The narrator of The Shadow Lines is endlessly fascinated by the relationship between memories as they exist in people's minds and memories that are transformed into stories and passed on through the spoken word. As a child, he lives for the stories his uncle Tridib tells him of living in England, as well as other stories about the Price family, which is the family that Tridib and his parents stayed with. As the narrator grows up and experiences others challenging these stories that Tridib told him, he becomes even more convinced of what Tridib always insisted: while stark reality has its place, one can live an even richer life when a person allows stories and memories, both one’s own and those of others, to inform and influence their reality.
The narrator grows up idolizing Tridib, mostly because Tridib is an exceptional storyteller. He can craft worlds and situations with great detail—and the narrator takes the stories to heart to such an intense degree—that as an adult, the narrator is able to find his way around parts of London he's never been to, based purely on his uncle's stories and the mental maps Tridib created for him. This illustrates how, for the narrator, Tridib's memories and stories are extremely real—something that the narrator's cousin, Ila, doesn't understand. Though Ila also enjoys the stories when she's a child, they don't hold the same importance for her as an adult. The narrator suggests that this is because Ila, who grew up wealthy and privileged, never had to use her imagination to travel or see things. Essentially, the novel suggests that because Ila's lived experience is so rich, she has no reason to make memories that contain the same degree of richness. She, unlike the narrator, can always buy a ticket to a faraway land or find another interesting lover. However, because of this disregard for memories and stories alike, the narrator interprets Ila's life as actually less rich, as she doesn't rely on the "clamoring voices" to mediate her experiences with the world, as the narrator does.
Despite the fact that the narrator relies so heavily on Tridib’s stories and memories, the instances when the narrator either cannot gain understanding outside of his own memories or simply doesn't have Tridib's memories to color his experience are telling. This suggests that Ila's method of moving through the world has its place, given that she doesn't struggle with the issues the narrator does of whose stories take precedence: his own, or someone else's. This is most apparent in the case of Tridib's death, something that Tridib himself cannot tell the narrator about and the truth of which the narrator's family keeps from him. They originally tell him that Tridib died in an accident in Dhaka, and at eleven years old, the narrator doesn't find this particularly interesting—accidents, he insists, aren't that compelling for a child, unlike other means of death. However, as the narrator grows older, he begins to wonder about the truth of his parents' story. He finally consults both the newspaper from the day Tridib died and May, who witnessed firsthand what happened. The narrator discovers that though he also experienced the riots that gripped Calcutta and Dhaka (and killed Tridib) and was understandably terrified by what happened, the power of his own memories of the event, coupled with his youth, meant that he never connected his experience of the riots in Calcutta with Tridib and May's experience in Dhaka. When the narrator learns from May that Tridib was murdered by a mob while attempting to save her, his great-uncle Jethamoshai, and his great uncle's caregiver, Khalil, the narrator is finally able to make sense of Tridib's story, his own story, and the story of the riots as a whole.
With this understanding, which completes the narrator's understanding of his uncle's entire life, the narrator finally realizes the impact and the importance of telling stories and holding onto other people’s memories. May’s memories allow the narrator to, for the first time, grasp the reality and the scope of what happened. This echoes the way that Tridib's stories about World War II made that war feel real for the narrator. With this, the novel ends by asserting that though reality as Ila experiences it has its place, memories and stories offer unique insight into an event that simple experience doesn't allow.
Memory, Storytelling, and Reality ThemeTracker
Memory, Storytelling, and Reality Quotes in The Shadow Lines
I tried to tell her, but neither then nor later, though we talked about it often, did I ever succeed in explaining to her that I could not forget because Tridib had given me worlds to travel in and he had given me eyes to see them with; she, who had been travelling around the world since she was a child, could never understand what those hours in Tridib's room had meant to me […]
I felt a constriction in my throat, for suddenly it seemed to me that perhaps she was not so alien, after all, to my own small, puritanical world, in which children were sent to school to learn how to cling to their gentility by proving themselves in the examination hall.
For Ila the current was real: it was as though she lived in a present which was like an airlock in a canal, shut away from the tidewaters of the past and the future by steel floodgates.
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.
[…] 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.
I began to marvel at the easy arrogance with which she believed that her experience could encompass other moments simply because it had come later; that times and places are the same because they happen to look alike, like airport lounges.
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.
But you know, the strange thing was that as we grew older even I almost came to believe in our story.
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 he did know that was how he wanted to meet her, May—as a stranger, in a ruin. He wanted them to meet as the completest of strangers—strangers-across-the-seas—all the more strangers because they knew each other already. He wanted them to meet far from their friends and relatives—in a place without a past, without history, free, really free, two people coming together with the utter freedom of strangers.
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.
Everyone lives in a story, he says, my grandmother, my father, his father, Lenin, Einstein, and lots of other names I hadn't heard of; they all lived in stories, because stories are all there are to live in, it was just a question of which one you choose […]
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.
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.
They had drawn their borders, believing in that pattern, in the enchantment of lines, hoping perhaps that once they had etched their borders upon the map, the two bits of land would sail away from each other like the shifting tectonic plates of the prehistoric Gondwanaland.