Book Review: “The Ocean of Churn” – Sanjeev Sanyal

~By Rajat Sethi

Publisher: Penguin Random House India

Price: Rs.599/-

Casual readers of history always limited the study of oceans to understanding the economics and trade of various epochs. Political power mostly flew through land based empires. Historical gaze traversed from land to sea and not the other way round. Seldom one tried to connect seemingly unconnected historical dots in a well nuanced narration of history that spanned politics, economics and sociology of the times. Breaking free from this mould and sticking true to the adage, ‘well researched facts are more interesting than fiction, author Sanjeev Sanyal has tried to recapture historical facts in his book, The Ocean of Churn.

Indian history writing is besieged with colonial and postcolonial biases serving the parochial interests of the sponsors of those studies. Bringing out evidences from archaeology, genetics, popular cultural anecdotes and personal travels to various sites has helped Sanyal break the stranglehold on India’s historical narrative. This is where Sanyal’s book serves a unique purpose. He establishes the central and dominant role Indian Ocean had in the region’s history.

While reading our own history from the Western colonial or postcolonial eyes, as if it isn’t ours, we have glorified some and lost several other important icons in the narrative. For instance, Tipu Sultan and Ashoka are not the legends they are. Seen from the perspective of the Orissa and Kerala coasts, they appear as mere marauders. Sanyal’s book explains these facts and more.

In the middle of the 18th century, Maratha navy was led by a skillful Admiral, Kanhoji Angre. While the British navy were mute spectators on the political happenings on the western coast of India, Angre employed Dutch to command his best vessels and keep British and Portuguese away. He attacked several merchant ships of East India Company. The latter planned an attack on Angre but aborted  realising his might in the Konkan coast. To suit their interests, European powers branded Angre a pirate!

While  the Russian defeat at the hands of Japanese in 1905  is generally accepted as the first time when Asians defeated Europeans, Sanyal suggests that the rightful claim should  be of Marthanda Varma, king of Travancore. At a time when Dutch East India Company was way more powerful internationally, as compared to the British one, and took over Indonesia and Sri Lanka and pepper growing areas of Kerala, they looked invincible. Marthanda Varma crushed the Dutch expansionist designs at the Battle of Colachel in 1741. Post this internationally important event, the Dutch power went on a decline.

The book throws light on the initial seeds of growing international diplomacy and power struggle. India systematically lost its leadership as a seafaring nation in the Indian Ocean to Chinese and Arabs starting in the 11th century with the destruction of temples by Turks. The question  why India became inward looking suddenly presents a fascinating intellectual inquiry within this context.

An argument floated in the book  traces this turnaround to the collapse of finances due to plundering of temples by the Turks and Mongols. At that time, temples did not just serve cultural functions but were also bankers and financiers to merchants. The systematic destruction of temples not only emasculated cultural life but destroyed the financial structure of ocean-based trade. While the Indians, unable to overcome the Turk and Mongol attacks, decisively became inward looking, they conceded the dominance of the Indian Ocean to Chinese and Arabs. Interestingly, Indian Muslims continued to trade far longer than the Hindus due to their earlier links to Arabs. Meanwhile, China continued to play its chess moves in the Indian Ocean. However, due to China’s domestic policy, there was gradual withdrawal of Chinese power  which allowed the Europeans to come in.

Sanyal’s beautifully stitching together rich anecdotes spread across the history of the Indian Ocean should be lauded.  This need to be appreciated because of the richness in the anecdotes with respect to India’s exemplary past. To cite an  example from his book – that Angkor Vat was the largest urban conglomeration in the world largely controlled by women. In the larger global debate on women and feminism, this historical fact  presents the erstwhile ‘Orient’ (east) in a different light.

Similarly, in the 15th century, there was a sudden decline in the Hindu Buddhist kingdoms of the region. Kingdoms that had lasted for a thousand years fell like dominos. The reason for the sudden fall of Angkor is attributed to the failure of hydraulics on which rice cultivation depended. Climate change has been the main reason behind the fall of rice based civilizations. This is another cue to reflect on in the wake of the global climate change negotiations.

There are more such interesting stories. Most of the initial Western colonisers were really corrupt adventurists who turned up in India. Notable among them was Elihu Yale, who  rose up the ranks of East India Company to become the Governor of Madras. He  amassed a huge amount of wealth through his activities in secret trades, even slavery. A part of this money was used to build the Collegiate School, today known as the Yale University.

Sanyal engrossingly connects the theft of textile technology, beginning of Evangelisation in South Asia, the Opium wars and the founding of Singapore. All these activities were carried out at gigantic scales for the nefarious interests of the European criminal enterprise. For instance, Singapore was set up as an attempt to build a naval base for the British so that the Dutch could not shut off their trade route for carrying opium from India to China. Similarly, opium business lay at the heart of building Hong Kong.

The book posits Indians as very outward-looking, risk-taking, and willingly assimilators of experiences from the outside world. This is contrary to the perception of Indians as a race hiding behind the walls of protecting their identity.

Sanyal’s own journey for the book mirrors the cosmopolitan outlook he has managed to conjure up for the primitive Indians. He travelled to most of the sites bringing to life several folklore and myths in order to weave an interesting yet complete story replete with facts and speculations. His physical engagement with history from the coasts of Zanzibar to Oman to Kerala to Orissa gives a special touch and feel to his anecdotes.
Indian Ocean mystery  is full of over the top characters. Sanyal provides a kaleidoscopic view of  these characters in a rich synchronized play narrating the story of their long forgotten churns in the ocean. India was an intrinsic part of this world of churn in several ways. Sanyal’s book is a must read for anyone interested in reinterpreting the historical discourse.

The reviewer is a Senior Research Fellow & Project Head at India Foundation.

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