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Critical thinking about history is dying

By Mihir S Sharma
March 10, 2016 21:10 IST
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Books like Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, simple and straightforward though they appear, are instead powerful arguments for complexity, for empathy, and for curiosity, observes Mihir S Sharma.

In the years since Sunil Khilnani's Idea of India was first published, the book and its argument have become central to the very contestations it sought to describe -- over the nature of the Indian republic, of the history that it acknowledges and owns, and what binds Indians together.

So influential has it been that, on the Internet, "IoI" is used often at invective at those who are seen as excessively sympathetic to the old Nehruvian notion of an inclusive, pluralistic, multi-layered India.

The Idea of India is a hard act to follow.

Any reiteration, restatement, revisiting or renewal of the argument could easily be seen as a disappointment. But, all these years later, Khilnani has produced something that might well turn out to be as influential. Incarnations: India in 50 Lives is a tremendously ambitious project.

Based on a programme that airs on BBC's Radio 4, it strings together 50 readable little biographies of Indians, from the Buddha to Ambani.

"Show, don't tell", they teach in journalism school, and if Khilnani told us about the complexities of India in that previous book, in this one he shows them to us.

This column does not intend to be a review of Incarnations; for one, it is a hefty book, your money's worth of high-quality paper and wonderful illustrations, and I have as yet not read it through. But you don't need to read each one of the 50 to understand why such books are increasingly important: because we in India have chosen to replace history with politics, biography with myth-making -- and mythology with assertion.

Whatever most of us remember about, say, Shivaji today, is likely to be an Amar-Chitra-Katha version of his rise to power. We know, vaguely, that Shivaji is important politically, too, central to Maratha pride.

But the story of Shivaji, the politician and the ruler, is divorced in our minds from the battles being fought even now between political parties in Pune over statues of Shivaji and his advisors.

When you read Khilnani on Shivaji, however, and his explanation of, say, how Shivaji's extremely Brahminical coronation ritual was and is controversial among some Marathas -- does it "cede control over Shivaji's memory to the upper castes?"

Or was it part of a deal, a payment for Brahmins' acquiescence, and thus a symbol of his dominance? -- you begin to understand the complexity behind the black-and-white "Hindu warrior".

And then the interpretation of Shivaji's story is given one last twist: he was also, Khilnani points out, a self-made man, and perhaps that too will build into his legend in the years to come.

In books such as this, the very choice of individuals reveals much; and Khilnani has struggled to include not just political leaders -- and spiritual ones, this being India, where power as often as not flows from the saying of a prayer -- but also artists like Nainsukh, poets like Amir Khusrau, industrialists like Jamsetji Tata, and even Raj Kapoor. (There aren't enough women. But perhaps that's India's fault as much as it is Khilnani's.)

We live in the midst of our history, but increasingly we turn to it only as a source of glory or of shame.

But there are other questions that we should ask of history, things that might help us understand ourselves better.

Rajaraja Chola was, yes, a seafaring conqueror; but did he also discover something about the glamour of power that persists in South Indian politics to this day?

We know Shivaji was a self-made hero who fought the Mughals; but why are we quiet about Malik Ambar, equally self-made, and an equally potent adversary for the Empire?

Just because he was of African descent? Colonialism was evil; but without the Company's new order, Jyotirao Phule, "one of the nineteenth century's greatest radical humanists -- in any country -- might have been just another unknown vegetable supplier".

In India, as in many parts of the world, history seems more alive today than it has for decades.

Narratives are rewritten, new heroes are raised to the pantheon, new forms of offense and insult are detected, hegemonies are being challenged and established. But, in the midst of this bustling energy, critical thinking about history seems to be dying.

All that the embattled little cadre of liberals can argue for in times such as these is for a recognition of the complexity of our own history -- and for the empathy and the curiosity that would inevitably follow that recognition.

But the acceptance that truth is complex does not mean that the stories we tell have to be; the stories can be simple, but the truth they begin to reveal, and the thoughts they make us think, need not be.

Books like Incarnations, simple and straightforward though they appear, are instead powerful arguments for complexity, for empathy, and for curiosity. We need more like them

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