Home / Mint-lounge / Mint-on-sunday /  A conversation with Sanjeev Sanyal

Sanjeev Sanyal’s latest book, The Ocean of Churn, is a superbly balanced and measured history of the Indian Ocean. For a book that is well researched and written with a deeply philosophical sense of what history can be, The Ocean of Churn is eminently readable. Mint on Sunday’s Sidin Vadukut recently text-chatted with Sanyal during a Google Hangouts session. Edited excerpts:

So, you start off by giving two reasons why you wrote this book. I want to chat a bit about both. The first was the fact that most Western writing touched upon the Indian Ocean’s colonial history to the neglect of the really interesting history before it. And the second was the problem with historians in the Indian Ocean region. Which is to confine narratives to national borders? Why do they do that here in the “orient" so to speak?

I am not entirely sure but part of the reason is that many of these countries were former colonies and, after becoming independent, they were first rediscovering themselves. Remember that this is in the broader context of an “import substitution" world view.

However, in the specific context of India, a major problem is that “official" historians write the narrative entirely from the perspective of Delhi—which is inland. So, Pakistan and China are neighbours but not Indonesia and Oman, with which we have very deep links. This colours many things including our geopolitics

Is the length of my answers ok?

Yes. Ramble on though, if you want.

No, let’s go to the next question.

That is one thing I thought you did well in the book. Which is to try and avoid the temptation to be drawn inland… I think this occurred to me when I was reading about the Sultanate and the Turkic invasions. Very easy to get waylaid there...

One has to go inland on occasion. One cannot entirely avoid Delhi or Pataliputra. But the coastal perspective is maintained. This is important as it shows many historical characters and events from a very different perspective. Ashoka, for example, is not such a great monarch when seen from an Odiya perspective.

The almost purely inland approach of Indian history writing leaves out so many important things—the great seafaring traditions of the Odiya, the links of the Cholas and Pallavas to South-East Asia, amazing characters like Marthanda Varma of Travancore. It’s like telling European history without Athens, Venice, the Vikings, the English and the Iberians.

I wonder how much of this is a post-Mughal phenomenon... when the sea stopped being a key instrument of policy?

It’s not post-Mughal at all. The next round of colonizers came by sea! The Europeans definitely had a maritime orientation. So, this is a post-Independence phenomenon.

I want to talk about that, in a roundabout way, by first talking about the section on the philosophy of history in your book.


Now there is a simplistic sense you get from a lot of mass media and opinion that writing about Indian history, or any history, is merely a matter of chronicling the events and analysing the outcomes. But in fact there are several different philosophical approaches to history… And you make some choices yourself in this book, yes?

Given the daily debates that takes place on TV, social media and newspaper columns, we do not even agree about what happened yesterday. So, why should we be surprised that there are different ways of thinking about events 2,000 years ago? So, history writing is necessarily about taking scraps of evidence and making sense of it. This needs an intellectual framework of some sort. Some think of history in terms of the actions of “great men" while others in terms of grand socioeconomic forces.

My own view that any uni-dimensional framework misses the point that events unfold due to the coincidence of a number of factors. This process is messy and sometimes leads to unintended consequences. This framework is called “complex adaptive systems" and can be applied to how we think of many things—cities, economies, financial markets, the English language and even Hinduism.

Irrespective of framework, however, it is important that we are honest about the facts. Historians are entitled to their interpretations but not to their own evidence.

Tell us a bit about the complex adaptive systems approach you take. How does it compare to, say, the Marxist approach or the structural approach? Because I think it is a remarkably “unloaded" way of approaching history. Which, to paraphrase Hobsbawm, predicts neither the past nor the future...

The Marxist and similar approaches have a very fixed view of how socioeconomic forces play themselves out. It’s almost like a steam engine running on fixed rails to a predetermined destination. Oddly, it is the same worldview as astrology—a grand universal machine leading, determining the path of events.

The complex, adaptive system is fluid—it is about the interaction of different things and it can lead down many paths. This is not entirely random—some outcomes are more likely than others, some patterns repeat, some continuities persist.

In your opinion what has been the overarching philosophy of public history in India post-Independence? It appears to be a kind of mongrel mix of many things... Or, to put it more bluntly, why is our history the way it is?

Current history writing in India is made up of colonial-era thinking overlaid with Nehruvian and Marxist writings. A lot of the political capital has been invested in some of this. These multiple layers have not only obscured the original evidence but have created a thick mesh that is impervious to new evidence. Like all areas of knowledge, history too should change as we find new evidence. Yet, we still cling to race-based narratives like the Aryan Invasion Theory.

And that brings us to the evidence. You write at great length about the genetic studies that have taken place all over the Indian Ocean region. And it is all just really interesting. I mean the Sinhalese are Odiyas, the Madagascans are from Borneo. The Indian Ocean is one big genetic jumble… Surely this needs to be appreciated more widely?

Hence the name of the book, The Ocean of Churn—the churn of people, commerce and ideas. Genetics does provide a much more reliable source of information than old theories based on linguistics. The conclusions based on genetics fit the archaeology and the old texts much better.

A lot of new material is still flowing in, so it is important that we keep our minds open. However, let it be clear, the complex adaptive framework always warns against using a single data source to build a narrative (even if it something as scientific as genetics).

For instance, if we went purely by genetic heritage, we would get the impression that India colonized Britain and not the other way around. This is why it is important to triangulate using different independent evidence—climate data, genetics, ruins of buildings, technology, texts, oral history and so on.

It must have been challenging to put the narratives together when you were writing? Choices to make and compromises to choose between?

Yes, choices are made by all historians. What is important is that the writer is transparent about sources and when he/she is not sure. So, you will find me saying “likely" and “probably" quite a few times.

I have one more question on genetics. What is the research happening now? What discoveries await us?

There is lot going on all over the world. In India, the DNA of a Harappan skeleton is said to have been derived and results should be out soon. This will be quite interesting. However, let me warn against extrapolating whatever the single data point says to every Harappan. The civilization covered a very large area and was almost certainly multi-ethnic. So, it will tell us just about one genetic lineage who lived there but nothing about who else was there or not there.

Meanwhile, all kinds of non-human genetic discoveries are also taking place on wildlife and domestic animals. All very interesting.

Now I want to talk about the Harappans a bit. We tend to obsess over their uniqueness or primacy. But they were a truly global civilization by your reckoning… And they left a global footprint...

Yes, the Harappans covered a large area and had a big population. They also seemed to be conscious about belonging to some sort of a shared civilization as there is quite a lot of shared cultural motifs, architecture and other standards.

Nonetheless, they were open to the wider world, with trading posts from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf. Think of them as a confident civilization engaging and exploring the wider world. These are not people worried about the purity of their culture or race.

In fact, the notion of racial purity... Could we say that it wasn’t something the Indian Ocean worried about at all?

No real sign of it in ancient India. This is consistent through ancient India and shows up in our very mixed genes and our wide-ranging interactions with the world. Just look at the Mahabharata—there are people marrying across caste and region with abandon.

This is why I begin the book with the story of a South-East Asian king in South India. This does not mean that there is no sense of “insider" and “outsider". However, this is defined in almost all ancient people by culture rather than race.

The Ethiopians are known as “krishna yavana" or dark Greeks as they were Orthodox Christians in the early period. So, civilization not race. Although dark skin does get some sort of preference in ancient India—all the handsome men like Arjuna and Krishna are dark, and even Draupadi is dark.

So tell me, Sanjeev, why did the Europeans just sail in and take over everything? What left the Indian Ocean so vulnerable? You cover this a bit in the book. But I am keen to ask you anyway.

We can partly blame the Chinese for this. In the first half of the fifteenth century, Admiral Zheng made a series of voyages to the Indian Ocean. These were not voyages of discovery, as the routes were very well known. It was about establishing geopolitical supremacy.

By this time, the Indians were no longer a maritime power and the Majapahit of Java were most important. The Chinese undermined the Majapahit and placed their own candidates in other places. However, they then withdrew due to their internal politics and left a vacuum. This is one factor that helped the Europeans, quite apart from their superior technology.

However, one part of the story is also the Indian “withdrawal" from maritime culture. I am not sure why this happened. The destruction of the temples, which acted as venture financiers, by the Turks may have paralysed Indian financial power. But, it is unclear why Indians—particularly Hindus—developed a fear of the outside world.

Reading your book I was left feeling that the Indian Ocean would have been a far more... united place if the Europeans hasn’t intervened.

I am not so sure. The pre-European world was interconnected but it had its own geopolitical rivalries: the Chola-led alliance versus the Pandya-Sinhalese alliance, the Srivijaya versus the Javans and so on. So the pre-colonial period also went through many cycles.

Similarly, the colonial period had its own pattern of interconnectedness. British India was connected to East Africa, Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong and so on. History has continued after the colonial powers have left and we still have many areas of friction across the Indian Ocean rim.

While I felt the ancient history of the Indian Ocean was interesting, you also suggest links that persist to the modern day. Especially in the form of the Indian soldier. Surely the soldier was a crucial mediating factor between India and the world... Why does this get downplayed so much?

The Indian soldier is a very important character in world history—sometimes fighting for an Indian cause but often as a mercenary in faraway lands. We find him in Herodotus fighting for the Persians, later as a mahout driving war elephants in the Middle East for the Greeks and more recently fighting for the British Empire.

Once you notice the Indian mercenaries in history, they are everywhere. I have no idea why no attention has been given to this before, but a few recent books have talked about the Indian contribution to the two World Wars.

Just two more questions. You make a solid case for a history of India according to its coasts. A history of Indian independence according to Bengal would be fascinating?

I have provided a coastal view of the freedom struggle—the revolutionaries, the penal colony in Port Blair, the Indian National Army and the Royal Indian Navy Revolt. Some of these events did involve Bengal and Bengalis—Netaji Subhash Bose, Rash Behari Bose and members of my family.

Yes I spotted the odd Sanyal.

Notice, that this alternative stream of the national movement was much more about international links—the Ghadarities from North America, the INA in SIngapore, the long-standing links with Japan and Germany.

And finally, were there bits of the research that really surprised you? You’ve been working with history for a while. Were you at any point surprised by what you found?

There were many things that surprised. One of them was the importance of the female line in the history of the Indian Ocean. The succession in so many places was based on this and it had real impact on the course of history.

The empires of Angkor and Champa were ruled for many centuries by kings who derived their legitimacy from a female line that went back to a marriage between an Indian adventurer and a local princess. Amazingly, this royal legitimacy was exported back to India in the form of the Pallavas who ruled over much of southern India. This cycle goes on.

Also interesting in how many of these ancient links are alive and staring us in the face. Durga’s lion and the worship of Narasingha in Odisha and Andhra coast is directly linked to the lion on the Sri Lankan flag!

Sanjeev Sanyal’s The Ocean of Churn is published by Penguin Viking. Mint’s Niranjan Rajadhyaksha said he could “think of no better contemporary introduction to our maritime heritage than this book". The full review here.

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