Saturday, January 22, 2011

Re-writing History: Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines

History has never been such as it emerged in the twentieth century. With the advent of post colonialism the way history was perceived and how it was later seen changed drastically, having nothing in common. History has been considered synonymous to past in earlier times; that is it was thought to be authentic and remained unchallenged. No one questioned the validity of the chronicles and the archives that formed the foundation of this branch of study. This trend stopped but with the massive changes brought in by the Marxist approach that became prevalent. History was objective no more and therefore it had to prove itself to be true. In the old times, history was never judged to be a form of literature but it was thought to be carrying greater importance and was never critiqued. However, it was realized that after all history is written by human being and no eternal creature. This led to the inference that the historiographers are but a bunch of people with their own subjectivities, their choices and their favorites. The history writing is then a complex combination of selection; rejection and addition. So, when a victor writes history, it is not an absolute replica of what happened but only one version of the same. The voices that are loud are made to reverberate in the world whereas the feeble ones and whispers are silenced. The world never gets to know about them.
This newly, revised version of history that has taken a bold step to challenge the so called mainstream history is what is depicted in Amitav Ghosh’s famous work The Shadow Lines. The author has cleverly presented his point of view that though every society has its own history; the individual (who is the smallest building block of this society) has his own share to contribute towards the greater history. Without him it is obvious that there remains a gap and the picture won’t surface completely with the blank spaces left by individuals. Helpless as for filling these fissures one has to rely upon the sources that are not at all factual. The fictional mediums of imagination, dreams and a much unreliable memory have to be made use of to complete the vacancies. It is interesting to note how through his narration Ghosh shows that at times these sources could be more authentic. He speaks through one of his characters that everybody lives in a story and stories are bound to be oscillating between realities and untruth. The character of Tridib further states: “If you believe anything people tell you, you deserve to be told anything at all….” This is what the author speaks to his reader to not accept as true whatever is told to them, whatever is presented as history.
When a story is told or written, the most important role, after the plot, is played by the narrator. It is through narrator’s eye and through his perspective that we visualize the whole story. The change in perception changes the meaning. This story has been told by a small boy who grows up to find himself bound by the draconian clutches of history. But for Tridib’s vision, he would have been like any other commoner, accepting the history in its crude form. Narrator’s mentor, Tridib has been behind his bend of mind towards “imagination with precision”. In the whole course of the novel, he is drenched in memories for his narration is overflowing with recollections, dates, anecdotes and an unanswered or a rather rhetorical, often repeated question: “Do you remember?” The narrator speaks about his experience with truth and facts very early in life. Although he tried to justify what he said regarding the unknown truth about his uncle, Tridib yet it was the story fabricated by his uncle that the people at the corner of the Gole Park tend to believe.
The narrator learnt from his mentor that “a place does not merely exist. That it has to be invented in one’s imagination”. This was how he has been able to journey through London before he even actually stepped out of Calcutta. He is even enticed to take up Indian History as his subject in college. Tha’amma thought nostalgia to be weakness but the narrator was nostalgic in a different way where it rather became his strength. He attempted to discover the presence of past in the present. That was how Victor Gollancz’s publishing house co-existed with the office that stood at the same spot after about forty years. Therefore, “past seemed concurrent with its present” for him. He lies between other two characters in the novel. Ila believed in all that was current while his grandmother in her later age did not pay any heed to what was present. The narrator tries to give voice to what has been silenced and remained unheard with such insight installed in him by the author.
It was thus, sitting in the airconditioned calm of an exclusive library, that I began on my strangest journey: a voyage into a land outside space, an expanse without distances; a land of looking-glass events. (224)
Tridib has told the narrator, the way the faculty of imagination worked. He highlighted in the novel that even an imagination presented in an accurate manner would pass for a fact. It is what made his speech believable and wholeheartedly acceptable by the narrator in his life. Imagination being bound by no boundary allowed the speaker a greater degree of possibilities. Reality and Recollection get to fight it out whilst the narrator roams around in England. The former is trivial for him compared to his memory of the description that Tridib has given him of the same place. Tridib bestowed his qualities of story-telling to his nephew who used to make sundry stories on one of his favorite photographs. The stories tend to end on how people in the photograph were posing. So, could one still believe a photograph to be an authentic source for histriography?
The technique of narration used by Ghosh is not at all simplistic for the narrator is not the only narrator in the novel. There are many minor narrators who tell a small section of the story. It is owing to this that one finds the narratology to be very complex; intertwining into each other. This makes it difficult for the reader who is never prepare to be instantaneously transferred to different places and different times, finding himself confused between reality and dream, dream and imagination, and imagination and memory. There are lots of people through which the information reaching the reader gets filtered through. The reader is then unable to decide whether to believe what is said for there is no surety of its authenticity but he is also void of any reasons to disbelieve the same for they appear to be true.
The help that various characters in the novel render towards the narrator is very important for he is not at all omniscient and is ignorant of many facts. Thus, the others lend their stories to him so that he could integrate them into his narratology and complete the empty spaces that were left by his unknowingness. He gave voice to those silent fables. Ila acted like a connecting link between the families of Price in England and Mayadebi’s in India. She defies those customs that has long been considered as the core of history by going against them. In her stories she placed herself as different characters and tried to live her dream life through it by modifying the happenings. The story that she tells while playing the game of House has Magda playing her role while Nick Price saving him whereas that was not what happened in reality. Robi, on the other hand, comes up with his nightmare that has haunted him ever since Tridib’s demise. This dream could but be taken for a genuine account of the accident that took away his brother’s life. Later, May confirmed to the same. Narrator’s grandmother has different stories to tell. On one hand, she has her childhood recollection of the “upside down house” and the different stories she made on them. It still holds importance for Mayadebi and her when they get a chance to enter that house. She rejects nationality as a true source of history in how she acts on the whole trip to her home, uttering the same question: “But where is Dhaka?”
The novel primarily tries to re-invent the riots that happened in Calcutta. Ila has already said that riots are a local thing and the same transpired in a discussion that took after a conference on the Indo-China War at Teen Murti Library. The opinion about the same event is different for some people who have witnessed such events. The narrator and Tha’amma could never agree to the same outlook as Ila and narrator’s friends. Riots are “extraordinary history” for them. The others are just ignorant about these events that otherwise would certainly have taken more life than even the War of 1961. Even the section on War in the library bypassed such episodes of riots suggesting their insignificance and actually contributing towards the silencing of this portion of life. The people and heroes of such events are soon forgotten, “faded(ing) away from the pages of the newspapers, disappearing from the collective imagination of ‘responsible opinion’, vanished, without leaving a trace in the histories and bookshelves” (230). The narrator reveals his experience of struggle in highlighting the concealed facet of the events of the riots of 1964 that nevertheless it is only a RE-presentation. This account could also be taken for his narration in the novel.
Every word I write about those events of 1964 is a 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… it is simply a gap, a hole, an emptiness in which there are no words. (218)
The realization of the narrator after fifteen years of the riots was enough to make him think. Although there has been a border between two places- Calcutta and Khulna- they both were hit by riots at the same time. This helped him to understand the bond shared by human being, their history that is united into one irrespective of the artificial borders drawn by humans. The shadow lines drawn between two nations could not divide people for “how can anyone divide a memory?” Even when the language, culture and custom of different nations differ, there are yet times when two appear like images of each other and at times the line dissolves to give a taste of prehistoric times when history did not corrupted human bond. History dominates today only because it has been taken as a criterion to determine one’s identity. The section where the narrator elaborates upon his experiments with the Bartholomew’s Atlas should be read to cure the disease of intense Nationalism. Ghosh tries to change it with a wider idea of Humanity. Today, one might not be aware of the actions taking place in near vicinity only because there is some line drawn between such two places. What narrator believes is that these happenings, even with all the discordance between, are related and unites the divided section into one, unconsciously, without our knowledge.
Thus, Ghosh has tried in his novel, by his narratology to unite those which are actually one. The history that generally gets to the common masses is anything but bias with a lot of gaps that nobody cares to fill. One version of history gets a validity as an absolute one and so convincingly it is done that people tend even to overlook the truth, as happened to the narrator as a child also. The author uses his characters with their stories as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle which he made his narrator to complete. Even when the picture is complete there are yet gaps where the parts were connected. Imaginations, memories and dreams are not such a fictional source as could be deciphered by Ghosh’s narratology. Therefore, one must need to differentiate between what is true and what is partially true and endeavor to reach the former with whatever resources one could.

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