Amitav Ghosh’s novel, The Shadow Lines is replete with themes associated with the subaltern voice. The term subaltern refers to oppressed peoples, dominated by a government entity or social elite which eliminate the possibility of a minority group to express themselves or defend their own convictions. The dominant groups or individuals assume the right to speak for those who cannot, ultimately giving more power to themselves over the oppressed peoples. Ghosh’s novel reveals the complexities of the subaltern voice in India, and at the same time, shows how it is interrelated to other themes such as post-colonialism.
Ghosh confronts a multitude of issues problematic to Indian society from WWII to the present, specifically using the historical backdrop of events such as the Partition of India and riots of 1962 in Calcutta and Dhaka (East Pakistan) as the framework for the novel. The narrator alternates between past and present, unfolding events central to the text which are monumental to his fate and the fate of those he holds most dear.
The narrator observes and evaluates the actions of one such character—Tridib—the narrator’s second uncle. Ghosh reveals Tridib’s character through the narrator’s memory, and actually alludes to the tensions of the transitional period of post-colonialism to nationalism when the narrator recalls times he and his uncle spent together. Ghosh gives direction to the idea of individuals who search for ways to be heard. The reader gains insight that the effects of post-British colonization are still present in contemporary society through a character such as Tridib. Throughout the novel Ghosh gives Tridib a stronger voice which allows him to work through personal silences and foreshadow future events. Ironically, it seems Tridib’s voice is most notably heard through his silence, as the narrator recollects later in adulthood. Most times heroes are everyday people that do extraordinary things, or the right thing, making them a model to others.
The shadow lines become a symbol not of geographic importance, but rather, a crossing between memory, reality, and secrecy. As the narrator becomes a man, he revisits memories of Tridib, learning about a secret that has been kept for fifteen years, which delivers him from his own silence. Memory and reality come together for the narrator and past events now make sense to him. He understands not only the reason Tridib did what he did, but the sacrifice involved and the true meaning of Tridib’s actions. Often, the past motivates the present. Ghosh’s fiction implies that human beings are not just characters in a story. Ghosh reminds us that to be part of the story is to be part of history.