Re-reading History

Viswanathan Anand released Sanjeev Sanyal’s new book, The Ocean of Churn, at Odyssey (Chennai) last evening. This post is a mix of conversations from the event and my own experiences of studying history from CBSE textbooks. (This was also my first time at a book launch and I’m tremendously excited about it, which explains my prompt posting.)

Ocean of Churn
Anand prepares to discuss the book with Sanyal


Six years ago, on a sultry summer afternoon, my parents and I travelled along the coast of Odisha, taking in the beautiful lake-dappled countryside as we made our way through Puri, Pipli, Konark, and Dhauli. The last of these was an unscheduled stop, but how could I have resisted the detour when I learnt that this was purportedly where Ashoka fought his large major battle before, in a fit of compunction, renouncing war for Buddhist pacifism?

I wrote this in 2010 after my visit: “Dhauli Giri houses the Shanti Stupa – a dedication to the Buddha, overlooking the vast, picturesque, river-watered plains of Kalinga. Could this fertile, life-giving land really have been the site of bitter battle, where the blood of thousands was shed before Ashoka realized the futility of war? Legend goes that the waters of the river Daya turned red as a result of the merciless killing – now, it is a placid blue stream that flows gently through green fields, a vista of incredible beauty when looked upon from the heights of the Stupa. Four serene statues of the Buddha look out at the countryside, the bearers of the truth of peace which finally convinced a remorseful Emperor to lay down his arms and kill no more.

“By the foot of the hill is a park preserved by the Archaeological Society of India, which protects a piece of rock in a glass case- the rock inscribed with Ashoka’s edicts, the rules by which he wanted his people to live so there would be no more war.”

The battlefields of Kalinga as viewed from the hilltop

When I was told that Akbar and Ashoka were benevolent emperors and that they were great proponents of peace, I accepted it unquestioningly. I never asked why the Satavahanas, the Chozhas, the Pallavas and the Cheras were fit into a short paragraph or two, or why the Northeast was barely mentioned, if at all. Studying history at school was all about knowing dates and the succession lines of the Mughals. Questioning something that was in an NCERT textbook was akin to heresy. (To be fair, in the Indian education system, questioning anything in general is to be heretical.) In the process, we have successfully consumed massive quantities of skewed history, with limited exploration of indigenous sources and enormous dependence on theories proposed by the West. As Sanyal points out, it is our own laziness that makes us consume Eurocentric views of our history in heavy doses, with the result that we take pride in having Chanakya’s strategy called Machiavellian because it equates our own genius with a European one. Studying International Relations in England, I was conscious of how Realist Theory started off with Machiavelli: Sun Tzu and Chanakya didn’t feature anywhere, and surely their lines of thought were similar?

Sanjeev Sanyal aims to provide a departure from this tradition through his writing, and his latest book, The Ocean of Churn, is an effort in that direction. Stripping our perception of world events of its postcolonial trappings is bound to be an arduous task, and Sanyal attempts to do this using a framework usually applied to other disciplines: Complex Adaptive Systems. According to this framework, events are a product of chance and derive from various factors including people, climate change, terrain, etc. (My first thought on reading about this methodology was to equate it to the framework of anarchy in IR; I’ll have to finish the book before I can actually attempt any reasonable comparison.) Sanyal relies not just on secondary research, but visits the sites of his subjects to piece stories together. That said, he is emphatic about the resources provided by the Internet, and expresses surprise at how little we care about unravelling our own history from materials so widely and readily available, instead choosing to rely on versions that depict it in a manner that suits certain interests. And so it is that myths like the Aryan Invasion Theory are propagated. Returning to where I started, Sanyal explains that Ashoka’s edicts could in fact have been a propaganda tool, not very different from the posturing of leaders around the world today.

Taking this idea forward in The Ocean of Churn, Sanyal presents the history of the Indian Ocean region from a perspective that seeks to look beyond stories of spice routes and wealth-laden ships.  His objective is to study history from the coastal viewpoint and to address the distortion stemming from the overt inland focus in our narrative. During his conversation with Anand, Sanyal gave the example of the Battle of Colachel, which was one of the earliest defeats of a European power in Asia, the Dutch losing to Marthanda Varma’s forces. This was at a time when the Dutch East India Company (VOC), considered the world’s first multinational corporation, was a powerful force. According to Sanyal, this could have paved the way for the entry of other colonial powers in the region. While he mentions at the start of his book that he isn’t fond of alternative history and what-ifs, as a lay reader, I’m tempted to wonder about the fate of India had the Dutch got a strong foothold in the country and marched along unvanquished. Of course, other factors such as the Anglo-Dutch War and the rise of competing imperial powers would have influenced the course of events, but it is important to note that this was by no means a small victory.

Indian Ocean
A blurry picture of a map depicting Indian Ocean trade routes at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, DC.

Why do incidents of this kind never find a mention in our textbooks? Growing up in Vizag, I never bothered to learn about the various dynasties that ruled over the city or to explore the transition to European colonisation. I never visited the famous Dutch Cemetery in Bheemili, a major coastal 17th century Dutch settlement, even though I went to college there. I might have displayed some curiosity had I been encouraged to think about history as an important subject, rather than one that had to be endured for the sake of studying more “lucrative” ones.

The good thing is that it isn’t too late: half-baked theories continue to abound, and there is plenty of scope for amateur and professional historians to sift through mounds of material. The purpose of evaluating history from a new perspective isn’t to accept blindly what is proposed, but to think critically about what we’ve been taught or fed and understand which of these claims might be dubious. The idea isn’t to claim that everything great emerged in India, but to explore alternatives to the imperialist ideas we’ve continued to hold in thrall. Enjoying Kipling’s Kim and venerating AL Basham’s notions of Aryan invasion aren’t the same, even though they are products of their colonial times. What we need to do is to separate fact from fiction, and discourage the lionisation of certain individuals and periods at the expense of others. It is for this reason that I look forward to reading Sanyal’s interpretation of the history of the Indian Ocean region.



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