Literary Shelf

In An Antique Land

Continued from "The Shadow Lines" 

In an Antique Land’ is essentially a book by an anthropological historian. With serious concerns of a historian, Amitav Ghosh points out at the tragic turn of events in history of Asia and Middle East and particularly India. This book underlines the unarmed nature of Indian trade and commerce before the advent of Vasco-de-Gama in India. The author wants to bring to focus a forgotten period of history, which shows how free and liberal India's collaboration with the Arab, and the Chinese world was. He highlights the easy flow of human warmth and trust that existed between a Tunisian Jewish merchant and his Indian helper Bomma. The book is obviously a testimony to Ghosh's intense urge as a tireless, genuine researcher. In fact this book covers Ghosh's research as a social anthropologist over decades. It establishes Ghosh not just as a writer of fiction but also a keen traveler, a diligent researcher, a social anthropologist and a social historian.

At one level, it is a contemporary novel, delineating some ordinary characters. The daily encounters of these characters are shown. Their religious rites, social customs along with their eccentricities and whims are effectively portrayed. A tale grows into a story; ordinariness becomes history; and anthropology mixes with fiction. As someone has remarked that this novel brings a change in the ecology of learning. 

It is a book, first of its own kind by an Indian English writer. In an environment of magical realism, Ghosh's  ‘In an Antique Land’ is like a breath of fresh air. Like his other works, his sense of time is not very strict. Time floats and mixes along with blending of fact and fiction, there is coalescing of different branches of knowledge-history, anthropology, philosophy, sociology and religion. It is an interaction of the author with at least four languages and cultures spread across continents and centuries. 
One thing is certain about Amitav Ghosh - he is not a conventional writer. He is not predictable. He is not the one to produce one novel after another where basic patterns never change and themes keep repeating. As Ghosh has commented on this book in an interview, 'No, this time I'm not writing a novel. Not even sociology, history or belles-letters based on historical research. My new book cannot be described as any one of these. It's a strange sort of a work. Within the parameters of history, I've tried to capture a story, a narrative, without attempting to write a historical novel. You may say, as a writer, I have ventured on a technical innovation' (Net). 

The novel is divided in six parts-Prologue, Lataifa, Nashawy, Mangalore, Going Back and Epilogue. It all began in 1942 when Ghosh read an article by E. Strauss. The slave of MSH.6 was referred here by a merchant named Khalaf ibn Ishaq in Aden who in turn got the information by his friend Abraham Ben Yiju in Mangalore, India. Ghosh was hooked by the simple idea that any history of a slave to have survived all these centuries is nothing short of a miracle. When all history is about kings, queens, their carpets, bathtubs, court, courtiers, wars, foreign policy and so on, to find a slave is indeed a wonder. History is tilted in favor of the royals; so Ghosh hooked himself to a slave.  Ghosh did not let go the opportunity and the novel opens, 'The slave of MSH.6 first stepped upon the stage of modern history in 1942’. 

The second appearance of the slave is in a letter included in a collection by Prof. S.D. Goitein, ‘Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders’. Ghosh came across this letter in the Bodleain Library at Oxford in the winter of 1978. As a student of social anthropology, Ghosh was leafing through manuscripts. He read about the very same Tunisian Jewish merchant Abraham Ben Yiju who came to India via Egypt around 1130 A.D. Ben Yiju had a slave Bomma who was from Tulunad in India. Ghosh writes, 'I was a student, twenty two years old, and I had recently won a scholarship awarded by a foundation established by a family of expatriate Indians. It was only a few months since I had left India and so I was perhaps a little more befuddled by my situation than students usually are. At that moment the only thing I knew about my future was that I was expected to do research leading towards a doctorate in Social Anthropology. I had never heard of Cairo Geniza before that day, but within a few months I was in Tunisia learning Arabic. At about the same time the next year, 1980, I was in Egypt, installed in a village called Lataifa, a couple of hours journey to the southeast of Alexandria. 

I knew nothing then about the slave of MSH.6 except that he had given me a right to be there, a sense of entitlement' (19).

The above lines from the prologue of the novel build a sweet picture of a young, zealous and sincere researcher, emotionally attached to the subject of his research. The names of the next three sections are names of places where the writer went Lataifa, Nashawy and Mangalore. Clearly the picaresque style of Amitav Ghosh continues. In the episodic structure of the book, the author himself is the protagonist and is referred as 'Ya Amitab' by others. 

The novel is journey based. Two Indians visit Egypt and Abraham Ben Yiju visits India. He comes via Egypt and Aden. He lives in India for seventeen long years. His constant companion is a fisherman, Bomma. Bomma is a South-Indian. This South-Indian goes to Egypt on business trips on numerous occasions as Yiju's representative. The second Indian to visit Egypt is Ghosh himself. So, as we can see, these two journeys by two Indians to Egypt are separated by centuries. It takes more than a decade for Ghosh to find out all about this relationship between Yiju and Bomma, their respective backgrounds, and personalities. This ground also makes for an interface between Egyptian and Indian civilizations. 

Ghosh, a thorough social anthropologist catches the storehouse of old records in Babylon. It is the synagogue of Benzra. This is perhaps the biggest single collection of medieval documents ever discovered. They were, however, later taken out of Egypt to Cambridge, Princeton, Oxford and Leningrad. Ghosh assiduously locates Yiju's documents and is first struck by the unusual hybridism of language. The language is Judseo-Arabic, a colloquial dialect of medieval Arabic written in Hebrew script. Ghosh's learning of Arabic proves valuable here. He deciphers all documents and unravels as also rebuilds the story of Ben Yiju and his slave Bomma. We also have inviting description of places like Cairo, Lataifa, Nashawy, Malabar Coast and Mangalore. It is only because of Ghosh's keen knowledge of facts and figures that these descriptions come as true and weighty. Ghosh's words are crystal-clear and compact. This is a very neat style of writing. 

Ben Yiju's life is reconstructed with the help of letters between him and his three business partners-Madmun ibnal- Hasen-ibn-Badar, Yusuf ibn Abraham and Khalaf ibn Ishaq. Ishaq seems to be Yiju's closest friend. Ben Yiju came to Mangalore in 1132 A.D. He married a slave girl Ashu. She is a Nair by caste. Indeed the search for the slave MSH.6 becomes interesting. Moreover it also shows Yiju's total involvement with India. By accepting Ashu in marriage, he shows his flowing sense of humanism. As the three characters in the slave's name are B-M-A, Prof. Goitein suggests the name to be Bama, as derived from Brahma, the creator of the cosmos. But things do not get convincing for Ghosh unless Prof. Vivek Rai of Mangalore University explains things to Ghosh. He tells that the correct name of the slave is Bomma. He was born in a matrilineal community of Tulunad, who worship spirit deities, 'Bhutas.' As we all know, the culture of accepting extra-human and extrasensory phenomena is not new to Indians. 

This background of Bomma is seems quite natural. The point to be noted, however, is that though Bomma is a mere slave with a meager salary of two dinars per month, he is entrusted with goods worth thousand times more. He is sent as a representative of his master to places like Egypt and Aden. He is a slave and yet not quite a slave. The bond between Yiju and Bomma speaks for the kind of relationship they had. There is trust and commitment in their relationship. Yiju is more like a patron and Bomma like client. There is not much hierarchy. Although Bomma drinks at times, yet his role as Yiju's business agent grows over the years. Yiju has even referred to Bomma as Sheikh in his later years marking clearly Bomma's professional rise. 

Ghosh suggests that Hinduism has now been standardized and codified. But it was not so always. Bomma belongs to a culture whose popular traditions and folk beliefs 'upturn and invert' categorization of Sanskritaized Brahiminical Hinduism. This homogenizing of our religion where the whole community is expected to be under one umbrella is indeed a new and alien phenomenon. It is not in tune with our original religion. This singularity of identity did not exist earlier. Streams of Hinduism were scattered and varied. Variance among spiritual and religious practices was encouraged. 

Similarly Ben Yiju also followed practices that are now not part of the standard image of the orthodox religions of the Middle East. The popular image of Middle-East religion is quite subversive. But Yiju shares with Bomma the exorcism cults, the magical rites and the custom of visiting graves of different saints. They have a solid meeting ground between them. But for these liberal attitudes 'the matrilinally descended Tulu and the patriarchal Jew would otherwise seem to stand on different sides of an unbridgeable chasm' (263). 

It is interesting to note how business was conducted in those days between India and Middle East. It was 'wholly indifferent to many of the boundaries that are today thought to mark social, religious and geographical divisions' (278). For example, one of Yiju's business partners Madmun had joint ventures with a Muslim, a Gujrati Bania and a member of a land owning caste of Tulunad. Despite religious, cultural and linguistic differences, they had complete mutual trust and understanding. Perhaps the fact that no legal redress was available in those days enhanced their co-operation. 

On the front of language Yiju and his associates use a language of Northern derivation. They do not know Tulu. Ghosh goes on to speculate that Yiju and other traders used code words of business. The idea of a specialized trade language reminds us of 'Satti' (wholesale cloth market) of Varanasi where business language is highly specialized. Only years of training yields mastery in this language and its use. But such meaningful and fruitful relationships existed between people of such different backgrounds is stunning indeed. They were making money. They were sharing cultures and religions. They were easily marrying into each other's community. It sounds a utopia even today. But as all good things come to an end, this open, unarmed character of Indian trade was to change forever on 17th May l49B when Vasco-da-Gama landed in India, 'Within a few years of that day the knell had been struck for the world that had brought Bomma, Ben Yiju, and Ashu together and another age had begun in which the crossing of their paths would seem so unlikely that its very possibility would all but disappear from human memory' (286). 

When the Portuguese used military force to capture trade over Indian Ocean and monopolize it, a new era in history as well as thinking began. Ghosh is hardly able to control his anger over colonization, 'Soon, the remains of the civilization that had brought Ben Yiju to Mangalore were devoured by that unquenchable, demonic thirst that had raged ever since, for almost five hundred years, over the Indian ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf (288).

The bulk of the novel constitutes the three visits of Ghosh to Egypt. Ghosh seems enthralled by Egypt and its history. He views the scenario with an exceptional intelligence. His perception is unbiased. He sees people and their lives exactly as they are. However he does not get the same treatment from foreigners. Their treatment of Ghosh is based on the Western view of India. He is even provoked to the extreme. People expect him to fall on his knees whenever a cow passes by. This sort of pinning down attitudes upsets him. But among those very foreigners there are individuals like Nabeel who understand his agitation and lovingly reproach him, 'They were only asking questions just like you do; they did not mean any harm. Why do you let this task of cows and burning and circumcision worry you so much? These are just customs; it’s natural that people should be curious. These are not things to be upset about' (204). But even amidst such sane voices there is confrontation between the two civilizations. 

All supposedly educated-ness comes off and the mask of civilization is broken when Ghosh fiercely defends his country against the brutal attack of Imam. However the impact of this incident on Ghosh is shattering. It was the death of a dream that he saw in history, 'I was crushed, as I walked away; it seemed to me that the Imam and I had participated in our own final defeat, in the dissolution of the centuries of dialogues that has linked us [...] we had acknowledged it was no longer possible to speak as Ben Yiju or his slave, or as one of the thousands of travelers who had crossed the Indian Ocean in the Middle Ages might have done; of things that were right or good, or willed by God' (236-37). Ghosh even feels guilty that he has betrayed the period of history that he is studying. He is sorry that he is not able to keep up the spirit of Ben Yiju and Bomma. There is a painful realization that ours are the times of suspicion and betrayal. The days of Yiju and Bomma have gone away forever. 

The book also makes a comment on the growing trend of consumerism and its impact on the developing world. When Ghosh returns to Egypt after seven years he finds major changes in the two villages. The young men of these villages have gone to Gulf countries and have brought huge sums of money. When Ghosh visits Abu-Ali in Lataifa with Sheikh Musa, he witnesses a procession of, 'A T.V. set, a food processor, a handful of calculators, a transistor radio, a couple of cassette players, a pen that was also a flash light, a watch that would play tunes, a key ring that answered to a hand clap and several other such objects' (Ghosh: 293). When he goes to the house of Abu Ali, he finds that it has vanished. Instead of the old dilapidated house, a brightly painted three storied building stands. Instead of the old moped there is now a new pick-up Toyota truck. Ghosh is, 'assaulted by a sudden sense of dislocation,' as though he had gone to different epochs. The magic of immigrant labor has changed the world of Lataifa and Nashawy beyond reorganization in less than a decade. What has changed is not merely the physicality of things but the inner socio-cultural relationships have also been, 'upturned and rearranged.' It does not need much imagination to see that Ghosh is not only talking about the villages of Egypt only but is referring to the paradigmatic changes occurring in all developing countries like his own. Herein rests the contemporary relevance of the book. 

The idea that all divisions are unreal and artificial appears again and again in Ghosh's fiction. At the end of his second visit to Egypt, before leaving for Cairo,  Ghosh wishes to visit the tomb of a saint called Sidi-Abu-Hasira but he is taken by the police and is interrogated by the chief. The police officer is simply unable to understand why an Indian who is not Jewish wants to visit the tomb of a Jewish holy man. This is again a significant remark on the current culture of intolerance. In this case religion is causing walls. Ghosh is unable to stop himself from telling the police officer the story of Ben-Yiju and Bomma. He tells him that these two gentlemen of past shared 'indistinguishable intertwined histories, Indian and Egyptian, Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Muslim' (339). But the police officer is .rot ready to understand. He again goes back to dissuading Ghosh from visiting the saint's tomb. He says that all these superstitious beliefs will disappear with development and progress. Ghosh leaves the scene saying that this is indeed a heavy price for development and progress. 

The novel ends with his last visit to Egypt in 1990, just three weeks after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. There is a sense  of disappointment at the protracted Iran-Iraq war. In all these scenes, human concerns go unabated. Nabeel hopes that things will return to normal and soon he will be able to earn enough money for the ongoing renovation of his house.

The book is a refreshing study of civilizations, their so called progress and the irreversible change of times.

Ghosh, Amitav. 1992. ‘In An Antique Land’. New Delhi: Ravi Dayal Publisher.

Continued to The Calcutta Chromosome  



More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

Top | Literary Shelf

Views: 4060      Comments: 1

Comment Professor Shubha Tiwari fails to mention the importance of the Fustat Geniza that provides the base, indeed the foundation, for Ghosh's In An Antique Land. Without the scholarship of the eminent historian Goiten, Ghosh's fascinating book would have been nothing more than a travel story.

Anthony August Hoffman
04-Feb-2013 21:03 PM

Name *

Email ID

Comment *
Verification Code*

Can't read? Reload

Please fill the above code for verification.