Book– The Ocean of Churn: How the Indian Ocean Shaped Human History
Author- Sanjeev Sanyal
Publisher – Penguin Random House
Price- Rs 530
Buried deep in Amitav Ghosh’s totemic book on Indian Ocean pasts and presents, In An Antique Land (1993), is an episode that should interest Sanjeev Sanyal, whose new book similarly scours through eclectic histories in search of fragmentary remnants of the past that have persisted into our contemporary world. Ghosh narrates how, in the 1980s, a community of upwardly mobile fisherfolk near the Mangalore shoreline embraced majoritarian Brahminical Hinduism and built a pukka temple to obscure their traditional role as guardians of revered spirit shrines.
The remnant in question in Ghosh’s text takes the form of a legendary Arab mariner long invoked by Indian Ocean sailors of all religions, whose image improbably migrated from an old shrine into the new temple in a transformed, but recognisable, form. Ghosh applauds the historical irony of a Muslim saint’s idol residing in an orthodox Hindu temple as emblematic of an ancient Indian Ocean churn of cosmopolitan interactions and admixtures. Sanyal’s text would have it another way: it too follows histories of churn, but the remnants he strains to find are mobilised to show how Indian — specifically coded as Hindu — pasts have survived regional Islamisation and European colonial modernity to be primed to reassert themselves in the Indian Ocean present.
Sanyal announces in the introduction that his book is not meant to be an academic tome, and it is accessibly and even playfully written. Yet, this approach cloaks his agenda, as it is clear that his ambitions include displacing conventional academic interpretations with his lightly researched claims on a number of topics. It would be a charitable view to evaluate his knowledge of Indian Ocean historical scholarship as uninformed, and there is no need to debate his criticism of the state of the field on a case-by-case basis since the maritime history approach promised in the introduction is deployed erratically throughout the text.
While it is certainly refreshing to have African and Southeast Asian histories intertwined with South Asian ones in a popular historical book published by a major press, and Sanyal should be given credit for assembling stories from lands arrayed around the Indian Ocean’s shores, it is locating India — and a dangerously ahistorical definition of the nation at that — at the centre of this region that drives the book forward.
The Ocean of Churn spins from the beginning of geological time to the future of the Indian Ocean. As it moves from the ice age to early civilisations, the tallest claims involve blending “Aryan” and Harappan histories and identifying Vedic diasporas leaving the Indian subcontinent. Along the way, the author casually labels ancient peoples as Indians (or not), part of a project — shared by recently ascendant intellectual classes in the country — of recasting the nation by highlighting particular elements and sidelining others.
Ashoka gets a hatchet job, as he is “not remembered as a great monarch in the Indian tradition but in hagiographic Buddhist texts”, and, in conspiracy-plot fashion, Sanyal accuses academic historians of making him “Great” to provide cover for Nehruvian socialism. Diverse Islamic networks and plural practices, credited in most Indian Ocean histories with stitching together the maritime region into a cultural zone, mostly get reduced in this book to marauding and/or raping Arabs (as in eighth-century Sindh), Turks (as in the Delhi Sultanate period), and terrorists (as in ISIS-ravaged Syria and Iraq).
Tipu Sultan, Mohandas Gandhi, and the Indian National Congress join Ashoka on Sanyal’s blacklist of overhyped Indian patriots as his book churns through the eras of history. In contrast, praise is lavished on Angkor Wat (originally a temple dedicated to Vishnu, the author points out), the Vijayanagar empire, Ethiopians (for long resisting Europeans and Arabs), Subhash Chandra Bose, Indian soldiers, and a bundle of economic agents (Hindu temple banks, Bombay tycoons, Singaporean free trade, liberalisation, e.g.) of related ideological ilk.
Where Ghosh reads overlaps in Indian Ocean history, Sanyal seeks to inscribe divisions, and the distinctions he makes often separate the region into Indic, Islamic, and Chinese civilisational spheres of influence. The latter two in the book submerge the former by the early modern period — wildly conspiring in the case of Zheng He “to create a permanent schism within Indic civilisation and prevent a future anti-Chinese geopolitical alliance” — and all three later fall under the guns of European dominance.
All hope is not lost, however, as Sanyal rummages through history to find faded but extant fragments of former glory in ancient India and its manifestations in places ranging from the rubble of the Majapahit empire in Indonesia (“despite European colonisation and the conversion to Islam,” to the handful of Hindus still residing on the island of Zanzibar off the East African coast.
The Ocean of Churn’s final paragraph notes the emerging geopolitical rivalry in the Indian Ocean between China and India, ostensibly casting Sanyal’s earlier endeavours in history writing (e.g., The Indian Renaissance: India’s Rise After a Thousand Years of Decline, 2008) in an oceanic realm, while, in effect, bolstering recent strategic projections of Indian power in the region by floating proud narratives about the country’s maritime history.