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Lunch with BS: Romila Thapar

A question of learning

Rrishi Raote & Kanika Datta  |  New Delhi 


The isn’t fazed by the questioning of her views on

Entire blogs have been devoted to Romila Thapar describing her as, among things, the “High Priestess of Indian Marxism” and “a flat-earth type” and a “deeply mendacious enemy of the Hindus”.

Vituperative anti-blogs, most of it of a saffron shade, about Thapar’s “pinko” views on ancient Indian history leave her wryly amused. She’s had her fill of public opprobrium, including threatening late night phone calls suggesting she alter her views on Indian history or face the worst, she tells Rrishi Raote and Kanika Datta. “They stopped after a while when I told them there were many people who thought like me,” she says.

We are dining at Sakura, a tony Japanese restaurant in Hotel Metropolitan in central Delhi, that Thapar has chosen. She belies her 78 years with a healthy appreciation for food and drink and, for such a towering figure in academia, displays a comforting lack of gravitas.

Dressed simply in a sari and warm pheran, a trendily outsized amber and silver ring is her only jewellery. She’s surprised when she learns that it’s the height of fashion now. “I didn’t know that,” she says, slipping if off to allow us a closer inspection, “This is an old one that I bought in St Petersburg years ago. It’s just a very solid piece of Baltic amber. My rings are all solid and bulky because that’s the only jewellery I wear.”

Having arrived early, we’ve ordered two glasses of the moderately drinkable Riviera Red, and Thapar adds to that after the waiter says her first choice of an Australian Chardonnay isn’t available by the glass. I suggest ordering a bottle, but Thapar declines, saying she prefers hot sake, that deceptively innocuous Japanese rice wine, with the meal.

In December, Thapar was honoured with the prestigious $1 million Kluge Prize for the Study of Humanity in 2008, an endowment from a benefactor who made his money in Hollywood, which she shared with an old friend, Peter Brown, an equally towering historian who specialised in post-Roman and Byzantine history.

The Kluge prize is regarded as a sort of “Nobel” for disciplines such as history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology, religion and so on. It’s a fitting tribute for an academic whose secular and scholarly approach reoriented the study of ancient Indian history from both western, Orientalist and robust nationalist traditions.

Her 1960s book, the Penguin companion to Percival Spear’s history of medieval India and now a standard university text book, broke important new ground by studying primary sources — archeology, books, epigraphy (the study of inscriptions), numismatics (the study of coins) — to present a shift from the muscular “Golden Age” interpretation of teaching and research.

Thapar’s was among the first, for instance, to counter the conventional “oriental despot” view of Indian monarchy and demonstrate that the “Aryan” was a linguistic grouping, not a fair-skinned master race, that migrated to, and did not “invade”, north India and occasionally ate beef (this last point exercising Hindutva votaries the most).

Her reputation, though, was mostly confined to academic circles and generations of appreciative students at Jawaharlal Nehru University. It was only in the nineties after the destruction of the Babri Masjid, when she and several historians started criticising the “communal interpretation” of Indian history as a “monolithic” conflict between Hindus and Muslims that she attracted wider public attention.

The controversy stretched to the US where in 2004, strong letters of protest were written against her appointment as the first holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South by the US Library of Congress.

For Thapar, accepting the Kluge Prize is not without its ironies. In 2005, Thapar declined to accept a Padma Bhushan award, explaining in a letter to (then) President Abdul Kalam that she did not accept state awards but only those from academic institutions or those associated with her professional work.

The menus are handed out but we’re engrossed in conversation. We ’ re talking about the pluralism of Indian traditions — Buddhist, Jain, Brahmanical — and how they spread to south-east Asia through trade routes and ways. As a historian, she instinctively looks for historical trends in the mundane. She was telling us, for instance, about how the “ Wayang ” shadow puppet shows in Indonesia weave different local legends into the basic story of the rama-katha .

“One of the most interesting things I’ve found is the way this story lends itself to being the recipient of local cultures. It creates different cultures, so you have what we call many Ramayanas, with the changing adaptation of the stories.”

Her regret, she says, is that so much emphasis in modern times is put “only on the Valmiki version both in India and outside, that we’ve forgotten the fact that there were and are multiple versions.” What is interesting is not just that the Valmiki version travelled all over but “how people varied the story to express their concerns in their own versions”.

The waiters roll up with barely concealed impatience to take our orders. Having had a chance to study the menu before, we choose pork and lamb dishes, too complex to pronounce so we read out the numbers. Thapar, who jokingly declares herself “strictly non-vegetarian”, chooses a fish dish (titled “Chahan Non-Veg”) and we agree on a sushi platter to start with (inexplicably, the waiter tells us it costs Rs 3,400).

The sushi — a giant thali of 23 pieces — and sake arrive. Sushi has become common “fashion food” in Delhi, but Sakura’s platter lives up to the restaurant’s reputation. All of us eat with appetite, despite some manful struggles with chopsticks. Thapar has no such problems but wisely ignores the wasabi, the accompanying pungent green ginger paste that inevitably causes much embarrassed sniffling (as it did to one of us).

Since she’s a “controversial” historian in a country that is witnessing a resurgence of muscular patriotism we feel compelled to ask her views on India as a “future superpower” and the rise of Hindutva.

On the first, she says, “I think we’ve got a long way to go.” But more to the point, “America has behaved so outrageously in matters concerning the rest of the world that if this is written into being a superpower, one would not wish it for India.”

And Hindutva? “I think it has its roots in a certain extremist trend in Hindu religious nationalism, parallel to similar trends in some religions. It was less anti-colonial and one concern was with propagating the greatness of the Hindu past and Hindus to the exclusion of all else.” What disturbs her is the fact that this view of has had to “be given a certain shape and form as Hindutva that I think is not something that belongs to the Hindu tradition. But interestingly, few Hindus who belong to the Hindu tradition object to the activities of Hindutva publicly.”

The problem began with the British periodising Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British and maintaining that Hindus and Muslims were always antagonistic towards each other. “This cannot be sustained historically. But now this ideology is used for mobilising political power. Basically, the mobilisation is through appealing to Hindu sentiment.”

Which raises the issue of her rebuttal of the “Golden Age” theory — another point that rankled with historians of a religious nationalist persuasion. “Golden ages all over world in various histories were a fashion among nineteenth-century historians. Most historians of present times have given up the idea. Nationalist thinking didn’t pay enough attention to the implications of the description nor was any attempt made to define it in detail. They just went on saying ‘it was a marvellous age of harmony and prosperity’. It’s like today when one hears talk about India Shining; few analyse what it means and what the implications are for the Indian citizen.”

Given all this, how does she feel about the way history is taught in schools? “I think it’s dreadful in most schools. I’ve been arguing for a long time that we need an enormous improvement in the textbooks and these should be vetted by a national body of historians. Not just history, the same goes for other subjects. Quality control of textbooks is essential. Equally important is the training given to school teachers.”

But every time textbooks are vetted, controversy erupts. “Controversy is a part of the advancement of knowledge. There wouldn’t have been an advance of knowledge unless there had been controversy — look at Galileo, for example, what he propounded was hugely controversial but it led to an advance in knowledge. Questioning is essential to teaching, and we don’t have enough of that. Instead, we treat information as knowledge and the child is told, ‘Now you learn this and repeat it in the exam’.

Our main courses arrive. Thapar looks dubiously at her patently inadequate dish, a tiny piece of fish and sticky rice, and we add a cod dish to supplement it. As we tuck into our meals we chat about her childhood. Her father’s job as an army doctor took her all over India. She reminisces about meeting Gandhi in Pune and, amusingly, how the Great Soul charged Rs 5 for an autograph, a practice now common among celebrities, and admonished her for wearing silk instead of khadi.

Our conversation and the food — all Japanese lightness and subtleness of taste — is absorbing enough to make us linger (and Sakura’s staff is keen to remind us of this by pacing near our table). Thapar talks about the historian’s craft, which involves much more than the conventional reading and interpreting reams of old documents. For instance, she tells us how she participated in the excavations of the Harappan site at Kalibangan (Rajasthan) for three years the better to understand archeological reports.

She did a six-month course in pottery as part of a fellowship in London to understand the technology of pottery so central to archaeological artifacts.

She is currently working on historiography or history writing in the ancient period, in which she has always been interested. “The generalisation that has been put forward is that Indian civilisation is unique because it doesn’t have a sense of history. And I used to wonder — this was 40 or 50 years ago — how it was possible for a complex and sophisticated civilisation not to have a sense of history. It kept bothering me and I decided to work on it.”

It turned out to be a long-term project because it required reading a range of texts. “I kept working on other themes but every time I got a fellowship or a scholarship I would take up another body of texts as a historiographical exercise and I made my notes, and kept them aside. About two or three years ago I felt that with increasing age I might not be around in the next year. So I’ve done a rough first draft and I’m now working further on it.”

Right now, though, Thapar shows no signs of “not being around”. We’ve been chatting almost two and half hours, but she’s still full of lively talk and turns mildly professorial to ask us about ourselves, two former history graduates in the unlikely world of business journalism. It takes us all of 15 seconds to fill her in. As for her full life, we’ve barely had a taste.

First Published: Tue, March 17 2009. 00:36 IST