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Published on Tue, Sep 23, 2008 at 12:14


 ‘‘It is the story that gives places their meaning. This is why Homer leaps at us from signs on the New York turnpike, from exits marked Ithaca and Troy; this is why Ayodhya of the Ramayana lends its name equally to a street in Benares and a town in Thailand.’’ – Amitav Ghosh  

The Imam And The Indian

The Imam And The Indian
by Amitav Ghosh

List Price Rs 495.00
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BOOK REVIEW : The Imam and the Indian 

The Imam and the Indian written over a 16-year time span (1986-2002), is a fascinating compilation of  Amitav Ghosh’s articles, lectures and translations  spanning over two decades where the author’s deceptively gentle style conceals cavernous depths of imagination and erudition. The book comprises a  translation of Tagore’s “Kshudhita Pashan”, two essays on the social anthropology of an Egyptian village, an elegy to the Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali, a travel piece on the Four Corners, some incidental pieces like “A Tibetan Dinner” and “The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi” — the diversity of genres and issues would seem too diverse for compilation in a single volume. But for Amitav Ghosh, “connections are of greater importance than disjunctions” in the imaginative scheme of things.



The author digs out lost lives from centuries past and he explicitly portrays how the metaphysical is contained within the mundane. With subtlety, Ghosh hints that a critique of the Enlightenment need not lead directly to nativism if such critiques are grounded in meticulous research. He is continually thoughtful, vivacious, responsible rather than rakish.  
One of his essays titled, The Slave Of MS.H.6, is indeed a quest for the subaltern. Ghosh’s search for an individual who lived in the 12th century, wrote nothing about himself and thus left behind no records of his life. Ghosh depicts the slave as a phantom, who appears only coincidentally in a set of letters exchanged between two 12th century merchants. But this unknown slave may have witnessed the Crusades and his life might provide important clues about the fact that ‘‘slavery’’ was not slavery as we comprehend it today but a quasi-professional relationship between groups unrelated by blood. Ghosh indulges in ghost-hunting and finally finds the spirit of ‘‘Bomma the Slave,’’ hiding eerily in a research institute.


Amitav GhoshIn The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi, Ghosh vividly narrates the endless tragedies (read riots) that gripped the Capital following the murder of  Indira Gandhi in 1984. With sensitivity he describes how  an elderly Sikh couple in desperation to save their lives clambered over a wall into their neighbours’ welcoming South Delhi home. In other words, the author displays with alacrity of how the stories of every act of violence conceal the civil response to them.

Ghosh’s brilliance and his nostalgic memories of his stint in Egypt are rekindled in the books’ first essay, The Imam and the Indian.  Ghosh  gives a sparkle to the thematic element in this essay through an argument between an Indian student (himself) and the imam of an Egyptian village. The author opines,  ‘‘two delegates of superseded civilisations vying with each other to lay claim to the violence of the West’’.

And in yet another essay, Ghosh answers the call of the desert. Travelogues, the author opines,  are an integral part of Bengali literature- Fluent in Arabic, he reflects on the   romanticism associated with the adventures of a Bengali  traveller.

Meanwhile, in the modern world, encounters are often violent and throw up debris in the guise of an uprooted populace. Like the Tibetan monk, Ghosh encounters at a New York charity dinner for the Tibetan cause. Some, like Nabeel, are lost to friends and relations forever. Others, like the Sylheti UN peace-keeper entrusted with clearing the Khmer Rouge’s mines in Cambodia, learn to cope as best as they can and soon become accustomed to the brutality around them. And most touchingly, Agha Shahid Ali, a resident of “the country without a post-office” — Kashmir — who must die of cancer in Northampton, is denied the right to go back to his homeland in his last days.

Above all, Ghosh remains fascinated by the mysticism within whose periphery the written word leaves its mark on earth. The author, also the exponent of the dilemmas between the physical and the metaphysical, the tangential oddities between the erudite and the earthy in the Imam and the Indian, explores and discusses various issues with remarkable sensitivity and precision.

Review : Mona Sengupta
Design: Suparna Sengupta