Books on being Muslim in India, the truths behind Indian statistics, and gender parity among the professional elite, among others, feature on the shortlist of five books for the New India Foundation’s annual Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize for 2022. The shortlist was pared down from a longlist of 10.
From the histories of nationalism through local voices to the analysis of an epochal environmental movement, from the portrait of a diverse community to and contemporary ideas of feminism and data – all five shortlisted books provide fresh perspectives on India. The winner will be announced on December 1 and awarded a prize of Rs 15 lakh for the best nonfiction book on modern or contemporary India published in 2021.
This year’s jury comprises political scientist and author Niraja Gopal Jayal, entrepreneur Manish Sabharwal, historians and authors Srinath Raghavan and Nayanjot Lahiri, former diplomat and author Navtej Sarna, and attorney and author Rahul Matthan. According to the jury, this year’s shortlist “offers keen insights into the making of India today and the transitions it is currently undergoing.”
The shortlist (in alphabetical order) is:
- Accidental Feminism: Gender Parity and Selective Mobility Among India’s Professional Elite, Swethaa S Ballakrishnen, Princeton University Press
- Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India, Ghazala Wahab, Aleph Book Company
- The Chipko Movement: A People’s History, Shekhar Pathak, translated from the Hindi by Manisha Chaudhry, Permanent Black and Ashoka University.
- Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, Suchitra Vijayan, Context/Westland
- Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India, Rukmini S, Context/Westland
What ground do the shortlisted books cover? Here’s what the writers or the publishers have to say about each book.
Accidental Feminism: Gender Parity and Selective Mobility Among India’s Professional Elite, Swethaa S Ballakrishnen, Princeton University Press
“Drawing from observation and interview data with 130 professionals over four years, this book illuminates new ways in which professionally educated middle-class women and men experience social mobility in post-liberalisation India. In tracing their stories and career paths, I show how meanings of self and hierarchy infiltrate all workplaces but at the same time diverge in their specific attributes from what we might normally expect...
These organisations I write about and the women within them who have attained professional mobility in a single generation have very little concretely in common with my mother. My Amma’s day job as an office manager was work that would serve to put her children through school (and was not always enough to send them to college); it was never a profession, let alone an elite one. She certainly did not imagine the kind of leisure in her life that would include the possibility of a solo vacation in Barcelona or any of the other luxuries my respondents describe. Yet, there are synergies between these firms I study, the women in these firms, and my mother. They are connected with their relative indifference. And it is the fecundity inherent in their blasé attitudes that the theoretical bedrock of this book rests on.”
Born a Muslim: Some Truths about Islam in India, Ghazala Wahab, Aleph Book Company
“As questions continued to sprout, this book started to grow. The central discussion, however, remains Muslims in India – their faith, their strengths, their insecurities, their aspirations, their limitations, their petty compromises, and their dogmatism. Today, twin prongs of external and internal forces hold Muslims in a pincer grip. The external prong is the sociopolitical discrimination that they face at the hands of both lawmaking and law-enforcing authorities, which often manifests as mental and physical violence. It denies not only equal opportunity to the Muslims, but also justice, when required.
This situation has worsened with the rise of Hindu right-wing political forces that demonise Islam and Muslims, holding them responsible for countless supposed wrongs throughout history. This forces Muslims to seek security in their own numbers, and they withdraw into ghettos on the periphery of the mainstream, thereby limiting their choices in terms of accommodation, education, and profession.
The primary internal factor is the vicious cycle perpetuated by illiteracy, poverty, and the disproportionate influence of the mullahs on the community. This influence of the mullahs, which commenced after the collapse of the Mughal Empire in 1857, has, on the one hand, kept a large number undereducated and therefore unemployable; on the other hand, it has prevented the emergence of progressive, secular Muslim leadership.
Since the ulema represent the community, they have engaged with political institutions on behalf of the people. Successive political regimes also started to turn to them as the leaders of the Indian Muslims and a cycle was started. Consequently, even when a progressive, or non-conservative Muslim politician emerges, she has to kowtow to the conservative few for credibility and acceptability.”
The Chipko Movement: A People’s History, Shekhar Pathak, translated from the Hindi by Manisha Chaudhry, Permanent Black and Ashoka University
(From the publisher)
“In India, modern environmentalism was inaugurated by the Chipko Movement, which began in 1973. Because it was led by Gandhians, included women participants, occurred in “spiritual” Himalayan regions, and used innovatively non-violent techniques of protest, it attracted international attention.
It also led to a major debate on Indian forest policy and the destructive consequences of commercialisation. Because of Chipko, clear-felling was stopped and India began to pay attention to the needs of an ecological balance which sustained forests and the communities within them. In academic and policy-making circles it fuelled a wider debate on sustainable development – on whether India could afford to imitate the West’s resource-intensive and capital-intensive ways of life.
Chipko’s historians have hitherto focused on its two major leaders, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna. The voices of “subalterns” – ordinary men and women such as Gaura Devi who made Chipko what it was – have not been recorded. Shekhar Pathak has lived in their valleys, studied the landscapes, talked to protesters and communities, and trawled local newspapers of the time. He shows that in leadership and ideology Chipko was diverse and never a singular Gandhian movement.
Midnight’s Borders: A People’s History of Modern India, Suchitra Vijayan, Context/Westland
“The idea of travelling along India’s border, all 9,000 miles of it, was audacious. No one had done it before. I didn’t know what such a journey would entail. Having conceived of this undertaking, I became obsessed with it. The idea consumed me.
I spent the next six months reading everything I could. The bibliography I kept at that time lists 113 books and another 150 essays. But even those six months of research, saving money and plotting did not prepare me for the task ahead.
The project I thought would take mere months took me over seven years.
It would have been easier to pick ten places on the border, parachute in, describe them and leave. That would have been the most efficient, but not the most truthful. From the farthest outposts of India to her ungoverned spaces and forgotten regions, I travelled to places shaped by an array of competing histories. The physical journey opened strange doors, and the days spent waiting for permits at borders, rummaging through archives and speaking with people in their homes became an integral part of the story. Returning regularly for seven years, I amassed endless notebooks, over a thousand images and more than 300 hours of recorded conversations.
How does one assemble these fragments into a book?”
Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India, Rukmini S, Context/Westland
“Numbers enlighten, empower, elevate. Numbers can help us make sense of modern India. Numbers can help us anticipate the future. But numbers do not exist in a rarefied space. The push and pull of political and social forces around the world don’t leave numbers unaffected.
This is a country of wonder and beauty, of idealism and sacrifice, of extraordinary leaps of faith, and people who move mountains. Numbers, far from being cold and unintelligible, can capture much of this nuance, this humanity, that pre- packaged narratives sometimes flatten out. If Indian statistics have seemed impenetrable, that is a failing of the community that produces data and works with it. Everyone should hear the stories numbers tell, and then make up their own minds about the country.
The last few years have seen a vicious polarisation colour not only most news reporting, but also the world of data. Part of the reason people find it hard to make sense of the world using numbers is because they first need to turn the tin upside down to check on the manufacturer before opening it. They need to know who produced it, what it missed, and what the other side is saying before they can be sure this is the whole truth. Democracy is best served by those who engage with it critically. But blanket suspicion is problematic and harmful. Knowing how to engage critically with data will only help strengthen democracy. This book is a toolkit.”