I am as mostly everyone knows skeptical of writing of India, whether by Indians or non Indians and should that writing be a work non fiction, especially History, I am even more wary! We Indians, as everyone knows have over the past 5000+ years produced a lot of history and sometime, to paraphrase Saki, way more than we can consume! With so much of history therefore lying around ( you walk into the main street of any small/big town and right next to a big snazzy modern condominium will be an 17th century Makhbara aka a tomb) almost everyone thinks of themselves as Historian, after reading a book or two. Many of the writing is ridiculous and most have nothing new to say, except put together excerpts from primary resources to substantiate a theory, I have already forgotten by chapter 2. I am sure the author did his best, but really I have no idea as what was the point of this book. At the cost of sounding like an intellectual snob, when you learn from the Doyens of Indian History (read Dr. Romilla Thapar & Dr. Harbans Mukhiya), you do tend to wonder, why does everyone want to write histories! Therefore I dismissed, Nayanjot Lahiri’s – Time Pieces – A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India, though Dr. Lahiri is an academic of the first order and has been widely published! However a chance reading of a review by Madhulika Liddle, made me look up the book a second time, buy it and then read it!
Time Pieces is unlike any other history book and it does not talk about the rise and fall of rulers and empires of Ancient India. Instead, Dr. Lahiri takes through a tour of ancient India, through the eyes of things that are everyday. In 10 neat chapters, titled as follows – Journeys, Art, Hygiene, Food, Environment, Love, Laughter, Identity, Death and Afterlife, she tries to give the readers, a snapshot of how the common people of India lived, what they ate, who they loved, how did they define identities and their beliefs of deaths and afterlife. While she does touch upon a the edicts of the great kings, including Ashoka, she uses them to shed light on the daily lives of the masses, to give the readers some idea of the lives and times of Ancient India instead of the usual focus on the great dynasties and their empires. Instead she tells the readers about the massacre of the local population by Alexander’s forces, when they invaded India, the prehistoric art in the Bhimbetka caves, the yearning of an ancient couple, Sutanuka, a Devadasi and Devadinna, a sculptor and of court jesters who could be dispense caustic judgments on the ruling kings, under the guise of a joke! We come across, poets, painters, court dancers, politicians, merchants and a host of characters that inhabited ancient India and we get a small insight on how they lived and what they loved!
The book is not academic and is not a tome. It is less than 200 pages and is exactly what the title claims to be – a Whistle Stop. Dr. Lahiri, shares insightful nuggets, on some selected aspects on India and no more and no less. While she sources all kinds of academic first source research, the narrative is more of a raconteur rather than a historian, with wide references from literature to music to drive home her point, without stooping to such weird allegories as India as a pizza base and her people her toppings (I DID read this and I AM rolling my eyes). She makes history come alive and throb with the vibrancy of life, which is a running thread in history of a land more than 5000 years old. And yet, without managing to sound didactic or pedagogic, she forces you to think and open your mind – Alexander’s invasion to India is always a milestone in Indian History as it set the ball rolling for the rise of the first of the mightiest dynasties of India – The Maurayan Empire. It was also a well documented part of Indian history, as one of the Greek ambassador’s to the first Emperor’s court, Selucid left a detailed account of the life and times. However, Dr. Lahiri is the first historian to point the amateur reader, to a lesser known aspect of Alexander’s invasion – massacre of men and women and children in Multan, then northwestern India and now modern Pakistan, on a scale, that would be termed in modern day as genocide. She speaks about identity and stories of women, often lesser known in such works as Therigatha, where court dancers, mothers and queens come alive with their narratives of loves, lives and deaths. The book is replete with with interesting information as to why Indian Buddha’s do not smile, to descriptions of food, that defined power and largess and things which are often overlooked in more serious tomes, more so because there is just so much to write and also because, the details of daily life of Indian between 5000 BCE to 1000 AD is rather touch to decipher. This brings me to what I consider, the most important feature of the book – this could not have been a easy book to write, even for such an accomplished Historian as Dr. Lahiri simply because narratives about everyday life in India is far and few. We have the Buddhist texts and a lot of religious texts, but to glean out the earthy secular facts from the more metaphysical – philosphical texts cannot be an easy task. Yet it is accomplished and beautifully so! The book is a must read for anyone interested in India, History or both!