The Future in the Past: Essays and ReflectionsAuthor: Romila ThaparPublisher: AlephPages: 326Price: Rs 999History has many tricks up its sleeve and one it plays most often is to disappear inside a fog of half-truths and lies: Never remembered, always doomed to be repeated. But that is a dangerous trick to pull, because in times like these, history becomes indistinguishable from political rhetoric and malicious recreation of past events.The Future in the Past: Essays and Reflections, a collection of essays by eminent historian Romila Thapar, is a reminder of the perils of living through such times. It shows just how, by engaging with the past non-critically and selectively, societies may look to manufacture glory and national pride but instead end up destroying their historical legacy.The tug of war that nations play with their history is in evidence everywhere. In Turkey, the government refuses to consider the mass killing of Armenians in the 1915 genocide. In Britain, the country’s brutal colonial excesses are bundled up into a neat fairy tale about empire building. In India, there is a rush to erase an entire period of history from public memory. Textbooks are being rewritten and a jingoistic retelling of the past is helping recast the nation’s diverse heritage as a singular, majoritarian culture.In an essay with which the book begins (“In Defence of History”), Dr Thapar writes about the dangers of using a single lens to read the past. Such a view glosses over the differences that make India the diverse nation that it is and also discourages enquiry. By refusing to question the past, nations lose their civilisational heft and by labelling as Marxist propaganda all efforts at questioning, the people are left with nothing but a garbled version of their own history.Efforts to cast the past in a single frame, paradoxically, plays into the colonial mindset that many modern historians are keen to dismantle. The division of the country along communal lines and the periodisation of its history as Hindu, Muslim and British is the handiwork of colonial historians. But the irony is probably lost on those looking to rewrite history and make India great again.Dr Thapar has a remarkable ability to constantly question everything and to examine every idea until it is stripped to the bone. Her writing, reflective and measured in some essays and anguished in others, leads the reader to do the same. She discusses the epics of India, the significance of museums as repositories of the past, ideas such as renunciation and satyagraha and the role and history of practices such as sati. Through these essays, the idea of history as an interrogative and analytical discipline is repeatedly reinforced—this offers a rich and layered reading of the past and brings about an understanding of history that is much more engaging and fruitful than when it is used to settle old scores or to divide the country along religious lines.The essays on the emergence of communal politics and the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are particularly instructive. By examining their influence and ability to engage with a diverse set of communities, Dr Thapar exposes the doublespeak around the epics that exists today and challenges the ongoing efforts to position them as inviolable and exclusionary texts.The essays also help readers envisage the vast remit of historical studies. Its function is not as mere record keeper of the past, but as chronicler and commentator of social, economic and political change. An essay towards the end of the book (“Early Forms of Patronage”) traces the power structures that emerged in early India around wealth and donations. Dr Thapar writes about the evolving relationship between donors and recipients, about dana (donation) and punya (acquiring merit) and about the circles of privilege and control that the early benefactors nurtured.History is an analytical and interpretative discipline. This book illustrates just how rewarding it could be if historians were to deploy such tools and it asks readers to reconsider the modern-day rendition of the past as an OTT (over the top) breathless recounting of heroic conquests, divine kings and glorious gods.By covering a diverse range of topics, the book explores different aspects of the country’s past and shines a light on its unique practices—some commendable, others abhorrent. It does what a book is expected to do: Generate new ideas and question old prejudices. However, there is a big chance that it may end up preaching to the choir. Given the name-calling and labelling to which Dr Thapar has been subjected, many are likely to criticise her, instead of reading the book.The essays were originally written for Seminar magazine, a publication that was founded by Romesh Thapar and his wife Raj, the author’s brother and sister-in-law. They reveal the author’s erudition and also her anguish over the current state of affairs. But most importantly, the book holds a mirror to the society we live in today, by teaching us to engage with the past to create a better future and not to use it as a stick to beat up the imagined “other”.