REVIEW ARTICLE / VINAYLAL*
A Meditation on History
Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land, Ravi Dayal Publishers, New Delhi; Granta, London, 1992; Alfred Knopf, New York, 1993; 393 pp., dothbound, Rs. 150.
Some ten years ago Amitav Ghosh, then a graduate student in anthropology at Oxford, chanced upon a letter written in AD 1139 by a merchant, Khalaf ibn Ishaq, and addressed to a friend and fellow merchant by the name of Abraham Ben Yiju. Khalaf ibn Ishaq was at that time living in Aden, and it is perhaps, as Ghosh avers, 'nothing less than a miracle that anything is known about him', for ibn Ishaq was just one of many merchants involved in the Indian Ocean trade and had done scarcely anything that would merit him a name in the annals of history. His correspondent, Ben Yiju, was resident in Mangalore, on the south-west seaboard of India, usually known as the Malabar Coast, and was no more or less distinguished than ibn Ishaq. This letter might well have escaped Ghosh's attention, but for the fact that it bore a reference to Ben Yiju's slave. A subsequent letter from ibn Ishaq to Ben Yiju, written in 1148, would again refer, just as mysteriously, to Ben Yiju's slave.
It was in quest of the identity of this slave that Ghosh was led to Egypt and eventually to the complex undertaking that In an Antique Land represents. If Ghosh's reputation in literary circles (and beyond) was not already assured. In an Antique Land should establish him as the most significant voice in the world of (Indian) English literature, and indeed as one of the most gifted and nuanced writers anywhere in the world today. To appreciate the richness of his achievement, we can begin by considering the audacity of his latest enterprise. Why should the identity of the slave of MS. H.6, the number that the letter in the National and University Library in Jerusalem now bears, have been of such interest to Ghosh? Who was this slave and, more importantly, why should it matter so much? This question is not unimportant, particularly in view of recent developments in Indian
4 Assistant Professor of History, University of California, Los Angeles.
Social Scientist, Vol. 21, Nos. 7-8, July-August, 1993