A Hundred Horizons, by Sugata Bose

On India's sea of stories
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The Independent Culture

The Indian Ocean, those twin peaks between its bigger cousins the Pacific and the Atlantic, has remained relatively neglected. Half of the world's container ships, and two-third of its oil tankers, pass through the arc from Cape Point to the Arabian Peninsula, swooping down the Indian subcontinent, rising to Burma, and then moving south to the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia and Australia. But it features in our minds, as Harvard professor Sugata Bose poignantly reminds us in this unusual history of the region, only when disaster strikes - like the 2004 tsunami, which underscored its shared destiny.

Bose dissects works that have shown the ocean as a colonial theatre, or as a geographic expression. How academics view oceans matters, but how people view each other matters more, and the book comes alive only when it leaves the theoretical framework. Bose focuses on the 18th and 19th centuries, following dhows and steamships linking the subaltern and the elite: we meet indentured labourers, itinerant traders, devout pilgrims, soldiers fighting imperial wars, but we also glimpse Gandhi and Tagore.

The pearl trade linked India and the Arabian Peninsula, and cloves united India with East Africa; the spread of Indian capital financed agriculture and development. Rubber tappers in Malayan plantations and poor pilgrims tell us about life at the other end of the spectrum. And there are the soldiers, who fight for the British Empire, or who switch sides and join the Indian National Army in a vain attempt to liberate India.

India is firmly at the centre, from where all stories radiate. Bose points out that nearly 30 million Indians travelled overseas between 1830 and 1930. This emphasis is understandable, but there are missing elements. As a Chinese official once said, the Indian ocean is not India's ocean.

Bose rejects linear narrative, letting his stories follow their path. This fluidity makes the book unique. But why did such an intertwined region recede into a shell, and lose trade momentum to the Pacific Rim? One reason is that its biggest economies had other priorities. Australia saw the ocean as the place to fly over to the West; the world shunned South Africa during apartheid; and India was an import-substituting, inward-looking economy. That has now changed, and so will the story of the Indian Ocean.