This is an excerpt from Talking History, where Romila Thapar speaks to Ramin Jahanbegloo and Neeladri Bhattacharya to explore her far-reaching influence as an authority on the history of early India. The book examines themes such as the function of a historian, the centrality of historical research and evidence, oriental despotism and the ongoing conflict with religious fundamentalists and the polymorphous structure of Hinduism. In this excerpt, Thapar discusses patterns of history.
Ramin Jahanbegloo (RJ): Are you persuaded that history can be seen and analysed as a whole, not just because there are laws of history, but because history has a structure and a pattern?
Romila Thapar (RT): I think there are distinctive patterns in each part of history. I would not argue that all histories have a structure and a pattern that is identical and, therefore, immediately recognizable, because I think there are variants of many kinds.
When you begin to look at history in terms of ‘Did society change? Is there a pattern?’, then you have to look more realistically at the past. The historian would have to cut out the flab of fantasy no matter how attractive and comforting it may be. And that was what, I think, made me question the kind of picture that had been built up earlier. Of course, at the time when the first modern histories of India were written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the discussion of patterns in a society were not at the fore. Evolution as an analytical category had not entered historical explanations of the Indian past, although it had been applied to European history.
The past was studied more in terms of a curiosity about what was there before us, rather than trying to trace a pattern; or for that matter to try and understand where we have come from and where we are at now. The intrinsic link between the past and the present—and the fact that the present grows out of the past and, therefore, the patterns of past societies are important to our understanding of present-day societies—was a train of thought that was generally absent.
Neeladri Bhattacharya (NB): Can the historian ever master the past? Is not the expression of such a desire premised on a nineteenth-century positivist notion of mastery which [E.H.] Carr is struggling against, but cannot get away from?
RT: I don’t think Carr is arguing that mastering the past means controlling it, as that is obviously not possible unless by control one means controlling how we understand the past. I think we imagine that ideally it would be good to master the past in terms of understanding it, because that’s how one justifies being a historian: it means being curious about the past, getting to know and understand it, and, where need be, to relate it to the present. That is why one studies history. The intention is to study history to understand the past. And better understanding means there are probably some aspects that one thinks one has mastered and others that one doesn’t understand.
NB: But there can always be a counterstory, a different narrative, a conflict of interpretations.
RT: There can certainly be a counterstory. In fact, I think the maturing of history as a discipline draws on the process of explanation and counter-explanation, provided there is evidence for both and it’s not just fantasy in either case. So one is ready for that, one is ready for the counterstory, but one assumes that given the amount of knowledge we have, given the sources and evidence we have, a certain understanding of the past is moving towards what we think of as a mastery over at least some aspects of the past.
And we have to keep in mind the difference in how early history is reconstructed as compared to modern history. For early times, there is a relative shortage of data and it tends to be quite diverse and scattered. I used to tell my ancient history students that they should begin by reading a detective story by Agatha Christie, since the initial procedure in reconstructing ancient history was in many ways parallel to solving a murder mystery. This was a contrast to modern history where there is a plethora of data and the problem lies in sorting and selecting what one wishes to use.
NB: I think the main emphasis of Carr is on understanding the past, with an eye to the present. That is, being aware of the politics of history….
RT: Absolutely. Understanding the past both in itself and as a key to the present, but with a larger focus on the past.
NB: … and you continue to believe it today.
NB: But the first part of the argument is something possibly that we need to rethink….
RT: The mastery part.
NB: Yes, the question of mastery. Your own studies now show that in the writing of history there is always a play of interpretations. You have been exploring the different narratives of the past, the structures of these narrations, the implication of a specific rendering of the past. Conflict of interpretation is part of the politics of history that you are talking about. Doesn’t that undercut the idea of mastery?
RT: Yes. But I think, to put it slightly differently, I think Carr is using the term ‘mastery’ in a different sense, and I was certainly reading it in a different sense—that I wasn’t thinking of ‘mastery’ being, literally, knowing everything about the past, but the tendency to say, ‘You have to know a great deal before you can talk about the past’.