incarnations sunil khilnani

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

At the risk of making a general statement, I believe that part of the Indian psyche has always been to glorify/romanticize our past, belittle our present, and fatalize our future. Whether we’re doing this in the context of the country at large or in our own day-to-day lives, this cultural trait is embedded in our DNA, it seems, from the day we’re born.

So, whenever I come upon anything in popular media with hooks like, say, “Remarkable individuals who shaped India, and sometimes the world”, I sit back and think: “Yeah, right.” That said, in the last few months, I, too, have been grappling with the monster that is India and trying to make some sense of her. And, I have learned, clickbait headings aside, that it’s worth paying some attention to the repute of the platform and the writer/presenter where such accounts are presented before a summary dismissal.

So, I paid attention when BBC Radio 4 announced a radio series on the fifty people who have shaped India and beyond, and continue to influence socio-cultural behavior, communal politics, and entrenched theologies today.

The host is Sunil Khilnani, a respected and reputed authority on India in the West, particularly in the UK, where he is a Professor of Politics and Director of the King’s College London India Institute. If that’s not enough, he’s married to one of my personal heroines, Katherine Boo, whose ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity‘ is a hauntingly beautiful book that deserved all its many accolades.

Having listened to several episodes now, here are some observations (I may add to these as the series isn’t done at the time of writing):

1. This program is targeted towards people who are interested in India and don’t have much prior knowledge. If you’ve grown up in India, been educated here or even lived here for a number of years, this bird’s-eye view will not do much more than provide a refresher or trigger more reading. [UPDATE: Some episodes have done a good job of debunking rosy myths around certain personalities, e.g. Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. And, there are certainly a couple of profiles that have been conveniently swept aside in the stories that India likes to tell itself, e.g. Malik Ambar, the Ethiopian slave who rose to become a kingmaker.]

2. Each episode/life is presented in around fifteen minutes. So, while interesting enough, you could probably get more from spending the same amount of time reading the Wikipedia entry of the individual in question. Unless, of course, radio is your preferred medium.

3. To narrow down to fifty remarkable lives from over twenty centuries is a difficult task. Still, it’s disappointing that very few of them are women. It’s easy to say: this is to be expected because women, in Indian history, have always been behind the veil /wall. But, given that there have been recent efforts in popular media to highlight some amazing women from Indian history — e.g. here and here (for more, Google is your best friend) — it would have been good to include a few more women on this list. Particularly, also, because the women selected — e.g. MirabaiLakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi — have been so mythologized in folklore and fiction, both by Indians and Westerners alike, that we cannot be sure where the line between truth and fiction lies. Though, to his credit, Khilnani does try to separate fact from fiction.

As the writer, Jyotirmoyee Devi, wrote in her author’s note in ‘The River Churning‘:

Even if there had been women epic poets, they could hardly write stories of their own exploitation. The language for it had yet to be fashioned, so, naturally, “Stree Parva” (the woman’s canto or chapter), does not figure anywhere.

4. Khilnani does make an attempt to connect the historical figures to today’s India to show their enduring influences. Some of these connections, though, are tenuous, at best. Like taking us from a boy bringing his rooster to a hospital to Mahavira Jain who, more than 2000 years ago (about the same time as the Buddha), preached and practiced non-violence towards all forms of life including vegetables, insects, animals, etc. That is not to say that such analogies across the ages cannot be made. India’s present continues to be hostage to her past glories. Khilnani’s linkages could have been more carefully and craftily scripted.

5. Though he injects some wry humor, and even some much-needed skeptical asides (like when he says he’s not sure that one of the stories about the Rani of Jhansi jumping a sheer fifty-foot drop with a child could be true), Khilnani sounds very much like the college professor that he is. If the episodes were any longer, it would be tempting to switch his voice off.

6. Based on the audio, it sounds as if Khilnani was traveling around India to many of the places where these 50 people lived or came from. And, that makes me wish that this had been a video documentary rather than a radio series because I’ve seen some of those sights and they’re worth showing to an interested audience in their full, glorious, crazy colors. Perhaps Khilnani has a film crew along or, perhaps, he’s just doing this to write another India book. Either way, I hope that this brief radio series, which barely skims the forever-shifting surfaces, leads to a deeper, more profound analysis of how India’s roots have shaped her today. And, more importantly, whether they will continue to do so, given the increasingly homogenized social media world that we live in today.

7. Controversial historians and writers have always pointed out the many anomalies in Indian history. Some recent articles highlight the revisionism here and here. There are many more such accounts of how the glorification of the 5000+ year past has been subjective and suited to those in power at the time. Khilnani keeps well away from any major controversy, though, a handful of times, he hints at them broadly and moves on. Again, I hope that he’s working on a bigger work that will provide a more balanced view eventually. Perhaps as a follow-up to his much-lauded, needs-freshening-up ‘The Idea of India‘ from 1997.

Listen to the radio/podcast series: Download from the BBC; Listen on iTunes

Watch the promo/trailer:

[UPDATE: This article gives a bit more context on how Khilnani went about putting this series together. This is a review, by William Dalrymple, of the book of the same title. Here’s a terrific interview with Khilnani, where he starts off with mentioning how history, in India, is poorly taught, without humanizing historical figures — something I’ve also been saying for a long time.]

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One thought on “Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

  1. Your review sounds negative but I am enjoying the episodes so far. Even though I learnt about these people in school, I like the fresh takes. Much better than our old history textbooks. But I agree about needing more women.

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