Sanjeev Sanyal is an internationally acclaimed economist, urban theorist and a bestselling author. He writes on a wide array of topics, ranging from economics to history, and in 2014, he was given the inaugural International Indian Achievers Award for contributions to literature. He has been a fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, London; visiting scholar at Oxford University; adjunct fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore; and a senior fellow of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

His latest book, The Ocean of Churn, takes the reader on an amazing journey through medieval geopolitics and eyewitness accounts of long-lost cities to the latest genetic discoveries about human origins, bringing alive a region that has defined civilisations from the very beginning.

Much of human history has played itself out along the rim of the Indian Ocean. In a first-of-its-kind attempt, bestselling author Sanjeev Sanyal tells the history of this significant region, which stretches across East Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent to South-East Asia and Australia. He narrates a fascinating tale about the earliest human migrations out of Africa and the great cities of Ankor and Vijayanagar; medieval Arab empires and Chinese "treasure fleets"; the rivalries of European colonial powers and a new dawn.

Sanjeev explores remote archaeological sites, ancient inscriptions, maritime trading networks and half-forgotten oral histories, to make exciting revelations. In his inimitable style, he draws upon existing and new evidence to challenge well-established claims about famous historical characters and the flow of history. Adventurers, merchants, explorers, monks, swashbuckling pirates, revolutionaries and warrior princesses populate this colourful and multifaceted narrative.

Excerpts from an interview:

You’ve described the Indian Ocean as "colourful and ever-changing". Can you throw more light on this perspective?

Yes, I mean the reason I’ve called the book The Ocean of Churn is because it is about change and things moving around this great ocean in various ways. So the geology, for example, the very shape of the ocean itself, has been changing over millions of years. Even the coastlines that we see today have actually been shifting. I have an entire chapter on the geology of this region because that is the first thing one needs to know before understanding the Indian Ocean. It’s not just the geography but even the living environment that is changing – people are moving about, ideas are being shared, products and commerce is moving around and more or less this churn is what defines the region. It’s colourful because it is full of colourful characters and colourful events – full of pirates, warrior princes, merchants, adventures – it’s far more interesting than the history of England in my view. This book is not directly concerned with the future but more with how we got here. It is a brief and eclectic history of the Indian Ocean Rim and the many forces – political, economic, socio-cultural, technological and, not to forget, natural – that have shaped the world we see around us. Given this wide scope, I have not attempted to be comprehensive as it would have made the book both unreadable and unwriteable. Instead, I have tried to give the reader a feel of a colourful and ever-changing Indian Ocean world and its impact on human history.

The Ocean of Churn does not, in your own words, "adhere to the exact geographical definition of the term ‘Indian Ocean’ as defined by the International Hydrographic Organization, Monaco. Such a definition is necessarily arbitrary and does not impact the flow of history". What makes you say so?

Obviously! You know people do not look at the map and say, ‘Oh! This is Indian history’ and stop thinking. Many things are happening at the edges. It is just arbitrary. We decide that the Indian Ocean is from this point to that point for cartographic reasons. The flow of history doesn’t care about the cartographic limitations or restrictions. Even the Western history does not care. How does it matter where we decide the border is? This is modern conceit. If you think about it the west coast of India was trading with the Romans, now that’s a part of Indian Ocean history but it is also a part of Mediterranean history. Similarly, Indians were trading with the Chinese. That is also a part of Indian Ocean history but that goes all the way to South China Sea. So you can’t put a boundary there arbitrarily. Therefore, I have included inlets like the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Straits of Malacca, and places like Cambodia and Iran as required in the story although they may not be labelled on a conventional map as part of the Indian Ocean world. These places were part of the broader economic, cultural and political ecosystem of the Indian Ocean and need to be included in the narrative.

In the book you also mention that "Maritime history only attracts some attention with the arrival of the Europeans" and ignores the rich maritime history that pre-dated Vasco da Gama’s famous voyage. Tell us about some of your interesting findings on this front?

One of the major problems with much of the writings about the Indian Ocean is that it is written by Westerners from a western perspective. Not surprisingly, their writings really gets going with the arrival of Vasco da Gama. Typically there will be an introductory chapter before Vasco da Gama’s arrival, which will vaguely mention about the Indians and Arabs and so on. What they mention is how Indians were growing spices as if the existence of India, for Europeans, is based on growing spices alone. We’ve our own history, we had been doing all kinds of things, trading, geo-politics and all of these pre-date the coming of the Europeans. Similarly, much of these writings end with the departure of the British from Indian shores as if we stopped existing thereafter. We are still around and why are we not talking about the rise of Singapore, Dubai, recent rise of India? Thus, the Cholas of India, the Majapahit of Indonesia and the Omanis are mentioned almost as footnotes. This is the equivalent of telling European history with little reference to Athens, Venice or the Vikings. That is also a part of the history of Indian Ocean. You cannot understand the Indian Ocean if you just take this narrow Western view.

The book also focuses on the role played by matrilineal customs in the history of the Indian Ocean Rim. How do you define matrilineal customs and what is its role in the history of the Indian Ocean rim?

First of all, let me clear that matrilineal customs is not the same as matriarchal. Matrilineal means that the lineage is traced through the mother’s line. The latter relates to societies, where women are the rulers/leaders as a matter of custom, but in reality, there are very few genuinely matriarchal societies in the world. Matrilineal societies, in contrast, are those that mark lineage through the mother and female ancestors. In such societies, men still run the show, although, in general, the status of women tends to be higher than in societies that are purely patriarchal and/or patrilineal. Matrilineal societies, occasionally, throws up women leaders. If you begin to look at the history from a matrilineal perspective, a lot of the history of South East Asia and the Indian coastline suddenly make more sense. That is why I start the book with the story of the Pallavas and their marriage to the Naga princesses of South-East Asia and make the point that it is very likely that Pallavas became kings because of this link that they had with the Naga princesses. And by the way, these customs were very often attacked by people. One of the key reasons why Tipu Sultan attacked Kerala, from his own writings, is because he accused the Kerala coastline of having what in his mind was bad customs. He thought that matrilineal customs were bad. One of the justifications that he gives for carrying out the massacre in Kerala was this matrilineal custom.

Interestingly, you mention Onge and Jarawa people of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands while noting the 2004 Tsunami that devastated the region. Two parts: How did they survive the devastating Tsunami and what has been their role in the history of the Indian Ocean?

There are several tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar islands and they are all not the same. Some of those tribes are very, very old. They form some of the oldest migrations in the Indian Ocean region and they have somehow survived in these islands. First of all they are a reminder of a very, very old history. But even more recently, they have done some very interesting things. When the devastating Tsunami came, they had a very ancient tradition that said when the earth is shaking, they should all head to higher ground. Now this is obviously a tradition that has been passed down to them orally from very ancient times because they are living in that region for over thousands of years and there must have been occasions when similarly Tsunamis had struck the region. As a civilization and culture they have this oral memory. We pride ourselves in history writing but what is this? This is also history writing. That is why throughout my book, I have given a lot of credence to oral history – so-called civilized people tend to think that only their way of thinking is true but this too is undoubtedly history.

What is the importance of the maritime hub of Dholavira in the understanding of the history of the Indian Ocean Rim?

The most important thing to understand is that Dholavira was a port. Today it looks like it is somewhere inland but it was actually an island port in ancient times and what is now the Rann of Kutchh was essentially the estuary of the Saraswati river. It was water and ships could come in. They could come in both from the West as well as from the South. You could actually sail from Lothal to Dholavira as well. This was a major port and the people who lived in the ports of Gujarat and Sindh area were not just trading among themselves but also trading all the way with Iranians, Omanis, Sumerians and so on. We have records and historical evidences to prove this. There are even records of the Meluha people. So when we say there are Indians in the Middle-East today, actually there had been Indians in the Middle-East even 4,000 years ago!

Can you throw more light on the ancient Indo-Roman trade routes that you mention in the book?

So there were these trade routes going back and forth between the Indians and the Romans and they became really important during the first and second century AD. It had enormous influence on how the world looked at that time. You had two trade routes. Basically, the trade route came down from Egypt, down the Red Sea and it came up to this island called Socotra and from here there were two routes – one went north along the Oman coast to Gujarat and then the south route went directly across the Indian Ocean to Kerala. These two routes were very important and they continue to fascinate us. 

You have also written extensively on the Vijaynagar kingdom and their relationship with the Portuguese. Why do you say it was a "hot-and-cold" relationship?

The Portuguese were operating along the coast and this line was controlled by the Vijaynagar ports and very often the Portugese were trying to capture the bits and pieces. They fought wars on several occasions, for example, with the Samudrans of Calicut. The Samudrans of Calicut were basically the subsidiaries of the Vijaynagar Empire. So, there were regular conflicts. But on the other hand the Vijaynagar empire traded with the Portuguese at the same time. They were importing guns from the Portuguese while exporting spices and clothes among others. The Portuguese traded with them but fought with them too. So it was a hot- and-cold relationship.

Let’s talk about the Opium trade. How did the British exploit the Indian farmers in the wake of the Opium demand? What exactly is the India-Britain-China angle (vis-à-vis Opium) that you explain in the book? 

The problem that East India Company had was that although they controlled most parts of India by early 19th century, by this point, the most valuable part of their trade was with China. Now the Chinese didn’t really want to buy many British products whereas the British wanted to buy things like tea from China. Thus, there was an imbalance because the Chinese demanded to be paid in silver. Now, Opium had been imported in small quantities into China from ancient times and used in traditional medicine. From the late 18th century, however, it became very fashionable to smoke it. Depictions in popular culture tend to show sleazy opium dens but in reality, it was consumed at all levels of society and was seen as a sign of connoisseurship with its intricately-carved pipes, silver heating lamps and reclining couches in red silk. As demand for Opium boomed, the British found they could use their control over India to grow Poppy. Therefore, Indian farmers were forced to grow Opium (Poppy) and then also forced to sell it to British at cheaper rates. They basically created this drug-running racket and this forms a very important part of the history. They fought the Opium wars on it. Much of the 19th century in the Indian Ocean rim is also defined by this.

How did the discovery of diamond and gold deposits in South Africa impact the Indian Ocean Rim?

South Africa, before these discoveries, was largely famous as a stopping destination enroute Indian Ocean. In the late 19th century, gold and diamond deposits were found in South Africa and then came the gold and the diamond rush. All of a sudden it became a very important place. Of course, the British controlled it but a significant Dutch community already existed in the area. There were major wars between these two communities. Now this affected the Indian Ocean Rim in multiple ways. Indian labour was brought in, a significant Indian community settled in the region and even the white collar workers were brought in from India. And of course, that is the context in which Mahatma Gandhi started his political career. So these linkages go back and forth, time and again and in multiple ways.

Lastly, why did you decide to write a book on Indian Ocean and what do you expect the readers to understand from this volume?

I have lived most of my life in and around the Indian Ocean. I was born in Calcutta, worked for several years in Bombay and I now live in Singapore. I have travelled all over the Indian Ocean and so I thought that it was required that the story of this region be written, and written from our perspective, and not from the Western perspective. Otherwise, our story does not get told. So that is why I thought if somebody is going to write it then why not me. Most important thing that a reader should take away from this is that it is a fun book to read. It’s not a text book. It’s meant to be read for fun and to understand that much of who we are today derives from this long history. I hope that readers identify with many of the things I have written in the book. 

Maps courtesy: Penguin Random House / The Ocean of Churn