The Shadow Lines

The Shadow Lines Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh's family is Bengali Hindu, and his father was an officer in the pre-independence Indian Army. Growing up, Ghosh attended an all-boys school and then earned degrees in India and the UK at Delhi University, the Delhi School of Economics, St. Stephen's College, and Oxford. He worked briefly at a New Delhi newspaper called the Indian Express before beginning to write novels. His 1986 debut novel, The Circle of Reason, won a top literary award in France, and The Shadow Lines also won several awards in India. As of 2018, Ghosh has written eight novels and six nonfiction works, including several essay collections. His writing has also appeared in a number of publications in India and around the world. He lives with his wife, the author Deborah Baker, in New York, and the couple has two children. Ghosh has taught literature at several colleges and universities, including Queens College and Harvard. In 2015, he was named a Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellow, which is an award that recognizes artists and cultural leaders based in the US who demonstrate a commitment to social justice.
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Historical Context of The Shadow Lines

Though the Partition of British India is mostly a background event in The Shadow Lines, it is partially responsible for the conflicts that the narrator and his family experience over the course of the novel. Many European powers developed colonies and established trading relationships with India from its "discovery" in the fifteenth century onward. Great Britain gained control over most of the Indian subcontinent in the early nineteenth century, which led to it being known as British India or the British Raj. Indian people, however, began pushing for independence, especially in the early twentieth century. Great Britain promised India freedom in exchange for fighting for them in the two world wars, and Great Britain only followed through after the second. This resulted in Partition, during which British India split into East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), West Pakistan (now Pakistan), and India. The Partition happened in August of 1947, and though the British, Indian, and Pakistani governments took religion into account, the new borders created minorities of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs where there hadn't been before. This caused extreme violence, especially in the region of Punjab, which was split between West Pakistan and India. This religious animosity continued (and still does to this day), and it's partly what led to the riots that the narrator and Tridib experience in 1963-1964 in Calcutta and Dhaka, which became the capital of East Pakistan. The riots began when an important religious relic—a lock of hair that is believed to be the Prophet Muhammad's—mysteriously disappeared from the Kashmir region of India. Though the relic had been respected by all three religions (Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam), adherents of each religion soon turned on each other in various cities in India and Pakistan, which resulted in extreme violence.

Other Books Related to The Shadow Lines

Like much of Amitav Ghosh's work, The Shadow Lines is a work of historical fiction that deals with the geographical area around the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean—an area that Ghosh has expressed special interest in. Most notably, his Ibis trilogy (Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke, and Flood of Fire) explores the colonial history of the area. Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things takes place in much the same time period as The Shadow Lines (1960s-1990s) and is told in a similarly fragmented and nonlinear style. Khushwant Singh's Train to Pakistan is a historical novel that focuses on the human costs of the Partition of India in 1947. In addition, in The Shadow Lines, Queen Victoria's cook makes a direct reference to The Ramayana, a classic epic poem from the ancient Kosala Kingdom in India.
Key Facts about The Shadow Lines
  • Full Title: The Shadow Lines
  • When Written: 1986-1988
  • Where Written: New York
  • When Published: 1988
  • Literary Period: Postcolonial Indian Literature
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Setting: Calcutta, India/British India; Dhaka, British India/East Pakistan; London, England
  • Climax: The riots of 1964
  • Antagonist: Partition, religious animosity, and violence are the most common antagonists in the novel, though individuals who act as antagonists include Tha'mma, Ila, and Nick Price.
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for The Shadow Lines

The Persistence of Colonialism. When Ghosh's 2000 novel, The Glass Palace, won the Best Eurasian Novel award of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize, he famously withdrew the novel from consideration, citing objections to the term "Commonwealth" and his belief that the award's English-language requirement is unfair.