Incarnations: India in 50 Lives by Sunil Khilnani - review by Charles Allen

Charles Allen

From Gautama to Gandhi

Incarnations: India in 50 Lives


Allen Lane 636pp £30 order from our bookshop

I enjoyed everything about this book except its title, Incarnations, which plays to the cliché of timeless India endlessly recycling itself. Some of the best of the fifty thumbnail portraits that make up this book concern men (only six of the total are women, as Sunil Khilnani acknowledges with regret) who rebelled against the very notion of unchanging India, from the revolutionary thinker Siddhartha Gautama Shakya, the first of Khilnani’s fifty lives, by way of two Victorian-era iconoclasts – the Bengali Rammohun Roy and the gardener-caste Maharashtrian Jyotirao Phule – to the Dalit reformer Dr Ambedkar, who in 1956, the last year of his life, converted to Buddhism in protest against a society still mired in caste.

This book began as a series on BBC Radio 4, in the wake of Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects. It follows much the same formula, covering each particular subject in about 2,500 to 3,000 words – the equivalent of fifteen minutes of airtime – in

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