Chaps and Maps

February 6, 2016 § Leave a comment

SevenRiversLand of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography (Sanyal, Sanjeev)

It is perhaps a harsh but appropriate summary of this book to say that I picked it up in an airport bookstore while returning from my last visit to India. It is designed to lure the restless gaze of bored international travelers from India with the promise of a quick and painless injection of erudition, on a topic that has suddenly become a very fashionable one to be erudite on: Indian history. It attempts to stand out among its numerous competitors by positioning itself as not about history exactly, but about a related humanities discipline, geography. But it isn’t completely not about history: it is in fact about the history of India’s geography. Philip Kotler would be proud: it is all about differentiated positioning.

I am reminded of Edmund Clerihew Bentley’s old ditty, which I must quote at this point.

The art of biography
Is different from geography;
Geography is about maps.
Biography is about chaps.

But seriously, what does ‘history of the geography’ mean? These are words with broad spectra of interpretation, but mainly, I understand history to be the set of processes by which the past became the present; there are other definitions that lay more emphasis on events, people, or on the story of ‘what happened’ in chronological sequence. Similarly, geography can be about physical features of the land, natural phenomena, flora and fauna, the relationship between humans and nature, customs, cuisines, clothing and beliefs of the people of the land, or about political borders and the chief imports and exports of nations. It is a vast tract of intellectual real estate bordering on political economy on the one side, environmental and earth sciences on another, sociology and urban planning on a third and zoology and botany on a fourth. These are all factors that are crucial in the explanation of how the past became the present; geography is how history understands the world.


Courtesy 1595 map of India (Mercator)

Geography is certainly one of Sanyal’s concerns in this book. It starts in the ancient past when super-continents were afloat in a primordial ocean (quite literally, the history of the geography itself), speaks of the migration patterns of the ancient peoples, plunges headlong into the controversy regarding the Aryan invasion hypothesis, and then proceeds to take us through a long rambling stroll through history, from Harappa in the north west to Sikkim in the north east. Sanyal pauses his broad sweep and lingers lovingly over certain aspects (I suspect those that he is personally more familiar with): the cities of Calcutta, Delhi and parts of Allahabad (but not Bombay, Chennai, Hyderabad, Pune, Varanasi, Cochin or Patna), lions and tigers (but not of elephants, water buffaloes, the great Indian bustard, the King Cobra or the hilsa fish), the Aravalli ridge (but not so much the Vindhyas or Eastern and Western ghats), the Ganga and the Ghaggar (but not the Godavari or Mahanadi). His historical narrative, too, is spotty – I suspect his heart is in the history of dynasties, battles and treaties, though a focus on the lives of common people might have been closer to his geographical theme.

This isn’t to say that Sanyal isn’t well-read or well-traveled, or that he isn’t extremely intelligent. He certainly is all of those things, and he has stitched them together with a few interesting speculations of his own, many of which are contestable but none of which may be rejected out of hand as so many others can, these days. But my primary impression is that of a cultured man, who has an abiding interest (as all cultured men do) in old books, old maps and old cities, and has combined them cleverly into a book (or in Sanyal’s case, several books) that will sell. But there is a distinctly anecdotal feel to his book: a comprehensive grasp of his subject eludes him.  Rhodes scholar and Eisenhower fellow, strategist and renowned economist at a global bank, crowned Young Global Leader at Davos: these are fantastic achievements for one lifetime. Yet Mr. Sanyal perhaps seeks immortality elsewhere, in his passion for old maps and older chaps. Unhappily for him, while Mr. Sanyal has read a few great books, I do not believe they will suffice for his salvation.


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