Romila Thapar by Ayesha Jalal

Introducing Romila Thapar
By Ayesha Jalal

It is a pleasure and honor to introduce the doyen among historians of ancient South Asia, Professor Romila Thapar, to the Lahore Literary Festival 2015.

Recently, she shared with me some delightful reminiscences about her Lahore connections. Her grandfather, who came to Lahore from Ludhiana, insisted on a family reunion with all his children and grandchildren every December in Lahore. Romila describes endless trips to Anarkali to eat; visit various shops to select materials for shalwar-kameezes; lots of fun-filled picnics with cousins at Shalimar Gardens and Mian Mir; long morning walks with an aunt in Lawrence Gardens covered in dew, and rushing to collect an armful of sugarcane stalk being cut by the ganderi wallah sitting on a culvert by the road. Family weddings occasioned additional visits to Lahore. Romila describes halvais in the backyard, tailors on the side and the trousseau spread out on a vast table. The only clue she gives of her academic future is a mention of her visits to J. Ray and Sons for books. Upon asking for the poetry of Oscar Wilde, she was advised by Mr. Ray to wait a few years so that she could understand it better.

As a university student, Romila chose to read history. She has produced a steady stream of outstanding contributions to humanistic scholarship over the last half century. She first made her mark with the publication in 1961 of her excellent monograph, Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas, based on meticulous research and use of a wide array of sources. It provided a fresh perspective on the concept of dhamma and the relationship of a Buddha-inspired ethics to the realities of imperial power. Professor Thapar’s A History of India Volume 1 that followed her book on Asoka remained the standard authoritative text on the history of ancient India over several decades. In 2003, she transformed this volume into a substantially new book under the title Early India, taking into account new research and not hesitating to modify in the light of new evidence some of her own arguments. Some of her finest interpretive essays were collected in 1978 in Ancient Indian Social History: Some Interpretations.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Professor Thapar has continued to be active in research and writing as can be seen in her brilliant 2005 book, The Many Voices of Somanatha, on the history and memory of Mahmud of Ghazni’s raid. In recent years she has been engaged in a study of historiography and historical consciousness in ancient India. She has skillfully unraveled the forms of representations of the past in ancient India that ought to qualify as history. Her recent and most timely book, The Past as Present, makes a powerful case for evidence-based history, rather than merely the expression of opinions, and the imperative of proper training as historians to critically evaluate the available evidence. She draws attention to the misconception that history unlike the other social sciences and humanities can be engaged in as a hobby.

As she puts it pithily in The Past as Present, “misunderstanding the past can lead to dangerous attitudes in the present” while “arguing with people who make it a point of not reading what one writes makes it difficult to even get a discussion going.” Hounded by rightwing Hindu nationalists, she has more than stood her ground. In fact no scholar has done more to deepen our understanding of the historical formation of material cultures, political structures and religious identities in early India. Among her many honors is the richly deserved 2008 Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity, which honors studies in disciplines such as history that are not covered by the Nobel Prize.

Now professor emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, she had the highest reputation as a teacher. She has been a beacon of inspiration for the younger generations of historians of ancient, medieval and modern India. The epitome of elegance and dignity, she has shown great moral courage in standing up for her principles in the face of attacks from bigoted religious extremists. Having spent time in Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Lahore in her childhood and youth, she is accorded the highest respect by intellectuals in Pakistan. In Delhi she is the perfect and most gracious host to scholars and academics from all over the world. Throughout the subcontinent and beyond, audiences throng to hear her lectures in large cities and small towns. We are privileged to welcome her back to Lahore.

“I didn’t really know Lahore as a city,” Romila wrote to me a few days ago, “because our visits were brief and limited to a few people and places. But it was the pivot of the lives of my parents’ generation who knew it better—they went to school and college there and worked there. Marriages, births, deaths were all informally registered with the family there and the assumption was that one was going to retire and die there. Lahore was the place that was the context and the support, formally or informally, and the place and the people that one related to all through life. This was not so for my generation. But the city, so often spoken of by the family after Partition, remained the context for many years.”

This Lahore audience is extremely fortunate to be witness today to her erudition and eloquence.