Wave Theory: Sanjeev Sanyal on how the Indian Ocean shaped human history
In a new book, Sanjeev Sanyal tells us the story of how the Indian Ocean shaped human history
Much of human history has played itself out along the rim of the Indian Ocean. In a first-of-its-kind attempt, internationally acclaimed economist, urban theorist and bestselling author Sanjeev Sanyal tells the history of this significant region, which stretches across East Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent to South East Asia and Australia. He narrates a fascinating tale about the earliest human migrations out of Africa and the great cities of Ankor and Vijayanagar; medieval Arab empires and Chinese ‘treasure fleets’; the rivalries of European colonial powers and a new dawn. In an interview with Firstpost, Sanyal tells us how he put together this ambitious, multifaceted narrative:
When did you get interested in history? Is there a quality that fascinates you about the subject?
I am just a curious person and I have always been interested in how a city, a country or a society came to be the way they are. So, whenever I visit a place or even an old building, I like to find out its history. However, note that I do not think in silos. History cannot be understood merely as the actions of great individuals or even grand socio-economic; it is a messy process that is affected by all kinds of things: natural landscape, culture, commerce, actions of lesser known people and even pure chance. I love investigating how these disparate factors interact with each other and all my writings, including those on economics and urban design, are about the dynamics of such interaction.
To be very pedestrian, how do you keep dates and chronologies straight in your head?
Frankly, I do not consciously try to remember dates and chronology. As with everything, a mental map builds up over time and bits and pieces fit together as one learns more from reading, traveling and talking to others. I am actually quite poor at remembering names and often find it difficult to recall names of people, both current and historical. However, I remember stories. In fact, I will meet someone after a gap of years and remember minute details of their lives and of our last conversation, but simply find it impossible to remember their name! This can be quite awkward at times.
What made you write Ocean of Churn? Did you have a concrete idea for this book or was it something that evolved organically as your interest in the subject, ie how the Indian Ocean shaped human history, grew?
I have spent most of my life in and around the Indian Ocean — Kolkata where I was born and spent part of my childhood, Mumbai and Singapore where I lived and worked for many years. Merely out of curiosity, I read up on their histories and those of other places I visited. However, I do not limit myself to books or discussions with scholars. I like to experience places and people. I will often wander around soaking in a place — old buildings, archaeological sites, new neighbourhoods, slums, buses, trains, and so on. I will strike up conversations with ordinary people at tea-shops or climb up a steep hill to see an abandoned fort. In this way, I have been unconsciously collecting material for this book for much of my life. However, I started doing more structured research around 2012 and as part of the research and travelled extensively around the Indian Ocean rim.
You’ve said much of history has been written from the point of view of battles and developments on land with not enough importance given to what happened on the high seas in the pre-colonial period. Did this contribute in your decision to write a book on the maritime history of the Indian Ocean rim?
Most of Indian history is written from an inland perspective — specifically the perspective of Delhi. This leaves out large parts of India from the narrative. We hear little about the ancient mariners of Odisha, the Cholas and Pallavas, the Vijayanager empire, the ports of Kerala, the links with South-East Asia and the Roman empire. This is like learning European history without Athens, Venice, Britain, Spain, Portugal and the Vikings. Not only does this inland bias ignore our rich maritime past, it also means that our understanding of the Indian Ocean rim is defined by a Western perspective. I felt that the people of this region needed to tell their own story. Only then will we understand our deep historical links with countries like Indonesia, Oman, Cambodia and so on.
How did you research this book? Was it very different from how you went about it for your previous works? What are sources that you have predominantly relied on for your material for The Ocean of Churn?
The approach I took was not fundamentally different than what I did with Land of the Seven Rivers. I will first read some of the basic material. A surprising number of papers and translations are available online. Platforms like Amazon allow one to build up a collection of relevant books quickly. Once I have a general idea of the narrative, I try to visit the location. So, I drove around the coast of Oman, down the Kerala coast, up the Tamil coast and so on. In my view, this is very important for understanding the geographical context, local folk memories and so on. Later, on more technical topics, I try to verify things with specialists. The main difference from my previous books is that I have been much more explicit about the philosophical framework of “complex, adaptive systems”. In the past, I was hesitant to burden the general reader with it but this time I spelled it out.
At various points you’ve said that oral histories should have more value placed on them by modern historians. To what extent have you relied on such oral histories to source material for your book? Have they moulded your research and/or opinions?
I think it is important to take into account the local memory of a historical event. This includes oral and folk traditions of various kinds — legends, songs, plays, festivals and so on. This does not mean that one should always take oral history literally or uncritically. They are often embellished and distorted. However, the same can also be said of more conventional sources such as the tales of foreign travellers. Folk memory, moreover, can often contain clues that can be followed up and confirmed from other forms of evidence. This is why, unlike mainstream historians, I do not instinctively dismiss traditional accounts as mere myths.
When writing what is essentially a history book for the masses, how do you ensure a balance between the academic quality of the work and weaving a compelling narrative?
It is mostly about how the story is told. The research must be as rigorous as possible and, as readers will notice, I try to give the reader a sense of the evidence and how I arrived at certain conclusions. However, a book for a general reader has be careful not to get caught in arcane academic debates and terminology, and keep the narrative moving. I also use humour and personal anecdotes to ease the text and give it colour. Perhaps the most difficult thing is to decide what to leave out. As a researcher one ends up collecting a pile of information but the book would be unreadable if everything was included. Therefore, one has to make a call on what to leave out. It is particularly difficult when one has taken a lot of trouble to collect some information but later discovers that it is too much of a diversion.
Would you say you are very organised in your research and writing? How did you go about putting together this book — the points you wanted to cover and their sequence?
Other than the first chapter, the narrative is told in historical sequence — consequently, time is the organizing principle. Nonetheless, there are events happening simultaneously in different places and one has to keep skipping from Arabia to Africa to India to South East Asia. This is unavoidable but can be confusing. I hope I have managed to weave the narrative together in a way that the inter-linkages between different location become clear.
One thing that's particularly interesting about The Ocean Of Churn is how, when dealing with the legacies of Ashoka and Tipu Sultan, you’ve depicted them in a manner different from common historical portrayals. Being objective must have been difficult; how did you draw your conclusions about them?
It is all about the evidence. Not just Ashoka and Tipu Sultan, but a lot of mainstream history is based on very thin evidence but it presented as if it is a well established fact. Sometimes it is about interpretation but in many cases, the available evidence points in a completely different direction. As I have pointed out, there is very little evidence that Ashoka became a pacifist or that he was a successful ruler. Similarly, there is more than adequate evidence of Tipu Sultan’s extreme brutality in Coorg and Kerala. I have tried to do the best given the available evidence. If new evidence turns up that suggests a different story, I have no problem updating my views.
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