IN AN ANTIQUE LAND BY AMITAV GHOSH
In An Antique Land is a very capturing and an educative chronicle of a traveler, Amitav Ghosh, who perfectly weaves Indian and Egyptian history into one single story spread across various time periods. As the contents of the book suggests, the novel is divided into six parts namely, the Prologue, Lataifa, Nashawy, Mangalore, Going Back and Epilogue. The story begins with the Prologue where Ghosh reads a “short article by the scholar E. Strauss, in the 1942 issue of a Hebrew Journal, Zion, published in Jerusalem” (Ghosh, 13). What led Ghosh to Egypt is the letter with the catalogue number MS H.6 referring to a slave. This letter was first written by a person named Khalaf ibn Ishaq then residing in Aden to a friend Abraham Ben Yiju living in Mangalore. It holds great significance because during the era of kings, queens and war strategies in Europe and England to the wazirs and sultans of Palestine, “ Khalaf ibn Ishaq’s letter seemed to open a trapdoor into a vast network of foxholes where real life continues uninterrupted” (Ghosh, 16). Ghosh is intrigued as to how this small piece of history of an insignificant human being at that time has survived through the ages. Later it was discovered that these documents existed only because they contained God’s name “Bismillah” on every page. The next appearance of this slave happened only thirty one years later, again in a letter written by Khalaf ibn Ishaq addressed to Abraham Ben Yiju. Gosh came across this reference when he was researching through manuscripts while being a social anthropology student at Oxford in 1978. After this, Gosh began avidly learning more about the slave. Being only twenty two years old, Ghosh, in this novel, comes across as a young, enthusiastic and sincere researcher learning Arabic in Tunisia to being placed a year later in a small village of Lataifa in Egypt and his journey going forward. Ghosh seems very passionate and emotionally attached to his work for he says,” I knew nothing then about the Slave of MS H.6 except that he had given me the right to be here, a sense of entitlement” (Ghosh,19). As mentioned before, the novel is a traveler’s chronicle where Ghosh first travels to Lataifa where he is stationed with an arrogant, rich merchant Abu-Ali. During this time he becomes seemingly close to the family of Sheikh Musa. Ghosh then travel to Nashawy where he got acquainted with a well-read history scholar and his student Nabeel, who aspired to work in the government and finally he travels to Mangalore tracing and re tracing the whereabouts of the slave mentioned in MS H.6. Ghosh learnt that Abraham Ben Yiju travelled via Egypt and Aden to come to India in 1130 AD, where he lived for seventeen years with the constant companionship of his slave, Bomma, who was from Tulunad in South India. Bomma often travelled to Egypt as Ben Yiju’s representative. This was centuries before Ghosh travelled to Egypt himself. Thus, explaining the fact that it took Ghosh over a decade to learn about the life of Bomma and his relationship with Ben Yiju. These incidents by itself put light on the history that existed between the Indians and the Egyptians in terms of trade, settlements and migrations. Ghosh then locates more of Ben Yiju’s documents at the synagogue of Benzra in Babylon. As he went through these documents, he realized the language had an unusual mixutre. “It was a colloquial dialect of medieval Arabic, Judaeo-Arabic, written in Hebrew script” (Ghosh, 101). Having learn’t Arabic in Tunisia, Ghosh decodes and deciphers all documents there by systematically reconstructing the story of Ben Yiju and his slave Bomma. Ben Yiju’s life was particularly retraced through the help of the letters that were exchanged between him and his three business partners namely, Madmun ibn-al-Hasen-ibn-Badar, Yusuf ibn Abraham and Khalaf ibn Ishaq. Ben Yiju came to Mangalore in 1132 A.D where he married a slave girl named Ashu who came from...
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