Postcolonial elements in Amitav Ghosh's "The Shadow Lines"

Postcolonial impact on identity, culture and society

Examination Thesis 2018 12 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works








The present paper is an attempt to examine the postcolonial impact on identity, culture and society. Amitav Ghosh does not restrict himself from describing the perilous days undergone during the partition of Bengal. He has interwoven and scrutinized the impacts of colonialism on the culture and society of two main neighboring cities, namely Calcutta and Dhaka. This novel throws light on the suppression faced by the people in the hands of the oppressors. The agony they felt has been realistically portrayed in the novel. Throughout the novel, the writer explicitly traces the postcolonial principles to show his interest in depicting the aftermath of colonization especially in an era after the emancipation. This paper, therefore, aims to explore the overall structure of the novel through postcolonial approach and provides examples from the novel regarding the application of some postcolonial elements such as identity crisis and otherness.


Indian writing in English is generally the literary works written by Indian writers. Not only is the nation ‘India’ diversified but the literature too. The Indian English literature cannot be restricted to particular age or century. However, it has become prominent in the nineteenth century with the rise of freedom spirit from the oppressing colonization of British government. Indian writing in English focuses predominantly on the cultural heritage, the ethnicity and the culture and custom of India. In the early twentieth century, the focus has been shifted to the voices of the colonized, the oppression, and the tyrant rule of English autocrats. Later, the post-colonial affections on the people have been talked predominantly. The present paper deals with the effects of colonialism on culture and society with reference to the novel The Shadow lines written by Amitav Ghosh.

Indian writing in English owes itself to the English literature because it evolved into standard form due to the invasion of the Europeans particularly British. Before the rise of Indian Independence Movement, writings in English were only but a few. Until the latter half of the nineteenth century, novel is a new genre in Indian literature. Most of the writings were derivative and imitative of English models. Later, many writers evolved creating a genuine work of art, voicing their opinions, expressing their ethos and sensibility. English writing in India had a drastic change after independence with vast ideas exploring the talents of Indian writers.

The prominent Indian writers of Indian English literature are R.K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Ruskin Bond, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Aravind Adiga, Arundhati Roy, and more so. In the latter half of the twentieth century, post-colonialism has taken the upper hand in the literary field, which in turn attracted the special attention for Indian English writings. The writers were devoted to the ideals of justice and made a marking distinction in literature.

Amitav Ghosh a Bengali Indian author, a pioneer of English literature in India, has written mostly centering on the cultural changes, social issues and the ideas of nationalism. He was born in Calcutta and in three countries India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka he grew up. Therefore, he personally has the experience of the difficulties of migration, the cultural difference, identity crisis and that he has reflected in most of his works. His popular works and awarded prizes are the circle of Reason (1986), won France’s Prix Medicis in 1990, The Shadow Lines (1988), won two prestigious Indian awards, The Sahitya Akademi Award and the Ananda Purskar, The Calcutta Chromosome was awarded The Arthur c. Clarke prize in 1997. The Glass Palace (2000) won the International E-Book Award at the Frankfurt book fair in 2001. In January 2005, The Hungry Tide was awarded the Crossword Book Prize. He was awarded the Padmashri, one of the most prestigious Indian awards in January 2007. In 2010, he got the Honorary Doctorate by Queens College, New York and the Sorbonne, Paris. He worked as a professor in many universities in India and USA including Delhi University, Columbia, Queens College and Harvard. His works are translated into more than twenty languages and his essays are published in The New Yorker, The New Republic, and The New York Times.

The Shadow Lines is a novel, which deals with post-colonialism impact on society and culture; the riots, cultural deviations, migration and its consequences, political turbulence, religious clashes, identity crisis, lack of belongingness and more so. The novel was set in the milieu of historical events like the Swadeshi movement, Second World War, Partition of India and Communal riots of 1963-64 in Dhaka and Calcutta. It is the story of a Bengali family. Ghosh presents the sufferings and difficulties faced by the people during communal riots and migration because of the Bengal partition in India through his fictional characters.

The story is narrated by the unnamed narrator. The narrator’s uncle is one of the central characters, named Tridib. The story develops with the progression of events that takes place in India, especially Calcutta. Importantly, the private event in the narrator’s life and in the lives of other important characters takes place in the ‘shadow’ of events of political significance. The characters are mere representations of the issues that are to be discussed in the novel. The central figure, Thamma, the grandmother of the narrator is deliberately created by Ghosh to bring into light the issue of Bengal partition and to point out the entire idea of ‘nation, nationalism and nationhood’.

The story begins with the eight-year-old narrator talking of how his grandmother values time and how she hates people who waste time. He introduces the reader to two families: Thamma’s family and her sister Mayadebi’s family. Mayadebi’s is an affluent family because her husband holds a high-ranking job in foreign services. The heirs of the family are Jatin, an economist with UN, Robi, a civil servant and Tridib the only son who is not successful. He is unemployed and he does not have a permanent residing place. The narrator learns historical information from his uncle Tridib. Thamma condemns narrator for spending time with Tridib. Thamma’s perception of historical events and her ideas about nationalism brings in significant changes in the story. Thamma’s worldview is deceptive, an illusionary world that she creates. The imaginary world is in total contrast with the actual world that she lives in.

The story branches out to discuss other characters and their relation.ships, along with the social changes happening in India. The story moves forward with elaborating on the cross-cultural relationship between Tridib and May Price, the narrator, Nick and Ila. The narrator expresses to Ila, his desire for her, but she rejects it. Nick and Ila marries during the course of the novel. The love of Tridib and May shatters when Tridib dies at the communal riots of Dhaka and Calcutta. The narrator was a small boy when Tridib died. After he became a grown-up, he started gathering the historical incidents and exact details of events as clues for finding out the truth behind Tridib’s death. The story ends with the answer for Tridib’s death. Narrator and May discusses the events on the day of riot. May concludes that it is for her sake that Tridib sacrificed his life, protecting her from the violent mob.

The novel portrays a diversified people with diversified mentality who finds it difficult to adapt to the new way of living. The colonized people’s mind is still colonized though they are liberated by the norms of law and order. The political change and the structural change in India after independence lead to commotion and a fit of anger, which has been reflected by means of violence and revolt. The impact of post-colonialism is stronger that people find it hard to overcome and perceive the reality.


Post-colonialism is an umbrella term, which covers a large variety of topics. It is a theory that studies the condition of the state of mind of people who were colonized and colonizers. It also explains the relationship between the colonized and the colonizers. This theory had its origin from the European colonization of the ‘third world’ countries. The literature comes out of the colonized nation certainly exhibits the post-colonial effects. The theory elaborates the effects that colonization, imperialism, and oppression have on people and on nation as a whole.

Post – colonial criticism emerged as a discrete only in the 1990’s. This theory was made popular by several books. They are In Other Words by Gayatri Spivak in 1987, The Empire Writes Back by Bill Ashcroft in 1989. The ancestry of post –colonial criticism can be traced from Frantz Fanon’s The wretched of the Earth, published in 1961.

Edward Said’s book Orientalism in 1978 is considered as the primary work on which post-colonial theory has been developed. Edward Said is popularly known as the ‘father’ of post-colonialism, the first post-colonial theorist. The other notable theoreticians are Frantz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhaba and so on. Frantz Fanon was the first to talk about colonization. Gayatri Spivak termed ‘sub-altern’ in the definition of post-colonial theory.

Michael Ryan states that “post-colonial studies examines cultures of colonialism as well as the vexed cultural situation that arose after colonialism ended” (110). Post-colonialism is the most widely discussed topic. The topic is still ambiguous as it is related to most of the major branches of knowledge. Its presence is evident in literature, especially the literary works that are written in the colonized era.


Identity crisis is “a period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society”, says Dictionary. ‘Identity crisis’, the term was coined by Erik Erikson. In his book Identity: Youth and Crisis, he says that identity crisis can be varied to person-to-person. Sometimes it can be the crisis between the national identity and personal identity.

The Shadow Lines is a novel that traces nearly the story of three generations. The novel concerns with the ‘search for identity’, ‘the need for independence’, and ‘the difficult relationship with colonial culture’. Amitav Ghosh explores the idea of nationhood and national identity, ideas that involve relationships between individuals, belonging to the same community or to different communities that sometime goes beyond the shadow lines of geographical borders.

The unnamed narrator, his family and friends are the fictional characters used by Amitav Ghosh to portray the ‘identity crisis’ that was predominant in his time. Tridib, Thaama, and Ila are the three main characters that confronts ‘identity crisis’ in the due course of the novel.

The nationalism and national identity presented in the novel is a representation of the individual’s personal identity. The question of national identity becomes the question of the personal identiy. Thaama prepares to visit Dhaka and bring back her old uncle Jethmoshi; she gets the revelation that Dhaka is no longer a part of India but comes under newly formed country Bangladesh, after the partition of Bengal. Thus, she is clueless of the country to which she is belonged. When Thaama’s son asks for details to fill in for the airplane ticket, she is bewildered. “They want your nationality, your date of birth, place of birth, that kind of thing … Nothing, she said, shaking her head. Nothing at all” (Ghosh 167-68).

The narrator realizes that it would be difficult for her to fill the form, the place of birth as Dhaka and nationality is Indian. Here arises the ‘identity crisis’. There are many incidents in the novel that hint at the identity crisis faced by the people at the time of Bengal partition and the communal riots of Calcutta.

Ila is the niece of Tridib whose identity is caught between the enticement of the foreign culture and the innate Indianness. However, it is evident that she yearns for the approval of her identity in Indonesia where her family resides. She visits Calcutta in her holidays. She narrates everything that happened in the mean time to the narrator. Once, she shows the picture of her friends, two blonde girls. She proudly says that she accompanied them to the party and described what she wore and how she danced. On the contrary, the photographs she showed to the narrator always had the pictures of her classmates and not her. “She herself was always unaccountably absent in the pictures” (Ghosh 25).



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Title: Postcolonial elements in Amitav Ghosh's "The Shadow Lines"