Thu, Oct 03, 2013 - Page 11 News List

Book review: Land of The Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography

‘Land of the Seven Rivers’ is a guidebook to India’s geography, as well as sparkling miscellanea about everything from Asian elephants to standards of beauty

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

The Parsis feature briefly as active in the 19th century opium trade in southern China — significantly in this context, there’s a Parsi graveyard in Macau. Also of great interest is the account of the newly independent India’s border disputes with China, notably over Aksai Chin. We learn, too, that the Asian elephant is more closely related to the mammoth than to the African elephant, that the Buddhist king of Thailand has to have Hindu priests officiating at his coronation and that the Aurobindo ashram is the most enduring legacy of the French occupation of Pondicherry (modern Puducherry).

Sanyal naturally has some personal preferences. He thinks the full-moon in Ladakh is more impressive sight than any other he’s seen in the natural world, and he has a noticeable affinity with the Aravalli Range in western India (“the oldest discernible geological feature on this planet”). He wrote the book, though, in the brash new boom-town of Gurgaon. He finds it both emblematic of what modern India can achieve, and full of difficulties of which he has “more than enough personal experience.”

But he’s not one to complain unduly. A skittish tone surfaces occasionally, such as when he comments on an ancient bathing site specifically protected from crocodiles, “very sensible in my view; it can really spoil your day to have a limb bitten off while frolicking in the pool with the ladies.” This doesn’t sound like someone likely to go out of his way to expose the doings of Gurgaon’s “unscrupulous property developers.”

At one point Sanyal refers to the modernist architect Le Corbusier as a fascist. This is almost certainly overstepping the mark; other sources consider his affiliation with fascism, anti-semitism and extreme nationalism to be unprovable.

This book is essentially an easy-going but reliable narrative covering some of the highlights of the subcontinent’s story. Here and there I detected a slight “Indian-English” tone of voice, but it’s if anything charming rather than the reverse, and anyway adds to the book’s authenticity. All in all this is a book that can be confidently recommended to anyone wanting an enjoyable and up-to-date introduction to the history of India, whether or not its geography is one’s primary interest.

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