Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing Sunil Amrith’s book on the Bay of Bengal for The New York Times Book Review. I recently met Amrith in Pondicherry. We drove up the coast and talked about his research and the fascinating–if often overlooked–history of this part of the world. I wrote about our afternoon together for The Hindu.
First glimpses are not encouraging. Broken beer bottles strewn across a littered field. A group of gamblers — their eyes red, hostile — in a dusty clearing. A lonely looking dog, his coat mangy, wandering forlornly.
But push through the dust and the stray dogs, past a grove of cashew and neem trees, and a far more impressive sight reveals itself: the ruins of a 2000-year old Roman trading outpost, the battered brick walls and archways of what was once a distant port of call for brave traders and sailors from the most powerful empire in the Western hemisphere.
Time and human neglect have taken a toll on these buildings. But the architectural style is unmistakable, and the atmosphere, even amidst the decay, is bracing. Standing under those arches, traces of the original plaster visible, the bricks chipped but still solid after all these years, it’s just possible to imagine an ancient world of commerce and trade, conquest and exploration.
I’m standing in the fishing village of Arikamedu, outside Pondicherry. I’m visiting with Sunil Amrith, a professor of History at the University of London. Amrith is the author of a recent book titled Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants .
I first came across the book about a year ago, when I was asked to review it. It piqued my curiosity. I have grown up along the Bay, in Pondicherry and Auroville. Very little writing and research exists about this area. I feel as though I have grown up lacking a conceptual vocabulary to understand my world. Amrith’s work has given me a new frame of reference. It has led me to revisit, and re-imagine, the landscape of my youth.
A neighbourhood of nations
Crossing the Bay of Bengal is a complex, multi-layered piece of work. It defies easy categorisation. At its core, the book tells the story of centuries of trade and migration that have linked the various countries situated along the Bay. Through painstaking archival research (supplemented by oral interviews), Amrith makes a case for something akin to a European Union of the Bay — a “neighborhood” of nations, a cohesive region that is defined by a shared history and cultural commonality.
The government in New Delhi today speaks of the need for closer trade and security ties with our Asian neighbours. Its “Look East” policy is an attempt to break out of a perceived isolationism from the rest of Asia. Amrith argues that this isolation is in fact a recent phenomenon — “more the exception than the norm,” as he puts it, a late 20th century disruption of long-standing cultural and mercantile associations.
Around one-fourth of the world’s people today live in a country bordering the Bay. This population has been defined by waves of migration and miscegenation. The Chettiars assembled fortunes in Burma, and then returned home to build a world in the Tamil heartland. The plantations of Malaya were built on the blood and sweat of Tamil and Bengali labourers. Across Southeast Asia, the legacy of the Indian encounter is manifest —in the brightly painted temples of Singapore, in the rotis and curries that make up Malaysian cuisine, and in the Little Indias that dot towns like Penang, Singapore, or Rangoon.
Often, too, the influences that shaped life along the Bay came from farther afield. Marco Polo travelled through Indonesia and Sri Lanka in the 13th century; explorers from ancient Greece visited the “Golden Chersonese” (modern-day Malaysia) in search of precious metals. In Tamil Nadu, Arikamedu and its Roman heritage are but one reminder of a cultural porousness. There is Pondicherry with its French influence, Tranquebar with its Danish history and, to the north, in Pulicat, one can still find ruins of a Dutch fort.
Many of us are aware — if sometimes a little dimly — of these various histories. But we rarely weave them into a cohesive narrative. The history of the Bay of Bengal is a history of fragments: isolated journeys, self-contained nations and cultures. Amrith brings these fragments together.
He builds a portrait of an intricate way of life that has established itself, layer after layer, migratory wave after wave, over centuries. After reading his book, I have realised that all of us who live on the coast are part of a far more wide-ranging universe than I had imagined. We belong not only to our nations and states, but to what I now think of as a distinctive Culture of the Bay.
Amrith grew up in the melting pot of Singapore, the son of a Tamil banker father and doctor mother. He spent his summers in Alwarpet, visiting his grandparents and going for walks along the beach at Besant Nagar beach. He told me that afternoon at Arikamedu that his research on the culture of the Bay was spurred in part by a dissonance between the polyglot realities he was living, and the far more closed and narrow histories he was learning in school.
It is worth considering the reasons for this dissonance — and, more generally, for why we have failed to adequately recognise our multicultural heritage and historical bonds with our neighbours. As always, the vagaries of history play a role. When the Japanese advanced during World War II till the Indo-Burmese border, it effectively severed India from what we today think of as Southeast Asia.
The post-colonial rise of nationalist movements similarly undercut the inter-connectedness of the Bay. At a time when politicians were seeking to bolster nascent national identities, narratives of multiculturalism could be seen as threatening. The Bujang Valley of Malaysia, for instance, has long been under-emphasised as a tourist destination; its Hindu-Buddhist ruins sit uneasily with modern-day racial and religious politics in the country.
Finally, the often arbitrary specialisations of academia are also responsible. The severing of India from Burma gave birth to the departmental silo of South Asian Studies. The field known as Indian Ocean Studies has always been preoccupied with grand geostrategic considerations, notably a desire to contain the Soviet Union and China; the Bay of Bengal has been something of a sideshow. As always, our intellectual and analytical categories have influenced the way we see the world. They have blinded us to the liberal, cosmopolitan history that is the true legacy of this region.
A wider world
Amrith and I spent a little over an hour at Arikamedu that afternoon. After soaking in the atmosphere, we left the village and drove up the coast. We drove along the East Coast Road to a beach outside Auroville.
The beach was narrow. I could remember when it stretched for kilometers. But the sands have been washed away over time, victims of a process of erosion creeping up the coast. This is another important strain in Amrith’s book, and the subject of his current research: the complex environmental forces of the Bay, the shifting patterns of monsoon and drought and flooding that, as much as human migration, have shaped and linked life along these coasts.
“It’s all connected, all part of the same system,” Amrith told me that afternoon.
We stood on that beach, the shoreline curving north towards Chennai, and we watched the fishermen head out to sea. I knew they would return soon. But still, it was possible to see them, and their journey eastward, as part of a long continuum, a centuries-old tradition that has defined not only this coast, but vast swathes of territory across the waters.
We ignore that history at our peril. It’s easy sometimes to forget that we are part of a wider world. But every act of nationalism or cultural isolationism is a blow against the remarkable open-mindedness that has characterised this coast for centuries. Every instance of chauvinism is a denial of a shared social, cultural, political and, yes, even sacred, history.
(Akash Kapur is the author of India Becoming: A Journey Through a Changing Landscape.)