INCARNATIONS: INDIA IN 50 LIVES by Sunil Khilnani.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.  444 pages. Release date: September 20th 2016.

web_khilnani1023I raced back to the table of contents after reading the opening paragraph of Sunil Khilnani’s engaging Incarnations: “India’s history is a curiously unpeopled place. Beyond a few iconic names, most of the important historical figures recede into a haze.” Khilnani has written in-depth profiles on 50 Indians through the past two and a half millennia, providing strong biographical essays on these achievers, thus filling a gap in current Indian academic thinking. The race to reread the table of contents was a personal challenge of sorts, to assess how much of a “haze” I was in. Scanning the list with famous Indian thought leaders over the past two and a half millennia, I realized that I only recognized 41 out of the 50 individuals that Khilnani had profiled. That gave me a score of 82% overall and a grade of B minus, but I was sure to fail miserably, if I had been asked to write even a simple five paragraph essay about the featured individual. Fortunately, a thorough reading of this illuminating book, Incarnations, has helped me learn about the lives of these distinguished Indians. Now, I can consider myself reincarnated as a reasonably well-informed Indian.

Befitting his position as professor of politics at King’s College London, Khilnani has done a marvelous job researching each of the people who are featured in 7-10 page profiles. While there was considerable research undertaken to inform the end product, this is not a heavy tome laden with scholarly footnotes that can sometimes bog down the lay reader.  This is great entertainment (or edutainment, if you will) as the author is more of a conversationalist, who employs a lightness of touch that belies the seriousness of his project to bring alive the past two and a half millennia of Indian history. Like a short story collection that one can pick up and put down without losing the thread of the narrative, Incarnations can be read at leisure in parts—a profile at a time.  That being said, a close reading in one sitting will probably help one make insightful connections between various key figures in Indian history.

I was so intrigued by how Khilnani’s mind made interconnections between the 50 historical figures profiled, that I found myself developing a relationship map as I read the book. This map enabled me to better understand the relative degrees of influence that each of these Indians had on each other. To be sure, they’ve all left an imprint on India. However, it was fascinating to note that while Gandhi was referenced in 19 of the profiles, the Buddha was the only other historical figure referenced in double-digits (12). This suggests that Gandhi and the Buddha have had an outsized impact on thought leaders that followed them (certainly, no surprise there); but what do we make of the fact that only six women are featured, and that collectively Mirabai, Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, Annie Besant, Amrita Sher-Gil, M.S. Subbulaksmi, and Indira Gandhi are referenced only 16 times in other profiles? Khilnani would argue that “nearly all the lives in this book illuminate, in some way or another, pressing contemporary questions about the position of women in society, about the nature of love and sexual choice, about cults of personal political power, about claims to water and land, about racial prejudice, about economic inequality, and even about the mechanics of the universe.” And he preemptively welcomes disputes about who has been left out. But although the author is sympathetic to the plight of the less powerful, women do not figure significantly in Incarnations; instead, Khilnani has elected to train his considerable intellect and analytic skills on inequities of caste and religion.
Life stories of the Buddha, Mahaveera, Rajaraja Chola, Basava, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Malik Ambar, Jyotirao Phule, Birsa Munda, Periyar, Bhimrao Ambedkar, Manto, and M.F. Hussain are thematically woven together to demonstrate the “many imaginative struggles [that] have been waged against what remains a profoundly rigid society. Sometimes, the battle against conformity has been inward and psychological. Sometimes it has been outward, against the social order, frequently assuming the form of an assault on the hierarchies of caste.”

Oddly, Khilnani does not attack India’s rising Hindutva nationalism; instead he uses Gandhi as a punching bag and elevates Ambedkar to say, “alone of all India’s founders, he recognized the importance of fraternity, the ability to treat one another with dignity, as fundamental to the creation of a political community.”  Alone of all founders?  This hyperbole reflects a flaw in what is otherwise an outstanding book.  Even a cursory reading of the subcontinent’s Independence movement would suggest that Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Balgangadhar Tilak, Sardar Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and many others recognized the importance of fraternity.


In the spirit of full disclosure, for five years, I wrote a Gandhi-inspired column for Khabar magazine titled Satyalogue. I take issue with much of what Khilnani has written about Gandhi’s views on caste. Khilnani sets the tone of antipathy toward the “Father of Modern India” by relating an anecdote of a film audience in Gandhinagar “erupting into wild applause and cheers,” upon seeing Gandhi assassinated on the screen. To be sure, the author strikes a fair and balanced pose by later noting, “Gandhi made people believe that they could make a difference.  He built a movement, shaped a nationalist imagination, and expanded the world’s repertoire of dissent, protest, and peaceful disagreement.” But then, some twenty pages later in the Ambedkar profile, Khilnani quotes Gandhi as saying, “I claim myself in my own person to represent the vast mass of the untouchables.” In a rare moment of piqued subjectivity, Khilnani judges this quote as “an imperious view that left no room for self-representation.” It’s as if for Khilnani the only way to destroy caste in India is to praise Ambedkar while denouncing Gandhi as being casteist.

Fortunately, Incarnations is much more than an analysis of Ambedkar, Gandhi, and caste.  Khilnani has written a very personal book, and his fond identification with India is clear throughout. Ranging from politics to film to art to mathematics to music to religion to literature, the author has proven himself to be a polymath in his appreciation of all lives Indian.

For podcasts by Sunil Khilnani on BBC, please check out the link below.

 For Maneesh, who, like Dr. Ambedkar, graduated from Columbia Law and has a keen appreciation for the Constitution.

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