Book review: Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani

Nainsukh, Villagers Around A Fire


“India’s history is a curiously unpeopled place,” Sunil Khilnani writes, in the very first sentence of Incarnations: India in 50 Lives. “As usually told, it has dynasties, epochs, religions and castes – but not many individuals.”

The individuals were mentioned in blurry sheets of emperors or Leaders Of The National Movement sandwiched in between equally blurry collections of Festivals of India, Good Habits, and People of the World. Outside of school, they were commemorated in statues, now growing to cancerous proportions, or in politicians’ self-congratulatory billboards.

Mr Khilnani’s project, the apparently simple goal of telling “India’s story through fifty remarkable lives” spanning 2,500 years of history, is inherently, and pleasingly, subversive. He moves from Buddha to Dhirubai Ambani via Ashoka, Annie Besant, Birsa Munda, Iqbal, Kabir, Kautilya, Lakshmibai, Mirabai, Malik Ambar, Periyar, Subbulakshmi and many more, his journeys fuelled by a quiet, relentless curiosity and an extraordinary ability to capture the sweep of history. Incarnations is an essential, and timely, read, and while the BBC radio show was well-produced, the book outstrips the show.

[Listen to the Incarnations podcasts here:]

It is also an exceptionally liberating intellectual journey to take. Mr Khilnani’s prose is light and fast-paced. He doesn’t burden the reader with the amount of work that has gone into visiting many of the places mentioned, from the Oriental Library in Mysuru to schools in Rajasthan, villages in Karjat, as he conducts interviews with a Hindu Samrajya Sena leader in Ahmedabad, or listens in the cramped houses of Bazardiha for Kabir’s “insistent, urgent tone” to emerge in conversations.

But the solid labour of travel, research and meetings with other scholars as well as interviewees builds a stronger foundation for Incarnations than most non-fiction books about India can claim. And a more entertaining one than most, too:

“At the Mysore library, the Arthashastra is presented like a sumptuous dish, or a holy icon, on a plate bedecked with fresh flowers. Their scent mixes with the smell of citronella oil, which the library uses to preserve its store of palm-leaf manuscripts.” That charming encounter leads into a reflection on power, and where Kautilya stood in “the balancing act between liberty, security and prosperity.”

That quality of engaged attention informs some of the most interesting chapters in the book – readings of individuals as distinct as Periyar, the Buddha, Mirabai, Indira Gandhi, Ashoka, where Mr Khilnani retains his ability to offer an unusual, surprising interpretation of a history you thought was familiar. In the chapter on Adi Shankara, he says: “Hinduism itself remains much as it was in the eighth century, when the Arabs first tried to label it: multiple in form, bubbling with internal arguments, accepting of different types of belief.” The statement has more weight when you trace these internal arguments across 2,500 years.

Mr Khilnani’s ability to empathise with people long since dead is also astonishing. He imagines Rajaraja Chola’s grand temple coming up before the eyes of “the medieval peasants of the Kaveri river belt who watched the structure rise, block by granite block, over their rice paddies”, and then switches to speculation about what the project might have had to say about the king’s uneasiness about his power.

He’s equally good at summing up cities, as in this portrait of Delhi slipped into his profile of Khusrau: “ambiguous in its cultural mixing – not a melting pot, but home to hundreds of different communities, living adjacent to one another, often with benign indifference.”

One of the few areas where Incarnations disappoints is that there are only six profiles of women – Mirabai (not Lal Ded), Lakshmibai (not Razia Sultana), Annie Besant (not Sarojini Naidu or Aruna Asaf Ali), Amrita Sher-gil, Subbulakshmi, Indira Gandhi. His chapter on Jyotirao Phule mentions Savitribai, but does not do full justice to her. I understand the constraints of space, but perhaps that is an argument for another 50 to be added to the list.

A historian says of Lakshmi Bai that she dreams of some day finding the lost box that contains the missing voice and records of the queen. Mr Khilnani writes, “I can imagine many such boxes, which together might contain the greatest lost treasure of Indian history: the voices of its women.” As if to compensate, some of the strongest chapters in the book restore the histories and struggles of Birsa Munda and Ambedkar to the central position they should occupy; if not gender, then the long-running history of caste struggles gets some fair play here.

As you go through these brief and richly layered profiles, some stretching no longer than ten pages, your view of past, nation and history is likely to be both unsettled and enriched.

There are many areas of darkness in contemporary India. In these past few months, majoritarianism, nationalism and sedition, diminishing freedoms, tolerance and the withdrawal of it, the deliberate perpetuation of gross inequalities, and eruptions of both licensed and unplanned acts of violence have been under the scanner.

An especially disturbing feature of this time is the reduction of complex histories, lives and arguments to often inaccurate statements circulated as viral memes on television channels and social media. Incarnations embodies a passionate argument for the opposite of this crude and dangerous reductionism.

“Here’s one argument to start with: that India’s non-fictional past is sufficiently complex, unexpected and rich in inspiring example that fictionalised heroes are a little redundant. By insisting that figures from India’s past be preserved in memory as saints, above human consideration, we deny them not just their real natures, but their genuine achievements.”

Incarnations reminds me of B N Goswamy’s The Spirit of Indian Painting. These are ambitious books buttressed by decades of scholarship; they will radically reshape our understanding of India, if we can keep our minds open long enough to read them.

(Published in the Business Standard, March 1, 2016)






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