Review: Incarnations Is an Ambitious yet Intimate View of the Plurality that is India

Those who claim that India is the product of just one religion and culture would do well to read Sunil Khilnani’s eclectic selection of fifty lives who show that India has always absorbed myriad influences, says Sidharth Bhatia.

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives. Credit: BBC.

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives. Credit: BBC.


Jawaharlal Nehru dominated Sunil Khilnani’s best-known book, The Idea of India, a title that has since then become a catchphrase of sorts. The building blocks of Nehruvian nationalism guided India for decades after independence and to some extent still do, notwithstanding the persistent endeavours of the current dispensation to demolish them.

It is therefore ironical that Nehru does not find a place in the pantheon of the 50 names that Khilnani profiles in his latest work, Incarnations: India in 50 Lives. These are, according to Khilnani, the people whose thoughts and deeds have shaped the creation of what we call India.

Fully anticipating that the obvious question – where’s Nehru? – will be asked by readers, Khilnani addresses it obliquely in his introduction: “I’ve chosen to leave out some familiar names, to allow space to bring in a few others who should be more widely known – a choice with which I think one of the figures I have excluded, Nehru, would have agreed.”

Khilnani quotes him early on in the introduction, “Jawaharlal Nehru famously described this past as a palimpsest, where each successively dominant culture, religion or group left its traces, never quite effacing what came before it.” The resonance of these words at a time when all efforts are being made to demolish his legacy and introduce a Hindutva-led nationalism cannot be overstated. Given the current climate, it will not be surprising if Nehru’s absence in a book by Sunil Khilnani is pointed out as some warped admission of the first prime minister’s growing irrelevance in modern India.

Credit: Penguin Books

Credit: Penguin Books

Any such list is bound to raise questions and not a few controversies: why so few women, or why no one from the North-east, for example. Including Mohammed Ali Jinnah is fully understandable; after all, he changed the very geography and destiny of the sub-continent, but surely Manto makes it because of a modish interest in him over the last few years. Similarly, one would have argued for Lata Mangeshkar instead of M S Subbulakshmi (if indeed there was just one place vacant for the ‘female singer’ category). There was equally a strong case to bring in Clive of India, perhaps a politically incorrect choice but a historically more significant one. And why Charan Singh, of all people?

Yet, this should not detract from what is a very thoughtful and readable book that is ambitious in scale, but with intimate touches that Khilnani brings to each profile. The fifty names Khilnani has selected cover a span of 2500 years could broadly be divided into three categories: the philosophers, the rulers and the innovators. All of them are path-breakers in one way or the other, or what marketers would call “disruptors”. The eclectic and somewhat eccentric result is full of pleasant surprises – where else can one find Kabir with Raj Kapoor, Annie Besant with Ramanujan and Shivaji with Satyajit Ray?

Happily, Khilnani also profiles those who are significant but do not have widespread public recognition – the African slave Malik Ambar, Nainsukh the miniaturist and the tribal leader Birsa Munda, who is particularly relevant in the current context as adivasis fight for their land in the face of rapid industrialisation.

In this book, which began as a radio series for BBC4, Khilnani the historian leaves his classroom behind and ventures to the far flung corners of India, from Mumbai’s slums to impoverished villages outside Varanasi and then on to Amir Khusro’s tomb in Delhi, absorbing local ‘colour’ in a relatable way to establish his bigger arguments. From the very first profile, of the Buddha, to the last one, of Dhirubhai Ambani, Khilnani is on the road, talking to ordinary citizens and to experts in order to to draw portraits of his subjects, some of them very well known, others completely forgotten and still others plucked from obscurity.

Many of those whom he has written about are pressed into service to provide a considered view about the contemporary state of the nation. Here’s Khilnani on Panini, the fourth century Sanskrit grammarian: “Today, you can hear Sanskrit intoned in temple and family rituals and practiced in classrooms, but it’s no longer a language inquiry or debate. Governments can proclaim ‘Sanskrit weeks’ and millions of students are made to endure Sanskrit classes each year in Indian schools, but most learn absolutely nothing. In 2014, some ministers in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government, revivalist in their hopes, even took their Cabinet oaths in the language. But it’s all a bit of a sham.”

In his gem of a piece on M Visvesvaraya, engineer and planner, Khilnani writes: “A good deal of the economic revitalisation plan Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised in return for the mandate he won in the 2014 national elections parallels what Visvesvaraya advocated: development of large-scale industries, greater power to the states, decentralised administration, efficiency as a primary value of governance and harsh responses to corruption. Modi also shares Visvesvaraya’s lack of patience for social questions. The weaknesses of human development indices do not perturb him greatly, and his government has cut funding for schemes to improve them.”

Visvesvaraya, as Khilnani shows, also pushed the Brahmanical agenda. On the other hand, Jotiba Phule, one of the many social reformists Maharashtra has produced, had a distinctly democratic and anti-Brahmanical agenda. Khilnani is ready to challenge prevailing orthodoxies about many of his subjects – did Aryabhata really invent the zero? – and look past the myth-making: “But the historical record shows no particular gift for military strategy or leading troops; instead, he possessed courage, moral myopia, and a capacity for outlandish reinvention that rivalled his nemesis Gandhi’s whenever faced with an impediment to the goal of independence,” he writes about Subhas Chandra Bose.

Khilnani’s take on Vivekananda, though, may surprise considered liberal opinion which has long held that the preacher promoted a hyper-masculine brand of Hinduism. Khilnani acknowledges that, but concludes, somewhat ambivalently: “…his writings make clear that he also wanted humans to overcome narrow identities, respect each other and expand their circles of identification. Or at least I think that’s what he wanted. One can never be quite sure with the elusive, charismatic Vivekananda. But I rather suspect that many contemporary Indians have mistaken one of their most interesting universalist thinkers for a simplistic nationalist.”

At a time of contested views on not just nationalism but also what it means to be an Indian, such arguments could provide a convenient handle to those who are aggressively pursuing a majoritarian agenda, though that may not ever be Khilnani’s objective. Which, happily, takes us to Kabir, who, in Khilnani’s telling, emerges as a kind of cool dude who took great pleasure in mocking the conventions of this time. Of the many translations of Kabir’s dohas available, Khilnani uses, playfully, one supposes, a recent attempt by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, which can only be described as hipsterish:

Kabir and disciple. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Kabir and disciple. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

‘Me shogun.’
‘Me bigwig.’
‘Me the chief’s son.
I make the rules here.’

It’s a load of crap.
Laughing, skipping,
Tumbling, they’re all
Headed for Deathville.

In the blink
Of an eye, says Kabir.
The king will be
Separated from his kingdom.

But get past this and one is treated to the story of a man who is still relevant 600 years after he died, not least because much of what he saw around him – the oppression of the weak, the injustices of the caste system – is still prevalent.

“Today in India, dissenting views are often exiled – forced out of the public sphere by state interference and by religious and social groups within civil society,” writes Khilnani. “Books and documentary films are frequently banned. Publishers are intimidated into censoring their authors. …So now perhaps it’s as important as ever to reject revert incarnations of Kabir and recognise the edgier social critic and sceptic – the one whose verses are rightly woven into the long, rich, often-endangered tradition of dissent in Indian life.”

Those who claim that India is the product of just one religion and culture, and demand that fealty to it must be loudly proclaimed to establish one’s patriotic credentials, would do well to read this book. It will show that India is, and has always been, a land that has adopted and absorbed myriad influences and in turn has been shaped by them. Here, in these pages, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits, Tribals, Africans, Britons and even Parsis, all mingle to create the wonder that is India.

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives
Allen Lane/Penguin, 630 pages, Rs. 999

(This review first appeared in Biblio.)