A trip to India on a time machine

Written by Soma Das | Updated: Dec 30 2012, 07:09am hrs
The narrative in Land of the Seven Rivers unravels like an oral folklore, with the writer as a charming guide

Land of the Seven Rivers

Sanjeev Sanyal

Penguin (Viking)


Pg 352

Making sense of time-space continuum and trying to unearth patterns in it has been one of the oldest obsessions of knowledge seekers. What time has been for historians, space has been for geographers. Traditionally, the spatial dimension assume supreme importance for geographers, which they interrogate over time in terms of physical and cultural landscapes. On the other hand, historians put the temporal dimension on the X-axis and reconstruct space over Y-axis, mainly around the political and social evolution. Sanjeev Sanyal, who by training is neither a geographer nor a historian, but attempts a geographical history of India, has unshackled himself of disciplinarian trappings of either kind. His book, with a tone more intimate than objective, seems more of an endeavour in self-discovery.

So instead of just poring over literature, Sanyal personally visits these places, passionately imagines how people would have lived and looked in different times, quite like someone eager to trace his roots, visits his ancestral homes and conjures up images of kin. And in that process, he reconstructs the collective Indian past and invites you to partake in that journey. But to term this project, which seeks to compress Indias geographical historyfrom pre-historical to post-modern period in 300 pagesambitious, is a gross understatement. When the task at hand is so herculean and complex, some level of omission is obvious.

The first chapter of Land of The Seven Rivers, titled Of Genetics and Tectonics, which distinctly refreshes memories of the Central Board of Secondary Educations geography textbook series called Land and People, contributes by introducing, in the mainstream, a theory by David Reich of the Harvard Medical School. Reich suggests that the bulk of Indian population is a mix of two ancestral groupsAncestral North Indian (ANI) and Ancestral South Indian (ASI), which are different from the Aryan and Dravidian concepts in that, they have been described as genetic cocktails rather than pure races.

In his account, Sanyal boldly challenges some established mainstream notions. For instance, while delineating the Sapta Sindhu region, he asserts that the seven-river network in the Rig Veda, widely believed to be Indus and its tributaries, could actually be the now dried-up Saraswati and streams flowing into it. Similarly, he claims, Ashokas inscriptions on the edicts of his time, indicating a change of heart from a kingdom-annexing emperor to that of a peace lover, could have been an attempt on his part to be politically correct. Most of these challenges are, however, based more on logic than evidence. For instance, while disputing Indus inclusion in the Sapta Sindhu, he argues that Indus has always been treated as male, while the rivers in the seven-river network have been called the seven sisters. But what happens to the direct reference to Sindhu, which has been identified as Indus river In case of Ashokas pillars, he says, the average man in his kingdom would have been illiterate and thus unable to comprehend the messages he engraved on the pillars. However, the application of the same logic leads to many interesting observations elsewhere. Sanyal notes how the geography of Ramayana is oriented along the North-South axis, while Mahabharata is organised on the East-West axis, both of which are in alignment with two of Indias major trade routes. Also, how lions and tigers have always inhabited mutually exclusive domains. He brilliantly sees a reflection of the same in the rivalry between the Sinhala (the lion people) of Sri Lanka and Tamil Tiger rebels. The same logic also comes in handy while underlining the present-day relevance of some public laws incorporated in the Arthashastra, such as levying a fine for urinating in public spaces.

One may find Sanyals account wanting on many counts if you treat it as a scholarly work. But he is a powerful story-teller and, shedding the scholarly cloak, has not only kept this story of India refreshingly jargon-free, but has granted the author another superpower. Unhinged, unhindered, he traverses the corridors of history, mythology and epic seamlessly and with complete freedom to search for gems and arrange them in designs that can weave a rich tale. His narrative of India unravels like an oral folklore, and Sanyal himself becomes a charming tourist guide who takes you on a trip of India on a time machine.