Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani – review
about 2 years ago
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"Khilnani has triumphantly taken on this tendency by writing a history of South Asia in 50 warts-and-all lives – a sort of pointillist biography of the subcontinent told through a wonderfully diverse and inclusive cast of characters. These range from a mystic prince born in the fifth century BC to a former petrol pump attendant turned business mogul who died in 2002, encompassing on the way a kaleidoscope of kings, sultans, princes and politicians, mathematicians, orientalists, physicians and freedom fighters, film-makers, philosophers, artists and poets. Some are major and familiar figures such as the Buddha, the Mughal emperor Akbar and Mahatma Gandhi; others are borderline obscure, and will be unfamiliar even to most Indians: who now remembers the 12th-century mystic poet and social reformer Basava, the 17th-century Ethiopian-born guerrilla leader Malik Ambar, or Raj-era Adivasi tribal activist Birsa Munda, three figures Khilnani has now resurrected from obscurity?"
Another take: "The east, as we’ve known at least since Edward Said’s Orientalism, is a career. And India, one feels now, reading Sunil Khilnani’s Incarnations, is a racket. In the age of toxic Hindu nationalism, India is an industry, a cult and a virus. The dominion of this India industry is wide, thriving at cosy, corporate-sponsored literary festivals as well as within the interrogation cells and courtrooms of the Indian state, where the “anti-Indian” is ruthlessly defined; manifesting itself daily in the homilies uttered by suited, suave India experts at western thinktanks and in the Dr Strangelovian, foaming-at-the-mouth, ultra-nationalist rants delivered by Indian TV hosts. Khilnani’s book slides in at the liberal, middlebrow end of the noise, closer to the thinktanks and literary festivals than the violent denunciations, assaults and arrests that form the right flank of the India industry. It is beautifully produced, its short chapters broken up by full-page photographs as it moves in resolutely linear fashion from the fifth century BC of the Buddha to the present day of manic billionaires. Throughout, it attempts to offer the reasonable, moderate argument about what makes India a civilisation and nation sui generis, one of particular relevance to “the world at large”, even if by “the world”, Khilnani seems to mean – in a conflation typical of promoters of the India industry – the west."
"Still, it would be far too easy to lay the entire responsibility for all this peddling of antiquity-continuity on the shoulders of Khilnani alone. The truth is that the India racket is as much an Anglo-American affair as it is an elite Indian one, a tacit network of wealth, power and influence that flows through the boardrooms of Delhi, London and New York, and across festivals, thinktanks and universities, which explains why Incarnations, before it was a book, was a series on Radio 4. Now that it is a book, it will receive due solemn consideration from the experts and professionals of the India industry spread across the globe. It will offer a pleasant encounter with the idea that is India, with an ambient white noise guaranteed to drown out the cries of those who continue to discover that India these days is an idea that bullies and assaults and arrests and kills."
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