Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Ocean Of Churn—How The Indian Ocean Shaped Human History by Sanjeev Sanyal : Published by  Penguin Random House ‘ Pages  297 pages; Price  Rs. 599/-

Sanjeev Sanyal was given the International Indian Achievers Award in 2014 for contribution to Literature. He is  a reputed economist and urban planner and best-selling author. His earlier book         “ Land of the Seven Rivers” was hailed as a thought provoking account of the rise and fall of urban civilisation in India.

The book under review is a historical account of the regions round the rim of the Indian Ocean which stretches from East Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent to South East Asia and Australia. What is presented to the reader is  a fascinating account of the earliest migrations out of Africa, the fabulous cities of Angkor Vat and Vijayanagar, medieval Arab empires and Chinese treasure fleets; the enmity among European colonial powers and the birth of a new Dawn. 

Sanyal writes  “I have lived my life around the Indian Ocean, and it was only natural as a history buff that I would collect information about the history, which I have been doing for almost 20 years now.”  Sanyal has written about  the Indian Ocean at a time when Indian strategists are rediscovering our maritime identity and economic reforms have re-linked India to the global economy. “History looks different when witnessed from the coastlines rather than from an inland point of view.”

 “Almost all of the existing books on the Indian Ocean fall into two categories”. The first category has histories written from a Western perspective and they suffer from the taint of colonial superciliousness. According to them , the history of the Indian Ocean begins with the arrival of the Portuguese and  they ignore  ancient Indian mariners, Arab merchants and Indonesian empires who created a polyglot world long before the West arrived. This " School " sees the Indian Ocean as a conduit for spices rather than a way of life. The second group includes native experts  whose  perspective is narrow and  focus is on a locality or region, negating  a broader sense of inter-connectedness. Sanyal attempts to bridge these two schools.

 The  book is a  complex story on how different parameters like  monsoon winds, geography, human migration, technology, religion and military conquest have tied the Indian Ocean coastlines in a common destiny. The author relies on  genetic studies, archaeological discoveries, historical documents and popular tales to weave this gripping saga. We have enough evidence  of India’s  rich trading culture in peninsular India through most of recorded history.
K.M.Panikkar was one of the pioneers who emphasised the significance of geographical factors in Indian history  and he  called for an oceanic view of Indian national interest. He declared  “The peninsular character of the country and the essential dependence of its trade on maritime traffic give the sea a preponderant influence on its destiny.... The economic life of India will be completely at the mercy of the power which controls the seas.” The Indian Ocean  must be given its rightful place  in our national psyche as a theatre of strategic interests, commercial prosperity and cultural exchange.

Trade was robust between the kingdoms of southern India, the Arab world and China. When Chola rule flourished  oceanic trade was not merely  individual merchants but was spelt out by  an efficient  network of guilds , financed by temple banks. Sanyal argues that the Indian Ocean rim in the 12th century should be seen as zones of civilisational influence—the Islamic zone, the Indic zone and the Chinese zone. The Mongols were the first to shatter these zones  followed by  Europeans in search  for spices. 

  A professional historian might find a hundred flaws in this book but for a layman it is an unusual gift , a splendid study of an ocean. Its sheer  scholarship has a profound effect on the reader.  Sanyal also frees himself from the restraints imposed by Marxist historians. He has debunked  the Marxist historians .He paints a rich panorama of how Tamil, Oriya, and Sri Lankan power struggles reverberated against the length and breadth of Asia- even as far as China and Yemen. 
He describes the rich tapestry of guilds, banks, and organisations that dominated Asian trade. He underscores   the financial importance of temples in this system and how, as a secure holding for wealth and a source for records, they helped drive the financial systems of Indian trade. 

 What makes Sanjeev’s book interesting to students, scholars and history enthusiasts is his questioning of the popular narrative of history. “Our history,” he says, “is very problematic. Bulk of it was written by historians from the West, and therefore if you read the conventional narrative, it seems that our history starts with Vasco da Gama (1497-98) as if we were waiting for him to appear at our shore. The history is essentially Europe-centric.” He has demolished some other heroes !

This is an outstanding work  which has re-established the position of the Indian Ocean in the history of the region abutting it.


23/ 10 / 2016

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