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Writing history, telling her story

When HT wanted to talk to friends, acquaintances and students of Upinder Singh (50), professor of ancient history at Delhi University, all of them had very good things to say about her. But most of them didn’t want to be quoted, lest people think they are praising her because of her Prime Minister father, writes Praveen Donthi.

entertainment Updated: Jan 09, 2010 23:19 IST
Praveen Donthi

When HT wanted to talk to friends, acquaintances and students of Upinder Singh (50), professor of ancient history at Delhi University, all of them had very good things to say about her. But most of them didn’t want to be quoted, lest people think they are praising her because of her Prime Minister father. http://www.hindustantimes.com/images/HTEditImages/Images/Upinder-Singh.jpg

Last week when Upinder Singh won the Infosys Prize 2009 for social sciences, newspapers noted that she didn’t give the thank-you-mom-and-dad speech. She stuck to history writing and teaching. To be identified as a daughter all the time, when she is a mother of two — Madhav (21) and Raghav (19) — is just one of the things that is not normal about Upinder’s life.

“I am aware that some of the interest in my work is because media is interested in politics”, she says. The last time she was in the news was when her name was wrongly associated with a ‘controversial’ book on Ram. But this time, it’s for her work. One headline read: When daughter made PM proud.

The citation by the jury chaired by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen mentions how she could “communicate her findings to a broad audience of students and intellectually curious non-specialists”. Says Upinder, “I think it’s very important for historians to show lay people how historical knowledge is constructed. It will help people to take positions on various historical issues.”

Her book, A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India: From the Stone Age to the 12th century has become the Bible for the undergraduate students of history. “It’s a comprehensive and impartial book. There are many colourful images, which one always imagined about. If she is talking about Harappan beads, she will also mention about the beads being made now in Gujarat and make it interesting”, says Namrata Singh (28), assistant professor, Dayal Singh College, who uses the book to teach her students.

When Upinder talks about history, there seems to be a larger sense of purpose. “There are so many issues in ancient India that need to be addressed. With age, I feel the need to prioritise”.

Could awareness of ancient and medieval history provide solutions to many current political problems like Ramjanmabhoomi and Babri Masjid? “I am not convinced that studying ancient history is worth doing so that it could solve contemporary problems. But something is gained from learning to think historically,” says Upinder. “The lessons of history aren’t direct or necessarily quick-fix solutions to today’s problems.”

Love for history dates back to her college days, says friend Aditya Arya, a photographer who has shot many of the pictures for her book, also a junior from St Stephen’s college. “One got to know her through the History Society,” he says. “She has big plans to encourage history teaching and writing.”

Upinder still lives on the same college campus as her husband Vijay Tankha (57) teaches philosophy there. The house is a fortress and her friends are privy to her discomfort with all the security. The couple got married in the summer of 1984 and the winter witnessed anti-Sikh riots post-Indira Gandhi’s assassination. “When it happens in Delhi and you were in the thick of things, it’s a very frightening and unsettling experience."

She is going to explore violence in her next work. “It’s on the arguments and representations of violence in ancient texts. Violence in relationship to political power to be precise... Sometimes you don’t realise but you get inspired to look at current issues and problems in a more ancient context.” How political is she? “I’m more interested in ancient political thought. But that’s not because of my father. Texts like Arth Shastra and others have interesting ideas. They haven’t been explored enough.”

Manmohan Singh’s daughter is a professor at Delhi University.
HT Photo by Ronjoy Gogoi