Ramin Jahanbegloo has had an enviably productive year, and seen another new title out since the release of Talking History. It comes as no surprise then, to open this book and discover it is the eighth in a series, each one a collection of interviews conducted by him. Figures as diverse as Raj Rewal and Vandana Shiva, Richard Sorabji and Sudhir Kakar, get a volume each to report on the state of play in their respective fields: architecture, environmentalism, philosophy, psychoanalysis—to cite a sample of the range. Isaiah Berlin, whose conversational skills Jahanbegloo likens to Romila Thapar’s, has been a decisive influence in his writing life. A book of conversations with Berlin was an early landmark of his career, and he is presently engaged on a recognizably Berlin-like project: putting faces and life histories to ideas that are shaping the contemporary understanding of India. If Romila Thapar is an obvious choice to represent the field of Indian history, she is also in another sense an unorthodox one. Since completing her PhD thesis at London University in 1958,
later published as Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, her writings—with their variety of form, theme and treatment, their address to a broad audience and steady rate of appearance—have given her a public profile that academics in India rarely achieve. Alongside this stands her reputation as a teacher, a founding member of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1970, and recipient of numerous international honours. She is emphatically a public figure for the hate she has drawn from the Hindu Right, but also one about whom not a great deal is generally known. The conversations in Talking History are a departure from this reserve. They touch on her childhood, family and schooling, and go into the sort of personal details that it may not have occurred to her, unprompted, to share. Thapar’s fame also diverts attention from her rather unusual position in the community of historians. A catholic figure in the midst of Marxians, with a Left-liberal ambivalence on the whole about research based on identitarian standpoints (even the feminist one), and definitely cool towards postmodernism—she has ploughed her own furrow; it is nonetheless easy to lose sight of the minority position she has occupied in the academy. The only label she accepts with ease is that of a Nehruvian.
We see her upbringing in a thoroughly Nehruvian setting: an army officer’s daughter raised in various cantonments, with a family that combined Persian literacy with Hindu religiosity and agnosticism, Christian education and Muslim friends; and we learn some startling details, such as young Romila failing to clear her history subsidiary paper at Miranda House, having her application to enroll at Oxford rejected, and using the money earmarked for her dowry as a ‘fathership’ (in lieu of a scholarship) to go to SOAS in London. If such intimate divulgence seems uncharacteristic, so does the voice we encounter here: a crisp, humorous and light way with words and experience, far from the dry and altogether weightier style of her writing. The starchy impersonal pronoun, a great standby with her, is rarely sighted. The inhabitant of the pronoun shows as a fully fleshed out person but unchanged in essentials, especially every time her patrician tone revives. Here is Thapar praising the JNU admission policy: ‘A small percentage of students from economically underprivileged backgrounds could be admitted. This introduced awareness among teachers and students on the range of students that could have access to university education and made the Indian social reality more immediate.’ When the poor are presented not as heroic for making it that far, but merely as a spot of local colour in a postcolonial university visualized as an empire-style exhibition, it does come across as a bit unfeeling; except that smugness is a feeling. Readers left nonplussed by Thapar’s definition of the public intellectual in her famous lecture of two years ago, will recognize the outlook. She had maintained that the public intellectual must be an educated professional, implicitly ruling out any forest-dwelling tribal or rural activist’s claim to a place at the high table where the public good gets argued and settled.
Talking History is more than an intellectual biography; it is a survey of the historiography of India and of the career of one of its most remarkable historians. From the seventieth page onwards the conversation between Jahanbegloo and Thapar—joined by Neeladri Bhattacharya—turns to matters of fact and evidence, causation and interpretation, the nature thereof; the definition and usefulness (or otherwise) of concepts like culture, civilization, tradition and identity; the role of power and reason—indeed, their relationship—in the construction of an historical narrative. These abstract themes are treated by all three discussants with a lucidity that comes from experience and clear-headed articulation, but also from their being old friends together. The informality of the conversation allows for vivid asides and glimpses of Thapar’s progress, drifting by sheer good luck to a course on Chinese art in London and thence to excavation sites in China. Or landing her first job at the newly established Kurukshetra University when there was ‘only one building, no students, no library, half a dozen teachers, with six faculty houses.’
Thapar’s career spans the long, slow decline of colonial historiography in universities, the enthusiastic adoption of its assumptions by the Hindu Right, the heyday and eclipse of Marxian and nationalist treatments of the Indian past, and lately, the rise of postmodern perspectives. At the start of her career, history was a forensic craft. Young historians would engage with other disciplines, drawing on the resources of anthropology, philology, sociology, economics, and of course, archaeology; but for all that the processes of historical reasoning and the nature of its retrievals remained distinctive of the discipline. Today, the purposes of history are hard to tell from those of theory. History and historiography have fused fast, so that any writing must first clear a way for itself through a dense tangle of preliminaries, before taking up its own sources and immediate concerns. Amid these shifts, Thapar’s work has been broadly nonaligned in terms of intellectual vogue, while continually engaging with new inputs. Framing clear-cut questions which may then be refined or redefined has remained central to her method. Its rigour has certainly given much grief to the Hindu Right. When she takes up the facts of the case, say, in the matter of Somanatha, she utilizes textual evidence to show how the reportage of an event varies over time, even goes silent for stretches; and then she dates the construction of contemporary recall and identifies its sources. This is the nearest to an unassailable argument that may be encountered in the social sciences.
However, the social sciences are not in the business of closing a case. Neeladri Bhattacharya, Thapar’s former student and now an historian of colonial India, takes issue with the elitist bias towards establishing historical truth in laboratory conditions while the greater bulk of collective consciousness and popular tradition are discarded as having no evidentiary value. ‘Many in your generation […] are cursorily dismissive’ of postmodernism, he accuses. To which Thapar responds with perfect (and, to any postmodernist ear, no doubt maddening) reasonableness, ‘If all explanations are said to be of equal value, then this argument nullifies the entire enterprise of research and reduces it to a valueless exercise,’ and, ‘[A]s to its being a new approach to knowledge, unfortunately I found it took me nowhere. I suppose some brave heart could do a postmodernist deconstruction of all the texts I had used in my study of the narratives on Shakuntala, but I refrained from doing this exercise as I realized that the counter-narrative this might produce would have little to do with what I was researching.’ This is probably not a disagreement that two historians have ever settled to common satisfaction. Quiet thrusts and parries continue, surfacing from time to time—must time be seen as linear, always? Yes, for if we see ourselves in cyclical time, we must accept the idea of kaliyuga, of the world resting on the back of a bull now balanced on one leg. And of impending catastrophe, whether tomorrow or a few thousand years later. And how should we measure that span without linear time?
In 1962, Ved Mehta came out with Fly and the Fly Bottle, his survey of British historiography, through interviews with the leading, the up and coming, and passed over historians of the day. In Romila Thapar, Jahanbegloo has a subject just as rich. To undergraduates, their long-suffering teachers and anyone wishing to understand the different treatments of history that make up so much of the noise and sanity of our times, Talking History is the answer to a prayer.
Salim Yusufji is a former school teacher currently writing a work of fiction.
… anyone wishing to understand the different treatments of history that make up so much of the noise and sanity of our times, Talking History is the answer to a prayer.