For all of the characters in The Shadow Lines, social standing is a major motivating factor in their lives. By exploring how people's desire for wealth and social standing gets out of control as a result of excessive pride, the novel suggests that these things should be treated with caution and not be taken too seriously. The narrator notes that though his education and his family's standing have had innumerable positive effects on his life, he also shows how the same things tear apart different factions of his family and prove to be, in some cases, lethal.
Over the course of the novel, the characters make it abundantly clear that even more important to them than climbing the social ladder is highlighting the differences, real or imagined, between themselves and those who exist on the social ladder below them. Ila's mother, who goes by the nickname Queen Victoria, is one of the most overt offenders. Although the woman she hires to nanny Ila, Lizzie, speaks fluent English and is semi-conversational in Hindi, Queen Victoria insists on speaking to Lizzie in her own made-up language designed to make Lizzie seem stupid and uneducated. In reality, Lizzie is just poor and from a different part of the country. Tha'mma also relies heavily on her sense of pride. When her husband died prematurely, leaving Tha'mma with a young son and no job, Tha'mma was too prideful to ask her wealthy family members for help. Instead, by a stroke of luck, she got a job as a teacher that she then held for the next thirty years, and impressed upon her son, the narrator's father, the importance of education. In her old age, she construes her relatives as greedy and unhelpful for not coming to her aid, though they didn't help her exactly because she refused their help. However, by juxtaposing Tha'mma's sense of pride in her self-made wealth and her sister's family's inherited wealth with an open distaste for poor people and an implied fear of living like poor people, the novel suggests that the characters' desire for wealth and standing is somewhat understandable. It's in their best interests to make sure their children attend the best schools and achieve the highest marks, as that will ensure that they don't end up poor.
Chronologically speaking, pride is the first thing that begins to destroy the narrator's family. When Tha'mma and Mayadebi are young girls, they live in a large house in Dhaka with a number of extended family members. When their father begins fighting with their uncle Jethamoshai, the two men decide that the only way to deal with the conflict is to divide the house in two with a wall and never speak to each other again. For Tha'mma, who is old enough to remember a time when the house was not divided, she sees that her father and uncle's excessive pride is what causes them to feel that their only option was to divide the house in a completely nonsensical way and cut off the other half of the family. Further, the prideful natures of both parts of the family don't end after the division: the patriarchs forbid their children from playing with each other, and thus, the two halves of the family fall out of contact. Most chilling is what Tha'mma discovers when she returns to the house in her sixties. Jethamoshai still lives there, an ancient man in his nineties, and is still very clearly upset about the conflict with his brother: he rants and raves about wanting to take his brother's family to court to legally claim the other half of the house, and indeed, ran out several family members who at various points tried to return to the house. By this point, Jethamoshai is completely unable to care for himself, and he certainly would not be taken seriously in a court of law. In this way, the novel offers a dark cautionary tale of the consequences of pride, as Jethamoshai's pride leads to his own death, the death of his caretaker, Khalil, and Tridib.
Tha'mma believes wholeheartedly that it's important to make good use of one's social standing—a belief that stems from her own bootstraps story of success. As far as she's concerned, Tridib blatantly ignores this, which makes him untrustworthy and stupid in her eyes. Instead of becoming a professor, Tridib spends his time on the streets, talking—a sin to trump all others, according to Tha'mma. Again, however, Tha'mma turns this all on its head when, on the day before she dies, she writes a letter to the dean of the narrator's school, informing him that the narrator has been visiting brothels and therefore should be expelled—essentially, attempting to deprive her grandson of the social standing he would achieve through education. The narrator understands that his grandmother did this because she resents that the narrator is deeply in love with Ila, who attempts to reject her own high social standing by becoming involved with Trotskyism in London, a political movement that seeks to upend the class system altogether. Though Tha'mma is unsuccessful in ruining her grandson's chances at a better life through education, this instance illustrates again the dangers of excessive pride and obsession with social standing. Tha'mma ensures that her grandson will think poorly of her after her death, destroying her family in yet another way. The novel illustrates the innumerable ways that pride and fear can tear apart a family, ending with the assertion that though the reasoning behind people's pride can, in some cases, be understandable, the means absolutely do not justify the ends.
Social Standing and Pride ThemeTracker
Social Standing and Pride 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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.