The Shadow Lines centers on the relationship between freedom and how people try to achieve that freedom. In this way, the novel seeks to parse out the meanings of different kinds of freedom and how one's perception of freedom influences their identity. Further, the novel also suggests that the idea of freedom is enough to drive someone mad, even if freedom is ultimately unreachable.
The novel explores the idea of freedom primarily through the opposing definitions held by Tha'mma, the narrator's grandmother, and Ila, his cousin. Tha'mma, who was born in 1902, grew up during the British occupation of India. As a young woman, Tha'mma believed that there was nothing more important than securing freedom from British rule, even telling her wide-eyed grandson that she wanted to join the terrorists and assassinate British government officials to meet those ends. Despite being so intent on this freedom as a young woman, when Partition (the process that granted the colony of British India freedom from colonial rule by creating the separate countries of India, West Pakistan, and East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh) finally took place in 1947, Tha'mma was far too busy working and raising a family as a widow to even celebrate, let alone consider the gravity of what happened. It's not until much later that 62-year-old Tha'mma, as she prepares to return to Dhaka for the first time since she was a young woman, realizes the implications of the colony's divisions. While she identifies proudly as an Indian and Hindu woman, the fact that she was born in Dhaka means that, in light of current borders, she was born in East Pakistan—a Muslim-majority country. This realization shakes her sense of identity to its very core, especially in light of her growing nationalism in her old age. This nationalism, which reaches its height after Tridib dies on this trip to Dhaka, leads Tha'mma to sell her beloved gold chain to fund the Indian fight against Muslims. When the narrator confronts her about it, she screams at him that she did it to ensure his freedom from "them" (presumably, the Muslim East Pakistanis). This suggests that Tha'mma's desire for freedom and an easy identity very literally drives her mad, and this nationalism only increases in the following years until her death.
As far as Tha'mma is concerned, Ila's desire for and definition of freedom is a direct attack on her own beliefs about freedom. This is primarily because Ila seeks her freedom by escaping to England, where she can live as a modern western woman: she can sleep with or flirt with men if she feels like it, she can travel around the world, and most importantly, she's no longer under the control of her male relatives in India. However, the novel questions if the "freedom" Ila finds by living in England is even real when it describes the man she marries, Nick Price. Though Ila's marriage to Nick is supposed to free her from obligations to her family and give her a platform of support, Nick admits mere months into their marriage that he has several other girlfriends and no interest in giving them up. When Ila refuses to leave her marriage because she loves Nick too much, she chooses to exist in a place where her freedom is compromised. The narrator interprets this as an indication that in some ways, Tha'mma was right: Ila can't be free. This is reinforced in a point that comes later in the novel but earlier chronologically, when the narrator tells his dying grandmother that Ila lives in England so that she can be free. Tha'mma calls Ila a whore and insists that Ila is in no way free—as per Tha'mma's understanding, freedom can't be purchased in the form of a plane ticket, especially since her own first and only plane ride to Dhaka resulted not only in an identity crisis, but the loss of family.
As the narrator speaks to others about the meaning of freedom, from his uncle Robi to May, he comes to understand though everyone desperately loves the idea freedom and wants it for themselves, actually achieving true freedom is nearly impossible. Robi believes he'll never be free of the traumatic memories of Tridib's death, which he witnessed firsthand; Ila chooses to never free herself from her unhappy marriage that was supposed to free her; and the narrator asserts that the Indian subcontinent will never truly be free from the spite and animosity caused by British rule, long after Partition. With this, the novel suggests that freedom is an impossible idea, and no one can ever be truly free, no matter how hard one might fight for it or attempt to escape oppression.
Freedom and Identity ThemeTracker
Freedom and Identity Quotes in The Shadow Lines
I could guess at a little of what it had cost her then to refuse her rich sister's help and of the wealth of pride it had earned her, and I knew intuitively that all that had kept her from agreeing at once was her fear of accepting anything from anyone that she could not return in exact measure.
I would have been frightened, she said. But I would have prayed for strength, and God willing, yes, I would have killed him. It was for our freedom: I would have done anything to be free.
She had given me away, she had made public, then and for ever, the inequality of our needs; she had given Ila the knowledge of her power and she had left me defenceless, naked in the face of that unthinkable, adult truth: that need is not transitive, that one may need without oneself being needed.
I said: I'm not meeting you for the first time; I've grown up with you.
He was taken aback.
That must have taken some doing, he said drily, since I grew up right here, in boring suburban old West Hampstead.
I've known the streets around here for a long time too, I said.
They know they're a nation because they've drawn their borders with blood […] War is their religion. That's what it takes to make a country. Once that happens people forget they were born this or that, Muslim or Hindu, Bengali or Punjabi: they become a family born of the same pool of blood. That is what you have to achieve for India, don't you see?
But I knew I had made a mistake the moment I said it; I should have known that she would have nothing but contempt for a freedom that could be bought for the price of an air ticket. For she too had once wanted to be free; she had dreamt of killing for her freedom.
[…] I thought of how much they all wanted to be free; how they went mad wanting their freedom; I began to wonder whether it was I that was mad because I was happy to be bound: whether I was alone in knowing that I could not live without the clamour of voices within me.
Well of course there are famines and riots and disasters, she said. But those are local things, after all—not like revolutions or anti-fascist wars, nothing that sets a political example to the world, nothing that's really remembered.
I lay on my back, staring up at the ceiling, and as the hours passed I saw Ila again and again as she was when she stepped out of that car at Gole Park, eighteen years ago; on that morning when she wrenched me into adulthood by demonstrating for the first time, and for ever the inequality of our needs.
The price she had paid for that pride was that it had come to be transformed in her imagination into a barrage of slights and snubs; an imaginary barrier that she believed her gloating relatives had erected to compound her humiliation.
But if there aren't any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where's the difference then? And if there's no difference, both sides will be the same […] What was it all for then—Partition and all the killing and everything—if there isn't something in between?
They were all around me, we were together at last, not ghosts at all: the ghostliness was merely the absence of time and distance—for that is all that a ghost is, a presence displaced in time.
I could think of nothing to say; nothing that would console her for the discovery that the squalor of the genteel little lives she had so much despised was a part too of the free world she had tried to build for herself.
Once you start moving you never stop. That's what I told my sons when they took the trains. I said: I don't believe in this India-Shindia. It's all very well, you're going away now, but suppose when you get there they decide to draw another line somewhere? What will you do then? Where will you move to? No one will have you anywhere.
His atlas showed me, for example, that […] Chiang Mai in Thailand was much nearer Calcutta than Delhi is […] Yet I had never heard of those places until I drew my circle, and I cannot remember a time when I was so young that I had not heard of Delhi or Srinagar.