In This Review

Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives
Incarnations: A History of India in Fifty Lives
By Sunil Khilnani
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016, 464 pp

With 50 biographical sketches, Khilnani builds a mosaic of India’s history since the time of the Buddha, paying less attention to the distant past and more to the last couple of centuries. Some of the subjects, such Mohandas Gandhi and the poet Rabindranath Tagore, are familiar, whereas many others—seers, rulers, slaves, poets, artists, yogis, engineers, and entrepreneurs—will be new to most non-Indian readers. As the stories accumulate, they bring into focus the diversity as well as the interconnectedness of Indian society, the strictness of social hierarchies along with the power of individuality, the intensity of religious commitment and the clash of different faiths, the gradual construction of a sense of nationhood and the long struggle for independence. In almost every sketch, Khilnani shows how the past has been remade to serve present-day agendas. The book reads like the BBC radio series from which it was adapted: punchy, personal, and quick moving, creating an incentive to learn more.