Romila Thapar is the big name among historian in India. She has been responsible for the history we read in school. I have personally not read any of her books and even missed her courses at Goa University. However, I must have read her as part of my NCERT books used by CBSE schools. I have read criticism about her work, especially from the Right Wing. So, when this book Talking History came up for review, I wanted to hear Romila Thapar first hand – what she says about history and history writing.
Talking History, The conversation begins with some biographical questions that introduce us to the person Romila Thapar is. Born in the 1930s in an elite Punjabi family where her father and grandfather worked for the British Government – she led a simple and protected life. One would assume as a witness of freedom struggle and independence, she would have some memories to share. But she mostly remembers her school in Pune where she was at the time of independence. She studied literature and then history. She interacted with the whos who of Indian historians including Basham.
Her first claim to fame came when her first book on Ashoka was applauded by PM Nehru. In her bitterness, she says such a courtesy would not come from present PM. Similarly, she is critical of S P Gupta who organized History and Culture society to counter the leftist narrative of Indian History.
In the ‘function of the historian’ section of the book, Romila Thapar quotes Hobsbawm – History is to Nationalism, what poppy is to opium addict. It helps in crafting of an identity. All nationalisms need one period in the past that is believed to be the utopia that they hope will return. I thought that is an interesting thought.
I liked her thoughts in historical sources – how they must be explored with the context they have been written for. Remember I attended a course by her student Kumkum Roy and she brought it out very well in scriptures like Manu Smriti, Kamasutra, Arthashastra & Jataka Tales. Thapar also talks about referring to the multiple sources of texts. However, she restricts herself to the written text only totally discounting the oral history or the non-written history. Why should you ignore things that are not written, especially when you are writing early history when writing was not what it is today. Does writing add authenticity to the story?
There is a lovely discussion on ‘History is a dialogue between the past and the present‘. So, the same history would be written differently in different eras. It is interesting what we see in say epics in various eras – a kind of reflection of the times. She explains it via an example of the portrayal of Shakuntala – how it has changed from the epic times to colonial times – every time dropping something that is not acceptable to the current society.
Romila Thapar talks about icons of history – how they go from significance to insignificance to greater significance. For example, the symbols that Ashoka left us, lost significance for a long time till they gained greater significance post India’s independence.
She talks about historical exchanges in the past. I liked the question – Did the Persians learn Sanskrit or the Indians learn Persian for trade and court exchanges. I think this is one area of history that needs greater exploration – how did the language exchange happen in the past, especially for traders who were participating in global trade.
She refers to Sanskrit Vamshavalis time and again. I wish she had spoken about them in detail somewhere.
She mentions in 1942, Gandhi was at Yerwada Prison. I am sure she knows he was living at Aga Khan Palace and not in Yerwada.
She argues that Hinduism, as we know it today, is just about 100 years old. This is where she has an obvious conflict with the right-wing historians. She is obviously vehemently against the idea of a Hindu Rashtra. Her strong views on it, even at places where they have not been asked for tell you how driven she is.
At one place Romila Thapar says – she is attacked because she is a woman by the people who do so because it is mentioned in Manu Dharamshastra. Really??
She says that Kalhana in Rajatarangini mentions – Hindu kings looting rich temples and desecrating idols because of the fiscal crisis in Kashmir. Ironic that she mentions Hindu Kings from a 12th CE text and then says Hinduism dates to early 20th CE.
What I really liked about Talking History is the interview style conversation as a book. It kind of addresses the subjects very well. Romila Thapar is quite an articulate person and she does not speak with ambiguity, Wherever, she does skip the question, the interviewers do bring back the question sometimes by paraphrasing it. The conversations gave me a lot of windows to explore in history writing. It made me conscious of the things I must keep in mind when I read a history book next time or when I write about something historical. However, it also made me aware of the biases that a historian carries and how they slip into her work.
Read Talking History to know a bit about history writing and an interesting format of Interview Books.
- Buddha and Dr. Fuhrer by Charles Allen
- Brahmi – Re-Discovering the Lost Script
- Empires of the Indus by Alice Albinia
- Finding Forgotten Cities by Nayanjot Lahiri
- Indian Art by Vidya Dehejia