February 19, 2020
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Zone Of Becoming

A multi-faceted analysis of what makes India possible

Zone Of Becoming
The Idea Of India
By Sunil Khilnani
Hamish Hamilton Rs 595; Pages: 263
PATRIOTISM is in bad odour these days, at least among members of the intellectual elite. It isn't just the last refuge of scoundrels—it is frequently the first. The recent success of some cinematic manifestations of the malady—Roja, 1942, etc—were accordingly accorded a sour and skeptical look by vocal sections of the intelligentsia. 'Everybody' is getting very suspicious of nationalism—it smacks either of state terrorism or of passionate majorities seeking to transform themselves, often through genocidal means, into states which can then legally dispense terrorism. As it happens, this 'everybody' doesn't include the millions who made the aforesaid manifestations so successful. Still, in today's context, it takes courage to write a book called The Idea of India without instantly declaring, in some dismissive subtitle, "perish the thought!"

Sunil Khilnani is a London-based political scientist who is engaged in writing a full-length biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first after Gopal. The present book is, at one level, his tribute to the Golden Jubilee hysteria—but, all things considered, it is an honourable contribution. Indeed, there is enough substance here for one to venture the hope that the book will connect up with larger, more durable matters of subcontinental argument, and not be cleared away, along with the tinsel and the ribbons, when our revels are ended.

Khilnani's book is located in a difficult, treacherous domain. At one pole, there is the clear, if somewhat rarefied, domain of political philosophy; at the other, there is that familiar staple of everyday journalism, political gossip, breathless and strictly ephemeral. Between these poles lies the grey domain where the political scientist lurks. He is forced to work essentially through the redescription of a known world. When it works and this redescription has analytical bite, the opaque surfaces of everyday reality become momentarily, fractionally transparent. When it doesn't, the resultant discourse is soporific, about as compelling as yesterday's newspaper.

Khilnani's caffeine-rich narrative of the last 50 years is, mercifully, not slavishly chronological, decade after dreary decade. It is indeed in the nature of the enterprise that he is forced to operate at a variable distance from his area of expertise and commitment. Thus, whenever he is writing about Nehru or the Nehruvian era, he is consistently perceptive, pungent, insightful. But as he moves away from that obviously beloved zone, even his considerable gift of apt phrasing and poetic concentration is sometimes insufficient to prevent him from slipping into a journalistic montage of all the things you've always known but didn't think anyone would ever bother to ask.

Khilnani is particularly good on the 'constitutive' nature of politics in India. It is worth noting that the ontological ground for 'India' has been variously identified: from the geographical certainties named in the Vishnu Purana to the convenient stirrings of the colonial imagination dreaming up a bureaucratic fiction. But both formulations miss the essence of what is 'India' today: "India does not merely 'have' politics but is actually constituted by politics. Politics at once divides the country and constitutes it as a single, shared, crowded space, proliferating (sic) voices and claims and forcing negotiation and accommodation."

Perhaps the best thing in the book is the chapter entitled "Cities". The city is, above all else, the space of modernity. There are, God knows, pre-modern cities—not merely the proud ruins of here and there but also Benares, poised on the trident of Siva himself, and even sad Lucknow, ravaged by the British and by their post-imperial inheritors. But it is within the city, primarily, that our modernity gets—is getting—defined. Khilnani is sharply focussed on the actual—physical, historical—site of modernity: "Unlike in Europe, where city air was expected to loosen the stifling social bonds of traditional community and to create a society of free individuals, the cities organised by the Raj's policies reinforced contradictory tendencies in Indian society. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, caste groups, paradoxically began to emerge as collective actors and to conflict with one another in the city itself, the putative arena of modernity."

The section on Chandigarh is the piece de resistance of the "Cities" chapter—for it is Chandigarh above all that captures the quality of the early nationalist imagination at its most innocent and untainted. The all-new city was to be "symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by traditions of the past... an expression of the nation's faith in the future".

There isn't space here to say much about Khilnani's discussion of Bombay, now Mumbai, or the "garbled modernity" of the small towns along the national highways, or the "aspiring esperanto" of Bangalore.

Khilnani's last section deals, appropriately enough, with the flood of identity politics that threatens to engulf India. It is in this context, again, that he is well positioned to honour Nehru's heroic achievements in plucking a constitutionally secular India from the flames of the Partition, in working with crippling constraints "to try and recover some grandeur for the darkened idea of India". That struggle is far from over.

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