The Shadow Lines

by

Amitav Ghosh

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The Shadow Lines: 2. Coming Home Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Tha'mma retires in 1962, when the narrator is ten years old. She'd taught at a girls' school since 1936 and had been the headmistress for the last six years. The school stages a farewell ceremony on Tha'mma's last day, which the narrator and his parents attend. The students give Tha'mma a lamp that looks like the Taj Mahal as a gift, and Tha'mma and the girls cry as she accepts it. The narrator is shocked and jealous to realize that these girls love his grandmother too.
Here, the novel jumps two decades into the past. Tha'mma's professional trajectory at the girls' school shows that she worked very hard to get where she is and make a better life for herself and her family, which in turn makes her even more prideful that she was able to do that at all.
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The school prepares a special meal for them after the ceremony, tying in Tha'mma's initiative to teach the girls to cook foods from around the country. As the girls bring different dishes in, Tha'mma comments on each girl and her food. However, Tha'mma calls the overweight girl who made Punjabi food "plump and juicy," and the poor girl runs out of the room in tears.
Tha'mma's food initiative recalls her statement to the narrator that a bloody war will dissolve local differences—this tries to make India seem and feel more cohesive, even though it remains differentiated by regional and ethnic groups.
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At first, Tha'mma is happy in retirement. However, after only a few days, the narrator overhears his mother complaining that Tha'mma is nagging about her housekeeping, which is something she'd never done before. One afternoon, the narrator and Montu notice on their way home from school that there's a man in a turban in Tha'mma's room, an unprecedented event. The narrator runs home and bursts into Tha'mma's room. She's sitting with her head wrapped in a wet sari, and the narrator backs away, speechless. His mother explains that Tha'mma is beginning a course of treatment because she believes she's going bald, and she bursts out laughing.
Tha'mma's first few months in retirement are very much a coming of age experience for her: she has to figure out how to exist in this new phase of life, just as a child learns how to become an adult. When the narrator's mother laughs at Tha'mma's treatment, it suggests that there are personality differences between them that the narrator hasn't yet mentioned. This again shows that the narrator isn't entirely reliable, and the reader isn't getting the full picture.
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Tha'mma's interest in treatments like this is short-lived, and she soon takes to visiting her school. Finally, the new headmistress phones the narrator's father to ask him to not allow Tha'mma to come to the school anymore. She begins spending time alone, and the narrator understands that she has time to waste for the first time in her life. After a few weeks, she begins spending time with the rest of the family, but the narrator notices that she doesn't seem to care much about their lives anymore. He combats this by asking for help with his homework, and he often acts out or makes silly mistakes to keep her attention.
This freedom of time directly challenges Tha'mma's understanding of her own identity, as the narrator noted that she spent most of her life railing against free time and frivolity. Especially when she's banned from visiting the school, Tha'mma must truly find out how define herself as something other than as a teacher or as a headmistress.
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A few months later, the narrator's father is suddenly promoted. Tha'mma, uncharacteristically, doesn't seem to care much. Soon after, the family moves to a big house opposite the lake. The house is a wonderland for the narrator, and though he does his best to show Tha'mma around the house, she spends most of her time alone in her big room. The narrator's mother becomes the true leader of the household.
The switch in power from Tha'mma to the narrator's mother suggests that Tha'mma's identity change in her old age may be a growing down of sorts, given that she's now giving up her power and status. This would also lead to a renewal of youthful beliefs.
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One night, the narrator throws his schoolbooks and asks Tha'mma why she looks so distracted. She explains that the house is very different from the house that she and Mayadebi grew up in. Over the next few months, Tha'mma tells the narrator about her childhood home in Dhaka. It was a strange house with many additions, and so many relatives lived there it became impossible to keep track of them all. When Tha’mma was little, her part of the family ate with her uncle Jethamoshai’s family. Her grandfather was terrifying, and after his death, Jethamoshai attempted to take his place as the patriarch.
The fact that Tha'mma is beginning to mentally go back in time to her childhood provides more evidence that she's going to regress in age and maturity in some ways. It's important to note that Tha'mma is an excellent storyteller, and the narrator uses Tha'mma's stories just like he uses Tridib's to inform his understanding and perception of reality.
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Jethamoshai was known for losing his temper, though the children felt relatively safe given that he was never strong enough to truly hurt them and often bought them sweets in the aftermath. Tha'mma's mother, however, didn't understand this, and it began a feud between her family and Jethamoshai's. As the feud escalated, Tha'mma was tasked with carrying notes on legal stationary between her father and Jethamoshai, who were both lawyers.
It's worth noting that the small-scale events of this one house very much mirror the larger-scale events of Partition: violence and suspicion escalated, even though there had once been harmony between the different groups in British India. The only way to "fix" the problem was to create a border.
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Eventually, Jethamoshai and Tha'mma's father decided to divide the house in half with a wall. The wall went through the house in strange places, including through lavatories and doorways. After the division, a strange silence gripped the house. Later in life, Tha'mma became nervous when people mentioned being like brothers, as in her understanding, brothers were dangerous. Despite the feud, Tha'mma's mother and aunt supported each other in silent ways. Her aunt helped arrange Mayadebi's marriage to the Shaheb, though the women never spoke of it.
Again, this wall through the house mirrors the lines drawn during Partition, which were also drawn in seemingly strange places given the ethnic and religious makeup of the regions that were divided. Notice that the lack of speech between the two sides is very much what kept the feud going: this suggests that stories and speech are possibly a way to combat anger and violence and potentially, to bridge the gap.
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Tha'mma married four years before Mayadebi, and spent her early-married years traveling through railway colonies for her husband's work. She had the narrator's father in 1925 and took him yearly to visit family in Dhaka. Eventually, only Tha’mma’s parents, aunt, and Jethamoshai lived in the house, but their bitterness persisted. In 1931, Tha’mma’s parents died, and she went back after that only to make sure her inherited part of the house was still there. When her husband died four years later, Tha'mma got a job as a teacher and moved to Calcutta. She had no reason to go back to Dhaka, and good reasons not to go when Dhaka became the capital of East Pakistan in 1947.
Tha'mma is telling this story to the narrator, and the way that she glosses over Partition is telling: it suggests that even though she desperately wanted freedom from British rule as a young woman, by the time it happened, she was busy with life, and it simply didn't mean much for her anymore. This implies that Tha'mma will at some point have to come to terms with Partition, especially since her place of birth is, after 1947, part of East Pakistan.
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Tha'mma smiles at the narrator and admits that there's one regret she has about Dhaka: she never got to see the upside-down house. She explains that she told Mayadebi that on Jethamoshai's side of the house, everything was upside down and backwards. She remarks that strangely, she almost began to believe the story. She and Mayadebi laughed about it even into adulthood, especially since it seemed like it might've been a better place than their own side.
The upside-down house mirrors the way that the narrator thinks about faraway lands: he's never been there and thus, Tridib can tell him anything and he'll believe it. Because Tha'mma never had actual experiences in Jethamoshai's side of the house, it remained a fantastical story.
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When winter sets in, Tha'mma begins going with the narrator to the park when he plays cricket. She walks around and chats with her friends while he plays, and soon begins staying out late. At dinner, she often tells the narrator's father that she and her friends chat about the past. Most of her friends came across the border during or before Partition, so she talks about Dhaka often.
Tha'mma's friends evidently experienced Partition firsthand; this implies that some of them probably took the trains from East Pakistan to India in the aftermath. Again, this illustrates that because Tha'mma didn't experience this herself, it doesn't feel truly real for her—while Dhaka does.
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One evening, the narrator's father comes home extremely tired. His mother insists upon complete silence in the household, makes a cup of tea, and sits with her husband. Suddenly, Tha'mma bursts into the house and exclaims that she ran into a friend in the park who was once a neighbor in Dhaka, and this friend claims that one of Jethamoshai's sons is in Calcutta. The narrator's parents aren't sure what to do with this information, and Tha'mma says with an annoyed expression that she and her cousin might be able to patch up the animosity of their parents. She asks that the car be ready on Sunday.
The desire to fix what happened in the past shows Tha'mma returning to her childhood memories and, essentially, bringing them back up to challenge how real they actually are. Given what she told herself about the upside-down house, it's yet to be seen what she believes now about her family that she hasn't seen in decades.
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The narrator's mother is flabbergasted: though she places a great deal of importance on maintaining family connections, Tha'mma has always been wary of relatives and even pushed them all away after her husband died. Later, the narrator's mother insists that something else must be up, given this onrush of unprecedented familial loyalty.
Tha'mma turned herself into an island in her adult life, maintaining strict boundaries with family members. Her new desire to dissolve those boundaries suggests that there will be violence ahead, given how the novel ties boundaries to violence.
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On Sunday, Tha'mma's friend's maidservant, Mrinmoyee, arrives to lead Tha'mma and the narrator's father to Tha'mma's cousin, but she shares that the cousin is dead. Tha'mma is shocked, but she decides to go anyway and meet his wife. The narrator, his parents, Tha'mma, and Mrinmoyee get in the car and drive out past the edge of town, where there are shanties and concrete houses. Tha'mma remarks that the shanties are refugees’ fault. When the narrator's father notes that they were refugees once, Tha'mma snaps that they came before Partition and therefore aren't refugees.
Tha'mma evidently takes great pride in not being a refugee and sees herself as superior for escaping that life. The fact that she looks down on Indian refugees from Pakistan suggests that her desire for freedom and the border is complicated, given that she seems to not believe that people should be able to live in the country that aligns most closely with their religious identity (India and Pakistan were divided along religious lines).
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Mrinmoyee points out a concrete house. The narrator's father decides to stay with the car and tries to make the narrator stay, but he slips out and follows Tha'mma. When Mrinmoyee gets to the correct room in the concrete house, Tha'mma explains to the bewildered woman inside who she is. The woman asks for a moment to change her sari and powder her face, and then she shows her guests into her flat. It's dark and dirty.
The realization that a family member lives like this is likely shocking for Tha'mma, who has spent decades of her life associating only with Mayadebi and her wealthy family and lifestyle. This woman's lot in life shows that Tha'mma was deeply ignorant about her own family.
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While the narrator's family settles themselves, he slips outside and looks off the railing to the back of the house. Back there, there are tiny shanties and dirty pools of sludge. The people blend in with the landscape. When the relative notices the narrator, she calls him back inside. The narrator explains that though he looked away, that kind of landscape was always present in his house as a threat: it was the alternative that awaited him if he didn't do well on exams.
Again, even more important than climbing the social ladder is stressing the fact that a person is higher up on the social ladder than someone else—and trying not to slip down the ladder. This shows that social standing is an anxiety-inducing thing for the narrator and his family, as it's implied that the threat of living like these people is somewhat real.
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Inside, the relative serves tea and tells Tha'mma that her husband went back to Dhaka several times to try to bring Jethamoshai back to India. She explains that the house in Dhaka is now inhabited by Muslim refugees, and Jethamoshai doesn't care: he's senile now, and a Muslim family cares for him. She reveals a postcard that Jethamoshai sent her a month ago, and Tha'mma sighs wistfully. She decides it's time to leave.
Tha'mma's lack of acknowledgement that her childhood home has changed dramatically suggests that she's living and thinking in the past, and stressing to herself the idyllic images of her home that she carries from her childhood. By setting up this dissonance, Tha'mma prepares to have to somehow meld her memories with the truth.
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As the narrator's family leaves, the relative stops the narrator's mother. When she catches up with the rest of the family, she explains that the woman wonders if the narrator's father could get her son a job. Tha'mma scoffs and changes the subject: she worries about Jethamoshai, and believes her last quest in life will be to bring him home to India, which the narrator deems her "invented country."
Tha'mma's relationship to Dhaka complicates her idea of home and of her home country. She believes that her Indian uncle should live in India, which ignores the fact that he's likely made a home in East Pakistan and probably thinks of it as home, even if it doesn't match his Indian identity.
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The narrator tells the reader that at about this time, May must've received her fourth letter from Tridib. This letter was different: it was thicker than the others, and she was intrigued. She raced upstairs to read it and when she finished, she was sweating. She locked herself in the bathroom to catch her breath. Tridib had written that he likes to write with May's photograph in front of him and when he does, he sees her neighborhood clearly in his mind's eye. He remembers a September evening when he went to look at a bombed house. He was almost hit by a car and ran until he was in a strange neighborhood.
The way that Tridib frames this letter illustrates how he lives in his memories of the time—the thought of May, who lives where he used to, is enough to take him back. The effect that this letter has on May suggests that Tridib was effective in making the letter, which is a memory, real for her as well—and in doing so, augmenting her reality and making it richer through stories and memories.
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Tridib looked around and noticed he was next to a large building. He noticed a hole in the wall and decided to go through. Once inside, he realized he was in a cinema that had been bombed: there's a hole in the wall where the screen was. Tridib decided to go up to the gallery. Carefully, he made his way into the dark foyer and up the stairs until he reached the gallery, which was untouched by the bomb. He went to the railing, lied down, and realized he could see out the hole he came in through.
It's worth considering the borders at play in Tridib's story: the cinema no longer has impermeable walls and borders, which means that it's now, per the logic of the novel, a place that's somewhat lost in time. However, it also means that it's a vulnerable and possibly dangerous place, given that borders are meant to protect.
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Tridib watched a woman walk by outside and stop. Her dog defecated on the sidewalk, and she lighted a cigarette while she waited. A man in uniform appeared and asked the woman to borrow her lighter. He said something to the woman that made her look angry and surprised, but her face softened. She picked up the dog and the man led her through the hole in the wall. The man led the woman up the aisle, tied the dog to a seat, and began to kiss the woman. Tridib watched in fascination as the woman undressed.
This is, presumably, a defining moment in Tridib's own coming of age—at the very least, since he's telling the story to May, it's something that has stuck with him and informed his experiences as an adult. By now relaying the story to May, the novel shows again how childhood and adulthood continue to inform each other and shape how they play out.
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As the man lowered the woman to the floor, the dog began barking. Tridib was afraid the lovers would be discovered, but the woman slapped the dog and it stopped. The woman finished undressing, and Tridib wanted to touch her breasts. As the woman reached for the man, Tridib felt like she was reaching for him, and he writhed on the floor of the gallery. When he looked down next, the two were having sex that seemed dangerously loud. The dog barked again, but nobody outside seemed to notice. When the man groaned and the woman screamed, Tridib slipped out of the theater unnoticed.
The fact that this is a sexual experience for Tridib as much as it is for the lovers shows that this is a turning point in Tridib's maturity—it introduces him to the idea that casual sex like this exists and is, in his understanding, romantic and desirable. Notably, this instance of casual sex relies on these two people letting down their personal boundaries in a similarly boundless space—again, suggesting there's value in not having borders.
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May splashed water on her face. Tridib had written that he didn't know whether the memory was real or not, but he wanted to meet May in a ruin like that couple, and invited her to come to India. She decides she's angry at the "pornographic" nature of the letter and hides it in her dresser. When it's time to leave for her rehearsal, Mrs. Price asks about the letter. May says casually that Tridib invited her to India, and Mrs. Price encourages her to go. After rehearsal, May considers going to India.
When May can't quite figure out how she feels about the letter but errs on the side of finding it intriguing, it shows again that Tridib was successful in using storytelling and memory to alter how May thinks about her lived reality. Her uncertainty, however, also points to her own youth and the fact that she's unsure whether Tridib is a skilled storyteller or an actual romantic partner.
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The narrator's father loves to give people good news. In March of 1963, he tells Tha'mma at dinner that the Shaheb just got a promotion. Tha'mma scoffs that he's a drunk and doesn't deserve it, but the narrator explains that Tha'mma really just thought the Shaheb was weak and that Mayadebi did most of the hard work for him. The narrator's father, annoyed, finally offers the real news: the Shaheb was posted to Dhaka. Tha'mma promptly locks herself in her room.
The narrator's aside suggests that the Shaheb might not be an alcoholic at all; instead, it might be a convenient story for Tha'mma to tell herself so that she doesn't have to accept that her brother-in-law isn't as wonderful as she expected. This illustrates again how stories can deeply change how a person experiences reality.
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A week later, a letter arrives for Tha'mma from Mayadebi. The narrator carries it to Tha'mma's room, and she shoos him away before she reads it. At dinner later, Tha'mma flatly says that Mayadebi invited her to visit in Dhaka. Both the narrator's parents are supportive, but Tha'mma is uncertain: she believes Dhaka won't feel like home anymore. She's offended when the narrator's father reminds her that it'd be a lovely holiday, as she's never taken a holiday and never will. She insists she'll go to bring back Jethamoshai. However, Tha'mma remains uncertain about actually going.
Tha'mma's uncertainty stems from the sudden realization that Dhaka in the present is certainly not like the Dhaka she remembers. A trip, then, will mean that she'll have to somehow reconcile her memories and her reality to come to a new, arguably better understanding of the city of her birth. However, in doing so, there's also the possibility that Tha'mma's memories will no longer seem as right or powerful.
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After three months, Mayadebi calls. The narrator and his parents anxiously hover, and at the end of the call, Tha'mma gives Mayadebi her word to visit in January, after her family has time to settle in. Weeks later, the narrator's father gives Tha'mma plane tickets to Dhaka on January 4, 1964. Tha'mma seems excited for the first time in months. The narrator is worried about Tha'mma not knowing how to properly travel by airplane, so he takes it upon himself to educate his grandmother.
It's worth noting that the narrator has never been on an airplane either at this point, which makes it clear that he's both youthful and relying heavily on what he presumably learned from Tridib about airplanes. Again, this shows how the narrator inhabits Tridib's stories so intensely, he can even "teach" his grandmother how to properly fly in an airplane.
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One evening, Tha'mma asks if she'll be able to see the border between India and East Pakistan from the plane. The narrator's father laughs at her, but Tha'mma is puzzled that there is apparently nothing—no soldiers, no trenches, no barren land—to separate the two countries. Tha'mma thinks for a moment and asks how people even know where the border is if there's no difference from side to side. She asks what Partition was for if there's no visible border. Annoyed, the narrator's father explains that now, the real border is in the airports in the form of disembarkation cards. He explains that on the card, she'll have to record her date and place of birth. Tha'mma looks alarmed. The narrator doesn't understand until years later that it occurred to Tha'mma at that moment that she was born in Dhaka, which is no longer in India.
Tha'mma grew up with a dividing wall built nonsensically through the middle of her house. In her lived experience, borders and walls are real, tangible, visible things, so she’s confused that the border between India and East Pakistan isn’t the same way. In this moment, Tha’mma also comes to the realization that the Partition of India affects her sense of identity more than she previously realized. She identifies as an Indian and Hindu woman, but in this moment, she realizes that because of the borders, she wasn’t technically born in India—she’s from the Muslim-majority country of East Pakistan.
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The narrator's father teases Tha'mma about how she used to travel in and out of Burma easily, and she retorts that she could "come home to Dhaka" whenever she wanted. The narrator is delighted; he sees that his grandmother doesn't know the difference between coming and going. This mix-up becomes part of family lore. The narrator explains that the confusion wasn't Tha'mma's fault, as language itself assumes a set point from which to come or go, and Tha'mma's journey to Dhaka was one to try to find that fixed point.
The narrator sees that Tha'mma cannot, at this point, "come" to Dhaka—she can only ever go to Dhaka, as her current home is in Calcutta. However, this slip of language alludes to the power of stories and the way in which people describe themselves and their homes: Tha'mma has the power to dictate where home is by changing whether she's coming or going home to a place.
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In November, Mayadebi writes to say that May is going to visit Delhi, Agra, and Calcutta before traveling with Tha'mma to Dhaka, and asks if she can stay with the narrator's family while she's in Calcutta. The narrator's father agrees instantly. Tridib visits a week later and announces that he'll be going to Dhaka as well. He invites the narrator to pick up May at the train station with him.
When Tridib invites the narrator along to the train station, it indicates that the two have a strong and loving relationship with each other—though over the course of May's visit, the narrator will question this. Again, this illustrates how language and stories impact how a person sees their reality.
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May and the narrator discuss her visit to Calcutta for the first time the day after Ila's wedding. Ila and Nick married simply in London, and Mrs. Price invited a few people to dinner to celebrate. Now, Nick and Ila are set to leave for Calcutta to have a "proper" Hindu wedding. Ila's father buys the newlyweds a flat in London, and they plan to go to Africa for their honeymoon.
Ila's marriage is an undeniable signal to everyone that Ila is now an adult—and further, that it's silly for the narrator to continue to pine for her. Ila and Nick's plans and the gifts they receive are indicative of their social standing and make it clear that Ila has no intention of returning to India.
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The narrator doesn't remember much about the evening at Mrs. Price's house. He almost loses his gift, a tiny saltcellar, at a pub when he stops on the way. Ila is amused to receive it but turns to her other guests quickly. May gives the narrator a glass of wine and leads him to the drawing room. Hours later, the narrator wakes with a start, still in the drawing room. He's distraught; he'd planned to tell Ila something important, but now he can't remember what it is. May convinces him to come sleep at her flat so she doesn't spend all of the next morning trying to figure out where he drunkenly ended up.
Alcohol makes the narrator go through the world the way Ila does: without his memories to inform his actions and perceptions. The fact that the narrator is divorced from his beloved memories and stories at this moment suggests that this is going to be a difficult evening. He is, essentially, missing a part of his identity.
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May calls a cab, and the narrator sticks his head out the window. He feels as though his genitals are pushing him to find a way to mourn Ila's marriage. May looks concerned, and the narrator takes her hand in his. She draws her hand away. He leans over and kisses her ear. May pushes him, and the narrator notices that the driver fingering brass knuckles on his dashboard. When they reach May's house, the narrator doesn't realize that she's worried or afraid of him. She asks him to be quiet going up the stairs as to not wake her landlady, but May shrieks when the narrator touches her hair.
This moment points back to when the narrator touched Ila without permission when they were children. The fact that he's doing the same here to May suggests that even if he is in some ways considered lesser because he's Indian and only middle class, the fact that he's male does afford him power, which he abuses.
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In her flat, May points to her bed and tells the narrator firmly to go to sleep. The narrator, feeling cunning, asks where she'll sleep. May pulls the covers down on the bed, and the narrator notices that it looks unused. May explains that she sleeps on the floor and pulls out a thin mattress and several blankets. The narrator is aghast, but May explains that most people sleep on the floor, and she wants to live like the majority. The narrator asks if he can sleep on the floor with her, and she laughs. She insists that the narrator is drunk and will feel stupid about this in the morning. She points out that she's old enough to be his aunt.
At this point, May's desire to divorce herself from her upper class upbringing is somewhat curious and suggests that there's likely more to it than simply being ashamed of her younger entitled brother. It’s interesting that she chooses to sleep on the floor like everyone else, as it’s a private rejection of her upper-class status, not a public one.
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May again tells the narrator to go to bed. He becomes angry that May is laughing at him and pulls her face towards him. He kisses her roughly, and while he has her pinned to him, squirms one hand under her shirt and bra. May screams and jerks away, ripping her dress. She races to the bathroom, and the narrator slinks into bed and falls asleep immediately.
The narrator violently invading May's body and space deprives her of her autonomy and freedom, even in the "free" country of England. This shows that freedom can be compromised regardless of culture or place.
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The narrator wakes up to the sound of May in the kitchen. He remembers suddenly how May looked afraid the night before, and he remembers everything he did. He opens his eyes to see her standing over him, and he struggles to apologize for his actions. She slaps him on the back of the head and sends him to wash up. When the narrator comes out of the bathroom, there's a plate of food on the table for him. May insists he eat without her.
As May predicted, the narrator feels horrible about his actions—her story became his reality, and now he must live with the memory of his bad behavior. The simple fact that May allows him to stay is a testament to the strange relationship they share as a result of having both loved Tridib; it's that memory that keeps them together.
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When it becomes apparent the May isn't going to eat, the narrator presses her for the reason. She finally admits that she fasts every Saturday. The narrator is incredulous, but May simply moves on and tells him that she has to be out on the streets soon, collecting money for famine relief in Africa. She invites the narrator to join her and laughs when he insists the crowds won't be a problem for him. He's wrong: the crowds on Oxford Street nearly sweep him away, and May laughs at him.
Again, May's desire to fast and do the hard work of collecting money on the streets are in direct opposition to the wealth she grew up with. She likely has the financial power to simply give to these charities directly, so the choice to actually do this hard work and be generous with her time suggests that there's more at play here than a pure desire to do good.
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May shows him how to hang signs and hands him a box for passersby to put money in. Nobody puts money in the narrator's box. He watches May, who is uncharacteristically bold as she demands money from people. He adopts her technique and half fills his box in a few hours. When the narrator sits down near May, she refuses to take a break and explains that she likes doing this hard work because it feels useful. From his low vantage point, the narrator comments that this perspective is how they looked at each other the first time they met.
The narrator continues to use his childhood memories of May to inform how he thinks about her in the present. For the narrator, past memories and the present moment are connected and part of each other, even though they take place years apart in time.
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The narrator, his father, and Tridib met May at the station. The narrator was worried that Tridib wouldn't recognize May. He believed that he'd recognize her himself because he reasoned that she must look like a buttercup. Even though May looked nothing like a buttercup, the narrator was the first to see her, a half hour after her train arrived. She waved tentatively and then ran to them. She ruffled the narrator's hair, and he watched her look at Tridib. It seemed to take her a moment to realize who Tridib was, and Tridib looked shy. Then, she kissed him on both cheeks. The station erupted and teased her, and the narrator's father snapped at people to move along and stop staring.
At eleven, the narrator is still very naïve and is unaware of May and Tridib’s relationship and how they exchanged photographs of each other several years before this visit. When May kisses Tridib (something that seems uncouth in India, given the station's response), it shows that in some ways, she does move through the world like Ila does and doesn't take context into account. This is, especially during this visit, a very youthful perspective.
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On the way home, Tridib told a story about seeing the infant May in a gas mask, a sight that had terrified him. May doesn't remember this story when the narrator reminds her of it, and she suggests they go so the narrator can have a coffee. She leads him to a deli, and when he joins May at the table, she's laughing at the story of her in the gas mask.
When May can enjoy the story despite not remembering hearing it the first time, it shows that just like the narrator, she's beginning to add to her understanding by joining the narrator's recollections to her own.
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May explains that she hadn't even heard him tell the story, but she laughed with relief. She'd been frightened since she arrived in India, and didn't even go to Agra out of fear. Instead, she locked herself in her hotel room in Delhi and felt helpless and afraid. She wondered if Tridib would look as intense and somewhat frightening as he did in the photo he'd sent her, which is why she sent the narrator's father a telegram asking him to accompany Tridib to the station. When she saw him, she was relieved: he looked awkward and young, with huge glasses.
The difference between the way that Tridib's photograph looks and the way he looks in person casts some doubt on Tridib and the narrator's assessment of the photos the Shaheb took in 1939. This opens up the possibility that Tridib's interpretations of the photos may not have been as idyllic as he thought, or alternatively, that even if the photos look idyllic, the evening the photos capture was not.
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The narrator's family put May in their guest room, and the narrator spent a lot of time just watching her. He was obsessed with figuring out what she smelled like, and he picked and sniffed at her clothes. He admits that later, he was ashamed and embarrassed he'd behaved that way. May had been too kind to call him out.
Remember the narrator is a child who believes May to be extremely exotic. Further, he's also relying on the stories Tridib told him about England, where May is from, which adds to his sense of awe and wonder about her—she's Tridib's stories brought to life.
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One evening, the narrator took May out for a walk. While they were out, May caught sight of the "cotton man," who fluffs mattresses with a single-stringed instrument. May was entranced and asked if his tool was a harp. The narrator didn't know what a harp was, but agreed anyway and dutifully asked the man to "play" his instrument for May. Later, when they got home, the cotton man had been there and told the narrator's parents about the incident. May wasn't angry; she just ruffled the narrator's hair. Later, when the narrator told Ila this story, she snarled something condescending about May's wide-eyed innocence. The narrator explained that he didn't mean it like that: May's innocence was a type of innocence he'd never seen before in a woman.
Ila appears somewhat hypocritical, as she views the world through an arguably even more naïve lens than May does. Notice too that May is taken in by the difference in context she sees around her, even if she's not sure what any of it means. Further, when the narrator seems to prioritize May's brand of innocence over Ila's, it suggests that his love for Ila is even more misguided, given how little she understands about how the narrator views the world.
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During the first few days of May's visit, she often invited the narrator along when she went out with Tridib. One morning, they went to see the Victoria Memorial. The narrator chatted about ice cream and asked May to close her eyes. He told her to open them when they were right in front of the memorial, and she yelled in surprise. Tridib and the narrator laughed, but May averted her eyes. When Tridib led them out of the car to look at the memorial, May asked to leave. Back in the car, Tridib took May's face in his hands and asked what was wrong. She insisted that she shouldn't be in India. Tridib laughed and said that this building was "their ruin," which made May laugh.
Though the narrator seems entirely unaware of why May invites him along (an indicator of his innocence and youthful single-minded nature), it's possible that she's not entirely comfortable with Tridib and therefore, wants someone to witness their relationship unfold. In doing so, May allowed the narrator to create memories that align with her own, but have an entirely different perspective and tenor given that he has no idea what's going on.
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Tridib gave the narrator money to buy whatever treat he wanted and sent him away. The narrator realized then that he was jealous, as Tridib and May had a relationship he'd never understand. He knew that the memorial had a meaning he wasn't aware of, and he'd puzzle over what it meant until May explained Tridib's letter to him in the deli.
Now that the narrator is finally understanding the relationship between Tridib and May, and reconsidering how he viewed it when he was a child, he's able to join his memories with this new knowledge and come to a richer understanding of Tridib's life.
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When the narrator's father suggested that Tridib take May to a harbor, the narrator insisted on going, too. About an hour outside of Calcutta, Tridib swerved around an indistinct lump in the road. May shrieked that it was a dog and was still alive, but Tridib was puzzled when May asked him to stop the car. Finally, she threatened to open the door if he didn't stop, and he circled back to the dog. The dog's back was obviously broken. May approached it with a penknife despite Tridib's warnings that the dog was probably rabid, and the dog snapped at her.
Again, what to do about a dying dog in the road is a matter of cultural context—it's unfathomable to both Tridib and the narrator to stop and do anything about it, given the very real dangers of doing so. This moment also explains why May later becomes involved with charity organizations.
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Finally, Tridib agreed to help. He snuck up behind the dog and held its head. May sawed at the dog's neck until she punctured its jugular, then dropped the knife and scrambled down to the rice paddy by the road to wash the blood off her arms. When she got back in the car, Tridib made her promise that if he ever needed it, she'd do the same for him. May laughed uneasily.
Tridib's request seems strange to May in this moment, but for the reader, it foreshadows the violence to come.
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May decides she needs a coffee too, and after she purchases it, she returns to the narrator and her story. Back in Calcutta, Tridib dropped the narrator off at his house and took May to his. It was the first time the two of them had been alone together, and Tridib wanted to say something about love. May wouldn't let him, and just put her hands on his shoulders. The narrator interrupts the story and asks May if she loved Tridib. She insists she didn't know back then, because she was too young. She's spent the last seventeen years wondering if what happened was her fault and trying to cope with that guilt. She says she remembers him saying that she was his love across the seas.
The fact that May recognizes that she was very young at this point allows the reader to read her actions during her visit to India as being young and possibly misguided. The fact that she still ruminates on what happened shows how her youth continues to influence how she thinks about and moves through the world as an adult, especially since she apparently fixates on her unwillingness to fully return Tridib's love.
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Awkwardly, May collects her things and insists she needs to leave. The narrator walks with her to the underground station. Before she enters, she admits that she's never told anyone these things about Tridib before, and the narrator says that it makes sense to tell him: he knew Tridib best. Before May leaves, the narrator apologizes for his bad behavior again. She gruffly said she didn't really mind and was actually amazed that someone saw her that way.
When May admits that she's surprised the narrator saw her in a romantic light (as problematic as the narrator’s "romance" was), it suggests that she believes herself unlovable and consequently closes herself off to the possibilities of romance.
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Several days before the narrator returns to Delhi, he wakes to a knock on his door from Kerry, an American housemate. She teases the narrator about looking so cold (he can't afford heat in his bedroom) and explains that he has a lady waiting for him on the phone. It's Ila, who has been married for three months now. When the narrator picks up, Ila breathlessly asks the narrator if he's packed yet and if he needs any help with anything. He's stung that she only wants to see him now, when he only has days left in the same city, but he marvels at how much she can care about others on occasion. He tells her that the only thing he needs help with is arranging a final visit with Mrs. Price.
The fact that Ila only takes an interest in the narrator now adds more proof to the narrator's assertion that Ila doesn't just ignore the past—she also ignores the future until it's right upon her. Again, this suggests that Ila lives entirely in the present, and she doesn't allow her memories of the past or thoughts about the future to inform her life in any way.
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The narrator and Ila decide to meet at Trafalgar Square and then go to Mrs. Price's together. The narrator sits in the square and watches as Ila, dressed fashionably, attracts stares. She puts on sunglasses before she spots the narrator. He greets her with a laugh and tries to take her sunglasses off. She tries to stop him, but he notices that her eyes are red and swollen. She snaps that nothing is wrong and leads him to Mrs. Price's house.
Something is very clearly wrong with Ila, and her attempts to hide it suggest that whatever is wrong is embarrassing and possibly threatens her sense of self or social standing—things that she very much takes for granted.
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Mrs. Price seems frailer than usual and seems like she doesn't really want visitors. After they have tea, Ila and the narrator decide to let Mrs. Price be alone, and they look around the house one more time. The narrator leads Ila down to the cellar, and she remarks that it's like being back in Raibajar under the table. As the narrator looks around, the random objects in the room seem to float away and be replaced by ghosts of nine-year-old Tridib, Snipe, and eight-year-old Ila. When Ila buries her face in the narrator's shoulder and begins to cry, the narrator feels as though it's the child Ila holding him and crying, right after she told him the story about Nick Price and Magda. Back then, the narrator didn't understand then why she was crying.
The narrator didn't understand that the bullying story Ila told him in their childhood actually happened to her. It took growing up and hearing May's side of the story for the narrator to truly understand the weight of what happened to Ila in her youth. As before, the narrator sees his memories and Tridib's memories as layered one on top of the other, all informing each other in various ways. He can use all these stories he's currently immersed in to better understand what Ila is going through in the present.
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The narrator flashes back to the day that young Ila cried after telling her story about Madga. Tridib appeared, and the narrator invited him into their imaginary house in London. He showed Tridib in, and Ila began to cry again and wouldn't tell Tridib why. Finally, the narrator relayed Ila's story to Tridib and insisted that Ila's being a fool and treating the story like she lives in it. Tridib said that everyone lives in a story, and "led" them down to the shelter to hear a story. He explained that it was his ninth birthday, the 25th of September, and Snipe promised to tell him a story. Tridib felt as though he was owed one, given that it had been a bad day: for no apparent reason, Mayadebi wouldn't let him outside.
When Tridib so carefully respects the boundaries of the imaginary house and plays along, it shows that he absolutely respects the boundaries of the children's stories and understands that for them, the story of their game was very real. It's unclear if Tridib recognizes that Ila's story actually happened, but his advice to the narrator suggests that it's important to treat others' stories as though they are real.
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Tridib slipped out of the house and went down to look at some of the bomb holes in the park. Mayadebi found him and angrily led him home. Back at the house, Mrs. Price kindly explained that Mayadebi heard that the Germans supposedly dropped explosives disguised as toffee tins. Tridib stayed inside all day, but Mrs. Price cooked him a wonderful birthday dinner and he received several other gifts from his parents and an atlas from Snipe.
It's never made entirely clear whether the atlas that Snipe gave Tridib for his birthday is the same atlas Tridib uses to point cities out to the narrator. If it is, the borders and countries shown in this atlas would be very different than the ones in place later in the novel. Again, memories, this time in the form of old borders, continue to inform the present.
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When the alert sounded, everyone went down to the shelter. Finally, Tridib asked Snipe to tell the story. The narrator says that he could see the story in the cellar with Ila: Snipe telling it to Tridib, Tridib relaying it to the narrator and Ila, the narrator telling May, May introducing him to Nick. Later that day, Tridib had asked the narrator what he showed May in the storage room, and the narrator asked what the story was. Tridib told the narrator the story, one about a hero who fell in love with a woman across the seas. It was the last story he ever told the narrator.
The fact that the narrator doesn't fully relay Tridib's story to the reader is more support for his assertion that Tridib didn't just tell him about fairylands. The story sounds fantastical, and it preserves the sense that Tridib's stories of memories are far more important to the narrator than these fantasy stories—especially since the narrator does, at points, forget the story.
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Back in the present, Ila continues to cry on the narrator's shoulder. Finally, she says that it's Nick, and the narrator asks if he forgot to buy her roses. Ila is incensed. The narrator asks if she found Nick in bed with someone else. Ila looks startled and admits that she did. She'd called home one afternoon and a woman answered the phone. The narrator laughs that Ila's sins are catching up with her, and she admits that she only told stories about being promiscuous in college to shock the narrator. She explains that she confronted Nick about it, and he admitted he was seeing two other women and had no intention of giving them up. The narrator doesn't know how to comfort her now that she knows that the petty jealousies she'd tried to escape by moving to London exist in her world too.
Finally, Ila admits that she relies on stories as much as the narrator does to influence her reality—though she does so by telling untrue stories to change how the narrator thought of her. With this, Ila begins to seem even younger and more naïve, especially given how distraught she is to discover that she can't escape common problems like infidelity. Infidelity exists the world over, and being "free" in London doesn't free her from unfortunate truths like that.
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The narrator tells Ila she has to leave Nick, but she insists she loves him too much. Later when Nick arrives at Mrs. Price's house, however, Ila announces with a laugh that Nick wants Ila's father to buy him a partnership, which will take hard work. Nick's face falls. The narrator wants to hug him, as he sees that Nick will always be dependent on Ila. He remembers May telling him that Nick is different from them.
The narrator illustrates that Nick is not free, as he'll always have to depend on his wife to get him through life, simply because he refuses to do the work himself and must therefore play by her rules and rebel where possible.
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Two days before Tha'mma leaves for Dhaka, she receives a letter from Mayadebi. It explains that she hasn't been to the house yet, but she met a man who lives in the house, Saifuddin. Saifuddin is thrilled that Jethamoshai's relatives are coming, as he believes Jethamoshai will die soon. Mayadebi suggests that Tha'mma bring a gift for his wife.
When nobody visits Tha'mma and Mayadebi's childhood home, it builds up the tension for the characters as to what they're going to find. Tha'mma relies deeply on her memories of the house, and it's unlikely she'll find the house exactly as she remembers it.
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That night, Tha'mma asks the narrator to sleep with her. He agrees, and as they lay in bed, he goes over plane safety measures and then asks for a story. She tells him about the sweet shop down the street from her house in Dhaka and gets up to sit by the window instead of going to bed herself. The next day, Tha'mma giggles as they say goodbye. When the plane is in the air, the narrator's father sighs in relief. He explains that he's glad they're gone, as there might be trouble in Calcutta.
When the narrator's father mentions the possibility of trouble, it makes it clear that the adults surrounding the narrator have information he doesn't—he'll experience what's to come as a child, with very limited information and a naïve understanding of the world around him.
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Years later, Robi tells the narrator that the first thing Tha'mma said to Mayadebi was, "where's Dhaka?" Her Dhaka, the narrator says, disappeared long ago, and all she had were her memories of what Dhaka used to be. May is impressed by the open roads, but Tha'mma continues to insist that she's not in Dhaka. To be fair, Mayadebi and the Shaheb live in Dhanmundi, which later becomes a major political center when Bangladesh becomes independent in the early 1970s, but in 1964, it's nothing more than a suburb. When Tha'mma insists that she's not in Dhaka, Tridib points out that she's a foreigner now.
For Tha'mma, the difference between her memory of Dhaka and what she sees now is disturbing and makes her feel disconnected from her past. Tridib’s comment about Tha’mma being a foreigner point to the way that the Partition of India altered Tha’mma’s identity as an Indian and Hindu woman—now, even her hometown feels different.
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The house is big, and thirteen-year-old Robi loves it. It has a big flat roof, tall walls, and a beautiful garden in front. At dinner that first night, Tha'mma and Mayadebi discuss when to go fetch Jethamoshai. The Shaheb insists they need to wait a few days, as he's heard that there's trouble brewing in the old part of the city. Tha'mma agrees to wait no more than a week.
Remember that the narrator's father mentioned trouble brewing in Calcutta as well and was glad that May was gone. The fact that the Shaheb says the same thing suggests that neither man is aware of what's going on in the other city.
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One morning while Tha'mma, Tridib, and May are in Dhaka, the narrator discovers that there's trouble in Calcutta. His mother doesn't listen to the radio that morning before she sends him to wait for the school bus with his water bottle. He admits that he was proud that his mother listened to the news, but he wasn't fully able to grasp that listening was a means of survival for her. The bus takes a long time, and the two boys who usually board with the narrator don't show up. He's not surprised, as there's a cricket match in Madras that day and he assumes his friends are at home listening to the commentary.
The narrator's youthful understanding of the world he lives in means that he thinks of his mother's interest in the news as being indicative of her worldliness and engagement with politics—not a simple way to make sure her family stays safe from the riots that gripped India at this point in time. The narrator's youth is obvious too when he reasons that everything is quiet because of the cricket match.
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When the bus finally arrives, it looks different. There aren't enough students on it. When the narrator climbs in, there are only a few boys in the back. They stare at the narrator's water bottle, and one boy, Tublu, whispers that one little boy's mother sent him with a bottle of soda, since "they" poisoned Calcutta's water supply. Suddenly, the narrator knows why the streets are empty. When Tublu suggests they can confirm everything when Montu, a Muslim, gets on the bus, the narrator hopes Montu stays home. Montu does, and the boys all pour their water bottles out.
The use of "they" and the suggestion that Montu, a Muslim, can explain what's going on tells the reader that whatever is happening is rooted in religious animosity. The fact that the narrator and Montu are friends is a testament to the fact that those religious divides don't have to mean anything, but in the hands of adults, that division is apparently very important.
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The school day seems almost normal until the narrator begins to hear voices outside the walls of the school. These voices don't sound like the usual demonstration crowds; the sound is jagged and frightening. He says it's the sound of fear. The teacher shuts the windows and at midday, leaves the room. The students rush to the windows, open them, and listen. There's a plume of smoke outside. When the teacher returns, she explains that classes are canceled, and everyone is going home to have a holiday.
The teacher is clearly trying to maintain a sense of calm and order in her classroom by insisting that nothing is wrong—the students are well aware that something is afoot, even if they're not sure what. The narrator's assessment of what's happening shows that political unrest often doesn't make much sense at the time; it's just terrifying.
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Students line up in the playground. When the gates open, they notice armed policemen outside. Tublu insists they're guarding the students. When they all board buses, the boys sit next to the windows. As they drive, the streets look unfamiliar: they're empty except for policemen. The narrator is glad that Tha'mma and May aren't in Calcutta. The students see a rickshaw blocking a street and think it looks particularly sinister, though they can't tell if it's supposed to keep Muslims or Hindus out.
The out-of-place rickshaw symbolizes for the boys that their world is currently upside down: it tells a story about what's happening that's far more telling and compelling than the teacher's insistence that this is a holiday. The fact that the boys can pick up on this and interpret this shows that they do have the capacity to think critically and in a more adult way about the conflict.
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Suddenly, the bus turns and comes face to face with a mob. Part of the mob breaks off and begins to approach the bus, and the driver turns the bus around as fast as he can. He turns onto a street none of the boys recognize, and pushes Tublu into a seat when he points this out. Tublu begins to cry, and the other boys surround him. The narrator notes that Tublu cried for all of them, as they were all "stupefied with fear." He tells the reader that their fear was a particular kind of fear that comes from knowing that one's world can become hostile in a second, without warning.
When a mob shows that it is willing to approach and possibly attack a school bus filled with innocent children, it's a sinister reminder that these riots are nonsensical, unpredictable, and incredibly violent. This only feeds the boys' fear, as everything they know about their world is suddenly turned on its head.
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When Robi wakes up on Thursday morning, the sounds outside his window are normal. He wants to see the trouble if there's going to be any, and he doesn't much care if they stay home or go out to watch. The Shaheb agrees to let them go to the old house if they take a security guard. Tha'mma changes her sari three times and is very nervous, but finally, they head out. Robi scans the streets for anything amiss, but he sees nothing. Tha'mma continues to state that she's not in Dhaka.
Robi is wealthy, privileged, and only thirteen—trouble is interesting for him, as he's presumably never been at risk of having to actually think about what "trouble" could mean for him. His privilege allows him to see the trouble as something that happens to other, less fortunate people.
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Suddenly, the car turns a corner, and Tha'mma cries out happily that she recognizes where they are. They reach a narrow lane, and Tha'mma points at all the sights she used to see daily. The driver stops at another lane and points, saying that that's where the house is. Tha'mma is distraught that her beloved sweet shop isn't on the corner anymore. A group of men and children gather around the car, and the driver and the security guard uneasily take up posts at the front and back of the car. The driver whispers something in Mayadebi's ear, and she relays his message to Tha'mma and Tridib: they must come back quickly in case of trouble.
The narrowness of the streets begins to create a sense of claustrophobia for the reader; the anxiety and the possibility of danger is palpable even as Tha'mma is so excited to finally see her memories made real in front of her eyes. The juxtaposition of this possibly emotional and heartfelt moment for Tha'mma with the possibility of violence suggests that sometimes, returning to one's old memories is fraught—things change, and not always for the better.
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Tha'mma, Mayadebi, Tridib, May, and Robi approach the house. Children take May's hands as they walk. When they reach the gate, Tha'mma and Mayadebi are shocked to see that the yard is strewn with motorcycles, parts, and oil. The mechanic, Saifuddin, leads Tha'mma to a bench to sit down, and Tha'mma reminds herself of her duty to Jethamoshai. Saifuddin explains that the old man isn't doing well, and insists that his guests have tea before they see Jethamoshai, as they must wait for Khalil. Khalil is Jethamoshai's foolish caretaker, who is very poor but insists on caring for a Hindu man.
Despite Saifuddin's deference and respect for Tha'mma, the way he talks about Khalil suggests the possibility that he's selfish and probably doesn't like Jethamoshai. The messy state of the house's courtyard foreshadows the mess Tha'mma will find within, and begins to make it clear to her that the house is not what she remembers. For one, the house's initial divisions seem to have disappeared, given that the Muslim Khalil is caring for the Hindu Jethamoshai.
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Tha'mma is in awe that Jethamoshai lets Muslims care for him when he used to not allow Muslims to get within ten feet of him. Tridib asks how Khalil came to live in the house, and Saifuddin explains that after Partition, Jethamoshai actively found Muslims to live in the house because he feared his brother's family returning. He even sent one of his own sons away once. Tha'mma asks if Jethamoshai will agree to return with them, and Saifuddin says he doesn't know: his own father wouldn't leave India to come to Pakistan.
Even if the divisions that Tha'mma remembers are gone, the "unity" of the house exists now to continue to develop divisions between Jethamoshai and his family. This suggests that even though Jethamoshai has possibly reevaluated his old prejudice against Muslims, he's now willing to use people he once found abhorrent in order to spite his family. In short, the divisions aren't gone; they're just different.
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Khalil arrives. He greets Saifuddin with deference and smiles widely at Jethamoshai's relatives, and May recognizes that Khalil isn't simple at all. He insists that Jethamoshai won't leave, but agrees to try. He leads Tha'mma and Mayadebi across the courtyard and into a grimy room in the house. Mayadebi and Tha'mma laugh: nothing is upside-down. Khalil sends his wife to make tea, and the guests finally notice Jethamoshai on a bed. He's so old that he's almost childlike, and Robi shrinks back in fear.
The reality of the house continues to not match up with what Tha'mma remembers. The realization that Jethamoshai's side of the house is as normal as any other illustrates the consequences of relying too much on a story: it seems to have only contributed to Tha'mma's fear of returning.
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Tha'mma approaches Jethamoshai, but he yells at her to stop, sit down, and tell him about her case. Khalil bellows that these are relatives, but Jethamoshai doesn't acknowledge that Khalil said anything. Jethamoshai looks at May and says that he recognizes her: she's Mary Pickford. He begins to sing an English song, and May sings with him. Suddenly, Jethamoshai whispers worriedly that Khalil needs to buy toilet paper for May. Tha'mma is distraught.
In his old age, Jethamoshai lives entirely in his memories, especially given that he doesn't seem to even be aware of when in time he is. By treating May with this kind of deference, it suggests he believes it's still a period in time when the British were people to revere in India.
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Jethamoshai asks Tha'mma to describe her case, and Tridib loudly explains that they're relatives. Jethamoshai's face lights up maliciously at the mention of relatives. He says that his brother had two evil daughters, and he's just waiting for them to come back so he can drag them through court and legally claim the house. Tridib is disturbed by the look in Jethamoshai's eyes. Tha'mma gently explains that they've come to save Jethamoshai from the coming trouble, but Jethamoshai insists he's not leaving: he doesn't believe in India, and who's to say what'll happen if "they" decide to draw another line.
Jethamoshai hasn't even seen Tha'mma and Mayadebi since they were children. His insistence that they're evil suggests that he's spent his time telling himself stories about his family that support his hatred of them. In this way, the novel shows the consequences of pride like Jethamoshai exhibits: he's consumed by his rage, and cannot allow himself to experience anything more positive.
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Tha'mma gives up, but Saifuddin insists they need to find another way to convince Jethamoshai. Khalil tells Tha'mma to not listen to Saifuddin, as he just wants to claim the house once Jethamoshai is gone. Saifuddin refutes this and insists that Khalil is simple, and Jethamoshai is in danger. Khalil's wife speaks up and agrees with Saifuddin. Suddenly, the driver runs to the door and tells his charges to come quickly; trouble is coming. Tha'mma tells Khalil that they'll take Jethamoshai for a few days until the trouble passes, and bring him back if he wants to return.
Khalil seems to genuinely care for Jethamoshai, illustrating once again that religious divisions don't have to keep people apart. This mirrors the friendship between the narrator and Montu; the fact that Montu is Muslim didn't even come up until the narrator suddenly realized Montu was in danger because of his faith.
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Khalil miserably agrees, but says that Jethamoshai will only leave the house in Khalil's rickshaw if Khalil tells him he's going to court. Khalil manages to convince Jethamoshai to get out of bed, and Tridib helps lift the old man into the rickshaw. Outside, Mayadebi and Tha'mma take one last look at the house and then walk towards the car. The driver is frantic, but Robi doesn't see anyone in the empty streets. They drive a short distance and suddenly, Robi sees dozens of men around a fire in the road. He can tell they've been waiting for the car.
By telling this part of the story from Robi's perspective, the narrator is able to cultivate the sense that the violence that met them was expected, just not by a naïve and youthful child. It also suggests that Tha'mma's entire project of returning to the house was foolish and childish.
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The narrator addresses the reader and says that all of what he writes about 1964 is "the product of a struggle with silence." He can't identify where the silence even comes from, but there are simply no words that appropriately describe what happened. It took fifteen years to even realize that his terrifying bus ride and what happened in Dhaka were related, and he only figured it out by accident. He understands that he was only a child who believed in nations, borders, and distance.
The narrator suggests that there are memories and experiences that take a long time to properly deal with through stories. All the narrator had for fifteen years was his terrifying memory and the knowledge that something happened in Dhaka, but no helpful information to help him make sense of the event.
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In 1979, the narrator attends a lecture in New Delhi on the war between India and China in 1962. Afterwards, he goes out with friends, and they discuss their memories of that time. The narrator's father had been thrilled that India was at war with China, but as the war took a turn for the worse, they became confused and scared. One of the narrator's friends, Malik, declares that the war was the most important thing that happened to India when they were children. The narrator insists that the riots of 1964 were more important, but Malik and the others don't even remember that there were riots in 1964.
The narrator's father believed in the superiority of his home country on the international battlefield, illustrating one of the narrator's main points in the next passages: until given reason to believe otherwise, people don't understand that the borders that divide countries in the first place are responsible for violence.
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The narrator can't even describe the riots or the terror he felt, and Malik insists that the riot must've been local and inconsequential. To prove Malik wrong, the narrator leads him to the library to read newspapers from 1964. Malik briefly peruses a bookshelf, but the books discuss the war with China in 1962 and the war with Pakistan in 1965, with nothing in the middle. Suddenly, the narrator remembers that it happened during the cricket season, and Malik agrees to look through the January and February papers. They find that the January 10 paper mentions a riot in East Pakistan, and Malik leaves.
By insisting that the riots simply aren't something he can speak about, the narrator is then forced to turn to other people’s stories—the newspapers—to figure out how to describe his experience. In this way, he finally is able to use stories to add meaning to his experience and his memory, and further, to connect his memory with other people’s memories (namely, Robi's).
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The narrator keeps looking. In the January 11 paper, he finds a headline about the Calcutta riots, and smaller headlines about a sacred relic having been reinstalled in Srinagar. The narrator explains what he learned: the relic, a lock of hair from the prophet Muhammad, arrived in 1699 in Srinagar in Kashmir. Everyone—Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs—respected the relic and each other. In December of 1963, the relic disappeared, and people of all faiths demonstrated. The government labeled the ensuing riots as anti-national, but the riots remained relatively peaceful and focused on bringing people together.
These riots are proof that religious differences don't have to equate to violence, as these people demonstrated against the government in support of the relic. When the government labels the riots as negative and anti-nationalistic, it shows how the government tries to use its own stories to cover up the reality of the situation: that in the grand scheme of the area, the ties between people are stronger than those people's ties to their government.
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The Prime Minister instructed his agencies to find the relic, but in Pakistan, cities were rioting as well. Newspapers there insisted that the theft of the relic was part of a conspiracy and an attack on Muslims. The relic was recovered on January 4, and Srinagar celebrated. Khulna (a small town in Pakistan), however, experienced violent riots. The narrator realizes suddenly that Tha'mma, May, and Tridib left for Dhaka the day before these riots broke out.
When the narrator begins to connect his experience in Calcutta to this much larger event involving the relic in Srinagar, it shows that Ila was wrong when she insisted nothing of importance happens in India. Further, notice how the riots are stoked in part by the assertion that there are religious tensions; this shows that this story can be used to shape reality.
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The narrator cannot return to the library for days. He lies in bed, wondering why his father allowed Tha'mma, May, and Tridib to even go to Dhaka—it seems his father sent them on purpose. However, when the narrator finally returns to the old newspapers, he realizes that the local Calcutta papers don't mention any rumblings in East Pakistan. Like the narrator, those in charge of the paper believed in the power of distance. He reasons that his father and all the journalists must've known something, and wonders why they never said anything. He wonders why the journalists wrote pages about the riots while they happened, and nothing before or after. He reasons that it's simply too much of a risk to make riots mean something by writing about them, and not speaking about them keeps them meaningless.
The narrator suggests here that not speaking about something makes that event meaningless. This ties language to meaning and provides evidence for the narrator's assertion that Tridib's stories give him a richer experience in life—what happens here shows that a lack of stories deprives life of richness. The fact that the papers don't mention things happening in another country shows how much stock those people placed in the border, as it suggests a belief that strife on the other side wouldn't affect the home front.
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The Pakistani army put down the disturbances in Khulna with military force, but it was too late. The riots spread, and Hindu refugees began to board trains provided by Pakistan to flee to India. The rumors circulated as the refugees flooded into Calcutta, and the riots naturally began in Calcutta on January 10. Soldiers patrolled the streets, and the papers reported that small instances of violence occurred in both Calcutta and Dhaka for a week until "normalcy" was reached. Nobody knows how many were killed.
As the conflict progresses, stories have a negative effect: the rumors only stoke the fear of the "other," which in turn leads to violence. The fact that refugees tried to cross the border suggests that they believed in the power of the border to protect them from their rival religion.
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The governments of India and Pakistan were both outraged and apparently did what they could to stop the riots. They both accused each other of inciting violence in the other country, but once the riots ended, no more was said. The narrator notes that riots are a reminder that people are bound to each other in a different way than they are to their governments, and the ties between people are often stronger than those to governments. Governments exist, he proposes, to take over from the ties between people.
Essentially, the narrator proposes that the role of the government is to make citizens loyal to the nation, rather than to people that they have intimate and friendly relationships with but that the government labels as "other." By making this connection, the narrator also suggests that dividing people up like this is responsible for violence all over the world.
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Several months after he makes these discoveries, the narrator drags out Tridib's old atlas and a compass. He discovers that Srinagar and Khulna are 1200 miles apart, while Khulna and Calcutta are only 100 miles apart. He draws a circle with a radius of 1200 miles, with Khulna at the center, and he is in awe of how huge it is. It includes parts of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, China, and most of India. The narrator feels as though Tridib is watching him learn about distance. He realizes that even though places in China are closer to Calcutta than Srinagar, he never heard about the tragedies in China and instead heard only about Srinagar.
As the narrator makes these discoveries, he learns that the border isn't just an idea; it does actually divide people, given that the narrator knows nothing of these locales that are closer to him than other Indian cities. This shows that the governments as the narrator conceptualizes them were successful in their endeavors to make people more loyal to what's happening inside their country's borders than anything outside.
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The narrator draws another circle in Europe with Milan at the center, and he reasons that the only thing that could possibly happen on the edge of the circle that could incite riots in Milan is a war. He notes that his circle includes only states and citizens—no people. He's struck that people place so much importance on lines and borders, when it was only after those borders were drawn that Calcutta and Dhaka became so important and connected to each other. This irony, he believes, killed Tridib.
The narrator sees borders as dehumanizing, and thus comes to the conclusion that borders and the nationalism they rely on aren't worth the conflicts they cause. In the case of Calcutta and Dhaka, their twin experiences of the riots (which were brought about by their different religious leanings) is what brought them closer together and simultaneously drove them apart.
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The narrator says that Tha'mma's only frivolity was a love of jewelry. She sold a lot of her collection after her husband died and stopped wearing jewelry publicly, and gave most of it to the narrator's mother after she joined the family. There was one piece—a gold chain with a ruby pendant—that Tha'mma continued to wear after her husband's death as a way to honor him. She tried to hide it, even though the narrator's father insisted he didn't care that she wore jewelry as a widow.
Tha'mma's almost inappropriate love of jewelry humanizes her for the reader, and the fact that she clings so tightly to the gold chain as a way to honor her husband suggests that the way she spoke and thought about family isn't always what she actually believes. She does want to maintain a family connection, but the chain is a safer way to do that than actually having relationships with people.
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One afternoon in 1965, the narrator comes home to find his mother lying down. She explains that Tha'mma went out in the morning, came home, and is sitting upstairs listening to the news and refusing to eat. The narrator runs upstairs and knows immediately that something is wrong: Tha'mma's gold chain is gone. He yells and asks where her chain is. When she turns around, her expression frightens the narrator. She screams that she gave the chain away to fund the war, so that they can kill "them."
"Them" presumably refers to the Muslims in East Pakistan. The fact that Tha'mma sold her chain to fund a religious war suggests that she's becoming even more nationalistic in her old age, and further, that she's given up on her positive memory of Dhaka as her Indian hometown. Now, it's nothing more than an evil place, given that she wants to help destroy it.
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Tha'mma pounds on the radio and the glass front shatters, gouging her hand. She stares at it and then says that she must donate her blood to the war. The narrator screams and doesn't stop until the doctor arrives to give him a sedative. He asks his mother what's wrong with Tha'mma. She explains carefully that Tha'mma is very interested in the war with Pakistan, especially after "they killed" Tridib over there. The narrator reminds his mother that Tridib died in an accident, but he can't ask questions once the sedative takes effect.
When the narrator's mother slips, it suggests that she told him this lie in order to protect him and preserve his youth and innocence. The narrator suggests that in reality, this lie kept him from understanding what happened (and reaching a place of maturity) for far too long. This is another example of stories actually inhibiting someone's understanding of an event.
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Things happened quickly after Tridib's death: May left, Tridib was cremated, and the narrator spent time with an uncle. His parents took him to a temple a week later, and his father told him there that Tridib died in a car accident in Dhaka. The narrator was uninterested but perplexed when his father made him promise to not talk to anyone, especially Tha'mma, about what happened. The narrator agreed, but only because he knew his friends wouldn't care that Tridib died in an uninteresting accident.
Though the narrator doesn't offer any concrete reason for why his father didn't want him to tell anyone about Tridib's death, it's possible that Tridib's status as a member of a wealthy family would have made the riots "real" in a way that they're not when nameless, faceless poor people are the ones involved.
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Robi talks about Tridib's death for the first time in London, the day that Ila takes him and the narrator to meet Mrs. Price. Ila takes them to her favorite "Indian" restaurant, which is barely Indian. The food is Indian with an English twist. After they eat, the restaurateur, a friend of Ila's, brings coffee and sits with them. Ila tells the restaurateur that Robi lived in Dhaka, where he's from. The restaurateur is thrilled to talk about Dhaka, and peppers Robi with questions about visiting the old part of the city. He takes no notice of Robi's thin smile that turns into a grimace.
The restaurateur very clearly takes pride in being from Dhaka, just as Tha'mma once did. This suggests that he hasn't had to come to grips with the violence of the city, which forever changed Robi's life and soured his memories of the city. The fact that Ila brings all of this up suggests that she doesn't know anything about what happened in Dhaka; her parents likely lied to her to preserve her innocence as well.
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Robi angrily describes his one foray into the old part of Dhaka, where his mother was born and his uncle died in a riot. The restaurateur is embarrassed as Robi grabs his coat and storms out. Ila and the narrator chase after him and he finally stops at the steps of a church. He lights a cigarette and describes a recurring dream of the riot. In the dream, he's in the car and a string of men stand in front of the car. The street is otherwise empty. The driver and security guard look anxious. The men approach the car and the guard pushes Robi down so he can't see anything.
It's important to keep in mind that this dream is a combination of memory and exaggerated story—but in this case, it's evidence of very real trauma and doesn't provide any insight or depth to Robi's memory of the riot. It haunts him, indicating that political violence like this has devastating, long-term consequences for those it impacts.
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Robi stares at the guard's revolver and feels a thump on the hood of the car. He looks up and comes face to face with one of the men. The man swings something and breaks the windshield, cutting the driver's face. The driver is bleeding, the guard gets out of the car, and Robi hears him fire a shot. In the silence that follows, everyone in the car hears Khalil's rickshaw behind them. The men run towards it and climb the mountainous rickshaw. The guard jumps back into the car, thrilled that they can escape.
By telling the reader what happened to Tridib first through this dream, Robi’s story makes it clear to the reader that what happened was important to the entirety of the narrator's family and was extremely violent and haunting.
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The car won't start, and as Robi looks back, May has gotten out and approaches the rickshaw. She yells that everyone in the car are cowards. Robi knows that Tridib gets out of the car, but no matter how hard he reaches for him, he can't make him stay in the car. Robi says that this is where he wakes up, trying not to scream. He explains he's never been able to get rid of the dream but he used to think that if he could, he'd be free.
Robi reaching for Tridib suggests that in some ways, he feels responsible for his uncle's death—something that's understandable, but very much a thought process indicative of Robi's youth and lack of understanding of Tridib's relationship to May.
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Robi lights another cigarette and says that when he was running a district, he used to look at photos of dead bodies and wonder what he'd do if riots came to his area. He knew he'd have to authorize his officers to kill entire villages, but knew that he'd get death threats for it. He wondered why they don't just draw thousands of tiny borders, but reasons that it wouldn't change anything as you can't divide collective memory. He says that if freedom were truly possible, Tridib's death would've freed him, but the dream continues to haunt him. At this, Ila hugs Robi and the narrator.
As far as Robi understands it, borders do nothing but create even more violence. Further, his comment about collective memory reinforces the idea that the ties between people are stronger than individuals' ties to their government. The recurring nightmare means that Robi will never be free from the political violence of 1964, as there's no way for him to achieve closure of any sort.
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On the narrator's last day in London, he's supposed to have dinner with May. He spends his day running back and forth across town for various reasons, and phones Ila at lunchtime. The narrator reminds her he's leaving the next day and wonders why she sounds awkward. She explains that she and Nick have decided to take a short holiday, and tells the narrator to forget everything she said about Nick cheating on her. She admits she made it up and everything is fine, but her voice is high. The narrator offers to come over, but Ila shouts that she's fine and hangs up.
Now that life doesn't look the way she expected it would, Ila finally turns to stories as a tool, unsuccessful as they might be in convincing the narrator of anything. She writes Nick’s infidelity off as a story in order to make her less than ideal present more palatable. This echoes the way that Ila once told the narrator a story about her doll being bullied, when in reality, Ila was the one being bullied by racist kids at school.
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That evening, as the narrator tries to shove a small vase into his suitcase, he remembers that it's actually a gift for May. He realizes he's late for dinner and phones to let her know he's on his way. At dinner, May brings up what the narrator had been unable to ask: why he never asked her how Tridib died. The narrator admits he never had the courage or the words. He can tell that May has been preparing for this conversation. She explains that they'd been in the car when it was stopped by a mob. The mob broke the windshield, which injured the driver. The security guard fired a shot, and the mob withdrew—and descended on the rickshaw behind them.
The lead-up to the conversation positions it as a way for both May and the narrator to achieve a sense of closure by finally merging their differing understandings of what happened. Again, this mirrors the way that the narrator uses his own memories and Tridib's stories to provide greater meaning and richness to his experiences. May’s story will finally help him understand an experience that shaped his life in mysterious ways that he didn't understand as a child.
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Tha'mma had yelled at the driver to drive away, but May screamed at her and got out. She says she believed she was a heroine, though she was the only one who didn't know how it was going to play out. Tridib ran after her and pushed her down and then continued to the rickshaw. He tried to pull Jethamoshai out of the mob, but the mob dragged Tridib in. After a moment, the mob scattered. Tridib, Khalil, and Jethamoshai lay on the ground, dead and mutilated. Tridib's throat was slit.
When May got out of the car and says she believed she was a heroine, it shows her acting without considering context—though she wasn't likely to suffer harm, her actions would absolutely hurt others. This is likely the first time May understood that her social standing could hurt others at all, and it may explain why she sleeps on the floor and works for charities in the present.
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May and the narrator clear away plates, and the narrator insists he needs to go home. When May responds, he notices that her voice is strange. When he touches her arm, he sees that she's crying. She begs him to stay, saying that she's afraid to be alone. When she calms, she asks the narrator if he thinks that she killed Tridib. The narrator doesn't answer. May continues: she says she used to think she did, but she knows now that Tridib knew he was going to die and gave himself up as a sacrifice. She asks the narrator to stay the night, and he agrees, and the two sleep together. He's glad and grateful to finally understand the mystery of Tridib's death.
The narrator's silence suggests that he does believe May killed Tridib, but by keeping it to himself, he allows May to maintain the story she created to make the event less painful. When the narrator stays to have sex, he and May finally connect with each other as equal adults who both loved Tridib. Now that the narrator knows the truth, he'll presumably be able to go on and better understand other aspects of his life with this new information.
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