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BW Businessworld

‘Our Current Planning Models Have To Change’

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Your last book The Indian Renaissance was a blend of history and economics. The new book blends history with geography. You are not a historian, nor a geographer, but a strategist with a bank. So what explains your interest in history and geography?

It was perhaps an advantage that I am not trained as a historian because the book is deliberately not a conventional history of India. Most histories of India focus of a series of political event whereas my book is about the rise and fall of cities, changing trade routes, evolving wildlife and the genetics of Indians. Although I am a financial economist by profession, I have written extensively about many of these subjects over the years. For instance, I have had a long association with the World-Wide Fund for Nature (formerly World Wildlife Fund) and this gave me a unique perspective on how Indian wildlife has changed over thousands of years.

You have written a lot about India’s demographic challenges, urbanisation and so on. How do you think India’s cities are going to reshape its future? Are they equipped to meet the challenges of the future, if not, where do they lack?
Whether we like it or not, the children of farmers no longer wish to farm. Who are we to stop them? It is very likely, therefore, that India will be an urban majority country within a generation. In turn, this will fundamentally change India’s socio-economic fabric, culture and ultimately the politics of the country. Are Indian cities prepared for this? No! Our current planning models have to change to allow for much denser cities if we do not want continuous sprawl. Dense cities work very well if one prepares for them – think Singapore, Hong Kong and New York. Our planners have to stop acting as if Desperate Housewives is a model for urban design.

What according to you are some of the most striking features of India’s geography and how these have helped reshape its history?
Indian history cannot be understood without reference to the monsoon winds that not only brought rain but merchant ships from all over the world or the Deccan Traps that allowed Shivaji’s military tactics. Similarly, the early history of India cannot be meaningfully understood without reference to the Saraswati river and the catastrophic impact of its drying up. These are important to remember at a time when urbanisation and potentially climate change could fundamentally alter our landscape within a generation.
 
Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography
By Sanjeev Sanyal, Penguin Viking, Pages: 352; Price: Rs 499
Is it right to say India’s biggest challenge and asset is its geography?
Geography certainly provides both opportunities and challenges but ultimately what matters is what one does with it. Singapore, for instance, is a crowded island with no resources – not even enough water for its population. Yet, by dint of hard work, it is one of the most successful cities in the world. So, the world is not flat but round and, as Columbus proved, it belongs to those who dare sail around it.

Why do you think should a reader pick up this book?
In this book I have tried to answer questions that I had wondered about – Why do we call our country Bharat? What do genetic studies say about our origins? Why was the world’s highest mountain named after George Everest? Why do our current borders look the way they do? Perhaps there are others who are interested in the same questions.

What does the book mean to you? How difficult was it to put the book together?
Like all books, it’s a labour of love. I had been collecting information over many years just out of curiosity rather than for a book. However, at some point, the book began to take shape in my mind. Ultimately, I took two years off from my career to travel around India and collect more information for it. I am pleased to say that I have visited 80 per cent of the places mentioned in my book.

Can you share with us one of the most memorable moments you had while writing this book? Surely, you must have travelled a lot to put this together...
I travelled all over India from Ladakh to Kerela and from Gujarat to the North-East. It is amazing how many of the artefacts of Indian history have remained true after hundreds of years. For instance, a Portuguese traveller had written five hundred years ago about crossing the Tungabhadra at Vijayanagar on a coracle boat. I did the same crossing on a coracle in 2008 and it was amazing how the scene has remained the same over all these years. Similarly, I visited the remnants of an old Indian community in Zanzibar – an island off Africa. Freddie Mercury was born there to a Parsi family and I visited the house where he had lived as a child.

When and where do you write?
Since I have a busy professional life, I do not have the luxury of a fixed time for writing. I write when I can – at the airport, on flights, in hotel rooms, over weekends and while overseeing my kids’ homework.

Can you suggest another title to this book?
The original title of this book was ‘A History of India’s Geography: Of Lions, Merchants and Maps’. However, my editors Udayan and Ameya were concerned that readers may mistake it for an academic tome. So, after much argument, we changed it to Land Of Seven Rivers after Sapta-Sindhu, the earliest Indian geographical term.

What’s your energy drink?
Depends on my mood. I suppose an Old Monk with Thumbs Up is still my favourite, especially if one can organise some masala pappad with it.

What’s the hardest thing being a writer?
It is often just getting around to switching on the laptop, opening the file and writing that first line. In the end, its about hammering out the thousands of words and keeping going. Then comes the many rounds of editing and polishing and correcting. However, the first line of every chapter is always the hardest.

What makes a book a really good read or a bestseller?
There is no formula or, at least, I don’t know what it is. Different books do well for different reasons. A Harry Potter sells well but so does Fifty Shades. The best thing for the author is to write whatever interests them and hope it interests others.

What are you reading now?
I am simultaneously reading Mapping India by Manosi Lahiri and Amitav Ghosh’s XXSea Of Poppies.

So, what’s next?
I am going to re-read the Rig Veda along with a bunch books I have collected on Harappan metal technology. I have a hunch that some of the Rig Vedic hymns are related to alchemy and want to see it I can work them out. I know this sounds very geeky....... so I will probably balance it with Tavleen Singh’s Durbar which I am told is full of the very best gossip.

(Compiled by Jinoy Jose P)

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