Review: Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

'India isn’t really a country, It is a sub-continent composed of nationalities, Hindus and Muslims being the two major nations.'
This was Jinnah. He was the man who would be complicit in the partition of India, along with his Indian counterparts, in what would turn out to be one of the bloodiest events in the history of the world. But when reading anything that is related to India, we are taught of eras and empires and kingdoms. Rarely is an individual talked about much in the larger context, as a means of history. One of the reasons might be that it is so vast that even an individual can cover only a fairly small time scale. Perhaps Nehru, if the centerpiece, can tell us a bit about Modern India. But he will be spending much of that time in the northern part of the subcontinent and outside India itself, and very little in the southern parts of it. The geography plays against a single individual influencing anything close to complete cover of India. Perhaps because of this, there has never been history, told in way of individuals. Sunil Khilnani chooses to rectify this.

He admits to the caveats of this approach and doesn't shy away from admitting that his approach might be flawed. He has the thankless job of selecting individuals, often disproportionate number for a particular period, from among thousands of possible candidates. He has to make sure a particular region is not ignored. And to the best of my limited knowledge about India, he has done an excellent job. I must admit I hadn't heard of some people in this book, and heard some very different things about those who I did know a bit about.

Khilnani has no holy cows. There is no mystification of hero worship or glorification. Even Vivekanandha, whom I used to admire to an inordinate amount, is deconstructed with a surgeon's precision. Gandhi is not portrayed as a saint. He is the masterful politician. Mahavira and Buddha get their places too, at the very beginning. Nor do you miss the Bhakti Movement. Interestingly, Manto figures too. As does the unglamorous portrait of Jamsetji Tata. There is a touch of flint stones and flying sparks and there is also a red hot touchstone against which every individual marked is tested.

The 'history' is often woefully short. But this is not a work that is the history of individuals. Much less and much more than that. Eclecticism shines through. From the rebel natured Annie Besant to J. Phule to Jinnah to Manto, there is a collection of rich characters that symbolize the colourfulness of this nation's extraordinary history. Ramanujan is pitted here too. There is a short story, brutally trimmed here, of Manto. A tear rolls down when we read it. There is an euphoria reading pages that detail individuals like Satyajit Ray. Periyar and VOC bat for south India. Jharkhand brings Birsa Munda. Pakistan sends Jinnah and Iqbal. Khilnani does justice to the undertaking and deserves rich laurels.

Must read.

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