Book: Sunil Khilnani travels India in search of 50 lives

by Sunil Khilnani

Allen Lane (2016)

India’s past is an arena of ferocious contest, its dead heroes continually springing back to life and despatched to the frontlines of equally ferocious contemporary cultural and political battles.

Incarnations is fascinating project.  I am still working my way through the podcasts but attended an recent talk at Stanfords travel bookshop in London recently at which Sunil Khilnani introduced his book.

Sunil Khilnani is Professor and Director of the India Institute at King’s College London.  As noted by the Independent, the format for this project closely follows that showcased by the British Museum in the series in which is explored the history of the world through 100 objects.  In Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani explores India’s culture and history through 50 lives. 

In his review for the Guardian, William Dalrymple quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “There is properly no history, only biography.”   Professor Khilnani makes this his starting point, observing that Indian history is generally ‘unpeopled’ with its focus usually being on dynasties and epochs.  With Incarnations, Khilnani aims to redress that.  Starting the series with the Buddha, Khilnani takes us on a journey through the lives of scholars, philosophers, warriors, politicians, activists, painters, writers, filmmakers and industrialists from the earliest Indian records to the present day.  

The list includes some famous names and others which are more obscure.  For those less familiar with Indian history, some of the chapter titles are a little cryptic, but they are invariably engaging and enlightening.  There are surprising or obvious omissions, including Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, although Incarnations does not claim to be a pantheon.   

What makes Incarnations so engaging is that the each of the short chapters is not a dry historical biography.  True to its title, Incarnations explores how traces of historical figures continue to resurface in contemporary India.  To accomplish this, Khilnani travelled throughout India to the birthplaces of the 50 individuals and conducted interviews to examine their relevance today.  Listening to the podcasts is an ideal way to appreciate these. 

Reviews of Incarnations are available online in the Financial TimesThe Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent.  A second review in the Guardian from author Siddhartha Deb stands apart from the others as being more cautious, noting that Incarnations offers “a pleasant encounter with the idea that is India”, that distracts from the current political reality. 

All episodes are available either to listen to on or download free from the BBC’s website, here.  Ideal for dipping in and out of (each chapter is about 15 minutes to listen to or about 10-15 pages in the book),  Incarnations is a fascinating introduction to Indian culture and history.  Listen to the first episode here:

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