HOW DO you define India, really? Can one herd cats? It isn’t easy, but several recent works have explored the many possible notions of Indianness with a happy combination of both intellectual depth and felicity of phrase. Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian examines the plurality of thought and public debate through Indian culture. Historian Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy is magisterial in its grasp of the political dimensions of independent India’s evolution. one of the earliest such books, Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India, asked important questions about where India might be headed, given the emerging contradictions between its profession of a morally sound, secular democracy and the increasing social, cultural and economic divisions that seemed to be setting limits to that claim about the nature of India.
In the 13 years since Khilnani’s book was published, those divisions have deepened. on the many dimensions along which a successful civilisation must be measured — including fundamental issues such as how it treats its minorities or addresses gender, whether it is growing economically and whether that growth is sustainable or inclusive – India is being asked some very hard questions. Denying the validity of these questions or defending some imagined and exclusive idea of India (or Bharat, if you will) through obscurantism and near-fascist ideology — as has been happening in recent debates on gender and modernity — at best distorts any constructive idea of Indianness; at worst, they set Indians at each other’s throats.
The literary work that squares this particularly difficult circle hasn’t been written yet, but there is always room for more books that develop the idea of Indianness. Sanjeev Sanyal’s Land of the Seven Rivers seeks to do this through India’s geography. Sanyal isn’t a professional historian; he is an economist and strategist at one of the world’s largest banks. In a way, this frees him to examine the continuum of India’s history through geography, a subject few pay much attention to after high school. This is a pity, since there are few better ways to understand the heart of a civilisation than to know its land, resources, natural features and inhabitants, and how they relate with each other.
This allows the book to address a somewhat greater time frame than do most histories of India, most of which tend to get going either around 4,500 years ago with the Indus Valley civilisation or even more recently, with India’s independence and partition in 1947. In contrast, this book begins its tale almost three quarters of a billion years ago, not long (in geological time, that is) after the break up of an early supercontinent called Rodinia.
This is no fanciful extension of a timeline. one of the oldest major visible geological features on earth dates back to this era. These are the low, weathered hills of the Aravallis, which run from the Delhi Ridge to Palanpur in Gujarat. As the book explains, the Aravallis play several roles in Indian history, most recently through the Rajput era, through the 1857 war of independence to the current seat of India’s government on the range’s Raisina Hill.
Sanyal keeps making these connections between many intriguingly intersecting arcs of time, culture, history and the land. Land of the Seven Rivers itself takes its name from the ancient Sanskrit sacred hymnal, the Rig Veda, which refers to Sapta-Sindhu, a land of seven rivers. Sanyal interprets this Sapta-Sindhu as the land watered by the lost river Saraswati and its tributaries. The story of the Saraswati was often marked down to legend, until satellite imagery and hydrological surveys revealed there was indeed a substantial riverine system in the area, much of which has since dried up and some of which has shifted underground. The climatic changes that drove this also brought about the decline and fall of India’s first great civilisation in the Indus Valley.