India through a kaleidoscope

Dibyesh Anand on the perils of telling a country’s story in 50 Lives

The World Today
3 minute READ

Incarnations: India in 50 lives
Sunil Khilnani
Allen Lane, £30

Narrating a story about a country is never easy; trying to do so about a present day country that claims to be an ancient civilisation and is home to a billion-plus people is even more difficult. Sunil Khilnani, author of The Idea of India, takes on this ambitious responsibility in Incarnations: India in 50 Lives.

As he acknowledges, a big challenge when writing an account of a country is who to include, who to exclude and how to avoid the dominance of ‘great men’ in the story when the archive of memories and texts remains dominated by such men.

While one may disagree with his choices, not least the provocative exclusion of the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, overall the book is an interesting read because it shows the plurality of contesting voices and ideas that shaped India. We come across ideas on how to rule, how to wage wars, how to organize, how to conform, how to resist, how to challenge and how to express in forms that leave imprints for generations to come. The effort to connect these ideas to individuals works well.

When discussing some of the lives such as that of Buddha or the warrior king Shivaji, Khilnani goes back and forth between the present and the past showing how the traces of the past are present today. However, in other lives, no such attempt is made. Khilnani argues that his stories of different individuals would challenge the dominant ways of looking at Indian thinkers as isolated – and would remind us that these figures ‘engaged with other individuals and ideas across time and across borders’. Yet, this does not become clear in many cases. ‘Indian’ thinkers remain quintessentially Indian.

While readers would be familiar with more common names such as Ashoka, Tagore or Gandhi, it is the accounts of relatively unknown people such as Malik Ambar, the slave warrior, that make the volume more interesting. It would have been better if Khilnani had reflected more on the politics of nationalist story-telling that ignored or appropriated these figures.

His anxiety about the present state of India, where a Hindu chauvinist party BJP is in power, comes out in the book. For instance, he reminds the reader that he is discussing individuals who allowed India to be in a ‘permanent – and, on balance, productive – state of openness about what the country and its people are’ and this is important to remember at a time when ‘some in India seek to transform the ferment of ideas over what India is, and should be, into a singular religious concoction’.

There is, however, an assumption in the book that needs unpacking – that India not only exists, but has existed for centuries. What was this ‘India’ that provides continuity between visionary Buddha and business tycoon Ambani? Do we not read our present day’s concerns into the past and impose a façade of continuity and unity when we talk of ‘India in 50 Lives’ spanning more than 2,500 years and territory that covers much of India and Pakistan today?

The refusal of Khilnani to question the very idea of India that somehow makes all 50 lives part of a large nationalist story indicates the limits of the entire endeavour. This is the limit set by a belief in the modern nation state of India. It is a limit because it then shapes the choices of the lives made, as well as the stories that are told about them. This becomes starkly clear in the accounts about Muhammad Iqbal, the poet and philosopher, for instance. Khilnani reject’s Iqbal’s ideas thus: ‘Today, that Islamic republic is arguably one of the world’s great oppressors of Muslim individuals and communities – far from the dream of a polity founded on fearless self-determination and love, and even of submission to the law of God. Of course, India can also be a harsh, alienating, even deadly home for Muslims. But, in his pursuit of poetic unities, perhaps what Iqbal missed was that a messy, multi-confessional democracy, backed by a secular constitution, even in a Hindu-majority society, might – just might – be a better bulwark against the horrors of western modernity, and a better buttress for the practice of a loving, energetic Islam, than a state devoted to upholding a single creed.’

Such a rejection is common to Indian nationalists who rightly reject the ‘two-nation theory’ as problematic but refuse to interrogate the equally problematic ‘one-nation theory’ of India. If the notion of Hindus and Muslims as two distinct nations is preposterous, so is the idea of one civilizational India.

This subscription to the idea of India as a nation state with deep history prevents a radical questioning of how India as a modern-day republic is a Brahmanical Hindu project. The distance between the secular vision of India and the Hindu nationalist vision is not great when looked at from the perspectives of the Dalits and other marginalized communities such as the Kashmiris.

Campaigners against the caste system are thankfully included. But the big argument they were making against casteist Indian nationalism is diluted. When discussing the social reformer Jyotiroa Phule, Khilnani points to the ‘irony’ of his story. Were it not for the East India Company usurping power and the new order it established, ‘one of the 19th century’s great radical humanists – in any country – might have been just another unknown vegetable supplier’. There is no irony because for the majority of Indians belonging to dominated castes, the oppression of the Company Raj would not have been different from that of the Mughal Raj or the Brahmanical-Kshatriya Raj.

By all accounts, most Kashmiris see Indian rule as an occupation, and yet in the story about Kashmiri’s Sheikh Abdullah, Khilnani talks of ‘forcible control’ by Pakistan and ‘control’ by China while refraining from using the same term for Indian rule. This is not a trivial point because it is reflective of how scholars who subscribe to the nation-state project of India engage with the Kashmir issue.

These criticisms notwithstanding, the book is an interesting read for those who believe that ‘India’s capacity to change itself, and to challenge its own dogmas [is] a still-available capacity, and one more necessary than ever’. The purpose of the book is to remind the reader that India’s story can be retold through the stories of remarkable individuals. Those who want to go beyond the grand history of India would benefit from reading this.