Incarnations India In 50 lives

FPJ Bureau | Updated on: Friday, May 31, 2019, 02:56 PM IST


Author: Sunil Khilani
Publisher: Allen Lane
Pages: 636
Price: 999

Can you hope to understand and grasp the myths and history of a sub continental region(that is India ) across  2500 years and filled to the brim with hundreds of dynasties, multiple religions, hundreds of epochs ,  and   boundless eponymous rulers , hundreds of castes and sub castes and over 36oo languages and dialects? Sunil Khilnani promises to help you succeed in this desirable and enchanting exercise provided you have the time and patience to read HIS VOLUMINOUS BOOK OF 650 PAGES . It is stunningly illustrated and obviously deeply researched . It is based on the celebrated BBC Radio 4 series with which Khilnani was associated and it was hailed as an innovative approach to history to capture the human dimension of how the world’s largest  settlement  of human beings   has emerged as a stable democracy and an influential voice on the world stage . He has studied the developments in the last 2,500 years in India  and the contributions made by individuals in different periods

Jawaharlal Nehru described this past as a palimpsest   where   each successively dominant culture, religion or group left its traces, never, quite effacing what came before it . It is a beautiful image , evocative of the country’civilizational stratigraphy . But Sunil has come to think of it as too passive. He believes that India’s past is an arena of ferocious contest and  all that it involves . This approach is not recommended for every country or society . But the peculiarities and the dimensions of India where many individuals, beyond a few iconic names , recede into a haze and history is left limping . Sunil ,as the architect of this book has,as a matter of fact,  conducted an  experiment in dispelling some of the fog by telling the India story through fifty remarkable lives. This is a new approach .


Sunil is currently Professor and Director of India Institute of Kings College , London. He also authored the acclaimed and influential book ‘The Idea Of India’. With these two books Khilnani establishes himself as a serious and senior India hand .

The fifty characters selected   and explored by Khilnani in depth to  determine their contribution  to India’s  rich varied past and continuous ferment of ideas is only the tip of the iceberg .  He studied hundreds of   personalities to find out who indeed met his bench mark .It must have been a heart-wrenching experience for Khilnani to make the final selection . Similarly , he must have studied innumerable events to find out the exact relationships between the events and the people and the unfolding  of drama.

In any exercise involving selection ,a fair degree of  of subjectivity and arbitrariness is unavoidable . The process of selection  Includes dropping of some in preference to others .And in doing this ,one might exclude some worthy candidates and include some who might not be in the  same eminence .But,  this is part of the game. But , Sunil has done well in making judicious selection .


Khilnani explores the lives of 48 Indians ,from Buddha,the  spiritualist , to  the, leading industrialist  Dhirubhai Ambani (the richest Indian)who is most respected by the people ,and, simultaneously , hated by other businessmen  and industrialist  – lives that light up India’s rich varied past and its continuous ferment  of new ideas .The trenchant  portraits written / drawn by Khilanani of emperors, warriors, philosophers , poets, stars, and corporate titans   — some famous, some not so famous, some unjustly forgotten all, bring feeling and humour to social dilemmas .

Of the fifty characters selected by Khilnani,48 are Indians, and two are British – one was William Jones who emerged as pioneering Orientalist and was nicknamed ‘Oriental Jones’ ,

and the other was Annie Beasant.


Almost all the Indians are well known. Particularly good essays are The

Buddha, Mirabai, Akbar, -Nainsukh, William Jones, V K Krishna Menon, Indira Gandhi , and Dhirubhai Ambani . Study of this book will surely make you quite knowledgeable about India proud of being an Indian.

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Published on: Saturday, May 28, 2016, 05:41 PM IST