Rich repast of India’s past

(Published in Frontline, August 29 2022)

Nayanjot Lahiri’s Time Pieces is a slim little book, which can be read in a few sittings. But it gives us a good deal to chew on, covering, in just under 200 pages, an ‘eccentric’ set of topics. Lahiri’s note on her ‘wide and untidy spectrum’ of themes for the book—including food, hygiene, and death in ancient India—in fact adds to its charm. The original proposal before her was to write a tome on ‘Indian civilisation’; instead she opted for a smaller offering. While a grand narrative on India offers certain conveniences, it also poses risks of overstatement and generalisation; can there be a singular ‘Indian history’, with a single beginning, to start with? Instead, by selecting just under a dozen topics, Lahiri gives us insights from our ancient past(s), without forcing them into a larger template. We learn something from each section, but the task of weaving it all together, and picturing what India looked like before 1000 CE, is left to the reader, if at all the reader feels an urge to do this. I did not: I savoured the snippets as snippets. To me the mosaic with its many colours could be appreciated for each of its chips. 

Lahiri’s scholarship—wonderfully marked in her 2015 volume on Ashoka—clearly appears in Time Pieces also. But it is worn lightly, even as the elegance of writing continues from the earlier book. There is a breeziness to the pages, but it is not breeziness for the sake of breeziness; the mind is regularly exercised, even if not taxed. There is a gentle sense of humour throughout the text, which every now and then bursts out and brings a smile to the reader’s face. Writing on sewage systems in Harappan cities, Lahiri notes, for example: ‘You could say that the piss flowed free while the potty got soaked in cesspits’. She is quick, however, to follow up the wit with a sobering reminder: that Harappa’s ‘pioneering’ waste disposal mechanisms were backed by a ‘social mechanism’, where humans of lower classes had to physically clean those cesspits. But the humour returns soon enough. On toilet habits, we are informed how, if most ‘ancient people were wipers,’ Indians ‘were always washers’. A note on ‘mansplaining’ and its presence in ancient texts similarly sparks a chuckle, reminding us how much has not changed. 

In fact, while reading I could not help but connect aspects that Lahiri spotlights from ancient India with patterns from later periods. In the chapter titled ‘Laughter’, we read of Bhallata’s ninth century work in which gods and kings are parodied in ways that, in today’s India, would throw the poor man straight into our perennial Offence Olympics. So too we read of a seventh century farce by a Pallava king. In it a character ‘describes the goddess of liquor as being as faultless as the [holy] city of Kanchi’ while a Siva-bhakta likens ‘the liquor shop to a sacrificial ground’. I was reminded here of Shahu, the eighteenth-century Maratha king of Thanjavur, whose Satidanasuramu lampoons caste pretensions, while making light of topics like beef-eating. A sense of humour clearly existed in ancient India and seems to have survived down to the 1700s at any rate. It is a pity we don’t have more writing on this part of our past, not least given how we live in a world where comedians are jailed for jokes they are yet to tell. Perhaps the only consolation is to tell ourselves that we are living inside a bad play—and in the interim, as we wait for it to end, to pick up good books that make us think as well as laugh.

Strewn through Time Pieces is a wealth of detail, so that by the time I finished the book, I had dog-eared about fifty pages. A specific point on the discovery of a coffin made of rosewood in one of the Harappan sites made me pause; a quotation from the Mahabharata, discussing the kinds of meaty preparations to be consumed by Brahmins and kings alike, brought about a small, ironic snicker; the picture of a cave wall, where in the third century BCE, a young man carved a statement of his love for a lady, resulted in a flash of images of Mughal-era monuments, with romantic professions made by more recent Hemants for Meghas. I was also surprised to learn that just as for warriors and satis, there are hero-stones in memory of animals, including buffaloes and hounds. A more painful event to imagine came from a passing line on a king in Kashmir who chose to commit suicide by ‘driving a knife into his anus’. In fact the book, despite its sage, conversational tone, offers at every other turn something or the other to make one sit up in wonder.

It is likely that each reader will find in Time Pieces some sections more interesting than others. ‘Identity’ appealed to me, for example. In more than one place in the book, Lahiri observes how much the collective identity mattered in the ancient past, so that we know of human life but not individual lives—a fine distinction. Individual identities only begin to appear in the material record relatively late in the day, and we are aware how, even today, conflict continues between longstanding group identities—caste, religion—and the individual yearning to break out. What was also of interest was a note on how, where people in ancient India do refer to their individual identities, epigraphic evidence largely frames them via markers other than caste: professions, for instance. This reminded me of Cynthia Talbot’s study of the medieval Kakatiyas, whose inscriptional record is noteworthy for featuring very little on caste, even though textual material does dedicate space to varna and related hierarchical forms of identity. Just as these issues are debated now, the ancients had their own conundrums. 

On the whole Time Pieces delivers what it promises: A Whistle-Stop Tour of Ancient India, as its subtitle goes. It touches on art, food, culture; it speaks of tribal societies and their interactions with peoples in the plains; it tells us of desire and sexuality, as it does of sexual violence and the absence of the female gaze in much written evidence. Ancient India is still in great part invisible to us: there isn’t adequate material to piece together a more comprehensive, thorough story. What we know is scattered, requires expertise in handling a variety of sources of different kinds, and a mind not clouded by preconceptions. Lahiri does this with charm and offers a book that is thought-provoking and instructive. She remarks at the end that parts of Time Pieces originated in classroom interactions at Ashoka University, where she teaches. While one can’t recreate that experience, there is a certain quality in Lahiri’s writing, where you feel as if she is sitting across you and speaking directly as she takes you on this tour of ancient India. That is the book’s triumph, and it leaves one reaffirming that history is not only complex, but also fascinating.