• What the UGCRC doesn’t want students to read: Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines

    ICF Team

    August 23, 2019

    As part of UGC’s Learning Outcome-Based Curriculum Framework (LOCF) for undergraduate programmes, the Delhi University decided to update the syllabi of several courses this year. The process began in January and many changes have been made since then. However, it seems like DU’s curriculum row is not going to be resolved anytime soon.

    According to the Indian Express, The UGCRC asked the English department to replace poet Meena Kandasamy with Premchand and Amitav Ghosh with RK Narayan. The commitee has also asked the department to remove any reference to the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) and Jan Natya Manch.

    They have now been asked to submit the revised syllabus before 31st October 2019.

    The English department has refused to accept any of these changes. The Indian Cultural Forum supports this decision and celebrates the work that all of us—students, and all other citizens—must continue to read.

    Speaking to the Indian Cultural Forum, Amitav Ghosh said, "It is profoundly moving for me to know that The Shadow Lines has come to mean so much to so many people: a writer could not hope for any greater reward. I am deeply grateful to the teaching community of Delhi University, my alma mater, for the care and attention it has devoted to my book over many years."

    The following is an excerpt from Amitav Ghosh's Shadow Lines.

    Image courtesy Penguin

    In 1935, my grandfather caught a chill while supervising the construction of a culvert somewhere in the Arakan Hills. He died of pneumonia before they could bring him back to Mandalay.

    My grandmother was thirty-two when he died. She had no savings and she had never worked in her life but that merely made her all the more determined to see her son through school and college. Luckily she still possessed a scroll to prove that she had been awarded a bachelor’s degree in history by Dhaka University. On the strength of that, a sympathetic railway official managed to arrange a job for her in a school in Calcutta – the school she was to work in for the next twenty-seven years.

    She had no time to go back to Dhaka in the next few years. And then, in 1947, came Partition, and Dhaka became the capital of East Pakistan. There was no question of going back after that. She had never had any news of Jethamoshai and her aunt again.

    In the years that followed, living in Calcutta in a one-room tenement in Bhowanipore, she would often think back on Dhaka – the old house, her parents, Jethamoshai, her childhood – all the things people think about when they know that the best parts of their lives are already over.

    But do you know? she said, looking out across the lake, half smiling. In all that time there that was only thing I ever really regretted about Dhaka. What? I asked.

    She smiled: That I never got to see the upside-down house.

    What was that? I said.

    She began to laugh.

    When the house was divided, she said, Maya was very little and she didn’t remember the other side at all. So, later, often, to frighten her when she wasn’t going to sleep or something like that, I would make up stories about that part of the house. Everything’s upside-down over there, I’d tell her; at their meals they start with the sweets and end with the dal, their books go backwards and end at the beginning, they sleep under their beds and eat on the sheets, they cook with jhatas and sweep with their ladles, they write with umbrellas and go walking with pencils … And Maya grew to like these stories so much that every night I’d have to make up a new one or she wouldn’t go to sleep. One night I’d tell her how today Jethamoshai had been brought his tea in a cup and he’d lost his temper and blown through his lips and shouted: Why did you bring it to me like that? Don’t you know that tea is meant to be drunk out of a bucket? And the next night I’d have to make up a new one, so I’d say: Today Jethamoshai screamed at one of our cousins because he’d forgotten to bathe in the kitchen. Nonsense like that. And when I’d finished, I’d make a ghastly face and say: If you don’t go to sleep right this very minute I’ll drop you over the courtyard wall, and then you’ll have to become upside-down too. That was usually enough to make Maya shut her eyes and drop off to sleep. But you know, the strange thing was that as we grew older even I almost came to believe in our story. Often, when we were quite grown up, going to school and everything, we would sit in the patch of garden in front of their part of the house, and watch Jethamoshai’s door and try to imagine what was going on inside. It’s afternoon now, Maya would say, so they must be eating their breakfast, or some other silly thing like that, and we would both double up with laughter and hang on to each other’s necks. But sometimes, you know, when our parents were angry with us or we were feeling bad about something, we used to sit out there and gaze at that house. It seemed a better place to us then and we wished we could escape into it too.

    But now, she said sadly, ruffling my hair, it’s all gone. They’re all dead and I have nowhere to invent stories about and nowhere to escape to.

    […]

    At dinner that evening my parents were careful not to mention the letter. For a while my grandmother talked nervously about politics, the state of education, the Prime Minister’s speech in Parliament and so on. And then, without a pause, in the same flat voice, she said: Maya’s invited me to visit her in Dhaka.

    My parents looked up, smiling, and my father sighed and said: Yes, of course, I knew she would.

    My grandmother was chewing her lip now and looking down at her plate. Softly, she said: I don’t know if I should go.

    My parents exchanged an astonished glance.

    Of course you must go, Ma, my father said.

    Why, said my mother, even a few months ago you were saying that it was the one thing you really wanted to do. I know, my grandmother said uncertainly. But now … I don’t know. I feel scared. Do you think it will be wise after all these years? It won’t be like home any more.

    The cham-chams and all the other sweets will be the same, my mother said encouragingly. And so will all the fish. And there’ll be all those lovely Dhakai saris to buy.

    And imagine, added my father, you’ll get to fly in an aeroplane for the first time. It’ll be a lovely holiday.

    This stung my grandmother. Glaring at my father, she said: If I go it won’t be for a holiday. You ought to know I don’t believe in luxuries like that. I haven’t taken a holiday all my life and I’m not going to start now. If I go it will be for the sake of Jethamoshai. Since I am the only person in the family who cares, it is my duty to see if I can bring the poor old man back.

    So you are going then? my mother asked anxiously.

    At that my grandmother’s uncertainty returned. I don’t know, she said. Ireally don’t know …

    Over the next few months my parents tried often to push her gently to make up her mind. But every time they brought up the subject my grandmother would either shake her head or simply get up and leave the room.

    Then, in June, after three months had passed, our phone rang late one evening. My father happened to answer it. He listened, and then told me to fetch my grandmother – it was a trunk call for her from Delhi. From Mayadebi.

    A trunk call from another city was a very exciting matter: a kind of minor miracle, but also cause for anxiety until one found out whether the news was good or bad. I ran up the stairs so fast that when I got to her room I was too breathless to explain. Instead I simply grabbed her hand and dragged her down the stairs.

    My parents and I hovered around as she stuck a trembling finger in one ear and raised the instrument to the other. We heard her say: Yes, yes, I don’t know, I can’t make up my mind, when are you leaving? There was a short pause as she listened to Mayadebi. Then, at the top of her voice, she began to explain that their uncle was still alive, still living, in Dhaka, in their old house; that she, Maya, must go and look him up as soon as she reached Dhaka, something had to be done about bringing him to India … She ran out of breath and listened again, for a bit. I don’t know, she said in response to a question. No, really, I can’t decide – it’s not for myself, I’m worrying about Jethamoshai. Then again she listened, smiling now, and at last she said: All right, I’ll come, I give you my word.

    Mayadebi, the Shaheb and Robi had flown into Delhi last week, she explained to my parents after she had put the phone down. They were leaving for Dhaka a couple of days later – they weren’t going to be able to stop in Calcutta – they didn’t have enough time.

    But are you going to Dhaka too? my father said. That’s the important thing.

    My grandmother shrugged helplessly. What else can I do? she said. It’s out of my hands now; everything seems to be pointing in that direction.

    When will you go then?

    If I go, she said, it will have to be in January next year. Imust give them some time to settle down in their new house.

    A few weeks later, at dinner, my father, grinning hugely, pushed an envelope across the table to my grandmother. That’s for you, he said.

    What is it? she said, eyeing it suspiciously.

    Go on, he said. Have a look.

    She picked it up, opened the flap and peered into it. I can’t tell, she said. What is it?

    My father burst into laughter. It’s your plane ticket, he said. For Dhaka – for the third of January, 1964.

    That night, for the first time in months, my grandmother seemed really excited. When Iwent up to see her, before going to bed, I found her pacing around the room, her face flushed, her eyes shining. Iwas delighted. It was the first time in my eleven-year-old life that she had presented me with a response that I could fully understand – since I had never been on a plane myself, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to me that the prospect of her first flight should fill her with excitement. But I couldn’t help worrying about her too, for I also knew that, unlike me, she was totally ignorant about aeroplanes, and before I fell asleep that night I resolved that I would make sure that she was properly prepared before she left. But soon enough it was apparent to me that it wasn’t going to be easy to educate her: I could tell from the direction of the questions she asked my father that, left to herself, she would learn nothing about aeroplanes.

    For instance, one evening when we were sitting out in the garden she wanted to know whether she would be able to see the border between India and East Pakistan from the plane. When my father laughed and said, why, did she really think the border was a long black line with green on one side and scarlet on the other, like it was in a school atlas, she was not so much offended as puzzled.

    No, that wasn’t what I meant, she said. Of course not. But surely there’s something – trenches perhaps, or soldiers, or guns pointing at each other, or even just barren strips of land. Don’t they call it no-man’s land?

    My father was already an experienced traveller. He burst out laughing and said: No, you won’t be able to see anything except clouds and perhaps, if you’re lucky, some green fields.

    His laughter nettled her. Be serious, she snapped. Don’t talk to me as though Iwere a secretary in your office.

    Now it was his turn to be offended: it upset him when she spoke sharply to him within my hearing.

    That’s all I can tell you, he said. That’s all there is.

    My grandmother thought this over for a while, and then she said: But if there aren’t any trenches or anything, how are people to know? I mean, where’s the difference then? And if there’s no difference, both sides will be the same; it’ll be just like it used to be before, when we used to catch a train in Dhaka and get off in Calcutta the next day without anybody stopping us. What was it all for then – Partition and all the killing and everything – if there isn’t something in between?

    I don’t know what you expect, Ma, my father retorted in exasperation. It’s not as though you’re flying over the Himalayas into China. This is the modern world. The border isn’t on the frontier: it’s right inside the airport. You’ll see. You’ll cross it when you have to fill in all those disembarkation cards and things.

    My grandmother shifted nervously in her chair. What forms? she said. What do they want to know about on those forms?

    My father scratched his forehead. Let me see, he said. They want your nationality, your date of birth, place of birth, that kind of thing.

    My grandmother’s eyes widened and she slumped back in her chair.

    What’s the matter? my father said in alarm.

    With an effort she sat up straight again and smoothed back her hair. Nothing, she said, shaking her head. Nothing at all.

    I could see then that she was going to end up in a hopeless mess, so I took it upon myself to ask my father for all the essential information about flying and aeroplanes that I thought she ought to have at her command – I was sure, for example, that she would roll the windows down in midair unless I warned her not to.

    It was not till many years later that I realised it had suddenly occurred to her then that she would have to fill in ‘Dhaka’ as her place of birth on that form, and that the prospect of this had worried her in the same way that dirty schoolbooks worried her – because she liked things to be neat and in place – and at that moment she had not been able quite to understand how her place of birth had come to be so messily at odds with her nationality.

    My father could see that she was worrying over something. But Ma, he said, teasing her; why are you so worried about this little journey? You’ve been travelling between countries for years. Don’t you remember – all those trips you made in and out of Burma?

    Oh that, my grandmother laughed. It wasn’t the same thing. There weren’t any forms or anything, and anyway travelling was so easy then. I could come home to Dhaka whenever I wanted.

    I jumped to my feet, delighted at having caught her out – she, who’d been a schoolmistress for twenty-seven years.

    Tha’mma, Tha’mma! I cried. How could you have ‘come’ home to Dhaka? You don’t know the difference between coming and going!

    I teased her with that phrase for years afterwards. If she happened to say she was going to teach me Bengali grammar, for example, I would laugh and say: But Tha’mma, how can you teach me grammar? You don’t know the difference between coming and going. Eventually the phrase passed on to the whole family and became a part of its secret lore; a barb in that fence we built to shut ourselves off from others. So, for instance, when we were in our teens, often, when Ila was in Calcutta and we happened to meet an acquaintance who asked: When are you going back to London? we would launch into a kind of patter: But she has to go to Calcutta first; Not if I’m coming to London; Nor if you’re coming to Calcutta …

    And at the end of it, sobbing hysterically with a laughter which must have seemed as affected as it was inexplicable to those who heard it, I would say: You see, in our family we don’t know whether we’re coming or going – it’s all my grandmother’s fault. But, of course, the fault wasn’t hers at all: it lay in language. Every language assumes a centrality, a fixed and settled point to go away from and come back to, and what my grandmother was looking for was a word for a journey which was not a coming or a going at all; a journey that was a search for precisely that fixed point which permits the proper use of verbs of movement.


     

    These are excerpts from The Shadow Lines, written by Amitav Ghosh and published by Penguin. Republished here with permission from the author.

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