A Renaissance woman ‘happiest among the Mauryans



AMID the tumult and tragedy of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021, Romila Thapar published two books that could not have been more different. Voices of Dissent is a powerful indictment of our age of hyper-nationalism that takes on the idea that dissent is an imported notion. Gazing Eastwards is a remarkably prescient stock taking of the early avatars of Maoist madness to sweep across China in 1957.

In Voices of Dissent,Thapar argues that a sense of the other has been true from the earliest times of Indian history. In her vivid recounting, accommodation and disagreement has been part of the history of India’s religions for a long time. From the mid-first millennium AD, ‘virtually every religion in India consisted of multiple sects, each seeking its own patronage and asserting its identity…Differences and their coexistence was recognized, although some faced animosity and conflict. A single, uniformly applicable, overarching religion was unfamiliar. Nor was there a single sacred overarching text even for what might be taken as a formal religion. This made the localisation of religious practices and ideas far stronger than the somewhat abstract loyalty to an overarching single text.’ This stands in stark relief to Europe at the time but also explains why the temples and beliefs in Bengal continue to be so different from, say, those in South India.

A few pages later, Thapar has fast-forwarded to the 15th century to underline how Indians have always been conscious of and indeed celebrated the other. Writing of Kabir and Guru Nanak, she makes two points that seem strikingly modern, even radical, in the context of India’s depressing daily discourse, circa 2021, from its matrimonial columns to poisonous WhatsApp forwards. The first is that, to the sants and pirs of that time, the religious identity of their followers was ‘largely irrelevant’. Nor did they live by the conventions of caste: ‘On both counts, they were dissenters.’


It was an era of inclusive eclectics, noticeably different from the majoritarianism and casteism that drives the electoral politics in India today. Consider, as Thapar posits, that Guru Nanak’s references to Rab draws on an Arabic word for God used across Punjab by people of every religion: ‘The diversity is evident, for example, in a different approach to the act of devotion as in the verses of Lal Ded in Kashmir and Nanak in Punjab. Lal Ded was a Shiva bhakt, yet this did not stop her inspiring the sufi poet of Kashmir, Sheikh Nuruddin, popularly known as Nand rishi. Nanak’s verses drew from Sufi teachings, most famously those of Baba Farid as well as Kabir, Ravidas and some others.’

And as Arshia Sattar points out in her brilliant Maryada: Searching for Dharma in the Ramayana, Valmiki’s Ramayana is itself characterised by a multiplicity of turns in the road: ‘The actors in the Ramayana can see all the choices before them; their problem is… that dharma presents the individual with more than one equal and legitimate choice,’ writes Sattar. Inevitably perhaps for a scholar who has spent so much time reading Buddhist scripts as well as discussing the Dhamma of Asoka, Thapar weaves this knowledge into Voices of Dissent outlining the various forms of dissent that have characterised India for millennia. ‘Buddhist texts mention vivada or contestation… at a simple level, this can mean not following the rules; at a much deeper level, it can mean questioning or contesting them.’ This naturally segues to a discussion of similarities between this and the Socratic method and that of the medieval philosopher Aquinas.


The pointed observations apparent in Voices of Dissent are perhaps even more pronounced in Thapar’s other book published last year, Gazing Eastwards, Thapar’s account of a few months spent in China of 1957 as she visited Buddhist sites there with a colleague. When I first heard that the journal was being published unchanged from its original form, I wondered whether a diary of Maoist times when China was so closed to the world was relevant today: the global superpower is now a colossus of international trade and Chinese tourists travel the world by the tens of millions (until the onset of the pandemic). But in many ways, China’s politics and worldview has not changed that much from the late 1950s and 1960s, a point also made by Kanti Bajpai about Chinese views of India, in his recently published book India Versus China: Why they are not Friends.

What Thapar captured then in the form of a travelogue remains true today. That is a hallmark of a very good travel writer. It is even more remarkable because so many books on China from the 1940s and 1950s, notably Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China in 1937 all the way to Henry Kissinger’s much more contemporary kow-towing, come off as superficial and naēve. As I wrote in a review of Gazing Eastwards for Mint, ‘A book written as a diary of a journey in 1957 is by definition a period piece, but Gazing Eastwards also offers a window on contemporary China – the reluctance of intellectuals to meet outsiders in Xi Jinping’s China is perhaps even more acute than when Thapar visited.’


She had arrived in an act of spectacularly serendipitous timing to be in China while the first of a series of mind games that Mao sadistically played with Chinese society at large was underway. One moment there was a campaign encouraging criticism of the Communist Party, (which had run its course by the middle of 1957) the next a Mao speech from earlier that year highlighted to signal that criticism of the party had gone too far. Thapar’s few months in China coincided with this eventful time; by July, an anti-rightist campaign, which led to many intellectuals losing their jobs and being sent to the countryside to do manual labour, had started – a pattern repeated during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.

As any journalist who has reported on China will tell you, its elite are circumspect in a way that
its factory workers and farmers are not. Thapar writes of meeting two professors to discuss the Romanisation of the Chinese script, a seemingly uncontroversial subject since it resulted in the popularisation of Mandarin Chinese and the move to simplified Chinese. She received little help, however. Thapar’s questions were prescient in trying to understand simplified Chinese and its centrality to achieving the widespread literacy that China has enjoyed for some decades now, quite early on to levels much higher than other emerging economies.

Thapar’s credentials as a historian of ancient India do not require much by way of introduction, of course. Her Penguin history of early India remains widely popular as a college text. So does her Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas. Recently, I was reminded yet again of how accessible her Penguin history, with its jaunty beginning describing India as a land known for snake charmers and illusory rope tricks, remains. A younger former colleague at a business paper recounted how he and his wife listen to it nightly via Amazon’s Alexa after putting their daughter to bed. In 2008, Thapar was awarded the prestigious Kluge prize of the US Library of Congress.


It is Thapar’s role as a public intellectual and as a Renaissance woman that seems even more remarkable as she turns 90 this year. She began 2020 by visiting the protests at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi. The demonstration site was not easy to get to. Regardless of whether one went by car or by metro, the last stretch involved a reasonable walk. The heartening picture – which flashed across a thousand Twitter accounts that day of Thapar – showed her using a walking stick and taking the hand  of a woman accompanying her, smiling radiantly. ‘I felt after many years that I was witnessing a form of dissent that was somehow taking off from the roots of anti-colonial nationalism. There was no mistaking its all-inclusive character.’

In the concluding pages of Dissent, she makes the argument that the expression of dissent such as that seen at Shaheen Bagh and many other sites across the country that sprung up in its wake, cannot be reflexively ‘projected as a law and order problem’ if it is not violent: ‘It does not require (that it) be met with state terror. What it requires is dialogue.’In its important judgement giving bail to three student protesters the Delhi High Court in June made this point forcefully: ‘It seems that in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the state the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred. If this mindset gains traction, it would be a sad day for democracy.’


Visiting Shaheen Bagh, Thapar was reminded nostalgically of her own participation in the 1940s protests against the British and likens it to Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha, but very unusual in that it was organised by women. ‘That women should speak up on an issue tied to birth and citizenship makes perfectly good sense. We know that only the mother can speak with authority about the identity of the child and the place of its birth.’ This is an obvious yet profound point, but one rarely made in the overheated condemnation of the protests by the ruling party. It is not surprising that this observation came from a woman.

In an essay published in a book titled On Citizenship this year, Thapar argues that ‘the current concept of citizenship is not what it was in (ancient) times and tracing it back is not of much help in understanding it. In those times, it was an exclusive status and in our times it is inclusive. Parallel to the Greek code of Athens, the dharmashastras concede no rights to the avarna, those who were outside caste, the untouchables, and the Adivasis.’ It is a stark reminder that  the Citizenship Amendment Act, by spreading fear among minorities, is a leap back to the past. In tackling the difficult task of assessing the past while critiquing the present, this essay sometimes veers off in the direction of a stodgy political science tract. The reading list – ranging from Hannah Arendt’s 1960s book on totalitarianism to Derek Heater’s  A Brief History of Citizenship published four decades later – is a reminder of Thapar’s innate and wide-ranging curiosity, nonetheless.


In another essay from the book on the debates that accompanied the writing of India’s constitution, the brilliant young legal scholar Gautam Bhatia quotes Vallabhbhai Patel arguing that there is a distinction between ‘broad based nationality’ and ‘narrow nationality’. Patel is in effect making the point Thapar does in arguing that when it comes to citizenship in a 20th century republic,the past is not much of a guide to our present. Patel said: ‘Our general right of citizenship… should be so broad-based that anyone who reads our laws cannot take any other view than that we have taken an enlightened modern civilised view.’

Thapar’s cosmopolitanism stands out both in her writing but also in the way she lives. Her taste in furniture is strikingly modern. Visiting her a few years ago, I was taken aback to find a replica of a bright lipstick-red, Arne Jacobsen Egg chair commanding centre stage in her living room. She recounted with delight seeing it first in a showroom on the edge of Delhi before finding one for sale on Urban Ladder, the furniture website. She is an admirer of the daring Fauvist colours of the Colombo handloom store, Barefoot.

Thapar is unafraid to criticise the government on subjects ranging from its approach to curriculum to its treatment of student protests. She joined cause with the demonstrations at Jawaharlal Nehru University a few years ago; one of the wonderful photographs of 2016 is of the then JNU students’ union president Kanhaiya Kumar cracking a joke while moderating a discussion with Thapar and another history professor, who are laughing out loud. The cross-generational bonhomie and respect is palpable, the photograph wreathed in expansive smiles.


IfThapar’s Penguin history of ancient India has a conversational tone that encourages people to listen to it as their day draws to an end as my former colleague does, thus reinforcing its appeal as that rare contradiction of being a beloved textbook, conversations with Thapar have a breadth noticeable also in the writing of the great economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen. Their reading and therefore the references in their non-economic articles as well as some of their economic ones tend to stray far afield from their principal discipline, making their op ed articles so much more enjoyable for it.

A conversation with Thapar is similar. When I spoke with her early in last year’s lockdown, she said she was grateful for the peace and quiet to get a fair bit of pending writing done. It seemed a singularly pragmatic yet courageous response for someone in her late eighties. When I spoke to her more recently, like most of us, she was chafing at the prospect of living semi-monastically indefinitely. Even so, the conversation ranged widely, from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, to her suggestion that I read Simone de Beauvoir’s more hard-hitting book, The Second Sex.

Her most conversational book because it has the feel of a journal and a memoir is Thapar’s travelogue on China. She has plenty of fun at the expense of pompous men such as an English Reuters correspondent who, she bitingly observes, has been in China for about a year and a half, but is nonetheless writing two books on it simultaneously. ‘Predictably, he is regarded outside China as a “China expert”. It does seem rather easy to become that.’


In her travels through Lanzhou, the capital of the northwestern province of Gansu, she goes to have trousers made that are more practical for excursions to caves than sarees. Her experience of master tailors is told with comic flair. Thapar captures the unyielding opinions of tailors in China so expertly that it brought back visions of my equally firm though kinder Shanghainese-born tailor in Hong Kong more than half a century later. She writes with almost masochistic delight of being made a spectacle while being measured in the tailor’s shop: ‘He produced his inch tape and I began to get pale – neck, shoulder, sleeve, arm-hook, chest, waist and then I waited in fear – hips… 42 inches. His face froze in amazement. I tried to smile, weakly, but it was too late. For a woman in China to have such a large hip size was inexcusable. Already the army of assistants was discussing the matter in great detail. I’m sure by the time we emerged from the shop, the news had spread.’

Speaking with me recently, Thapar touched upon the problems of so many historical texts being written by men and contrasted that with the writing of Buddhist nuns compiled in Therigatha, which I had discovered only a few years ago. This eminent historian’s description of Therigatha was as apt as it was accessible. Therigatha, she declared, was ‘great fun’. Therigatha, republished by the Murty Classical Library about five years ago, is indeed hugely entertaining in large part because, just as Woolf and de Beauvoir did two millennia later, these extraordinary women poets poked fun at the egotism of men quite brilliantly.

Here is but one example of dissent travelling down the ages from a poem that critiques ritualistic dips in holy rivers:

Who told you that,

Like a know-nothing speaking to a know-nothing,

That one is freed from the fruits of an evil act

By washing off in water?

Is it that frogs and turtles,

Will all go to heaven,

And so will water monitors and crocodiles, and anything that lives in water.


A few years ago, asked by a young political scientist which period of history she most enjoyed, Thapar beamed with delight and replied, ‘I am happiest among the Mauryans.’ Her appetite for the history surrounding the time of Asoka nevertheless does not deprive her of the steady eye of a historian. She does not regard this period as a ‘Golden Age’. Notably, Thapar does not fall into Amartya Sen’s quagmire of making the convoluted case that India is a democratic republic today because kings such as Asoka and Akbar once ruled large parts of it, a thesis brilliantly picked apart by Ramachandra Guha in an essay some years ago.

As it happens, Thapar’s Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas was one of my favourite books as a history student in Delhi University. Returning to it recently, I was astounded to find it was written sixty years ago and only a couple of years after her eventful trip to China where she had played table tennis with soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army and even met Chairman Mao at an Indian Embassy dinner. It does not feel dated, in part because she is self-evidently enthusiastic while shining a spotlight on this momentous period of history. With her magpie’s eye for dramatic detail, she begins a chapter unexpectedly by examining whether Asoka might have had a Greek mother or grandmother. In another part of the book, her description of government building inspectors at the time seeking to ensure that buildings, usually made of wood, conformed to fire safety practices makes one wish India’s 21st century cities were as well managed.


There is also a thorough reading of the rock edicts while discounting traditional religious texts for exaggerating how wicked Asoka was before his conversion to a nonviolent king, a literary sleight of hand intended to dramatise Buddhism’s appeal. Of the 7th Rock edict, she observes that ‘the plea that every sect desires self-control and purity of the mind is that of a man who generalizes thus for the sake of a broader principle. Asoka must have realized the harm that these sectarian conflicts would produce.’

There is not space here to do justice to her careful parsing of Asoka’s dhamma, but a consistent thread is that it was more ethical realpolitik than influenced by religion alone. There is interesting speculation about Asoka’s banning of large festive assemblies being partly driven by religious concerns, but also by Asoka’s centralising instincts: ‘Such gatherings may have been feared as occasions for attacks on the king’s new ideas. The continuance of all the old traditional festivals would keep alive the older ideas.’


Thapar returned to this theme in a lecture on Asoka at an academic conference 12 years ago, which is a preface in later editions of Asoka and the Decline of the Mauryas.‘We need to see (Asoka) both as a statesman in the context of inheriting and sustaining an empire in a particular historical period, and as a person with a strong commitment to changing society through what seems to have been a concern for social ethics.’ She underlines that Jawaharlal Nehru’s choice of the dharma chakra  from Asoka’s pillar for the Indian flag was Nehru’s way of evoking ‘values India stood for.’

Thapar applauds Asoka’s sensitive distinction between advancing dhamma in two quite different ways, i.e. ‘through codes and rules or legislation (niyama) and through conversion and persuasion (nijjhaati). Significantly, he does not mention the coercion of conquest as most other kings would have done.’
As the pandemic enters its second year, India’s politicians, bureaucrats and citizens need to revisit these ideas. In a final flourish to her preface to Asoka and The Decline of the Mauryas, which resonates through Voices of Dissent published last year, Thapar observes, ‘We today can claim to be inheritors of (Asoka’s) ideas only when our ideas and actions draw strength, not just from rules and legislation, but preferably from persuasion. We have a long way to go.’ It is not a criticism that can be levelled against Thapar. Few historians, let alone one on the cusp of turning 90, remain as committed to persuading us that liberal values are timelessly and critically relevant in today’s India.