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In an Antique Land

This is a wonderfully strange book, and probably the most obvious reason for its strangeness is the confluence of genres it enacts. Ghosh’s book gives his readers both the findings of many years of research, and the story of his undertaking that research. As he will tell you early on, the task he has set himself is to find, as best he can, the story of Bomma, the “slave of MS H.6” – to tell the microhistory of a man who is mentioned in the correspondence of one Ben Yijû, in fragments of documents found in the Cairo Geniza. The book is also the tale of Ghosh – or the narrating Ghosh as he perhaps invents himself – acquiring the knowledge that went into writing the book. Specifically, it is thus the story of his time living in Laṭâifa and Nashâwy, small villages outside of Cairo, as well as his travels to Mangalore and surrounds, in southern India.

Along the way, Ghosh gives several beautifully textured history lessons. The fantastically rich archive of the Geniza – and its own fascinating history, inflected by colonial appropriation and knowledge-making practices – represents the coming-together of an enormous variety of movements of time and place. In Ghosh’s hands, they tell the story of Ben Yijû and his ‘slave’ (even as understandings of ‘slave’ were likely different at the time); a history of Indian Ocean networks and trade before Europeans interfered; a history of various colonial projects and their ramifications. And the book also tells the story of the quietly studious narrating researcher and his frequently comical, oftentimes deeply tragic, experiences with the communities he lives amongst in the pursuit of his research.

Maybe the book in its entirety is a bit of an academic type of ‘meta’: the researcher narrating his researching, telling the story of his engagement with his archive and its living traces, as well as of the story of the subjects of his research. As a researcher, the narrator is meticulous, borderline pedantic – but it is also his precision and the depths of his research that charmed me, even as so much of the story of Ben Yijû and Bomma must amount to an accumulation of educated (and they are very educated) guesses – even the name “Bomma” is the product of informed speculation. But Ghosh is finally also just an excellent writer – he can write the hell out of the description of a landscape, as he can out of the ironies of history, and I confess I was a little bit sad it was over when I finished reading.

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