Land of The Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography; Sanjeev Sanyal

Land of The Seven Rivers: Sanjeev Sanyal; Cover ImageOne of the extremely rare times, when I bought a book because of its cover. The title and the subtitle — I discovered eventually — is misleading. The subtitle is more interesting: “A Brief History of India’s Geography,” and the cover photo even more so, a stylised map of India, depicting the major rivers in the entire country. It turns out that the seven rivers in the title refer to the Vedic Sapta-Sindhu, not the rivers of the country. Major rivers in the peninsular region are barely find a mention in the book, if at all.

I’ll admit, I should have know better.

If you pick up Land of The Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography imagining it to be a treatise on India’s geography based on all its major rivers, you would be mistaken.

Progressing through the book, somewhere in the middle, I had this uncanny feeling of what lay ahead. A sense of predictability loomed. The book was beginning to sound less about the history of India’s geography and more about the geography of India’s history, mapped, in an uninspiring time-linear fashion, dotted with historical trivia to capture the oft dwindling attention of the reader. Even the trivia is relegated to a “did-you-know” status than seamlessly weaved in the main narrative. The good intentions of the author notwithstanding, the geographical references are basic and sparse. Plenty of locations find a mention, but it has less to do with geography and more with historical events. Further they are directionally skewed to the east and the north of the region, due, in no small measure to the fact that that’s where the author hails from and lives in, respectively. Where interesting references to geography exist (and there are a few) the context is global, or meta-regional, rather than regional.

The texture of the writing is quite uneven, sometimes academic, sometimes narrative, sometimes opinionated, and interspersed with parenthetical sarcasm being passed off as wit; the reading experience is rough, and even bouncy at times, as quick sweeps are made between eras. The granularity of the writing is jarring.The many disclaimers in the narrative lead me to believe that the author knew that this needed to be a larger book, to do any justice.

Almost every section in the book proceeds in a specific direction, and concludes with an end-of-the-day disclaimer by the author, saying, “I don’t mean to imply…” If the author intended to  create a “both sides of the story” narrative, this is hardly the way.

This book will serve well for someone who is looking for an over-generalised, trivia-laden, and an event-skimming history of the region. For them, this is a perfect book.

For the serious reader of history, this is definitely worth a skip.

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