Under my byline

Lost on the river

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 8 May 2010


Trust nobody when they say they can tell you about India. Unless the teller is a storyteller, and can offer you an essence distilled into a myth. When the subject is so oceanic in scale, nothing factual is going to be adequate and only the purely fictional can be entirely true.

Myths, though, as Michel Danino points out in the prologue to his elegant new book on the historical, not mythological, river Saraswati, despite their explanatory power no longer have currency.

Instead, we have a variety of tunnel visions. Troublingly, some of those are perpetrated by historians — the very people who are supposed to construct our past on firm ground. It’s not rational to expect a single, simple narrative which accommodates all the facts we possess about our past. But us laypeople might at least expect that those who study the past go willingly down every possible avenue in search of a more complete picture.

They don’t. One case that shows up the whole mess is that of the uncertain relationship between the Aryans and the Harappans. Who were the Harappans? Who were the Aryans? Where did the Aryans come from? How did they come — as a raging flood, a steady flow or a tiny trickle? Did they come at all? If they came, what happened to the Harappans — did they die, get pushed aside, coexist or intermix? Or none of the above? Are we asking the right questions?

Answer in each case: no clear idea. In his book The Lost River Danino goes looking for the Saraswati using every source of information at his command. This includes archaeology, the Rig Veda, epics, myths, colonial European accounts of the region, what modern historians and linguists have to say, even what scientists like geologists, hydrographers and climatologists have learnt about the land, water and climate along the path of the erstwhile river — which, Danino says, was the great ancestor of the modern rain-fed (but nearly always dry) Ghaggar-Hakra system, stretching between Punjab and the Rann of Kachchh.

Multidisciplinarity is the key. Many tunnel visions can be overlapped to reveal a more total picture. The net result of Danino’s vast and canny bird’s-eye survey is to show beyond reasonable doubt that the Saraswati really existed, that it followed a certain path, how and by what stages it was likely to have come into being and then dried up, and how the river related both to Harappan civilisation and to whatever came after — whether it was Aryan or a further-evolved Harappan.

It’s hard to believe that such crucial questions as that of India’s ancient population and geography still remain moot. The Aryans may yet turn out to have been a modern myth with roots in colonial times. But why haven’t these and other contentious questions already been tackled with all the tools and resources at modern scholars’ disposal? Don’t we want to know who we are?

The trouble with leaving all such investigation and telling to professional historians is that they are not free to think along multiple planes. Historians still look at written evidence first, because they are trained to see all evidence as a “text” to be read. In order to read between the lines they use a lot of literary theory. (Or they use their imagination and call the product an educated guess.) And they tend to see history as a cumulative enterprise more than a revolutionary one. This is all very well but it does mean that physical evidence, like the findings of archaeologists and scientists, is far too often neglected or misunderstood.

What we need, I say, is more Danino — more amateur scholars who can study and summarise a range of evidence and offer category-breaking syntheses. (Instead we keep making specialists.) We need a new sort of university system which encourages and rewards multidisciplinary studies. Without such civilised appurtenances, despite what we may think, we will never reach the light at the back end of our historical tunnel.

(Read my review of The Lost River. Visit the publisher’s page.)


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