African novelist and scholar Chinua Achebe famously said that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. Most of the books related to the history of Asia and Africa have suffered from this bias since time immemorial. It is only in the recent times that an alternate retelling of our own history is being attempted. Sanjeev Sanyal must surely count among the foremost voices making their presence known in this retelling. His latest book "Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean shaped human history" completes the circle that he began drawing with his splendid bestseller "Land of Seven Rivers".
Anyone who knows Sanjeev personally, knows his conviction in the complex adaptive system. CAS is made up of large number of Independent Agents that are constantly interacting with each other, and evolving. At the beginning of "Ocean of Churn", Sanjeev reminds us of this system, and argues that a lot of history is a series of events that happened as a result of Independent Agents interacting with each other with "unintended consequences." Most of us only recall the butterfly flapping its wings in China can change the weather in the USA, but it is truly fascinating to see large epoch making events taking place in a similar fashion.
Like "Land of seven rivers", "Ocean of Churn" too covers a large period, starting from the time dinosaurs first appeared around 230 million years ago, all the way to unification of South Africa under Nelson Mandela's leadership, and change of Bombay to Mumbai. Keeping the Indian Ocean rim as the centre of the narrative, the author takes us through numerous geopolitical upheavals that changed the course of history as we know it today. The research is meticulous, and the author's strategy of visiting almost all the places he writes about pays rich dividends. The book reads sometimes like a travelogue, and the reader feels as if he is witnessing historic events in diverse locations.
The choice to tell history through the lens of Indian Ocean rim proves inspired as we learn how commerce, and not a spirit of adventure, or religious fervour was behind most of the conquests through the history. We also experience the truth in 'politics makes strange bedfellows', as we learn about Buddhists joining hands with Catholics, and Marathas joining hands with Nizam. Seeing a lot of this history through the pov of commercial interests also explains motivations behind British's support to abolition of slavery, and the opium farming in India during British rule. We learn that businessman's guilds existed over a thousand years ago. The old adage of more things change the more they remain the same is proven true time and again.
Where the book succeeds most splendidly, is in dispelling many myths about the British influenced history that is commonly read and taught in India even today. So while discussing the history of the Mauryas, we get an eye-opening primer about King Ashoka- the not so great. We learn about how Ashoka's conversion to Buddhism preceded his invasion of Kalinga, and how most of the pacifist quotes attributed to him are likely to be for future generations. In a later chapter, the author casts a similarly critical eye on the legend making around the ruler of Mysore- Tipu Sultan. On both occasion, Sanjeev remains carefully neutral in his tone, and sticks to the facts as they are available. It is a refreshing change from the selective storytelling we are used to.
The book is equally brutal in exposing the myth of European invaders' claim of civilizational superiority. From Portuguese's brutal attacks on India's south coast, to the Dutch perpetrated massacre in Bali, and from the execution of Muslim soldiers in Singapore, to Jalianwala Bagh massacre in India, we are presented with incontrovertible evidence of the bloodthirsty and barbaric nature of the European rule over the Indian Ocean rim. We also learn about the rampant corruption in the British East India Company, and how that corruption eventually funded one of the biggest universities in America.
When he dons the cap of the historian of the lions, the author introduces us to Abbakka, the warrior queen of Ullal, who fought and defeated Portugese army in 1555, and King Marthanda Varma - the little known King of Travancore, who inflicted the most devastating defeat on the Dutch army in 1741. While discussing the Marathas, the author does not forget Kanhoji Angre- the brave admiral of King Shivaji's navy. While reading we get the feeling that many such heroic figures of our own history are not forgotten so much as swept aside, because their deeds do not suit a predetermined narrative.
Throughout all this, the tone of the book remains dispassionate and cool, with an ever open eye to explore (and exploit) humour implicit in many situations. We laugh at the angry letters written in ancient times by merchants to their suppliers, and marvel at the resourcefulness of an Indian father who helped overthrow a government to save his daughter's honour.
In Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York "the protagonist Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo Di Caprio) observes "The earth turns but we don't feel it move. One night you look up, one spark and the whole sky is on fire". As a student of the late 80s and early 90s in the Indian education system, the history that I read about was always told by people who never felt the earth move. I am very happy to note that "Land of Seven Rivers" and "Ocean of Churn" is part of the spark that shows us the sky on fire.
Oh and what fireworks we witness!!
Mayuresh Didolkar is novelist, investment advisor, marathoner and occasional stand-up comedian.
Can be reached at @freentglty