The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, April 20, 2003

Prose behind and beyond the shadow lines
Akshaya Kumar

The Imam and The Indian
by Amitav Ghosh. Ravidayal and Permanent Black, Delhi.
Pages 361. Rs 495.

The Imam and The IndianFOR those who see nothing authentic in Indian English writings, Amitav Ghosh’s collection of prose pieces is a striking reminder of modern Indian English writer’s unflinching activist proclivities. In an earlier prose collection entitled Countdown, Ghosh had warned us about the possible perils of nuclear war. Also, it was Ghosh who withdrew his much-acclaimed novel The Glass Palace from the Commonwealth competition for Best Fiction because the competition considers novels written in English only.

Much like Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands, the prose pieces compiled in the book collectively constitute a necessary prelude to the understanding of the making of Ghosh as a writer of fiction. Writing, for him, is not an intransitive act; it is an act of involvement and conviction. It is living life dangerously. "Words cost life." The novel The Shadow Lines (1988), much appreciated for its cartographic imagination as one learns from the reading of his essay "The Ghosts of Mrs Indira," stems from his first-hand encounter with anti-Sikh rioters in 1984. Ghosh recollects how at the cost of his own life, he along with his friend saved the life of some Bawa couple in South Delhi. In another essay, "The Greatest Sorrow," Amitav discloses how the 1984 riots re-activated in his mind the impressions of Dhaka riots (1964). The Shadow Lines as a novel, he says, owes more to the events of 1984 than to the memory of 1964.


There are about seven-eight essays that hinge around Amitav Ghosh’s experiences in Egypt as researcher in early 80s. The title essay "The Imam and the Indian" brings out the pathos of two "superceded civilizations" — one of ancient Egypt and other of India — "vying with each other to lay claim to the violence of the West." In "The Relations of Envy in an Egyptian Village," Ghosh, like an astute anthropologist, works out the relation of Evil Eye practices with conditions of production in rural economy of Egypt. In another essay, "Categories of Labour and the Orientation of the Fellah Economy," the notion of labour as mere performance of a technically necessary technical function is dispensed with. Ghosh investigates into the history and metaphysics of labour as it manifests itself in various forms in rural set-up. These essays are more or less corollaries to the writer’s travelogue entitled In An Antique Land (1992) — an account of Egypt, which is reckoned most authentic even by the Egyptians themselves. It is in these essays that Amitav Ghosh approximates Clifford Geertz ideal of ‘author as anthropologist.’

Amitav Ghosh is not a professional academic critic, yet at times he is simply impelled to write about writers that overwhelm him. The essay on Agha Shahid Ali’s poetry, "The Ghat of the Only World," is lyrical and analytical at the same time; it is obituary and critique at one go. Another highlight of Amitav’s critical methodology is the simultaneous presence of various timeframes and cultural contexts that he employs to understand the implications of a work of art in the larger civic context. Ghosh has the flexibility to invoke Cervantes to understand Babar’s Babur-nama. He has the range to discuss writers as different as Michael Ondaatje, Agha Shahid Ali, Shyam Sevadorai in the larger context of civil strife and ethnic violence all across the subcontinent. Spice-encounter at the beginning of the colonial period becomes a cultural correlative of Oil-Encounter in 70s.

But despite all his anthropological, academic and activist predilections, it is ultimately Amitav Ghosh, the writer of fine literary sensibility who excels. A rural landscape is described thus: "a maze of low mud huts huddled together like confectionery on a tray." The singing of the bride is likened to the "the bloom of pomegranate." "An Egyptian in Baghdad" is more a tragic short story of Egyptian migrants to Iraq who send money towards the building of their pucka houses back home but never come back to occupy them. "The Slave of MS.H6" has the trappings of an anthropological detective fiction. The essays which deal with the ethnography of the UN peacekeeping force in Combodia, the non-institutional character of Indian diaspora, the fundamentalist challenge in the Post-Cold War period are equally remarkable for their analytical rigour and poetical vigour.