Sunil Khilnani | Writing a history of angry young men and women

The author on why he doesn't see his new book as a liberal work, on demythologising the great men of India's past, and why academics need to get out of their studies and engage with a larger audience

Supriya Nair
Updated18 Mar 2016
Sunil Khilnani. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint<br />
Sunil Khilnani. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Sunil Khilnani’s last major book was about how India is constituted by its politics. His new book, Incarnations: India In 50 Lives, is about how Indians are constituted by theirs. A capacious work, Incarnations consists of interpretative—and sometimes argumentative—essays about 50 people whose life and work have echoed through a 2,500-year span of Indian history. Khilnani spoke to Mint Lounge about the politics of these biographies, writing history in a hostile climate, and the democratisation of academic arguments. Edited excerpts:

The strap of your book doesn’t call any of these people India’s makers, or changers, or transformers. Was that deliberate?

I didn’t think they needed a caption in that sense. I chose them on the basis of a number of different criteria. One was that they had to allow me to span 2,500 years of history, so I didn’t choose vignettes or cameo stories that might have been interesting in themselves. Linked with that was a second criterion, that each one had to allow me to explore what I thought some of the main faultlines of Indian history and society, whether it was caste, gender, region, religion, or the capacity to express individuality in different circumstances.

Third—and this is one of the meanings of the title—they almost all have afterlives, so in a sense they’re incarnations in later times. They’re lives that resonate still in public memory or in public memory. I was also interested in some whom we’ve forgotten. A prime example there would be Malik Ambar. But why, and what’s symptomatic about that, and what does it show us?

And I guess, you know, fourthly, they had to interest me. So it’s not trying to be a Wikipedia version of 50 transformers—there wasn’t that larger thesis that I wanted to illustrate.

Before I read the book I wondered why you would choose to do a kind of “Great Man” version of Indian history. But you’re complicating that much-maligned method of historical description.

I wanted to make them look more difficult than they are often made out to be; to, if you like, to demythologise or rehumanise them. One, because by seeing them more as human beings we can actually recognise them as people like us whom we can have an argument with, whose fallibilities we can see—their motivations, complex and often impure.

The second thing is, by seeing them as human, we also actually give them, more correctly, their due. Because if we see them as superhuman, and say they did something, who cares? To humanise them is not to diminish them.

But to repoliticise them?

I do think so. Being human is to be political in so many ways. And I think it is about power, trying to advance your own interests. Being mythological puts you above power. You’re omnipotent. You don’t have to do politics.

This is really a book about modern India, isn’t it? Or is it just that all historical writing of its time and place?

Of course, all history writing is itself historical. I’m absolutely certain that this book, were it written 50 years before or 50 years after, would be very different. I’m not shy at all that this book is driven by present questions and present urgencies.

At the same time, you do try to strike this balance between that and being as true to the facts, the sources, the documents, and your sense of the time in which the life you’re writing about was lived. That’s the complex manoeuvring of the historian: between the prejudices of the present and the truth of the past. All of us fail. We just try to fail better each time.

If I can provoke you a little: I didn’t find it strange that you left Nehru out of this book, because I didn’t get the feeling he would disapprove of a single word in here. He’s a kind of metatextual presence.

Is that a question?

It’s a provocation. Please feel free to counterargue.

Partly it is as I say in the introduction: he makes way for others who I think he would be interested in. Writing this book was also an education for me, so I wanted to write about figures I knew less about. Nehru was someone I had spent some time thinking about, and so it didn’t seem that interesting to me to write about him in this context. So I put him aside.

If you’re asking, is there a kind of approach or spirit of approach—yeah, I mean, possibly. One of the things that I find striking about what he did, which I think too few professional scholars do today, is the willingness to write the broad-sweep history of ourselves. And of course we need the very specific research—the “1842-1846: A Monograph” books—which gives us historical scholarship. Every once in a while, I think we also need to step back and ask, what is the larger story? How do the threads weave with one another? Nehru, of course, did that in Discovery of India. But if you think about it, since that book, there’ve been not that many efforts at these more general accounts often driven by urgent political questions.

And not with an outlook that could broadly be described as liberal.

I think it really depends what we mean by liberal. If one of the distinctive marks of liberal historiography is a kind of easy progressivism that wants to argue that everything is getting better—I don’t think that’s necessarily running through my account. One of the paradoxes I point out is that while we have this rich history of critics and rabble-rousers and rebels and angry young women and men, there is at the same time this extraordinary, weird capacity of the society to absorb that, and not fully realise the potential for change.

I wouldn’t kind of easily describe what I’m doing as a liberal account. I certainly hope it escapes the dominant ideological narratives of the nation. Whether it’s, if you like, the nationalist associations of the Congress of the religious nationalism of the BJP: I hope it shows our history to be much more complex than that. I don’t think I’d say that it’s a liberal work.

In that vein, though, this book’s engagement with caste may divide its readers. Some might see it as another instance of the grand Indian narrative co-opting marginal histories or biographies to suit itself.

I think what emerged for me, as I looked through these figures across history, was how often so many of them were engaging with the injustices of the social order, and how often that was defined by caste. The historical record shows that. That’s certainly something that necessarily came into the writing. Whether it’s a co-option—well, co-option into what? I think I was really trying to show the plurality of different strands and how they get taken up in history.

What’s interesting about so many of these thinkers of caste, anti-caste activists, is that while so many were driven by intense personal experience, and personal anger, they were all able to stand back and generalise that into a social critique, and a more analytical approach to collective action—whether it’s the Buddha, Basava, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Phule or Ambedkar.

But it’s not just personal anger: they turn it into a social cause. It’s that combination which is so powerful— driven by experience, but also stepping beyond that. That gives complexity to a certain kind of identity politics that demands that you remain within the bounds of your experience. I think even those who have not experienced these things have reason to be motivated to be anti-caste, or to fight injustice.

The critique of caste doesn’t only belong to those who suffer the worst of it. It’s a critique that any society that desires some better approximation of justice should be interested in. Which is why I say in the book that the idea that Ambedkar only belongs to the Dalits is an underestimation of his importance in the Indian context. He belongs to anyone, all of us in a democratic society.

I think the counterargument there is that liberal Indians often whitewash him as the father of the Constitution, and marginalise his radicalism.

Certainly in the essay I have on him I do emphasise his raw anger, as well as his ability to see the democratic project as a whole. And also, to see the limits of it—the limits of what the Constitution meant. At the end of the day, the Constitution would get hijacked; you still had to have the politics of anger to keep it on track. It’s not as if Ambedkar wrote the Constitution and said, my work here is done. On the contrary, the work has begun.

The Constitution is not the end of the story. It’s the beginning of history. The Civil War in America didn’t mean the resolution of the slavery issue: it meant a new beginning for the struggle for Black rights. Similarly, the Constitution is not the achievement of the abolition of caste. It’s the beginning of the struggle for equality.

How hard was it to leave out men like Savarkar or Golwalkar?

I did think about that, and Savarkar certainly could well have made it into the book. In the end, I chose Vivekananda, who is to me a very ambivalent, ambiguous figure in that genealogy of religious nationalism. Here was a man who was himself a profound critic of so many aspects of Hinduism, which tends to be ignored sometimes. But there’s a strong case for writing about Savarkar! This is all an invitation to an expansion and further argument.

There’s also Aurangzeb, whose brother Dara Shikoh features here instead. People might say that’s like choosing to write about Rahul Gandhi instead of Narendra Modi.

Actually, if you look at the treatment of Dara Shikoh, that wouldn’t bear out. Precisely the argument I make is that Dara Shikoh didn’t really represent a political option. There’s a very interesting moment in intellectual and philosophical terms around him. But as a ruler, he would have been hopeless. In fact, the Mughal Empire would have collapsed earlier.

So, actually, the essay is designed to undermine the romanticism, the spirit of “Oh, if only Dara Shikoh had become emperor, and it all would have gotten better.” It’s also saying that Dara Shikoh’s interests were very much driven by religious interests. We think translation is about something discovering something different. But when he translated the Upanishads, he wanted to find something he already knew, looking to establish that they were a confirmation of knowledge in the Quran, not a contradiction.

So, I think the picture of Dara Shikoh that I give is a kind of counter-liberal reading. I think it’s harder to complicate Aurangzeb on his own. In the way he enters into this essay, I think Aurangzeb looks like a better ruler, purely politically.

You’ve published this book in a climate where respect for academic work is not at the top of the general list of priorities. Did you think: someone is sitting out there waiting to ban your book?

No. I don’t think anyone can write a book in good faith in that manner. I wrote on the basis of what documents showed, and what struck me about them. This is not a book about mythmaking or debunking. Neither of those interests me. It’s saying, instead, that we should be amazed by the human beings we have in our historical records.

I want to ask you some questions about form. How does a serious historian adjust to the role of the podcaster?

I’d describe this book as a self-education. This had a lot of moving parts: the radio, the podcast, the book, the photographs. And one of the questions driving the project was, can we develop a more sophisticated, nuanced, rich argument about the Indian past and make it interesting for a wider public? One way was to use all this to bring in a different kind of audience, and using it as a kind of gateway drug to the book, which is able to cover more nuance.

The radio show and podcast does bring a sense of immediacy: the sound, the voices of other scholars. It was very difficult running these two projects side by side, just logistically: scripts, essays, deadlines, travel and all of that. Many times, it looked completely impossible. I finished recording the last podcast last Friday.

It’s a fantastic medium—because I think serious scholarship today can get out into the world. And it’s up to us as academics, researchers, and writers to bring that out. There’s no point sitting in our studies complaining about how public discourse is misinformed—you’ve got to get out there and make the arguments. It may not be able to clear everything up, but at least some people will be able to draw on better versions.

What was it like to research and write so journalistically? Did it mess with your academic methods?

I wouldn’t say “mess.” I did travel quite a lot when I was writing The Idea of India as well, but it didn’t manifest quite as much in the writing. I think it’s really important to be seeing, doing, talking—and placing that against the archive, the documents. I don’t know how many thousand miles I’ve travelled, but it was a lot. It certainly enriched my understanding and I hope that comes through in the book.

One of the starkest moments came when I was working on the Kabir essay, going to Banaras and going to Bazardiha, the neighbourhood where the Ansaris, the Julaha community live and try to work. I was just talking to someone else from Banaras who remembered what a terrible area it is during the rains, when it floods. It’s low-lying, which is why it’s so cheap, the cheapest real estate in the city. You can read and feel Kabir’s anger in his words, and then you see this neighbourhood. You can see where the rage comes from.

I’ll also add that being married to someone whose work is so much about reporting the world as it is certainly made a difference. Katherine Boo’s own writing is based on documents, but is very much focused on how the world is and what you see out there. It did make me more aware of what one could do, going out of the study and the library.

The book is remarkably artsy. How much of that was you and your eye?

I did play a role— from the point of view of my publishers probably too active—in that aspect of it. I think the images in the book are not merely illustrations. They work in tension with, sometimes even in contradiction with the text. In each case I hope they take the argument in a different direction or provoke a different kind of reflection. So they’re integral, I think, rather than decorative.

I wanted a design that had a certain kind of classicism, but was also attractive and approachable. And didn’t have the standard “I Am An India Book” look to it. I wanted to show you could have a serious book about Indian history that could have the kind of iconic quality that any other history book about other parts of the world would.

But all of this has also made it expensive, and out of a lot of people’s reach.

I actually think for what it is, it’s remarkably reasonable. That said, we’re very aware of the expense, and are going to do a completely different edition with much fewer illustrations, but with all the text. It’ll be a student’s edition. That was always on the cards.

Supriya Nair is an editor at Brown Paper Bag.

To listen to Sunil Khilnani’s BBC podcasts, click here.

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