History writers often fall into the trap of writing voluminous accounts of events, usually centred on changes in political dispensation (wars, ascensions, coups et al), occasionally sprinkling them with juicy anecdotes on life in those times. Sanjeev Sanyal’s latest book Land of the Seven Rivers crushes this stereotype and brings to the fore a hitherto underappreciated yet critical factor behind how history of countries is often shaped i.e. by their geography (in this case, India)
It’s hard to disagree with the author when he says –
“One cannot understand the flow of Indian history without appreciating the drying up of the Saraswati river, the monsoon winds that carried merchant fleets across the Indian Ocean, the Deccan Traps that made Shivaji’s guerrilla tactics possible, the Brahmaputra river that allowed the tiny Ahom kingdom to defeat the mighty Mughals and the marshlands that dictated where the British built their settlements”
In parallel, there’s a running theme throughout the book on India’s civilisational consciousness i.e. how deeply our ancient past influences our daily lives (eg: chanting Gayatri Mantra through millennia) and the innumerable glimpses of different eras the curious mind can find, in our cities (eg: Delhi).
Speaking of Delhi, Sanjeev’s book truly brings my favourite Indian city to life – juxtaposing historical events with current ones – for instance, in Ridge Road in Delhi University’s North campus today, college sweethearts cuddle (mea culpa!) but turns out, in 1857, a small British garrison held out against a much larger Indian rebel force and pounded the walls of Shahjehanabad (old Delhi). The British eventually received reinforcements and stormed the city. Bahadur Shah Zafar was exiled to Burma and his sons were executed subsequently, thus ending the great Mughal dynasty!
Meticulous research coupled with Sanjeev’s graceful writing style helps the reader breeze through in-depth coverage of a wide array of topics, with remarkable ease – He produces compelling evidence against the oft-peddled ‘Aryan Invasion Theory’, analyses the after-effects of drying up of Saraswati River, captures the significance of lions in India’s history, vividly narrates what it may have been like to be a merchant sailing on a ‘stitched ship’ and beautifully sketches out how India was mapped.
This book is remarkable in so many other ways. First, the author doesn’t rely on secondary sources and research alone. Sanjeev took time off from work to criss-cross India for 2.5 years in his quest for truly experiencing the places he’s writing about. This first-hand account enriches the content manifold. Second, the author doesn’t pass off half-baked assertions and conjectures as analysis. Where in doubt, he acknowledges both sides of the debate, says it’s unresolved and moves on [for instance, the debate on horses in Harappan age]. Third, the author is coherent in his narrative, which is likely a formidable task, given our meandering and non-linear history of over 5000 years.
The two chapters on mapping India through the ages and trigonometry stand out, particularly for the conscientious chronicling of the gradual refinement of cartography over centuries and the profound impact such maps have had on belief systems, conquests and trade routes. Having the most up-to-date and accurate maps started becoming a source of major strategic advantage for European powers. The Dutch were at pole position initially but were trumped by the French who were subsequently overtaken by the English. In the process, many fanciful imaginations and conjectures of earlier writers [for instance – Sir John Mandeville talks of women in the Eastern Mediterranean with dogs’ heads, one-eyed giants, geese with two heads, giant snails, men with testicles dangled between their knees, and cannibal pagans who ate their babies. Mandeville embellished the widely-held medieval belief that India was ruled by a powerful Christian King called Prester John… In fact, after reading Mandeville’s book, Christopher Columbus believed that it was possible to reach India, by sailing West and planned his 1492 expedition!] were squashed as new data and information crept in. The book is filled to the brim with many such delightful examples, across chapters.
Verdict: This is one book I’d classify as a ‘Must Read’. This fascinating and riveting account of India’s history explained unconventionally through a lens of geography receives a 9/10 from me. While several locations have been described in enthralling detail, some additional pictures could have been the icing on the cake. Nonetheless, the book’s appeal isn’t limited to history or geography buffs alone. Anyone who intends to understand India and its people better and appreciate how our ancestors and their customs continue to live among us to this day, will greatly cherish reading this un-putdown-able book.
More power to your pen, Sanjeev!
Author: Sanjeev Sanyal
Publisher: Penguin / Viking (2012)