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Against All Odds

THE IDEA OF INDIA. By Sunil Khilnani . Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 263 pp., $22

January 25, 1998|CHITRA DIVAKARUNI | Chitra Divakaruni is the author of "The Mistress of Spices," which was chosen as one of The Times' Best Books of 1997

Men and women who have shaped history have often done so because of their obsession with an idea, a vision, a belief in a possibility. Foremost among such ideas has been the idea of India, at once a mythic and philosophic construct as well as a literal space which, once arrived at, offers challenges and realities that are impossible to ignore. The many, often opposed, ideas of what India may be have inspired figures as diverse as Alexander, Qutb-ud-Din, Columbus, Lord Curzon, Max Mueller, Rudyard Kipling and Francesco Clemente to undertake journeys across the world. The vision of India extends from dream to nightmare. It has elicited the lyricism of a patriotic Rabindranath Tagore and the symbolism of an admiring William Butler Yeats. It has called forth the bitter indictment of social practices from a John Strachey and a Nirad Chaudhuri. And in their complex diversity and insistence that each Indian has within him or her a private notion of Indianness, the political ideas of India have confounded India's own post-independence leaders, from Nehru to Indira Gandhi to Deve Gowda.

Last year, independent India--the second most populous country in the world and, as Khilnani points out, the lone bridgehead of democracy in Southeast Asia--celebrated its 50th birthday. Numerous reviews and reassessments of its achievements have been published, from Gita Mehta's "Snakes and Ladders" to Shashi Tharoor's "India: From Midnight to the Millennium." Sunil Khilnani's "The Idea of India," however, offers us something different. Instead of attempting to provide an understanding of India through an examination of the external events that have (seemingly) shaped it, Khilnani analyzes the central internal idea behind modern India, which, he claims, is the idea of democracy. He traces the emergence of this idea and its paradoxical success in a country whose history of feudal and authoritarian rule would have presupposed its failure. He also depicts how this democracy--and the way in which it operates--has undergone numerous changes in the last 50 years.

A professor of politics at the University of London, Khilnani admits that this slim, ambitious book (an essay in five parts) is "fiercely selective." Central to India's development is the figure of Nehru, India's first prime minister, whom Khilnani considers the most fundamental figure in modern India. While some readers may not agree (as I did not) that of all the leaders who fought to bring India its independence--the fiery Shubhash Chandra Bose, the iconoclastic "untouchable" Ambedkar, the cool-headed visionary Vallabhbhai Patel and the idealistic yet canny Gandhi--Nehru was the one whose ideas were the finest, most intellectual expression of the nationalistic imagination, it is certainly interesting and instructive to examine Khilnani's argument.

Although Khilnani claims that it is not his intention to present Nehru in any detail in this book (he is writing a separate biography that focuses on this), we get a remarkable and complicated picture of Nehru's personality through even the few personal glimpses we are allowed. The most anglicized of all India's nationalistic leaders, Nehru was a man who (like Khilnani) was educated at Cambridge and answered to the name "Joe" until his mid-20s. A man who, as he underwent a number of prison sentences during the last part of the Raj, through introspection and musings on his country's great past and through the writing of his self-exploratory "Discovery of India," was able to remake himself into an Indian, to develop a deep respect for his multitudinous culture and the diversity of its constituents. This is the Nehru who, during the Partition riots in 1947 between the Hindus and Muslims, embraced the idea of a multiethnic India and "took to the streets of Delhi . . . in order to try and stop the killing and looting, and to assure Muslim families that they could rely on the protection of the state."

"The Idea of India" is more of an academic study than a book for a lay audience. Unlike Tharoor's "From Midnight to the Millennium," which is filled with witty anecdotes and personal stories, Khilnani's book is dense with historical detail from both pre- and post-colonial times, with references to little-known events, lengthy quotations, statistics, endnotes and a 26-page bibliographic essay. What keeps it from dryness, though, are the intellect and passion of the writer, which are evident, for instance, in a spirited critique of the British Raj and in his ironic inclusion, and exposure, of statements such as philosopher-writer Henri Michaux's claim, "All the 'best' people in India gave [the country] up from the beginning--the great miracle of the English is that now the Hindus do care about it."

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