‘The Future in the Past’ review: Romila Thapar’s quests to connect history with tomorrow
What do we owe history? Some may say everything and others may find it easier to walk by unbothered, leaving the question unanswered, like it has been for decades. Romila Thapar attempts to answer this question and many others in The Future in the Past: Essays and Reflections (Aleph Book Company), a selection of essays from the last 60 years of her academic pursuit.
First published in the Seminar magazine founded by her brother Romesh Thapar and his wife, Raj, the essays exemplify Romila Thapar’s legacy: that of observing, understanding and explaining History — and under its umbrella, culture, language, religion and tradition — through an empirical lens.
History writing and interpretations of the past
Ninety-one years old and married only to academia, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) professor emeritus has authored more than 30 books, each a homage and testimony to India’s forgotten past.
In 20 substantial essays, across five themes viz. History, Contemporary Times, Epics, Renunciation and Dissent, and Education, Thapar addresses the disconnect between the past, present, and future, dispels misconceptions about the advent of Aryans and the practice of Sati, emphasizes the socio-economic realities behind ideologies, expresses concerns about the decline of public intellectuals, and advocates for the true essence of secularism — the freedom to assert one’s rights regardless of their religion.
Her lifelong work on Ancient Indian history and Hinduism corroborates and reflects in the depths of these essays. The sole purpose of The Future in the Past, as seems the purpose of Romila Thapar’s life and career, is to evoke a sense of logic, to minimise our tendency of creating and believing theories, and to open the closed eyes, ears and minds of the nation.
As one reads through the book, an old proverb comes to mind — “History repeats itself” — and while it may not exactly be a replay, history does exist as a residual; as a quiet reminder of our collective pasts — in our traditions, cultures, languages, religions, museums and textbooks. The Future in the Past not only explores the plurality of these reminders, but also addresses their individuality. Beginning with evolution of history and history writing, it goes on to indicate the various (and often, partial or simplified) interpretations of the past — differentiating the right from wrong.
History as a weapon of mobilization
Briefly, the book gravitates towards what one might call a modern Nietzschean call of history is dead and we have killed it, only to reinstate our faith by clarifying an age-old obsession with glorifying one version of history over many others and taking the dust off of the established but overlooked archaeological and linguistic evidence.
In a conscious and interactive attempt to discover India’s lamented and layered past, Thapar mourns what History has become today — a state-sponsored, misused weapon of mobilization — and hopes for social ethics to return, in the form of tolerance, inclusivity and co-existence that Indian spirit claims to stand for.
The opening essay, ‘In Defence of History,’ is a revised version of the one published in 2003, during the NDA-I rule, when the NCERT school textbooks in history were attacked by the then government as being ‘anti-Indian, anti-national, and anti-Hindu.’ Thapar writes that it was an attempt to negate the ‘historian’s history’ — written by professional historians in the 1960s and 1970s — and replace it with ‘fantasies of the past as imagined by Hindutva’.
She juxtaposes this with the current regime’s efforts, at multiple levels, to rewrite history. “Basic to the Hindutva interpretation of history is the attempt to give a single definition to Indian culture, the roots of which are said to lie in Vedic foundations. This annuls the notion of a multicultural society. It destroys the sensitive and variant relations that have existed throughout Indian history between dominant cultures and subordinate cultures and between the focus of a central culture and that of regional cultures.
This sensitivity is particularly important today in forging cultural identities that are subcontinental but at the same time incorporate the articulations of the region. These are the demands of a federal or near federal polity,” she writes, underlining how that justice to historical accuracy has been long overdue.
Citing historically, geographically and culturally relevant instances from pre-Vedic to Vedic eras, from mythological epics to their regional connotations, from colonial periods to contemporary instances of dissent and their political and ignorant dismissal, the book carefully traces History, Geography and Culture of the past, present and future.
Origin, context, dissent, language, literature, intellectual independence, patronage, caste, racial purity, politicization, religion, are some of the keywords one runs into while navigating Thapar’s words, as she eliminates (with reason) the old, inconsequential Eurocentric/upper-caste portrayals and practices.
History of women and women of history
Amidst the common denominators of history, Thapar also reserves a space for history of women and women of history. In between the Aryan question, the truth of Mahabharata, the past of language, the aspirations of museums and the responsibilities of an academic, we find the question of women’s right to life and property, the value of her honour and sacrifice over a man’s, and her agency in pursuing them. Thapar elaborates on the descent of matriarchy and matrilineage, and the practice and purpose of Sati; and argues that there is, and always has been, more than what meets the eye.
“A historical moment is never a static condition. It is constantly moving from past into the present, anticipating the future,” writes Thapar in an essay titled ‘Continuous Beginnings’, an earlier version of which was first published in 1984, speaking holistically of the essence and intent of the book in question.
Revised and appropriated as per the demands of the times, there lies a simple appeal at the core of these essays — for the common man more than anyone else — an appeal to see through the narratives of the past and to reflect on their true meanings today. It is easily a stimulating and insightful read, even for the uninitiated reader. If given the chance, everyone — students, educators, historians, politicians, priests, parents — should read these essays for information if not for propagation.
I opened with a question and I must end with one too: Who owns history? Those who live and create it or those who observe and write it in hindsight? You will find the answer in Thapar’s essays and reflections.