Author Sunil Khilnani on the challenge of profiling fifty historical figures in his new book
Picking just 50 Indians over a period of 2,500 years to profile is no easy task. In his new book Incarnations: India in 50 lives, Sunil Khilnani, director of the India Institute at King’s College London and author of The Idea of India, gets a fine balance between kings and mathematicians, freedom fighters and poets. The book attempts to complicate the stories of historical figures rather than simplify them and features the well known (Gandhi and Periyar) as well as the forgotten (Malik Ambar). In an interview over Skype, Prof. Khilnani speaks about dispelling myths about historical figures and humanising them, and how Indian history belongs not to political parties but to citizens. Excerpts:
In the introduction to Incarnations, you have written that one of the reasons you decided to write about 50 Indian historical figures was to address the “inevitable simplifications” that involve the defining of India as a predominantly Hindu nation. How have you sought to address this in your book?
The book is certainly directed at taking away from the simplification of Indian history. The aim was to partially demythologise our historical subjects, whose lives tend to get appropriated for political purposes. There is a tendency to simplify the lives of historical figures, be it Gandhi, Bose or Shivaji, by mythologising them, as if they are above human fallibility. That is a deep mistake. Political appropriation of historical figures is often a consequence of such simplification. Individual lives are never so clear-cut, which is why we need to approach history through individual biographies in order to understand their motivations. Complicating the stories of their lives only enriches us.
Aryabhata, for instance, did not discover zero. We have to be critical about these false claims being made about their lives to foster national pride. What I have attempted in this book is to try and bring out a more accurate and realistic view of their lives. Gandhi, I have called a great manager of the media in the book. Saying so was not to diminish him. But unfortunately, with all these historical figures, we exaggerate their lives and achievements, making a joke of it. I have also focussed on their afterlives, to understand precisely how these historical figures continue to live amidst us.
In The Idea of India, Nehru played a central role and you were deeply empathetic to the spirit of nationalism he espoused. So, was the decision to write about the lives of 50 people born out of a desire to look beyond Nehru?
Nehru was an important figure in The Idea of India. In Incarnations I have attempted to broaden the historical panorama, as it were. Nehru is one amongst the many figures that shaped Indian history. Here I have tried to bring in some of the other voices. In fact, Nehru’s own thoughts were shaped by these other voices which he was drawing upon. Nehru was remarkable, but not exceptional, as a historical figure. Both his opponents and his friends tend to overemphasise his uniqueness. The book spans 2,500 years of Indian history so the idea was not just to focus on a few 20th century figures. I have focussed on forgotten figures like Malik Ambar, the Habshi military figure from Ahmadnagar who fought the Mughals, to drive home the point that our current manner of telling history excludes many prominent players like him.
You have mentioned that it was a challenge to research these lives as sources were few. Were there any figures that you wanted to write about but dropped from the list due to lack of material?
The absence, destruction, or loss of sources is a problem, especially when it comes to writing about women. While researching for this book, I found it particularly hard to find primary sources on the lives of women, like temple patrons or even ordinary women. If one were to use real primary sources, then there are only a limited number of women one could write about. Take Mirabai, for example, who I write about. There were only a few fragmentary writings on her. Or take the case of Razia Sultana, the extraordinary woman sultan of Delhi. It would have been interesting to include her, but I didn’t feel there was enough reliable information. One of the decisions I took, therefore, was to include descriptions of the lives of women from history into other chapters, such as the essay on the Buddha, who had to be persuaded to bring women into the sangha, or in the chapter on Periyar who worked for women’s rights. And so with Tagore, who talked about giving women the freedom to love whom they chose.
Was there a sense of urgency in writing this book? Do you see a threat to ‘the idea of India’ as many intellectuals have commented on the current political climate in the country, of there being a silent Emergency of sorts, which prompted you to write Incarnations?
Yes, it does seem like the idea of a pluralist and Hindu nation is under challenge now. But it is also important to understand that it is during these moments of crisis in Indian history that people have shown amazing originality and innovation in how they respond to it. The nation often comes out stronger during difficult circumstances. Think of our freedom fighters like Gandhi, Tagore, etc., who showed the ability to retain their freedom of thought in the most difficult times of colonial suppression. It was that constrained pressure that provoked them to be strong, critical and brave and that should be the positive, inspirational aspect of what is happening in India right now.
Indira Gandhi was blamed for the Emergency, but at the same time she helped to provoke a response from within India which strengthened our democratic institutions, and helped with the re-emergence of civil society as the defender of the nation. I write about that in the book. Therefore, the current sense of threat and danger might precisely provoke a recommitment to democratic rights, to pluralism, and a multicultural ethic. There are a thousand pluralities and different views that comprise the life blood of India. Our creativity lies in how we advance or redefine this.
Often it is within academia, the media, and the arts that such creative work takes place. But the recent incidences of suppression of thought and expression in universities, for instance, has put a question mark on whether controversial aspects of our national present or past can be openly discussed.
It is critical to defend spaces like university and research institutions as spaces for free exchange of ideas. You have to take them seriously. But if you come to think of it, it has always been a challenge to think freely in any society, not just India. We have had a capacity to think freely even in very oppressive societies. Today, for a young historian or scholar in India, to freely investigate the past requires a certain commitment or courage. We need to offer whatever support we can. But trust me we do have sufficiently rebellious minds in our society who can do this.
If you were to look at the language in which historical debates are being framed in the current political milieu, history is either Nehruvian or non-Nehruvian. How do you respond to these developments in your work?
I am not interested in either of these two versions of history. And my work doesn’t fit into any ideological narrative be it that of Congress nationalism or Hindutva nationalism. There is a much more interesting expanse of Indian history if you care to look beyond these ideological narratives, because what they produce are dull, boring national heroes. But look at these figures closely and what you will see are troublemakers, rabble-rousers, and that is what is interesting about them, not the conformist personalities we hear about. The idea of writing Incarnations was to precisely introduce that energy into our historical narrative. Think of a person like Guru Nanak, for example. He was a complete rebel. Take Bose, Gandhi, Jinnah… in each case, the idea was to give them a much more nuanced picture. No one can own them so easily. Vivekananda, who is today being seen as a figure of Hindu nationalism, was in reality also a profound critic of aspects of Hinduism. Bose, again a brave and committed nationalist but with a terrible political judgment, who established affiliations with Hitler and the Japanese. Here is a deeply flawed personality, who showed remarkable personal courage. And then there is Gandhi, a great manipulator of the media, or Jinnah, who is again a very complicated figure. None of them belong to any political party or movement. Indian history belongs to all of us, as citizens.