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  • The Process of Validation in Relation to Materiality and Historical Reconstruction in Amitav Ghosh's The Shadow Lines

I shook my head violently . . .

You're lying, I shouted at her. That can't be a staircase because it's flat, and staircases go up, they aren't flat. And that can't be upstairs because upstairs has to be above and that isn't above; that's right beside the drawing room.

I dropped to my knees and began to scrabble around in the dust, rubbing out the lines, shouting: You're lying, you're mad, this can't be a house. . . . You're stupid, she said. Don't you understand? I've just rearranged things a little. If we pretend it's a house, it'll be a house. We can choose to build a house wherever we like.

The Shadow Lines (70)1

Amitav Ghosh's the Shadow Lines is a Manifestation of the desire to validate the postcolonial experience and to attempt a reconstruction of "public" history through a reconstruction of the "private" or personal history. It is an intricate examination of the process by [End Page 187] which validity of a narrative is achieved within itself and in relation to the audience. In this essay, I look at the ways in which this validation of the postcolonial experience—both public and private—is attempted in and outside of a narrative; the role of time, space, and material objects or "materiality" in achieving this validation; the utility of narratives as sources for reconstructing history; and the final question of the validity of this methodology. This paper draws on a system of graphs in which the two axes (x, y) represent time and space, and the third (z) represents "materiality" or the position of material objects. I have used this system to examine the process of validation in a narrative and its relation to the reconstruction of history.

Let us take a quick look at the structure of the novel. The technique of oral narration is employed by the narrator in his retelling of several stories-Tridib's, Ila's, May's, Robi's, Tha'mma's and his own. The written narrative, interspersed with numerous oral narratives, does not maintain a clear linear progression.2 The "story" or the chief narrative line evolves sporadically and is constantly interrupted and diverted by other narratives. The only fixed center is that of the chief narrative voice through whom the other narratives are filtered.

The question of the validity of a narrative is raised in the epigraph above. Ila says, "I've just rearranged things a little. If we pretend it's a house, it'll be a house" (70), and, earlier, the narrator tells us of "Tridib who had said that we could not see without inventing what we saw. . . . [I]t only meant that if we didn't try ourselves, we would never be free of other people's inventions" (31). The question here is what is fiction/invention and truth/reality, and what makes a narrative valid or invalid? The instance of Tridib returning to Gole Park after his three month absence is a case in point. On being asked by the "conversation loving" crowd of "adda givers"3 where he had been, he answers "I've been to London. . . . To visit my relatives" (11). In the course of events, the reader learns that this is a "lie": the chief narrator shouts out "Tridib-da, you've made a mistake! I met you last month, don't you remember? You were in your room, lying on your mat, smoking a cigarette. . . ." (12). The technique of oral narration allows active audience participation: "There was a howl of laughter and a chorus of exclamations: You fraud, you liar, you were just making it all up, you haven't been anywhere. . . ." (12). Again, Tridib makes a statement: "I've been to London, he said. To visit my relatives" (11); the audience responds: "What relatives?" (11), to which Tridib-da answers:

I have English relatives through marriage, he said. A family called Price. I thought I'd go and visit them. [End Page 188]

Ignoring their sceptical grunts...


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