Incarnations, Reincarnations: Sunil Khilnani in conversation with William Dalrymple

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It was the last session on the Day 4 of Jaipur Literature Festival, but it was only dusk for the day, the enthusiasm of the readers knew no end. The session, headed by Sunil Khilnani and William Dalrymple, was about Khilnani’s book ‘Incarnations: India in 50 Lives’

The book came into being with Khilnani’s collaboration with BBC to capture the history of India with a different, unheard perspective. Clearly a massive project of 50 episodes, Khilnani expressed his enthusiasm saying, “The scale of the project is so enormous. I can’t believe I got a book at the end of it!”


Talking with much eagerness about his work and the book, Sunil told his audiences that he tried to understand the art of Indian history and “to get out of the area of history that people already know.”

“I tried to go out of comfort area and understand the shape of Indian history,” Sunil stated. The aim of the book was to tell the untold side of the stories that define India’s past, and Khilnani traversed a different path altogether to relook at what is taken as the standard saga of Hindustan.

What Sunil Khilnani wants this book to do is shift the perspective of people, and ignite a public debate. “It’s the responsibility for me to engage people in a public debate about the history of India.”


Recalling his experiences of the time of his research Khilnani told the listeners that it took him out in the world, and he had to challenge himself at every step to find new anecdotes and new accounts that can help him give a new dimension to the project. “I travelled 1000 kilometres in various parts of the country, recording facts and stories.”

“The idea is to account the Indian history for a larger audiences,” said Sunil. He shared that his motive behind the book and his research was to make the Indian history come alive. So he chose biography as a medium of telling India’s story, from Mughals, to 1947 to the modern day. “To tell stories of individuals to tell the history, without unifying them with a singular agenda.

Extremely fresh in his approach, Sunil then conveyed that he is not telling the story through politics and major events, but through ideas. The book is his attempt to project the nuances of the past in a way that to this day were hidden under the blanket of the obvious. “The book is the incarnation of ideas.”


‘Incarnation: India in 50 Lives’ has 50 accounts of individuals who define the story of the land. These accounts spring up different ideologies under various realms such as caste, religion, gender. It takes some canonical lives such Lakshmibai, Jyotirao Phule and brings them in a different light, and included some non-canonical lives as well.

“Each life is an argument. My idea was to tell how each of these stories fit in the Indian history.” Sunil ended the session on an energetic note saying, “It’s a personal book, and an invitation to an argument.”

The Penguin India Blog

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