Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Land of the Seven Rivers: A Book Review

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The fall began when the river started drying up. The remnants of a civilization whose culture, lifestyle and social setup were intricately woven with the river, were buried under the sod of time, until “in the 1920s, Rakhal Das Banerji and Sir John Marshall of the Archeological Survey” discovered the hidden signs of a forgotten settlement in a place under construction of a railway line. This is the modern understanding of Indus Valley Civilization also known as Indus-Saraswati Civilization. Published in Viking by Penguin Books India, in 2012, Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography starts with the events that precedes the founding of Indus Valley civilization. Land of the Seven Rivers is an ambitious work of nonfiction that delivers what is promised, and more. 

“Much has been written about Indian history but almost all of it is concerned with sequences of political events.” (3) Land of the Seven Rivers traces clues to civilizational changes into the geography of the land, and informs its readers about some rather surprising discoveries.   

A billion years ago, “the earth’s land mass was joined together” “in a supercontinent called Rodinia.” (12) Land of the Seven Rivers takes readers through a gradual expansion of land as well as demographic from this point onwards, until the civilizational borders of modern India are chalked out. 

Image Courtesy: Mr. Sanyal; asiasociety.org
Sanjeev Sanyal is a blessed writer with a gift to bring his narrative close to the reader’s heart. He himself appears among other personalities in the book and this supply this nonfiction book with the charm and eloquence of a story told with a resonating background. His lucid and rhythmic language has individuality. Mr. Sanyal proudly achieves, in his second book, what almost all Indian writers could not achieve, except Salman Rushdie—the ability to move.

In Mr. Rushdie, his fiction moves among varying aspects of realism. In Mr. Sanyal’s nonfiction book, the narrative moves along the lines of history and into the history of the geography of a civilization, and into questions of identity. In the final chapter, titled, ‘The Contours of Modern India’, Sanjeev Sanyal surprises with his analysis of modern India. He addresses questions such as what it means to be an Indian in 21-century India, and what do slums indicate.

Four major events influenced the fate the Indian civilization. The heyday of the Indus Valley came to ground with the drying up of the river Saraswathi, a river described in the Vedas and epics. Indian civilization regains its hold on progress and prosperity once again through the Mauryan Empire, only to be ravished by the Turkish invaders. The next phase of change struck with the arrival of European powers, and the fourth stage starts with India’s independence, a growth that India continues through its mistakes and victories. Note that these demarcations are a very vague attempt to bring the book up into perspective.

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Land of the Seven Rivers, does not just describe the geographical peculiarities of the Indian subcontinent in the historic, early historic and prehistoric times, but also views these peculiarities in scrutiny with those mentioned in the Vedas and the great epics. Sanjeev Sanyal draws connections between minute cultural traits of modern India and its source events in prehistoric or early historic times. These events vary from the practice of urinating and defecating in open places to celebrating “its [India’s] entrepreneurs and risk-takers.” (19) Sanyal addresses these traits as civilizational memories. He uses data from gene mapping in order to identify the people and population that could possibly be the ancestors of the present population of India. He disproves the Aryan invasion theory and also manages to “iron out” caste related issues. “There is no real difference between groups that we differentiate today as ‘castes’ and ‘tribes’.” (34)

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A work of this clarity, ambition and craftsmanship hasn’t been realized before, by any Indian author, apparently. And this opens up the question, wouldn’t it be a nice angle to explore various cultures throughout the world, even the history of the Christians or Jews or Muslims. This query itself is the greatest credit in the author’s account.

Although Land of the Seven Rivers apprehends the seriousness of the task and attempts its best to stay immune to bias and inclinations, some readers might find it a tad partial towards the Turks as well as the Muslim rulers in India, including the Mughals. The author’s anti-Mughal sentiment reaches such extents as to pose an open criticism to Mirza Ghalib’s poetry. “It contains no vision of the future.” (229) Sanyal surmises. Turkish invaders appear as the destroyers of libraries and centers of learning.

Sanyal occasionally includes first hand experiences of visiting places, in an informal way, which raises the status of the book to a historical travelogue. 

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Sanjeev Sanyal is currently the global strategist of one of the world’s largest banks. A Rhodes Scholar and an Eisenhower Fellow, he was named Young Global Leader for 2010 by the World Economic Forum. His first book, The Indian Renaissance: India’s Rise After a Thousand Years of Decline, was published in 2008.

Land of the Seven Rivers may not be a reference book to look up for in depth information. The purpose of the book is to remind the present and future generations about the Indian civilization, and to instill inspiration to go on further quest to unravel the mysteries that continue to puzzle people, still. Sanyal’s point of view is very remarkable to note here, that is, in order to solve present day problems we can take inspiration and information from the past.

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