Reading Sunil Khilnani’s Idea of India nearly two decades after its original appearance to considerable acclaim, and nearly fifteen years after I purchased a copy (yes, I have waited that long to read it!) I am struck by

  • the insights packed into this slim book (just 200-odd pages)
  • the quality of his prose, specifically how artfully he weaves phrases together to create magical sentences, or even a para or two
  • the sheer confidence with which he argues, and the authority with which he declares his observations

Among the insights I gathered, I would highlight (and this is just a sample)

  1. how in India, power was historically embodied, not in the state, but in the social order manifested through caste system. So when empires came and went, each capturing the symbolic seats of power, society changed not the least. This, of course, began to change with the advent of British rule.
  2. how the story of India is also the story of the gradual emergence, and the continuing growth of the state
  3. how regional (Bengal, Maharashtra etc) and Indian identity emerged in parallel, and not as it is commonly assumed, the latter emerging to unite and subordinate the former
  4. the power enjoyed by Planning Commission, an unelected committee of technocrats, which enjoyed huge economic clout in the 1950s
  5. how the crisis of the Congress became a crisis of India itself – as the decline of its internal federalism removed opportunities for bartering opposing claims and demands, in turn leading to regional voices turning unheard and sparking the rise of separatist movements in Kashmir and Punjab.

The book also details a 25-page listing of bibliographical sources, and recommendations for reading. In fact I would hazard that the book is worth buying for this alone.

One criticism that I have of the book is that between the well-crafted paragraphs and the overall narrative arc, the in-between, where the weaving together of the paragraphs into a cohesive structure needs to happen, clearly doesnt come together. As a result while each sentence and often paragraphs at a stretch are easy to read and grasp, the transition from one section to the other isn’t smooth, and is sometimes jarring, making the book difficult to read at a stretch.

The other criticism I would hazard is of the chapter on Cities, which is the weakest, and also the most readable of the four chapters which constitute the book. While Khilnani articulates why he has included this chapter – cities are where modern India’s political and economic experiences coincide – I am also certain that he could have dispensed with this chapter without impacting the broad narrative arc of the book. Still, for the insights that Sunil Khilnani has been able to extract and share in this work, this is piffling criticism indeed.

It is notable that Khilnani’s latest book (and one written after a really long gap) is Incarnations – a collection of fifty profiles of notable Indians. The structure allows him the luxury of not having to worry about integrating each section with the others. I wonder if shorter chapters would have suited the Idea of India as well.

Lastly I can’t but help observe that in the preface to the book, written in 1997, Khilnani refers to his upcoming biography of Nehru. It is nearly two decades since then, and the book is yet to see the light of the day. It will be interesting to know the reasons. Access to Nehru’s archives, especially the post-1946 material is tightly restricted and needs Sonia Gandhi’s permission. However I have also read online that he has been granted access to the archives. I wonder what the real reason is.

For the readers of this blog, or for those who have landed here via search engines, I have a gift for you. I have compiled key lines and passages from the book chapter by chapter; sort of what you would get if you highlighted passages on a Kindle and compiled them all. It is the equivalent of a summary or condensation that I do with non-fiction works from time to time. For those who don’t have the time to invest into this book, which I recommend hugely, this compilation can serve as a decent-enough alternative. You can download the highlights here.