Literary Review

Our past through a new prism

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives; Sunil Khilnani, Penguin.  

Last November, a literary festival in Delhi had a lively panel called ‘Biography and History’. The well-known archaeologist Nayanjot Lahiri and I were invited to lead the discussion as we have both recently produced books that look at the individual and biography as a valuable launch pad for writing the social history of the subcontinent. We were asked to explain how our historical narrative, woven through individual lives, was different from those that put the spotlight on the state. As we answered it was clear that using biographies made our protagonists the agents of change who shaped the metanarrative of the nation state. This was different from an ideologically driven history that tried to tightly fit individual actors in the pre-conceived story of the nation.

Sunil Khilnani’s delightful book Incarnations takes this more nuanced and insightful writing of history further. Via 50 fascinating lives that range from the ancient to the contemporary times it offers an exciting if not counter-factual account of our past. Each essay is not only lightly written but also offers lesser-known aspects of its protagonist. These unknown tales of well-known figures of Indian history make one rethink the larger story of the nation that is woven around them. For instance, little snippets on Emperor Ashoka, whose symbol of tolerance is captured in many contemporary Indian motifs, put a question mark on his ability to uphold his political pronouncements. Khilnani writes: “He did not always live up to his pronouncements, especially in his later years, when he seems to have become more religiously devout… He even ordered dissident monks to be expelled from Buddhist monasteries, he acknowledged the persistence of war, and he was aggressive in his treatment of forest dwellers who were challenging his rule… he became a ‘monster of piety’.” This provokes us to think of the historical sanitization that goes into the making of national icons.

In the same vein, the essay on the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh makes us wonder if it is fair to valorise him because of his intellectual bent and demonise his brother Aurangzeb because of his military prowess and self projection as the warrior prince par excellence. Can the 20th century yardstick that privileges intellectuals over warriors be used to paint these 17th century characters? Comparing the careers of the two brothers Khilnani says, “While Dara had spent his years of princely privilege seeking elective affinities between religions, his brother focused on building his military strength, expanding his political influence and making ready to seize the throne”. These biographical details caution against the making of heroes and villains separated from the historical context. Khilnani’s argument touches our historical sensibility as we watch in bewilderment the completely a-historical invocation of Bhagat Singh today, the vilification of Tipu Sultan the other day and who knows what tomorrow.

Khilnani makes a plea to forefront the individual as the writer of the nation’s story. Rather than being clumsily fitted into a given narrative he wants us to hear the tale of the sub-continent from him. His choice of individuals itself reflects the religious, regional and linguistic plurality of the India story: Buddhist and Jain icons — Buddha, Ashoka and Mahavira, and the Indo-Persianate Muslim rulers, poets and thinkers — Akbar, Dara Shikoh, Amir Khusrau — rub shoulders with Hindu rulers, reformists and philosophers — Shivaji, Rani of Jhansi, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Tagore. It is this multi-layered political culture that enables modern and contemporary India to happily offer space to a Periyar — a Brahmin critic — in Tamil politics, a Muhammad Iqbal who questioned territorial nationalism in North India, and an Ambedkar who engaged in the writing of constitutional reforms to ensure respect and dignity to all citizens located within the territorial confines of the nation state.

The politics of Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi makes more sense when placed in this historical collage. Khilnani highlights their leanings to progressive and liberal politics alongside their authoritarian and self-centric streak to underline the need to study them as individuals — intact with their personal dispositions — and not only through the prism of ideology. I was surprised to find Nehru missing in the 50 lives chosen by Khilnani. I am told that we will have to wait for that in another book. Khilnani has effectively shown that we can begin to re-sketch more colourfully our historical canvas via individual tales that spill out of the tight ideological frames in which they have been hitherto caged. Nothing can be more welcome to us professional historians!

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives; Sunil Khilnani, Penguin.

Seema Alavi is Professor, History Department, Faculty of Social Sciences, Delhi University.

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Printable version | Jul 24, 2021 3:05:55 AM |

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