The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The Imam and the Indian By Amitav Ghosh, Permanent Black and Ravi Dayal, Rs 495

The 18 essays in The Imam and the Indian were written over a 16-year time span — from 1986 to 2002. Which partly explains the eclecticism of this collection. 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, subjects, dictions would seem much too heterogenous for compilation in a single volume. But for Amitav Ghosh, “connections are of greater importance than disjunctions” in the imaginative sphere.

One of these “connections”, very obviously, is the fact that the pieces were written in the gaps between the novels and hence trace the evolution of the author’s interest and ideas that later were transmuted into fiction. Those familiar with Ghosh’s fictional career will run into many familiar themes, motifs and characters here.

But more notable is Ghosh’s fixation with “encounters” between cultures and the modes of thought they embody. It could result, at times, in scepticism — the Imam’s suspicion of the doctor al-Hindi, who comes from the land where cows are worshipped and the dead are burnt. Or, it could give rise to conflict like the one between the Navajos and the early settlers in North America. In most cases, the humans caught up in the clash of cultures are unaware of its historical import. Look at Babur’s near dislike for the kingdom that he won in the battle of Panipat and which was to earn him a place in history.

In the modern world, however, such encounters are almost always violent and throw up a detritus in the form 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 inured 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, denied the right to go back to his homeland in his last days.

What comes in the way of peaceful coexistence between two peoples' And what happens to the people caught in the midst of war or civil violence' Are their any alternative patterns of relations between different cultures — one that does not lead to strife'

In the present global scenario, the artist cannot but state which side of the political fence he is on. Thus art itself is a political stratagem. As Ghosh writes in The Shadow Lines, “Every word I write…is the product of a struggle with silence.” And memories of violence, experienced or heard of, a weapon of defiance that helps to destroy the “thickening crust of awareness that is both a sign and a reminder of our unwitting complicity in the evolution of violence”. Which is why all fundamentalist regimes consider the destruction of literature and art — a way of ordering memory and human values — an article of faith. As every Kashmiri would say with Shahid: “Your history gets in the way of my memory/ I am everything you lost. Your perfect enemy.”

Almost all of Ghosh’s novels revolve around violence and its human cost. His first novel, The Circle of Reason, was written while the anti-Sikh riots were raging in Delhi. “The violence had the effect of bringing to the surface of my memory events from my own childhood,” writes Ghosh in “The Greatest Sorrow”. The same process of recovering memory resulted in The Shadow Lines, Dancing In Cambodia, The Glass Palace

But it would be unfair to give the impression that these essays work primarily as companions to Ghosh’s fiction. They stand perfectly well by themselves, as lucidly argued and engaging as the novels.

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