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Representation of London in The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh

Tuomas Huttunen

In his discussion of the change from market to monopoly capital, Fredric Jameson detects “a growing contradiction between lived experience and structure, or between a phenomenological description of the life of an individual and a more properly structural model of the conditions of existence of that experience.” The levels of “the immediate and limited experience of individuals” and the socio-cultural background governing that experience have drifted away from each other to the extent that they begin to “constitute themselves into that opposition the classical dialectic describes as Wesen and Erscheinung, essence and appearance, structure and lived experience.” (410-11). In other words, the spheres of the actual reality of sense-perception, “the immediate experience,” and of the socio-cultural influences affecting the way in which this experience is realized, “the structural model of the conditions of existence of that experience,” do not coincide. Jameson links this phenomenon with the era of colonialism and the large movements of people and ideas launched by it. What this means in relation to literature is that the immediate experience of an individual subject, which according to Jameson was previously the primary raw material of fiction, is now reduced to only one of the sectors in the social world. What is more, the way this sector of immediate sense-perception is realized does not necessarily coincide with its actual socio-cultural present.

Taking this discrepancy as my starting point, I intend to examine the representation of London in the novel The Shadow Lines (1988) by the Indian-born writer, Amitav Ghosh. The novel relates the history of an Indian family living in Calcutta, but with roots in Dhaka on the Pakistan side of the border and connections in Britain. The intertwined history of the family and their British acquintances, the Prices, is presented as stories filtered through the anonymous narrator of the novel. Most of these stories are told by the narrator’s grandmother, his uncle Tridib, his cousins Robi and Ila, and the British family friend, May Price. The stories bring together life in Dhaka before Partition, life in London during the war, and the life the narrator leads in the Calcutta of the 1960s and London of the 1970s. Through these stories, a picture is formed of the personal, communal and national identity of this migrant family living in India with connections both to the then East Pakistan and Britain. The experience of Partition and of living in the nation-state of India in the 1960s is presented through the symbolism of lines, be they geographical, temporal or cultural, or lines dividing differing realities, consciousness or identity. In general, the novel comments on the artificial nature of cultural, ideological, geographical and psychological borders in favour of a broader humanism that has traditionally been very unfashionable in the discourses of postmodernism and postcolonialism. These other thematic strands of the novel, although quite prominent, are beyond the scope of this essay. Here I shall mainly concentrate on epistemological borders that become apparent in the various ways of representing London in the novel.

Using specifically London as a reference, Jameson states: “the truth of [the] experience no longer coincides with the place in which it takes place. The truth of that limited daily experience of London lies, rather, in India or Jamaica or Hong Kong” (411). Although the original position and the direction of movement of the colonial and postcolonial migrant characters in the novel is opposite to those of the Western modernist writers of the colonial period that Jameson is referring to, obvious parallels can be found between the two cases: they are both “bound up with the whole colonial system of the British Empire that determines the very quality of the individual’s subjective life.” (Jameson 411). The novel does not merely change the direction of the cultural travellers; in it people come and go in so many different directions beginning from so many different starting points that the directions get blurred into a kind of status quo of movement. As already indicated, the actual lived experience of the narrator in the novel is originally that of the Calcutta of the early 1960s and later that of the London of the late 1970s. But, due to the early influence of stories told mainly by his cousin, Tridib, the form governing these actual experiences is mainly that of an imaginary London of 1939, or that of images of various far-away places which have come to him in the form of these stories.

Tridib is an archaeologist, who has spent an important period of his childhood in England, and who is in love with an English girl (or an image of one) he has last seen as a baby. He prefers to perceive reality through the imagination rather than through his senses and is aware of the relativity of truth. According to him, everyone lives in a story, “because stories are all there are to live in” (184). It is just a question of which story one chooses. Tridib chooses to invent his own stories, to construct a reality of his own. In his view, a place does not merely exist, but it has to be invented. And people have to invent their own realities and places, otherwise we will never be free of other people’s inventions (37). Tridib has an enormous influence on the young narrator. As Sulaja Singh puts it, the narrator “hoards the tidbits of Tridib’s memory and narrativizes his voyeuristic consumption by detailing, in a map-maker’s meticulous manner, the spaces of War-time London, for example” (Singh 16).

In a contrast to Tridib’s influence in the novel there is that exercised by another cousin, Ila. For Ila, who is the cosmopolitan daughter of a diplomat, places appear somewhat differently than they do for Tridib and the narrator, who has created detailed image-maps of these places he has never visited, and for whom they appear both exciting and slightly romanticized. This emerges most clearly in a conversation during one of Ila’s visits to Calcutta:

I began to tell her how I longed to visit Cairo, to see the world’s first pointed arch in the mosque of Ibn Tulun, and touch the stones of the Great Pyramid of Cheops. I had been talking for a while when I noticed that she wasn’t listening to me; she was following a train of thought in her mind, frowning with concentration. I watched her, waiting eagerly to hear what she would have to say. Suddenly she clicked her fingers, gave herself a satisfied nod, and said aloud, inadvertently: Oh yes, Cairo, the ladies is way on the other side of the departure lounge. (26)

As the narrator puts it, for Ila “Cairo was a place to piss in” (27). This is an instance of migrant experience, surely, but very different from the kind the narrator dwells in. His experience is travelling in the mind, the imagination, while hers is travelling actually in person. The migrant subject does not have to move physically or geographically as Ila does, but he/she may be migrant on the social and cultural level like the narrator. He is migrant in his imagination, clinging to influences coming from outside (Dhaka, London, foreign places on maps) and reducing the actual reality to a minimum.

If for Tridib present reality is of no consequence in itself, but appears merely as the stimulus for imaginary constructions, for Ila the actual is the real. One day in London Ila takes the narrator around the city to see used-clothes stalls and the vegetable market (36). The narrator is bored, but gets excited when he recognizes the old location of the Left Book Club, where according to Tridib a member of the Price family had worked before the war. He drags Ila into the office and asks for confirmation, but the woman inside the store knows nothing of the days before the war. Ila is indignant and surprised at the narrator. For her, the building now looks like “any musty old office”. She is not in the least interested in the narrator’s stories of the Price family or pre-war London. Ila’s time dimension is the present, her world is the actual one and her way of travelling is physical: for her the current is real. She experiences the world through her senses, not through her imagination. For her, in consequence, stories have “nothing to do with an excitement stored in her senses”, but are just “a string of words that she would remember while they sounded funny and then forget” (35). In contrast, Tridib experiences the world as concretely in his imagination as Ila does through her senses, and for him words and stories form into experiences that are permanently available in his memory. The narrator, who is drawn to Tridib’s way of handling reality, has problems of communication with Ila due to these very differences of worldview:

I could not persuade her that a place does not merely exist, that it has to be invented in ones imagination; that her practical, bustling London was no less invented than mine, neither more nor less true, only very far apart. It was not her fault that she could not understand, for as Tridib often said of her, the inventions she lived in moved with her, so that although she had lived in many places, she had never travelled at all. (27)

When the narrator arrives in London and is taken to meet old Mrs Price for the first time, he astonishes the others by his knowledge of the city’s geography. He is capable of finding the house without a map, although he has never visited the area before:

It was easy enough on the A to Z street atlas of London that my father had brought me. I knew page 43, square 2, by heart: Lymington Road ought to have been right across the road from where we were. But now that we had reached the place I knew best, I was suddenly uncertain. The road opposite us was lined with terraces of cheerfully grimy red-brick houses, stretching all the way down the lenght of the road. The houses were not as high or as angular as I had expected. (63)

As Meenakshi Mukherjee has observed, in the novel “the realignment of the sense of geography happens through an acknowledgement of the subjective space that all human beings inhabit” as well as by “plotting the different points of the globe on the accurately measured pages of the Bartholomew Atlas” with its Euclidian space (Mukherjee 135). The narrator has united the lines and figures on the map he had examined in Calcutta with the images of the area he had created from Tridib’s stories of war-time Lymington Road. But small discrepancies appear in combining these images with the real material London of the late 1970s: the houses do not look right. This is partly due to the relation between an image of a place never actually perceived and the real appearance of this place; they cannot be totally interchangeable. Further, the image of the narrator belongs to a different time dimension (that of 1939) to his first actual perception of the real place. The physical aspect of the area may have changed during the forty odd years in between. However, this is not a problem for the narrator, who has his preferences: “I wanted to know England not as I saw her, but in her finest hour – every place chooses its own, and to me it did not seem an accident that England had chosen hers in a war” (62). England’s finest hour occurred when Tridib visited London, or so it seems to the narrator, who cherishes the stories of war-time London and Lymington Road.

On their way to Mrs Price’s house, the narrator shows off by naming streets and buildings as they pass them. He claims that an incendiary bomb had fallen on a house called Lymington Mansions on Solent Road on October 1st, 1940, and destroyed the whole street. Robi claims that the Germans had developed that kind of bomb much later in the war. The narrator insists that his version is correct, because Tridib told him so. “How was he to know? He was just a kid, nine years old. Every little bomb probably seemed like an earthquake to him,” says Robi (60-1). Obviously, Robi is placing his historiographical information before that of Tridib’s actual experience, which is the one the narrator believes in. The question of authority regarding the two versions is left open; the argument does not continue. Dipesh Chakrabarty has demanded for the “provincialization” of European nationalist historiography by means of writing over it “other narratives of human connections that draw sustenance from dreamt-up pasts” (46). Clearly here we have a dreamt-up version of the past of the Solent Road that is based on a quite peculiar chain of human connections.

Later Robi and the narrator go to take a look at the supposedly bombed-out Solent Road. The road, of course, looks like any other road in London. The narrator notices a small car at the side of the road and finds himself “suddenly absorbed in the trappings of the lives that went with that car.” What is peculiar here is that he is not interested in the material present of Solent Road or the car. He has his images of the road in bombed-out condition and, on seeing the car, he immediately begins to imagine the lives of the people who use it. He comments on the present state of the road by saying that naturally he did not expect to see what Tridib had seen all those years earlier. He continues: “But despite that, I still could not believe in the truth of what I did see . . . it seemed to me still that Tridib had shown me something truer about Solent Road a long time ago in Calcutta.” (62).

The narrator seems to be occupied with a phenomenon that Jameson links with modernism, both epistemologically and generically. He is in a situation in which “we can say that if individual experience is authentic, then it cannot be true; and that if a scientific or cognitive model of the same content is true, then it escapes individual experience.” (Jameson 411). To begin with, the narrator refuses to integrate received (spatial as well as temporal) versions of London (the map of the city, the details of official history, even eye-sight) and his own imaginary construction, which he considers more truthful than the others. In a sense, he stands as superior to his British friends in this respect: as a member of a colonized group he has knowledge, and quite intimate knowledge at that, of the colonizer’s world. This does not work the other way around: when May Price comes for a visit to Calcutta, she is frightened at being in a strange country and shuts herself in her hotel room.

One evening Ila and Nick Price take the narrator to see the area that has become the Indian area of London. They walk along Brick Lane, which the narrator is eager to see because he remembers it as the street where Nick’s uncle used to live before the war, when it was a Jewish area. Again, he is surprised at what he sees: “The first surprise that was waiting for me was that it wasn’t a lane at all . . . I had no means of recognizing the place I saw; it did not belong anywhere I had ever been.” (100) He had imagined the street to look like the lanes he had seen in Oxford, but what he finds is buzzing district thronged with people speaking “in a dozen dialects of Bengali” and Indian shops with Bengali neon-signs. When Nick points out a building that used to be a synagogue in the Jewish period of the area, the narrator exclaims that Nick’s uncle and his friends lived in the vicinity of it before the war. Nick appears incredulous, and the narrator leads them to the building where Alan Tresawsen had allegedly lived. The narrator then describes the windows of the house, one of which is boarded over with wooden planks. The other one is open and they can discern edges of curtains inside. The narrative continues: “That was the window of Dan’s bedroom, I decided” (103). An aside to the Brick Lane and the lives of people there in the year 1940 follows, triggered by the sight of the house. The dimensions of the imaginary 1940 and the actual present 1979 are juxtaposed in the narration. At the same time, Brick Lane is presented both as the Jewish area of the War period and as the Indian area of the 1970s.

As indicated above, the narrator prefers his imaginary past London to the actual present one. Through this preference, the imaginary past comes to coincide with Jameson’s “essence”, the primary contents of the consciousness, or “the structural model of the conditions of existence” of the actual present. The actual present experience through sense-perception represents Jameson’s “appearance”, which in the mind of the narrator serves mainly to trigger the “essence”, the imaginary past. Consequently, the Solent Road, the Taj Travel Agency, or the room in Mrs Price’s house of the 1970s (“appearance”, immediate lived experience) bring forth the “structural model” of realizing them, which is the imaginary London of 1939 (“essence”, the structural model for the existence of lived experience). As with Jameson’s theory, the social and cultural forms governing these two types of experience do not coincide, but conflict at the levels of time, place and the nature of reality (imaginary constructions vs. actual sense-perception).

Jameson’s account of urban experience is reminiscent of the narrator’s experience of London:

[The] conception of city experience – its dialectic between the here and now of immediate perception and the imaginative or imaginary sense of the city as an absent totality – presents something like a spatial analogue of Althusser’s great formulation of ideology itself, as “the Imaginary representation of the subject’s relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence.” (Jameson 415)

The narrator also uses London for a very specific kind of “spatial analogue”, to borrow Jameson’s phrase. He counts the miles he wanders in the streets of London towards Stockwell to see Ila, with whom he is in love. As he is incapable of finding a linguistic metaphor for the state of love (“And yet between that and its metaphors there is no more connection than there is between a word, such as mat, and the thing itself” (96)), he resorts to a spatial one. The route he has taken through London and the miles he has walked function as a metaphor for his love for Ila. Otherwise, the “imaginary sense of the city as an absent totality” responds to the narrator’s view of London as a construction of imaginary past. It is a “totality” in the sense that it does not change, as actual perceived reality does.

The placing of the imaginary before the actual indicates that the narrator has primarily an imaginary identification with London. In line with Althusser’s characterization of ideology, he has created an imaginary relationship to the real existing London. It is just that this representation is temporarily quite far apart from the real conditions of existence. As already stated, Jameson links the phenomenon of a growing contradiction between lived experience and the socio-cultural conditions for the existence of this experience with colonialism and the physical and cultural movements caused by it. He also argues that new poetic strategies will spring from this contradictory experience:

I have argued that it is as an attempt to square this circle and to invent new and elaborate formal strategies for overcoming this dilemma that modernism or, perhaps better, the various modernisms as such emerge: in forms that inscribe a new sense of the absent global colonial system on the very syntax of poetic language itself, a new play of absence and presence that at its most simplified will be haunted by the exotic and be tattooed with foreign place names, and at its most intense will involve the invention of remarkable new languages and forms. (Jameson 411)

As the narrator acknowledges, he has created his own secret map of the world, “a map of which only I knew the keys and co-ordinates, but which was not for that reason any more imaginary than the code of a safe is to a banker” (196). This map of the world is one answer to R. Radhakrishnan’s call for postmodern spaces that are imagined “in excess of and in advance of . . . actual history in the name of experiences that are real but lacking in legitimacy” (61). The representation of London in the novel consists of several levels: the past is represented through an amalgamation of official history and personal imagination, and the present through maps and eye-sight. Radhakrishnan continues: “each of these . . . realities must imagine its own discursive-epistemic space as a form of openness to one another’s persuasion” (61). What has to be avoided is the situation where one version speaks for all, or where all the versions are “islands unto themselves” (61). I would say that the novel as a whole forms a space in which all the above-mentioned spatial representations of London are given room without vindicating any of them. The swift and fluent switches between different times and representations in the narrative further create the feeling that these various representations are dissolving into each other and as a result producing a whole which nonetheless retains the specifics of each of its components. In other words, a whole within which the various spatial representations do not exist as “islands unto themselves”, but are rather open to one another’s persuasion. In relation to history, the novel further provides an example of holding “history, the discipline, and other forms of memory together so that they can help in the interrogation of each other, to work out the ways these immiscible forms of recalling the past are juxtaposed” (Chakrabarty 93-94).

At its most obvious the merging of various spatial and temporal dimensions into a heterogeneous whole is in the scene where, shortly after Ila’s marriage to Nick Price, the narrator and Ila go down to the cellar of Mrs Price’s house in London, where Ila tells him that Nick has been unfaithful to her. This is the same cellar in which Tridib had sat during the war in the event of air raids (London in 1939). It is also the cellar which Ila had drawn in the dust under the large table in Raibajar long ago (Raibajar in the early 1960s), and in which Ila had recently realized that the narrator was in love with her (London in the late 1970s). Sitting on a camp bed beside the weeping Ila, the narrator contemplates the miscellaneous stuff in the cellar:

Slowly, as I looked around me, those scattered objects seemed to lose their definition in the harsh, flat light of the naked bulb; one of their dimensions seemed to dissolve: they flattened themselves against the walls; the trunks seemed to be hanging like paintings on the walls. Those empty corners filled up with remembered forms, with the ghosts who had been handed down to me by time: the ghost of the nine-year-old Tridib, sitting on a camp bed, just as I was, his small face intent, listening to the bombs; (—) the ghost of the eight-year-old Ila, sitting with me under that vast table in Raibajar. They were all around me, we were together at last, not ghosts at all: the ghostliness was merely the absence of time and distance – for that is all that a ghost is, a presence displaced in time. (183)

Different versions of the same space, those of imaginary London in 1939, Raibajar in the early 1960s and actual London in the late 1970s, are united and mixed simultaneously in the narrator’s perception of the cellar. His experience of the cellar includes all these dimensions. The actual three-dimensional material world loses a dimension (“one of their dimensions seemed to dissolve”) and its place is taken by the dimension of the imaginary past (“those empty corners filled up with remembered forms”).

An almost identical dissolving of temporal and spatial dimensions happens in another novel describing a childhood lived partly through far-away images of London. The novel in question is The Mimic Men (1967) by V.S. Naipaul. In the narrative present of the novel the Caribbean-born protagonist, Ralph Singh, is writing his memoirs in exile in a London hotel. As a child Singh used to fear that their family house would tumble down on his home island of Isabella. When he writes about that fear in London later, he combines in his mind the houses surrounding him in London at the time of writing and the houses typical of Isabella, which he wants never to see again. He then reflects on his own thoughts:

Certain emotions bridge the years and link unlikely places. Sometimes by this linking the sense of place is destroyed, and we are ourselves alone: the young man, the boy, the child. The physical world, which we yet continue to prove, is then like a private fabrication we have always known. (The Mimic Men 154)

Here Singh is observing two different times and places, two different realities, imaginary (memory) and real (present perception) and experiences a merging very much like the one the narrator in The Shadow Lines experiences in the cellar.

According to Jameson’s model, a typically modernist problematics of the dissociation of essence and appearance is solved in The Shadow Lines through the construction of a typically postmodern spatial vision. Realities that “stem from different zones of time or from unrelated compartments of the social and material universe” (Jameson 373) have been united and a “mode of perception” has been achieved, which seems “to operate by way of the simultaneous preservation of . . . incompatibles, a kind of incommensurability-vision that does not pull the eyes back to focus but provisionally entertains the tension of their multiple coordinates.” (Jameson 372). These “multiple coordinates” of the cellar are the imaginary and the actual, and the past and the present.

It has to be noted, though, that unlike The Mimic Men, which emphasizes the protagonist as a detached individual observer of the outside world very much in the modernist manner, The Shadow Lines does not reinforce the Western notion of an individual subject or consciousness through which the world is realized. In addition to the level of individual subjectivity, there seems to be a longing for an inter-subjective space transcending the boundaries of separate subjectivities. As Meenakshi Mukherjee has observed, although the narrator appears as a “lucid reflector”, he also functions as an “agentive site” for other lives (and for other spatial versions, for that matter):

The transparency of the unnamed and undescribed narrator lets different persons, events, places luminously enter his story, and find new configuration there; or, altering the metaphor, it is possible to see the narrator’s consciousness as a porous space that absorbs other lives and other experiences until their colours leak into each other to reveal a pattern. (Mukherjee 140)

Nor does the novel engage in typically postmodern epistemological problematics, although, as shown above, in some respects it can be said to make use of postmodern narrative technique to transcend the modernist condition of alienation between essence and appearance in the Jamesonian sense.

Patricia Yaeger has commented on the curious characterization of space by some postmodern philosophers (such as Baudrillard, Foucault and Lefebvre) through metaphors of “emptiness, vacuity, or amnesia” (Yaeger 9). She wonders whether their pessimistic conception of the postmodern experience of space is the right response to the changes brought about by globalization and the adjacent processes of deterritorialization and translocality. The Shadow Lines can be seen as a product of the processes just mentioned, and the depiction of space in it certainly escapes all kinds of metaphors of emptiness (let alone amnesia) in its multi-layered profusion of various epistemological strategies for realizing space. In relation to space, then, the novel is occupied with the transcending of differences and the establishing of connections between various representational models and epistemologies. The contradiction between actual and imaginary in the novel can surely be seen as a typical instance of both discursive and epistemological alienation characteristic of the colonial/postcolonial condition. But the juxtaposition and final merging of various ‘knowledges’ of London in the narration of the novel aspires to more than mere description of the dispersed colonial identity. This many-layered representation tries to overcome the discursive power politics whereby the narrative version of official historiography takes precedence over personal memories, or according to which actual sense-perception is more truthful than imaginary constructions. But the novel is not an attempt to effect a reversal of these binaries. It is more an instance of provincializing the monolithic, or universal, official representations and epistemologies, in order to reveal other realities and ways of realizing the world eclipsed by them. Accordingly, the narrative gives us the London of nationalist history, and of actual present sense-perception, but also the London of personal imagination and an imaginary past that was constructed mainly in the Calcutta of the 1960s. The result of mixing these various narrative dimensions is a representation of London that brings together the nationalist version and London as it appears to subjects of the Commonwealth, whether seen in person or through the imagination. The novel represents the invention of new narrative forms resulting from the discrepancy in social and geographical locations of the actual object and the circumstances for its realization anticipated by Jameson (411). Whether seen predominantly as the product of postcoloniality or globalization (which are linked as cultural processes), the novel seems to present a feasible way of narrating what for many people is the contemporary experience of London.

Works Cited

Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Ghosh, Amitav, The Shadow Lines, London: Bloomsbury, 1988.

Jameson, Fredric, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, London: Verso, 1991.

Mukherjee, Meenakshi, The Perishable Empire. Essays on Indian Writing in English, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Naipaul, V.S., The Mimic Men, London: Penguin Books, 1967.

Radhakrishnan, R., “Postmodernism and the Rest of the World”, in The Pre-Occupation of Postcolonial Studies, Eds. Afzal-Khan, Fawzia, and Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks. London: Duke University Press, 2000. 37-70.

Singh, Sulaja. “Inventing London in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines”. Kunapipi XXI: 2 (1999), 15-22.

Yaegar, Patricia (Ed.), The Geography of Identity, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

To Cite This Article:

Tuomas Huttunen, ‘Representation of London in The Shadow Lines by Amitav Ghosh’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 1 (March 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access].