If a scholar’s objective is to be immortal in footnotes, then Romila Thapar has accomplished it decades ago. She is not just a prominent South Asian historian, but a historian of historians. This book is a compilation of essays, some were published in journals, some as chapters in edited books, and others were delivered as lectures as was the case with the latest in the volume titled, Ashoka — that was delivered as a key note address at a conference on Ashoka and the Making of Modern India in 2009. Out of 16 essays, oldest one titled, Society and Economic Activity in the late first Millenium B C was published in 1961 and the rest were published in various years such as in 1969 (two), 1977, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1986, 1987,1992 (three), 2000 (two), and 2005. Seen in the background of several path breaking books that she has published one gets a glimpse of an extraordinary mind that has been at work consistently lasting over several decades. Her latest book, The Past before Us is another evidence of her passion and commitment to the subject to which her original contributions has been widely acknowledged and for which she has deservingly received many outstanding international awards. John W Kluge award for lifetime achievement in the study of humanity is just one such awards.
Why this compilation? Is it meant to be a helping hand to a lazy researcher who wants grab these important essays in one volume instead of running around from library to library or help the publishing house to cash in on her global reputation? In a less than four-page preface, she justifies it by citing two key reasons: first the availability of new evidence on some of the puzzles she has endeavoured to address owing to new excavation, and also because of fresh questions raised about the existing data.
History writing, particularly on early India, is a formidable task. Reliable resources to build scholarship are scant and often written in different languages such as Sanskrit, German or Greek etc. For her essay on Megasthenes and the Seven Castes, originally published in 1987, she had to use sources in Greek and German. What makes the task of history writing more daunting is when a historian has to address various methodological disputes often coloured by ideologies. Fortunately, Indian historiography today is enriched by debates by rival perspectives such as nationalist narratives, colonialist methods, and also methods of historical materialism. In her essay on D D Kosambi, she reflects on these questions. Although she does not allude to subaltern method directly, she seems to be sensitive to this aspect of the methodological debate. For instance, she comments on the essay on Somnath, “We have largely (built) on the chronicles of the Sultanate courts for accounts of Mahmoud of Ghazni’s raids on the Somnath temple. The accounts are not uniform in what they state and yet we have accepted as such. There are other sources such as Sanskrit chornicles, the Jaina chronicles of the dynasties of Gujarat, and popular ballads from the neighbourhood.”
Such acknowledgments indicate she is not method-blind, her research is driven by facts, data and evidence, and there is always that willingness to reformulate an argument if the data or evidence asks for it. What are the sources of evidence or data in history writing? Do these sources lead to different types of history? She seems to believe so. She suggests something called an “embedded history” where narratives are folded into texts that acquired a religious orientation, such as epics and Puranas. Another type is called “externalised history” largely sourced to biographies, chronicles etc.
The compilation has five major sections, and sub-titled as: 1) historiography; 2) economy and society; 3) changing political formations; 4) religion, philosophy and society; and 5) two contributions on Sakuntala, and Somnath. Here she reminds readers that if the objective of history writing is construction of the past, then in that act the concerns of the present have to be apparent. The story of Sakuntala was fiction, yet it serves as a window to our past. This story has been repeated with some change of character and event in subsequent historical periods reflecting different historical contexts. Therefore, historical reflection on these sources gives us some clue about how historical change affected the story. At a time when Hindutva politics that has become so dominant, the most crucial section that has material to challenge the Hindutva brand of history is the three essays in the sub-section: religion, philosophy and society. At the end, it becomes apparent that history writing as a process is under constant change. Scholars of Indian history, without doubt, will find this book not just a great source for facts and narratives, but also a major intervention on the changing discourse over methodologies.