In an Antique Land – Review

Book: In an Antique Land
Author: Amitav Ghosh
Year: 1992
Bookhad Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥

The slave of MS H.6 first stepped upon the stage of modern history in 1942.
His was a brief debut, in the obscurest of theatres,
and he was scarcely out of the wings before he was gone again –
more a prompter’s whisper than a recognisable
face in the cast.

Thus begins the book which is aptly described as a ‘subversive history in the guise of a traveller’s tale.

Amitav Ghosh, a student of Anthropology, armed with intent of writing a dissertation, comes across a slave mentioned in letter of a Jewish businessman from the 12th century. The slave is not mentioned by name, only by a catalogue number, MS H.6 in a letter written by a merchant called Khalaf ibn Ishaq intended for a friend bearing the name Abraham Ben Yiju. The man, Ben Yiju, was at the time, living in Mangalore. 

The letter was written in the summer of 1148 AD.

This builds the intrigue of Amitav. He spends the next few years uncovering a massive narrative that seemed to be a page pulled out of the unending reams of human history and it reveals the secrets hidden in letters, journals and memos. All of this because of a single mention of a slave lost within pages and that it had to deal with the Indian subcontinent.

Ben Yiju, when he was Cairo, was a member of a synagogue. The synagogue of Ben Ezra, also called the Synagogue of the Palestinians.

The greatest achievement of this synagogue, along with others in that era, was the custom the members followed of depositing their writing in a special chamber so that they could be disposed off with special rites. The chamber was known by the term “Geniza“. The word Geniza is thought to come into Hebrew from a Persian root, ganj, meaning storehouse. 

What worked in favour of historians was that the geniza of Ben Ezra was overlooked and was never cleared out. From a mere mention in a letter written in 1148 to the identification of that nameless slave from the indian subcontinent and the narrowing down to his name and background, Amitav Ghosh’s ‘tale’ is something that every reader, mature and well-read, will appreciate. Right from the very word to the intangible understanding of what history unfolds is a sight of awe and understanding. The new inhabitants of the world, us, seem to think that we have it all.  

correspondence between yiju and bomma
Correspondence between Ben Yiju and Bomma, the slave.

But sit up and take note. Years before the advent of technology and the power over time and space, the human world was just as well connected and well travelled. Ben Yiju’s documents reveal the richness and the depth of the conversations and communication. Letter writing was not an art then. It was a need, a necessity and a sole means of knowing what was happening in the world. Merchants were the arterial carriers of messages and of commodity, taking care of the dual structure that surpasses all others. The gregariousness of the human nature and the need for food and luxury and livelihood.

The exercise of amitav Ghosh, from reading about the then nameless slave to the identification of the name involved long travels, detailed study and extensive interviews with historians. The book’s sections dealing with sources run into 35 pages, citing details of the research papers and the historians and travelers that Amitav took help from. 

In an Antique Land is written as a dual narrative. Amitav Ghosh, in his signature style of sweeping from one scene to another; from one universe to another in a fluid motion as if to tease the readers whether they can catch up and still maintain the speed of his prose, or perhaps, to just do what he loves most; writing to please himself with his art. So, one part of the book deals with the travel exploits and personal communication of Ben Yiju, while the other part deals with his stay in a village called Lataifa, Egypt, for this research paper which would end with a doctorate in social anthropology. Although, keeping in mind the academic nature of this book he doesn’t move across timeline’s in the same narrative. 

His life on Lataifa is written in a simple style, no artistic flourish of the pen, but a steady trail keeping upon the trajectory of the  prose to fulfil the need of academics rather than storytelling. Although, in my opinion the two need not be cleanly separate things. The life of Amitav Ghosh in Lataifa is rife with anecdotal premise and especially with topics about his roots that differ so much from the muslim peasants of the village. Cow Worship and Burning the dead, are just two of the things that make for uncomfortable conversational topics  between ‘Ya Amitab’ and the villagers. They flock to ‘The Indian’ who is staying with Abu Ali and doing research, while learning their language to help decipher the ancient documents.

I’ve always looked upon nonfiction with a different set of eyes. I don’t expect a nonfiction account to be as immersive as a fiction from the ‘story’ point of view. Of course, the quenching of the academic thirst is foremost and of the most important order when reading a nonfiction, but this book made it to that list where the differences merge.

Amitav Ghosh has been my favourite writer by any definition. This book just reinforces my belief in him as a writer, a scholar, a storyteller and now, in a narrow definition no doubt, a historian!



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