Books are one of my best friends. There are books of all shapes and languages that I love to read. A favourite book is like a treasured friend that entertains, inspires, guides and touches our innermost core in a way that few things do. It is not often that one comes across a book that has randomly been picked up that turns out to be a captivating read, from the word go.
The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh is one such. I had been contemplating reading something over the winter holidays during one of my term breaks as a young college student and had casually picked up a book by a new author, purely taken in by the blurb which promised to be a good read! As it turned out, the book completely swept me off my feet with its vivid storytelling and a beautiful narrative, combined with a simplicity of style and within minutes of reading the first few pages, I found it such a fascinating read, that it easily found place as one of my favourite books of all times. I still recall reading it at one go and feeling so engulfed by the story, the characters and the setting, as if it were a tidal wave and I was drowning in it. Well, almost, to that effect! A few months later, I heard that it had won the Sahitya Akademi award. The year was 1989.
In fact, it is for Ghosh’s quiet, forceful writing, that the book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys a wonderful narrative in which detail and memory are shown to shape our lives as effectively as events of global importance. As a reader, be prepared to be taken along on a journey to different places and times, where the past, present and future amalgamate easily, erasing all lines of demarcation. Such lines are present mainly in the shadows cast by the characters and the events to follow. Thus, the ‘going away’ – the title of the first section of the novel becomes ‘coming home’ – the title of the second section.
The story begins about thirteen years before the birth of the narrator who is about to depart from London to return to Delhi. On the surface, it is about two families – the Datta Chaudhary and the Prices, whose lives have been intertwined for three generations. The unnamed narrator, Indian-born and English- educated, has grown up with the stories of his uncle, Tridib. It is through these seemingly unrelated stories that the larger picture slowly unfold until, eventually, you realize that they are all culminating in a single, tragic event that impacts both families.
The author presents a narrative built out of an intricate, constantly criss-crossing web of memories of many people that dominated his childhood in Calcutta in the sixties, and later, in London, when those people come together in a circle of sorrow. As a reader, you never fail to notice that Ghosh is meticulously observant, as he describes the narrator’s school days, punctuated with visits by Tridib. While the mystery at the tale’s heart concerns Tridib‘s fate in Dhaka during the partition of Bangladesh in 1964, it is not until twenty years later, that the effects of that crucial time unfold on the narrator.
The book stands out for various reasons, not least because of the stories and events that are described as deeply human, or the innocence of childhood, but also, by the way it describes the process of growing up, of dealing with unrequited love, youthful idealism, painful violence and the internal struggles over identity. What is also interesting is the way the main characters are portrayed. They all appear to be very real, almost perfectly rounded. What strikes you more than anything is the character of the narrator, once a boy who warms your heart, now evolved into a man who knows and one who has lost his love, more than once in his life. It is this which draws him closer to the reader’s heart.
I have best enjoyed the book by reading it over and over again and even more so, by reflecting and pondering over, revisiting some of the known places that are described so vividly of a time in history, like the Dhaka riots of ’63-’64 for instance, which drew out painful memories from the partition days , something that many people never ever came to terms with. After a few readings, I have finally come to the conclusion that the book is actually meant to be read several times, with each reading rendering a deeper understanding and probably a different interpretation.
I highly recommend this book to everyone.