At sea level

A professional historian might crib but the general reader gets a rather impish maritime study

I remember celebrating detective stories because they applaud the inspired amateur over the bureaucratic professional. To be an amateur in the age of the professional is not easy. It comes with an element of risk that provides an edge to the work.

Sanjeev Sanyal is an amateur historian who rushes in where historians refuse to tread. He seeks a comprehensive history of the Indian Ocean to answer questions that have haunted him since childhood, and as a creature who has lived throughout on the rim of the Indian Ocean.

Like every amateur, Sanyal, an economist and urban theorist, is a secret reformer. He works to alter the contours of a discipline. He explains that “almost all of the existing books on the Indian Ocean fall into two categories”. The first category has histories written from a Western perspective and they commit the sin of colonial arrogance. They assume that the history of the Indian Ocean begins with the arrival of the Portuguese and feign ignorance of ancient Indian mariners, Arab merchants and Indonesian empires who created a polyglot world long before the West arrived. This ‘school’ sees the Indian Ocean as a conduit for spices rather than a way of life. The second group includes indigenous scholars who introduce a local but narrow perspective, focusing on a locality or region, amputating a broader sense of interconnectedness. Sanyal attempts to bridge these two schools.

Like a storyteller, Sanyal changes the opening by extending time on to an evolutionary frame. This breaks the standard stereotype of origins and periods. Agriculture is no longer a myth invented in the Far East but repeatedly invented across the world. The word ‘neolithic’ is implanted in a deeper time and the true history of oceans does not begin with Vasco da Gama. The world looked at from land to sea looks different from the world looked at from sea to land. Maritime history creates its own heroes and often shrinks the myth of landlocked locals. Tipu Sultan and Ashoka are not the legends they are. Seen from the perspective of the Orissa and Kerala coasts, they appear as mere marauders.

Maritime history is no longer only the history of kings and conquerors but embraces a wider and more complete cast of characters. Explorers, merchants, and pirates enter it in a more substantial way. To this almost-tectonic change in perspective, which Sanyal explores with a child’s delight, he adds one statement of a method, which is more cryptic. He criticises Marxism as predetermined “like some Victorian steam engine driven by the inescapable laws of Newton”. He offers, in turn, his theory of complexity, which allows for convergence, contingency, and a narrative that accounts for fluid messes. One wishes he had outlined the method in more detail and been more specific in his critique of Marxism.

It is, however, clear that Sanyal is feisty and combative. By digging deep into archaeology and evolution, he is able to give a more sympathetic account of myth and folklore in relation to science. The Saraswati river becomes, as he says, the most important feature of the Vedic terrain rather than a bit of theological fiction. But what counts most is his delight in history, the little nuggets of insight. He is fascinating on the myth of the great flood and its variants, showing how folklore might confirm the geological fact. Yet he is careful about variants. He warns that the Laotian myth of the flood is different. Here, the gods became angry with humans and wrought a flood that erased mortals. After the flood, they dispatched a buffalo that died and from its nostril grew a creeper that bore great gourds. When they were cut open, the gourds bore a new generation of humans. He moves easily between fact and speculation, especially in the way he theorises about matriliny, suggesting it was a result of male populations being more mobile than the female. Male migrants thus married local women creating groups such as the Santhals and Khasis.

Sanyal is devastating in his dismantling of Ashoka as a legend, contending that the construction of an inflated Ashoka is recent nationalist fiction. He also sardonically suggests that historians should visit the places they talk about and read the local edicts more carefully. He argues that Ashoka did not become Buddhist after his genocides in battle but as a tactical political response to his Jain opponents. In fact, he observes that Ashoka proceeded with his brutality long after the battle of Kalinga. The author suggests the edicts were propaganda and adds that none of the texts in Orissa link his conversion to the war.

Sanyal is keen to rectify some of the silences of history. He talks of the skill of Indonesian sailors sailing in outrigger boats to Madagascar. He mentions that in terms of seamanship the effort matches the achievements of the Polynesians. In a bid to match Thor Heyerdahl, a group of enthusiasts recreated the ship and sailed from Java to Madagascar. This ship is now on display at a museum in Borobudur. What makes Sanyal’s book appealing is that he is as happy devastating nationalist icons as he is redeeming Indonesian history. There is a pluralism here which goes beyond personal or ideological bias.

It would be interesting to watch an encounter between Sanyal and NCERT historians and follow a discussion that develops beyond Left-Right ideological frames. I am suggesting this not out of playful spite but as a chance for citizens to consume history as a more open-ended pluralistic discipline. I have seen the damage the Left and the Right have done to the history of science. I feel it is time history is open to the professional and the amateur to help create a more cosmopolitan theory of India and South Asia. Such a playful pluralism can add a lot, both to the academic and democratic imagination. I am not saying Sanyal is not without his biases. Yet he has an impishness and a sweep that makes debating enjoyable.

The second part of the book is a racy read that covers a whole range of theatres from the Waq Waq dynasty to the rise of the Arabs. But it is his study of the decline of India as a seafaring country that is fascinating. Sanyal talks in detail of the economic and cultural function of temples, their relation with merchants and artisan communities, the way they played banker and financier. By the Chola period, Indian Ocean trade was run by a network of multinational guilds. The Mongol and Turkish invasions and their systematic destruction of temples not only emasculated cultural life but destroyed the financial structure of ocean trade. The Indian merchant class became shore-based while Arabs and Chinese entered took over the seas. Sanyal observes that while the Arabs and Chinese recovered from the Mongol shock, Hindus imposed on themselves caste rules that discouraged the crossing of seas. Sanyal is at a loss to explain how such a strong maritime tradition would seek to limit itself so drastically.

There is a difference in narrative between the first and second parts of the book. The first is more interestingly speculative, even playful, while the second is richly anecdotal. What one has finally is a book rich in diversity, complex, and “in churn” like the Indian Ocean. A professional historian might crib about it but for a general reader the book is a rare gift, a kaleidoscopic study of an ocean, not quite like Braudel on the Mediterranean but still deeply rewarding and constantly entertaining with enough to quarrel over. The only thing that is a trifle inept is the book’s title. One wishes Sanyal had worked on it with the same joy he brought to the rest of the book.

The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History; Sanjeev Sanyal, Penguin Random House India, Rs. 599.


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