Sunil Khilnani’s “The Idea of India” is one of my long-standing favourite books on Indian history (well of whatever is there in it) and civilization. Till “Incarnations: India in 50 lives” came along. Not that it is any better by any stretch of imagination than “The Idea of India” but I quite like the concept. So what is the book about? Just what it says – India in 50 people – their lives and their journeys as the country progressed or declined – a mirror of our times so to speak. The concept is terrific and so is the writing, at the same time, there are some places where the book falls short.
Mr. Khilnani however picks some very obscure people for the book – which again I think is okay, given the timeline he covers and what he wants to communicate, however, there is something which is amiss in the book – the time spent on each personality. I wish there was more written on each of them which is not the case, only because Khilnani’s writing is par excellence.
Now coming to the personalities from Aamchi Mumbai or the state of Maharashtra as well. There are only 8 of them – nonetheless – I thought there could have been more from our city; however we will make do with these eight.
The eight personalities are: Shivaji (quite an obvious one, isn’t it? – the warrior king and about how he changed the course of the state of Maharashtra), Jamsetji Tata (another obvi choice), Annie Besant (her role in Mumbai wasn’t all that much, but still noteworthy, given the educational institutions set up by her and the time she spent in the city so much so that people mistook her to be Indian and from Mumbai), Manto (one cannot forget the time he spent in India and most particularly in Mumbai working with Bollywood – given he was also a screenplay writer), Raj Kapoor (need anyone say more when it comes to him – the first true blue showman so to say, and yet Khilnani has such an unbiased perspective which I personally loved and enjoyed), Ambedkar (the man who no one will ever forget and his role in starting the Dalit movement – this is my favourite piece in the entire book – only because there is so many layers which have been uncovered where the man is concerned and that too only in about five to six pages), M.F. Husain (one of India’s most prolific painters) and finally Dhirubhai Ambani (I shouldn’t have to say anything at all about him, should I?).
So these are the personalities – the purpose of the book is to trace their lives and see its relevance in not only shaping India as a free country but also their ideologies communicated through their work and made a lasting impression on people’s minds.
“Incarnations” as a book to me is complete in the sense of an idea or a concept but again there had to be more personalities – a 100 of them would perhaps been ideal. Mumbai was a terrain has also perhaps not been explored that much because of the restriction to 50. The book reads slowly (of course) and it will take some of your time before you are done with it. What I also found quite magnificent was the way in which the illustrations are handled – some are prints of paintings, some posters and some in the form of maps, which gives the book its very layer dimension. “Incarnations” is a very relevant book for our times and the world we live in. It is time to go back and trace our civilization and history through people who lived then and the difference they made.