Volga se Ganga is the most popular book of Rahul Sankrityayan (1893–1963), explorer-traveller and one of the founding members of the Communist Party of India in Bihar. It is a genre-defying work of historical fiction that seeks to track the migration of peoples from the bank of the Volga in 6000 BCE to the banks of the Ganga in 1942, the year it first came out. It takes the reader through the evolution of Indo-European culture and politics over this 8,000-year period with stories that leap across centuries. Volga se Ganga has been translated across languages, Indian and foreign, but this edition, for the first time, brings together all twenty chapters in English.
Below are some important excerpts from the book.
Volga se Ganga: Themes
How to read Volga se Ganga? How does one comprehend a work of ‘fiction’ that encompasses 8,000 years of human history, attempting all the while a fidelity to a historical vision in adherence to facts then believed to be true and accessible to a non-specialist? The problem is but obviously exacerbated by the fact that history as a discipline is constantly evolving fresh models and narratives in the light of fresh facts.
A kind of frame that might help us navigate this text is expressed in the following alliterative trio : migrations (of peoples, ideas, and cultural forms, which it traces), maps (which it redraws by virtue of opening up an alternative ‘route’ to accessing modern India), and miscegenation (which it celebrates in both its genetic and culturallinguistic variants). Needless to say, the three ‘M’s overlap and are merely offered here as suggestive modes for a possible reading of this rambling, rich romp through a massive swathe of history.
For this lively book wears its learning and its mission lightly, exhibiting a fertile, sensuous, and playful imagination at work. It was meant to be a simplified version of his book Manav Samaj (‘Human Society’) which he intended to be ‘a scientific survey of social evolution’. Here, Sankrityayan says, he intended to ‘give a simpler picture, and make the outline easier to grasp’ (Author’s Preface to the first Hindi edition). Given the burden that history has to bear in narratives of national mythmaking, the book was expectedly received as iconoclastic in certain quarters. There was even a call for it to be banned, but his extraordinary erudition had earned him the title of ‘Mahapandit’ in Sanskrit from Kashi pandits, and his proficiency in other classical languages such as Pali, Tibetan, Chinese, and Persian, rendered him a formidable opponent. So, the call was unsuccessful.
Volga se Ganga rests on an unusually wide range of travel, reading, and active politics, assimilated and presented in a readable format by a public-spirited intellectual passionately committed to shaping a new, progressive, India. As history and narrative, it seeks to educate, entertain, and inspire; its target audience a Hindi-speaking, reasonably literate Indian who might get a sense of the past, present, and likely futures of a people in the throes of an anti-imperialist struggle at home, but also part of a global anti-fascist struggle.
Sankrityayan’s own ideological preferences – a secular, modern India which nevertheless maintains an affective connect with a rich, heterodox, cultural past – are apparent in the narrative’s choice of episodes and characters. While its status as fictionalized history absolves it of the responsibility of absolute historical verisimilitude, the shifting terrain of historiography itself (especially in the hotly contested understanding of the ‘Aryans’, a debate that has recently gathered heat due to the coincidence of new findings via scientific genetic research and a revival of older anxieties about national origins) renders any dismissal of its ‘lapses’ moot. The book’s strengths are what one would expect of a longue durée epic, warts and all. What’s most valuable here is a unique coming together of political, historical and philosophical vision and creative imagination. Sankrityayan, with characteristic humility born of ghumakkari as a kind of epistemic mode, writes this book as he does others – in the spirit of an ongoing, collective, search for understanding. As he puts it in his Preface, he is glad to be corrected, satisfied with his role as pioneer.
The book is ambitious in its range, historical and affective. It begins in 6000 bce with an unsentimental depiction of a mother drowning her own daughter in the Volga in a bitter power struggle. It is the beginning of the matrilineal clan but niceties such as the incest taboo have not yet entered the human domain. After this initial shock to the senses, the remaining early chapters, which owe much to Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, tend to be celebratory of matrilineal clans and ‘primitive communism’. As human beings evolve finer emotions, romance enters relationships and the book teems in them, often in the form of star crossed lovers enacting historical and social conflicts across time. Eros, in fact, emerges in the narrative as a revolutionary force. Story after story gives to young lovers lines that challenge the status quo, be it in questioning the logic of war, or the prevalence of communal or religions divides. In each era, the presence of slavery, poverty, and the suppression of women are especially prominent as markers of societal backwardness and are clearly marked as such in a fairly straightforward pedagogic manner. As the narrative moves into periods of recorded history, a galaxy of known names figure in the drama, intermixed with invented ones. Dress, food, and modes of hospitality from the many cultures and regions that have fed the civilization we call India today receive special attention, bringing the past come alive in vivid detail. However, debates about political systems and transformative possibilities run like a thread, clearly indicating the larger narrative intent. In the course of the narration, later inventions of India’s ‘authentic’ or ‘pure’ cultural pasts get demolished and are exposed as anachronistic interpolations. India is seen, as Nehru famously also has it, as a palimpsest. We meet characters from Persepolis and Athens, while Swat, Tajikistan, Gandhar, Panchal are action zones. Taxila’s Naagdatt debates ‘dharm’ and the forms of government with Chanakya. In Ayodhya, a young Ashvghosh romances a Greek girl Prabha as he writes the first Indian play Urvashi Viyog, borrowing freely from Greek dramaturgical practices. (The revered Buddhist Ashvghosh, author of Buddhcharit is given a pre-history that is somewhat more ‘secular’, decidedly more romantic.) Buddhist philosophers Dingnag and Vasubandhu make an appearance, and Dharmkirti and Naagarjun are subjected to a comparative analysis in terms of the political implications of their views. Later, we meet Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar, Birbal, Abul Fazal and Todar Mall hanging out together (disguised as commoners ‘Jalua’, ‘Fazla’, ‘Biru’, and ‘Todu’!), joking and discussing the finer points of statecraft and religion, even as Todar Mall’s son and Abul Fazal’s daughter enact yet another star-crossed romance. A few centuries later, we meet a grandson of the king of Banaras in England, discussing with his English girlfriend Annie Russell, among other matters, his friend Karl Marx’s views on India and the relative freedom of women in the two countries. Gandhi, Ambedkar and Marx inform the conversation in the last chapter, as its protagonist, Sumer, a Dalit, debates his, the nation’s, and the world’s future with his friends on a summer evening in a park in Patna. Sumer, as it turns out, will die flying a fighter plane downing fascist Japanese planes, contemplating high in the air the dubious journey of man’s progress from the Stone Age to the rise of fascism. The year is 1942.
The question that plagues Sumer, and most of the young protagonists in the book, is still with us in 2019. And Sankrityayan’s miscegenated history of the region arguably speaks to us with greater urgency than it did in his own time.
Think, if that energy had not been rolling into every nook and corner threatening to transform the world, the British would not have passed the Rowlatt Act; if there had been no Act, Gandhi would not have given a call to the people to rise against it; if there had been no call, the fires that have been damped down since 1857 would not have blazed up again today. You see what I meant by saying that we are definitely entering a new epoch of revolutions?’
‘Then you consider Gandhi a revolutionary leader? How can you think that of a man who follows in the steps of Naram Dal leaders like Gokhale, brother Saffu?’
‘I don’t call every action or idea of Gandhi revolutionary. I call his work revolutionary in so far as he has tried to rouse the ordinary people, who form the potential revolutionary force. His religious vapourings – especially about the Khilafat movement – I regard as counterrevolutionary humbug. I think his notion of abandoning machinery and returning to the past is also an effort to put the clock back and the same applies to his talk of closing down schools and colleges.’
‘God bless you, Safdar! I was beginning to hold my breath, when you went on praising Gandhi! I was wondering whether you too were going to tell me that schools and colleges are the Devil’s workshops!’
‘Our methods of teaching may have many faults; but our modern schools and colleges put us in touch with science, and without science human life today is impossible. Whenever we get our freedom, science will have a special part to play. Population is growing day by day and its future welfare will depend on science; to give up science and go backwards would be suicide. To close our schools and colleges and open spinning and weaving centres instead would take us straight back into the Dark Ages. But to appeal to students to become revolutionaries is not a bad thing, you must admit that, Shankar.’
‘Oh, yes! And what about other kinds of boycott?’
‘Boycotting the law-courts is all right; it is a means of showing our foreign rulers our strength and our discontent. And the boycott of British goods is a slap in the face to British capitalists, and helps native enterprise.’
‘Safdar, I see you have moved pretty far already!’
‘Not yet, but I want to.’
‘You want to?’
‘Tell me first : are we passing through a revolutionary epoch, or are we not?’
‘Brother Saffu, I have been asking you a lot of questions, just to draw you out. But the moment I heard of the Russian Revolution, I began to hunt high and low for communist literature and study it, and still more to think about my own problems from the communist point of view. I believe that this is the way to happiness for India and for the world. I have only been held back by uncertainty as to whether Gandhi’s non-cooperation could fulfil its grand object or not; but when you made me think of the people just now as the backbone of revolution, my uncertainty vanished. I don’t believe that Gandhi is capable of organizing a revolution, Safdar, to speak frankly, but I do believe the people can do it. In 1857 the fallen feudalists got a lot of our people behind them with their nonsense of greased cartridges and “religion in danger”, but today the people are more interested in questions of bread and butter. I think this agitation is right; the revolutionary slogan is right, and even if later on Gandhi shows his
real face, he will not be able to turn the current of revolution.’ ‘That is why I have decided to join in the struggle, and become a non-cooperator.’
‘My name is Sumer; I am a fifth-year student at Patna College.’
‘And I am Rambalak Ojha. I had also been a student at the Patna
College sometime in the past but already more than twenty years
have passed since then. A friend of mine insisted, otherwise I would
have entered the non-cooperation movement without completing my
master’s degree. Anyway, even if that were the case, I would have no
regrets. For some years I have started realizing that the education in
these schools and colleges is useless.’
‘Then you must have forgotten all that education?’
‘I wish I would have, I would have turned into a blank page again.
In that case I would have known the truth better.’
‘You mean you would have followed a blind belief instead of
following your intellect.’
‘Do you consider following belief bad, Sumer Babu?’
‘I am not any Babu, Ojhaji. I am the son of a poor Chamar. I do
not own an inch of land. I did have some, but the feudal lord forcibly converted it into his orchard. My mother somehow earns her living by working as a maid. It was only a noble man’s kindness and then the receipt of a scholarship for studies that made me come this far. Now you can understand I do not deserve to be addressed as Babu.’
‘You can take it as my habit Sumerji but I am so pleased with our acquaintance with each other today. You can understand how great this follower of Gandhiji would have felt seeing a Harijan youth working so hard!’
‘Ojhaji, I would like to prolong our conversation cordially but would prefer you to know my differences beforehand. I strongly abhor the word “Harijan”. I consider this a dogmatic title that pulls India back into the darkness of her ancient past and Gandhiji – the worst enemy of my community.’
‘Don’t you recognize Gandhiji’s favours to your community?’
‘I recognize his favours only as much as a worker should recognize the favours of his factory owner.’
‘Gandhiji does not favour the factory owners.’
‘What else could it mean when he calls the landlords, the capitalists and the kings as great protectors – “guardians”? Gandhiji showers his love on us fearing that we may renounce Hinduism. His “fast unto death” at Pune was aimed at the same : that we may not create our own state, independent of the Hindus. The Hindus needed cheap slaves and for thousands of years our community has been fulfilling that need. Back then we were called das, and now by naming us Harijan, Gandhiji wants to do us a favour. Perhaps this Hari has been our biggest enemy after the Hindus. You can understand why we would not like to be the children of such a god?’
‘So you don’t believe in God either?’
‘In response to what favour? For thousands of years we have been treated worse than animals and considered honourless untouchables in the name of the same God of the Hindus which kept on incarnating himself for minor reasons, riding on mythical chariots; but our women kept on getting molested for hundreds of generations. We kept on getting sold like cattle in the markets and in the funfairs of Sonepur; even today getting abused, beaten and starved is considered God’s favour to us. To hell with such a god who did not bother to move even after seeing all this.’