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A truly enriching experience
on April 19, 2001
I read IN AN ANTIQUE LAND because I greatly admire Amitav Ghosh's novels, and wanted to read more of him.
As the reader quickly discovers, Ghosh in this book works with three narratives. One is a 'detective' story, albeit in the most scholarly of veins. As a student Ghosh recounts how he came across a reference -- one line -- to an Indian slave who worked for a Jewish master, Abraham ben Yiju. Who was this most marginal of historical personages, whose name emerges -- the time is 1148 AD -- "when the only people for whom we can even begin to imagine properly human, individual, existences are the literate and the consequential, the wazirs and sulatans, the chroniclers and the priests -- the people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time...the slave of Khalaf's letter was not of that company: in his instance it was a mere accident that those barely discernible traces that ordinary people leave upon the world happen to have been preserved."
The detective search for more information on the slave, his owner, the world they both inhabited, leads Ghosh to Geniza of Cairo, a storehouse of Jewish documents which miraculously survived the destruction that seems to be the fate of most paper over the course of many centuries. The documents are themselves a diaspora in miniature: none remain in Egypt, being dispersed to St. Petersburg, Oxford, Cambridge, Philadelphia...and yet the book recounts how Ghosh tracks them down.
The second narrative requires Ghosh's novelistic gifts, as he attempts to reconstruct, from mere shreds of evidence, the life of Abraham and his slave. What results is a rich evocation of the way life was lived -- in Aden, Mangalore (India), Egypt, even Sicily and Yemen -- in the twelfth century; the life evoked is Jewish, Muslim, Hindu; it is Egyptian, Indian; it is mercantile, religious, familial. And it is, as stated, richly evoked.
The third narrative is one of Ghosh's life in rural Egyupt, as he works on his Ph.D. research by observing two small Egyptian farming communities. The focus here is seldom on Ghosh: although a memoir, it is primarily an evocation (another one!) of Egyptian life in the relatively brief period after liberation from the British, and before modernisation transforms village life. Even though Ghosh keeps himself in the background, there is a continual counterpoint between his Indian/Hindu/educated background and the rural community in which he lives: a counterpoint which emerges not because of his self-consciousness, but because his Egyptian neighbors -- who become his friends, and even his extended family -- themselves continually question him about his Indian roots.
Each narrative sheds light on the other. There is a point to the triple narrative, the point of view which motivates almost all of Ghosh's writing: it IS possible for human beings to live together, to live together harmoniously despite differences in religion, culture, language. But the imperatives of modern society -- be they of the nation-state, of capitalism, of narrow self-interest, of imperialism, of the need for conquest -- close off the rich possibilities of harmonious co-existence to achieve narrower goals.
Lest this book seem dry, academic, moralaistic, let me hasten to say that wonderful treasures emerge so frequently (insights into other cultures, historical and present), and so seamlessly (for the boundaries of past and present, here and there, melt away in the measured cumulation of the three narratives) that the reader is likely to be, as I was, entranced, educated, and changed.