasure to read.

On the lighter side, as is the case with the character names in most of the Ghosh’s books, The Shadow Lines has characters with some adorable names with Tablu being a stand out in this book.  As for the characters themselves, there is an intriguing Tridib, who is like an encyclopedia, then there is a fallible Ila and there is an uncharacteristic Grandmother.

Usually, Ghosh amazes the readers by the depth of his research.  And if there is one striking difference between Ghosh’s other work and The Shadow Lines, it is lack of research on the subjects and topics dealt with in the book, although one would realise the lack of it only if one has read other works of Amitav Ghosh.

Overall, The Shadow Lines is a chaotic brilliance of experience, memory and aspirations.



  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Calcutta Chromosome | Enlightened Sid

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