Chiseling Men and Women Out of Myths

In Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani chisel men and women out of myths, repaints them in their true colors, and explains how these flawed, and rebellious individuals in possession of but a few gifts changed the course of history.


Sunil Khilnani, currently Avantha Professor and Director of India Institute, Kings College London, is the author of the acclaimed and influential work – The Idea of India; and most recently of Incarnations: India in 50 Lives published by Penguin Books India in February 2016.


March 16th, 2016

For the second day of Spring Fever – Delhi’s oldest literary and cultural festival hosted by Penguin Random House India, Sunil Khilnani talked about 50 influential Indians who shaped our history.

India is portrayed as a land of much suppression, oppression and aversions. It is also the fastest growing economy, soon to become the most populous nation by 2030. It simply cannot be ignored. But most of what is known about India is inaccurate, lost in myths and elaborate post-mortems of the colonial rule. It is well past time that we set aside these old versions of India, an India nurtured under Imperial generosity. It was not the capacity to speak English or the many trains that the British left behind that transformed India, but rather some remarkable individuals and their role in society by taking on, in brave and imaginative ways, societal customs that were proving to be hindrances to growth.

It was not the capacity to speak English or the many trains that the British left behind that transformed India, but rather some remarkable individuals and their role in society by taking on, in brave and imaginative ways, societal customs that were proving to be hindrances to growth.

There is however two major flaws here. One is that a lot of these characters are considered mythical. Through the book Sunil had tried to re-humanize them, to put them in between vectors of the many socio-political circumstances that existed then, and chiseling the man and woman out of the myths that were carved around them.

Incarnations hold names: some little known; some known, but misunderstood. Jamsetji Tata built a corporate empire because he embodied a sense of deep responsibility not just to his workers, but even to the society; his ability to combine private and public interests in newer ways. Dhirubhai Ambani considered inequality not as a societal problem but rather a corporate strategy. Kautilya counseled nobles in what we now today call information discourse.  His preaching – an arrow unleashed by an archer may kill a man, but a strategy can kill those even in their wombs – is now a guide to corporate success in an ever-growing and competitive global market.

Gandhi was in fact an individual of many flaws, but in the procession of a few gifts which he utilized to much perfection. His Dandi Salt March is a great example.

Dandi Salt March was Gandhi’s weapon, a political tool that he used to drive attention to himself. He executed it, designed it, vetted the many that took part in it, and ensured that he remained the sole leader in the eyes of the spectators by distinguishing himself by carrying a stick. He dispatched riders ahead to announce the March and even wrote and invited foreign media.

What Gandhi is is a shrewd strategist, but this does not in any way put him in the wrong light, instead repaints him as a man, a leader who with the few he had did his part to bring about a change he wanted to see in the world.

Under sustained creative critique, Mr Khilnani said, even a society as rigid as ours can change. This is what these lives show us, reinstating history to its rightful place. Some even go on and parallel, perhaps even exceed such occurrences in the West. Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s effort to remove Sati was perhaps one of the first and prominent acts of humanitarianism.

The second flaw is the absence of sources of historical woman characters. Even when there are some liable sources, we tend to consider brave women as goddesses, ending up worshiping them rather than emulating them. Some tend to remain only as symbols or statues at crossroads. Jhansi Rani is a good example of this. She is still stuck in that militant goddess pose that she is most often described as. This is not in any way reflecting her as a woman – a woman strong of both mind and body. Indira Gandhi when she took office was written off by those around her, but she eventually managed to attain their admiration, and even of the opposition. She deepened Indian democracy, strengthening opposition.

The history of India is a remarkable one, but to grasp them in its entirety we should first start by de-mystifying the many lives that lived them. 50 Lives offers threads to the past, exploring complicated ideas and arguments that existed then through their eyes. Are they dissenters? A lot of them turned out to be, Khilnani confesses, but dissent was in the vein of things to come, a subcontinent on the brink of a change. Sunil did not only choose dissenters from history. These were characters who engaged very actively with the then customs that hindered societal and cultural progress. Through Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani has brought out the real humans in them and the tensions that existed then.

One cannot have all eyes on the future. We all need examples, a source of inspiration, something to keep us going. It is the lessons of the past that offers us that. History then is not an indulgence or luxury, but a vial critical for the sustenance of our plurality and democracy.

Our past, Khilnani concluded, cannot be concentrated on any symbol, a character, or a political identity. We need to be true to our history. One cannot have all eyes on the future. We all need examples, a source of inspiration, something to keep us going. It is the lessons of the past that offers us that. History then is not an indulgence or luxury, but a vial critical for the sustenance of our plurality and democracy.

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