- Ever since I was a young woman, I have been unashamedly a fan, and frankly, it has always been so because of one fact— that she is a woman.
Although I never studied history in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) and I think that I never mustered up the courage to speak to her all through my student years, I was there in the audience for perhaps every talk she gave in the university for those seven years between my Masters and Ph.D., learning with awe and admiration on how to be an outstanding scholar, an excellent teacher, and above all, an academic committed to excellence in the public university. (I have had to come to terms of course with failing to live up to her standards, but who really can hope to?)
In short, ever since I was a young woman, I have been unashamedly a fan, and frankly, it has always been so because of one fact— that she is a woman. In my growing up years in a discipline like linguistics, having a role model like her was very important: someone who WAS a woman but who didn’t appear to research or write or argue or conduct herself or be intimidated AS a woman.
My experiences in life were limited and I had not encountered women scholars like her before, and hence my groupie avatar. Of course, as I grew up, I encountered many like her, both in JNU and elsewhere (Tanya Reinhart being one major inspiration in linguistics), but Romila (and Utsa Patnaik) in JNU will always be precious in a special way.
That Romila is here at 90, still dazzling us with her erudition, her scholarship, and her insight, still standing strong in her defense of the public university, the truth, and our embattled liberties of critical thought and free speech is a special gift, and that is for me once again a source of support. To think of her journey over nearly a century makes me believe that there will still be things to know and do in these dark times and that there will still be joy.
Perhaps this is why this poem by Lucille Clifton comes to mind:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
(Top photo, Professor Romila Thapar at work in her study. Photo courtesy, Karwaan – The Heritage Exploration Initiative. Inset, Thapar in 1957 on a visit to China. This comment was first posted on Facebook by Prof. Kidwai and republished here with permission.)
Ayesha Kidwai is a Professor of Linguistics at the Centre of Linguistics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and an awardee of the Infosys Prize for Humanities in 2013.