India in 50 Lives

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives 
Sunil Khilnani
Allen Lane  636pp  £30

Professor Khilnani is an academic historian, but this book is a more populist take on 2,500 years of India’s history. As a collection of miniature biographies, ranging from the Buddha in the fifth century BC to business tycoon Dhirubha Ambani in the 1990s, this format works remarkably well for a country whose culture and history have been so individualistic and diverse, far more centred around personalities than Confucian China.

Khilnani’s choice of people is a balance of the political and the cultural and of India’s mosaic of religions, castes and regions. The one major exception is the abysmally low score of women: only six out of 50, among them the already ubiquitous figures of the Rani of Jhansi (India’s Boudicca) and Indira Gandhi, its woman prime minister. Why not Razia Sultana, the tragic medieval Muslim monarch? Or Noor Jehan, the Mughal empress who ruled her husband and his empire? Or Sarojini Naidu, the charismatic, 20th-century nationalist leader and poetess? Or Nargis, Bollywood’s greatest ever actress? Just a few of India’s powerful, fascinating women. 

Khilnani’s incarnations are chronological, reflecting the continuities and contrasts of a subcontinent evolving from its classical Hindu and Buddhist past, through the Muslim kingdoms of the early modern period, into the British Raj and the emergence of a modern national identity. The qualities which Khilnani most admires in his protagonists are their capacity to surprise, break conventions, defy orthodoxy, change minds, innovate and make history in the process.  These themes recur throughout the myriad lives, giving them meaning and purpose.

The Buddha and Mahavira, founders of major religions, are obvious choices and Khilnani  adds little to their extant biographies. Less predictable are figures such as Panini, the fourth-century BC Sanskritist, whose linguistic codes laid the foundations of India’s success at computer software; the political theorist Kautilya, anticipating Machiavelli by more than a millennium; and Aryabhata, the fifth-century mathematician-astronomer who, long before Copernicus or Galileo, discovered that the Earth rotates on its axis.

Khilnani has little time for the muscular, organised Hinduism which, he tells us, arose in response to Muslim and Christian proselytising. His own Hinduism is a religion ‘of early morning doubts’, which embraces Muslims such as the ill-fated Mughal crown prince Dara Shikoh, executed by his Islamist brother Aurangzeb, and the British orientalist Sir William Jones, both inspired by a passion for India’s classical, Sanskrit language and heritage. 

Khilnani’s treatment of modern India’s national leaders acknowledges that they were as much the children of the Raj as its opponents. We hear about the Anglicism of Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who welcomed British education and social reforms in the mid-19th century. Then there are the contradictory thoughts of Swami Vivekananda, ‘dallying between Kali and Kant’, who embodied Hindu nationalism, but recommended beef-eating. More recently, we get the anglicised Dalit leader, B.R. Ambedkar, cooperating with the Raj against Mahatma Gandhi’s populist campaigns. Conspicuous by his absence is independent India’s Harrow and Cambridge-educated first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, possibly because Khilnani has yet to produce his long-awaited mega-biography of him.

This book is best in its portrayal of artists and cultural leaders. We hear about the medieval anti-Brahmin poet Basava, who was admired by Ted Hughes. Then there’s the singer-saint Mirabai, whose erotic hymns to Krishna are still among India’s most popular concert repertoire. We hear why Rembrandt admired Mughal minatures and how British orientalists rediscovered the Sanskrit Shakespeare, Kalidasa. Most intriguing of all is the legacy of the Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. His dislike of cultural nationalism and of Gandhian civil disobedience made him unpopular in some Indian circles, while many in the West, including Bertrand Russell, found his writings a bit vacuous. But Khilnani reminds us of his gigantic role in promoting the libertarian ideals of the Bengali Renaissance and credits him with inspiring 21st-century battles for individual freedom, including the ongoing campaign for gay rights.     

The art of the miniaturist has thrived in India for many centuries and Khilnani’s incarnations are its literary equivalent. What they lack in historical rigour, they make up for in intelligence, wit, originality and elegance. Like the best after-dinner speeches, they leave you informed, entertained, amused and wanting to hear more, especially about some of the unsung makers of Indian history.

Zareer Masani is the biographer of Indira Gandhi and more recently of the Whig historian-statesman Lord Macaulay (The Bodley Head, 2013).

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