Firsts are always special. First love, first car, first job – you get the drift. For me, Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines was the first hard-core literary book I ever read. For the kind of book it is, it could have made or broken my love affair with books. Fortunately, it did the former. Not only was it the first real literary book I ever read, it was also the first book I ever wrote an essay on; it was my first real ‘Indian Literature in English’ book.
But The Shadow Lines will not be special just for these firsts. It is a book bigger than I will ever be able to encompass with my limited vocabulary. Unlike other books that I deeply love and cannot live without – I might not read TSL over and over again — it’s just not that easy a read. One of the reasons that I am such a big fan of Amitav Ghosh is because he doesn’t treat his readers as school-children, spoon-feeding them a story. Ghosh’s imagination is expansive, and he sets on his flight, expecting you to keep up with him. He is unapologetic about how smart he really is – if you can fathom the story he is trying to tell you, you can’t help but feel smart yourself.
TSL introduced me to the idea of a nameless narrator. Someone had to point it to me, in fact, that the person through whose eyes we see the story, doesn’t have a name at all. The idea itself was so fascinating. TSL also made me fall in love with the non-linear narrative. Mostly based on memory and how it affects the larger picture of life, the book bounces back and forth, between time and space, leaving you grappling for something central to hold on, simultaneously forcing you to get into the story, unabashedly.
Tridib, the person around whom the story revolves, is a character worth remembering forever. I think I’ve had a crush on him for the last ten years. Heard about through his brother, his lover/good friend, and the narrator, you never see anything through Tridib himself. The characters build his story for you – making him into a kind of myth. Tridib is one of those rare characters that says very little, but leaves an everlasting impact on the readers’ minds.
For a dreamer like me, TSL made a wonderful difference while I was growing up. It told me that it was okay to live in a life of imagination. It was not such a bad idea to sometimes leave your skin, and live someone else’s life, in a voyeuristic manner. It taught me that when you imagine, you do so with precision, because otherwise it’s just no fun. It gave my young mind the impetus to dream, wonder, and wander away to unknown places.
It’s been over ten years since I first read The Shadow Lines, but even today, the book holds me hypnotized. It makes me smile, and cry, and think. If that’s not the true testament of a good book, I don’t know what is.