There aren't many books which make you feel thankful that you came across them. The Ocean of Churn, by Sanjeev Sanyal, is definitely one of them. For quite some time I've wanted to read a book which would give an accurate and vivid description of how civilization came to be, especially around the Indian subcontinent. Few people could tell the story in such a concise manner as has the author, as we wade through the origin of Homo Sapiens right up to the bustling cosmopolitan 21st century behemoth that the area has now become.
Choosing to focus on how the Indian Ocean has been "churning" civilization, is what makes this book stand out. When we read history, we focus a lot on wars and politics happening on land, and tend to overlook the vast role that the oceans play, be it exchange of ideas, maritime trade, or enabling migrations back and forth across centuries, resulting in a cocktail of culture and ecosystems and technological advancements.
It was fascinating to read how humanity overcame a variety of odds, ever since the ice ages and expanded in ways we can scarcely imagine. We learn how migrations out of Africa led to a variety of settlements from Iraq to Australia and India to Indonesia. We read about the rise and fall of the Harappan civilization, Alexander's conquests which led to rise of the Mauryan empire, the golden age of the Guptas, the rise of Islam, the Turkish invasions, the southern kingdoms of Cheras, Cholas, Pandyas and Pallavas and their breadth of influence across East Asia, the reoccupation of Sri Lanka by various Tamil kings and later European colonizers, the colonization process which started with the establishment of Dutch and English trading companies and how we finally achieved Independence and helped other colonies achieve their own independence as well.
Throughout these eras, maritime trade is a constant theme, and has largely impacted how history was shaped in these places. It is what explains the presence of the largest religions building in the world Angkor Wat in Cambodia, as it does of the voyages of Fa Xien and Vasco da Gama. Easily, reading about the sea faring enterprises was the best part of this book.
I was particularly pleased with the larger perspective that the book emphasizes throughout. People and events in history are judged by different standards, and what shaped their actions then might not be looked at kindly by people from a different era. The converse is also true. Hence, we find out that Ashoka wasn't as "great" as we think he was, just as we learn Netaji wasn't as "fascist" as history makes him look for joining hands with the Germans and Japanese. It was also heartening to note the role of various revolutionaries who were as much, if not more responsible for our freedom than Gandhi and Nehru were, and leaves one with a bitter taste when we realize how little we actually learn about them in contemporary history.
Going through so many layers of history leaves one with a sense of awe, disbelief and a certain measure of sadness over the constant pursuit of wealth and the destruction that human greed has caused, but, in spite of that, the very fact that millennia old traditions continue to survive and thrive in this subcontinent is a testament to the lesson which the author concludes with - that time devours the greatest of men and the mightiest of empires.