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Book Review: Land of The Seven Rivers


Geography as history
SUTANU GURU | Issue Dated: May 5, 2013, New Delhi
Tags : History | Book Review | Land of The Seven Rivers | Sanjeev Sanyal |

History can be very dangerous because our interpretations are invariably coloured by our ideological worldview. So let me state right at the outset that the JNU school of historians are not going to like this book. The Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography by Sanjeev Sanyal is an audacious attempt that tries to bust many beliefs held strongly in traditional (read Marxist) interpretations of Indian history. For example, the author tries to argue that the Aryans were not invaders but people who originated in India and that the ancient Rig Veda is coterminous with the Harappan civilization. Believe me, hackles will be raised at this!

In any case, I have failed to understand the animosity and hostility between the JNU school of history and the, for want of a better term, the ‘Internet Hindu’ school of history. At their worst, both reveal closed minds and prejudices winning over curiosity. Frankly, I tend to laugh when exponents of Hindutva fashion Indian history though their blinkered eyes, invoking a great culture and civilization of yore when much of the world was hunting and gathering. I think that is taking jingoism a bit too far. For that matter, I also laugh when the more committed members of the JNU tribe dismiss everything to do with Hinduism or Indian civilization as hogwash. I think that is carrying Marxism a bit too far. The truth, as always, must surely lie somewhere in between these extreme positions. I had always thought that keeping an open mind should be the most important qualification for a social scientist! I mean, if theories held sacred even in pure sciences can be found to be untrue by subsequent flashes of genius and discoveries, why can’t the same be true of social sciences?

Take the case of economics. Till 1929, classical economics had unwavering faith in the ability of markets to produce the best possible outcomes. Advocates of this school of passionately believed that free markets lead to fill employment. Then came the Great Crash of 1929 and the subsequent depression when Capitalism faced a crisis of survival. John Maynard Keynes upended the whole structure of classical economics by arguing that markets can fail and government intervention is necessary when economies stagnate. The Keynes school of thought held away till the Reagan and Thatcher revolution of the 1980s when the markets and the pursuit of self interest once again became the reigning deities. Greed is Good became the new mantra till 2008 when Capitalism once again imploded and free market prophets were once again exposed as charlatans.

Surely something similar must happen with interpretations of Indian history? What Sanyal argues in his book about the amazing continuity of the Indian civilization is something that is accepted even by the less strident votaries of the JNU school. Of course, only the ideological hard balls would suggest that India even in ancient times was a political entity in terms of geographical boundaries and systems of governance. Like now, India then too was probably a cacophony of ideas, languages, ethnic backgrounds and a sense of belonging. And continuity is something which we cannot ignore. For example, Sanyal points out how the ox or the bullock cart has been continually visible in India right from the Harappan times to the 21st century. He also points out how the Gayatri Mantra could well be something many Indians have been chanting unchanged for about 4000 years or so. He spends considerable time trying to make sense of the still prevalent myth about the mighty river Saraswati. Sanyal tentatively concludes his quest for Saraswati by arguing that the nondescript river Ghaggar that runs through Haryana was once the mighty Saraswati till geography changed its destiny, and that of the Indian civilization. Not convinced? Even I am not and would wait for more credible evidence.

But I would definitely keep an open mind. Just as I keep doing even after reading Sanyal’s interpretation of the interaction between Islam and India. I refuse to buy the VHP theory that India and Islam mean a saga of conquests, destruction of temples and humiliation. I also refuse to buy the hard line JNU theory that Islam and India are all about trade and Sufism. I think both happened and it will help if both the extreme Left and extreme Right surrender their positions of denial. So if you are not ideologically blinkered and are curious about ‘The Wonder That is India!’, this book will surely give you some food for thought. It helps that Sanyal has opted not to use withering jargon or bombastic words and tries to tell his story in an engaging and conversational tone. Worth a read for all Indophiles and Indophobes!

Author: Sanjeev Sanyal
Publications: Viking/Penguin     
Edition:  Hardcover
ISBN: 978-06-700-8639-9
Pages: 352 
Price: Rs 499

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017