Republication of veteran historian’s contributions to ‘Seminar’ in book form is a cause for celebration
GN Bureau | June 24, 2023
The Future in the Past: Essays and Reflections
By Romila Thapar
Aleph, 336 pages, Rs 999
Romila Thapar, now in her nineties, is our pre-eminent historian and public intellectual. When she was a young student, and Indian democracy too was young, her brother, Romesh Thapar, and his wife, Raj, launched a monthly journal of ideas, ‘Seminar’. Over the decades, as it emerged as India’s most respected journal for public debate on a large range of issues, she has remained a regular contributor. Now Aleph has collected all her “essays and reflections”, first published in ‘Seminar’, in a book.
‘The Future in the Past’ brings together essays by Romila Thapar on issues and ideas that have preoccupied her throughout her career. These are subjects that surfaced frequently in discussions over the last six decades as they do even more so at present. Among them are the use and misuse of history, the myths surrounding the coming of the Aryans, religious fundamentalism in the study of society, the overt and the insidious attempts by right-wing elements to pervert Indian culture, variants of the Ramayana, the importance of museums, why dissent is important to democracy, the role of the public intellectual, and much more. Central to the arguments in these essays is an analysis of how the past permeates the present and influences the future.
While much of her writing is accessible to non-specialist readers, essays in this collection are especially meant for a wider readership and wider themes – under six sections: history, contemporary times, epics, renunciation and dissent, museums and education.
For those of us who have not read her authoritative academic works, such as ‘From Lineage to State’, ‘Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas’, ‘Early India: From Origins to AD 1300’, and ‘History of India: Part I’, this collection provides an ideal introduction. Since many of the themes – about Indians’ historical identity, for example – have become all the more relevant in contemporary politics, several essays in this collection make essential reading for our times.
As Thapar notes in the preface, “Reading the articles that I wrote over the last fifty years, I am struck by how topical the issues remain. Have we therefore stood still, or have we only inched forward, or am I missing the wood for the trees? These topics are significant in today’s India as some are still hovering over us, some remind us that we have not achieved what we set out to seventy-five years ago, and some show us the changes, although we may not recognize them—or for that matter where they are unpalatable, we may try not to recognize them.”
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