2,500 Years of Indian History in One Book

Amrita Sher-Gil, “Self-Portrait in Green,” 1932. Private collection, reproduced courtesy of Vivan and Navina Sundaram

INCARNATIONS
A History of India in Fifty Lives
By Sunil Khilnani
Illustrated. 449 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $30.

Save a few giants like the Buddha, Akbar and Gandhi, the great figures of Indian history are little known outside the country, and some are little remembered inside the country, either. “Whether it’s arts, business, politics or sports, we have no biographies,” Ramachandra Guha, one of India’s most respected historians, said at a recent book event in New Delhi. Sunil Khilnani’s new book, “Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives,” admirably tries to remedy that paucity by casting light on some of those obscured men and women.

Khilnani, who is the director of the India Institute at King’s College London, provides a whirlwind tour of roughly 2,500 years of Indian history in 50 fast-paced chapters. Each is a biographical sketch of an important personality from Indian politics, art, culture and economics, starting with the Buddha and ending with Dhirubhai Ambani, the son of a teacher who ended up building India’s largest and most successful corporations. Among these figures are the giants like Gandhi whom many readers will be familiar with. But the book really shines when Khilnani writes about the ideas and exploits of the many lesser-known characters like Malik Ambar, an Abyssinian slave who through luck and grit came to rule a patch of India’s Deccan peninsula and frustrated the Mughals who were trying to bring all of India under their control. Then there is Mokshagundam Visvesvaraya, a Robert Moses-like figure who oversaw public works in the kingdom of Mysore and helped bring electricity to Bangalore several years before it reached Bombay, which was under British control at the time. And the sad but inspiring story of the artist Amrita Sher-Gil, who gained fame and notoriety through her provocative paintings of herself and everyday Indian life but whose own life was cut short by either food poisoning or an abortion gone wrong.

Khilnani’s writing is easy to read, yet authoritative. He has spent much of his career studying India. His book “The Idea of India,” first published in 1997 and updated several times, is required reading for anybody seeking to better understand the country, its conflicts and its flawed but enduring democracy. In “Incarnations,” Khilnani draws on his prior scholarship but also on the work of numerous other scholars and journalists and primary sources. The book follows a BBC radio and podcast series of the same title that Khilnani wrote and narrated. The nearly 400-page book and the radio series contain a lot of the same material.

A potential pitfall of a book that seeks to tell the story of a country through 50 mini-biographies is that the stories won’t hang together and the sum of their parts will seem dull. But Khilnani avoids that trap and strives to connect the lives and ideas of his subjects to one another and to contemporary India. For example, he helps explain the role that the teachings of

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the Buddha played in shaping the thinking and choices of Ashoka, who established one of the largest empires in ancient India but gave up violence after a string of brutal victories that left many thousands dead. “Legends aside, Ashoka used the faith to create an exceptional doctrine of rule, one that may have stemmed from regret over his youthful aggression, but was also a shrewd response to the empire he controlled,” Khilnani writes in his chapter on the king.

The book also describes how Bhimrao Ambedkar, an architect of India’s Constitution and one of the most prominent leaders of Dalits, formerly known as the untouchables in the Indian caste system, embraced Buddha and renounced Hinduism. This makes the book a lot more than a collection of 50 loosely related biographical essays. Readers can dip in and out of chapters randomly without being confused, but “Incarnations” is most rewarding when read from start to finish.

There are, however, a couple of big, unexplained holes in this otherwise solid volume. There is no chapter on Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister and, arguably, one of the country’s most consequential leaders. While Nehru appears prominently in chapters about other people, including one about his daughter, Indira Gandhi, another important prime minister, we never get a full portrait of him or Khilnani’s assessment of his place in Indian history. He acknowledges the omission in his introduction but never fully explains the reason. It could be that Khilnani is saving that material for his long-awaited biography of Nehru.

The other big gap is less obvious but just as important. “Incarnations” does not profile any of the right-wing Hindu ideologues and activists whose ideas are ascendant in India right now and are subscribed to by the country’s charismatic and controversial prime minister, Narendra Modi. One of those figures, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, has a cameo in the chapter on Gandhi, but Khilnani moves on pretty quickly without discussing in much detail how Savarkar and others like him developed the idea of Hindu nationalism. This absence is all the more strange when placed next to Khilnani’s keen interest in one of the central fault lines in Indian politics and public life: the tension between liberals, who celebrate the country’s diversity and advocate policies to protect minority rights, and Hindu nationalists, who reject secularism and insist that Hinduism should be the central organizing principle of the country and its government.

That said, any book that seeks to tell the story of a country and a people as complicated and diverse as India and Indians will leave stones unturned. To my mind the best thing Khilnani has done is to leave the reader wanting more. It would be a huge accomplishment if the most enduring contribution of “Incarnations” to the literature about India, especially in the West, should be to open the door to more biographies about Indians.

Vikas Bajaj, an editorial writer for The Times, was previously the paper’s Mumbai bureau chief.

A version of this review appears in print on November 20, 2016, on Page BR24 of theSunday Book Reviewwith the headline: India Personified .


Category: Review

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