Friday, August 09, 2013

Review of "Land of the Seven Rivers" by Sanjeev Sanyal.

I received a copy of " Land of the Seven Rivers "   Penguin India (12 November 2012) by Sanjeev Sanyal  for  review, from Team ThinkWhyNot.  

When I went to school in the late 50's and sixties, History and Geography, bundled as "Social Studies"   was never my favourite subject. One was all about  dates, wars, dealing with duplicate names, and by-hearting what they did when they were not fighting;  the other was all about  latitudes, longitudes, climates, mountains, origins of rivers, and oceans , without specifying continuities and human linkages. 

But the complete title of this book , ie "Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India's Geography" intrigued me.  

And it turns out , that this is really a  History/Geography of India , as if the people mattered.....

The Sapta-Sindhu region, communities that sprung up around the course of the Saraswati river; slow tectonic changes that nudged the country we know as India, to its current position, thanks to a drifting of continents, and slowly blocked paths of rivers like Saraswati, that essentially faded away underground.  Migrations of people affected by this. Archaeological findings  of the Harappan ages, that tell us  of communities  that had a fairly ordered supervised existence.   The author  suggests that what we call the Vedic times, when the Vedas were being documented, are not just speculative stories, and there is enough to suggest that it might have something to do with the Harappans.  

The epics  like Ramayana and the Mahabharata appear to be linked to the subsequent development of the fertile Indo-gangetic area, and the  movement of the populace across it, thanks to centres of learning happening in Takshila and Nalanda at the two ends and the eventual appearance of the west-east Uttara  Path and north-south Dakshina Path, along which the Mahabharata and Ramayana stories proceeded.  Attackers, conquerors, of various dynasties, with various proclivities, some who destroyed and some who built, and even some who renounced; some with a sense of history, and some with an exaggerated sense of self.  The monuments that appeared across the geography to immortalize the history.  Motifs, symbols, and inscriptions, that carry themselves across ages.  The appearance of religion and those who promoted and or followed it.

The book ranges across  thousands of years, from the Vedic Ages to the present, tracing  community life, commerce,  interactions with foreign visitors,  power centres, even speculating on the symbolic and actual significance of animals like cows, horses, elephants, tigers, lions and so on, through the ages. 

Yes , it follows through with the arrival of various foreign folks who sailed the seas and ended up settling down in our country.  First to trade, and slowly to rule.   The author has a special interest in studying how our cities developed, and their individual ethos as a result of their history. 

The latter part of the book describes the post 1857  era, when everything took on political power hungry overtones.  How certain developmental activities done by the British, like railways, were actually  a result of  Northern states of the US blockading the southern states of the US , blocking raw cotton for British mills,  the British looking upon India as an alternate source  , and in anticipation, setting up, with the highest priority,  infrastructure like railways and docks . 

 The author also chronicles, changes in mindsets of the populace, results of education (Bombay, Calcutta and Madras Universities set up more than 100 years ago),  and how trains besides lugging export items to docks, also allowed  folks with excellent communication and scholarly  abilities to travel and impart learning and ideas across the country.  Some having to do with the Freedom Struggle.

 What makes this book enjoyable, is the several random nuggets that appear and are answered in a delightful manner .  How did the country acquire the name Bharat ?  Are there similarities in Sanskrit and Persian ?  Does replacing 's' with an  'h' or vice versa,  in the Zoroastrian scriptures  make them more understandable to those knowledgeable in Sanskrit ?  (aside :  Ever wondered why the "namah" of namaskar and namaz, both meaning obeisance sound similar? It is Old Persian-Sanskrit connection).

 Did Robert Clive  really do a thanksgiving Pooja at the Kali Mata temple in Kolkata ( as opposed to a church)  after he won the Battle of Plassey ? How maps and mapping techniques  evolved over time,  and the very scientific but painstaking technique devised by William Lambton  using stars and trigonometry to map distances and directions.  And how he got the assignment thanks to a chap called Arthur Wellesley (who later became the Duke of Wellington and defeated Napolean), who used Lambton's expertise in defining positions to avert a disaster in a war with Tipu Sultan .         

So many maps we see today , originated because this man Lambton lugged a half ton imported theodolite across the country, forests, mountains and beaches  and measured angles and calculated. It even crashed to smithereens once, and was repaired . The project, supposed to be done in 5 years, actually went on for 6 decades. Lambton was succeeded by an equally dedicated Everest, who headed the Trigonometrical Survey of India, and after whom the highest peak of the Himalayas was named by his assistant.      

 This book  is a chronicle of how  we have developed as a people and a country. Given the amazing, dynamically  changing physical, social, and political boundary conditions, where we seek solutions .  It is a chronicle of how earth movements, water bodies,  mountain barriers, extensive green covers,  and human ambitions  and endeavours,  have played a great part in making us what we are today.

Which is really what history and geography is all about.

This is not  a book that fits into an academically defined straitjacket, that has fixed definitions for History and  Geography .    It is not a book that makes you avidly flick pages surreptitiously to learn the ending . It is a book, you enjoy over several days, thinking about what you just read,  sometimes wondering, smiling in delight, sometimes telling someone about it, sometimes frowning, and sometimes telling yourself, "ah ! I didn't know that !"......     

One marvels at the stupendous research  conducted by the author.  The wide spectrum across which the book ranges boggles the mind. Contrary to what some might think,  one enjoys the personal interjections of the author, giving his impressions from various visits to places.  There is a sense of openness and urgency to imparting information throughout the book.  You sense the movement of time.    

 So much more can be written about this book. But that will be another book :-)

 And so  it may simply be advisable to read Sanyal's book.   

And speaking of the just mentioned water bodies ....  aren't we as a country, really like an ancient sturdy tree,  with its roots deep into Sarswatical deep ground waters,  growing through the ages, branching out and flowering in the directions where light is forthcoming, sheltering  various populations, who hang on and survive a la Darwin ?   Some creatures like the birds, bees, and butterflies, enhance our living,  some  like the Simian ones, are a bit of a rough life, causing destruction at times,  some branches fall off, leaves wither, but there is new sap coming up and disseminating through the strong trunk, and there are newer branches, and newer leaves.  At all times, fruiting happens, life evolves, and there are seasons  of warm celebrations, torrential rains, biting fearful colds, somehow all leading to some sunny summers......     





  1. I used to really wonder how the people in the olden days made these maps.
    I must find out if Robert Clive really did a thanksgiving Pooja.


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