Monday, October 15, 2012

UNSETTLING THE PAST Unknown Aspects and Scholarly Assessments of D.D. Kosambi

In the Permanent Black pipeline for next year (2013) are two wonderfully interesting books by two great historians of ancient India,D.D. Kosambi and Romila Thapar.

The book by Kosambi (actually, two parts of it are by him and one part is on him) is calledUNSETTLING THE PAST. 

The book by Thapar is called THE PAST BEFORE US.

Unknown Aspects and Scholarly Assessments of D.D. Kosambi 

The Kosambi book is a collection of obscure and pretty unknown writings by D.D. Kosambi alongside assessments of his contribution to various areas of scholarship -- ancient history, mathematics, Sanskrit literature, numismatics, and marxism as a method for understanding the past.

An array of the great man's unpublished letters, unearthed from the Harvard and TIFR archives by his daughter Meera Kosambi, will comprise one section of the book. Kosambi's correspondence includes an exchange with Robert Graves on comparative aspects of Indian and Greek myth.

Almost no one has ever seen this cache of incredibly interesting letters which reveal new facets of Kosambi's insights, range of interests, methods, friendships, and affections. Some wonderful photos of Kosambi, mostly unavailable, will also feature in the book. They reveal a man resembling a Greek god, 5 ft. 10 in. tall, who was humane, compassionate, and caring in unexpected ways, as for example in the photo below, showing him bathing one of his two dogs, Chatya. (The other one was called Bonzo, who too will be revealed in the book.) Some people have it all: intellect, physique, Harvard education, bungalow in Poona ... Kosambi had it all by the spadefull. It comes almost as a relief to know that in later life he suffered from arthritis -- though even about his illness Kosambi is wonderfully blunt. In the last year of his life, in one of his letters to a Japanese collaborator, he writes presciently:  "I find that my health trouble has been due to long standing and apparently incurable virus infection. The main site is the sinuses, with secondary sites in the chest and bowels. The arthritis is a result of this, and so cannot be cured except by death." 

Kosambi's famous falling out with Homi Bhabha at the TIFR (they got on fine initially) was in part because, at a time when scientists were debating the relative advantages of solar and nuclear energy, Kosambi argued for the sun whereas Bhabha preferred uranium and had the backing of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Here's an extract from the first of Kosambi's 'Three Essays on Solar Energy' (1957), an essay powered by the writer's fiery English prose, which concludes with a swipe at Bhabha and capitalist functioning more generally -- and which rings true in our time, when inflated costs in the execution of public works are the state's way of looting citizens. 

The cost of research on direct utilization of solar energy would be far lower than for atomic energy. India has much greater supply of solar energy than most other countries; in fact, the problem is to keep the land from being blasted altogether by the sun. One difficulty is that the sun’s energy is not constant. There is the variation between sunrise and sunset, with nothing at all at night. Again, cloudy days make a difference. The problem of storage, however, is not too difficult. Better storage batteries can certainly be produced, to give long life without heavy servicing. Another method would be to pump water by use of solar energy, at whatever variable speed the sun allows, into high-level tanks (say on towers). The water can then come down by gravity through turbines which turn electric generators, and can be further used for irrigation. The advantages are that the fuel—the sun’s radiation—costs absolutely nothing, and there are no harmful exhaust gases or radioactive byproducts. Moreover, the installation can be set up anywhere in India, and will work quite well except perhaps in the heaviest monsoon season. The research is of no use for war purposes. That is why it attracts some of us, but does not attract those who control the funds.

At another point in the same essay, Kosambi seems to anticipate modern objections to the anti-science aspect of Ashis Nandy's worldview:

Already, before we have had any decisive benefit from atomic power, the problem of the radioactive waste, material which appears in the processing, has become formidable. This leads some prophets of gloom to the other extreme: humanity destroys itself by striving for progress; science is an evil. Let us go back to nature, the simple life of the villager.

This reaction is puerile. The clock cannot be turned back. Science is not to blame, only the greed that misuses it. Man in the state of nature was helpless in relation to the environment. For that matter, edible grain like rice and wheat is as artificial as a brick house; it took our ancestors a few thousand years to develop them out of the grasses; and if human cultivation stopped, nature would not give such food crops. The whole question of energy, atomic or any other, has to be considered dispassionately, without sentiment. 

Romila Thapar, Ranajit Guha, Sheldon Pollock, A.L Basham, B.D. Chattopadhyaya, Daniell Ingalls, Nayanjot Lahiri, Kumkum Roy, Kunal Chakrabarti, R.P. Goldman, Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, and Vivek Monteiro are the contributors who assess Kosambi in the second half of the book.

Romila Thapar's  


Historical Traditions of Early North India  begins by acknowledging an intellectual debt to Kosambi (one of Thapar's mentors). It is a book that even Kosambi, notoriously exacting and a difficult man to please, is likely to have congratulated her for.  She has written a massive tome of 250,000 words which is not only breathtakingly insightful but also 'breadth-takingly' incredible: it surveys the entire historiography of India's ancient past and shows why history in ancient India took the shapes it did. Here's a short description of what it does. (But before getting to her book, here's something even more consequential -- a picture of the author with her dog Amba, an absolute beauty named after the courtesan of Vaishali.)

It has so often been said that Indian civilization lacks historical writing—and therefore a sense of history—that this notion passes for a truism. There has been little attempt to show up the falsity of the generalization. In the present book—a magisterial historiographical survey of every major form within which ancient North Indian history is embedded or evident—Romila Thapar shows an intellectually dynamic ancient world profuse with ideas about the past, an arena replete with societies constructing, reconstructing, and contesting various visions of worlds before their own.

“To determine what makes for this historical consciousness”, says Professor Thapar, “is not just an attempt to provide Indian civilization with a sense of history, nor is it an exercise in abstract research. My intention is to argue that, irrespective of the question of the presence or absence of historical writing as such, an understanding of the way in which the past is perceived, recorded, and used affords insights into early Indian society, as it does for that matter into other early societies.”

She argues that to possess history a civilization does not have to reveal writing in forms regarded as belonging to the established genres of history. In fact, a variety of ancient Indian texts reflect a consciousness of history; and, subsequently, there come into existence recognizable historical traditions and forms of historical writing. Both varieties of texts—those which reflect a consciousness of history and those which reveal forms of historical writing—were deployed to “reveal” the past, and drawn upon as a cultural, political, religious, or other resource to legitimize an existing social order.

The Vedic corpus, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the itihasa-purana tradition, the Buddhist and Jaina canons, the hagiographical and biographical literature, the inscriptional evidence, a variety of chronicles, and dramatic forms such as the Mudrarakshasa are all scrutinized afresh in this book: not as sources for historical data, but instead as a civilization’s many ways of thinking about and writing its history.

ROMILA THAPAR, described here as “virtually the only living historian of  ancient and pre-modern India who has risen to the rank of world-class historians”, is Emeritus Professor of History at Jawaharlal University, New Delhi. She holds an Honorary D.Litt. each from Oxford University and the University of Chicago, and is an Honorary Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and SOAS, London University. Her refusal to accept state awards has only enhanced her renown: in both 1992 and 2005 she declined the Padma Bhushan, awarded by the Indian Government, because, as she put it, “I only accept awards from academic institutions or those associated with my professional work, and not state awards.” In 2008 Professor Thapar was awarded the prestigious Kluge Prize of the US Library of Congress, which honours lifetime achievement in studies such as history which are not covered by the Nobel Prize.




No comments: