India’s ties with South-east Asia straddle not just centuries but millennia. These ties have come into more recent focus since the initiation of the ‘Look East Policy’ LEP) in the early 1990s by the government of P.V. Narasimha Rao; it was rechristened ‘Act East Policy’ (AEP) after the advent of the NDA government under Narendra Modi in 2014.
The roots of the LEP can, however, be traced to India’s past history and tradition dating back a couple of millennia. The book under review is a timely publication keeping this perspective as a backdrop. The central theme, as the title suggests, is connectivity. In today’s parlance the term ‘connectivity’ denotes a comprehensive combination of ties which combine the political, economic, social, cultural, educational and many other facets of human activity. The nine essays in the book have been put together keeping this overarching theme of connectivity in purview.
Each of the essays have been written on diverse aspects of connectivity between India and the far-flung lands of Southeast Asia since time immemorial. The editors have done a commendable job in offering a comprehensive introductory essay with their own perspective on the subject as well as stringing all the nine essays together. According to the eminent historian, R.C. Majumdar, a spirit of adventure took Indians across the Bay of Bengal to IndoChina and the Malay Archipelago and a trading relationship was established between the eastern coast of India, studded with ports, and the mineral rich fertile tracts of these lands as far back as the pre-Christian era.
The introductory essay also reiterates these early commercial connections between the early Indians and the lands of South-east Asia; what is notable is that Indian cultural influence followed these trading connections in these lands, which are referred to in the Ramayana as Suvarna-dvipa and Yava-dvipa. An interesting debate arises here as to whether India’s burgeoning trading and cultural relationships with these lands also led to the foundation of political power facilitating Indian colonisation and Indianisation in these far -off regions. R. C. Majumdar argues that religion (both Hinduism and Buddhism had extended their influence in these areas), social manners and customs, language and alphabet are Indian and it may therefore be concluded that these states were Indian colonial kingdoms.
Modern research has, however, contested this theory of Indian colonisation and ‘Indianisation’. It argues that ‘a common primordial substratum of belief and culture existed in both the Indian and South-east Asian societies and …there was a local basis in Southeast Asia for the acceptance of these beliefs and for their absorption into the local culture…’ So established contemporary historical research holds that cultural influence was spread voluntarily, and not by the sword (as was believed earlier), which was accepted due to geographical proximity on both sides of the Bay of Bengal and common elements in two respective societies.
The moot point to note here is that a relationship founded on shared culture and tradition and not on the basis of any imposition from one side on the other has a more durable foundation. Therefore, the contemporary IndiaSouth-east Asia linkage-primarily based on the LEP and subsequently the AEP has a more sound foundation which should be a powerful building block to advance these ties further. The nine papers, very well researched, written and argued pieces of work, have a common theme of connectivity; the first three papers by Suchandra Ghosh, Sarvani Gooptu and Aparajita Dhar are historical in nature.
The first paper traces the ties between India and South-east Asia by focusing on the influence of early Indian political culture on the polity of the Indrapura dynasty of Champa (Vietnam) in ancient times (Ghosh); the author examines the functioning of the monarchical polity of Champa comparable to early Indian monarchical structure. Gooptu highlights in her essay the Bengali intellectuals’ search for a greater India in South-east and East Asia in the first half of the twentieth century and even in post-colonial times by arguing that this group was trying to explore the presence of India’s cultural influence in South-east Asia.
Aparajita Dhar delves into the issue of Indian migration to colonial Burma and how these migrants came into conflict with the Burmese in the 1930s and many of them had to return to India. The remaining six essays by Manmohini Kaul, Tridib Chakraborti, Jatindra Nath Saikia, Suthiphand Chirathivat and Kornakorun Cheewatrakoolpong, Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury and Rajen Singh Laishram explore different facets of the ‘Look East Policy’ which is now known as the ‘Act East Policy’.
They cover subjects such as India’s achievements in promoting greater regional integration with ASEAN through LEP; contours of India’s transition from the LEP to the AEP by studying the dynamics of India-ASEAN engagement; looking into the expanding bilateral ties between India and Thailand with a focus on India’s LEP and Thailand’s Look West Policy; examination of the nature of Thailand’s trade with its SE Asian neighbours and how it could open up new avenues of trade and connectivity with South Asia; how north-east India can play an important role in building up connectivity and cooperation with eastern and southeastern neighbouring countries; and finally how overland connectivity with South-east Asia should be prioritised by India through its north-east.
In an otherwise comprehensive volume one misses a paper covering the medieval period which also witnessed considerable connectivity between the two regions. One needs to add here that one of the reasons for the initiation of the LEP was the near collapse of India’s trade with the former Soviet bloc following the Soviet disintegration in 1991 and the need for new markets as India’s trade with the European Union was facing hurdles to make a breakthrough in the restrictive European markets.
A caveat also needs to be entered here regarding the usage of the word ‘integration’ which is used either as a ‘process’ or an ‘outcome’. Finally the editors need to be complimented for a very smart and timely publication with an excellent bibliography. The reviewer is former Professor, Jadavpur University JAYDEEP SARANGI Raghu’s father, Sachin Dash was a small shopkeeper, selling sweets. Helping his father in the shop, Raghu did not dream of any brighter prospect of his life beyond having a bigger shop in the neighbouring town.
Sachin Dash, who normally collected cash when Raghu took care of customers, was rather sociable and chatty, asking customers about their sons and daughters, their education, affairs and marriages, political upheavals and even neighbourhood quarrels. Raghu said once, “Father, why do you waste your time and energy with all the details of the customers? The shop is meant to sale sweets.” Sachin Dash chuckled and said, “You are wrong, Raghu, my dear son! A patient feels half-cured when the physician talks to him. A shopkeeper’s business too depends on his smiling and friendly behaviour with customers.
Customers are our gods.” Raghu found logic in his father’s words. He started to be more sociable, friendly but it did not work. He dealt with the customers well but without remembering their names or faces as his mind remained preoccupied with the items they purchased. Many a time his clumsiness created ripples of laughter when he addressed mothers with daughters’ names and vice versa. As a friend, Priyotosh always made fun of him, saying, “Raghu, you are going to be a machine with real flesh and bones.” “Priyotosh,” Raghu occasionally answered back, “I am a simple worker.” “Don’t you ever feel like enjoying life?” “My work is my enjoyment. Don’t you see that? “ *** One day when Priyotosh came to his shop, Sachin Dash said, “Priyotosh, take my son occasionally out with you. He sees nothing beyond the shop. But, don’t take him to wrong places. His basic simplicity is rare in these days.” “Sure, uncle. I’ll do as you say.”
When taken to a beer bar, Raghu was awe-struck because he had never seen women dancing. He felt uneasy but after his friend had persuaded him to take a glass of beer, he began to enjoy the moment. He did not have many friends with whom he could have shared his experience but as he revisited the scene in memory, it created such a tingling feeling within him that he began to look forward to such outings and enjoyments. Being a pleasure-seeker, Priyotosh always wanted someone to accompany him on his amorous outings. For him, it was like an expansion of his hedonistic limits. When he took Raghu out again, it was to be a new place for serious business.
They reached a decent looking house in which they sat down on a sofa whereas the host Rampukar Singh welcomed them. It appeared that the host was already familiar with Priyotosh. When Shilpi was introduced to Raghu and she began to talk very warmly with him, Rampukar Singh and Priyotosh withdrew, leaving Raghu alone with her. Shilpi was a beautiful woman with sharp eyes and a curvy body. She brought two glasses of liquor and a bottle. Taking one in her hand, she came close to him and lovingly persuaded him to drink it. Though initially hesitant, he hurriedly gulped one glass of liquor due to her warm persuasion.
It had begun to have so much of an effect on him that he found a sort of Elysian pleasure in her company. “Tell me Raghu,” Shilpi quietly began, allowing her soft fingers to furrow his hair and to crawl over his cheeks, “What do you consider great in life?” With some liquor having gone to his head, Raghu was in a dilemma. As her beautiful eyes nearly bewitched him and her warm company gave him a strange feeling of outlandish pleasure, she offered him another glass of liquor, which he quaffed cursorily, pausing momentarily for breathing gaps. By this time, Raghu had reached a stage when he was barely conscious of what he was doing.
Shilpi’s loving touches, her caresses, her act of pulling him to her side had paralysed his will power so much that he was reduced virtually to a wooden toy, moving his limbs according to the sudden jerk she gave. When Raghu came back to his normal senses, he hurriedly began to put on his half open clothes, realising that he had done something wrong. Shilpi coolly asked him, “How do you feel, Raghu ji?” He did not raise his eyes but simply moved his head to indicate that he was alright. He felt broken within. “Raghu,” Shilpi said, “You have to pay me one thousand rupees.”
Without uttering a word, without even looking at her face, he gave her the amount. Then he bent his head, covering it with his desperate hands. It appeared from his posture that he was about to cry. Shilpi, somewhat perturbed, asked him, “Are you alright, Raghu ji?” Without saying anything, he moved his head in an affirmative way.
Somewhat bemused, Shilpi sat down near him, removed his hands from his face to check if he was crying but he was not, though tears were about to roll down his brown cheeks. She felt her heart melting at his miserable look. Intense feelings of kinship, like those of a mother for her son, welled up within her. Kissing him on his forehead, caressing his face, realising that probably the cause of the misery was the amount he had given her, she placed it back into his hands, saying, “Compose yourself.
Probably you have come for the first time to such a place. I understand it.” Raghu raised his head and declining to take the amount back, he said, “I feel guilty that I have done something wrong — something that I should not have done. But it is not because of money. You must keep it.” “On one condition,” Shilpi said, “that I will keep it as a deposit. You are a good boy and must not visit this place again.” When Raghu went home, a sense of reproach still haunted him but Shilpi’s attitude and behaviour stayed pleasantly in his heart. When he sat down in his shop and tackled the customers, the face of Shilpi got superimposed on those of other women. Once he even addressed a woman as Shilpi till she laughingly corrected him. In the night, the memory of her kind touches, her honeyed persuasions, and affectionate reproaches touched his heart and lingered on in his memory. He wished to see her but she had forbidden him from coming to her place again! Completely busy in handling the customers in the absence of his father, Raghu had no time to raise his head when someone cooed, “Oh, Raghu, so this is your shop!” It was a pleasantly stunning experience for Raghu to see Shilpi in his shop.
He shook his head vigorously to ensure that it was not a dream. Offering her a seat, he hurriedly disposed off his customers and anxiously asked, “How did you find me?” “I was passing through and wanted to buy sweets for my home. Then I saw you.” “You don’t know Shilpi how delighted I am,” Raghu said. “What a surprise! I have been thinking of you. I cannot erase your face, your benevolence.
I wanted to visit you, but you had forbidden me from doing so. Can I visit your place sometime?” Since customers dropped in as they were talking, Shilpi said somewhat cautiously, “That was not my place, Raghu. Do you remember Mr Singh who had welcomed you? That was his house. Come to my place next Sunday at noon. Here is my address. You can call me on the phone number if you can’t locate it.” There was something overwhelmingly attractive in Shilpi, some magnetic quality that irresistibly drew Raghu to her. He was to visit her after five days but he could not resist the urge of calling her every day. She was the first woman he had met in life and remained pervaded by her invisible presence around him.
Sachin Dash noticed some changes in his son and asked him, “Have you found a lover, Raghu?” “Lover?” Raghu was shocked. “To hang your heart on,” Sachin Dash jokingly exclaimed. He added, “If you have, tell me and I’ll arrange the marriage.” Observing the traditional decencies, Raghu did not say anything; he was not in the habit of talking that way with his father. However, the vision of Shilpi as his wife began to appear a possibility now. *** On reaching Shilpi’s house on Sunday noon, Raghu was going to press the calling bell when the door opened and Shilpi in her simple but attractive clothes appeared as an incarnated beauty before him. After the preliminary exchanges, Raghu could not resist the temptation of saying, “Shilpi, I would like to marry you, if you have no objection.
My father is ready to arrange for the marriage.” Shilpi sniggered and asked him, “How old are you?” “Twenty two,” he said. “What about you?” “I am forty two. I have a son who is studying in a college in Hyderabad.” After a pause, she became somewhat serious and said to him, “Raghu, I would have been the most blessed woman to have married you. You are one in a thousand, nay a million, but I am an illfated woman. I was married to a man whom I loved intensely but he was of a different caste and hence my parents disowned me. After my son was born, my husband died in a road accident. I began to work in a shopping mall where a military officer began to like and then married me. He was transferred to Arunachal Pradesh.
The news of his death crushed me. “With my son in my lap, I was crying frantically in a moving train when a woman, obviously out of pity, came and promising all help, gave me her address. Leaving my son with my mother who had become widowed by then, I went to the woman. She told me plainly that being uneducated; I could do only one thing — to sell my beauty for which she would provide customers. “People call me a prostitute now. This small rented apartment has been kept by me to show to my son, relatives and neighbours that I work in a factory in the nights. After my son gets a job, I will leave this profession. My mother and son do not know about it.
Now Raghu, do you still want to marry this damned woman?” Raghu remained quiet for some time. He had the vision of the geographical map of India. He looked intently at her face. Recovering a little from the shock, he simply asked, “Aren’t you telling tales? You don’t look more than 25.”
Showing him a photo on the wall, Shilpi said, “He is my son who is 20 years old now.” Feeling dejected and nearly on the verge of crying but still hopeful, Raghu asked, his voice tremulous, “You can still marry me, Shilpi. Can’t you?” Shilpi laughed, her pearl-white teeth flashing between her red lips. Then realising that Raghu might mind, she drew him to her side, kissed him and said, “My insane lover, I can but I won’t.
Anyone else in my situation might have exploited you by agreeing to marry you but I won’t. For you, Raghu, I am not the right person. Your father will find a sweet girl for you. But you can call me, come to me as and when you like.” Raghu got up and was about to go when Shilpi gave him back the one thousand rupees, saying, “I had told you that I was keeping it as a deposit.”
“No, I won’t take it,” Raghu returned it to her. “All right,” she said. “I am ready to keep it if you promise me something.” “I’ll promise anything you say.” “Raghu, please don’t ever go to a place like Mr Singh’s. Get married and be faithful to your wife. If I have done anything good in life, I’ll pray to God to keep you happy.” It was almost evening. They stood motionless like pictures; a couple of shadows. But in the dim light, Shilpi saw tears rolling down Raghu’s cheeks.