Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Book Review: The Shadow Lines By Amitav Ghosh


It’s been a week since I finished reading ‘The Shadow Lines’ and I have been wondering since, if this book should be reviewed at all. Not because it let me down, but because it is a masterpiece, one that I wasn't confident to do justice to with a review. But I finally decided to pen down my thoughts, because this is a book that has found a place for itself in my mind.

‘The Shadow Lines’ is a tale woven with emotion and memories that spread across generations and countries during Pre and Post-Independence. The narrator, as a young boy, traverses through his childhood, reminiscing incidents which seem random yet relate to each other more closely than anybody can anticipate. 

Then he brings forth through the time he spends in England, events that not only play a role in shaping his life and that of those around him but also explain a lot of the episodes from the past. He brings to fore the nuances of the relationships within the members of a Bengali family and the connection they share with an English one. These two families form the basis of this soulful tale of their lives and how the political situation that existed then leaves a permanent mark on each of them.

Reading ‘The Shadow Lines’ was a lot like eating a liqueur chocolate. At first you wonder what awaits you. As you bite into it, and feel the different flavours ooze out and engulf your senses and as you slowly twist and turn it, the uniqueness in the bite begins to stand out. When you are done, the taste lingers for much longer than you could imagine. Making you realize how truly beautiful the experience actually was. At first glance, it seems as if the boy brings to us just a spate of incidents, some that he experiences, others that he has been told, but as you read on you realize how each of those are tied together by a random act of violence. The observations of this young boy of history, of politics, of countries and relations from the perspective of his young mind are what make this book linger on in your mind long after you have put it down.

Spread across Bengal, Dhaka and London, Amitav illustrates the impact political situations have on individuals regardless of where they come from. Be it World War II or the birth of Bangladesh, he brings about the effect these incidents have at a very intimate level through the eyes of his narrator. An intense topic, but leavened by the interpretations of the young narrator make this book an engrossing read. What also adds depth to the story is his affection for his cousin Tridib, his infatuation with his cousin Illa and the love-hate relationship he shares with his Grandmother.

The ferocity with which he recollects every story he was told by Tridib, the experiences his grandmother had before Bangladesh took birth, or the different plane on which Illa lives, all add to the intensity of his narration. 

Eventually you get glimpses of what the narrator, his family and their English friends go through when he says “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?”

But what stayed with me most was what the Narrator felt when he was just a school boy and riots hit Calcutta
“That particular fear has a texture you can neither forget nor describe. It is like the fear of victims of an earthquake, of people who have lost faith in the stillness of the earth. And yet it is not the same. It is without analogy, for it is not comparable to the fear of nature, which is the most universal of all human fears, nor to the fear of violence of the state which is the commonest of modern fears. It is a fear that comes of the knowledge that normalcy is utterly contingent, that the space that surrounds one, the streets that one inhabits, can become, suddenly and without warning, as hostile as a desert in a flash flood. It is this that sets apart the thousand million people who inhabit the subcontinent from the rest of the world – not language, not food, not music – it is the special quality of loneliness that grows out of fear of the war between oneself and one’s image in the mirror”

This is a gripping story, narrated so beautifully through the memories and observations of the Narrator. A boy who has no name through the book, an important aspect that you don’t even realize till the very end. That’s how engrossing the book is.


‘The Shadow Lines’ is no doubt one of Amitav Ghosh’s finest works. And no one can put it more rightly than Kushwant Singh did “This is how the language should be used… this is how a Novel should be written.”

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39 comments:

  1. I like the 'liqueur chocolate' bit. I admire Ghosh's ability to research his material in depth and presenting it to the reader. I haven't read this one but now after seeing this post, I think I need a dose of Ghosh. It has been long since I had one. Thanks Seeta for this reminder. Now, got to get some Ghosh.

    And, yes, you have indeed done justice to the novel.

    Joy always,
    Susan

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    1. Thanks Susan :) I agree, the amount of research he puts in his books is overwhelming, I have found that to be the case with most acclaimed Authors too.I guess this is one of the reasons why I am not very delighted with the kind of Fiction that is flooding the Indian markets today.

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  2. So this one is a must-pick then :) Now, you know how not-very-fond-of-reviews I am ! Yet I not only took the pain to read it, but also comment, which means you have done a splendid job of "doing justice" to this one. Like how Kushwant Singh said "This is how language must be used", I will say, "This is how reviews must be written". Please take it as high praise as it comes from someone who absolutely detests reading reviews in any form.

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    1. Oh yes.. I do know how much you dislike reviews so your comment and the fact that you enjoyed it makes me go over the moon :)
      Frankly though I called it a review, it's really not one, I just put down what I felt about the book. :)

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  3. I don't know when I will get some decent tie to sit with a book and I have been adding books to my list of must read. Adding this one too. I liked your comparison of this with chocolate. :)

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    1. It did remind me of chocolate. When I began reading it, I wondered about where it was going and then when I completed the book, I kept thinking about it :P
      If not this, do try and read one of his works... this is probably one of the shortest so it should be easier to fit this in your schedule :)

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  4. Nice review Sita. Currently reading his 'The hungry tide' and loving it. He is a master of his craft.

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    1. Sorry I wrote your name wrong, Seeta..:P

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    2. That's a lovely book too.. so is Glass Palace.. this was one of his first works.. makes me proud because a fellow Indian writes so well :)
      'What's in a name?'... don't worry about it :P

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  5. I must add it to my must-read list since you have lavished glowing praises on the book. I do appreciate books with detailed plots and especially those where loose ends are neatly tied later. Will look forward to reading this one. Like Sid, I detest reading reviews too. Some of them get so technical, long-winded and crazy especially for someone who hasn't read the book that they drive me insane. So yes, this one was a breather :D.

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    1. I love his work, the research that goes in is mind blowing.. you know, his passion for the written word shows.. and I understand your feelings about reviews :) I have reduced them mainly because of the reasons you mentioned.. they confuse me about the book completely. So glad you found this one to be better :)

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  6. Reminds me of his Sea of Poppies. Amitav is a master story teller when it comes to detailing and depth. Having lived abroad adds to his nuanced eye. Loved the liqueur chocolate analogy.

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    1. Absolutely.. Suspense, Mystery and Genre's of the likes are such that an Author can get away with as long as there is enough twist and turn to it. Work like the kind Amitav does, it all depends on the narrative, the detailing and the depth to which he takes us... and many a times I feel the real skill lies in such work.
      Thanks Alka, it was a liqueur chocolate for me :)

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  7. Great write-up! Writing is a talent, and it must not be wasted. As with everything that we had been entrusted, we should let it grow and share it with the world.> self development plan

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  8. this one seems to have everything.. and since you use khushwants's lines this aught to be a good book

    nice review

    Bikram

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    1. I guess Kushwant Singh's line is the clincher for this one :)

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  9. I loved his Hungry Tide.Will pick this up surely. BTW I love reading/writing reviews and you have done absolute justice to this book which moved you so much:)

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    1. Thanks Sridevi, I have read your reviews and loved them. So coming from you, this is a compliment for me :). If you liked Hungry Tide, trust me you will like this one. It was one of his first...

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  10. Seeta, you have done a great job with this review. In a way I think it is less of a review but more of what you felt about this book, which makes it a wonderful read in my view :) Though for some time now I haven't been much into fiction but I have always wanted to read Amitav Ghosh, have read him only in bits and pieces here and there, it seems like this book maybe a good one to start with.

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    1. You are absolutely right Beloo. It is less of a review and more of my thoughts flowing on the book. To write a review I would have to look at it with a critique outlook.. but I am somehow not able to look at some books in that manner, this is one of them. Do try and read him, he is one of the best Indian Authors around.

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  11. That was a great review - a review that gives one a foretaste of how it would be to read the novel.

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    1. I realized after penning it down that I hadn't really analyzed the book, instead I had just penned my response to it.. which like you said gives a foretaste of what to expect :)

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  12. Shadow Lines was the Amitav Ghosh book I read and its been nearly 25 years now and he still remains my favourite author.

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    1. Luck you Purba... i think despite this being one of oldest works it is one of his best. Given the new breed of authors cropping up in India, I am glad we have an Amitav around

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  13. Amitav Ghosh is a master novelist and I have become his firm fan after reading Sea of Poppies. I felt rather bad when it ended.Would love to read this one too ! You have presented it very well and I loved your simile of the liqueur chocolate.

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    1. read this one Ash, if you liked Sea of Poppies, I am sure you will enjoy this one.. it is one of his oldest and one of the best

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  14. That is such a descriptive and in-depth review, Seeta! Kudos! :)
    Loved it!

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    1. Thanks Bhavya.. when I read what I had written I realized it flowed better as my thoughts than an actual review :)

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  15. I read it a long time back, I remember I enjoyed it but I can hardly recall much now :( Such is human mind.

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    1. You are so busy travelling lady! :)

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  16. Have just completed his 'The Glass Place', and your wonderful review makes me feel like reading this one too at the earliest..!

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    1. Regret the typo...pls read it Palace:)

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    2. What a coincidence! :) Yes that is a wonderful book too. I need to read as many as possible of his. And I got it even before I realized it was a typo :P

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  17. I clicked through indiblogger to read this review as this book is one of my favourites too. His childhood description of the Calcutta riots and the sense of displacement woven through the story is something very intriguing. You must read 'Imam and other stories' by him as in one of those short memoirs he has described the sikh riots in Delhi too.
    Somehow my favourite amongst his work is Calcutta Chromosome for many reasons, may be because I have been in research :-)

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    1. Many bloggers ask me why I review books I have read when the Author hasnt commissioned them to me.. i tell them I review or rather pen my reaction to the book for the sheer love of the book and not because someone has asked me to... now I can tell them that doing these reviews puts me in touch with like minded people like you :)

      Glad you stopped by Sangeeta, I echo your words about this book.

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  18. Nice :).. Liquor chocolate, I couldn't have hoped for a better comparison :)

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    1. Many told me that... it was the first thing I could think of when i sat to pen this down :)

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  19. Wow! Looks like a gripping tale, Seeta. What lovely words in the excerpts you have shared! He's is one of the finest writers....
    Nice review. Even I wanna enjoy this liqueur chocolate :)

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