Books interview: Sunil Khilnani

Sunil Khilnani, author of Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, on his wife Katherine Boo's worldwide success, the wisdom of C.L.R. James and R. G. Collingwood, and the 'deliciously bad ends' of Struwwelpeter

March 3, 2016
Sunil Khilnani, India Institute, King's College London
Source: Sheetal Mallar

What was the first book that you recall captivating you as a child?

I lived in Bucharest as a child and went to German kindergarten: somewhere along the line I was given a copy of Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter, 19th-century cautionary verses about anti-heroes – seriously misbehaving children who come to deliciously bad ends. The illustrations fascinated me, and still do: where else can you see someone in lederhosen sporting an afro? I also loved hearing from my parents folktales from the Panchatantra, Indian versions of Aesop’s fables, about stupid Brahmans and brave, smart mongooses. The first grown-up book I read was by mistake. I was a cricket-crazy 12-year-old, and in the sports section of the British Council library in Delhi, amid the old Wisdens and batting technique guides, I stumbled across C. L. R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, a book as brilliant in describing Learie Constantine’s fielding in the covers as it is searing in its Marxist analysis of class, race and decolonisation. It blew me away.

Focusing on 50 people in your new book Incarnations means that these are necessarily very brief lives. Did it get easier to be succinct as you went along, and did writing the book precede or follow the scripts of the BBC Radio 4 series of the same name?

I learned a lot about crystallising ideas through the process of moving between writing essays and radio scripts. Sometimes I wrote the scripts first; other times the essays – and had good fun with both forms. But the essays, compact as they are, allowed me to develop and complicate ideas and arguments that wouldn’t fit in a 15-minute radio format. There’s of course a venerable tradition of “Brief Lives”, and it would be nice to fancy that this volume might find a place somewhere in that lineage.

Are there any longer biographies of the people who appear in Incarnations that strike you as particularly excellent?

Great biographical writing about India is relatively rare (and that’s been a spur to my efforts), but as I criss-crossed India working on my project, I found myself lugging around the following: Richard Eaton’s A Social History of the Deccan, a brilliant account of 500 years of Deccan history through eight lives; Ashoka in Ancient India, Nayanjot Lahiri’s new study of the Emperor Ashoka, which draws on recent archeological evidence; a very useful biography of Tagore, and an edition of his letters, by Andrew Robinson and Krishna Datta; Robert Kanigel’s imaginative biographical study of the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan; and a beautiful two volume set of letters, writings and paintings by the artist Amrita Sher-Gil, edited by her nephew Vivan Sundaram. Each of these contained new kinds of sources and new approaches to thinking about Indian history, and I drew on all of them – and much else of course – when I was writing Incarnations

Your wife, Katherine Boo, is also an author and a scholar. While acknowledging that you may be – rightly! – biased, have you any theories about why her book Beyond the Beautiful Forevers was such a critical and commercial success?

As Katherine herself says, globalisation, poverty and inequality are over-theorised and under-reported subjects, so perhaps there was pent-up hunger for something factual. Her book has now been translated into some 35 languages, and adapted as a play by David Hare, and I think that has to do not just with her writing but her incredibly detailed and documented reporting. Katherine is able to write a world into existence, and though it may be unfamiliar to many readers, we can all recognise fellow human beings trying to make moral choices and figure out why there is such a weak connection between their own effort and reward. But sure: I am biased!  

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War is a powerful, intimate story of his own family and the war – astonishing to think that it’s his first book – and I gave it to the Irish historian Roy Foster, whose literary judgement I admire. A book I often press on students is R. G. Collingwood’s slim Autobiography, a wonderfully pithy enactment of the historical method and particularly instructive in what it can teach about how to do intellectual history.

What books are you reading now, and what books are on your desk waiting to be read?
My desk is a pile-up of things missed in the rush of writing my own book: volumes by the Indian poets Jeet Thayil and Arvind Krishna Mehrotra; the historian Michael Cook’s Ancient Religions, Modern Politics: The Islamic Case in Comparative Perspective; and Margaret MacMillan’s History’s People: Personalities and the Past, another experiment in biography and history. The first novel I read after sending my own book to press was Junot Diaz’s razor-sharp This Is How You Lose Her, and I’m impatient to read his earlier novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. After reading Claire Vaye Watkins’ brilliant essay “On Pandering”, I’ve ordered her just-published novel, Gold Fame Citrus.

Sunil Khilnani is Avantha professor and director of the India Institute, King’s College London, and author of Incarnations: India in 50 Lives (Allen Lane).

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