ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Good Historian

Vigilante of Indian Past

Talking History by Romila Thapar, Ramin Jahanbegloo and Neeladri Bhattacharya, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017; pp xvi + 340, 795.

Professional historians seldom read books on history writing. In fact, once recognised as historians, books and papers written by colleagues are either their models, or examples they do not wish to imitate. However, Talking History is not a book on how history ought to be written. It is a book on Romila Thapar’s achievements as a historian, and as such, a book on intellectual life in India since independence. For Thapar was, and still is, one of the leading intellectuals of India since that period, the incarnation of Indian history in Europe and the United States, as well as a public figure acclaimed by the most progressive part of the society, while also subject to violent attacks for her secular vision of India and Indian past as one which cannot be reconciled with Hindutva.

Talking History is both a scholarly autobiography, and a reflection on the links between history and politics. Thapar mostly answers questions posed by Ramin Jahanbegloo, who plays the role of an intelligent layperson, while also responding to a younger historian, Neeladri Bhattacharya, who asks fewer, lengthier, and more specialised questions. The book has apparently been entirely rewritten by Thapar, and on reading it, one does hear her voice. So Talking History is truly a book by Thapar; a reflection on her whole life. I ought to specify “professional” life, because she does not talk (except occasionally) about her personal life, her circle of close friends, her celebrated brother, or the manifold invectives and honours she has received. Politics come in only in relation with her work as a historian. To be honest, there is nothing entirely new in the book; there exist a number of papers or interviews, in which Thapar has expressed herself on these subjects in the past. Talking History is, however, the most comprehensive presentation of her ideas, and may interest every reader who wishes to understand how Thapar came to be a historian, as well as the beginnings of her work in newly independent India. While the core of the book is not entirely new to me, reading it has made me much more conscious of the difference between the work of a patriotic Indian historian of India and that of a foreigner.

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Updated On : 14th Feb, 2018
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