The author has selected 50 figures – some iconic, others neglected – who, over 2,500 years, helped to shape the subcontinent’s mesmerising story.
“Khilnani identified an ‘absurd gap between the superhero guises that some figures are forced to don and the reality of what they did, thought or said”
Such an enterprise comes with its share of challenges. ‘India’s past is an arena of ferocious contest’ between different faiths, philosophies and political visions. The few luminaries who sustain a place in popular imagination are routinely dragged into these conflicts and either lionised or denounced. Even today, ‘books thought insufficiently reverent towards cherished figures are pulped and banned.’
During his research, Khilnani identified an ‘absurd gap between the superhero guises that some figures are forced to don and the reality of what they did, thought or said. This volume eschews both hagiography and demonisation and, while highly opinionated, is rooted in the facts. It makes no apology for wanting to ‘complicate not just the stories Indians like to tell themselves, but also the stories the world tells about us – and about itself.’
The quest for balance does not prevent Khilnani from dispensing sharp criticism. Indira Gandhi, for instance, is compared to Richard Nixon in so far as they both ‘harboured paranoid and anti-democratic tendencies.’ Her worst moments, however, ‘make Nixon’s corruption and cover-up during Watergate look like fudging a line call in badminton.’ At other times, Khilnani makes no secret of his admiration for India’s bygone leaders. The great third century BCE emperor Ashoka may have been short and fat – ‘a bit of a lens-breaker as they say in Bollywood’ – but he also helped turn Buddhism into a world faith and spread its ethical vision across Asia ‘not through violence, but through moral force and persuasion.’
Indeed, the book places strong emphasis on cultural achievement, not least in the realms of scholarship, the arts and the sciences. We meet the phenomenally gifted fifth century mathematician Aryabhata and the genius Panini who, in the fourth century BCE, created the ‘most complete linguistic system in history.’ As ‘the original nerd’ he worked out precisely how Sanskrit worked and made it the ‘lingua franca of the Asian world for more than a thousand years.’
Poets and writers also feature heavily, including Basava who, in the 12th century, ‘preached the immorality of caste,’ the ‘quick-witted literary survivor’ Amir Khusrow, known in medieval times as the ‘parrot of India’ owing to his shifting literary voices, and, of more recent vintage, Saadat Hasan Manto, praised here as ‘India’s master of the short story’. In the visual arts, meanwhile, the 18th century painter Nainsukh makes a notable appearance: he produced nuanced, innovative works at a time when most ‘paintings were essentially press releases for royalty.’
Dialogue between past and present is very important to Khilnani and, looking back, he notes ‘how many imaginative struggles have been waged against what remains a profoundly rigid society.’ Lessons can perhaps be learned from people like Jyotirao Phule who, during the 19th century, sought to ‘uproot the Brahmanical order’, or the lawyer and scholar Bhimrao Ambedkar who, in the 20th century, led ‘the untouchables’ and remains ‘the founding father most meaningful to ordinary Indians today.’
A less familiar, but no less impressive, figure is Birsa Munda who, before his death in 1900 aged just 25, lived ‘a firework of a life’ defending the rights and lands of India’s original tribal population – the Adivasis – against onslaughts from the British. There is both humour and great passion in these pages alongside a staggeringly wide range of subjects. It is a rare book that manages to contain accounts of the Buddha, a movie star, an Abyssinian slave who emerged as a power broker on the Deccan plateau, the founder of the Sikh religion, and a brace of wildly successful Indian industrialists. Such diversity, explored through tales of both tragedy and triumph, represents ‘an open invitation to a different kind of conversation about India’s past, and its future.’ It is an invitation we should all accept with gratitude.
This review was published in the May 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.