There is a photograph of Romila Thapar smiling that you see as you open the book. She is sitting at the entrance of a cave site in Maijishan in China and it was taken when she was a twenty-six year old postgraduate student. Most of her reading public and scores of her students would be unfamiliar with any such image of her. Indeed, apart from enjoying the novelty of such an image, most of her followers will also be delighted with the content of the book which is so very different from her academic work. It is a private diary that she kept during her visit to China in 1957 that she has now decided to share with her reading public.
Romila confesses the feelings of doubt that confronted her in deciding to publish such a personal diary more than sixty years after it was written. There was a different world that existed at the time, not only in India but also in the places she travelled through including Moscow and Beijing. She explains in her preface ‘…I wondered whether it was worth publishing as these were observations on being in China sixty two years ago…for me it is an entirely new way of looking at the past, quite different from my usual historical studies.’ In that other world in her diary, Nehru and Zhou Enlai were Prime Ministers and Rajinder Prasad and Mao Zedong were the heads of their states. And yet, as we read on, we slip into that different world easily as Romila takes us with her on her journey to their eventual destination in Xi’an district where the Dunhuang caves are located, and then the return journey. Almost half the diary is taken up with the account of the journey of getting to inner China and this is fascinating for us to read about today. We have got so used to taking for granted that we can take flights to whatever destination comes to mind. When one considers the number of aircraft hops she and her team had to take followed by innumerable train journeys after which came the travel by jeep and truck, one is reminded of the accounts of 19th century British travellers exploring the Himalayas. As we read the descriptions of Moscow, Beijing and the Chinese countryside, during her travel, it is as if no details about the world she was passing through esaped her attention. There are vivid accounts of the cities they passed through, the hotels they stayed at, the food they ate, the clothes of the people she saw and met, the architecture in the streets, even metro stations. Such meticulous attention to so many aspects of life in this part of Asia makes the diary a very valuable document of a world that no longer exists, particularly as seen through Asian eyes.
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