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Monday, July 13, 2020

Book review: From Aryabhata to Vivekananda

Sunil Khilnani threads India's complex and variegated history together through elegant biographies of 50 individuals who made a difference.

Written by Vinay Lal | Updated: April 2, 2016 12:42:12 am
BR Ambedkar being administered the oath of office by President Rajendra Prasad in the presence of Jawahar Lal Nehru, 1947 BR Ambedkar being administered the oath of office by President Rajendra Prasad in the presence of Jawahar Lal Nehru, 1947

Book: Incarnations: India in 50 Lives
Author: Sunil Khilnani
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 636 pages
Price: Rs 699

“India’s history,” Sunil Khilnani argues, “is a curiously unpeopled place. As usually told, it has dynasties, epochs, religions and castes — but not many individuals.” The colonial scholar-administrators who governed India through the first half of the 19th century, and their largely pedestrian successors, were firmly of the opinion that the individual as such did not exist in India. By the second half of the 19th century, colonial anthropology peopled India with “types”; in a short time, India was then rendered a land of collectivities, where religion, and then caste, reigned supreme and the individual as an atom of being remained unknown. That, in good measure, would become the origin of “communalism”.

Mohandas Gandhi, one of the 50 individuals who people the pages of Khilnani’s tome, was fully aware that in writing his autobiography, he was engaged in a task that was relatively novel to the Indian scene. He would, I suspect, have agreed that biography is another related genre at which Indians are spectacularly poor, though Khilnani seeks to rectify this shortcoming in this beautifully produced and elegantly written work. There is no suggestion that other lives might not have been equally interesting pointers to India’s complex and variegated history, and Khilnani advances a number of arguments to justify his choices. Many of India’s most fascinating minds, he submits, have been compelled “to exist in splendid isolation”, and his endeavour is to put those lives into conversation with “other individuals and ideas across time and border”, though, as is often the case with Indian intellectuals, it is principally “the West” that he has in mind when he is thinking of cross-border exchanges and fertilisations.

There is also the more familiar argument that the omission of some well-known names allows Khilnani to rescue from obscurity some who scarcely deserved that fate. Thus, alongside the predictable pantheon of the greats — the Buddha, Mahavira, Akbar, Adi Shankara, Guru Nanak, Gandhi, Ambedkar, to name a few — we come across a slew of characters who are little remembered today. Among the more memorable of his cast are VO Chidambaram Pillai (1872-1936), a Tamilian lawyer whose Swadeshi Steam Navigation Company created a sensation in nationalist circles before the British found a pretext for removing him from the political scene, and Nainsukh (1710-1784), a master of the Pahari school of miniature painting in whose work Khilnani finds ample evidence of humanity, warmth, individuality, and, most significantly, a modern sensibility. Yet, more remarkable still is Malik Ambar (1548-1626), an Abyssinian slave whose journey took him from Ethiopia to Baghdad and thence to the Deccan, a journey at the same time from subjection to overlordship. Racial prejudice, Khilnani rightfully notes, has obscured the rich history of linkages between India and Africa and the place of Africans in India’s history.

Khilnani, rather admirably, is able to do justice to his subjects in comparatively short but crisp essays. On occasion, there are even startling insights or formulations. He writes of Jinnah with sympathy, but the critique in the concluding paragraph could not be more forceful: every dream of homogeneity is undercut by the fact that there is “some aspect of identity, some sect, some culture or language, that doesn’t fit”; in other words, “identity is prone to be secessionist.” The essay on Charan Singh, whose most thorough biographer is the American political scientist Paul Brass, is against the grain: he has been willfully forgotten, perhaps providing an index of the contempt in which recent governments have held the Indian peasant, but Khilnani is appreciative of his ability to command the voice of the peasants even if he is mindful of Charan Singh’s inability to speak for the landless farmer.


Everything in Khilnani’s charming book is reasonable — and that, perhaps, defines the limits of his imagination. About everyone gets the same number of pages, and one could say that the king (Ashoka, to name one) and the pauper (Kabir) are treated with radical equality. No man (or woman, though they are few and far between) is treated with reverence as such. Criticisms of Gandhi are a dime a dozen these days, but even the Buddha is reprimanded for exhibiting patriarchal values. It is a mark of the liberal sensibility that one should be able to view one’s subject warts and all, and Khilnani is scrupulous in the observance of this principle. The accent is unquestionably on the modern: nearly 30 of his 50 individuals, commencing with Ram Mohan Roy, lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Doubtless, modern lives are better documented, but perhaps Khilnani reveals something of his sensibility in his predilection towards the modern. He bemoans the fact that Indian women’s lives are not well documented, but one might counter by asking why Razia Sultan, Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and Lata Mangeshkar are omitted from his narrative. There is, however, a greater problem: if Khilnani is constrained by his sources from speaking about women, he is surely not precluded from venturing into the politics of gender, femininity, and masculinity. There is precious little of that in Incarnations, since he lets a rather elementary, even procrustean, conception of women’s lives guide his treatment of gender.

As with an anthologist, one should perhaps not begrudge Khilnani his choices. There is a perfectly good reason why each of those 50 Indians becomes one of Khilnani’s “lives”, though one should not imagine that they are necessarily, in Emerson’s phrase, “representative men”. Nevertheless, as Khilnani himself would recognise, one can be certain that much of the animated discussion of his book will revolve around his choices, and some will deplore the absence of their heroes while others will wonder why a Sheikh Abdullah is being placed in the lofty company of Gandhi or Ambedkar. Ram Mohan Roy, Vivekananda, Tagore, Satyajit Ray: one can have only so much of (as someone once quipped) the still-continuing Bengal Renaissance. If one were attempting, say, 50 American lives, I think it quite likely that Muhammad Ali and Babe Ruth would have made the cut, if not Michael Jordan and Jackie Robinson. Yet, not a single sportsperson is represented in Khilnani’s Incarnations, though for two decades the hockey wizard, Dhyan Chand, made millions of Indian hearts flutter. PT Usha never won India a single Olympics medal, not even a measly bronze, yet, for a decade, the hopes of an entire country were invested in her. The chest-thumping that takes place in Indian middle-class homes every four years, when a country of much more than one billion finds itself possessed of a medal or two, outclassed by countries such as Belarus, Georgia, and Jamaica, points to the deep anxieties that afflict the Indian middle class. Had Khilnani been attentive to the politics of recognition, it is quite likely that he would have come up with quite a different set of Indian lives.

The writer is professor of history, UCLA

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