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Past, Perfect; Present, Tense


Kesavan Veluthat

THE PAST AS PRESENT: FORGING CONTEMPORARY IDENTITIES THROUGH HISTORY
By Romila Thapar
Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014, pp. xiv 329, Rs. 595.00

VOLUME XXXIX NUMBER 2 February 2015

We are living in a present which is tense for many reasons. Identities are sought to be forged on the basis of particularly manufactured images of the past, in which aviation technology and plastic surgery and nuclear weapons go about almost in an existential abandon. Professional historians, who have devoted their lifetime to understanding and explaining the past by uncompromisingly analysing evidence in transparent ways sanctioned by the methodology of the discipline, are told that they are just repeating what colonial masters in their own Protestant Christian interest had said long ago. They had better close their shop and go home! Ramayana and Mahabharata have said it all (pray, which of their versions are we to read?) In these threatening times, the importance of this collection of essays, written over the past several decades by the doyen of historical writing in the country, cannot be exaggerated. These essays not only warn us against the dangers of an imperfect understanding of the past but also offer the necessary corrective in the form of a plea for a reliable understanding of history, empirically controlled and methodologically tested. Though not in the puerile sense in which Lord Acton piously hoped more than a century ago, a perfect knowledge of the past still seems possible. The author and the publisher have kept us under a debt of obligation for making these available in one place. This collection is arranged in four significant sections: ‘History and the Public’, ‘Concerning Religion and History’, ‘Debates’ and ‘Our Women—Then and Now’. These captions speak loudly and clearly about the relevance of the collection for the present—each of them is of utmost importance. These essays, written by a top professional, are nonetheless addressed to the non-professional. Writing for peers in professional journals—and Thapar has demonstrated her mastery at it—is one thing; but the kind of writing that we come across here, addressing the non-expert with lucidity but without compromising on the rigour and sophistication of what is being said, requires that there is the necessary tapasya with which the author has internalized the subject. These essays had shaken up their audience when they were first published in periodicals or given as public speeches; but their relevance has only increased in the times in which we live. Each section is introduced de novo, placing the essays included in it in perspective so that their relevance and ...


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