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The Sea As A Mental Map


Aparna Rayaprol

CROSSING THE BAY OF BENGAL: THE FURIES OF NATURE AND THE FORTUNES OF MIGRANTS
By Sunil S. Amrith
Harvard University Press, Harvard, 2013, pp. 353, Rs. 746.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 6 June 2016

This is a book by arguably one of the best historians of migration of today. It definitely lives up to the fact that it won the American Historical Association’s John F. Richards Prize in South Asian History. The work is of a high scholarly nature, yet it makes you want to read it like a novel reminding one of the narrative genius of the likes of Amitav Ghosh. It is a solid history of migrations around the Bay of Bengal but can be of interest to scholars of environment, geographers and cartographers, not to say to those who are interested in the region itself. Amrith’s tale of the Bay of Bengal begins from the sixth century to the present but is intertwined wonderfully with stories of struggle and the changing landscape around the bay. It is a book with free flowing chapters and no subheads so the reader of serious fiction may be lured by the enchanting stories as well. There are arresting photographs by the author that give you a sense of the history and geography of the time. The book is a work on art based on rich archival analysis from different libraries and special collections in London, Singapore, Kuala Lampur Yangon and in India, and oral histories and narratives of diasporic communities and people living all over the world but being connected in some way to the Bay of Bengal. In the Prologue to the book, the author lays the rationale for the focus on the Bay of Bengal. Just like it was in the 18th century, the Bay of Bengal is an arena for strategic competition between rising powers but instead of the powers being European, they are now Asian, namely, India and China. Secondly, the densely populated coast is home to nearly half a billion people living amidst economic as well as ecological transformations. Amrith contends that the history of the Bay of Bengal is the history of different religious groups, the Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists and the ebbs and flowing of many rivers, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Meghna, the Godavari, the Kaveri, the Krishna and the Salween. The book is also a history of migration and to quote the author ‘Now imagine the sea as a mental map: as a family tree of cousins, uncles, sisters, sons connected by letters and journeys and stories. Think of it as a sea of ...


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