Book Review: Sanjeev Sanyal’s Latest Is An Incredible Insight Into The Indian Ocean For The Young Mind

Book Review: Sanjeev Sanyal’s Latest Is An Incredible Insight Into The Indian Ocean For The Young MindThe cover of Sanjeev Sanyal’s The Incredible History of the Indian Ocean.
Snapshot
  • The latest work of Sanjeev Sanyal, The Incredible History of the Indian Ocean, relates stories of valour and adventure, is straightforward and elegantly illustrated — a book that should reach the hands of every inquisitive young mind.

The Incredible History of the Indian Ocean. Sanjeev Sanyal. Illustrations: Nikhil Gulati. Puffin Books (Penguin Random House). 2020. Pages 298. Rs 237.

India has a wonderful geography and an exciting geo-cultural history. A lot has been written about it in scholarly papers and academic books.

However, history narratives of India have always been either colonial or Marxist-Nehruvian. This has robbed the natural aesthetics of history for Indian students which has been enjoyed by almost every other child of other great and ancient living human cultures. It is almost impossible to find a decent history book in India to kindle youngsters’ curiosity about their own history.

Such a situation is fast changing. Sanjeev Sanyal belongs to an emerging class of brilliant writers who can take the younger generation on an interesting and engaging odyssey through the geo-cultural and geo-historical landscape of India.

The book, The Incredible History of the Indian Ocean, is the latest work of Sanyal – a retelling of his 2016 book, The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History, for the youngsters.

It is relatively easy to write a book for adults. When one writes or rewrites for the young readers, particularly children, one needs to be extra careful with the language. It should not appear to be too patronising or too complicated. Sanyal has a natural gift for talking effortlessly to the youthful minds.

There are segments (pp 133-6) that have the ability to instil in the minds of young readers images of valour and adventure – not to mention an idea about international diplomacy. For instance, the cunning manoeuvre of Sri Vijaya Kingdom in the tenth century for supremacy in the Indian Ocean with the covertly sought Chinese support; the sending of a personal war chariot as a gift to Rajendra Chola by Suryavarman I, the king of Angkor; Sri Vijaya’s aggression against the Javanese and Rajendra Chola’s subsequent naval expedition where the Cholas decisively defeated "the main Srivijaya army in Kadaram (now Kedah province in Malaysia)"; and the strange silence and non-interference of Chinese – (almost an acceptance of Chola naval supremacy?).

It is understandable that the colonial historiographers never wanted us to learn about Kanhoji Angre. But it is a mystery that he was not given a chapter or not even a section in the history textbooks of post-colonial India. Perhaps, it was the crypto-colonial Nehruvian legacy. Sanyal gives a succinct account of the stunning naval exploits of Angre. Here is an excerpt:

The reason Angre was able to impose his will on the Europeans was that the Marathas had learnt to challenge them at sea. A favourite tactic was to use smaller but fast and manoeuvrable vessels to approach a European ship from astern in order to avoid the cannon broadside. Sometimes, they would also tow a larger cannon-laden vessel that would direct its ire at the sails and rigging in order to disable the ship. While the European gunners were trying to extricate themselves from the tangle of rope and canvas, the faster Maratha boats would close in and board the ship. ... The English and the Portuguese would try repeatedly to capture Vijaydurg over the next few years without any success. Eventually, the EIC called for help from the Royal Navy and in 1722, Vijaydurg was attacked by the large combined fleet of the EIC, the Royal Navy and the Portuguese. Yet again, the attackers failed to make a dent and were forced to withdraw. 
(pp. 213-4)

The book is neither preachy nor has any ideological colours. Yet the presentation of facts, hidden because of ideological vested interests, shows how just being plain truthful to history can infuse in young minds meaningful and just pride in one’s own national heritage and also in the collective legacy of humanity.

The book also speaks about the battle of Colachel in which the Travancore chieftain Marthanda Varma defeated the Dutch in a decisive encounter.

Sanyal writes:

The Battle of Colachel was a turning point and Dutch power in the Indian Ocean would go into steady decline. Not till the Japanese navy defeated the Russians in 1905 would another Asian state decisively defeat a European power. 
(p.212)

Sanyal also points out how Marthanda Varma made use of the surrendered Dutch commander Lennoy to modernise his army and strengthen the fortifications – which would not only help to expand the Travancore kingdom northward but also later defeat Tipu Sultan half a century later, when the despot invaded the southern kingdom.

Sanyal ends here and moves on.

But the invasion by Tipu also necessitated that Travancore gets help from East India Company, which effectively took over the administration reducing the Travancore kings and queens to nominal rulers. This resulted in economic hardship, social stagnation and largescale proselytising. Thus though the battle was won at Colachel the subsequent civilisational war still goes on in Kanyakumari district – the erstwhile part of Travancore kingdom.

The book is filled with good illustrations and clear maps which can elicit further interest in young minds. Nikhil Gulati, the illustrator, has done a marvellous job. Today, with Internet filled to the brim with images of all things under the sun, it is good that the author has avoided their use and has gone for an illustrator.

Books such as this should be made a resource material by National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) for history textbook designers. Let me illustrate. Despite all the Tamil pride talked about in Tamil Nadu, I have never seen a single history textbook in the state that shows how the Mamallapuram lighthouse would have looked in the middle of the night in those ancient times. On page 105 of Sanyal’s book, one sees a model of the same. How wonderful it will be to have such an illustration in the middle school history textbooks.

This reviewer has a small perhaps parochial request to the author. Despite the interesting section being devoted to the defeat of the Dutch in the battle of Colachel, there is only a single mention of Kanyakumari the end point of Indian mainland – that too in terms of Romans’ knowledge of the place.

Kanyakumari is an important shakti kshetra. Its coast is rich in rare earth minerals. Sitting ‘in the last piece of Indian land’ amidst the roars of the waves of Indian Ocean for three days, very much like Nachiketa of the Upanishads who inspired Swami Vivekananda to revitalise the nation and Dharma.

Modern India’s revival began thus amidst the waves of Indian Ocean. The book is also a good opportunity to introduce children to the sacred geography that is embedded in the geo-cultural history of Indian Ocean.

Perhaps, this aspect too can be told in the churn of the ocean and its incredible history in the future editions.

The picture that emerges from the book is one of adventure of the collective human heritage spearheaded by daring individuals, ambitious empires and ordinary merchants – all weaving together an extraordinarily fantastic tale of human interaction with that mighty planetary phenomenon called ocean – which in this part of the earth is the Indian Ocean.

It is important that this book reaches the hands of every inquisitive young mind in India, translated into every Indian language.

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