One term break, with my dorm suddenly emptied as friends and classmates left for home and other places, I read The Shadow Lines. I remember those few days of long quiet. If I looked up, I could seethe fire flashes rising high from the steel plant not far away. When friends asked later, I said I’d not minded being alone, I’d been reading. But I could never quite explain the book to them.
Amitav Ghosh’s second novel follows no conventional structure; it mines memory and history, and the areas in between, with gentle liminality. And more, it had people I recognised instantly.
I too had a great uncle who had refused to leave his family home in Barisal in the territory then known as East Pakistan, even after everyone else had crossed the border into India; he’d remain and be looked after by a Muslim rickshaw puller and his family. When Ghosh’s narrator spoke of his grandmother and her sister, Mayadebi, I remembered my grandmother who never returned to Barisal, and for long years, always traipsed down to the letter box in our apartment complex in Delhi, waiting for letters from nephews, siblings, and her many grandchildren. Aerograms that then spoke to me of worlds faraway.
Since then, the novel has helped me unearth stories of my own, always emotionally distant family, perhaps because my parents and those older, keen to get on, never found the words to talk about themselves, and what they had left behind. When Ghosh details the violence of 1964 that spread in concentric circles from Srinagar in December of 1963, reaching Dhaka and Calcutta two months later, I read up and discovered my father’s role as a police officer in violence-hit Rourkela in March that year.
Over the years, I’ve found myself looking for this novel in every public library, in every new city we have moved to, finding home and succour in locating a familiar book, miles away and years gone, from the time I first found it.
Anuradha Kumar is the author of several books. Her most recent work is Coming Back to the City: Mumbai Stories.
Other stories in The Art of Solitude series: