The six-book shortlist of the New India Foundations’s Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize for the best non-fiction book on modern or contemporary India in 2019 has been announced. With no limits on themes and subjects, the shortlist ranges across politics, technology, nature, history, biography and investigative journalism. The winner of the Rs 15-lakh prize will be announced in December 2020.

Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties without Ethnic Movements, Amit Ahuja, Oxford University Press

In this book, Amit Ahuja, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, tackles the fluctuating success of the parties created by Dalit communities in India. He identifies how Indian democracy enables the mobilisation of marginalised communities, and acknowledges the dynamics between social and political movements. Drawing on extensive research from four of India’s largest states, Ahuja interprets the puzzling statistics that suggest the poor performance of ethnic parties in areas that engage in sturdy social equality activism, in comparison to states where these movements are weak.

“Democracy rests on the tantalising prospect that political equality can be leveraged to remedy social and economic inequality. This prospect has certainly inspired the mass mobilisation of Dalits in India, an ethnic group once referred to as ‘outcastes’ or ‘untouchables’ that comprises nearly 17% of the country’s total population. Dalits have organised themselves through social movements and political parties to confront the two-thousand-year-old Hindu caste system and improve their circumstances. This revolution from below, while uneven and incomplete, has been hailed as a major achievement of Indian democracy. 

This book’s inquiry into Dalit mobilisation is motivated by an empirical puzzle: Dalits’ ethnic parties have performed poorly in elections in Indian states where their historical social mobilisation has been strong and sustained, yet Dalits’ ethnic parties have performed well in elections in states where their historical social mobilisation has been absent or weak. For Dalits, collective action in the social sphere appears to undermine rather than enable collective action in the electoral sphere.”

Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India, Arun Mohan Sukumar, Penguin Random House

In an attempt to chart India’s technological trajectory, Arun Mohan Sukumar, the head of the technology initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, identifies the “lesser-known political project” of the state, and advocates for society’s understanding of technology and its place in development. Sukumar visits the intersection between the need to heighten technological prowess while acknowledging its capacity to enslave the general public. The book recognises the vilification of technology – a factor that prompted unwelcome responses from citizens during the new decade.

“In September 2014, a few months after he became the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi made his first visit to a major economy he greatly admired and whose progress he wished to emulate at home: Japan. But before Modi called on Shinzo Abe, Japan’s conservative leader, with whom he shares a warm rapport and political kinship, he visited a small primary school in Tokyo. At Taimei Elementary, Modi said he had come to see how Japanese classrooms could bring ‘modernity, moral education and discipline’ to India as well. 

The choice of this venue as the Prime Minister’s first stop during the visit was not a coincidence. Taimei was where Tokyo’s ‘big and important’ families sent their kids to study, educating, over decades, many in Japan’s vaunted, elite bureaucratic class who steered her incredible technological advancement.  

The location of the school was a symbol of even greater significance. Taimei is located in the Ginza district of Japan, known today as a shopper’s paradise, but which was originally ground zero for the Meiji-era modernisation that radically changed the country. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Japan’s Meiji elite aggressively pursued a strategy of bunmei kaika – ‘civilisation and enlightenment’ – through rapid industrialisation, adoption of Western technologies, and even its way of life. 

Ginza was created ‘as a brick town, with rectangular blocks, tree-lined avenues and gas lamp posts’, mirroring any modern city on America’s eastern seaboard. The noted historian Edward Seidensticker has observed that ‘the beginning of the way that brought Japan to semiconductors and robots was in Meiji Ginza’. In this prosperous Tokyo district, Narendra Modi praised a vision he had first embraced as the chief minister of Gujarat and subsequently, as Prime Minister of India.

— Opening lines from 'Midnight’s Machines', Arun Mohan Sukumar.

The Unquiet River: A Biography of the Brahmaputra, Arupjyoti Saikia, Oxford University Press

Arupjyoti Saikia, Historian and Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences in IIT Guwahati, personifies the river Brahmaputra in his latest writing. Saikia delves into the history that precedes the river, outlining the story of its making. The book identifies both the geological conditions and human endeavours that outline the character of Brahmaputra. Entwining his narrative with archival detail, Saika asks his reader to reimagine the history of Assam through the lens of this river’s rich past.

“How does one begin to tell the story of the Brahmaputra? Perhaps we should start with the tale of its origin and then move to other facets – water, sand, the floodplains. Where do the Brahmaputra’s waters originate from? How does the sand move? Is the life on the land surrounding the river dependent on the latter? What happens when the river receives more water than it can carry? To answer most of these questions, we turn to the science of geology and its many branches, including hydrology and geomorphology. An understanding of this deep history of the river is essential for a sense of the long turbulent times the river has undergone and will experience in the future. This geological history can give us a glimpse of how dynamic the river is: how the many elements – sands, waters, and the continuously changing climate – contribute to this dynamism; how the emergence of the hills and mountains surrounding the river gave it new momentum. The Brahmaputra itself has many lives and will undergo many transformations in the future. Despite this extraordinarily dynamic character, the river, its vast floodplains, hills, and mountains have collectively created a living space for plants, fauna, and people.”

— Opening lines from 'The Unquiet River', Arupjyoti Saikia.

A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon, Jairam Ramesh, Penguin Random House

Politician. Diplomat. Nationalist. VK Krishna Menon. In this book, Jairam Ramesh, a Rajya Sabha MP, and a Union minister between 2006 and 2014, maps the life of one of India’s historical public figures. Highlighting his political and literary achievements, Ramesh illustrates why Krishna Menon still commands respect. This book is built on research based on new archival material, revealing Krishna Menon through the many roles he occupies in history.

“Vengalil Krishnan Krishna Menon was born on 3 May 1896 1 in his mother’s ancestral home, Vengal, in the historic city of Calicut, where the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had landed in May 1498. Krishna Menon would play a crucial role in ending the Portuguese rule in India over four and a half centuries later. Vengalil was the taravad or matrilineal joint family to which he belonged. Taravad was a unique social institution characteristic of the Nair community of what is now Kerala. 

Krishna Menon belonged to a wealthy landed family. He grew up till his early teens in nearby Tellicherry, the English East India Company’s first settlement on the Malabar coast. This was the town in which E.K. Janaki Ammal – later to be India’s first woman scientist of repute – was born in November 1897. She would get to know Krishna Menon well in London in the 1940s and would write to him on 9 August 1954 when he was at the height of his global fame: 

‘I was looking through an old file and came across a letter of yours and when I read it I could not but help saying to myself, He has more than justified my faith and hopes in him. This is to let you know that your role as a great Asian is just beginning...’ ”

— Opening lines from 'A Chequered Brilliance', Jairam Ramesh.

Bottle of Lies: Ranbaxy and the Dark Side of Indian Pharma, Katherine Eban, Juggernaut Books

Katherine Eban, a long-form investigative journalist based in Brooklyn, traces the fall of India’s pharma empire: Ranbaxy. As a sensational exposé, Bottle of Lies discredits numerous big corporations in the pharmaceuticals sector. Eban marries meticulous research to lucid writing, centralising her narrative around a whistle-blower’s revelations. Trust nothing, especially that pill you’re taking.

Peter Baker, a drug investigator for the US Food and Drug Administration, traveled two hundred miles east of Mumbai, along a highway choked by truck traffic and down a road with meandering cows, to get to his assignment. Behind a metal fence lay a massive biotech park, run by the Indian generic drug company Wockhardt Ltd. Amid the dozens of buildings, Baker’s job was to inspect a particular area of the plant – Plot H-14/2 – to ensure that it could safely make a sterile injectable drug used by American cancer patients. 

Baker, thirty-three, had arrived lightly provisioned. He had just a few items in his backpack: a camera, a gel-ink pen, a green US government–issued notebook, and his FDA identification. He had a graduate degree in analytical chemistry and a command of the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, the rules that governed drug manufacturing. But more importantly, he had his instincts: a strong sense of what to check and where to look, after completing eighty-one inspections over four and a half years at the FDA. 

At 9:00 am, the sun already burning, Baker and his colleague, an FDA microbiologist, showed their identification to guards at the gate and were ushered into the plant, where the vice president of manufacturing and other company officials waited anxiously to greet them. In a world of drab auditors toiling with checklists, Baker stood out. He was handsome and energetic. He wore his brownish-blond hair in a buzz cut. On one bicep, he sported the oversized tattooed initials of his motorcycle group. As the officials began their opening presentation, he interrupted with a staccato burst of questions. Was there any other manufacturing area on-site that made sterile drugs for the US market, aside from Plot H-14/2? he asked repeatedly. No, the officials assured him.

— Opening Lines from 'Bottle of Lies', Katherine Eban.

Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth, Stephen Alter, Aleph Book Company

Award-winning writer Stephen Alter captures the Himalaya through a work that traverses five countries that the range passes through. In this eight-section book, Alter delves into a nuanced interpretation of the history, science, geology, environment, flora, fauna, myth, folklore, spirituality, climate and human settlements of the region, painting a rich portrait of the Himalayas. His narrative style is persuasive, in particular prompting readers to question laws framed with no ecological concern.

“Mountains are often defined by their height, though the summit of a peak is nothing more than the point where it ends, giving way to clouds and sky. The true substance and structure of a mountain rests beneath, amidst the cliffs and crags that fall away into fluted snowfields and sun-sculpted ice. More than elevation, other elements of a mountain help establish its presence – the contours of its ridges, the angle of its slopes, the solidity and depths of its foundations as well as the meadows and forests that grow at its feet. When we measure and calculate the complex geometry of a mountain, all its various dimensions must be taken into account, including where it stands in relation to other peaks. 

The Himalaya may be the tallest mountain range on earth but to focus on altitude alone limits our perspective and lessens their significance. The splendour of these mountains exists as much in their valleys as it does on the steepest inclines. The inspiring presence of Himalayan massifs has less to do with magnitude than the subtle nuances of nature out of which they rise: the trickle of a glacial stream flowing through channels of ice; translucent crystals of quartz embedded in a granite boulder; a twisted juniper root clutching loose moraine; or a herd of wild sheep silhouetted on a distant pass.”

— Opening Lines from 'Wild Himalaya', Stephen Alter.