February 15, 2009

In An Antique Land

Its hard to describe this engaging book from Amitav Ghosh. Is it a novel? A memoir? A travelogue? A historical reconstruction? A distillation of the best traditions of Orientalistism? In fact it is all these and more, a most remarkable journey into a lost world. Ghosh is an Indian historian researching the history of a 12th century Jewish merchant while living in an Egyptian village. Interwoven with his search for Ben Yiju's life from Mangalore to Aden to Alexandria is an often hilarious account of his relationships with the residents of the village. Ghosh humorously relates the litany of questions he is bombarded with about the customs of India ("Ya Allah, do they REALLY burn their dead in India?" is a constant one)

What emerges most strongly from Ghosh's account is the fluidity of medieval Indian Ocean society; how merchants crossed political boundaries with ease and how this movement generated a level of cosmopolitanism and cultural familiarity, a shared understanding across nation, religion, and ethnicity, which we see through Ghosh's account, has broken down. (if it existed at all for the common people).

One of the most affecting sections of the book involves Ghosh's encounter with a healer named Imam Ibrahim who refuses to part with his knowledge for Ghosh's anthropological interest. Goading Ghosh about 'those savages' who burn their dead and worship cows, he provokes an angry outburst from Ghosh, who brags that his country "has had a nuclear explosion."
Writes Ghosh, "At that moment, despite the vast gap that lay between us, we understood each other perfectly. We were both travelling, he and I: we were travelling in the West. The only difference was that I had actually been there, in person: I could have told him a great deal about it...but it wouldn't have mattered. We would have known, both of us, that all that was mere fluff: in the end, for millions of people on the landmasses around us, the West meant only this--science and tanks and guns and bombs."

Altogether this is a most unusual book, and an interesting diversion from more straight-ahead scholarly treatments.


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