The Land of Seven Rivers is an oversimplified, inaccurate history of India with a pronounced nationalistic tilt (Sanyal seems to believe in the Out of India theory, though he is not confident enough to proclaim this outright). His writing is substandard and lacks the nuance essential to good history. (I would recommend John Keay’s India: A Brief History for an unbiased, accessible, almost poetically written history of India)
I find it difficult to understand what Sanyal set out to achieve with this book. The subtitle claims it to be A Brief History of India’s Geography, but that it most certainly is not. It reads more like a collection of random, often interesting, facts laid down chronologically; facts that have more to do with the various phases of urbanization in India than geography. Geography, at best, provides a background to historical events in this narrative. The Saraswati river (predictably) makes many appearances in the book, as Sanyal traces the historical evolution of Indians’ geographical knowledge through textual sources like the Vedas, Mahabharata and Ramayana. Another major theme in this book is India’s trade links with other cultures and places, through which India exported its culture and civilization. Sanyal writes about this with typical nationalistic pride that is tinged with nostalgia for the glory days.
However, what’s most annoying is how Sanyal constantly marshals silly parallels between India’s past & present in a bullheaded attempt to prove India’s civilizational continuity (not that I deny it). He also makes up wild theories without providing any source for the same, which totally ruined his credibility for me. He constantly attempts to buttress his point that Indians were not an ahistorical people, as most Western scholars are wont to assert. In this, I partly agree with him. However, if one compares our sporadic, hagiographic record-keeping to the almost obsessive, detached documentation of ancient China, we fare poorly. Sanyal’s primary argument to prove Indians’ historical consciousness is the Ashoka edicts and how succeeding dynasties (Guptas, Tughlaqs as well as the British) inscribed their names on various edicts and hence saw themselves as the inheritors of an ancient civilization. And lastly, he has a massive boner for the lion, both as an animal and as a signifier of royal authority that has followed India down the centuries and today graces India’s official emblem.
The Land of Seven Rivers ultimately is a book that believes in the questionable motto: “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Please avoid. There are much better history books out there.