Rim of Life

(Published in Open Magazine, August 19 2016)


IN THE YEAR 1414, well before the Portuguese sailed half-starving into the Indian Ocean and apparently inaugurated modernity for us, an embassy docked in China with presents for the Ming emperor. They were from the Sultan of Malindi who hoped to seduce this oriental court for commercial considerations, but in the party was also a Bengali. And in his charge were two prized deliveries for His Majesty: a pair of Kenyan giraffes.

The emperor had heard of these mysterious creatures from the chief of his admiralty who first encountered the animals during a grand voyage the previous year. Giraffes were princely favourites— a temple panel in Konark shows an Indian monarch receiving one from a foreign envoy. In China, as it happened, for years after 1414, the giraffes from Malindi were pampered as state pets, often featuring behind the imperial throne as emblems of royal splendour—emblems that originated 5,000 miles away in Africa and had travelled, via Bengal, to exalt the emperor of the Middle Kingdom.

For 2,000 years before Europe found a doorway to the East, the world of the Indian Ocean had evolved as a vast network, moving people, goods and evidently animals across diverse lands. And when Vasco da Gama arrived in Calicut in 1498 (thanks to timely assistance from a Gujarati pilot), he was entering an electric universe, powered by a longstanding tradition of exchange. “I want to send Persian saffron to China,” Al-Hariri has a merchant declare in the 12th century, “where I hear that it fetches a high price, and then ship Chinese porcelain to Greece, Greek brocade to India, Indian iron to Aleppo, Aleppo glass to Yemen and Yemeni striped material to Persia.” While the West was parked in morbid isolation, the East was transacting business and racing across the seas. No wonder Pope Innocent III wrung his hands and declared Muhammad ‘the beast of the Apocalypse’. After all, it was the Prophet’s followers, Arabs, who came to hold the keys to the Orient, while His Holiness could only mumble about the end of the world.

All this changed in 1498, but there was history before the age of colonialism and the East was alive long before the West ‘discovered’ it. It is this story of the Indian Ocean that Sanjeev Sanyal tells in The Ocean of Churn, a compelling effort by a narrator who only errs on the side of lucidity as he transports us across a broad sweep of maritime exchange. As far as Indian history books go, anything that arises above the great (North Indian) kings and their landed (North Indian) empires (that were apparently shattered by villainous Islamic hordes and tragically delivered to avaricious imperialists from London) ought to be welcomed for obvious reasons. There was war and blood, sure, but perhaps it’s time we realised that it is not only the sword and the battlefield that makes for remarkable history.

That Sanyal’s book focuses not only on peninsular India but descends from landed realms into the world of the seas makes it doubly interesting. And while there are great kings and formidable queens in this narrative too, they are joined there by more ordinary characters and enterprising communities who inhabit a layered, complex world that is closer to reality than the hackneyed linear narratives we so often see.

For those who have read Sanyal’s Land of the Seven Rivers, there are themes that will be very familiar in his latest offering. In its 300-odd pages, The Ocean of Churn covers a swathe of history that stretches from the migration of our ancestors out of Africa to the destruction of dozens of species in Australia after the advent of human settlers (and here Yuval Harari’s influence on the book is visible); from the fortunes of the Mittani, an ‘Indian’ elite ruling in Iraq 2,000 years ago, to the import into India of a Cambodian heir to the Pallava throne seven centuries later. There is genetics, rioting in Johannesburg, medieval male lechery (with a fitting female response), a recommendation about where the world’s best paan can be found (Singapore, where Sanyal lives), elaborations about climate change, and even a dig at Nehru (it’s open season as far as poor Panditji is concerned).

There is humour where Sanyal links the celebration of Christmas with a god in Haryana or where Ibn Battuta laments his failure in getting Maldivian women to eschew toplessness, and horror where Emperor Asoka massacres 18,000 Ajivikas (‘genocide’, Sanyal calls it, which made me uncomfortable) after roasting in public the legitimate Mauryan successor and cheerfully murdering heaps of other rivals. This section on Asoka is disturbing but the author takes the very texts that eulogise the Beloved of the Gods to point out that he was Buddhist long before he took Kalinga, and that even the most-sophisticated PR of his day could not save his empire from crumbling while he was still alive. It is always healthy to be wary of ‘great’ figures, and if Sanyal entertains scepticism of one such hero, it is something I welcome and hope we can apply to assessments of present-day messiahs as well.

Naturally, this, like Sanyal’s previous books, is not an academic treatise. It is what he calls ‘a brief eclectic history of the Indian Ocean rim’, and it delivers only what it promises. I would like to say it has punch, but Sanyal’s style is essentially a comfortable, entertaining one which makes this book immensely accessible while leaving much food for thought. Scholars will have several bones to pick with him (for instance where he calls the Rigveda a Harappan text or his broad classification as ‘Indian’ of a number of groups) but for those seeking an introduction to some gripping themes, all of which deserve exploration, this is a text that will set the tone and whet appetites spectacularly. The idea of another kind of everyday globalisation where the Chinese interfered in royal successions in Kerala, where the island of Sumatra endowed Nalanda University, and where Roman socialites patronised Indian astrologers, is a fascinating one.

The Ocean of Churn comes at an interesting time, for there is growing curiosity about our maritime history (and as geopolitics evolves in this century, we can expect sea-faring traditions being reclaimed across Asia). The excavation of the great port of Muziris yields newer and more fascinating finds on our west coast, while in the riverside village of Keezhadi in Tamil Nadu a 2,000-year- old urban, mercantile society is being unearthed. Sanyal celebrates the glory of this Indian Ocean network, but with balance and without succumbing to the kind of overblown chest-thumping into which so many lapse at the slightest hint of ancient Indian successes.

In a short book like this, there are bound to be omissions and sometimes exaggerations—the victory of Martanda Varma of Travancore over the Dutch at Kulachal in the 18th century has often been described as a great triumph and the first instance of an Asian ‘power’ defeating a superior Western naval force. That the Dutch lost their supplies due to an unfortunate fire and had to surrender dulls the glamour somewhat, though of course one could counter this with the fact that luck often makes all the difference in history. After all, when the first, haggard Portuguese armada of 170 men arrived in India, they were nothing compared to the 27,000 sailors Admiral Zheng deployed in his ships, six times the size of Portuguese vessels, only decades before. But the Chinese retreated from the Indian Ocean while that starving crew from Lisbon redefined it and changed the course of the world.

There will be many who contest Sanyal’s conclusions, and that is how the study of history should be. But there is no doubt that his is a delightful introduction to the world of the Indian Ocean, packed with riveting stories and interesting characters. The Ocean of Churn, like all books, has imperfections but this is an academic quibble—I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and am glad Sanyal made the effort to write what is a highly captivating narrative history.