The Shadow Lines

by

Amitav Ghosh

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The Shadow Lines: 1. Going Away Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Thirteen years before the narrator's birth, in 1939, Mayadebi, the Shaheb, and eight-year-old Tridib move to England. The narrator, who is now eight years old himself, tries to imagine Tridib as an eight-year-old but struggles to—Trudib is now 29 years old and looks ancient to the narrator. The narrator decides that Tridib surely looked like him, though his grandmother, Tha'mma, insists Tridib didn't.
When the narrator decides that he and Tridib look alike, it's an early indicator of the degree to which the narrator idolizes Tridib and wants to be as much like him as possible. It doesn't matter that (according to Tha'mma) this is impossible; it's more important for the narrator to identify with Tridib than believe the truth.
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Tha'mma doesn't like Tridib; she insists that a person must use their time wisely, and that Tridib doesn't do that. This is, of course, why the narrator loves to listen to Tridib: he doesn't seem to do much, but he also doesn't seem to waste time. Tridib often drops in to see the narrator's family without warning. Despite Tha'mma's dislike of him, it tickles her when he visits because his family is rich.
The strange relationship between Tha'mma and Tridib points out that Tha'mma is very keen to associate with the rich and powerful, regardless of whether or not she actually likes them. This suggests early on that social standing is very important to Tha'mma and the narrator's family as a whole.
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Tha'mma knows that Tridib visits primarily to "nurse his stomach." He comes when he finds himself needing a restroom immediately, a condition known to the family as "Tridib's Gastric." Tha'mma always forces him to go through pleasantries before allowing him to slip away to the bathroom. The narrator notes that he grew up believing that Tridib had a special organ called a Gastric, though he was too shy to ask about it. Tha'mma never let Tridib stay long, as she believes him capable of having a negative influence on the narrator and his father.
The mention of Tridib's Gastric shows that the narrator was an innocent, gullible child—and therefore, his perception of the world as a child isn't to be trusted. Essentially, the anecdote about Tridib’s Gastric sets out a starting point from which the narrator can mature and grow up over the course of the novel.
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The narrator runs into Tridib in the street fairly regularly when he's a child. Tridib is the only one in his family who spent most of his life in Calcutta, as the rest of his family is wealthy and travels often. Tha'mma is offended by this: she sees it as proof of Tridib's frivolity that he never married or got a real job. Instead, he lives with his grandmother in the old family house in Calcutta. Though Tha'mma often tells the narrator that she pities Tridib, the narrator understands that she fears him because she believes he spends all his time on street corners, gossiping. Tridib, is, however, pursuing a PhD in archaeology.
Tha'mma clearly believes that it's horrible to not make the most of one's social standing. The narrator recognizes that there's a difference in how Tha'mma talks about Tridib and how she actually feels about him. It's unclear how true this is (remember the narrator as a child isn't reliable), but it does set up the precedent that the narrator believes himself to be an expert on Tridib and Tha'mma.
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The narrator knows that Tridib only goes to the park rarely, and he hears about Tridib from his best friend and neighbor, Montu, as well as from local shopkeepers. The narrator wonders if that kind of community even exists today in that neighborhood—then, Gole Park was outside the city, and there were only a few refugees.
The mention of there only being a few refugees indicates that at this point in the neighbor's childhood, the tensions between India and East Pakistan aren't running high—later, during the riots in 1964, Calcutta is flooded with refugees from East Pakistan.
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If he hears Tridib is nearby, the narrator skips his evening cricket game and finds him. He never questions why Tridib is in the area, though he should have, as Tridib didn't live there and had a detached air about him. The narrator wonders if the people put up with Tridib because he is worldly and sometimes gives incredible advice—though he's also known for giving outright incorrect advice sometimes.
By describing Tridib as an unknowable, strange character, the narrator suggests that Tridib defies normal and accepted methods of categorization or description. Essentially, Tridib is in control of his own identity, and he doesn't share it with many.
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Tridib is so self-mocking, nobody on the street quite knows what to believe about him. Nobody really believes he's the son of a rich and powerful diplomat, so the story that he has a wife and several children prevails. The narrator, as a young boy with a reputation for being gullible, can't set anyone straight.
This passage draws out the relationship between observed reality and stories. People in the community accept the (incorrect) story about Tridib’s family life because it aligns with the people’s observed reality and perception of Tridib. 
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When the narrator is nine, Tridib disappears for weeks. When the narrator stops at Tridib's house one day, Tridib tells him a secret: he's discovered treasure from an ancient dynasty, and he instructs the narrator to not tell a soul. Weeks later, the narrator finds Tridib in Gole Park, telling people that he's been away in England visiting relatives through marriage. He says he stayed with a woman named Mrs. Price, who has a daughter named May. When asked, Tridib explains that May isn't sexy in the conventional way but is warm and kind.
To an adult reader, it's more readily understood that Tridib has feelings for May—something that goes right over the narrator's head, mostly because of his youth. These two opposing stories also call into question which one is true, though it's clear that Tridib hasn't actually been in London. This sets up the idea that stories can be important and informative, even if they might not be entirely truthful.
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The narrator bursts forward and yells at Tridib that he got it wrong, since he just saw him a few weeks ago in Calcutta. The listeners burst out laughing, but Tridib pinches the narrator's cheek and says good-naturedly that anyone who believes everything they're told deserves to be lied to. When he leaves, the listeners are on edge, as they believe they've been made a part of a joke. The narrator, furious with himself, yells at the listeners that Tridib had been to London when he was a boy, as his father needed an operation that couldn't be performed in India. He explains that the Price family is real, and they invited Tridib's parents to come. The listeners laugh, and the narrator runs away angry.
The fact that the narrator bursts in like this suggests that he believes in the importance of the truth, especially when he then goes on to attempt to set the listeners straight about the Price family. Tridib's reaction to the narrator's outburst suggests he takes more pleasure in the telling than having people believe his stories are real, which is an early way for the novel to build up Tridib's love of storytelling and his skill at it.
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The narrator tells the reader that he met May Price for the first time two years later, and then for the second time seventeen years later in London. In London, it takes the narrator a month to find May. She plays the oboe in an orchestra, and the narrator manages to get a seat at one of her concerts. She looks much the same as the narrator remembers, but her long black hair is now streaked with gray. The narrator remembers watching her, entranced, as she practiced her music when she visited Calcutta.
By meeting May at several different points throughout his life, the narrator must naturally try to piece together his childhood conception of May with the adult reality before him, something that will test the narrator's ability to mature and reevaluate his childish conceptions. The fact that May looks so similar will complicate this process.
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After the concert, the narrator catches May's attention, and they meet in the foyer. The two are embarrassed, and May explains she remembers the narrator as a boy very well, and he doesn't look much different now. She invites him back to her apartment for a simple dinner. On the tube, she explains that she also works for relief agencies, providing housing for people in Central America.
When May says that the narrator looks much the same—even though he's a full-grown adult at this point—it suggests that there will be some struggle as these two attempt to reestablish their relationship to each other, now that May is solidly in middle age and the narrator is no longer a child.
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At her apartment, the narrator looks over May's bookshelf while May cooks. He comes across a photo of her that he says looks like it was taken when she visited his family in Calcutta. She primly says that it was taken several years before, and explains that she sent it to Tridib. She tells the narrator that she and Tridib began writing to each other in 1959, when she was 19 and Tridib was 27. The narrator tells the reader that he likes to imagine that Tridib received May's photograph the day he told the fantastical story in Gole Park.
Again, when the narrator discovers the truth of when the photo was taken, he must reevaluate what he thought was true about May and his past recollections of her. Further, when May admits that she and Tridib wrote to one another (and presumably, shared some sort of romance), the narrator is forced to amend his memory and look back on what he remembers to integrate this new information.
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The narrator insists that Tha'mma was wrong about Tridib: he is openly dismissive of the gossips, and the narrator recognizes that he's happiest surrounded by books. Once, the narrator and his cousin, Ila, discuss this when they're sixteen and Ila and her family visit. When Ila gets out of the car, Tha'mma is in awe of her beauty, but the narrator is disappointed to see his cousin dressed in a sari like everyone else. Ila and the narrator decide to walk down to the lake.
The narrator's disappointment at seeing Ila in a sari suggests that he loves or admires Ila in part because she seems foreign and exotic. Further, the fact that both Ila and the narrator remember Tridib suggests that they might have differing recollections, which will again require both of them to reevaluate what they remember and what might be true.
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They sit awkwardly for a minute and finally, the narrator asks Ila if she remembers how, as children, Ila, the narrator, and Robi used to go find Tridib and listen to him talk about all sorts of things. Ila insists she remembers and laughs, but the narrator can tell she doesn't truly remember. The narrator asks if she remembers all the strategies they used to get Tridib to pull out photographs and talk about his year in London. Ila again says she remembers faintly and seems puzzled by the narrator's insistence on dredging up old memories.
This exchange sets up the narrator and Ila as fundamentally different in how they think about the past and memory. These memories were clearly not important enough to Ila to truly remember them, which begs the question of what she does truly remember and value. The narrator, on the other hand, clearly lived for these experiences with Tridib, which illustrates his closeness with Tridib.
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The narrator asks Ila how she could possibly forget, and she responds by asking him how he even remembers. The narrator tells the reader this isn't even a question—Ila will never understand what Tridib's stories meant to the narrator. Since Ila traveled so much as a child, she was as familiar with the world as the narrator, who never traveled, was with his local park. Ila never understood that Tridib allowed the narrator to travel in his imagination by telling him stories and pointing out locations in his atlas.
The relationship between the narrator and Tridib, despite their age difference, is was built on the understanding that stories and memories are extremely important—it's the only way the narrator learns about the world around him. In contrast, Ila has the freedom to experience these places firsthand, so her own memories and experiences are more important to her than Tridib's stories.
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The narrator rambles about wanting to see Cairo but soon realizes Ila isn't listening. Suddenly, Ila snaps her fingers and says that the ladies' room is on the far side of the departure lounge in Cairo. The narrator thinks that to Ila, the world is made up of departure lounges, all with the ladies' rooms hidden somewhere different. He understands that those restrooms were the only fixed points in her childhood.
By recognizing that airport bathrooms were the only constant things in Ila's childhood, the novel begins to suggest that Ila's childhood, though privileged, wasn't as idyllic as it seemed. Relying on public restrooms for consistency implies that Ila's childhood was tumultuous.
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A decade later, when the narrator is in London, he and Ila often go out. The narrator is always thrilled to get to take the underground transit somewhere, and Ila teases him mercilessly for it. To her, the underground is a means of travel; to the narrator, it's otherworldly. He never manages to persuade her that places must be invented in a person's imagination; they don't just exist. When the narrator was a boy, Tridib told him that Ila had never truly traveled, since her imagination and her inventions of places simply traveled with her: she long ago stopped seeing places with fresh eyes.
The stories that people tell the narrator intimately inform how he looks at places when he finally gets to see them himself, once again underscoring the importance the narrator places on memory and stories. This suggests that the narrator is very entrenched in a kind of mental community made up of all the people who shaped the way he views the world, while Ila exists in a mental world where she's very alone.
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Ila visits Calcutta most summers while she and the narrator are children. She always brings her yearbook from her latest international school, and she and the narrator pore over the pages as Ila points out her friends. The narrator notes that though Ila can always describe the events captured in the photos with great detail, she's always absent from the photos.
When the narrator can pick out these inconsistencies in Ila's narration using the photos, it suggests again that her childhood wasn't actually idyllic. Since Ila spent time in London, she likely experienced racial violence or bullying and might not have been friends with any of the people she points out in the yearbook to the narrator.
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When they're 14, Ila points out a picture of a boy who looks much older and says that he's her boyfriend. A few pages later, the narrator sees a photo of the boy with his arms around blonde girls. Ila is in the background of the photo, unsmiling, with books in her arms. A week later, the narrator discovers that Ila ripped the photo out, and the narrator feels as though Ila might not be so different from him: they might both be going to school to "cling to their gentility."
Even as this passage makes Ila's inconsistencies very clear, it also shows Ila using stories to attempt to guide the narrator's idea of what Ila's life is like. This suggests that Ila feels as though she has something to prove, and that even at a young age, she feels compelled to act and speak a certain way to maintain her status as the wealthy, worldly cousin.
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Years later, when Robi, the narrator, and Ila are drinking in a London pub, the narrator reminds Ila about the yearbooks. Ila laughs and says that school is all that matters to all children—except for the narrator, who she insists was strange in his love of faraway lands. She adds that at least her stories taught the narrator that the places in the atlas were real, not "fairylands" like Tridib told him about. The narrator says this assertion was misguided; Tridib, as an archaeologist, instructed the narrator to use his imagination precisely and with purpose.
It's worth noting here that Ila's experiences allowed her to actually visit faraway lands, adding more credence to the idea that new places were uninteresting to her because of the frequency of her travels. With the assertion that Tridib had definite ideas about how to use one's imagination, it shows that Tridib believed fully in creating one's reality through stories with intricate detail.
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The narrator recalls a time when he was ten and Ila; her mother, Queen Victoria; and Tridib came to visit. In the flashback, Queen Victoria tells the narrator about their house in Columbo, which backs up to a poultry farm and has a sloped roof. Queen Victoria is afraid of the proximity to the poultry; she's heard that poultry attracts snakes. She says that one morning, her cook burst in screaming about a crocodile in the yard. Victoria was shocked to see he was right—there was indeed a huge lizard. She instructed the cook to cut the lizard's head off before Ila saw it.
This flashback within a flashback emphasizes the wealth that Ila's family enjoys: they have servants, a big house, and have enjoyed all of this in the faraway country of Sri Lanka. Telling this story to the narrator is as much an attempt to entertain and awe (with the lizard) as it is to impress upon him how wealthy Ila's family is.
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The cook, gripped with fear, refused, so Queen Victoria summoned Lizzie, Ila's new nurse. In the strange, almost-unintelligible dialect that Victoria developed to speak to Lizzie, she asked Lizzie what the creature in the garden was. Lizzie laughed and said it's a gentle thala-goya, and she was distraught when Queen Victoria suggested killing it. Lizzie said it keeps snakes away and ran downstairs to offer the creature vegetables. Not about to be outdone, Victoria offered the thala-goya vegetables herself and spoke to it in a version of her Lizzie dialect. The animal flicked its tail, seemingly in response to the special language, which made Victoria like it. She allowed it the run of the garden and only had Lizzie tie it up during parties.
Even though Lizzie speaks English (and it's implied that Queen Victoria is absolutely fluent in English), Queen Victoria speaks to the nurse in a strange, made-up dialect. It's a very overt way for Victoria to show everyone, Lizzie included, that Queen Victoria thinks Lizzie is stupid and uneducated. Similarly, when Victoria won't let Lizzie outdo her, it shows that Ila's family is somewhat anxious about looking wealthy and properly performing the image of wealth.
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One morning, after a party, Ila went outside to read by the pond. The thala-goya was still tied up. As Ila became engrossed in her book, she noticed something out of the corner of her eye. With a scream, Ila turned around slowly to come face to face with a giant snake, poised to strike. When the snake struck, Ila managed to tip her chair over so it didn't hit her. Before the snake could strike again, it turned and shot away, pursued by the thala-goya. The lizard had bitten through its rope to chase the snake.
Though Victoria doesn't acknowledge it in her story, the fact that the thala-goya saved Ila means that, in some ways, Lizzie is far more knowledgeable and worldly than the wealthy people who employ her. This suggests in a more overarching way that wealth isn't a guarantee of knowledge.
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When Queen Victoria is finished telling her story, she waits for the narrator's response. The narrator doesn't want to disappoint Tridib, so he asks what species the snake was. Tridib looks disappointed. Later, as the narrator says goodbye, Tridib suggests that snakes aren't that interesting and asks if the narrator noticed that Ila's house had a sloping roof. Tridib asks the narrator to imagine it: it would mean there's no place to fly kites or hide. As Tridib gets in the car he punches the narrator in the chest, confusing the narrator even further. As the narrator puzzles over the exchange later, he imagines sloping roofs and realizes that they are indeed more interesting than snakes, simply because of how ordinary they are.
Tridib’s reaction to the story emphasizes that he is very interested in the setting of his stories and other people’s stories. This in turn explains why, as an adult, the narrator is so taken with ordinary things like the tube system in London. The narrator, deeply impacted by Tridib’s way of seeing the world, realizes that it's those small details that differentiate these places from his life in Calcutta, and therefore, that's what makes those places interesting.
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Despite understanding Tridib's meaning, the narrator also understands that Tridib's imagination is far more detailed and precise than his own. According to Tridib, people can only know things through true desire, which enables someone to see other worlds as though there's no division between person and world. The narrator thinks about this as he listens to Ila in the pub, and he reasons that Ila lives so fully in the present that it's unthinkable to her that people can experience worlds in their imaginations with as much clarity as she experiences the real world.
Tridib's wisdom here suggests that he, in some ways, doesn't think much of borders—he wants to experience the world as though there's no border between his memory, his stories, and what he sees in front of him. For Ila, on the other hand, those borders between reality and memory are of the utmost importance, given that she never thought much of stories and imagined places in the first place.
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Right after the narrator arrives in London, Ila takes him out to show him around. The narrator notices a building, fetches Ila, and pulls her to stand in front of it. She doesn't understand why the building is so interesting. The narrator goes in and asks the receptionist if this is where the Left Book Club used to be, but she doesn't know. Back outside, Ila is indignant, but the narrator tells her that Tridib used to tell them about how Alan Tresawsen, Mrs. Price's brother, worked there before the war. The narrator sees the building like he imagines Tridib saw it. Ila, however, leads the narrator away, and the narrator is again baffled by how different they are.
Again, when the narrator recognizes places in the present (1980s) that Tridib told him about forty years before, it shows just how much the narrator relies on Tridib's stories to inform how he interacts with places and people in the present. The narrator effectively sees the world as though the divisions between different time periods and different people don't actually exist—for him, all of those different times are layered to create one rich image.
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In the pub, the narrator tries to explain to Ila and Robi the "archaeological" Tridib, but Ila is contemptuous. The narrator insists that if they don't use their own imaginations, they'll live forever in other people's inventions. Ila insists she's already free of others' inventions, and the narrator says that he isn't when he's in London. To explain, he tells Ila how she once "invented" London for him when they were eight. Ila's father had gotten a job teaching in London, and the family soon realized that the rooms the university provided weren't big enough. Mrs. Price offered to let them stay with her.
Notice that for the narrator, not being "free" of others' inventions isn't a bad thing—in fact, he relies on others' inventions to inform his own. Because Ila never had anyone "invent" London for her, she gets to move through the city without others' thoughts impeding her own observations. However, Ila's insistence that she's free is questionable because much of the novel suggests that people cannot actually be free of anything.
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Ila and her family are living with Mrs. Price when they visit Calcutta for a holiday. Queen Victoria invites the narrator's mother to bring her family to visit the old family house in Raibajar. The narrator's mother is excited, as she never gets to take holidays. When she approaches Tha'mma to ask permission, Tha'mma sharply insists that Victoria only wants them so the narrator can entertain Ila, and they're not beggars who will take anything offered. The narrator approaches his grandmother and reminds her that his father took Ila and her family to the zoo last year, knowing that Tha'mma's greatest fear is not being able to return kindnesses tit for tat. Tha'mma relents.
Tha'mma is in charge of the household, which is an indicator of her standing within her family. Even though the narrator is a young child, he is observant of his family members and knows how to use his knowledge to his advantage. He recognizes that Tha'mma's actions are ruled by pride, which the novel as a whole suggests makes her exceptionally vulnerable to manipulation.
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Two days later, the narrator, his mother and father, and Tha'mma wait at Gole Park to meet Ila's family. The narrator, overcome with excitement at getting to see Ila, jumps and points when he sees their Studebaker. Tha'mma drily notes that the Shaheb, her "Europeanised" brother-in-law, is sitting in the backseat smoking. She wonders what uniform he's wearing, and the narrator explains his grandmother's theory that the Shaheb's wardrobe consists only of impeccable outfits, each one appropriate for a different locale where he works as a diplomat. When Mayadebi gets out of the car, the narrator notes that she and Tha'mma look like the same person reflected in a mirror.
The narrator's excitement makes it clear to the reader that as a child at least, the narrator idolizes Ila. As a well-traveled child, Ila can likely tell him stories just like Tridib does that help him learn about the world. Tha'mma's distaste for the Shaheb suggests that there's probably something else amiss with him, given how Tha'mma so fully admires those who are of a higher social standing than she is.
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Robi interrupts the narrator's story to say that the two didn't look alike at all, and in fact, he looked more like Tha'mma than anyone else in the family. The narrator explains to the reader that this isn't incorrect and meant that Robi was Tha'mma's favorite. Once, when Robi was twelve, Mayadebi sent Tha'mma an anxious letter implying that Robi got in trouble at school. Tha'mma summoned Tridib to explain the incident fully, and he said that Robi had beaten up a notorious bully. This sent Mayadebi into a panic: she feared that Robi was going to become a bully himself. Tha'mma insisted that Mayadebi should be proud of Robi and says that Mayadebi was always a bit of a fool.
Robi's actions as a child will be important to keep in mind later, as Robi turns into an adult who is very concerned with justice, morality, and following the rules. The differences that begin to emerge here between Tha'mma and Mayadebi suggest that Tha'mma has always been the leader of the two; despite Mayadebi's financial success and power, her older sister is the one who has more power and influence.
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Tha'mma told Tridib and the narrator about a quiet boy she'd gone to college with in the 1920s. One morning, a group of policemen arrived in what was, at that time, a perfectly normal raid on universities. Tridib took a moment to explain to the baffled narrator that back then, there was a terrorist movement in Bengal, and secret societies attempted to assassinate British officials. Tha'mma fiddled with her gold chain and said that an officer had picked out this quiet boy. The boy hadn't seemed afraid at all. Tha'mma tells the narrator and Tridib that she thinks that Robi would've been like that boy, had he been alive then.
Tha'mma's sense of pride in this unnamed boy suggests that she grew up harboring anti-British, pro-India sentiments. This event would've taken place before Indian independence, which means that Tha'mma would've been at the mercy of the British officials in charge of running the colony. This begins to show the child narrator that his grandmother is more than she seems—she has a history that deeply informs how she thinks about the present.
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Tridib asked what happened to the boy, and Tha'mma said she learned later that the boy had been preparing to assassinate an English magistrate and was sent to prison. Afterwards, whenever Tha'mma and Mayadebi passed the place where the boy had lived, Tha'mma told Mayadebi the boy's story, which frightened Mayadebi. Tha'mma admitted to Tridib that she used to dream of the boy and was fascinated by the terrorist movements, and she wanted to join but didn't know how. The narrator was shocked to hear that Tha'mma would've killed an Englishman, and Tha'mma had looked the narrator in the eye and said that she would've done anything to be free.
Though it is a much quieter through-line than Tridib's storytelling, Tha'mma is also a prolific storyteller. This offers another figure for the narrator to learn from, whose stories will also go on to influence how the narrator views the world and the people in it. When Tha'mma mentions being free, it suggests that she had (and possibly still has) a very strong sense of what it means to be free and of the importance of achieving freedom.
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The narrator returns to his story. He and Robi, who was a few years older, sized each other up as Tha'mma greeted the Shaheb by sniffing his face. Later, the narrator's father scolded Tha'mma for this, but she insisted he stank of alcohol at 9 A.M. The narrator's mother hadn't smelled anything, but the Shaheb had also won her heart that day: he kindly asked her questions about how easily accessible different food items in the market were. She was touched by his interest. Years later, the narrator's father discovered that the Shaheb asks this question of all women he meets in his duties as a diplomat.
The Shaheb shows that he knows how to make his very high social standing less intimidating for those lower on the social ladder than him, which suggests that Tha'mma dislikes him for reasons yet unknown.
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After the narrator's mother and the Shaheb finished talking, the narrator was worried because Ila hadn't yet arrived. He ran to Jatin, who said Ila wasn't coming but winked at the narrator's father. The narrator believed it, and when Mayadebi noticed how sad he looked, she explained to him that Ila, Queen Victoria, Tridib, and Lizzie are in another car. Finally, the other car pulls up. The narrator hides in Tha'mma's sari. Queen Victoria roars at Lizzie to fetch Ila, who's asleep in the backseat. Ila finally emerges, dressed in a white English dress and rubbing her eyes. She and the narrator eye each other.
The fact that the narrator believes Jatin (when it's very clearly a joke) provides more credence to the narrator's assertion that he was an extremely gullible child. This means that he was likely more susceptible to other people’s stories than he might've been otherwise, which offers another reason why the narrator loved and respected Tridib so much.
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Ila interrupts, saying she couldn't have been wearing that dress. Robi rolls his eyes and remarks that Ila had trunks of dresses. The narrator remembers the dress in vivid detail, down to the smell of the starch. His mother had loudly complained that the narrator had been asking about Ila for days and now won't even approach her. Queen Victoria thought this was sweet, and Ila turned away. The narrator realized that Ila didn't miss him, and he was angry with his mother for letting Ila know that she had power over the narrator. To escape, the narrator jumped into the car with Ila. She pushed him into the front seat.
When the narrator realizes that Ila doesn't care about him in the same way, it sets up the idea that Ila isn't just wealthier and worldlier than the narrator; her power exists in other ways as well. Though this seems like a reason for the narrator to give up his idolization of Ila, the fact that he continues to love her through the rest of the novel suggests that this is another way in which the narrator isn't free—his love for Ila traps him.
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The narrator fell asleep and finally woke up when they arrived at the house, which sat way up on a hill. The servants fussed over Ila for a while until she grabbed the narrator and dragged him inside to hide. She led him through a maze of hallways until she reached her target, a half-underground storage room. The narrator was scared; the room was dark and filled with murky shapes. Ila wouldn't let him return to the adults, even when they heard Queen Victoria and Lizzie yelling for them.
Ila, like Tha'mma, is the ringleader and is assured of her own power within her family and social circle. The narrator's reaction is very indicative of his youth, as well as his love of stories. This reality, which he hasn't encountered yet in stories, is absolutely terrifying.
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Ila suggested they play a game and led the narrator to a massive sheet-covered object. When they pulled the sheet off, a table huger than anything the narrator had ever seen emerged. Three years later, when he took May to see it, he learned that it didn't just seem huge because he'd been so small; even May was in awe of its size. The narrator had told May that Tridib's grandfather bought it in London in the 1890s and shipped it to Calcutta in pieces, but it was so big, he didn't know what to do with it.
The table that doesn't change in relation to the narrator’s age or maturity level—it remains just as massive and imposing as it was in his childhood, highlighting the veracity of this particular childhood memory.
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May wondered what it cost to ship it and anxiously said that one could've put roofs on all the huts they saw on the drive there for the cost of the table. The narrator hadn't known what to say to that, and May wondered why Tridib's grandfather brought back a "worthless bit of England." The narrator had found it impossible to think of the table as just another object, since he'd seen it take shape so miraculously three years before.
Remember that later in life, May becomes involved in humanitarian charities. The presence of such a massive piece of furniture that isn't even being used represents a waste of resources in her eyes. The narrator’s disappointment in May’s reaction shows that May is somewhat blind to the wonders of storytelling.
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The narrator returns to the story of his visit with Ila. Ila asked the narrator to get under the table with her to play a game she played with Nick. She explained that Nick is Mrs. Price's son, and they walk to and from school together every day. The narrator was confused and didn't want to play and instead asked about Nick. Ila explained that Nick was tall, with long yellow hair. The narrator tells the reader that Ila's admiration turned Nick into a "spectral presence" in his life: he knew that no matter what he did, Nick was always doing it better. He was always older and more mature, and all that the narrator knew about Nick was from a story the narrator’s father had told him years ago.
This is the point at which the narrator recognizes that Nick Price is his rival for Ila's affection. However, it's important to remember that Ila is a child here, and her story may or may not be entirely truthful. It's already been established that she uses her power to impress the narrator, which means that she could be exaggerating some of Nick's qualities in order to make him sound better and more impressive than he actually is—or to make the pair seem closer than they are in real life.
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The narrator's father visited Mrs. Price when Nick was thirteen. He was impressed by Nick's composure and asked Nick what he wanted to be when he grew up. Nick said he wanted to be like his grandfather, Lionel Tresawsen. Tridib later told the narrator about Lionel Tresawsen: Tridib said that he'd been a jack of all trades traveling around the world and had finally ended up in Calcutta. He married there, but he soon returned with his wife and two children to London. He'd been an avid inventor and was interested in séances. He met Tridib's grandfather, Mr. Justice Chandrashekhar Datta-Chauduri, at a séance. The narrator is in awe of Nick and Lionel Tresawsen, and he feels as though Tresawsen is much like him since he also loved to travel.
The description of Nick's composure further draws out the difference in maturity level between Nick and the narrator, which in turn makes Nick an even more revered figure in the narrator's imagination. This relationship with Nick means that the narrator once again uses stories that others tell him to influence the way that he thinks about someone. When the narrator feels close to Lionel Tresawsen because of their shared love of "travel," it shows that the narrator believes fully that his traveling in Tridib's stories is little different from physically moving from country to country.
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When the narrator took May to see the table and asked her about Nick, she said his hair wasn't truly yellow, and he wanted to be a chartered accountant and live abroad. May didn't know what a chartered accountant was, and the narrator asked if Nick wanted to travel like Lionel Tresawsen. May explained that travel means different things to different people and wondered if the narrator would like Nick. The narrator cried that he already did like Nick, but May cautioned that Nick wasn't like them and said nothing else on the subject.
May's assertion that Nick isn't like them begins to cast a shadow on Nick's character and suggests that he might not be as wonderful Ila told the narrator he was. The difference in the way May and Ila describe Nick's hair suggests that to Ila, Nick probably seems extra exotic given that her hair is likely extremely dark.
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Seventeen years later, the narrator finally meets Nick. The narrator, Ila, and Robi visit Mrs. Price, and as soon as the narrator sees Ila, he knows she has a secret. She hurries them to the tube station, where she finally says that Nick is going to meet them. It will be the first time she's seen him in ten years. Robi asks if Nick is no longer in Kuwait, and Ila explains he came home unexpectedly. When the three exit the train, the narrator knows Nick the moment he sees him standing on the platform. He's surprised to see that Nick is no taller than he is. When Ila approaches Nick, she ignores his hand and instead kisses him on the mouth. He blushes and laughs.
When Ila seems unconcerned that Nick is no longer working in Kuwait for unknown reasons, it suggests that she's willing to not ask important questions like this—and those questions will be very important to everyone else. This suggests that Ila works hard to free herself from others' stories and instead, continues to live in her own sense of reality that she carefully creates for herself, either by using or ignoring what other people say.
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Nick offers his hand to the narrator, and the narrator coyly says that this isn't the first time they've met—the narrator grew up with Nick. Nick is perplexed, and the narrator explains he's known the London streets for a long time as well. When they exit the tube station, the narrator points to the different roads in the surrounding areas, and mentions which ones were hit by bombs in World War Two. Nick is incredulous, and he walks ahead with Ila.
The fact that the narrator can navigate around London when he's never been to this part of town is a testament to Tridib's exceptional sense of place in his stories: he bestowed upon his nephew a detailed mental map that works in real life just as well as it does in the context of a story.
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Robi informs the narrator that the Germans didn't develop bombs powerful enough to destroy entire streets until after 1940. The narrator insists that Tridib told him that the street was destroyed. They argue for a moment, and then they decide to go look at the once-destroyed street. When they arrive they discover the road is quiet, residential and lined with trees. As the narrator looks up and down the road, he thinks that he didn't expect to see exactly what Tridib saw 40 years ago, but the stories that Tridib told about this street seem almost realer than the sight in front of him.
Again, the narrator looks at the street as though it's made up of layers of events, time, and stories. Tridib's stories inform how the narrator thinks about the street, even if the street now looks very different. This shows again how intensely the narrator holds onto these stories and in some cases, actively rejects trying to come to his own conclusions about places—he believes that those stories should take precedence.
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When the narrator and Robi return to Ila and Nick, Nick is rambling on about Kuwait and not feeling pressure to get another job. Nick notices the narrator, and asks him to lead them to 44 Lymington Road, since he seems to know the streets. The narrator agrees and leads them there in mere minutes. The cherry tree outside is taller than the narrator expected, and old Mrs. Price comes out of the house to greet her guests. Nick mentions how the narrator knew how to get to the house, and the narrator, embarrassed, explains he's just heard a lot about it.
The mention that the cherry tree is taller suggests that the narrator likely didn't account for the fact that it's been decades since Tridib last saw the tree—it's certainly grown since then. This indicates that in some cases, the narrator isn't very adept at bringing Tridib's stories into the present and acknowledging that places do change over time, even if the stories about them remain true and important.
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Mrs. Price offers the narrator a drink, but he's too engrossed in looking around the room that Tridib had once shown him pictures of. The pictures were taken mostly by the Shaheb in 1939, and they were taken on an evening that Mrs. Price invited her brother Alan and his three roommates to come for tea. The narrator remembers how, when Tridib had shown the photographs to May, she'd remarked that the camera looked at people differently back then.
Here, the storytelling structure (stepping out of the narrative to describe these photographs) reinforces how the narrator sees the world: it doesn't exist in a linear, neat way for him. Instead, the world is made up of these fragmented memories, layered on top of each other, that provide a greater sense of nuance when considered all together.
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In one photo, Snipe stands with a pit he dug that was supposed to be the start of a bomb shelter. Dan stands to the right—he'd been a fascinating figure for the young Tridib. He worked at a leftist newspaper, and Tridib's questions about the paper were embarrassing and, according to Mrs. Price, "difficult." Mike lies stretched out in front of Snipe and Dan. He hadn't liked the Shaheb. Alan Tresawsen had rescued the Shaheb from an uncomfortably racist encounter with Mike, and he stands in the middle of the photograph.
The mention of racism playing out in 1939 suggests that none of the times the narrator discusses are times free of racism—it plagues Tridib's family throughout his life and even at this point, when Mrs. Price is showing her Indian guests such kindness, others feel very differently about their role in the world.
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One of Alan's arms is mostly metal, and Mrs. Price never believed his story that he injured it in a motorcycle accident. She'd received a letter from France, signed by a possibly German and Jewish woman, Francesca, informing her of Alan's injury. When Alan finally returned to England, he was evidently unwell and unwilling to tell his sister how he became injured. In the photo, Francesca stands between Dan and Alan, dressed in black and looking unbelievably elegant. Mrs. Price and Mayadebi stand on the edge. Mrs. Price never liked Francesca, and struggled to figure out which of the three men she was officially partnered with, as it was never clear.
Mrs. Price's discomfort with her brother's living situation suggests that she relies on clear and neat delineations to make sense of the world—both on this micro scale of individual relationships, as well as on a global scale. This adds to the novel's exploration of what borders mean and what they do. It suggests here that the lack of clarity is only a problem for Mrs. Price, an outside observer, which indicates that "insiders" don't always need borders to shape their identities.
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In another photo, taken in the drawing room, Francesca, Dan, and Mike sit in an armchair, laughing. Alan stands behind the chair in between Mayadebi and Mrs. Price, who's holding the infant May. Alan looks down with a smile at Mayadebi. As the Shaheb took the photo, the two had been talking about how surprisingly friendly England was becoming in the lead-up to the war. Alan had remarked that Germany was evolving in much the same way, and mentioned that going from one country to the other was like stepping through a looking glass.
By using the motif of the looking glass, the novel begins to show instances in which two seemingly opposite entities (first Tha'mma and Mayadebi, now England and Germany) are actually not all that different from each other—and despite their issues with one another, they're much the same at heart. This is another suggestion that clear delineations don't do much, given that things look similar on both sides.
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Tridib carried one more image with him that wasn't captured in a photograph: he watched the four friends walk off into the twilight together towards their house on Brick Lane. He understood that he knew nothing of the house where they lived, and he wondered what kind of small arguments played out in that house. The Nazi-Soviet pact would be signed a week later, and Tridib wondered if the petty arguments or the threat of the war was more real to them. He believes that the four of them knew that the world as they knew it wouldn't survive the war.
The push and pull here between everyday life and the looming war suggests that it's a matter of perspective as to which seems more important. It's also worth noting that the war (since it's implied the friends don't survive) destroys this small group with no clear delineations, showing that drawing borders is more powerful than existing without.
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Back in Mrs. Price's living room, Nick jokes with the narrator and asks if he can find his way around the house, too. The narrator thinks for a moment and then describes how to get to the kitchen and the cellar. Ila laughs in disbelief, and the narrator tells the reader that Ila was the one who showed him the house in the first place, under the giant table in Raijabar. After she and the narrator crawled under the table, she drew lines in the dust for the road, front door, hallway, and other rooms. She explained that she and Nick play Houses down in the cellar, since Houses must be played somewhere dark and secret.
Here, the narrator shows that he also uses Ila's stories in order to add layers of meaning to his lived reality—and further, that her maps were equally as effective as Tridib's, given how the narrator can use them here. Again though, the fact that Ila doesn't remember playing this game with the narrator suggests that she doesn't need to remember things like this in order to make sense of the world.
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As Ila drew the lines, the narrator suddenly became angry. The lines didn't make sense, even though Ila insisted they could pretend it was a house if they wanted to. Finally, the narrator insisted that they needed to have a veranda for it to be a real house. He pushed Ila and drew a veranda, and Ila looked ready to cry. She explained that where the narrator drew the veranda was supposed to be Magda's room. Magda is her doll, but she insists that Magda is a baby for the purposes of the game, since houses need babies.
When the narrator insists on needing a veranda, it's indicative of the fact that the narrator hasn't actually traveled—per what he explains, Indian homes overwhelmingly have verandas, while they're not as common elsewhere. This suggests that Ila's method of seeing the world firsthand lets her acknowledge these other realities.
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Ila told the narrator that first, they have to get out of bed and change clothes for the day. She pulled her dress off and stood in just her underwear. The narrator reached out to touch her skin, even when she seemed not to want him to, and became fascinated by a tiny black bump above one of her nipples. He rolled it around in his fingers and tried to taste it, but Ila slapped him away and told him to "go to work" until she told him to come back. The narrator agreed and when he was allowed to return to the house, Ila was "outside."
Though the narrator's fascination with Ila's body is likely due to his romantic love for her, it's telling that he doesn't listen to her the first time when she asks him to stop—it suggests that the narrator doesn't always acknowledge other people’s autonomy. This mirrors other instances of disrespected borders in the novel, which often lead to violence.
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Ila began to tell the narrator what happened to Magda at school: the children stared at Magda because she was the most beautiful blonde child they'd ever seen, and everyone wanted to be friends with her. One girl, Denise, hated Magda. Denise was big and ugly, and she felt threatened by Magda's power over the other children. Today, Denise had made a mistake at the chalkboard, and Magda had been called on to correct it. The teacher suggested that Denise take language lessons from Magda. Denise had quietly called Magda a “wog.”
It's worth noting the inconsistencies in Ila's story, as it suggests that it's not a figment of her imagination: "wog" is a slur used against Indian people, and it makes little sense in this situation for Denise to use it in reference to a blonde girl. This suggests that this "story" might have actually happened to Ila. She begins to process what happened by telling it here, and makes it easier to deal with by using her doll as a stand-in for herself.
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After school, Magda decided to take a different route home to escape Denise. However, she soon heard Denise yelling slurs at her, and Magda ran to escape. Suddenly, Magda felt someone push her, and she crashed into the pavement. Denise punched Magda. Magda closed her eyes in defeat, but heard the voice of Nick Price pulling Denise off of her. Nick had led Magda home, and the narrator says that he always saw Nick as a savior because of this story. Ila, however, burst into tears when she finished her story.
Given the inconsistencies in the story, it's questionable whether or not Nick actually helped Ila—especially given that she's clearly very upset about what happened. This suggests that as worldly and sophisticated as Ila is, she is not free from being identified as Indian, and nor is she exempt from racist attacks.
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Three years later, after the narrator told May the story, she gently explained that Nick hadn't helped Ila at all, and in fact, he didn't even want to be seen with her. A policeman had brought Ila home, and Ila refused to tell anyone what happened. The narrator imagines Ila walking home alone in a London drizzle, when in Calcutta she never has to even walk anywhere, let alone walk by herself. May implored the narrator to not think too badly of Nick, as he was just a child.
The fact that Ila altered the story to paint Nick in a better light suggests that she idolizes him, much as the narrator idolizes Ila. In both cases, the one doing the idolizing forgives their idol for their poor behavior. This is indicative at this point of both the narrator and Ila's youth.
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Years later, when he's home on summer break from college in Delhi, the narrator tells Tha'mma this story. Tha'mma is very ill at this point, though nobody knows that she's going to die from this illness. Tha'mma declares that getting beaten up was Ila's fault, as she had no right to be in England in the first place. Tha'mma won't drop the subject and between racking coughs, she insists that Ila still has no right to be there (Ila is at college in London). Tha'mma insists that the English drew their borders with blood through years and years of wars, and that's what makes a country. She tells the narrator that he has to do the same for India.
Tha'mma believes in the power of war to establish borders that actually mean something—and notably, she sees the violence as necessary to put those borders in place. When she dismisses Ila's time in England, it shows that she believes that those borders shouldn't allow anyone in and out—it seems that she wants different countries to have little or nothing to do with each other. Remember that Tha'mma lived through British rule, which makes this view more understandable.
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The narrator's heart fills with a mixture of love and pity for Tha'mma. Later, when he told Ila about what Tha'mma said, she said something about her being a "warmongering fascist," and the narrator repeated something that Tridib had said: Tha'mma just wanted a middle-class life that allowed her to believe in the power of nationhood.
Tridib's wisdom implies that there's freedom in having enough financial power to support oneself and by extension, believe in the power of one's government—something that Tridib implies the lower classes don't have, and the upper classes don't care about (since they can travel more freely).
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The next morning, when the narrator returns to Tha'mma's side, Tha'mma insists that Ila is in England because she's greedy. The narrator reminds Tha'mma that Ila is far wealthier in India than she'll ever be in England, but Tha'mma persists and calls Ila a "greedy little slut." She asks the narrator to explain why he's defending Ila, and in his anger, the narrator tells Tha'mma why Ila lives in England.
The fact that Tha'mma is so intent on talking this way implies that there's more to it than the belief that Ila is greedy and doesn't belong in England. Ila's "greed," however, could be seen as an affront to Tha'mma's pride. Tha'mma is self-made, and may see Ila as fettering away her privilege like Tridib did.
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The summer before, Ila arranged an impromptu trip to Calcutta at a time when both the narrator and Robi had been home. Upon the narrator's return home, his mother fed him lunch and Tha'mma drily told her to not worry about dinner—the narrator, she declared, won't be home for it, since Ila is in town. As Tha'mma predicted, the narrator went to see Ila that afternoon. Ila insisted she visited because she wanted to take advantage of her school holiday. The narrator watched her sprawled in an armchair, dressed exotically in jeans and a tee shirt, her stomach exposed where her shirt rode up. The narrator rolled onto his stomach to hide his erection and hopefully preserve their friendship.
When Ila demonstrates that she can arrange a trip to India so quickly, it's an indicator of her family's wealth and standing, something that Ila isn't even aware is special or different. To that effect, the narrator's preoccupation with Ila's "exotic" clothes suggests that he's as much in love with her worldliness as he is with any other aspect of her or her personality. When the narrator tries so hard to preserve his friendship with Ila but seems unable to squash his romantic feelings, it indicates that she still very much controls him.
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A few days later, Robi, the narrator, and Ila spent a hot afternoon in Ila's room. Once the sun set, she insisted they go out to the nightclub at the Grand Hotel. Robi was scandalized by the idea of drinking in public, which Ila scorned—the narrator explains that her morals were absolute, and she didn't take context into her judgments. For Robi, drinking at school on occasion was acceptable, but drinking in public was not.
The insistence that Ila doesn't consider context is an indicator that she doesn't necessarily see borders as doing much, given that she presumably behaves the same no matter where in the world she is, societal norms aside. This suggests that even as an adult, Ila is still somewhat childlike—thinking in absolutes like this is often construed as childish and naïve.
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Robi became a leader in college because he viewed the world simply and followed the rules to the letter. Once, he flat out refused to attend student union meetings in regards to a student strike over something petty, and his standing among the student body meant that the entire strike was called off. Later, when the narrator asked Robi about the event, Robi wouldn't say much. Eventually, the narrator understood that Robi had an intuitive sense of right and wrong that kept him following the rules, and this made others admire and fear him.
While Robi's morals make him a leader, it's worth noting that Ila never truly becomes a leader (later, the narrator observes that she's a mere observer among her Trotskyist roommates). This suggests that having a moral compass and a sense of context are far more successful (and mature) ways to lead than being so set in one's ways, as Ila is.
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Ila finally managed to convince Robi to go. She led Robi and the narrator to the hotel, and the receptionist showed them to the nightclub. The room was dark and cavernous, and Ila bullied Robi into entering. A waiter led them to their table with a flashlight, and Ila giggled at the band. Robi angrily ordered them beers and asked Ila if her Trotskyite friends know that she spends her holidays like this, and Ila insisted they don't care since they're not joyless like Robi. This made Robi even angrier.
Robi's insistence on not going suggests that this is something entirely outside the norm of acceptability in upper-middle class Indian culture—something that Ila, with her scorn for context, simply doesn't understand. This suggests at this point that Robi believes in borders and difference.
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The female performer stepped out and began flirting with a nearby table of middle-aged businessmen. Robi growled that he'd punch the performer if she came close, but fortunately, the woman stepped to the middle of the dance floor and invited the room to find a stranger to dance with. Ila excitedly tried to get either the narrator or Robi to dance with her, but the narrator was too shy and Robi was too angry. He insisted that he wasn't going to let Ila dance at all, which perplexed and then angered Ila. She huffed out of her chair and approached one of the businessmen.
Here, Ila's actions are very western—in India, she would normally be required to defer to someone like Robi. However, that kind of social structure is little more than a story to Ila, given that she grew up with so much power and influence. Her reality, in which she has the power to do what she wants, is far more compelling than Robi's reality of rules and norms is.
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When the businessman agreed to dance, Robi got up, snatched Ila by her blouse, and pushed the businessman back. He paid a waiter and the wait staff ushered the narrator, Ila, and Robi out of the club. They walked a short way and then Ila angrily turned on Robi. Very calmly, Robi explained to her that "girls don't behave like that here." He said that she can do what she wants in England, but not in India. She pushed the narrator away and hailed a taxi. As she got in, she shouted that she lives in England so she can be free of oppressive Indian culture. The narrator ran with the taxi for a minute and shouted back that Ila can never be free of him, as they're both inside each other.
When the narrator makes this exchange personal and makes it about his relationship with Ila, it suggests that he sees himself as representing India in a way—a reading that makes Ila's lack of regard for the narrator make more sense, given how little she thinks of India. The narrator does recognize, however, that he lives with Ila's stories and memories inside of him, and he implies that Ila must do the same. Given how much Ila lives in the present and how little she thinks of stories, this likely isn't true for her.
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After the narrator tells Tha'mma this, he knows he made a mistake: she doesn't think much of freedom that can be purchased with a plane ticket. Tha'mma spits that Ila can live like a whore in England, but that's not real freedom. The narrator goes to his room and remembers Ila's angry face. He thinks that everyone but him wants to be free, and he wonders if he's the only one who relies entirely on the voices inside of him.
For Tha'mma, freedom comes after war and bloodshed draw a line in the sand (as happened during Partition), and it's not something that one can achieve with a plane ticket. This again shows the major differences between Tha'mma and Ila: Tha'mma relies on borders, while Ila ignores them.
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The narrator goes to Tha'mma the next morning. She now has a nurse and refuses to speak to her grandson. When Tha'mma attempts to throw a bedpan at the nurse, the nurse asks the narrator to leave. As he retreats, he hears Tha'mma ask why he always defends "that whore" Ila. Tha'mma's condition worsens over the next few days, and she continues to ask the narrator about Ila and call her a whore whenever he visits. By the end of the narrator's holidays, she finally begins to improve, and he decides to return to Delhi to sit his examinations. When he says goodbye to Tha'mma, she pulls his head to her chest to bless him and again asks why he let Ila trap him, and says that she knows he sees prostitutes in Delhi.
Interestingly, Tha'mma seems very aware that the narrator is in love with Ila and is therefore under her spell. This casts her assertion that he must draw bloody borders for India in a different light, as it suggests that she'd like to see him draw boundaries between himself and Ila as well. Tha'mma's mention of prostitutes suggests that she believes she also has a great deal of power over the narrator, as it reads very much like a threat in this situation.
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The narrator's parents write often for the next two months, and then the letters stop for a week right before his examinations. Finally, he receives a letter saying that Tha'mma died and has already been cremated. The narrator wanders around Delhi in grief, but he thinks it's fitting that he learned about her death in this way. He reasons that she was too passionate to exist in his world, where exams are apparently more important than death.
The strange relationship between Tha'mma's youthful desire to climb the social ladder and the narrator's life at a much higher rung suggests that social standing isn't all it's cracked up to be. Tha'mma, ultimately, couldn't exist in the narrator's world, as it's a mental world, not the bloody world she came of age in.
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Several days later, the dean summons the narrator and informs him that Tha'mma wrote to say that the narrator has been seeing prostitutes, and the school is going to expel him for bad behavior. The narrator asks to see the letter and is shocked to see that Tha'mma wrote it the day before she died. He manages to explain to the dean that Tha'mma was very ill and denies he's ever seen prostitutes. As he leaves the office, he wonders how Tha'mma ever found out that he had actually gone several times with friends to visit prostitutes, and he wonders how she also knew that he was in love with Ila.
Tha'mma's attempt to punish the narrator by denying him his successes is an underhanded attempt to punish him for loving Ila, given that Ila represents everything that Tha'mma despises and doesn't understand about the modern world. This shows that Tha'mma's nationalistic pride is even more powerful than her love for her family and her desire to see them be successful, especially in her old age.
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When the narrator lives in London for the first time, he finally has to face the truth of his affections for Ila. A tune from a Hindi movie gets stuck in his head, and he hums it as he wanders around the city, inevitably finding himself in Ila's neighborhood. At this point, he decides to drop in and visit her. He counts the yards, feet, and miles as he walks to drown out the tune. He muses that love is the thing that people try the hardest to quantify by buying expensive diamonds, cars, or islands for women. Despite this, the narrator's love for Ila, quantified by the miles he walks to see her, means nothing to her.
Here, the narrator uses the quest to "quantify" love through spending money on a lover as a way to try to tell himself a story that makes sense about his strange and inappropriate love for his cousin. He hopes that by applying this kind of a story to it, the story will provide some other layer of meaning that will make it okay. Ila, however, still has the upper hand, as evidenced by his assertion that his quantified love doesn't move her in the least.
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Ila lives with young liberal activists who argue quietly and seriously about small things. The narrator soon realizes that though they all seem to like Ila, they see her as a guest or as decoration in their house. He often finds Nick at Ila's house, and Nick strangely fits in with Ila's housemates. He sometimes proofs pamphlets for them. When he attends demonstrations, he often deals with police because he looks so upstanding in a suit.
It's worth noting that both Ila and Nick would likely experience some major negative changes if the Trotskyists' dreams come true: the Trotskyists seek to destroy the class system, and in doing so, the wealthy Price and Datta-Chaudhuri families would absolutely pay the price for that.
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One evening, Ila makes a face at the narrator's shabby clothes and insists on taking him to Brick Lane to buy new clothes, where the shops are run by Indians and Bangladeshis. The narrator quickly composes his face and agrees to meet Ila at lunchtime two days later. At the appointed meeting time, the narrator is late. He arrives at the pub and wishes that he could hide and watch Ila and Nick, who are sitting together at a table, as to maybe understand their relationship.
Brick Lane is where Alan Tresawsen lived in a communal house. The fact that the neighborhood is now an Indian one illustrates how drastically places can change over time, though it still doesn't diminish the power of Tridib's stories about the place from forty years ago. The narrator will surely still see the lane as Tridib saw it.
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Ila has no interest in hearing the narrator's explanation for his lateness, and explains that Nick wants to come along since he's interested in the import-export business. Nick chats about his plans for a few minutes until Ila decides it's time to head to Brick Lane. When they arrive, the narrator is shocked: he expected to see redbrick houses lining a narrow street, but instead, the street looks like Bangladesh was dropped in the middle of London. Familiar-looking Bangladeshi shops exist in Victorian London houses.
The existence of this Bangladeshi neighborhood in the middle of London indicates that borders aren't always effective, given that the narrator observes that an entire country appears to just exist within an entirely different one. This suggests that borders aren't even always clear-cut or well defined, as evidenced by the implication that this street is fairly separate from the rest of the surrounding neighborhoods.
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Nick points at a mosque and explains it was a synagogue when the area was Jewish before the war. The narrator adds that that's when Nick's uncle, Alan Tresawsen, lived on the street, and offers to show Nick and Ila where Alan lived. He leads them to a quiet part of Brick Lane and finally, points at a crumbling building with a sign that reads "Taj Travel Agency." Nick doesn't believe his uncle would've lived someplace like this, since he was wealthy enough to live wherever he wanted. The narrator bites his tongue and doesn't suggest that Alan did live here because he wanted to.
Nick's amazement that his uncle lived in a neighborhood like this creates the sense that more than anyone else, Nick is caught up in appearing upper class—and further, expects that his ancestors to be similarly committed to keeping up with that appearance. This story challenges his preconceptions about his uncle, which again shows the power stories have to alter the reality that a person experiences in the present.
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The narrator imagines which bedroom belonged to Dan, who was upstairs because he couldn't sleep on the fateful night in 1940. Everyone else was asleep downstairs in case bombs dropped. Dan heard the bombs falling, but London didn't yet know how to tell if the bombs were close—and they were. A bomb dropped on the sidewalk outside, shattering the window and killing Dan. The stairs collapsed on the others. Alan threw himself over Francesca, saving her and sacrificing himself, and Mike survived. Francesca was sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Wight, and Mike joined the navy and died in 1943. Tridib went with Mrs. Price and Mayadebi to collect Alan's things a few days after he died, and he found a photo of the four friends, laughing in the park.
In killing all four of these friends, the violence of World War II made it abundantly clear that their kind of communal living, without clear delineations between sex or nationality (Francesca was a German Jew), has no place in the hostile world that the war tried to create. The photograph stands as a testament to their friendship and the fact that they could exist in happy solidarity, if only for a finite amount of time.
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When the narrator finishes telling Ila and Nick this, Ila comments that they must've been happy in the house, since she lives in exactly the same way in her house. The narrator marvels that Ila believes that her experience is exactly the same as other, earlier experiences, just because they look somewhat alike. He snaps at her and insists that it wasn't idyllic then, with the Nazi-Soviet pact, and they probably fought about it. Ila laughs that fighting is half the fun of living in a house like that, and insists that the narrator wouldn't understand it. She says that the narrator spent his entire life in middle-class Delhi and Calcutta, while she lived and lives in London in the middle of political movements. Ila insists that Alan knew he was a part of important events, and that nothing important ever happened in Calcutta or Delhi.
At this point sometime in the 1980s, England was struggling with major conservative movements. While these were important in shaping England, the narrator definitely has a point that the climate and experience in London in the 1980s versus during World War II is entirely different. Again, Ila doesn't believe in context, which allows her to feel this way. Her disbelief in context is also what allows her to say that nothing important happens in India—as the reader will learn later, the narrator himself experienced a number of extremely important events throughout his childhood in India.
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The narrator is flabbergasted. Ila notes that Calcutta experienced riots and famine but not on a scale that affects the whole world or is remembered. The narrator shouts that unlike her, he understands that politics are serious, but she retorts that he knows nothing about England. He gives up but thinks that he knows people who survived the "Great Terror" in the 1960s and 1970s, which Ila doesn't understand. He reasons that Ila might know more than he gives her credit for, since she does take on violent racists in London.
What Ila really points to here is the fact that when western powers are in charge, they're the ones who control which stories get told—which means, by extension, that Ila's not wrong that plenty of people in Europe aren't as aware of what's going on in India as they are of what's happening in their backyards. This does not, however, mean that things that happen in India are less important or traumatic—they're just not talked about as widely.
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The entire argument bores Nick, so he leads Ila and the narrator into the travel agency. The agent isn't at all friendly, insists they speak English, and begins shouting when the narrator asks if there was ever a staircase in the building. Nick, Ila, and the narrator leave. Nick comments on the success of the business, and thinks out loud about getting into the "futures market." Annoyed, the narrator suggests Nick get a job first, and Nick explains he can't in England since the salary is too low. When the narrator asks why he gave up his job in Kuwait, Nick insists that it wasn't professional enough. The narrator is skeptical. Ila angrily leads Nick away. She runs back to the narrator and tells him to call before he visits her again.
Nick takes advantage of the fact that his family is wealthy, which in turn affords him the privilege of being able to dabble, dream, and not have to hold down a real job. Ila's anger when the narrator takes offense to this shows that she still idolizes Nick like she did as a child, even if he isn't perfect in the flesh. When the agent insists on speaking English, it suggests that even though he lives in a Bengali neighborhood, it's still very important to him to appear to be English and fit in.
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The narrator doesn't see Ila for two weeks. Mrs. Price invites both Ila and the narrator for Christmas Eve dinner with her, May, and Nick. Ila is late, and when she arrives, she asks the narrator why he hasn't visited her. When they all sit down, Ila announces she got a job with the Save the Children Fund, and they toast to her and to their grandfathers Lionel Tresawsen and Mr. Justice Chandrashekhar Datta-Chaudhuri. After the toast, Nick slurs about how wonderful his grandfather's life was, traveling the world, and laments that all he got was a horrible job in Kuwait.
Nick's sense of entitlement is glaring here—he seems to believe that he deserves a life just as exciting as his grandfather's, when Tridib told the narrator that Lionel Tresawsen absolutely worked hard for everything he had. This places Nick and Ila on similar footing in their respective families, given that Ila also scorns her family's wealth by getting involved with the Trotskyists.
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May lightly suggests that Lionel Tresawsen would've made more of Kuwait. When Nick insists that Kuwait is a horrible place, May coolly says that Nick needs to stop lying and admit that his boss didn't like him and, possibly rightfully, accused him of embezzling money. Nick stands up, calls May a bitch, and goes to his room. Mrs. Price is asleep in her chair. A half hour later, Ila fetches Nick, they wake up Mrs. Price, and May carves the turkey. Dinner is mostly silent and awkward, and the narrator decides to leave as soon as he finishes his after-dinner brandy. May catches him in the hall and suggests that the blizzard is too bad for anyone to leave. She pleads with her eyes for the narrator to stay so she can stay too, and he agrees.
Nick's behavior is extremely childish here, which provides more evidence for the possibility that neither he nor Ila have matured significantly. May's silent pleading with the narrator to stay suggests that there's more to their relationship than what meets the eye, given that they shared a strong relationship with Tridib. When the narrator agrees to stay, it implies that he cares for May—though it's also worth noting that he's also excited to spend the night in the same space as Ila.
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Mrs. Price heads for bed as May and Nick settle Ila and the narrator on camp beds in the cellar. The narrator's heart bursts with hope. When May and Nick leave, Ila laughs that she and the narrator are back where they began, playing Houses. The narrator stares as Ila undresses, wrapping herself in a towel. He thinks she looks more beautiful than any woman he's ever seen, and he creeps up behind her and puts a hand on her shoulder.
The narrator still very much feels as though Ila's acceptance or dismissal of him is an intrinsic part of his identity—if she accepts him as a lover, it'll mean that all the stories he's been telling himself about her finally match up with reality, even if such a situation would mean that they're flouting boundaries.
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Ila laughs, turns around, and stops in her tracks when she sees the look on the narrator's face. She runs into his arms and hugs him. He realizes he's crying, and Ila apologizes for undressing in front of him. She insists she wouldn't have had she known the narrator's feelings. Ila kisses the narrator on the chin and runs upstairs to talk with Nick. The narrator lays in the dark and ruminates on that day that Ila stepped out of the car in Gole Park, when it was made clear to everyone that their need for each other would never be equal. She doesn't come back to the cellar, and the narrator feels as though Ila took his life hostage again.
When Ila doesn't return, it's clear that she spent the night with Nick instead—something that she surely knew wouldn't go over well with the narrator, and suggests that she has little reason to care for or think about his emotions in this situation. When the narrator feels exactly the same way now as he did as an eight-year-old, it illustrates how childhood and adulthood are constantly informing each other.
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