Books

Interview: Sunil Khilnani on Telling 2,500 Years of Indian History Through Fifty Lives

In conversation with Sunil Khilnani on his new book, Incarnations, and what he hopes this work will mean for how India and the world perceive Indian history.

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives. Credit: BBC

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives. Credit: BBC

In his new book Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, Sunil Khilnani, director of the India Institute at Kings College, London and author of The Idea of India (1997), takes on the fraught and complex task of telling the stories of fifty lives from Indian history, which he describes as “a curiously unpeopled place.” The people in these meticulously researched biographical essays are rescued, in a few cases, from obscurity, and in many more cases, from a unidimensional sainthood. They are the founders of major religions, monarchs, artists, social reformers, writers, politicians and businesspeople.

Khilnani first presented Incarnations as a radio series on BBC, with the first 25 biographies being broadcast last summer and the final 25 beginning earlier this month.

In conversation with The Wire, Khilnani talks about the impulses behind the writing of this book, what he discovered, and what he hopes this work will mean for how India and the world perceive Indian history.

How do you feel about the uncritical way in which history is often taught in Indian schools?

One of the impulses behind the book was this feeling that history is not well taught. We have this cartoon version of the past where figures just represent one idea or one moment, but we really have no sense of historical figures as human beings.

This was a work of self-education, where I was teaching myself about many of these figures that one knew of but hadn’t really gone into deeply. But I also saw it as something for the wider public imagination, particularly for younger people, to realise that this is a history involving real human beings and not just monuments.

There’s one level in which there’s a lot of debate about the history wars, and what kind of history gets taught and so on, but beyond that there’s the question of getting people engaged in the subject. Even that’s not happening. It’s an extraordinary history, and the idea that we can make it dull and uninteresting is just sad, really.

Sunil Khilnani. Credit: Shreya Ila Anasuya

Sunil Khilnani. Credit: Shreya Ila Anasuya

How do you, with Incarnations, hope to bridge the disconnect between contemporary realities and Indian history?

I think there’s an enormous interest in history and an enormous presence of it. From the streets to the newspapers to imagery in films, it’s there. We are reaching back to the past, whether for inspiration or to fight our battles today.

I wanted to look at the complexities of it, and see the fact that we can read it in different ways as a resource. The book is trying to say in the story of the nation there are so many different strands and it’s not a kind of single file march towards some kind of national future. It’s a crowd, it’s a rabble, this history of voices we can draw from.

Does this inform the structure of your essays, as they lead from a contemporary scene into the past?

That was important. That’s one of the senses in which the title works: these are lives that I think have had afterlives. That was one of the criteria for choosing them, that these lives still resonate with or mean something to people today. I wanted to see both how they’re used today and what they really were in their time. The book is trying to say that the past is not a foreign country, but somewhere we still live.

We should be arguing not only with each other, but also with the past, because being a democracy, all we have is our history to figure out what to do next. In that sense, thinking about history is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. It’s only from our engagement with history that we can really learn what worked, what didn’t work, why we’ve been able to do the great things we’ve done, why we continue to do the cruelties we do, and figure out what to do next. For me, understanding history is not a parlour game, it’s a way to figure out what we do next.

Your biographical essays humanise their subjects. Was this to go against the grain of unidimensional, black-and-white readings of historical figures such as Gandhi, Shivaji or Lakshmi Bai?

As you say, there’s either this kind of blind glorification or there’s this kind of iconoclasm. I was not interested in either, because human beings are neither great heroes nor abject terrible people ­­– maybe some are, but most aren’t. It is intended to demythologise in order to re-humanise. That’s how we respond to the past: through human stories, and not through abstract values such as virtue or bravery. These people were also fallible human beings.

I think this approach is particularly true in the case of women. We find it so difficult to treat them as remarkable individuals. They either get deified or vilified, or they turn into these supra-human figures. I really wanted to fight against that. I wanted to ask all of us see them as complicated people, who can be examples today for young people.

A lot of critical thinking that takes places in universities has the power to inform and engage public imagination, but this often doesn’t happen. As an academic, how do you place your work in this context?

I think the purpose of scholarship is to engage with the public imagination, not just with other scholars. There’s also responsibility – if you’ve been given the luxury to spend time reading and thinking about this, it’s not a solipsistic or narcissistic exercise; you’ve got to engage widely.

The academic world has become very much a world that talks to itself in all of the social sciences and the humanities, in a language that is mystificatory.

I really saw this project as something to engage the wider imagination of people in India and elsewhere. Just as Indian history is badly taught here, it’s even worse understood elsewhere.

With the radio form, it was pushing the BBC’s way of doing it, because this was much more complex than what they usually do, particularly for a subject that for them is exotic. They want India with elephants, with railways, with temple bells. We had to say that we should only use this where it makes intellectual sense, not where it’s decorative.

Have you had a lot of people challenge you on the people you chose to include and leave out of the book?

Yes, and I invite that argument, as I say in the introduction. Of course, you can’t narrow down 2,500 years of the history of a country like India into fifty lives. That was not my presumption.

I think I have a reasonable logic for why I have chosen these fifty: they had to have afterlives, they all had to be expired, as we say, and they all had to represent one of the major fault lines of tension – caste, gender, religion or region – in Indian history and there had it be a way in which one could tell a larger story.

I didn’t want to take simply vignette stories, which may be interesting in themselves but which don’t tell us something broader. There are many such stories of fascinating individual lives, which therefore got left out.

Finally, they had to be interesting to me. It is a personal selection in that sense. What it’s not is an encyclopaedia or a printed version of Wikipedia. It is a book of argument and essays. But of course, people have said to me, ‘Why not someone from here? Why not this person?’

You have also included figures like Malik Ambar, the 17th century Ethiopian-Indian guerrilla leader and regent, who have been forgotten.

You’re absolutely right, some of the figures are people we’ve forgotten. I am interested in what those forgettings represent and what they tell us about ourselves. That’s a correction to what I was saying earlier, that they all have afterlives. Some of them don’t, but I think that in itself is telling. Malik Ambar is a clear very example of that.

I noticed the thematic nature of the book. A lot of the essays speak to each other, on caste; on the subversive nature of the founders of major religions such as the Buddha, Mahavira and Guru Nanak; on the co-opting of the legacies of radical figures such as Kabir.

That’s interesting, but I didn’t go into it thinking that I’d necessarily find what is, as you rightly say, a subversive and critical aspect. Finding it surprised and interested me. For example, with the Guru Nanak essay, I initially wondered how I was going to do the essay. But actually, when you look at him, he’s a remarkably subversive figure.

These are figures that are really arguing against the social order. In many cases, it is caste that defines that. I was struck by how consistent this resistance is to various figures, because they were scrappers, fighters. In retrospect we see them as elderly people, but these were young rebels and this is something I wanted to recover.

But at the same time the paradox is that we have this capacity to absorb this history and defang it to make it less dangerous than it could be. I don’t have a big explanation for that, it’s got to do with a lot of different things, but that also struck me. For all the criticism at the level of ideas and even practice, there’s also this capacity to absorb and to sometimes minimise the degree of change. That should also be an incitement to us today: we’ve got this legacy, can we use it further?

Credit: Penguin Books

Credit: Penguin Books

Did the research on Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, Jyotirao Phule, B.R. Ambedkar and others make you look at caste differently than before?

Yeah, I think it did, for both caste and gender. In both cases, you discover just how pervasive the discrimination is. Often it is wrongly seen as something that is only a concern for those who feel its effects, but actually it is vastly deformative to the whole society.

The idea that Ambedkar is only a leader for Dalits is a mistake – he’s at the centre of the Indian democratic experiment and he was very aware of the limits of this experiment we were embarking on, especially if we didn’t directly address these issues.

Although you have Amrita Sher-Gil, MS Subbulakshmi, Indira Gandhi and others, there aren’t nearly as many women figures, and there are no transgender figures at all. Why so?

I was hugely aware of the question of women and where they are in the book from the very beginning, right in the making the first selection. I hope that everyone is as outraged as I am about the limited number of women in the book, and let me give you the reasoning behind this: because I wanted this to be a work of history, I wanted there to be sources, documents and material I could actually draw on to write about these people, and I did find that in the case of women in history.

Beyond royals, beyond queenly figures, there’s actually very little. You’ll find some temple inscriptions in the south, you’ll find some poetry in earlier centuries, but you actually find very little otherwise. The earliest voices we have are the Therigatha, the Buddhist women, but beyond that to actually reconstruct an individual life, there’s not very much and I think we should be really shocked by that.

Therefore I begin with Mirabai and even there it was very difficult – actually beginning to separate her from the legend is hard. But there are two things beyond that. One, I thought it would be a mistake to gauge the level of the book’s engagement with women and the issue of women simply by the number of women in the book.

What I tried to do was to bring the issue of women and gender consistently into as many essays as I could – with the Buddha, Mahavir and the Jain, with Periyar, with Tagore – making the point that you can’t think about women only when you write about women. It runs right through the book. I was trying to, if you like, de-ghettoise the subject from simply the number of essays.

In terms of transgender figures, I would be interested to know more about that, because yes, they aren’t in the book, but who were you thinking of?

Off the top of my head, and using the word transgender as an umbrella term and not necessarily as a term of self-identification, I would say Chapal Bhaduri, the Jatra actor who played female roles. Then, women like Savitribai Phule, absolutely central to feminism and Dalit resistance. Rukmini Arundale, who played a very important role in co-opting devadasis’ sadir style of dancing and sanitising it into Bharatnatyam.

I hope that the book will precisely generate this kind of argument ­­– why are we not telling those histories in a more central way. That’s what I hope will happen. There are other areas where there could be so much more. I’m very aware that I didn’t have a strong figure from the north-east, again one of the difficulties being getting sources. For adivasi history, I have Birsa Munda but there’s so much more.

There can be a webpage where people add their suggestions for names and their rationale for why this should be part of our historical imagination. That’s always been part of the plan and I do want to do that. That’s the feeling I hope one comes away with after having read the book – what of all the others?

This is a very timely book, considering the ongoing fraught debates around nationalism and identity in India. Did you feel that it was important for you to highlight the plurality of India’s history when writing it?

Certainly, the plurality of the Indian past is just inescapable. Try as hard as you might to scrub it out, you just can’t do it. In a way, I didn’t have to do very much to emphasise it. You just have to look at it and you see it.

To me, that plurality is the strength of the variety of definitions we can have of India. The interesting thing about the kind of nationalism that defines our foundation, was that it saw this plurality as a strength rather than a threat.

The idea that we need a narrower nationalism is harking back to a 19th century, provincial European idea and the irony is that there are some who want to go back to this view. That’s not just bad politics, it is a failure of the imagination.

There are a lot of 19th century ideas and laws that we’ve refashioned as essentially Indian things, such as the use of Section 377 and the sedition laws.

I would agree with that and it is one of our ironies that we are continuing to recolonise ourselves, even as we think that this is some kind of liberation. Whereas these were far more radical and intellectually brave figures in our past than could be contained in those boxes. When you put a figure like Tagore and his conception of the importance of individual choice, love and so on against the existence of Section 377, it is ridiculous.