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India and Faraway Lands: 5,000 Years of Connected History

‘A great way to learn about your country is to leave it’ —Henry Rollins, American singer

The recent publishing of my book India and Faraway Lands: 5,000 Years of Connected History marked the culmination of my long-standing quest for understanding India’s past in a wider global context. The seeds of my curiosity were sown over 27 years ago when I arrived in the United States as a graduate student from India.

For the first time in my life, I met students from places as far afield as Iceland, Spain, Japan, Egypt, and Brazil. The exchange of diverse perspectives sparked my interest in the cultures of different parts of the world. Like any other student from India, I would often ponder over life in India versus life in America, East versus the West, and the old world versus the new world.

India – a golden past

With the image of India’s golden past firmly entrenched in my mind since childhood, I wanted to understand how, when, and why it fell so far behind. Wading through bookstores and museums over the years, I stumbled upon obscure yet intriguing historical connections between India and other corners of the globe. For instance, I was even to connect a chain of events spread over 2,000 years and multiple continents, tracing a continuity of educational traditions from the ancient city of Taxila all the way to Harvard University.

The realization that the rise of the West is a relatively recent phenomenon in the 5,000 years of world history opened new vistas of inquiry.

Ashutosh Mehndiratta

The story of the outside

I realized the histories of India were often confined to India’s boundaries, missing a vital component: the story of the ‘outside’ or the ‘other side’, leaving the overall picture somewhat truncated and incomplete.

The history of the British in India, for instance, began with their merchant ships landing in Surat, Gujarat in 1608. But it was around the same time that they had also landed in North America and established their first colony in Jamestown, Virginia (1607).

What was going on in Britain in those days? What did the British merchants and colonists know about India and the Americas before they set sail from the shores of their tiny island nation? Who were the people who made these bold ventures possible? And why did they wait for more than a hundred years to sail out to these lands when Italian explorer Christopher Columbus had landed in the Americas in 1492 and Portuguese voyager Vasco da Gama had reached India in 1498?

Rediscovering India

When I returned to India in 2006, after being away for eleven years, I was keen to rediscover the homeland and traveled from the Himalayan town of Leh up north to the historic city of Madurai down south. UNESCO World Heritage sites like Sanchi and Ajanta Caves were breathtaking and bound to make even an uninterested visitor pause and imagine life in India over 2,000 years ago. And yet, they were often missing on must-visit places of Indian travelers.

Likewise, history museums all over India were consistently empty and dull. The common folk’s understanding of foreign lands, peoples, and cultures seemed rather superficial while age-old stereotypes continued to flourish despite all the buzz around globalization. My experiences motivated me to build upon what I had learned and write a story of our global past for the lay reader.

Shortlisted for Bangalore Literature Festival

My plans got further traction when my book idea was shortlisted at the Bangalore Literature Festival in 2018, providing me an opportunity to pitch it to a panel comprising several leading publishers. It took another four years of research, writing, and multiple rounds of editing before the book saw the light of day.

India and Faraway Lands is unique in multiple ways – it recounts the history of the West from an Eastern lens; and deviating from the standard chronological order, it starts with the relatable modern times and moves backward. Readers are offered a nuanced historical view of outsiders and the outside world, helping move away from simplistic binaries like rapacious outsiders vs virtuous natives or East-good West-bad.

‘India and Faraway Lands’ retells the evolution of the U.S. Europe, Central Asia, Far East the Middle East, and provides a context often missing in conventional histories of India. The book recounts travelers’ accounts of the first interaction between the East and the West, once glorious cities, and books that changed the course of history. It expertly fills the gap where the stories of India and the world are juxtaposed.

Available on Amazon:

Paperback version is available in India:

Ashutosh Mehndiratta was born and raised in New Delhi. He holds an MBA from the University of Alabama and has had a long career in consulting and the technology industry. He has lived in the US, India,...