The author begins his narration by sharing his experiences during his stay in the two villages Latifa and Nashawy. He stayed in the house of Abu Ali a prominent person in the village. There the writer describes how women often force fed geese to make them fat. Abu-Ali has prospered through his shop which sells things like “sugar, tea, oil and suchlike at government-subsidised prices”(13) as his shop was one of a kind, he fixed a high price for the goods based on their demand and if the customers refused there is no other shop nearby and had to walk some pretty distance to another village. Thus Abu Ali ruled the rooster. Another intersting thing the author notices is women force-feed their geese by pushing the corns down the throats of the birds with their forefingers. Shaik Musa’s son Ahmed gives a description of the corn grown by them which is “harvested before winter, towards the start of the Coptic year which begins with the month of Tut…”Thus throughout the story, Ghosh uses several things associated with food that reflects the Egyptian culture.
Abu Ali always relishes such a food consisting mostly of thick meat. Later while describing an incident where Abu Ali drives his moped, the writer comments that in his jallabeya, he looks like a “gargantuan lollipop” (15). Thus even for describing a person Ghosh has casually made use of the reference of food. Then, the writer moves on to depict the character of Abu Ali who has a materialistic outlook. His eating habit could be evident from “he was normally found lying inert upon his his diwan, resting after his midday meal ” shows the culture of the people. He during the meet expresses displeasure with the rent paid for his stay. But on the other hand says that he treats the author as their own family stating, “You are lucky to be staying here with us. We will cook for you, wash your clothes for you, provide you with anything you need.” (17) though his words are customary it reflects the Egyptian hospitality towards the guests. The author moves on to compare Cairo and Egypt. He finds that the word Egypt itself a metaphor. The country’s civilization is found on the banks of river Nile and the Nile delta with its thick growth.In the Prologue, Ghosh briefs on the connection between the two countries-Egypt and India which is principally on Trade. India is a major exporter of spices like cardamom, pepper and metals like Iron and Brass to the middle east countries. This is evident from the details about Ben Yiju’s Business, where his partner overseas “… acknowledges certain goods received from Ben Yiju- a shipment of areca nuts, two locks manufactured in India and two bowls from a brass factory” (5-6), apart from this, readers come to know that apart from the goods imported by the trader in India, he recieves some food materials as gift from his friend which the writer has noticed as “-things which have no price and no value. The list seems to hint at a sweet tooth of Ben Yiju: ‘two jars of sugar, a jar of almonds and two jars of raisins'”(6) all of which demonstrate the Jewish Trade’s taste for the manufactured sugar for in India, only palm candy sugar was available and the Jewish trader did not like its taste. He prefers rather the sugar manufactured from sugarcane juice.
The book is an exemplar of cultural adaptation and it abounds with comparison of native and alien culture through the view of the natives. The story moves around the two villages Lataifa and Nashawy. Then moves back to Mangalore and again returns to the two Egyptian village. Tracing the life of Ben Yiju, Amitav Ghosh conveys the readers that when he came to Masr, it was a
Friendly attitude of the natives with the writer:
During his stay at Latifa, the author visited some of the families that are friendly to him and one among them is Sheik Musa. He lived with his son and two grandsons. He has often invited the author to his house and during the authors visit to his house, his friendly attitude and hospitality made Ghosh feel at home. This is evident from the lines: “Sheik Musa, his son Ahmed, his two grandsons and I were eating out of one tray, while the women of the household were sharing another,… It was something of a special occassion for I had just crossed the invisible barrier”(25). Usually he was served tea and snacks at ‘mandara’, the guest room where usually the male guests are received, but this time he was invited to dine with them inside the house.
The story also represents the contrasting cultural aspects of both countries. The story of Khamees the Rat, the notorious impotent (already twice married); of Zaghloul the weaver determined to travel to India on a donkey; of one-eyed Mohammad, so obsessed with a girl that he spent nights kneeling outside her window to listen to the sound of her breathing; of Amm ‘Taha, part-time witch, always ready to cast a spell for a little extra money; and, of course, the story of Amitav Ghosh himself, known in the village as the Indian doctor, the uncircumcised, cow-worshiping kaffir who would not convert to Islam (“www.amitavghosh.com”). When he lands at the village of Nashawy, the million dollar question of the young boys were whether he was circumcised. Even the educated villagers try to convert Amitav to their religion thinking that his religion does not teach him the right way. Further, there are instances where the teenagers misunderstand the attitude of the author and thinks of him as an immature man. Though India and Egypt share some common tradition and habits, yet Egypt has its own culture which leads to the misrepresentation of all Indians as Hindus.
Role of food:
Indian Vs Egyptian Culture (Cultural Shock of the natives): Egypt is rich in its culture which is evident from the various names given to the same place. The author is astonished by the variety of names people used to refer to the same place. He calls Cairo “an archipelago of townships” (20). The author notices the fortress and twin towers separated by the steel gate that serves as a gateway to Babylon.
Food as a cultural and Personal Identity:
Food imagery helps readers to understand their characters’ true identities, because in many ways, food defines people and cultures.The article “Food in Literature— Introduction” from Thomas J. Schoenberg and Lawrence J. Trudeau’s Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism elaborates on the relation of psyche and eating practices which essentially identity the self and are instrumental in defining family, class, and even ethnic identity. Food could possibly signify the belief systems, religious rules and complex ideologies of a particular person or character, or even that of an entire community or culture, that may not be possibly explained explicitly in a text.