Title : Incarnations - India in 50 Lives
Author : Sunil Khilnani
The book was recommended by a well respected book aficionado. After having read the book, I am quite intrigued by the lives that the author has picked as representatives of Indian voices on diverse fronts. Some of the lives picked are absolutely pride of the nation who within their lifetimes, managed to gift the world a new or different philosophy while there are some which I felt are quite unworthy of this honour.
I may not agree completely with the choice of individuals that were portrayed to showcase voice of India, but the narrative kept me engaged throughout. Moreover, lives of some would surely leave the readers to know more about them, at least the book managed to make me enthused to read more on Srinivas Ramanujan, Rabindranath Tagore, Buddha, Jyotirao Phule, Visvesvaraya and Dara Shikoh.
These are individuals who had the best combination of some rare human traits - foresight, forthrightness, fearlessness and action-oriented dedication.
Ramanujan with his extraordinary intelligence worked on problems and offered solutions as if ‘he described the alien inhabitants of a distant planet two generations before we knew the planet existed.’ One doesn’t help marveling at the reach of that brain.
Rabindranath Tagore who realised even amidst the favoured trend at the time of independence of India that political freedom is not worth a great deal if one can’t free oneself from mental bondage. He tried to create a space for individual choice that stood apart from imposed collectives of caste, religion etc. Interestingly, he said, ‘the Hindu ideal of marriage has no regard for individual taste or inclination’ and he called marriage - ‘one of the most fruitless sources of unhappiness and downfall of man.’
Austere, ambitious and a visionary- Visvesvaraya turned an engineering degree into a superhuman world-fashioning prowess. He firmly believed in merit rather than preferential treatment for any particular social segment. He said, ‘by ignoring merit and capacity I feared production would be hampered and the efficiency of the administration, for which we had been working so hard, would suffer’. Growth could efface caste handicaps, in his view. He abhorred the approach to correct the problem in short terms as it only leads to waste of state and social energy, and moreover he found it wrong principally.
Since the book accommodates 50 lives, the author has skimmed through the journeys of these individuals. The depth is missing and it leaves one wanting for more especially about certain lives. Perhaps that has been the intent of the author. The narrative has a natural flow to it which is quite enjoyable and keeps one hooked onto the book till the end. Found it an interesting way to look at history and the minds that shaped the identity of the nation through their thinking and approach.