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Dive into the Indian Ocean


Having spent most of his life in and around the Indian Ocean, staying in cities like Kolkata, Mumbai and Singapore, the lack of recognition it got in the mainstream historical narrative always struck Sanjeev Sanyal. “There is barely any discussion in school textbooks of India’s great maritime heritage — of its profound impact on the culture of South East Asia, the empires of the Cholas and Pallavas, the horror of the Goa Inquisition, the exploits of the Maratha navy and the old Indian diaspora in faraway places like Fiji and Surinam. It is almost as if Indian history has been captured by the Sultans of Delhi and the rest of India is condemned to exist as mere provinces,” he says, in an email interview.

The thought drew him to write about the Indian Ocean in a book called The Ocean of Churn, published in 2016, that has now been adapted for young readers as The Incredible History of The Indian Ocean (Puffin). What to the eye seems like a mere water body, has played witness to some of the most important historical and cultural movements. The adaptation process began over a year ago, and Sanyal informs that although the general narrative was maintained, some parts were excluded to maintain a linear flow.

Sanjeev Sanyal
Sanjeev Sanyal

“The book’s language had to be simplified, and more illustrations were added to help with visualisation. However, I do not like to be patronising to younger readers and, since this is for the 12+ age group, there is no point in sugar-coating the story too much. A lot of history is unpleasant and a 12- to 18-year-old should know about it,” Sanyal asserts.

The economist, at present the Principal Economic Adviser in the Ministry of Finance, Government of India, also looks at fascinating developments that one wouldn’t think were linked to the ocean — like how the Onge and Jarawa tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands suffered no casualties during the tsunami of 2004 or why Cambodia’s Khmer script looks like Tamil.

The original book, The Ocean of Churn, he says, was a journey of discovery as he visited most places discussed in the book — from Oman to Cambodia, and the Indian coast. “I saw a lot of interesting places such as the Portuguese fort in Diu and the Kartik Purnima festival in Odisha that celebrates ancient merchants. India’s cultural memory is full of its maritime past,” he shares.

Talking about the issues that plague the Indian Ocean today, Sanyal points out that the area has been subject to geo-politics since ancient times. “India and China have been competing for influence in South East Asia since the days of the Chola period. The grand fleets of the Ming dynasty came repeatedly to the Indian Ocean to make a geo-political statement in the 15th century,” he says.

Sanyal hopes that readers will read this title for pleasure first, and then appreciate the importance of a coastal view of Indian history — “quite distinct from the land-based history that we are usually told.”

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