In the introduction to his new book, economist and urban theorist Sanjeev Sanyal writes about the ‘extraordinary transformation’ India is undergoing: of mobile phones and satellite televisions, of rising apartment blocks and the expanding map of highways, of economic boom and rapid changes. Sanyal writes of a country’s future even as he looks back at her history in Land of the Seven Rivers . The book is also a reminder, a ledger of milestones and landmarks in a country steeped in stories.
Sanyal’s new book takes a different approach to history. “A lot has already been written about wars and battles and dynasty,” he says, as he explores the changing, shifting and transforming geography of India. “Just as geography affects history, history too affects geography.”
Working with a set of questions — Did the great flood of Indian legend actually happen? Why did the Buddha walk to Sarnath to give his first sermon? How did the Europeans map India? — Sanyal maps out the changing lay of the land. Sanyal’s questions are both simple and intriguing; they are ones that we rarely ask: Why do Indians call their country Bharat? How did the British build the railways across the subcontinent? Why was the world’s highest mountain named after George Everest?
But the book steers clear of being a mere ‘Did you Know?’, and the writing is infused with both wit and intelligence. In the last chapter, Sanyal again examines the present and the future, looking at the shifts caused due to urbanisation and rapid economic growth. With its perspective on India’s history and growth, Sanyal’s book turns the spotlight on India’s unique geography. Put together by the author after “traversing remote mountain passes, visiting ancient archaeological sites, crossing rivers in shaky boats and immersing himself in old records and manuscripts”, Land of the Seven Rivers is an account worth getting your hands on, if only, as the author says in his dedication, to know where you came from.
Bottomline: A reminder, a ledger of milestones and landmarks in a country steeped in stories.
Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography; Sanjeev Sanyal, Viking/Penguin Books India, Rs.499.