Making waves: The Indian Ocean’s vibrant but unknown history (Book Review)

Title: The Ocean of Churn – How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History; Author: Sanjeev Sanyal; Publisher: Penguin Random House India; Pages: 323; Price: Rs 599

What could be more Indian then ‘paan’? It has been chewed in India from time immemorial and is also part of some social rituals but do we know that one of its basic ingredients – the areca nut, or supari – is not indigenous? It actually came here from commercial and cultural exchanges occurring across the Indian Ocean for centuries.

Stretching from Africa to Australia, encompassing West, Southeast Asia and a pivot in India, which also gives it its name (and without any controversy as has happened with the Persian Gulf since the 1960s), the ocean’s contemporary significance in world trade is not hard to explain.

For, as this book eloquently argues, it always has been a “very interconnected region linked over vast distances by maritime trade, cultural exchange, geopolitical rivalries, marriage alliances and military operations” since the earliest times. However, it notes a considerable part of this rich and uneventful history is not known, or forgotten.

The reason is simple. Ever since the West, or particularly the Euro-Atlantic world, achieved its supremacy in the 15th century, it not only dominated politics and economy, but also history, with most of what happened before they came on the scene relegated to obscurity.

But in recent times, this hegemony is been challenged. What Oxford academician Peter Frankopan did for the Eurasian landmass’ position in world history in his acclaimed “The Silk Roads”, economist and author Sanjeev Sanyal does for this huge maritime expanse.

Sanyal, who notes he lived most of his life on this ocean’s rim, being born in Kolkata and spending his adult life in Mumbai and Singapore, says that as he explored these cities and their surrounding environs, he “became aware how the history and culture of the Indian Ocean people have been closely interconnected for thousands of years”.

“Indeed, as you become conscious of it, it springs at you everywhere – in the narrow lanes of Zanzibar, the frankincense-perfumed bazaars of Muscat, the ancient temples of southern India and in the ruins of Angkor,” he says. This book ensued when, at some stage, he began gathering information and realised it told a story much in variance to what we have been used to – especially the Western version.

And Sanyal, whose previous book dealt with the historical and political geography of the Indian subcontinent, brings out here a most enlightening, and sometimes provocatively ‘myth-breaking’ account spanning across ages and continents.

It may differ from peripatetic American foreign policy expert Robert D. Kaplan’s “Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of Indian Power” (2010), which concentrates on the here and now and what lies ahead geo-politically, but gives as vivid a feel, since it is also based on visits to the areas being written about.

Sanyal, who stresses that he never set out to write a comprehensive history but a “brief and eclectic one”, also tries to demonstrate “the extent to which history looks different when witnesses from the coastlines rather than from an inland point of view”, rather than most works which only offer the perspective of the huge land empires.

In the process, emerge many historically-significant but mostly unknown figures, like a Kerala ruler who ensured India would not become a Dutch colony, the real contributions of a range of relatively-obscure dynasties – remember the Pallavas, the the Pandyas, the Cheras, the Satvahanas? – while actions of rulers from Ashoka to Tipu Sultan look vastly different.

And Sanyal is certainly brief and eclectic – in ten colourfully detailed but most lucidly accessible chapters, he takes us from the prehistoric era when the geographical contours of the ocean and its littoral basically formed up, and the human evolutions and migrations that populated the world, right down to the 21st century.

In the course of the journey, there is no lack of unique historical personalities, both known and unknown, surprising facts galore, and re-interpretations of what we think are historical facts and estimations. All this is presented with some humorous asides, a lack of dogmatic emphasis – though a distaste for some particular rulers or groups is evident – while some of his premises, especially on the freedom struggle, are debatable.

You may not agree with everything but he certainly provides an thoughtful view of the past – and its continuity.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in )

–IANS

vd/vm

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