Sunday, August 11, 2013


Title: Land of the Seven Rivers
Author: Sanjeev Sanyal
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 331

I was prepared to enjoy Sanjeev Sanyal's Land of The Seven Rivers ever since I read the second line of his Author's Note in which he says, "as I wrote this book, it felt like I have been preparing for it for all my adult life. Ideas, facts and conversations that I seem to have hidden away somewhere in my head all came tumbling out as I wrote out the chapters one by one.

Reading through this interesting book gave me, as a reader, the sensation of a work to which the author has given his all. The depth of research and reading that he has done for this book is simply fantastic and highly impressive. I can well believe his statement that if the publishers had not taken the draft away from him, he would have continued with the research forever.

The strength of that research and the power of the narrative gives the lie to the British imperialist claim that they were in India in order to civilize her and that India has had no civilisational history. 

India, the book amply proves, has never needed civilizing. Her heritage extends back over many thousands of years, over the passage of which, different groups of people, friendly or inimical, whether seeking to conquer or to find refuge against persecution, have been assimilated. Even when India fought against the devious intentions of the marauding invaders, she still adopted and retained the positive vestiges of their culture, as in the case of the Mughals and their biryani.

The vestiges of ancient times remain with us in so many ways. Just as the Uttara Path and the Dakshina Path met at Varanasi, the British-built Northern Railway and Southern Railway had their nerve centre in Mughalsarai, just outside Varanasi.

Through this fact-rich book, Sanyal teaches us to be fascinated with this enormous country, so full of contradictions, polarities and differences, where fact meets fiction and legend, and where mythology and symbology are always within arm's reach.

The author begins by placing India in the context of the history and geography of the world, by explaining the tectonic shifts and other occurrences that caused the landmass known as the Indian subcontinent to break away from the larger landmass to which it had been attached for hundreds of thousands of years.

The book traverses India’s monumental journey from the time it asserted its independence by breaking away from the larger landmass up to its political Independence from British imperial rule, 

Along the way, it reveals how life sprang and flourished around India’s many rivers, the importance of the symbology of the lion not only to India but in other ancient cultures too, the linkages of trade and how they helped navigators to seek out the world and map it, bit by bit. 

There is a chapter on the many visitors that India has had, from the Mughal and Turkish invaders to the Parsis who came to escape the persecution, and the scholars who thronged India’s ancient universities. The establishment of the railway system and the high noon of the British empire in India and the story of how the joy of India’s Independence gave way to the trauma and misery of the Partition bring up the rear in this book, that, like the rivers of India, flows easily and seamlessly across the ages.

Sanyal succeeds in placing the history of India within the context of its geography, its political climate and its literature and mythology. Without getting into the finer details of the authenticity of India’s epics, he tells readers that the places mentioned in such elaborate detail are very real. One of the greatest strengths of his work is that he has been able to talk about history parallelly and to make ancient history relevant to our times. 

Sanyal draws interesting parallels where few of us would have seen any. Stating that the lion is important to the Sinhalese people of Sri Lanka, he adds that it is not entirely coincidental that the rebel LTTE named themselves after the other big cat, that is the rival of the lion.

The book also reminded me that history’s lessons are re-presented to us, if we fail to learn from them the first time around. Even today, we see ageing rulers who can’t give up the trappings of power. In another instance, I learned that even a document as strategic as Kautilya’s Arthashastra specified fines for urinating and defecating near a water reservoir, temple or royal palace. 

Sanyal's observations are thought provoking. The idea that the Ramayana is after all the first piece of Dalit literature to occupy such an important place in Hindu religious orthodoxy is audacious but so true. Sanyal also clarifies misconceptions about Sanskrit being a ‘pure’ language.

The humour is very subtle – you might miss it if you’re not careful. In the chapter on trade, he tells us that Italian and Arabian wines were imported in large quantities in ancient times, tracing to this the Indian love for imported alcohol. 

Remarkably, Sanyal’s own voice remains neutral, helping to establish the authenticity of his work. The book is filled with historical and anecdotal detail, but the style is that of a story, and I could well imagine the narrative as a speaking voice inside my head as I read. It was like getting into a time machine and visiting bygone times, without worrying about the risk of altering history or destroying the time-space continuum.

Land of The Seven Rivers reminded me that the best way to teach history and geography is to shear it of its dates and definitions, and make it a story, told by a hoary, wise one to a group of avid listeners, as the lights from the flickering bonfire casts dancing shadow on their faces.

Lessons learned decades ago about the Indus Valley Civilisation and other dynasties that conquered and were vanquished, at various points in time, came back to me. Sanyal’s prose causes powerful warriors and leaders, teachers and builders to walk out from the pages of history and present their motivations to us. The narrative gives us a taste of the architecture, the literature and the life styles of the folk of those times. 

This is not Around the World in 80 Days. This is around the world across the ages and time and space – all in 331 pages. And of course, bonus points for the interesting cover.

A free copy of this book was sent to me by Think WhyNot in exchange for an honest review.

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