She is certainly her father's daughter when it comes to thinking for herself, stoutly refusing either to be browbeaten by what she describes as the "hyper-nationalist" right-wingers or to blindly follow the Marxist historians' line. "My father has never laid down the law because all three of us (she has two younger sisters: an environmentalist, and a lawyer who lives abroad) are fiercely independent. His approach has always been: Ok, this is my view but you make up your own mind." It's the approach he took when Upinder opted for history instead of economics in college. "I applied for economics, probably out of deference to my father, but I couldn't do it because I was so terrible at maths," she recalls.
And again, when she decided to marry a fellow academic, Vijay Tankha. "I think it was the first time anybody in our family was marrying outside the community," recalls Upinder. "It created a little consternation in the larger family circle, but my parents were fine with it. Ever since we were adults, they told us to make our own decisions. I realise now as a parent how difficult it is to accept that young people look at things differently. But they realised it and accepted it."
Old Stephanians still recall a prank young Upinder, then a second year student at the college, played on the don who later became her husband. She barged into the staff room, accusing the young philosophy lecturer, to his acute embarrassment, of betraying her love. She laughs about it now: "Looking back, I find it rather audacious. We used to have this tradition, a practical joke week, and I played a joke on him." The "joke" did not turn into a love story until some four years later, when she joined St Stephen's as a history teacher. "That's when we got to know each other," she says.
Besides teaching, the two share another passion: travelling to remote places of either historical or archaeological importance. Upinder says she started off as "an armchair scholar", but somewhere along the way discovered the importance of visiting the relevant sites and understanding things for herself. "I think the best way to learn about ancient Indian history is to visit archaeological sites." But these trips have become both harder and easier to undertake since her father became prime minister. As, for instance, when she visited the Chandraketugarh site in Bengal two years ago, where the plunder of artefacts from the 2,500-year-old site has been going on unchecked for years now. Upinder went in a three-car convoy, examined the site, looked at some artefacts in a private collection and returned, silent and helpless to stop the loot.
"I think a great deal needs to be done in terms of conserving a huge amount of very rich and varied remains of the ancient past in the country," she readily admits. So why can't she speak up about the appalling conservation work when she visits sites? "One doesn't want to do anything that can be misconstrued as interfering, even if you're trying not to interfere," she says reluctantly. "There is a certain hesitation that comes in about being proactive, even on issues you feel strongly about."
This hesitation to encroach into anything even remotely concerned with her father's domain is something that was deeply ingrained since her childhood. "My father had a very strict rule from ever since I was a child: he had his work and what he's doing, and we had our own thing. We don't interfere. I am very fond of my father, and I respect him and everything but there is a very clear line in our family life that I just can't (transgress). There's no question of my trying somehow to influence government agencies or departments."
Upinder with husband Vijay and son Madhav
But can she really, with history becoming almost as contentious as politics, keep her world from colliding with her father's? Just four months ago, her family boundaries notwithstanding, she got dragged into a controversy over a compilation of articles on the Ramayana. Angry students of a right-wing group ransacked Delhi University's history department, roughing up the head of department to protest against the book, forcing the university officials to clarify that the prime minister's daughter was neither the author nor compiler of the selection of essays. But she makes no bones about the fact that her views on religious texts will hardly be in consonance with "the way an ardent religious person would look at these texts". She sees herself as a liberal historian, Upinder says. "I do not subscribe at all to the contemporary right-wing hyper-nationalist views of Indian history."
Her goal, she says, was to write a book that prods the reader into thinking for herself, and to convince students that history was not dull and boring, but about "real people with emotions, needs and the sort of issues that we are used to dealing with in contemporary life." Whether it's the bathrooms in a Harappan city (they used to squat quite literally on a large pot!), or the games they played ("pitthu"—a game that's quite popular in northern India even now, 5,000 years later), or an epitaph to a dead parrot, or the graffiti scrawled by a love-lorn youth to a devdasi, the pet dogs that ended up in the same grave as their masters, no detail is too small to find a place in her book. She wanted to tackle two different aspects in this book, she explains. One is to discuss the various sources and their interpretation, the arguments and debates among historians; and to share her sense of excitement and passion about the subject, "something almost magical about trying to understand the life of people who lived long ago."
But isn't she afraid that in this politically charged atmosphere, her open-ended new book, which doesn't shy away from giving her own point of view, will spark another ugly controversy? Upinder considers the possibility with her trademark composure: "It's true that ancient Indian history has become very contentious, and I think some amount of debate and disagreement is important." But it's the methods that these "polemicists" use that she deplores: "If you don't agree with something in my book, then review it critically or write your own book to vent your point of view, but not this violence and intimidation as happened in the history department."
Considering the occupational hazards, she says, historians like herself have begun to think very carefully before they write. But she's not one to be browbeaten: "I think you still have to say and write what you think is valid from a historical point of view, not just how somebody might exploit what you write for their political goals."
But she allows that she'll be more than a little relieved when her father's term is finally over. "I would like to get my independence back. The securitymen would disappear, for one. I'm looking forward to getting my privacy back." And her voice, of course—she has no doubt that the day her father retires from his job, she can finally be proactive about what matters to her, whether it's archaeology and its conservation, or "just loll about the beach without somebody always there".
And perhaps to spend a little more time with her father. "My father has always been very busy and absorbed in his work, in all his jobs. And now, of course, there's little else except his job." Over three decades after refusing to follow in his footsteps, Upinder can now see her life is not so different from her father's after all. "Just the other day, I was sitting with him and marking my students' scripts and he began reminiscing about the time when he was teaching in Chandigarh, when he used to sit and mark his students' papers. So we have this connection."
From her mother, Upinder says, she's inherited determination to do everything for herself, without relying on servants. "I think this idea of trying to do everything for ourselves we got from both our parents but especially from my mother because we saw her doing a lot of housework. She does a lot, from when we were children, getting up in the morning to get us to school—at least two sets of braids, making the tiffins. She is a very down-to-earth person and I think that's one of her qualities I admire. That, and always remaining herself."
But life is coming full circle now, with her older son, Madhav, in college—just moved to his third year at St Stephen's studying English literature. "He told me, 'Don't take it personally, but I hate history. It has nothing to do with you, Ok?' At 19, all doors seem open to Madhav as far as the future goes, including making pots of money—an ambition at odds with his parents, who are not above discussing ways of getting a publisher's discount to buy a book they covet. "Maybe I'll become a lawyer or perhaps a journalist, but eventually I want to become a politician," Madhav says airily, enjoying the look of mild bemusement that overtakes both his parents' faces. But true to the family tradition, Upinder looks on silently as her son toys with his future.