Thinking Through Water: An Interview with Sunil S. Amrith

Sunil S. Amrith
Content Type
Commentary and Analysis
The Toynbee Prize Foundation
“The history of water,” writes Sunil S. Amrith, “shows that nature has never truly been conquered.” Nature is a dynamic presence in Amrith’s oeuvre. As a historian of South and Southeast Asia, his research engages the spaces, movements, and processes of a uniquely Indian Oceanic region. The worlds recounted by Amrith are often ones marked by the ambitions of empires and polities, the mass migration of human labour, and indeed, the furies of nature itself. In his latest book, Unruly Waters, Amrith shows how “the schemes of empire builders, the visions of freedom fighters, the designs of engineers—and the cumulative, dispersed actions of hundreds of millions of people across generations—have transformed Asia’s waters over the past two hundred years.” It testifies to the dreams that societies have often pinned to water, as well as its unwieldy and turbulent nature. In his account of “the struggle for water” and control over the Asian monsoon, we come to understand how climate change exacerbates a problem both already in-progress and connected to histories of “reckless development and galloping inequality.” Sunil S. Amrith is presently the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian History at Harvard University. He was the 2017 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship. From July 2020, Amrith will be the Dhawan Professor of History at Yale University. His most recent book publications include: Unruly Waters: How Rains, Rivers, Coasts, and Seas Have Shaped Asia's History (Basic Books and Penguin UK, 2018), Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (Harvard University Press, 2013), and Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2011). In this conversation, we discuss the role of water, nature, and inequality vis-à-vis history; the fields of global and environmental history; and lastly, some of the thoughts and practices that underlay the historian’s craft.
Globalization, History, Water, Oceans and Seas
Political Geography
Asia, Global Focus