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Beyond the Patriarchy (?

): A Study of Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines

Sukanta Das

In the essay entitled “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question”, Partha

Chatterjee focuses on the complex and troubling relationship between women’s question

and the politics of Indian nationalism. He draws attention to the fact that the rise of

Indian nationalism led to the disappearance, if not demise of women’s question, from the

public agenda. Chatterjee’s thesis regarding the critical relation between the politics of

nationalism and women’s question expresses a general truth about the possible

conflicting relation between various politics. Chatterjee contends that the ideology of

nationalist politics in its very specificity acts as the normative mode of the political as

such, and the “imagined community” is envisaged as the most authentic form of

collectivity. Evidently the politics of nationalism subsumes women’s question. As

McClintock ruefully puts: “Nowhere has feminism in its own right been allowed to be

more than the maidservant to nationalism” (386). The politics of nationalism pushed

women’s question to the back by prioritizing the primary task of nation-building. The

exclusive emphasis upon the construction of nation made heavy toll upon women whose

politics is sacrificed for the sake of nation, and is made subservient to the politics of

nationalism. I shall situate Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines (1984) in the context of

the dichotomous relation between the politics of nationalism and the question of women.

I would further explore how Ghosh problematizes the construction of female identity in

the backdrop of predominantly patriarchal ideology and politics. Amitav Ghosh’s second

novel, The Shadow Lines, alerts us against the possible entrapment by various discourses
which compete with each other for the engagement of the attention of individuals. This is

clearly manifested in the advice given to the unnamed narrator by his somewhat queer

uncle Tridib (“we would never be free of other people’s inventions”). The novel

investigates into the issue of freedom and the larger question of identity of individuals.

The novel traces the gradual development of the unnamed narrator who scrutinizes the

various discourses right from the ‘grand narrative’ of the nationalist discourse to the

truths of personal memory which may not always match with the official version.

Understandably such unearthing of historical truths, revision of official ‘meta- narrative’

of nationalism etc. are essential for the dismantling of various versions of freedom. The

present paper seeks to explore how Amitav Ghosh problematizes the construction of

female identity in the context of the politics of nationalism and patriarchy.

The native people, confronted by the new situation thanks to colonialism, adopted two-

fold approaches to the changed circumstance. The male nationalists started appropriating

the western concept of progress, modernity, reason, while scrupulously safeguarding

women from the possible infringement by the foreign culture. The patriarchy considered

women as the site where true Indian identity is played out and therefore they need to be

preserved pure and unaffected by the western materiality. Chatterjee holds that the

nationalists could not ignore the West but they rigorously defended the native or “inner”

space from any possible fundamental damage from the West. In other words, the true

Indian identity is to be located only in home, spirituality, and the figure of women as the

representative true self. Women incidentally become the bulwark of tradition, custodian

of culture. As Chatterjee puts:


Now apply the inner/outer distinction to the matter of concrete day-to-day living and you
get a separation of the social space into ghar and bahir, the home and the world. The
world is the external, the domain of the material; the home represents our inner spiritual
self, our true identity. The world is a treacherous terrain of the pursuit of material
interests, where practical considerations reign supreme. It is also typically the domain of
the male. The home in its essence must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the
material world—and woman is its representation. And so we get an identification of
social roles by gender to correspond with the separation of the social space into ghar and
bahir.

Chatterjee thus highlights the ideological perspective of the nationalism through which it

seeks to answer women’s question. This necessitates certain stereotyping of the roles of

women which would serve the supposedly greater cause of nationalism.

The Shadow Lines relates the story of a Calcutta-based Indian family and their

relationship with the English Prices, which started in the colonial period, and survived

through the World War II, and the Partition upto the 1980s.In the novel Thamma, the

grandmother of the unnamed narrator who witnesses the anti-colonial struggle in her

youth, becomes a staunch supporter of the official nationalism and wants to do anything

that would ensure ‘freedom’ for the country. Being forced to leave her home place after

the formation of East Pakistan, Thamma comes to settle in Calcutta. After her

widowhood she takes up the profession of teaching in a school which evidently

challenges the patriarchal prescription regarding female activity. In fact her active life

style and the defiant attitude certainly make her an independent woman and therefore

call in question the patriarchal authority. But she does not turn out to be as assertive and

independent as she appears to be. Nationalism proved to be instrumental in the double

colonization of women. They are caught in the metanarrative of nationalism which

prescribes certain roles for them. In the anti-colonial struggle women are not expected
to actively participate and this creates secret desire in Thamma to “run errands for them

(nationalists), to cook their food, wash their clothes, anything” (39). She nourishes the

desire for total involvement in the armed nationalist movement for independence. She

herself harbours the desire of even killing the English magistrate. When asked by her

grandson whether she would have really taken such a step, she argues:

I would have been frightened…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 (emphasis added, 39).

Thamma here equates the liberation of the state from the colonial masters with personal

freedom, and believes in the impermeability of the borders. It is precisely for this reason

that Thamma never prevents the narrator from playing cricket since “You can’t build a

strong country […] without building a strong body”. Thamma, who has been a witness to

anti-colonial struggle and subsequent victim of the partition of the subcontinent, imbibes

the spirit of nationalism and therefore would pursue the ideology of nationalism which is

predominantly patriarchal. Thamma becomes very strict in her enforcement of the

nationalist ideology of cultural and national conformity. Thamma’s own vision of the

nation therefore is constructed on war and bloodshed. This excludes those Indian

diasporic people like her granddaughter Ila, who is a colonial, for it is only through

participating in the tradition of warfare one can attain the status of nationality and owns

the right to national configuration. Therefore the exclusive parameters of violence, by

which nation is baptized, are the basic constituents of a country, whose border will only

accommodate those who have contributed with their blood in its construction:
Ila has no right to live there, she said hoarsely. She doesn’t belong there. It took those
people a long time to build that 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 and their father’s blood and their son’s blood. They know they’re a
nation because they’ve drawn their borders with blood […] war is their religion. That’s
what it takes to make a country (77-78).

As a staunch supporter of militant nationalism, Thamma is very categorical about certain

issues regarding nationalism and the postcolonial situation. Her own personal experience

of anti-colonial struggle sharpens and consolidates her sense of nationhood and

nationalism. She can only think about the relationship of war and friendship that a nation

can have with the other nation. She continually thinks of hostile relation with the

neighbouring nations, for the identity of a nation depends upon its distinction from other

nations. She is therefore elated at the prospect of watching borders between India and

East Pakistan from the plane. When her son laughs away such a possibility, she reasons:

“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 then both sides will be the same…”

(151). Thamma’s unswerving belief in the permanence of borders is inspired by their

supposed capability in ensuring completely different reality. This is metaphorically borne

out in the minuteness and lawyer-like precision with which the division of Thamma’s

ancestral house is made. Understandably the dominant patriarchal nationalism

emphasizes on the fixity of borders which are supposed to give solidarity to those within

the border and maintain distinctness/difference from those outside the frontier. Frontiers

with their fixity and definiteness therefore become extremely important in the

determination of the identity of a nation. It is this impulse that drives Thamma to think of

a unified India where different communities will melt so as to confront a common enemy
on the frontier: “people forget they were born this or that, Muslim or Hindu or 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?”(78). The territorial nationalism to which Thamma

subscribes makes her think of the nations as independent and isolated from each other.

But the borders on the map cannot segregate the nations, as the supposed theft of the hair

of the Prophet Mohammed from Srinagar triggers off the riot in Dhaka and Calcutta

making the national frontiers really ‘shadow lines’. But interestingly this fact of the riot,

which ridicules the authenticity/reality of borders, cannot eventually make Thamma

contemplate on the fragility of borders. On the other hand the same event inaugurates a

process of critical revision of the whole issue of borders and the meaning of distance in

men like the narrator and Robi. Tridib’s death in the riot in Dhaka sparks off the

investigative search in Robi over the whole issue of border and freedom: “…why don’t

they draw thousands of little lines through the whole subcontinent and give every little

place a new name? What would it change? It’s a mirage; the whole thing is a mirage.

How can anyone divide memory?”(247). Similarly the unraveling of the mystery of

Tridib’s death by Robi makes the narrator inquisitive toward the truths of various

traditional ‘givens’ like the meaning of distance and the separating power of lines on the

map. Tridib’s death launches a process of revision of the discourse of nationalism and

nation-state, which emphasizes the territorial sovereignty ensured by lines on the map, in

the narrator. He makes archival excavation in order to find the link between his

nightmarish school bus ride and the riot in Dhaka which eventually killed Tridib. The

unholy alliance between the event in Srinagar in which the theft of Prophet Mohammad’s

hair caused much communal conflict and the riot in Dhaka and also in Calcutta explodes
the myth that distance separates and the national frontiers/boundaries guarantee complete

separateness: “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; and I believed

that across the border there existed another reality”(219).What is remarkable here to note

is the difference in response that elicits from Thamma who witnesses the traumatic event

of Tridib’s death. While the pathetic death of Tridib makes the narrator and Robi critique

the discourse of the dominant nationalism and the politics of nation-state, Thamma

however does not criticize the nation-state. On the other hand she becomes all the more

forceful in her upholding, endorsement of the patriarchal brand of nationalism and

nation-state. Tridib’s death seems to work as the imperative why the enemy on the other

side of the border is to be opposed, fought, killed: “We have to kill them before they kill

us; we have to wipe them out” (emphasis added, 237). Thamma therefore is caught in the

dominant patriarchal rhetoric which does not allow her to revise/scrutinize the prevalent

ideas. Thamma becomes a victim of the patriarchal discourse of nationalism and hers is

the case of getting trapped in other people’s inventions against which the narrator is

cautioned by his mentor Tridib. While women are debarred from participating in the anti-

colonial struggle for independence, they are projected as bearers of tradition and the

upholders of (patriarchal) culture. The force of the dominant patriarchal discourse is so

powerful that she just can’t endeavour to (con) test the validity of the national frontiers.

She is so much indoctrinated by the patriarchal discourse that she does not hesitate to

donate her prized golden chains to the war fund since “we’re fighting them properly at

last, with tanks and guns and bombs” (237).When inadvertently her hand bleeds after it

smashes against the glass front of the radio, she states in a calm posture: “I must get to
the hospital…I mustn’t waste all this blood. I can donate it to the war fund” (237). This

same impulse makes Thamma visit her ‘homeland’ in Dhaka, not out of love for her

Jethamoshai, but in order to ‘rescue’ the old man from the clutches of Muslims belonging

to the other side of the border: “We don’t want the house. We’ve come to take you home

with us. It’s not safe for you here. There might be trouble any day now. You must move

while you can” (emphasis added, 215). It is however interesting to see how Thamma’s

‘place of birth had come to be so messily at odds with her nationality’. But the old man

does not subscribe to Thamma’s opinion regarding the national identity. To quote the old

man: “I don’t believe in this India-Shindia. It’s all very well, you’re going away now, but

suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you

do then? Where will you move to?”(215). It is interesting to see that male characters in

this novel are capable of questioning/contesting the ‘organizing principle of division’ and

the text seems to privilege such a position, while women are only left with the

internalization of patriarchal discourse of nationalism.

The patriarchal discourse of nationalism has its own modus operandi as it makes

women bear the burden of tradition while men become the beneficiaries of the same

system. One understands why Thamma is so critical of Ila, the narrator’s cousin who

settles in London. The discourse of nationalism and the patriarchal family values are

ingrained in Thamma, who is extremely critical of any sort of nonconformity either with

national or cultural ideology. Thamma is fiercely antagonistic toward Ila, for leaving her

ancestral land for London. She cannot change her stand even when the narrator informs

the former about the austerity and trouble with which she (Ila) has to survive in London.
Thamma is so much convinced about her own notion of Ila’s motive that she disapproves

the narrator’s proximity with Ila. She even goes to the extent of reporting to the principal

of the narrator’s college regarding her grandson’s moral promiscuity. Understandably she

prioritizes her own version of territorial nationalism and the value of cultural rootednesss.

Ila’s free lifestyle poses a danger to the dominant patriarchal concern for conformity to

the prevalent culture. This ideology is so embossed in Thamma that she even would

readily dismiss the narrator’s supposed semblance with Tridib, for the latter does not

conform to the stereotyped roles, evident particularly in his seemingly effeminate

academic pursuit, rather than making a career like his father.

The formation of the identity of Ila is very complex as she is caught between two

cultures. While enjoying in the nightclub in Calcutta along with the narrator and Robi,

she is prevented from dancing with a stranger (a businessman). When Ila wants to know

from Robi why she has been refrained from dancing with the stranger, the latter argues:

“You can do what you like in England…but here there are certain things you cannot do.

That’s our culture; that’s how we live” (88). Ila in fact revolts against this claustrophobic

sexual atmosphere which makes women follow the code of conduct prescribed by the

patriarchy. Visibly very disgusted with the patriarchal prescription regarding female

activity Ila retorts back: “Do you know why I’ve chosen to live in London? Do you see?

It’s only because I wanted to be free” (88). Understandably Ila’s revolt is directed against

the burden of ‘representation’ women have to bear. As Nira Yuval Davis argues in

Gender and Nation (1997):


“The burden of representation on women of the collectivity’s identity and future destiny

has also brought about the construction of women as the bearers of collectivity’s honour”

(45).

Therefore women like Ila are expected to conform with the patriarchal projection of

women. Thamma who internalizes the doctrine of the patriarchy emphasizes on the

enforcement of the patriarchal rules /culture. Ila is criticized by Thamma because the

former does respect neither the national nor cultural frontiers. Ila on the other hand seeks

to escape such tortuous burden of representation and wants to enjoy the ‘freedom’ in

London which is so greatly curtailed in India. But Ila’s development is seriously affected

by her exposure to and subsequent internalization of another discourse of the patriarchy,

albeit that of the West. Evidently the ease with which Ila falls in the patriarchal discourse

points to the predicament of people who are captured within the metanarrative and fail to

invent their own stories. She has always been fascinated by the Eurocentric idea of

freedom and thus her life becomes a series of illusions, evasions, lies etc. This is seen as

early in her life when she informs the narrator that she has a dashing boyfriend. She not

only tries to project Nick, her boyfriend and subsequent husband, as extremely desirable,

but also fails miserably in her attempts to identify herself with the English/cosmopolitan

culture. As Suvir Kaul puts: “The unspoken suggestion seems to be that it is her

dislocations, her not being rooted in any one culture and its ways, that haunt

her”(Kaul,274). But the cultural contradiction and the confusion are not peculiar to

diasporic people; they are rather the inevitable aspect of women who are always put

under patriarchal pressure to conform to the set rules. Ila, whose life is a series of

illusions, pretensions, reveals to the narrator how she has always been cultivating the
self-conscious lax moral attitude. When learning about Nick’s sexual relation with other

women from the narrator she exclaims: “You see, you’ve never understood, you’ve

always been taken in by the way I used to talk, when we were in college. I only talked

like that to shock you, and because you seemed to expect it of me somehow. I never did

any of those things: I’m about as chaste, in my own way, as any woman you’ll ever

meet”( 188 ). She is caught in the Eurocentric worldview in which the West is projected

as the Centre and the rest of the world is the periphery. But the interesting point about

Ila’s situation is that she remains always on the periphery though she wrongly thinks she

can be part of the West simply by living there and following certain codes. She is thus

exoticized by her friends as ‘our own upper class Asian Marxist’. Inevitably the

restrictive culture of the middle class Bengali family, she is so eager to escape, imprisons

her in its western version. Therefore the cosmopolitanism which she embraces is not free

from the accompanying moral promiscuity. Thus she has to endure the faithlessness of

her husband whose sexual relation with a number of women is an enactment of his ‘way

of travelling’.

Ila’s identity is constructed round her internalization of the dominant patriarchal

discourse even though she wishes to keep herself outside the discourse of the Third

World patriarchy. She is allured by the relatively ‘free’ atmosphere of the West even

though the enjoyment of this freedom presupposes the acceptance of the profligacy of her

husband. In fact Ila is just taken in by the liberal ambience of London without taking into

account the politics of freedom and patriarchy. Though Ila calls Thamma a ‘fascist’

because of the latter’s rigorous enforcement of the cultural and the patriarchal codes

(violated by the ‘transgressive’ Ila), she herself enacts the same feat in her fierce and
aggressive dismissal of the Orient and the aggrandizement of the West as the centre of

the supposedly grand events like anti-fascist movement etc. Ila’s eulogization of Europe

and all the happenings there points to the extent to which she is indoctrinated in the

(Western) patriarchal discourse:

We may not achieve much in our little house in Stockwell, but we know that in the
future political people everywhere will look to us—in Nigeria, India, Malayasia,
wherever. It must have been the same for Tresawsen and his crowd. At least they
knew they were a part of the most important events of their time—the war, and
fascism, all the things you read about today in history books. That’s why there’s a
kind of heroism even in their pointless deaths; that’s why they’re remembered and
that’s why you’ve led us here. You wouldn’t understand the exhilaration of events
like that—nothing really important ever happens where you are…Well of course
there are famines and riots and disasters…But those are local things after all—not
like revolutions or anti-fascist wars, nothing that sets a political example to the world,
nothing that’s really remembered (104).

Therefore Ila’s journey toward self-knowledge starts with her attempt in escaping the

burden of patriarchal ‘expectation’. But ironically she becomes all the more

captivated in the patriarchal discourse of a different kind which operates on a binary

mode and in more subtle ways.

The discourse of nationalism wielded such power that the female characters

internalize the patriarchal prescriptions even after showing signs of contesting the

patriarchal ideology. Thamma for example defies the role, set by the patriarchy for

women, by taking up the job of teaching in a school after her widowhood. This is no

doubt seriously questioning the patriarchal prescription but eventually she becomes

caught in the discourse of the patriarchy as she internalizes the patriarchal discourse

of nationalism and that of the nation-state. She becomes the agent of the patriarchy

when she faults with Ila’s desertion of her ancestral land and enforces the patriarchal
cultural norm by reporting against the narrator for the latter’s fondness for Ila. Ila on

the other hand apparently impresses one as a ‘free’ person (free from your bloody

culture), but she too is caught in the ideology of the patriarchy. She develops

Eurocentric worldview rendering her trapped in the dominant (patriarchal) Western

discourse. Amitav Ghosh here shows the problematics of constructing female identity

in the presence of the omniscient patriarchal gaze. Ghosh’s portrayal of women, in

The Shadow Lines, follows the stereotypical formulation of women as argued by

Partha Chatterjee:

The new patriarchy advocated by nationalism conferred upon women the honor of a
new social responsibility, and by associating the task of female emancipation with the
historical goal of sovereign nationhood, bound them to a new, and yet entirely
legitimate, subordination (Chatterjee, 629)

Understandably women in the novel are represented as replicating the traditional

roles they are assigned to by the patriarchy. Interestingly such presentation of women

however is to be understood in the context of the access of women to power. As

Meenakshi Mukherjee notes:

Yet she (Thamma) does not fall outside the novel’s inclusive ambit of
sympathy; the author allows her historical position to confer certain inevitability
to her ideology. Perhaps the representative of a class and a generation, in this
novel she stands alone, as far away as her only son who is caught up in the
upwardly mobile career graph of success, as from his only son who in his
fascination for maps and stories that would enable him to transcend space and
time through the fluid sharing of other lives is emulating the ‘undesirable’
example of Tridib.(265).

Evidently Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines shows the limitations of the construction

of female identity in a predominantly patriarchal society where access to power is so


gender-based and patriarchal prescriptions/proscriptions operate like ‘shadow lines’.

Ghosh however shows the possible way of fighting off the claims of a discourse by

actively engaging one’s imagination. Through the character of Tridib, Ghosh seems to

suggest that one must invent one’s story so as to resist being subsumed in other’s story.

Tridib uses imagination and creativity as the liberating forces of the individual, who is

free to use them at will so as to checkmate the artificiality of cultural and ideological

apparatuses. Ghosh leaves the positive suggestion of transcending the patriarchal shadow

lines by means of creating one’s own story without getting trapped in various discourses.
WORKS CITED

Chatterjee, Partha. The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus.ND: OUP, 1999

Chatterjee, Partha. “The Nationalist Resolution of the Women’s Question”, in Recasting

Women: Essays in Colonial History, ed. Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid ( New Delhi:

Kali for Women1989), 233.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Shadow Lines. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1995

Kaul, Suvir.“Separatio Anxiety: Growing Up Inter/National in The Shadow

Lines” (pp. 268-286). The Shadow Lines. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1995

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather:Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial

Conquest. London and New York: Routledge, 1995

Mukherjee, Meenakshi. “Maps and Mirrors: Co-ordinates of Meaning in The Shadow

Lines” (pp.255-267), The Shadow Lines. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1995

Yuval, Davis, N. Gender and Nation. London: Sage, 1997


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