A few months after Delhi University (DU) decided to drop Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines from its first year undergraduate English curriculum, the 57-year-old author made an appearance at his alma mater, St Stephen’s College, on Friday to speak at an event celebrating 25 years of the novel’s publication.
First published by Ravi Dayal in 1988, The Shadow Lines won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1989, and has been co-published by Penguin Books India (PBI) since 2009. PBI, which has sold 4,000 copies of the book in hardback and 3,000 in paperback, launched a special 25th anniversary edition of a limited run of 500 copies on Friday.
Each of these copies, priced at Rs.1,499, has been printed on 100gsm (grams per square metre) classic ivory paper imported from Spain and used by PBI for the first time. They also have a ribbon bookmark, and come in a slip-case. But the real bonus is a note from Ghosh, inscribed by him in longhand, personalized for each buyer. It is available from http://www.uread.com/book/shadow-lines-amitav-ghosh/9780670087167.
Ghosh said he was glad that PBI has created an object people can collect and keep. “What is the life of a book nowadays?” he said in a conversation with writer-historian Mukul Kesavan at the college hall. “Earlier, readers used to buy books they wanted to live with. Now it is ever so easy to download a book.”
In spite of its modest sales, The Shadow Lines is one of Ghosh’s best-loved books. It also has a notoriously complex structure, the reason why DU felt it was unsuitable for young students.
Moving between Calcutta, Dhaka and London, spanning multiple frames of time, it was the second novel Ghosh wrote after The Circle of Reason, while “living in a little garret in the burning Delhi heat”.
Told by an unnamed narrator, an influence Ghosh attributed to his absorption in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the story moves restlessly between nations, bringing the characters Ila, Tridib, May and Nick into one another’s lives but also pulling them apart, often in circumstances riddled with violence. From World War II to Partition to a riot in Dhaka in 1964, the novel addresses some epochal moments of South Asian history by weaving an intense human story around the events.
One of the triggers for the novel was Ghosh’s first-hand encounter with the 1984 pogrom against Sikhs in Delhi after the assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi. “The Shadow Lines came out of that deranging experience, though it had nothing to do with those riots,” he said. “I wanted to explore if it was possible to write about violence in a non-violent way.”
Kesavan pointed out another kind of intellectual origin of the novel. “The Shadow Lines shows us what India before the 1991 liberalization was like—an autarchic country, where most people had little disposable income, unlike now, for travel, and felt constrained,” he said. “In the novel, it is Tridib, and to an extent Ila, who teaches the narrator to inhabit the world through the imagination, to live a promiscuously cosmopolitan life.”
Most of Ghosh’s books have made vast journeys. Fluent in several languages, including Arabic, Ghosh is a rare writer who is admired as much in Israel as in the Arab World. From Burmese to Bengali, his interest in the literature is eclectic. “I started writing The Calcutta Chromosome shortly after translating one of Rabindranath Tagore’s ghost stories, The Hungry Stones. My novel turned out to be about such hungry stones,” Ghosh said. “The other influence on that book was the Hindi writer Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’. I even had a place in it called Renupur.”
This formidable erudition, expressed without any ostentation, is what makes Ghosh’s writing an invaluable resource for classroom teaching.
He was not particularly unhappy with The Shadow Lines going out of the curriculum, although Kesavan argued that having a novel prescribed as a text is one way of making it canonical. Ghosh said he had mixed feelings about the inclusion of his work in the DU syllabus. “I thought only books by dead authors were studied in classrooms,” he joked. “I used to get angry letters from students seeking help with their essays, asking me to explain certain ideas.”
Although Ghosh has nothing against the American semester system, the format DU has gravitated towards, he feels blind mimicry of an institutionally based model without inputs from the outside is not the best way to bring in change.
“Indian education is a paradox,” he said. “We really don’t know what works. I can’t remember too many good teachers from my own college days.” Ghosh had joined St Stephen’s in 1973 as a student of English before quickly switching to history, dispirited by a series of lectures on Thomas Hardy, a writer he is not exactly fond of, in the first few months.
“The education I gave myself was the best,” he said, to several rounds of applause from the audience, which mostly comprised students. “We can all give ourselves such an education, which usually comes from home—parents, family members and peers—and from one another.”