Book review: Incarnations is a boosterish fairy-tale view of India

This massive book tells a lopsided story of the subcontinent’s past and present, its author failing to grasp the possible connections between his liberal nationalism and the toxic kind that is stifling dissent across the country

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 12:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 1:01pm

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives

by Sunil Khilnani

Allen Lane

2/5 stars

The east is a career, said British politician and novelist Benjamin Disraeli in the middle of the 19th century, a sentiment that Edward Said found so remarkable he used it as the epigraph to his Orientalism. And India, one feels upon reading Sunil Khilnani’s new book, 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 think tanks and in the frothing, ultra-nationalist rants delivered by Indian TV hosts.

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Incarnations: India in 50 Lives slides in at the liberal, middlebrow end of the noise, closer to the think tanks 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 Buddha of the fifth-century BC to the manic billionaires of the present day. Throughout, it attempts to offer the reasonable, moderate argument about what makes India a unique civilisation and nation, 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.

All of this is performed in an attitude of friendly punditry, with care taken that the reader does not feel too overwhelmed. Massive at 600-odd pages and covering 2,500 years, Incarnations is nevertheless conscientious about brief attention spans, breaking up its short chapters into even shorter sections. The entries, especially when gazing at poverty or wealth, begin in the op-ed manner that has been turned into a signature style by such grandees of American journalism as Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof, with details of the sort that signal democratic, boots-on-the-ground engagement as well as plush reporting budgets. We are encouraged to look at the “tarpaulin roofs of a Mumbai slum”, at “the cacophonous building site, where Indian labourers and engineers are working alongside international consultants to build a new station for Delhi’s world-class metro”, and at “the world’s largest private home, Mukesh Ambani’s 27-storey Antilia in Mumbai”.

The lives chosen show the same rather anodyne selection principle. There is no room for Tipu Sultan , the 18th-century Muslim king who was as interested in the ideals of the French Revolution as in fighting the English, although it is hard to tell if this is a deference to British sensibilities or to Hindu nationalist ones. None of the 50 lives come from India’s northeastern territories, reinforcing their colony status in the mainstream Indian imagination. The lives that have been chosen, meanwhile, are filtered through the lens of presentism, with deft touches to show that the subject matter should not be considered too alien, and that the Buddha and Akbar and Indira Gandhi are all well within the ambit of the unending contemporary.

So the singers at a Sufi shrine in Delhi have “their fingers bejewelled with bling”. A discussion of the 10th-century king Rajaraja Chola slides smoothly into a comparison with the current chief minister of Tamil Nadu – both representative, perhaps, of the “cult of the leader in the Tamil lands”, regardless of the millennia separating these two figures. The 15th-century poet and preacher Kabir, meanwhile, reminds Khilnani of how dissenting voices are suppressed in contemporary India. “Celebrity voices such as Salman Rushdie’s have been silenced – even, famously, at liberal havens like the Jaipur festival.”

Meanwhile, other writers and thinkers, less well known, “are being muffled all over the country”, he writes, seemingly unaware that there might be a connection, historical and ideological, between his own liberal-nationalist celebration of India and the Hindu nationalist assault on all those who fail to celebrate India and its glory in the correct manner.

The rot that is the India industry began in the late 1990s, when global capitalism, arriving triumphantly in the subcontinent, was met by the energetic literary production of India’s Anglophone elites. Khilnani’s first book, The Idea of India, rode the wave of the moment, even if the idea he was expounding had originated with India’s anticolonial elites, and at a very different historical moment. Liberal and cosmopolitan in its vision, this idea of nation was enshrined by its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in his The Discovery of India. Its defining themes, as the historian Perry Anderson piquantly described them recently, were “antiquity-continuity”, “diversity-unity”, “massivity-democracy” and “multi-confessionality-secularity”.

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Nehru’s self-glorifying vision had emerged out of the crucible of anticolonialism. For all its flaws at home – aberrations that would become the defining pattern of the Indian state with each passing decade – it retained some sense of radicalism on the global front, its “non-alignment” really a kind of alignment with nations and cultures eviscerated by the West and by capitalism. But the entry of Western capital into India in the 1990s stripped the nation’s liberals of any such anticolonial pretensions, just as decades of parasitical coexistence with the Nehruvian state had robbed them of any capacity to speak against the increasingly authoritarian workings of that state.

All that remained was the sense of inflated grandeur, transformed from its anticolonial context in Nehru’s imagining into a kind of perpetual celebration of greatness, especially among non-resident Indians, and carried out now with the benign approval of those very Western overlords against whom it had originally been summoned.

Similarly, as the rise of India during the first decade of the 21st century fuelled right-wing Hindu nationalism, reaching its current, brutal apex under the present prime minister Narendra Modi, liberal voices of the India industry were careful to critique such ultra-nationalism only in career-sustaining moderation, or to remain tactfully silent.

Incarnations does attempt, on occasion, to offer critiques of the cruder versions of Hindu nationalism. Writing about the discoveries of early subcontinental medical traditions by Charaka, in the second century, Khilnani chides Modi for giving “the example of the god Ganesh as a pioneering instance of plastic surgery ”. It also occasionally points out the excesses of Indian crony capitalism, including the displacement of indigenous people from their land by resource-hungry corporations or the “gift for maximising and monetising inequality” possessed by the industrialist Dhirubhai Ambani. Yet these are passing moments in a boosterish narrative of India, a matter of degree rather than substance.

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, think tanks and universities, which explains why Incarnations, before it was a book, was a series on BBC 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.

The Guardian