Saturday, February 08, 2003

a resounding voice

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in the Asia Times in February 2003).

The Imam and the Indian: Prose Pieces by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh is of that rare breed of writers for whom the personal is the political and vice versa. His novel The Shadow Lines was informed by the profound effect that the horrendous massacre of Sikhs in the Delhi riots in 1984 after the assassination of Indira Gandhi had on him. In an Antique Land, his memoir about his fieldwork in Egypt, includes anthropological essays and a vignettes about the ancient and the modern, the old East and the new West, and the responses of individuals to change.

Until now, however, much of Ghosh's eclectic production - his journalism, scholarly essays, travelogues and genre-defying pieces written for various magazines and journals - had disappeared into the void. At long last, Permanent Black, an art-house Indian publisher, has collected many of Ghosh's prose pieces in The Imam and the Indian. The sheer variety of these pieces - ranging from the 1984 riots to a fundraising dinner in New York for the Tibetan cause - may leave some readers confused, grasping for a theme to give them cohesion. A close reading, however, shows these works are bound together by Ghosh's abiding concern for the political, whether it takes him to India, Myanmar, the US or Egypt.

The self-critical, perceptive title essay relates an incident from his time doing fieldwork in Egypt. He argues with an intolerant village imam over the relative merits of cremating the dead, as Indian Hindus do, and the Egyptian Muslim practice of burying them. The imam calls the Hindu custom "primitive" and argues that the "advanced" West doesn't burn dead bodies.

Ghosh, soon incensed, lashes out, saying that even Western countries burn their dead: "They have special electric furnaces meant just for that." Both sides are stung. The imam accuses Ghosh of lying, with the logic that the West cannot be so ignorant, as they "have guns, tanks and bombs". Ghosh retorts that India not only has those heavy armaments but also nuclear weapons: a response that shocks Ghosh himself. "So there we were," Ghosh concludes, "the imam and I, delegates from two superseded civilizations vying to lay claim to the violence of the West."

This subtle, all encompassing worldview is vintage Ghosh. His historian's eye takes in the breadth of peoples' experiences, and his anthropologist's mind makes connections between their religions, wars, cultures and ways of life. Above all, he describes these complex connections with simple profundity - with the skill of the novelist that he is.

Ghosh can be jocular, too, without being trite. His essay "Four Corners" about a road trip in the US illustrates his keen observational powers and ability to relate the commonplace to history. America's recreational vehicles (RVs), are, in his words, "if not quite palaces, then certainly midtown condos on wheels". He notices their curious names, Native American words like Winnebago and Itasca. "The names of the dispossessed tribes of the Americas hold a peculiar allure for marketing executives of automobile companies. Pontiac, Cherokee - so many tribes are commemorated in modes of transport," Ghosh observes. And then, as always, the summing up: "It is not a mere matter of fashion that so many of the cars that flash past on the highways carry those names, breathing them into the air like the inscriptions on prayer wheels. This tradition of naming has a long provenance: Did not Kit Carson himself, the scourge of the Navajo, name his favorite horse Apache?"

Why doesn't Ghosh come off as a know-it-all? With disarming frankness, he acknowledges that he doesn't have all the answers, or even explanations, for the fascinating quirks of culture he describes. In a short essay about a New York fundraising party for Tibet, for instance, Ghosh confesses that as an undergraduate, he and his friends would get drunk when they went to eat Tibetan food at a Tibetan refugee camp in Delhi. "You couldnt help doing so it was hard to be in the presence of so terrible a displacement." As Ghosh muses thus in the trendy Manhattan restaurant, he catches the eye of the sole monk at the gathering and finds that "... his smile seemed a little guilty: the hospitality of a poor nation must have seemed dispensable compared to the charity of a rich one." Or perhaps he was merely bewildered, Ghosh continues. "It cannot be easy to celebrate the commodification of one's own suffering."

Despite the mysterious omission of Ghosh's marvelous essays on Cambodia The Imam and the Indian is one collection that should be on the bookshelves of all who call themselves readers.

The Imam and the Indian: Prose Pieces by Amitav Ghosh, Ravi Dayal & Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2002. ISBN: 8175300477. Price: Rs 495 (US$10), pp 361.