Redefining Nationalism

shadow-lines.jpgRecently when Dr.Manmohan Singh was awarded a degree of Letters by the University of Jammu, he promised that efforts will be made to convert the LOC into “Line of peace” so as to allow free flow of ideas and opinions. However, what remains unchallenged and unaltered even today is the existence of the line which itself acts as a barrier in the free flow of ideas. We seem content to live in a world where only spilling of blood can awaken patriotism in the heart of the people and sacrificing one’s life at the time of war is considered a martial glory. This is the point of view that we inherit blindly, without considering alternative views that defy the idea of nationality linked to bloodshed and in turn defines nations, national boundaries and history in a different way. Amitav Ghosh presents one such view in his brilliantly crafted second novel, The Shadow Lines.

The novel traverses the stories of two families, one Bengali and the other British; over three generations and multiple time frames. In the journey to new notions of nationalism, we as readers are accompanied by “ a narrator” who recounts various incidents, some which have happened to him and some that he has heard of from his relatives. Uncles and aunts, cousins and friends are easily interspersed within the course of the narrative, without creating any confusion, just as we move in and out of London, Calcutta and Dhaka throughout the novel. The novel in the backdrops of the Second World War and riots over East Pakistan and covers a time span from over 1939 to 1964. However, the conceptions and beliefs of the people then, seem to hold true even five decades later. Even today, we imagine the LOC to be a place where two warring armies stand facing each other, sharing nothing except ferocity and hostility. In reality, the LOC is a stretch of barren land separating two lands, which are perhaps very similar in terms of culture and history. This is reflected in the novel through the strong reaction of the narrator’s grandmother who fails to understand the significance of borders. She can’t comprehend the idea of fighting men and bombs and bullets being exchanged. The grandmother, being brought up at the time of the freedom struggle, believed that a nation can be built only when the people are bound to each other by a common sacrifice and a common suffering of losing loved ones in a war. All those who have suffered the same consequences are classified as “us” and those who have been killed at “our” hands become “them”. This differentiation leads to a strong hatred towards “the other”, adding fuel to the already vanquishing fire of animosity.

In the novel, Amitav Ghosh negates this idea of “the other” by claiming that there is a similarity in everyone, irrespective of borders or religion that can be seen best at the time of war. Both at the time of 1971 riots and the Second World War, the similarity in situations and reaction of people in England as well as Germany and Dhaka and Calcutta, is very apparent. As the author claims through the voice of the narrator, “it is like stepping through a mirror”. Therefore, question of why do we need boundaries to define ourselves, which lead to wars and bloodshed is repeatedly raised throughout the novel.
The ravages of war and the anguish it causes, especially on the middle class strata of society, is a strain running throughout this novel. While the narrator’s grandmother becomes increasingly bitter after her nephew’s death in the hands of “nationalist” hooligans and submits to the idea of “we must kill them before they kill us”, the narrator’s uncle finds it impossible to forget and forgive the brutal killing of his brother in front of his own eyes. Every character ends up feeling insecure and shaken by the wars. Hereby, Amitav Ghosh emphasizes the danger of defining our very identity on the basis of our nationality.

The novel concludes that the lines we draw to separate the world into nations merely serve to divide, instead of unite people; serves to develop feelings of hate, rather than desire for peace. The lines itself are etched in our minds, in reality they are the reflections of our animosity, mere shadows of the loss of feeling of brotherhood.

Amitav Ghosh ends with a fervent plea for developing a world, not merely states or nations. He reiterates that the people of warring nations often are as similar as mirror images of each other and the difference is merely a “shadow”; an illusion and fantasy. He desperately hopes to find “ a place where there is no border between oneself and one’s image in the mirror”. Only this can help in facilitating unity amongst people of one nation and then lead to world peace.
The novel has multiple themes, and nationalism is merely one of the diverse themes of the novel. Over and above, each theme that Amitav Ghosh introduces and develops in this novel is unique and is a must read for all those who desire to bring about a change in the world scenario. After all, the first step for initiating change is to alter and introspect on one’s own ideas and this book is extremely thought provoking in this respect.

Pallavi Banerjee