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Sunil Khilnani: Past Master

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Sunil Khilnani explores the idea of India through the profiles of fifty Indians who shaped history


Incarnations: India in 50 Lives | Sunil Khilnani | Allen Lane | Pages: 636 | Price: Rs 999

SCHOOLS AND classrooms teach us history in incomplete ways. We learn about events and personalities, but not about contexts and characters. We are familiar with public images but remain ignorant of their human reality. We study timelines and chronologies, but fail to acknowledge that history is not restricted to the span of years, rather it seeps into the present, colouring everything in its path.

In Incarnations: India in 50 Lives (Allen Lane, Rs 999, Pages: 636) Sunil Khilnani smites away the fuddy-duddiness of old history textbooks and stereotypical notions. He creates a work of staggering depth and scope to “show the adjacency of the familiar with the historically unfamiliar”, showing the reader that “history erupts into the everyday. By reading these 50 profiles, or listening to the BBC Radio 4 series, statues that we overlook will be freed from decades of dust and clichés to emerge as people in their own right. Pãnini will no longer be just the name we associate with Sanskrit grammar, instead we will come to see him as the ‘original nerd’. Indira Gandhi wouldn’t be just the creator of the Emergency, we’ll remember that she was a woman of deep insecurities who told a friend a few days before her death, “I was so sure I had nothing in me to be admired”. MS Subbulakshmi evolves from ‘the queen of music’ and ‘rosebud’ banality to a woman capable of great ‘mischief’ and ‘intelligence’. Read Incarnations so that you can dispel myths and know these figures as people and not simply know of them.

For Khilnani—professor and director, King’s India Institute, London— the challenge, of course, was to curate a list of 50 names, which would tell the story of 2,500 years. For Khilnani there were three main criteria. He wanted stories that were not just interesting in themselves, but which explored fault lines that exist today—be it caste, religion or patriarchy. Second, they had to be “lives that had after lives”, whether it was the Buddha or Ambedkar or Dhirubhai Ambani, or those who have been forgotten such as Malik Ambar (the African slave who was the ‘nemesis of the Mughal Empire’) or Chidambaram Pillai (the unsung leader of the Swadeshi movement). Finally, the people had to be of interest to Khilnani himself. “This is not an encyclopaedia. There is a personal element of arbitrariness. This is not a pantheon, and I don’t describe them as makers of modern India. These are just 50 lives that are interesting from our past,” he says.

The most obvious omission from the list of 50 is Jawaharlal Nehru, whose biography Khilnani has been researching for decades and who Khilnani creates as the most fundamental figure in modern India in his first book, The Idea of India. The professor refuses to divulge when the Nehru tome will see the light of day saying that he didn’t know he would write this book until he did.

It is only expected that every reader will have her quibbles with the selection. Khilnani encourages these many views and hopes to foster argument. He wishes to create a website, where people can make their list and include their own criteria. “This is the opening of the door,” he says, “not the closing of the door.” Khilnani embarked upon this project because he found that Indian history is curiously unpeopled. Those historical figures who are appropriated by the public tend to be mythologised, their reputations cast in stone. While he has dug out interesting nuggets about those he writes about, he reveals little about himself, and is glad that the information available on him online is minimal.

As a child of parents in the Foreign Service, he grew up in East Africa, East Europe and Central Europe, and West Africa. He spent his teen years at The British School in Delhi, before going on to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, where he studied social and political sciences, and later to King’s College, Cambridge, where he gained a PhD in social and political sciences.

Since his research interests are embedded in intellectual history, most of his work has been in the realm of archives and books. But for Incarnations, he travelled through the country “from Tuticorin to Shantiniketan, Dandi to Jhansi, Sringeri to Hampi” for 18 months, visiting places and talking to people.

To find Kabir in Benares, Khilnani didn’t go for a stroll down the ghats, instead he visited Bazardiha, an area peopled by Sunni Muslims and from where Kabir—a low-caste weaver— hailed. In this impoverished area of the city, inhabited by men with too little work and too much time, the author traces the roots of Kabir’s poetry. It is in this setting that Kabir’s scorn for religious men and contempt for social orthodoxies comes to the fore.

Visiting Delhi for ‘Penguin Random House, Spring Fever 2016’, Khilnani says, “When you see the broad world that Kabir came out of, you understand his anger against injustice and an oppressive order.”

For Khilnani, these battles are not sealed in the past. This interweaving between the past and present makes this book eminently readable and incredibly relevant.

Take, for instance, the chapter on Rabindranath Tagore. It starts with the summer of 2015 in Washington DC when the Supreme Court of the US legalised same-sex marriage in all 50 states. It then moves to Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises same-sex love. Khilnani explains the lateral connection. “I hope readers can recognise anew the value of some of our past figures. With Tagore, he is struggling with his own personal life. Can you be free to choose the most intimate relationship of your life, which is, whom do you love? He never did that. He married according to his father’s will. He married his daughters according to his will. He never achieved his relationship with Victoria Ocampo. So it was always an unrequited yearning. Yet some of his sharpest writing is about the damage done—especially to women—when they are not allowed to choose freely who they love freely.”

Where states or governments have tried to impose a single conception of what culture is, it has self destructed

Khilnani weaves Tagore’s understanding of love and his critique of patriarchy with the battle against 377. He says, “For me, 377 is not a minority right. It is not about the rights of gays or lesbians. It is about the rights of every citizen. It concerns us all. It is about the most fundamental, intimate choice that we can make; who do we want to live with, who do we want to love.”

If Tagore’s circumscribed life and times, drove him to write lines such as ‘The history of the growth of freedom is the history of the perfection of the human relationship,’ similarly others in this book rose to achieve great things not in spite of but because of tribulations. Khilnani believes that the most innovative and challenging ideas of history arise from confined moments.

Is Kanhaiya Kumar a creation of a restricted time, I ask. Khilnani says, “Quite possibly. I am not in a position to make that historic judgement but certainly that is the kind of figure that emerges… Our history is full of that.”

It is this clarity of thought, the ability to zoom far out and read the patterns on the ground that makes Khilnani one of the preeminent public intellectual of our time. His book The Idea of India (1997; reissued with new introductions in 2003 and 2012) has become entrenched in public discourse and is used by everyone from the critic in his armchair to the activist on the street to the minister in Parliament.

India, he wrote in The Idea of India, proved ‘large republics with diverse and conflicting interests can be a better home for liberty, a safer haven against tyranny, than homogenous and exclusive ones’. When the book released in 1997, The New York Review of Books made note: ‘Khilnani’s book is a masterful rebuttal to all cultural romantics and religious chauvinists.’ For the last two decades, the book has served as a totem of the country’s pluralist nature.

Incarnations provides the material evidence for the central tenant of the earlier book; there is no single idea of the country and the idea of India is not a homogenous and univocal one.

For Khilnani, the reason why India is taken seriously on the world stage is because—India is still here. ‘Unlike many new states created after the end of the European empire, it has not self- destructed,’ he writes. What are the forces which could cause it to self-destruct? For Khilnani the two biggest dangers are the “dream/fantasy of trying to make us a homogenous people” He adds, “Where states or governments have tried to impose a single conception of what culture is, it has self destructed.” In our own neighbourhood, Pakistan is an example of that, he says. The second major threat is “how much inequality can we tolerate in our society… because at a certain point the rubber band will break.” Khilnani believes that we will have to reckon with these two dangers urgently as they challenge an “extraordinary achievement; the holding together of this union for nearly 70 years ”.

THE INEQUALITY IN our country which is often reduced to platitudes is made flesh and blood in Katherine Boo’s excellent nonfiction work Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which tells of the people of Annawadi slum in Mumbai. Khilnani says that his own understanding of the texture of the country is enormously influenced by his Pulitzer- winning wife. Since she is a “major analyst of poverty and globalisation”, from her, he has gained sharp insights on “the infrastructure of opportunity and how people get out of poverty”. He says, “She shows how by disallowing people from getting ahead, we are denying them not just material wellbeing but the fundamental capacity to be human. It has had a huge impact on how I think of the world.”

Incarnations begins and ends in Mumbai’s shanty towns. In the first chapter, Khilnani finds himself in a temple dedicated to the Buddha in a Mumbai slum. Two thousand five hundred years later, Mumbai’s skyline is dominated by the 27-storey Antilia. The man who made it all possible— Dhirubhai Ambani—was himself born in a ‘pigeonhole chawl’ four kilometres away from the behemoth. His rise from a village boy to the founder of the most powerful business house of the country is as remarkable as it is audacious. Khilnani explains, “Ambani learned that information is the key. He took the view that inequality is not a problem, but a tool to get ahead. He turned inequality into a virtue. I end the book with him as he represents a kind of new powerful ethos or vision in our society, which is a troubling one.”

By starting and ending his journey in Mumbai slums, Khilnani shows that the “past isn’t a foreign country... it is a country we inhabit ”. Buddha is as relevant to the alleyways of the city as the Ambanis who control our fuel, groceries and telecommunications.

While Incarnations includes a band of politicians and leaders, scholars and reformers, the artistes make for some of the most compelling profiles. While Amir Khusrau is painted as the ‘quick- witted literary survivor’, Kabir we learn is ‘one of the most impatient, acerbic, fed-up voices in the Indian cultural canon’ and Amrita Sher-Gil is one of modern India’s ‘great depicters of the jagged and imperfect self’. For Khilnani, the artistes are not an afterthought, but are essential to the fabric of India. He says, “So many of these artistes, who we think of as aesthetic or cultural figures, were also political figures.”

The pages of Incarnations, throws us into a “rabbit hole”, where we don’t know where we will emerge. But this much is clear, a journey through the past will return us to the present.

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