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IN AN ANTIQUE LAND by Amitav Ghosh


by Amitav Ghosh

Pub Date: April 5th, 1993
ISBN: 0-394-58368-X
Publisher: Knopf

 An engrossing chronicle of historical detection smoothly integrated into a subtly shaped picture of village life in modern Egypt; by an Indian novelist (The Circle of Reason, 1986) of great sensitivity and power. Enrolled as a cultural-anthropology graduate student at the University of Alexandria, Ghosh settled in 1980 into the Egyptian farming village of Lataifa. Two years earlier, he had become interested in ancient manuscripts found in a storeroom of a tenth- century Cairo synagogue; included in the cache were letters from a Jewish trader, who mentioned his Indian slave. Intrigued, Ghosh pursued the identity of his 12th-century countryman. The author's findings about the daily activities of slave and master make fascinating reading (e.g., that the slave represented his master in financial dealings), and alternating with this historical data are chapters detailing Ghosh's gradual assimilation into the life of Lataifa. His affectionate portraits of the villagers and of their often colorful idiosyncracies (for example, the complicated relationship between the Imam and his estranged first wife) attest to his perceptivity as a sympathetic observer of a rapidly changing society. In a particularly effective passage, he recounts his feelings when, after persistent questioning about his Hindu beliefs, he discovered in himself what he calls ``Indians' terror of symbols.'' And Ghosh is equally astute in detailing the changes wrought by young villagers' departures for jobs in wartime Iraq. While new homes, refrigerators, TVs, and electric generators proliferate, he says, the weakening of family and civic ties proves a high price to pay. Throughout, Ghosh writes with enormous lucidity and flashes of gentle humor, conveying in small and telling details the underlying suspiciousness and insecurity that pervade Egyptian society. Moving in its humanity, revealing in its analyses: an exceptionally satisfying work.