Monday, November 28, 2011

On 'The Imam and the Indian'

A review I wrote on Amitav Ghosh's rather underrated essay.

There is, perhaps, a touch of indulgence in reviewing a work of an author you have grown to love with time. You try to be as objective as possible, as stern and unrelenting as a Supreme court judge, but eventually, your heart takes over the mind, for reading isn’t purely a celebral experience, is it? You overlook the long uninteresting bits, the geriatric descriptions and the annoyingly obtuse passages, only to land up with that gem you’ve been scourging for all that while. That overwhelming experience makes the scavenging completely worth it.

I felt that way when I picked up Amitav Ghosh’s book of essays, “The Imam and the Indian”. Here was the writer who produced the subliminal Calcutta Chromosome and the very engaging The Hungry Tide, two books I reveled in over the course of many late nights. Ghosh is also the father of another genius of a piece ‘The Ghat of the Only World’, which in my opinion is the greatest tribute one can pay to a relatively unknown poet. Thus it was with a lot of expectations that I picked up “The Imam and the Indian”, despite my general indifference towards non-fiction. I was gearing up for Ghosh 101, revved up and set to go.

“The Imam and Indian” is like a buffet meal at an expensive restaurant – a delicious starter and dessert, but pretty much bland and predictable in between. The book sets off with the brilliant “Imam and the Indian”, stumbles on to the “Tibetan Dinner”, and from there it’s mostly downhill. Mid-way, there are a few stoic research pieces thrown in, something about labour, envy and looking at Egypt from an anthropological perspective. The book then manages to startle some formerly involved reader with the engaging “The March of the Novel through History” and then tumbles down some more, only to reach its final redemption point “The Ghat of the Only World”.

However, the starting essay ‘The Imam and the Indian’ is interesting enough, I think to warrant an entire review on it. This piece works for me because of the simplicity in its narrative, the layers that aren’t visible to the naked eye and of course, the typical Ghosh’s style of writing which is elegant, discerning and entirely captivating.

The Imam and the Indian is a snippet of Ghosh’s travels through Egypt in the 1980s as a researcher. It sets the tone for the rest of the collection - a hint of the underlying tensions between the two civilizations – Egypt and India and the shared envy of the West. The West has always been perceived as the modern, the progressive and the technologically superior while the Other, the East is seen as primitive and barbaric. Ghosh explores this tension underlying the Egyptian society and through his position as an outsider provides for an interesting case of reflexivity – the observer influencing the behavior of the observed.

The essay begins in a very matter of fact fashion. “I met the Imam of the village and Khamees the Rat at about the same time.” Ghosh begins his narrative. “I don’t exactly remember now- it happened more than six years ago-but I think I met the Imam first”.
The opening sentence is only hoisted by the rather intriguing (and faintly alliterative) title. Perhaps the foundations of the contrasts on which the story is built on is laid there – the Imam and the Indian, two Is of a different pod. This hint of a literary device at the very outset had me hooked on to the story.
Ghosh uses the first person narrative throughout the essay, and I cannot see if how it could have been more effective otherwise. Yet, he is not a fly in the wall narrator, he doesn’t merely whip out his recorder and capture what the villagers have to say. Ghosh plays an active part in the story, his opinion, his indignation and his emotions are all integrated into the piece. There is no objective unbiased writing here and Ghosh is clear about who he is – a story teller, not a reporter. His ethicality as a non-fiction writer extends only to a certain limit and he does not deny himself his bouts of fabrication.

Ghosh makes ample use of dialogue in this piece which adds to the conversational village setting. The typical village backdrop with its long afternoons full of chatter is brought out through the use of dialogue, especially of those between Ghosh and Khamees the Rat.
“Tell me, ya doktor,”the Rat said, “if I get on to my donkey and ride steadily for thirty days will I make it to India?”
“No”, I said. “You wouldn’t make it in thirty months.”
“Thirty months!” he said. “You must have come a long way.”
“As for me,”he declared, “I’ve never ever been as far as Alexandria and if I can help it I never will.”

Ofcourse, it’s the fleshing out of the characters that adds to the charm of the story. The Imam, a relic of an era long vanished is an interesting character, one who tries to shun his older methods of treatment for the newer ‘Western’ medicines, one who berates the Indians and their primitive customs and one who worships the West, a civilization which he could only aspire to, never be a part of. The Imam with all his acerbity and undisguised hatred towards the ‘Indian foreigners’ makes for a layered character, one who is polite and withdrawn at the exterior and boiling with indignation at the core.

Khamees the Rat, on the other hand is the typical happy-go-lucky character every serious story occasionally needs. Khamees the Rat – who gnaws away at everything with his words, the way a rat does with its teeth- knows no decorum, or boundaries. His disarming frankness and his ability to put anyone at unease with his questions, makes the reader connect with him immediately. There is a bit of the Rat in all of us, the one who wants to know all the answers, and break away that thin veil called personal boundaries.

The two characters display unguarded horror when they learn that the Indians not only burn their dead, but also worship cows, something unimaginable in the rural Egyptian life. This quaint example of ethnocentrism succeeds in engaging the reader and providing that emotional experience, so integral to a good story. These characters are hardly caricatures even though their indignation may be hard to relate to. Yet they are symbols of the basic human emotions which define all of us – envy of the advanced nations, a feeling of superiority over the ‘primitive’ ones and a sense of insecurity one experiences with a foreigner around.

The narrative is well paced, not too slow so as to lull the reader to sleep, but not too fast either. At every turn, the tension slowly builds up, only to be released in a final outburst by Ghosh, who tries to defend his country and customs to a village which sees him as an alien from a land of strange beliefs.

This passionate narrative relies perhaps more on ‘telling’ than ‘showing’. Filled with dialogues, direct questions and revelations which are hardly subtle in nature, Ghosh does not leave much to the reader to infer from the narrative. The writing which is structured around dialogues and observations is taut enough, a case in point packed neatly into an essay with no loose threads.

But at the end, one doesn’t read Ghosh merely to gain a new perspective, or to expand one’s ideas about the Indo-Egyptian relations. Ghosh’s leverage arises from his use of language and his playing with words to convey a particular idea, something which makes him one of the prominent Indian writers of today.
“The men of the village had all the busy restlessness of air-line passengers in a transit lounge…some of them had passports so thick they opened out like ink-blackened concertinas..You could read the history of this restlessness in the villager’s surnames: they had names which derived from cities in the Levant, from Turkey…the wanderlust of its founders had been ploughed into the soil of the village.”

Well begun is half done, or so they say, and perhaps the first essay in the collection “The Imam and the Indian” does make up for the other lackluster ones. A well written piece is a magical one, in its ability to ship the reader into newer lands, newer uses of a language and newer perspectives. It does not take extravagant writing or obtuse ideas to achieve this, and Ghosh’s essay is a case in point.

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