Lament for a time that was

There is a story that, once upon a time, when our land was young and full of hope, there flowed a rich and diverse river, a mainstream that burbled and spoke in many literal and metaphorical languages, that was made broad and wide by its many sources. It spoke of liberalism and secularism, of ways in which we could live and grow together despite our differences, enrich one another, in fact, by those very differences. This mainstream has slowly but surely been dammed (and damned) by the aggressive projects of religious and cultural nationalism, which have turned it into a muddy trickle, barely visible, sludgy and slow.

For those of us who refuse to give up our imperilled stream for the clear and rushing waters of chauvinism, the idea of “reviewing" a book by Romila Thapar is patently ridiculous. We will find only the good, the true, and the beautiful in her work.

Thapar ranks among the great historians of her generation and her many awards, most significantly, the Library of Congress’ Kluge Prize, demonstrate that the impact and worth of her scholarship extends far beyond the borders of the subcontinent. What has always been regarded as Thapar’s stellar capacity for systematic analysis, rigorous scholarship and inspired insight has now been distilled into wisdom—the wisdom that can only come from a great scholar who remains engaged with her subject and has a political position from which she apprehends the world.

The Past is Present—Forging Contemporary Identities Through History: Aleph Book Company, 329 pages, Rs 595
The Past is Present—Forging Contemporary Identities Through History: Aleph Book Company, 329 pages, Rs 595

As with their publication On Hinduism by Wendy Doniger, here, too, the Aleph Book Company brings together in a single volume essays that cover a scholar’s life work, a compendium of the ideas and arguments that have come to define her intellectual legacy as well as public persona. In these careful collations of hitherto scattered writings and talks, the interested reader is able to elicit underlying themes and concerns, consider the impact of the scholar’s contributions to the field of study and beyond, to see for themselves how individual and collective ideas have developed and changed in response to new information, contexts and circumstances.

The Past As Present presents the reader with such sections as “History And the Public", “Concerning Religion And History", “Debates", and “Our Women—Then And Now". Not only do these sections indicate Thapar’s abiding concerns in almost six decades of academic and public discourse, they are a pictogram of our times. It is quite astounding how relevant and contemporary these debates and arguments remain. Because Thapar’s scholarly agenda has remained consistent, the reader eager for new information may find some of the framing material repetitive and some of the arguments reiterated in different essays. No matter. What Thapar has to say is worth reading more than once.

Of course, the dominant theme of the book is how we choose to construct ourselves as Indians and how we use the past (equally a construction but with firmer and more slippery grounds upon which it can be founded) to do so. Clearly, the crucial element here is choice: We choose the histories that make us who we want to be. This reminder could not be more urgent, given how religious identities have come to be seen as primary and relations between religious groups have been politicized through readings of ostensibly “historical facts".

Thapar argues clearly and cogently for why some theories of the past are more plausible than others, such as why it is more likely that the so-called Aryans drifted into the north-western part of the subcontinent in a series of slow migrations rather than spread westwards from India, or why it is highly unlikely that the historical occurrence of the Mahabharat war can be dated to 3012 BC. She is able to do this by combining the vast amounts of evidence at her disposal, from such sources as archaeology and texts and philology, with her experience as a reader of signs. Thapar is all the more persuasive because her historical narratives are peppered with some good, old-fashioned common sense.

This volume as a whole is also a clear-eyed review of historiography itself, of how the thinking about history, its sources and its uses and its compulsions, has changed over the last six decades. Thapar makes a strong case for her beloved discipline’s enrichment through its engagement and conversations with other social sciences and areas of study, most notably social anthropology and economic history. It is to our great advantage, as readers of this volume, that Thapar’s own career as a historian has been contemporaneous with, in fact a veritable mirror to, the changing historiography of and in the subcontinent—passing through so-called indigenous histories which were replaced by colonial histories, only to be challenged in turn by nationalist histories which have now themselves become sites of contention.

What takes this volume out of the realm of mere history is what lies beneath the surface of the newly packaged essays. Yes, there is a quiet lament for a time that was, a time of free scholarship and speech, of open and informed debate, of a quest for knowledge rather than a stampede for utilitarian information. Perhaps her glasses are too tinted with rose as she recalls those times, but Thapar provides a compelling blueprint for what a liberal democracy can be with her sustained criticism of what has happened to our research institutions and the quality of our public discourse, her concern about the clear and present dangers of scholarship in the service of divisive political agendas, her warning about the attractions of increasingly narrow and unidimensional markers of identity.

Thapar’s projection of what the new political, religious and cultural histories imply for 21st century India should alarm everyone. All it takes to hear the bells toll is for us to realize that we stand to lose more than we gain when we dam the rivers of pluralism that flow into the ocean of (hi)stories.

Arshia Sattar is a scholar, translator and writer based in Bangalore.

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