Dinyar Patel has won the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize 2021, given out by the New India Foundation. The fourth edition of the prize has gone to Patel’s book Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, published by Harvard University Press) – a biography of a significant figure in modern Indian history.

Patel’s book was selected from a shortlist of six by a jury comprising political scientist and author Niraja Gopal Jayal (Chair), entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani, historians and authors Srinath Raghavan and Nayanjot Lahiri, and entrepreneur Manish Sabharwal. The Rs 15-lakh prize is given to a work of non-fiction. The jury citation:

Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism by Dinyar Patel (Harvard University Press) is an exemplary biography about one of India’s first nationalists, written with great lucidity and detail by a promising scholar. In his keenly-researched work, Dinyar Patel illuminates the life and legacy of Dadabhai Naoroji as a key figure in the history of India’s movement towards Independence.”

Patel is Assistant Professor of History at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research in Mumbai, and a former teacher in the Department of History at the University of South Carolina. His biography is a deep and nuanced study of the life and accomplishments of the first Indian to be a member of the British Parliament.

In this excerpt from the essay “The Singing Satyagrahi: Khurshedben Naoroji and the Challenge of Indian Biography”, Patel talks of the difficulties of writing biographies in India.

In recent years, the “bare cupboard” of Indian biography, identified nearly two decades ago by Ramachandra Guha, has begun to slowly fill up. But Indian biography still remains remarkably underdeveloped – no doubt due to extant challenges. A biographer in India, for example, needs proficiency in several languages to do justice to particular individuals. Current-day political sensitivities render some subjects, such as Aurangzeb or Shivaji, out of bounds or hazardous to undertake.

A whole new crop of challenges occurs within archival facilities. Modern India’s track record of archival preservation has been quite abysmal.

Bureaucratic obstruction, archival incompetence and paranoia-induced restrictions on access throw up further obstacles to the researcher. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that so many scholars of South Asia eschew solid empirical research in favour of easier paths, such as reliance on arcane theory.

In this article, I draw on the life of Khurshed AD Naoroji (1894-1966?) to illustrate a set of particular challenges for writing Indian biographies. Khurshedben, as friends and associates knew her, was the granddaughter of Dadabhai Naoroji (1825-1917), the early Indian nationalist leader. A Parsi Zoroastrian, she was a member of a tiny, affluent and westernised minority community.

She grew up around wealth and privilege. While in her early thirties, nevertheless, she sacrificed a promising career as a classically trained soprano to join Mohandas K Gandhi (1869-1948), exchanging the concert halls of Paris and Bombay for the rigorous, ascetic life of a satyagrahi. In time, she became one of Gandhi’s most tireless and fearless associates.

She promoted women’s involvement in the Civil Disobedience Movement, served as an emissary between Gandhi and the Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan (1890-1988) and undertook a remarkable mission in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) to promote non-violence and stop a spate of kidnappings of Hindu villagers. And yet, hardly anything is known about her life.

Such is the consequence of the first and greatest challenge in Indian biography that I would like to identify: gender.

Most biographers have undertaken work on Indian men, resulting in an astounding lack of scholarship on prominent female leaders. Much of this has to do with an inherent gender bias in the archival record. There are relatively few rich archival collections of Indian women – Sarojini Naidu’s papers at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, for example, are disappointingly thin – and the papers of Indian men oftentimes make scant reference to their female counterparts.

In a country where the papers of so many prominent men are missing or disintegrating into moth-eaten heaps, it should be of little surprise to us that the written records of significant women leaders have long ago turned to dust. Khurshedben and three of her sisters, popularly known in Bombay as the Captain Sisters, were prominent Gandhians and close friends of the Nehru family. They would have had the historical sensitivity, financial resources and personal contacts to ensure that their correspondence was properly preserved. In spite of this, their letters and papers have entirely disappeared.

Denied intact collections of personal papers, the biographer encounters further challenges. As is the case with Khurshedben, one has to write life stories indirectly, through the lives of better-documented family members and friends. A wealthy American heiress living in Greece, Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, therefore becomes a critically important figure for understanding Khurshedben’s shift from music to Indian nationalist activity: Sikelianos preserved her correspondence with Khurshedben.

There is also the acute challenge posed by chronological unevenness of material. While much of Khurshedben’s life remains a blank slate, there is an overabundance of material for a two-year period in the early 1940s – from letters stashed in Gandhi’s correspondence – before she once more fades from view.

Reconstructing Khurshedben’s nationalist career with this short burst of material is much like trying to approximate a great painting with only a few surviving tatters. It requires constant guesswork.

Yet the rewards of Indian biography are legion. There is the thrill of unearthing completely forgotten episodes of history, such as acts of bravery and sacrifice that propelled the nationalist movement. In Khurshedben’s case, this involved long years in jail, hazarding death by negotiating with Pashtun dacoits and launching salvos of unrestrained criticism against Gandhi and his policies.

There are fleeting glimpses of a remarkable personality, someone who evoked feelings of both consternation and admiration amongst her British colonial interlocutors. “You could see nationalism oozing from her eyes,” remarked the Gandhian scholar Ushaben Mehta, who was jailed in the 1940s alongside Khurshedben. For our eyes, unfortunately, only brief snippets of her nationalist career are visible.

Excerpted with permission from “The Singing Satyagrahi: Khurshedben Naoroji and the Challenge of Indian Biography”, by Dinyar Patel, from A Functioning Anarchy: Essays for Ramachandra Guha, edited by Nandini Sundar and Srinath Raghavan, Penguin Books India.