A Review of Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal

When one thinks of Indian Ocean one imagines the golden beaches of Maldives being kissed by the sun-warmed water of Indian Ocean. One rarely (if ever) thinks of how this body of water could have shaped human history. Mr.Sanyal has, in fact, taken the said body of water as his subject and written a full book on its influence on human history. The basic premise of the book is how Indian Ocean region was in a constant state of flux and the movement of people around this region influenced human history.  A couple of things need to be clarified before I start with the review. The word in the title is “human history”, not the history of a country or continent, but of the human race as a whole.Second, when Mr.Sanyal is talking about the Indian Ocean, he includes the large body of water stretching from the coast of Africa to Australia and even includes the Persian Gulf and South China Seas. So all of us who are used to coloring the Indian Ocean as a thin strip of blue at the bottom of India map might have to do some mental re-labeling.

The introductory chapter of the book lays down the reason why the author decided to undertake this massive work. There are also two underlying principles in this book. First the emphasis on matrilineal heritage (surprising, especially in a country like India where women come at the bottom of the ladder) and second is looking at history from a coastal perspective rather than from an inland, big city point of view.

The author then takes us right to the beginning of the human race( well the title does say human history), the migration from Africa and even dips into genetics to show how we are all inter-related (a sad fact for those who believe in racial superiority!). The book follows the merchants of Meluha, who left their mark as far as Rome, till Kharavela who carved out a huge empire in Orissa and took revenge on Pataliputra. It then delves into the history of Sri Lanka; the importance and influence of Kalinga all the way into South East Asia. Other highlights of the book include the settlement of Madagascar by Indonesians (something I was unaware of), the spread of Islam, the importance of Temple guilds of South India for trade with South-East Asia and the rise of Chinese naval might under Zheng He. It finally reaches the modern age with the advent of Europeans in the region when they turned the Indian Ocean into their personal playground for dominance. The last chapter of the book is aptly named “From dusk to new dawn” which deals with the geographical and political relevance of Indian Ocean today.

It is an exhaustive piece of work spanning the full course of human history and a major chunk of the world, yet the author has managed to keep the book under three hundred pages without losing any of the pertinent facts or skipping of eras.The Indian Ocean is the main hero of the book, it is shown as a complex eco-system where each country influences the other and there is a constant intermingling of people and culture. Therefore, on one hand, you have the Indic influence on Khmer script and on the other the import of areca (supari) into India from South-East Asia until it became a  ubiquitous part of Indian society. Similarly Sri Lanka can claim one of their oldest rulers to be from Kalinga while Nandi Varman II, the great Pallava King, was of South –East Asia, possibly Kadaram.

It is an extremely well-researched book with an exhaustive list of sources should you want to double check some fact. One thing which I love about Sanjeev Sanyal’s writing is his engaging narrative style usually for subjects which are not everyone’s cup of tea. Even in this book, he has used anecdotes and characters which keep the reader engrossed throughout. One might say that oral history is not really the backbone of research, but I think that oral history forms the backbone plus adds flavor to research. Oral history, backed by facts, is used by Mr.Sanyal, which is what makes this book such an interesting read. He has also not hesitated to point out the feet of clay of some of our historical heroes (with facts of course)! The other plus point is the tongue-in-cheek remarks in between the narrative, so you have to look out for them. If I have to be nit-picking then I would say that I would have preferred a few more maps and diagrams to break up the narrative in certain places. Plus more reference to the coast of Gujerat (though that area really stands out in the Harrapa age) during 5th to 10th century.

Indian History is vast and complex, going back thousands of years. Most of the history taught to us in schools is from the great kingdoms point of view, so while we have a good knowledge about the Guptas, Chauhan’s and the rise and fall of Delhi, hardly anyone of us knows about Vasco Da Gama’s tactics to spread Portugal’s tentacles into India or about Kharavela’s revenge from Pataliputra. Marthanda Verma and Kharavela are heroes brought into the limelight by this book.

I can give credit to Mr.Sanyal for helping me learn more about my country and my region’s history.

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