Sanjeev Sanyal, the author The Land of Seven Rivers – a book that talks about India at the intersection of History & Geography talks to us about his books and his writing and we discover a man who has his eyes on the future as on the past:
Tell us something about yourself. Where did you grow up , where did you study and what do you do for living?
I grew up between Kolkata, Sikkim and Delhi. I attended St Xaviers’s School and St James’ School in Kolkata before going to Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi. SRCC is now India’s top college and I doubt I would be admitted if I tried today . I then went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar – that was the first time I had been outside India and it really opened my eyes to the world.
After Oxford I joined the finance industry and have worked as an economist ever since. I am currently Deutsche Bank’s Global Strategist and it is my job to think about long-term mega-trends that could affect my bank and its clients. These could be economic, demographics, geo-political or technological mega-trends.
How did you gravitate towards the intersection of history and geography? Tell us about your journey towards the idea of The Land of Seven Rivers.
As I have explained in the Author’s Note, it brings together many of my hobbies and interests. I collect old maps of India. I have been researching cities for over a decade and have written extensively about them over the years. I love wildlfe and have had a long relationship with WWF. Of course, as an economist I am also interested in the history of trade. At some point I had collected so much information on all these topics that they were screaming to be written down, epecially since mainstream historians usually do not connect all these streams.
Tell us about the research you did for this book and how did you chance upon those quirky little tidbits that you have shared through the book.
I took two and half years away from my professional career, moved my family back to India and travelled all over the country (late 2008-early 2011). Once you look for them, the tidbits were everywhere. In fact, I have barely used half the material that I collected because I wanted to keep the book fast paced and interesting for the general reader.
Any books that you recommend for those of us who never took history or geography seriously at school.
There are a lot of well written, popular books on western history but sadly much fewer when related to Indian history. Nevertheless, I like Dalrymple’s Last Mughal, Michel Danino’s The Lost River and John Keay’s The Great Arc.
Your book covers a timeline from first migrations to current day India, what is your favorite period in the history of Indian Subcontinent. If you had to choose an era for your living which one would it be and why.
That is a very difficult question. Perhaps in the great city of Dholavira in 2500 BC, or in Muzaris in 200 AD, or perhaps Ujjain under the Guptas or Vijayanagar under Krishnadeva Raya. However, I think we are entering one of the most interesting periods of Indian history. Within a generation India will be an urban majority country. This will change Indian society, culture, politics, economy everything. And, our generation will witness this shift.
After reading your book I felt if history was taught like this instead of a chronology of wars, we would have more historians and would have probably preserved our historical heritage better. Your comments.
Agree totally. There is only so much fun one can have with the Morley Minto Reforms of 1909 or Akbar’s mansabdari system. Sadly, our textbooks just does not encourage readers to open their eyes and see all the history piled up all around them.
You have referred to many travel writers through the ages throughout your book. What role do you think travel writers play in today’s hyper-connected world?
Travel writers like Ibn Batuta are invaluable because they do not only write down names and dates but bring their age alive with comments and impressions. Mind you, they all have their biases and one should not blindly believe them. However, they give us a feel of how it was to actually live in those times. This is true even today. After all, Ibn Batuta was travelling on well known trade routes of that time but it was only he (and Marco Polo) who wrote about it and connected the dots.
Your book a rare example of synthesis of available information while most books today talk about analysis only. Your comments.
My book is not meant as an academic tome but to bring the best available information to the intelligent general reader. There is such a lot of new material coming in from fields like genetics to satellite photography, and yet conventional histories barely mention them. I wanted a wider audience to get a sense of what Indian history really looks like once all these pieces are put together. This is why I have deliberately kept the narrative flowing rather than trying to hammer indivual points in. Instead, I have tried to give the interested reader references that they could follow. Even when I have mentioned my own original research (such as on the evolution of Delhi’s urban villages), I have avoided weighing down the story with tedious material.
Are you working on your next book? If yes, please tell us something about it.
I am putting together a book of quirky short stories. They all have a theme – it is about how people think about themselves and the lies they often tell (often to themselves).
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