In An Antique Land: Review

Published: Thursday, May 22, 2008, 14:47 [IST]
 
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If The Shadow Lines is confined to the upheavals of the Indian subcontinent, In an Antique Land rotates around the history of Egypt in eleventh century. Though in the form of a travelogue, Amitav Ghosh's In an Antique Land is about man's enterprising instinct, the avenues that it seeks out and the price it extracts. The pomposity of the novel arises from the pool of history, anthropology, philology, sociology, religion in a collective whole. Ghosh's choice of the Indian slave as the focal centre of the narrative is significant as he is literally a person who inhabits the footnotes of history as the opening lines suggest.

It is to be noted that the first person narrative, the 'I' is not simply a narrator or a chronicler but a witness and a participant as well; the all-pervasive presence of this 'I' had tied together all the facts and events in the book. Lettered Abu-Ali's house in Lataifa was the repertory for this incomer Ghosh. Sheikh Musa one of the elders of the hamlet was the chief source of information for Ghosh about Abu- Ali and his relatives. Abu-Ali invited Ghosh to stay with him when approached by Doctor Aly Issa, Professor in the University of Alexandria, and one of the most eminent anthropologists in the Middle East.

Ghosh was addressed to odd questions regarding India, its culture and religion, which he had hardly ever imagined. Mere ignorance and narrow perception on the part of Jabir's, Abu – Ali's young relative, Uncle Ustaz Mustafa exemplify the West's insular view about India. Though a student of law at the University of Alexandria Ustaz Mustafa posed queries about India, as being a land of cow worshippers, where there is a lot of chilli in the food, and where when the man dies, his wife is dragged away and burnt alive and all this was very inconvenient to the novelist.

Histories where natural boundaries were ignored and forgotten and which turned the whole world into a global village went at its hammer and tongs by Imperialists thus creating narrow domestic walls due to their expansionist design. The novelist engaged himself in this act of vandalism by the Western powers right in the beginning and later dwelt upon the changing scenario in postcolonial Egypt subject to incessant inclemency on the part of these Imperialists.

In In an Antique Land one finds Ghosh lashing out at Western Imperialism when he talked about Geniza, an underground chamber below a Jewish building, usually a synagogue, or tomb where documents and relics were stored. Out of sheer ignorance and folly they parted with the last remaining asset left to them by their ancestors in exchange for power at the level of the elite and a few dinars as Baksheesh at the level of the custodian of the synagogue. The Imperialists viewed the world as a place

........in which the interests of the powerful defined necessity, while the demands of the poor appeared as greed.

Ghosh's favorite theme, the allocation of the borders of history not on the basis of territory but due to unfortunate events finds way in his triple-storied point at issue of home, homecoming and homelessness. The question that frequently arises is why one should leave a home only to search for a second home. Ghosh finds his answer to this bottom line of existence through Shaikh Musa who confers:

'Why does anyone leave?' 'The opportunity comes, and it has to be taken'.

While Abraham Ben Yiju and his beloved slave Bomma took the opportunity eight centuries ago, the Egyptians were exploiting the opportunities now. Some of them took off for Iraq and found for themselves

........a TV set, a food processor, a handful of calculators, a transistor radio, a couple of cassette-players, a pen that was also a flashlight, a watch that could play tunes, a key ring that answered to a handclap and several other such objects. Some were victimized in Saddam Hussein's apocalypse (spoils of modernity thrust upon the Third World countries) and the horrors of war.

In an Antique Land provides a comparative study of the two oldest cultural civilizations of the world, that of India and Egypt. Ghosh's interaction with several languages and cultures spread over three continents and across various countries is powerfully reflected in this work. It has explored some basic traits of human character and some fundamental human feelings and attitudes that persist through the ages despite socio-political upheavals and geographical changes. Enriched by exuberant details, it is a peculiar mixture of memory and real life, history and imagination. In fact Ghosh loves to take up technical challenges and stylistic innovations in his creative writings.

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