Economist Sanjeev Sanyal’s book Land of the Seven Rivers is an exciting narrative of the history of India’s geography.
For over 230 million years now, ever since the time of the dinosaurs, did you know that the physical mass of India has been on a northward drift? In its relentless journey, were you aware that it collided with the Eurasian plane and pushed up the Himalayan and Tibetan plateau? The process however, is not over – the Indian plate is still pushing into Asia. Economist, environmentalist and urban theorist Sanjeev Sanyal’s book, The Land of the Seven Rivers, is a fascinating account of the history of India’s geography, conversely, it is also the “the geography of India’s history and civilization”.
The book by the global strategist at Deutsche Bank is an attempt to weld many things — not just history, or politics, cultural geography or even economic geography. “History can be thought of in a completely different way when you look at it differently. There were many intriguing things. For instance, the tallest mountain in India being called Mount Everest. You wonder why? But when you begin to dig deeper, it unfolds to you that naming is not such a silly, random exercise after all. Also, the logic of transport system in India has remained the same since Iron Age. There are so many civilizational continuities that fascinate me,” says Sanjeev of what drew him to the subject that’s not his own.
Quite like the physical journey of India, Sanjeev is also someone who believes that for every mountain you climb there is another one at hand. “The minute you feel you have reached the top, the journey can only be downward,” says the author who was at the Bangalore Literature Festival recently. Sanjeev loves to investigate and is a man of many interests. He embarked on this project as a personal quest, with “many things bubbling inside me”. “My love of old maps and wildlife, my studies of urban habitats, and my travels through India and south-east Asia began to slowly fit together into a mosaic. It was no easy journey. I read through ancient religious texts, the writings of medieval travellers and scores of academic papers on seemingly unrelated and arcane topics. I took time off from my professional career to travel around India for two and a half years to collect the material.”
Sanjeev clearly set out to map the eclectic history of India’s geography. “It’s about the natural and human landscape, fall of cities, dead rivers… many things. The world is a complex system. If we do not take a wider view and see it just in compartments, we will be doing enormous damage to the world’s ecosystem. We have gone through catastrophic climate change. Whether this is human induced or not, it is debatable. You can think of the world in a more holistic way.” Sanjeev believes that such a study is important because, every generation needs to rethink and question the paradigms on which a society and its economy are based. “I spend my time rethinking our cities, the way we measure human progress, even the way we look at Indian history. This is my life’s mission.”
Having said that, Sanjeev sees urbanisation as an essential and major component of development. “If we want development then there is no choice but to urbanise,” Sanjeev says emphatically. What about Gandhi’s vision of Sarvodaya? “I am not a Gandhian but I’m not opposed to an egalitarian society. Rural societies are hardly egalitarian.” He adds, “If we think slums are not an important part of development then that is a gross overview. People are constantly flowing in and out of slums and it’s largely a migrant population that wants to naturalise into the urban context. Getting rid of slums is a bad idea, and they are a critical part of the urban project. I am a believer in urbanisation. We need to mechanise our farms and increase productivity. I don’t have a Gandhian view of the world at all.”
With the old middle class in India being replaced by the new, malls and call centres are a part of the Indian urban reality. The new middle class is aspirational, with most of them coming from underprivileged backgrounds. There are hundreds and thousands of people who are absorbed into urban India every day. “Growth is not a happy process, it’s chaotic,” argues Sanjeev, and he explains this with the increasing number of songs such as ‘Munni Badnaam Hui’ and ‘Sheela ki Jawani’ increasing in our midst. “It is the moffusil music that has come to mainstream. We have to accept it as part of the natural emerging ecosystem. It has to be kept alive. For instance, take Gurgaon. It is chaotic and messy and I like it immensely as there is so much bursting out of it. Chandigarh on the other hand is very orderly, but nothing emerges from there.” Sanjeev feels that writers like Chetan Bhagat and Amish Tripati, who may not be considered as writers of great literary merit, have given English a certain mobility. “India is about continuity – moving and mixing. I feel Gandhian view is static. I am a worshipper of Shiva, I believe there is lots happening in chaos.”
Sanjeev believes in journeys. “I am not speeding on the highway of life. I believe in doing things out of the box, though not everything is met with success. But I don’t mind. I like to stop by to smell the roses.”