To tell the history of India through 50 personalities, first a radio project for the BBC and now a handsomely produced book, Incarnations, has perhaps been one of Sunil Khilnani’s more ambitious and demanding projects, not least because of its non-academic format. The author—historian and director of the India Institute at London’s King’s College—travelled thousands of miles through the country to research for it and the outcome is a living, throbbing, riveting glimpse into these great minds who shaped India. “It is not up to the state to define nationalism on everyone’s behalf,” Khilnani tells Satish Padmanabhan in an interview. Excerpts:
To select 50 lives to tell the story of a nation, as you have admitted, is an exercise designed to provoke. It will certainly get people talking, but which are the few names that you had to grapple with the most before leaving out?
Don’t get me started. It was brutal getting down to 150 figures, let alone the final 50. But as I cut, my compensating hope was to imagine that readers might themselves engage in the choices, and propose alternative selections. That’s essentially how I see Incarnations—as an open invitation to a different kind of conversation about India’s past, and its future.
You have left out many great personalities like Nehru so that other names could be included. Don’t you think a few more like Gandhi, Jinnah, Tagore, the Buddha or Ambedkar, about whom so much has been documented, could have been left out too?