The Shadow Lines


Book cover of The Shadow LinesSummary


The Shadow Lines, by Amitav Ghosh, is a historical fiction novel that follows the different members of the Datta-Chaudhuri and Price families. The novel blurs the distinctions between time, place, and person to create a kaleidoscope of interconnected experiences and perspectives. The characters that act as the work’s primary touchstones include the anonymous narrator, along with his uncle Tridib and his grandmother Tha’mma. Interspersed between the narrator’s descriptions of his life in India and traveling to London to visit the Prices are Tridib’s recollections of his own time in London and stories from Tha’mma’s life under British colonial rule and efforts to reunite with her uncle. 

Tha’mma is born and raised in Dhaka, where she lives with her and her uncle’s families. Eventually the two families begin fighting and the house they share is split, similar to how India itself is later  partitioned. She leaves Dhaka, which becomes part of East Pakistan following the partition, and moves to India, where she becomes a schoolteacher after her husband dies. 

Tha’mma’s sister, Mayadebi, travels to London in 1939 with her husband and Tridib so the former can have a special operation done. They live with the Prices during this time and witness the Blitz. They eventually return to India.

The narrator is fascinated with London and loves hearing Tridib’s stories about it, though Ila is less impressed. The narrator develops a strong attachment to Ila as a child, which eventually grows into a one-sided romantic love. Ila instead marries Nick Price and moves to London, where, like Tridib, she spent time as a child. In England she discovers the freedom she says she can’t find in India, though she is also bullied by other students when she’s younger. The narrator also travels to London several times and has a deep connection with the city and the Prices thanks to Tridib’s stories. 

 Tridib later becomes pen pals with May Price. After the two develop a romantic connection, she visits him in Calcutta and travels with him and Tha’mma to Dhaka to find Tha’mma’s uncle, Jethamoshai. They’re warned about the political unrest in the city, but Tha’mma insists on meeting her uncle. When they try to leave with Jethamoshai, they’re attacked by a mob. May is traumatized by this event and it takes years for her, as well as the narrator, to come to terms with it.


Reviews & Reception

“The author's voice, for all its power, is a modest one in the very best sense – it is always used in the service of his story, shining a luminous intelligence into the lives of the people he creates. With this book, Mr. Ghosh establishes himself as an accomplished artist, a master of style and insight. ‘The Shadow Lines’ is a brilliant novel.” ―Review by
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“The logic of the narrative is fascinating if chronologically confusing: one memory unfolds into another, as the narrator greedily patches it all into the rich crazy-quilt of his own identity. But while the effects are showy, the story is real: the people are compelling, and the ways that global events push into lovingly choreographed private lives are deftly delineated. In all, a revealing—and rewarding—excavation of a family's memory lodes.” ―Review by Kirkus
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"Although the horrific events that were formative to the book’s conception have long since passed (and are, indeed, likely to be unknown to the more recent readers), something about its frank indictment of violence has always left a mark. This has a lot to do, I think, with the book’s language, although the larger canvas that the story dips in and out of — the local and the foreign, or the East and the West — will never stop speaking to a particular kind of reader." ―Review by Abhrajyoti Chakraborty, Los Angeles Review of Books
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"The underlying critique is of the arbitrariness of all dividing lines – be it across an ancestral home partitioned through a doorway and a lavatory, or national boundaries, drawn in the hope that once the borders are etched on a map the two bits of land would sail away from each other." ―Review by Meenakshi Mukherjee, India Today
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“The novel all in all is a parallel drawn between war and riots, India and Europe to show how all violence whether committed in the name of nationalism or freedom is to be given no other color. All in all it is a must read for people who want to enter into an era long forgotten and who have a zest for nationalism and modern contemporary history." ―Review by Madhur Gupta, Youth Ki Awaaz
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“The brilliance of the novel lies in Amitav Ghosh’s rendering of neatly defined ideas as protean and shapeless. It is a very important text in understanding the tensions regarding the ideas of nationalism at the individual and collective level.” ―Review by Khan Touseef Osman, The Criterion
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Abigail Kaye 2020


The Narrator


The Narrator remains anonymous throughout the novel. He recounts stories from his life as he grows up in Calcutta, studies in Delhi, and visits London. He is very close with his uncle, Tridib, and his cousin, Ila. His stories are interwoven with other stories he tells about the lives of his family, the Datta-Chaudhuris, and the lives of their close friends, the Prices.




Tridib is the narrator’s uncle. He briefly lives in London, England with his parents, Mayadebi and the Shaheb. He bonds with the narrator over their love of stories. He also develops a romantic connection with May Price.




Ila is the narrator’s cousin. They grow up together and are very close, though the narrator realizes at a young age that he loves Ila more than she loves him. Ila doesn’t initially realize the romantic feelings the narrator has for her, but later pities him for this unrequited love. She lives in both India and England and seeks freedom throughout the novel. Ila marries Nick. Although their relationship is unhappy, she cannot bring herself to leave him because she loves him. 




Tha'mma is the narrator’s grandmother, a shrewd and outspoken former school teacher and headmistress. She grew up in Dhaka and later lived in Calcutta. Though she identifies as Indian, Dhaka is technically part of Pakistan after the 1947 Partition. This creates internal dissonance within her as she grapples with this question of nationality in the aftermath of the partition. Upon learning that her uncle, Jethamoshai, still lives in her family’s old house in Dhaka, she resolves to bring him to live with her in Calcutta. 


May Price


May Price is the daughter of Mrs. Price and lives in England. She performs in an orchestra and works to promote charitable causes. She gradually fell in love with Tridib after they became pen pals and she visited India to see him.


Nick Price


Nick Price is May’s brother. The narrator compares himself to Nick after he learns of Ila’s feelings for him. Nick wants to be important and wealthy, like his grandfather, but is unable to manifest these dreams in reality. It’s implied that he was fired from his job in Kuwait for embezzlement and he cheats on Ila throughout their relationship. 

Abigail Kaye 2020




Belonging is a key theme depicted primarily through the nationalist divisions and sentiments expressed in The Shadow Lines. This theme is introduced early in the novel and explored largely through Tridib, Ila and Tha’mma. Tridib and Ila move between India and England, and Ila even goes on to live in England with her husband, Nick Price. This movement is criticized by characters around them. A notable example of this critique is Tha’mma’s outburst about Ila, in which she claims Ila doesn’t belong in London because to belong somewhere you need to struggle and sacrifice for that place, which Ila has not done.

The responses described above resist the idea that where someone belongs isn’t an immovable point and indicate a generational divide over the concept of movement. Whereas younger characters, like Tridib and Ila are comfortable with this concept, older characters like Tha’amma prefer to be more static. The Shadow Lines, however, argues that belonging is not permanent, nor are movement or change resistable; embracing or preferring stasis does not make the world around us static. This point is illustrated through Tha’mma’s struggle to reconcile the fact that she considers herself Indian, despite the fact that Dhaka, where she was born and raised, became part of Pakistan following the 1947 Partition. The narrator teases her about this by making a joke about the family confusing the words “coming” and “going,” thus showing how the concept of belonging can be warped.





Identity is another theme this novel explores. Notably, the novel’s narrator is anonymous. Though the novel delves deep into his life, providing some insight into the character, a key part of his identity is missing: his name. Arguably, this first person anonymous narration allows the reader to internalize the novel’s stories and the narrator’s experiences in order to feel a deeper connection with the work and its characters. This blurs the distinction between the readers and characters’s identities.

There are other instances of identities intersecting throughout the novel. Given how The Shadow Lines weaves together stories within stories told from a variety of perspectives, it can be hard to distinguish between different characters and their experiences. At times, their identities seem to meld into a single collective identity, which emphasizes a shared sense of unity and common humanity among these characters.

Like the theme of belonging, The Shadow Lines strongly associates identity with a person’s surroundings and origins. Tha’mma views herself as an Indian woman, though her homeland is technically Pakistan, not India, in the aftermath of the partition. This creates a dissonance within her and causes her to question her identity.





Stories are central within The Shadow Lines, as the work is a collection of interwoven stories. Some of these stories often overlap with or distort reality. Throughout the novel, characters tell many different kinds of stories. For example, Tridib tells the narrator about the Prices and London, which allows the vividly imaginative narrator to construct a mental map of the important places Tridib describes, such as the Price family’s house. Additionally, Ila tells a story about a beautiful girl named Magda who gets bullied and chased home from school by other students who yell slurs at her. In these ways, characters use stories to engage with and reflect on their reality.

Abigail Kaye 2020


The Narrator, pg. 30


"For Ila the current was real: it was as though she lived in a present which was like an airlock in a canal, shut away from the tidewaters of the past and the future by steel floodgates."


Tha'mma pg. 39


"I would have been frightened, she said. But I would have prayed for strength, and God willing, yes, I would have killed him. It was for our freedom: I would have done anything to be free."


Tha'mma, pg. 76


"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, don't you see?"


The Narrator, pg. 213


“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, because it is not a presence at all.”


Tha'mma, pg. 149


"But 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…. What was it all for then—Partition and all the killing and everything—if there isn't something in between?"


The Narrator, pg. 228


They had drawn their borders, believing in that pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping perhaps that once they had etched their borders upon the map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other like the shifting tectonic plates of the prehistoric Gondwanaland.


The Narrator, pg. 214


I believed in the reality of space; I believed that distance separates, that it is a corporeal substance;I believed in the reality of nations and borders; I believed that across the border there existed another reality.


Abigail Kaye 2020

Questions about style


Consider the following questions:


Why did Ghosh separate his novel into two sections, entitled “Going Away” and “Coming Home”? What is the significance of these titles?



How do you feel about the novel’s style? What might be gained by it being written as a story within a story told from multiple perspectives? Are there any drawbacks to this approach?



Questions about characters


Consider the following questions:


Compare different characters’ relationships with movement and migration. How have these experiences affected them?


Does the novel have a main character? If so, who is it and what makes them the main character? If not, why not?


Do you think there’s any significance in the narrator remaining anonymous throughout the novel? Why or why not?


At the end of the novel, May tells the narrator she used to blame herself for Tridib’s death but now considers it a sacrifice. Does this statement make it seem like she’s still in denial about his death? Who, if anyone, is responsible for Tridib’s death?



Questions about broader themes


Consider the following questions:


Freedom is one of the key themes in The Shadow Lines. How do different characters define and seek freedom? What does freedom mean to you? How is it found or achieved?


Tha’mma asserts that belonging somewhere requires sacrifice. What do you think someone has to do in order to belong in a particular place or be accepted as a member of a certain group?


What do you think of Ghosh’s description of national boundaries as “shadow lines”? What does that say about the borders themselves, and about the nationalist sentiments that emerge as a result of these borders?


What postcolonial elements can be found in this novel? How do they influence the work?




Abigail Kaye 2020



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