Audiobook review: The Past As Present by Romila Thapar

I wanted this book review to be insightful, and thoughtful, and maybe even a little bit scholarly.

But, honestly, dear reader, I just don’t have the spoons for that.

3 reasons you should read The Past As Present

I can give you my three reasons why you should read the book on audiobook.

Audiobook review of The Past As Present by Romila Thapar

To recap for those who don’t have Instagram:

  1. To learn how contemporary identities are forged through arguments about history.
  2. To hear her destroy Hindutva ideology in every single chapter.
  3. To hear Manisha Sethi’s narration.

At first glance, a book on Indian historiography might not seem easily accessible to a general audience. Thapar even bemoans “the yawning gap between those advancing knowledge and the general public.” (loc 1172, Kindle edition)

Yet, her prose is lucid, and her tone remains conversational without losing its scholarly authority. This is not the inaccessible monograph that some might imagine. Thapar connects arguments about the past to our present quite beautifully. Thapar discusses all the big debates in Indian historiography:

  • The Aryan invasion myth
  • The dating of the epics
  • The controversy over variants of the Ramayana
  • The historical narratives about the Somanatha temple
  • The position of women in Indian history
  • The development of history textbooks

Thapar explores the NCERT textbook debate through first-person memoir. This deeply introspective essay explores her own role in shaping how the public views the past. Among all her essays, this one feels the most urgent and the most relevant. For, she could have written it last week, not 2014 (the original publication date for the monograph).

The narration by Manisha Sethi is fantastic. Sethi creates a vibrant yet serious tone for Thapar’s ideas. She does not miss Thapar’s humor either or the jibes that Thapar often takes at the right-wing Hindutvadis. As I asked in the reel, can we just have her narrate all the books? She’s that good.

The great joy of this audiobook is hearing the words and phrases in Indian languages pronounced by a native speaker. It helps make the experience more immersive.

Medieval history was my discipline in college, so many things connect with me that might not for other readers. When Thapar discusses the Annales school, I am transported back in time. Not to the Middle Ages, but to my college days in the 90s.

90s college kids learn history the Tiny Toons way

Did someone say college in the 90s? Here’s a little history lesson for you courtesy of They Might Be Giants and Tiny Toon Adventures.

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”

Or perhaps you were expecting a 90s college romance reference from this writer. Sigh. Ok. Fine. Here’s the obligatory song from one of those rare instances where the book was better than the movie. What even was that ending?

Give Me Some Sunshine – 3 Idiots | Aamir Khan, Madhavan, Sharman J | Suraj Jagan | Shantanu Moitra

The song is nice though, right?

I told you I didn’t have the spoons today.

Where was I? Ah yes, the Annales school. The thing I always loved about the Annales school was how they moved not only across time but also across physical space. They tended to dip their toes in the waters of comparative history and anthropology. Thapar calls them out specifically as an influential school. But she also sees their limitations.

In her discussion of medieval India, Thapar questions whether the concept of the medieval even applies to Indian periodization, calling the distinction between early and late medieval value loaded and “not very helpful.” (loc 1561, Kindle edition). She prefers instead to use the term post-Gupta period.

It’s wonderful to watch her reject the periodization precisely because it’s based on colonial periodization and then invent her own. She discusses at some length how right-wing historians claim to decolonize the Indian past, while accepting the colonial periodization.

And of course like many historians, Thapar must reckon with Marxism. Here’s a brief explainer.

Histeria! – Marxism

I think they might be confusing their Karl Marx with Groucho Marx. But that aesthetic actually fits my 90s college vibe too. #iykyk

And, let’s be honest here, this is what the whole “cultural Marxism” debate feels like. Accusations of “cultural Marxism” (which is not a real thing btw) are completely bogus and depending on context usually racist. As Thapar points out, even many Indian historians who identify as Marxists reject much of Marx’s historical framework. And that’s all Marxism is. A historical framework. She writes quite forcefully about this debate in chapter 4, “In Defence of History.” You should read it.

That’s your cue to buy The Past As Present.

Buy the Past As Present

The audiobook can be hard to source in the US. Available sources:

In the US, you can buy the hardcover and paperback through Bookshop.org.

In India, you can buy the book through the publisher Aleph.

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