Sunil Khilnani tells 2,500 years of Indian history through 50 lives
From Vivekananda to Gandhi, Jinnah, and Dara Shikoh, Sunil Khilnani’s new book presents fresh insights into lives that shaped the nation. An interview with the author.
Which essays did you enjoy writing?
Just as I see the podcast and the radio series as a kind of gateway drug to the book, I see each essay as a gateway drug to the other essays. You don’t have to read them in sequence, but they do connect and if you do read them in sequence, there will be a way of looking at the arc of Indian history throughout that period. In terms of my favourites, it was really hard.
Some of the ones where it was hardest to get good information turned out to be the most fun.
So, for instance, the Panini piece was a fascinating one to work on. Basava and Nainsukh were also... Some of the ones which were, for me, in a different territory — Sanskrit grammar, 12th century Kannada poetry, 18th century Pahadi painting — were the ones that I really enjoyed. I also enjoyed the one on Raj Kapoor; the way in which he combines social realism and eroticism in his film and made that so attractive not only to viewers in India but also in the socialist countries.
Someone like Nainsukh about whom there is so little material… How did you get around that?
There one owes a great debt to the wonderful art historian and scholar BN Goswamy, who has done extraordinary scholarship not just on the Pahadi school but on Nainsukh himself and allowed us to get a sense of the life. As you say, there’s not much. There are the paintings, a few writings, inscriptions in Haridwar, where he had gone, in one of the pandit’s books. The amazing thing I found looking at the work was that you could get a sense of the person.
One of the things that struck me about him was how, using this very formal style of the miniature, he brings an amazing personal vision and a sense of history. To give you an example, I was looking at this painting in the museum archives; it is a painting of musicians at the court of Nainsukh’s patron Balwant Singh. If you look carefully at one of the faces of the musicians you see small pox marks and then you realize that the biggest killer in 18C India was smallpox.
So, suddenly, just in that little detail you see the history come into it. I don’t think BN Goswamy had noticed this even though he had studied these paintings. He was surprised. In that little detail you see that individuality of the painter’s eye and mind and also his sense of the humanity of it. He knew these people and these were real faces with real histories to them. In that way, you get a sense of the personality coming through. That is what I try to convey in the essays, to see them as human beings not as these distant — in the case of political or religious leaders — often mythologized figures, but to demythologize them in order to humanize them; to see ourselves in them and themselves in us, really, and to open that up through stories about them.
We tend to see Jinnah as totally villainous. Your essay placed him in context.
In the case of Jinnah, as you say, he’s already prejudged even before you look at him, for us. But a couple of things are important to remember: first of all, he is absolutely part of Indian history except for one year of his life. Yet, we somehow think of him as an outsider. But he’s integral to Indian history so we have to think of him in that way.
Let’s think of him in terms of the history of the subcontinent. Also, once you start to look at him, you see what an ambivalent and complicated figure he was. Even just to discover his liking for theatre and drama… He was obsessed with Shakespeare; he wanted to become an actor; he imitated his hero Chamberlain by wearing a monocle… Sometimes, with his speeches, you don’t know if he believes what he’s saying or if he’s acting. There is a way in which he just took on a role and created...
So did he really want what he created? Did he know what he was doing, or was it almost like a lawyer arguing a brief? I wanted again to bring him into a human dimension and to show him in relationship to Gandhi, in relation to other figures like Tilak. He was a great friend of Tilak’s. Now, that’s a curious friendship. We think of Tilak as a kind of rightist Hindu; Jinnah defended Tilak in court against the British. His anger at Gandhi was because Gandhi was being religious! So there are all sorts of twists in Jinnah’s story. I did also want to make the point that, ultimately, the kind of position he takes is a very damaging, one which is this dream that we still have of homogeneity; of being a singular, defined by religion, culture…
It’s a recurring dream but, all too often, it becomes a nightmare and I try to argue why that’s so. That’s something that’s close and familiar to us, not distant, the dream that became the nightmare in Pakistan. It is something we should feel an intimate relationship to; it’s not something out there because we could reenact that ourselves.
It looks a lot like we are going towards that. For many years we thought we were ahead of Pakistan, superior, but perhaps we were behind.
I think that is the kind of thing I wanted to suggest; that this is more intimate than we would like to think; that it’s not out there but that the path can be followed even by us. So we need to be very aware of what we are doing.
How did you settle on these figures?
It was hard. People always say, ‘What about so-and-so?’ Let’s add so-and-so. That’s great because I wanted to prompt that conversation about who are the interesting figures of history; why are they important? Why do we know about them? I hope that the book will generate that. In how I chose them, there were a number of different criteria. I wanted lives which mattered to Indian history so I, through them, tell the story of 2,500 years. Not stories that just were cameos that were interesting in themselves but could also tell this story and, in particular, telling the larger story by allowing me to explore some of the fundamental lines of conflict in Indian History -- whether it’s about gender and history, caste and the social order, region or religion or of the expression of individuality.
Then I wanted, and this is one of the senses of the title, lives that have after lives, that have modern-day incarnations. A lot of the lives are still present today even though they existed long in history; they also existed in popular memory. I wanted to look at that tension between how we use and look at them today and how they lived in their moment and to what extent we are messing with that. Not to say we shouldn’t be messing… But just to make us aware of what we are doing. Finally, the other criterion was that it had to interest me. So it’s not an encyclopedia; it’s not a kind f Wikipedia version of history. It’s not trying to be representative; it’s my take on these figures in argumentative essays that have a thesis and want to say something. It’s not potted biography; it’s much more my own take on them.
The really interesting essays are the ones on personalities who are not known, like Malik Ambar.
That’s the thing. On the one hand, some of the figures would be obvious — Jinnah, Gandhi, Ambedkar — but both with the familiar figures and the unfamiliar ones, I hope I’ve said something different or new. Certainly Malik Ambar was one of the figures we’ve forgotten. Just as I’m interested in their afterlives, I’m also interested in those that haven’t had afterlives. Because what does that tell us about why we forgot them? What do the ones with afterlives tell us about why we remember them? What do the ones we’ve forgotten tell us about ourselves?
Someone like Chidambaram Pillai, in a sense, his life was a failure but it tells us something about how we think about the national movement; it tells us something about how we romanticize the national movement. For most people, prison was not a stepping stone to glory, it was the end of their career, and it broke them as human beings, and we forget that.
We think about the Gandhis and the Nelson Mandelas or the Martin Luther Kings for whom prison was a step to greater things, but for most people, prison just destroyed them. We have to acknowledge the tragedy of that and the small stories that were forgotten. No one really remembers Pillai now. Even in his home town where I went, the port is named after him but if you asked anybody who was Chidambaram Pillai they said, ‘Maybe I learnt in school but I’ve forgotten’. So I wanted also those people we don’t think about and we’ve lost to history. There could have been many more but I had to be selective.
Malik Ambar is an astonishing story. In forgetting him we forget about how global our economy and society was at that time. That an Ethiopian could come here as a slave and get to where he was also tells us something about the openness of our society. In many ways, we were more open than now. That’s something that we should be surprised about because we think of the Deccan as closed and static. It was completely open to different cultures and, in some way, to talent. This was the guy who showed talent and he was recognized for it. It’s a tragedy that the Siddi community in Gujarat is in terrible shape. If those kids knew that they are descended (from Malik Ambar), what an inspiration it could be! It’s not just a deprivation of his descendents; it’s also a diminishment of our own history and how rich it has been. I had great fun doing that essay. It would make an amazing movie.
Yes! Maybe have Denzel Washington playing Malik Ambar!
Absolutely! I keep thinking if there’s some smart producer he’d make this! It has all the elements – adventure, travel over ship, slavery in the Arab world, the Deccan, the Mughals, blood and gore, intrigue in Daulatabad. It could be a fabulous movie… in another incarnation maybe!
I thought the Dara Shikoh essay was good too because it changed one’s perception of this person.
That is what I wanted to do. There’s a way in which Dara Shikoh has become a kind of pet poodle of liberals: “If only Dara Shikoh...” Actually the guy was a bit of a noodle! He would have been a disaster. But he did do this extraordinary thing of translating… He didn’t do it because he was a liberal, tolerant, person; he did it because he had religious reasons. The translations he did was not to discover new things; it was to affirm what he thought was the truth he’d found in the Koran. I wanted to restore the historical context and not to diminish it because I think what he did was extraordinary but to get away from this view that he was somehow a proto-liberal and if only we’d had him and not Aurangzeb then Indian history would have been totally different. I wanted to question that and undermine that to a certain extent.
Actually, at the end of that essay, Aurangzeb came out as better. He comes across as a man of action; anybody would have gravitated towards him instead…
That’s also the thing. As with the Jinnah essay, I wanted to unsettle the hero-villain binaries that we have with our history and to say, ‘You know, it’s a bit more complicated; they are more interesting than that. You can’t just paint them in black and white’. Even with Gandhi, we see him as this spiritual paragon etcetera but I wanted to show that he was also actually a great manager of the media. I mean he knew how to stage these events better than Steve Jobs! That’s not to diminish him; that’s also to say ‘This was a great talent he had; he used it for good ends’.
The way in which he chooses his marchers, tells them how to dress, gets the guys to go ahead in the villages and whip up excitement when he comes, gets the media cameras to follow him… Amazing stage management in 1930! Even today Dandi is godforsaken; it took me hours to get there! No one goes there, the beach is desolate, and he got all these media guys to follow! Today, I don’t think the media would go to Dandi, and he got all these guys to come and film him there. Again, to humanise, to show the capacity to manipulate and the complex motivation, whether it’s Aurangzeb or Jinnnah or Gandhi or whoever.
Yes, also using the Khilafat Movement.
Yes, really playing with fire in many ways.
These days, there’s a tendency to go the other way, to see Gandhi as a horrible man who used to abuse his nieces and was a racist. What about that sort of thing? Everyone is complex…
I think that’s the first step to recognizing that. While I say I wanted to demythologize in order to rehumanise, I did not want to do it for the sake of it, to be iconoclastic, because I think it’s also some kind of fashion to do that.
Yes, which came through in that South African book about Gandhi (The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed)
Yes, that’s right. About racism. That kind of goes completely the other way. That’s also a loss because then we lose what’s interesting and compelling about the human being. As you say, we are all complex beings but if we can acknowledge that about our figures in the past they become more interesting to us because you can really engage with them. One of the things I felt I wanted to do was to make our history more interesting to us and more interesting to the younger generation for whom, very often, it looks like it’s full of these venerable, pious, staid old men and a few women.
Who cares? Who’s interested? I wanted to say, actually, if you look at these characters they were all angry young women and men once. Whether its Buddha, Mahaveer, Guru Nanak, Kabir, Mira Bai, Amrita Sher Gil or Gandhi, these were all angry young people who were not happy with their circumstances, who argued, who fought, who stood up for themselves and for a principle, for a larger goal. That’s a way in which they can speak directly particularly to the younger India that we are today; that this is a history that, by drawing on, we can help move ourselves forward. So it’s not a backward looking exercise. It’s really saying it’s a resource that we have to argue with, to fight with, intellectually, and develop our own ways of how to take it forward. I wanted to bring back the sense of our history as full of these rabble rousers rather than these venerable statesman figures that they are often painted as. I wanted to bring that energy back and to allow people to engage with them. The stories of lives are a way to enter into the past, which is more attractive sometimes than through thematic or social history or dynasties.
Since it was on BBC radio, I wondered what a person who is not Indian gets from this. What I would get from it is different. How did you manage that balance?
I had to be very aware that this has to work for different audiences. It’s on the BBC but it’s also on podcast so it’s available all over the world. The book, similarly, will be too. It’s always a challenge when you want to write both for the audience that knows the material well and the audience that is completely unfamiliar with it. I hope that I got that balance. The story form, the narrative form, is a way of drawing in people so even if you don’t know more about that moment, if you don’t know about 12th century Kannada literature, at least you have the story of Basava to draw you in. Then along that story you plant the concepts or the ideas or the arguments that they posed. I hope that some of the arguments that I make about interpretation and also some of the facts are new for an Indian readership as well.
As in the case of the regional figures…
Exactly. A figure like Periyar, I’m trying to say this is a thinker of national significance; we should all know about what he was saying. It’s obviously for readers to judge whether I’ve achieved that balance but I was very aware that it had to operate at those levels. An US edition is coming up later in the year. That audience knows even less, perhaps, about India than the British audience but the text is the same, except for the spellings. My earlier book, The Idea of India, managed to speak to different audiences; both those who know and those who are coming to it in a more introductory way.
Is this a taking forward of the ‘Idea of India’ concept?
Yes, it’s a taking forward and also a kind of deepening of it in some ways. The Idea of India was concerned with a shorter historical span; it was the foundations of modern India. This book allows one to see why what I call the ‘Idea of India’ makes so much sense because that idea was an attempt to find a home for this enormous plurality and diversity as a way of allowing that to thrive. This book shows the substance of what that plurality is and so why the idea of India is the most appropriate way of thinking of who we are because it allows us to constantly be arguing over what the idea of India is and to constantly be modifying and pushing it forward and expanding it rather than saying its rigidly defined and once-and-for-all defined.
One of the things I was saying in that earlier book was that the idea of India has some flexibility within principal boundaries but it’s able to evolve. So this was a way of going back to the longer history and saying, actually, there’s a reason why we need a wider and capacious idea of India because there is a lot that it has to hold, and that’s a good thing. In that sense, it’s a kind of challenge to what I think is a much more narrow definition of Indian nationalism which is, in a curious way, still a very colonial definition. It owes much more to 19th century European parochial nationalism, which tries to define a nation in terms of one culture or one religion or one race or one language, which, it seems to me, is alien to India. That’s the colonial European idea of nationalism. The one that I try to talk about in the Idea of India is the one that, to me, is much more true to our history — this being part of it — the figures in Incarnations.
The RSS is trying to do a similar thing to Hinduism as a whole; bringing a single image to it.
I think that’s right. In the essays on Shankaracharya and Vivekananda I tried to show that these were much more complicated figures. Shankara is really interested in… What Hinduism is is unanswered questions, not the answers. I think it’s the capacity to pose those questions: who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? Who made us? and not to come up with a final answer to that and to let people find their own ways. The great force of the religion and philosophy is to pose a question, which can never finally be answered. I think you see that with Shankara and again with Vivekananda, who has become a kind of mascot figure, but is far more complicated and conflicted, ambivalent. He is deeply self critical of the Hinduism that he sees, deeply influence by the egalitarianism that he sees in the West. I think we need to recognise that multiplicity and open-endedness rather than say, ‘This is the definition, it says it in the books, it says it in the authorities’. It’s just that there aren’t such authorities, and that’s the great freedom; not to use in a random way but to be able to think freely.
A lot of these preoccupations, we still have them, we’re still grappling with them.
That was something I wanted to also show. In a curious way, this is an anti-liberal view. The story that’s told here is not an easy progressivism that we’ve got better in everything. It’s saying we are still grappling with the issue of caste, patriarchy, racism, regional recognition, of individuality and the freedom to choose who we love and who we want to be. These are not resolved and one of the paradoxes is that even while we’ve had these powerful voices criticizing the constraints or speaking for a greater freedom on all of these issues, at the same time the society is able to absorb all that criticism and carry on with minimal change often. That’s also something we need to think of often. We had these remarkable 50 but what difference did they make? In the Kabir essay, for all the stuff that he does, did it change anything? I think that’s something we should feel a bit surprised and even outraged by.
You mean the unchanging nature of India?
Well, yes. The capacity to defang or absorb some of this is also something that we should be troubled by. Think about how we deal with that today. Is there a way in which we allow a certain freedom of thought but a real orthodoxy of practice still? How do we connect the two? It’s that dissonance also that I’m interested in. In that sense, it’s not saying we began and it was all bad and we’ve got here and it’s getting better and better. It’s not that kind of story. Because I think those are never realistic stories. They don’t appeal to me.
How long did it take you to put this together?
The radio show and the writing of the book were done simultaneously so it was incredibly stressful. I travelled a lot for the location recording from Tuticorin to Shantiniketan, to Dandi, to Sringeri, to Jhansi, to Hampi. It was a lot of travelling and a lot of working in libraries using archives and interviewing people. The actual hands-on writing and radio work on this took about two years but, obviously, the thinking and reading is something I’ve done over many more years. I’m still amazed it’s actually here. It was a completely crazy deadline. When we launched in London, the publisher said, literally, I was writing as it was going to press and he used the word ’nightmare’. He’s exactly right. It was a nightmare; and somehow we are still on speaking terms!