Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 723
In In an Antique Land, Amitav Ghosh explores historical documents and finds that an ancient Jewish trader owned an Indian slave. The oddness of the combination was novel enough that it sparked his interest. He says:
It is only at the very end of the letter that the slave makes his entry: Khalaf ibn Ishaq makes a point of singling him out and sending him 'plentiful greetings.' That is all: no more than a name and a greeting. But the reference comes to us from a moment in time when the only people for whom we can even begin to imagine properly human, individual, existences are the literate and the consequential, the wazirs and the sultans, the chroniclers and the priests — the people who had the power to inscribe themselves physically upon time. But the slave of Khalaf s letter was not of that company: in his instance it was a mere accident that those barely discernible traces that ordinary people leave upon the world happen to have been preserved. It is nothing less than a miracle that anything is known about him at all.
The point he makes is that the common people are less known in history because they didn't write things down as extensively; few things were written about them. Slaves may not have been literate and, if they were, they may not have had access to writing tools or ways to preserve their work. People with power, on the other hand, did. So the strangeness of seeing a slave mentioned several times in source documents found in Egypt sparked Ghosh's interest.
One thing that Ghosh does in the book is contrast the past and present. Things change and the past is a place that you can never explore in person. He pictures what was and then looks at what is and wonders about the immensity of time and experience that came between the two states of the world. He says:
There is nothing now anywhere within sight of the Bandar to lend credence to the great mansions and residences that Ibn Battuta and Duarte Barbosa spoke of. Now the roads and lanes around the wharfs fall quiet after sunset; shipping offices shut their doors, coffee-shops pull down their shutters, and only a few passengers waiting to cross to the sand-spit remain. The imagination baulks at the thought that the Bandar once drew merchants and mariners from distant corners of the world.
For many hundreds of years, however, large numbers of foreign visitors congregated in the cities of this region, and it was Middle Eastern travellers who gave this part of the coast the Arabic name 'Malabar'.
The book is also firmly in the present at times, however. Ghosh writes about his experiences in Africa and the Middle East during a period of upheaval as the modern world approached the millennium. He writes about experiences with friends when political upheaval or issues of religion caused a lack of safety. For example:
"I was not involved in politics or anything," he said, "and I didn't join any groups or societies. But I learnt to recognize what is wrong and what is true. I don't know how to explain these things to you: you don't understand matters like these."
"Why did you shave your beard off?" I asked.
His fingers slid over his freshly shaven chin in a slow, exploratory movement. "My family wanted me to," he said. "Especially my mother."
"They were afraid," he said. "There's been trouble between the government and certain Islamic groups, and they were worried that something might happen to me — even though I don't belong to any group or party." He shook his head and let out an ironic snort of laughter. "This is a Muslim country," he said. "And it isn't safe to look like a Muslim."
The loss of cultural identity and the loss of the human collective that worked together in the past is evident as he explores the past and present. At one point, he's asked whether he's Muslim, Christian, or Jewish and when he says that he's none of them, the person he's speaking with doesn't know how to react. He's studied and written about a world where Muslims and Jewish people lived happily and at peace -- but that's not the modern world that he lives in now.