Oral Histories

Coming soon….

PhD project

PhD Project Title:

Capitalism and Globalisation: Do social ties matter?

Research Focus

Focused on exploring the long-term trends in capitalism and entrepreneurship, my research studies the interactions between globalisation and the social ties binding Indian businesses during the years 1857-1970. 

Research Interests

Economic history, business history and social science history.

The relationship between capitalism, globalisation and culture.

Northern Ireland is 100 and getting older

Courtesy: NISRA

Northern Ireland is celebrating its centenary year and fresh statistics are here to add a hint of gravity to the mix. There are now more than 39,500 Northern Ireland residents who are 85 years or older (last counted June 2020), which is a 28 percent increase over the last decade (2010-20). This population, referred to as the “oldest old”, has grown almost six times faster than the population of Northern Ireland as a whole. With the increase, people 85 years or older now make up 2.1 per cent of the Northern Ireland population, which is lower than Wales (2.7 percent), England (2.5 percent) and Scotland (2.3 percent), but still higher than the Republic of Ireland (1.6 percent). The statistics are fresh out of a report released today by the Statistics & Research Agency (NISRA).

Contrast this with the average annual growth rate in the same age group over the past decade, which stood at 2.5 percent! However, the current slower growth is, in part, due to ”markedly more deaths occurring in this cohort in the period March-June 2020”, the NISRA report says.

Another sobering part of the report is that women account for nearly two thirds (65 per cent) of this cohort of the oldest old. The new statistics also point to an estimated 350 centenarians (i.e. those aged 100 years or more) living in Northern Ireland, roughly two centenarians for every 10,000 people living in the island.

However, let’s take a comparative view and things aren’t all grim: During the 2010-20 period, the overall growth in the 85 and older age group has been markedly higher in Northern Ireland at 28.1 per cent as compared to Great Britain (20.6 percent). This is still lower than the Republic of Ireland (44.6 percent).

These statistics definitely contribute to the production of population projections and life expectancy statistics for Northern Ireland, all of which are of policy interest because of the implications for pensions and the delivery of front line services for the older population such as housing, transport and health care.

Note: I am very curious to meet some of the 350 centanarians.

Statistics for the population aged 85 and over for Northern Ireland are available here

Mid-year population estimates are produced by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). The estimates refer to the size of the usually resident population at 30 June and are therefore often referred to as the mid-year estimates. The most recent estimates, published in June 2021, relate to the population at mid-2020.

Equivalent and comparable estimates of the population aged 90 and over for England and Wales by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and for Scotland by National Records Scotland (NRS) have also been released on 23 September 2021.  A UK comparison paper analysing the comparability of these estimates between the four UK countries is available here.

Estimates of the population aged 85 and over for mid-2021, as well as a revised series for mid-2001 to mid-2020, are expected to be published after the release of Census 2021 results.

Things to remember in academia

If you are in academia, you know what this hashtag means – # academictwitter. Often, I am jittery reading all the feeds but a few points I remember as useful lessons are listed below (the post will be updated periodically):






Naomi Osaka and the burden of a champion

That’s what I thought when British teenager Emma Raducanu won the US Open 2021. I don’t follow tennis closely so I wondered, was Osaka not playing? Turns out, she was out rather prematurely, and then a very emotional press conference followed. Later, she put out a note on Twitter. Then, she turned up at Met Gala.

Overwhelming. Crests and troughs in a matter of days. I know this, I hear her, I understand. I know what being euphoric one moment feels and how being despondent the other minute comes about. Osaka has been making some noise for quite a while about her mental health ever since she became the world champion in tennis in 2018. And I am glad she is making the noise. I can imagine how it would have been like for champions, two decades ago, with no social media and intense media scrutiny. Perhaps the intense media scrutiny was present but minute by minute commentary on their professional and personal lives is new. There are tons of reports, like this one, on the money Osaka has made as a 23-year-old and how tennis is not the only interest she has. It doesn’t let you breathe. It doesn’t stop the spiral it sets off for people who bear the brunt of it all.

I remeber what Osaka said and it haunts me quite a lot. She said, when I win, I feel relief, not happiness. She spoke like the class topper who came first once and then everyone booed her/him when one came second the next. As if he/she was never good enough, and nothing else mattered besides coming first. Imagine how other averages in classrooms or sports or workplaces feel like. This has to go. Our obsession with winners. Or, winning. Losing is still important. Losing is the most important part of winning. And while consistency may be exalted as something all winners have, I disagree.

I know tons of artists (counting myself in) who are eccentric, inconsistent and moody. We allow ourselves to fail, do little sometimes, and get used to being on the periphery until the day one poem, one story, one book gets read and raved about. We accept that this may happen after we are dead. Posthumous recognition or appreciation or greatness. Or, worse, it never happens. What happens then? Who cares after you are gone? What matters is, you lived, you worked, you did what you could, you followed your heart’s uttermost desire whatever it was, without anyone egging you on towards a goal or purpose or impossibly ridiculous standards of greatness. That’ what matters.

Osaka said she will take time off from tennis to figure out what she wants to do. Like a regular 23 year old. It’s all great. She must be excused from the tall order of things if that’s not the order she believes in or draws happiness from. If she wins and still isn’t happy anymore, she needs the space to think for herself. Only she decides where she wants to be.

If she rejects tennis (and I do hope she comes out stronger whatever she decides), it’s the sports’ loss, not hers. Like it should be. And I hope it will come as a wake up call for sports federations around the world. Sportspersons have been crying for attention, support and empathy for quite some time now. I can not bear to see Osakas of the world crumbling just because no one cared.

A rich brew

You and I, let’s go get coffee, shall we?

I am not kidding; this perhaps is the most powerful conversation starter, pretty much capable of spawning new cultures, or catalysing capitalism, liberalism or what have you. Social capital, fascinating as it is and equally controversial, has grabbed my attention and given me a world view I can not afford to discard. Culture, norms and networks are fascinating, more so for the revolutions they may bring. Or, have brought about in history. One deep dive in history and we know what this truly means.

This brings me to the book I have read in the past week and been thinking about. Shachar Pinsker’s ‘A Rich Brew’ puts the spotlight on Jewishness yet again, more as a matter of culture than religion, and how arch-filled cafés in Berlin might have spurred on an irresistible fusion that could transform societies. Cafes of the yore, often a world lost to the present day world we inhabit, were places where writers and intellectuals raised a cup of coffee from Warsaw to New York and grew hungry for democracy! Such a hugely entertaining and well researched book, an empirical study really, of an abstract political theory associated with German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, which postulated that the coffeehouses and salons of the 17th and 18th centuries helped lay the foundation for the ‘’liberal Enlightenment’’. In other words, evolution of clan society into cosmopolitan society via the coffee cups! Democracy wasn’t the child of street revolutions but fine chatter in the coffee houses! Social spaces created outside the periphery of state control construct a thriving civil society beyond apparent imagination, as historical evidence suggests. Café life in European cities in the 19th century and afterwards facilitated a free exchange with strangers and clansmen alike which set the basis for social habits among Jews of self-expression that eventually led to a hunger for democracy. Wonderful book, can not recommend enough.

Why a girl in Belfast calls herself ‘Lola’

When I was born, the astrologer advised my parents to name me with a letter with the sound ‘Lo’, combining L and O. He even had a suggestion – ‘Lokeshwari’. My parents found it too dull and timid, though the name in Hindi means ”one who rules the world”. Perhaps, this name would have done wonders for my life because it at least reflects my ambition, if not the journey. Anyway, they privately called me ‘Lola’, though the name has a tragic meaning – sorrow’ – but I guess they watched the movie ‘Run Lola Run’ and were charmed. Alongside, I had a formal name which I always hated for being too common – ‘Pallavi’ meaning ‘fresh leaf’ in Hindi – and another pet name given to me by my grandmother – ‘Rimjhim’ meaning ‘drizzle’ in Hindi.

My move to Belfast is a significant move in my life and career. While I have moved countries before for education and work, this is significant in so many ways. I am more than just one person and I am fuller with my gifts and more clear in my purpose in life. I wanted a new name to signify everything new that’s happening to me, but I didn’t want to deviate farther from who I have been past three decades of my life. So, Lola, which very few people know is one of my names, seemed to be the ideal choice.

Often, especially on social media, it affords me the anonymity I need, and sometimes, it helps me create an intrigue for no reason. Whatever it is, I am finally owning up to my little known name like never before. It’s comforting to be Lola in a world where everyone is trying to fake happiness.

It’s a good time for Atlas cycles to make a comeback

Recently I got a call from my brother, and he could not contain his excitement. More than a decade after he left high school he invested in a bicycle to go around our little but busy neighbourhood in Delhi. COVID-19 and the restrictions it imposed had clearly tested the patience of thousands like him who had had enough of indoor workouts, and thought cycling outdoors was a better way to burn calories.

This reminded me of our favourite wheels as children — our Atlas cycles.

Sadly, the bicycle manufacturer shut shop in June. Atlas’ exit is nothing short of unfortunate for a business with a seven decade history behind it. It all started in 1950 when Janki Das Kapur, a small businessman in Sonepat, Haryana, set out with a dream to make cycles affordable to all. This was decades before two-wheeler transportation became a revolution in rural India. Kapur’s first factory grew exponentially within its first year, and in the next 15 years, Atlas was India’s undisputed leader in cycle manufacturing.

Today, the company is out of the market at a time consumer demand has boomed and the humble bicycle has made a fierce comeback. The pandemic-induced change in customer behaviour and preferences have ensured greater demand for health and fitness products. In a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic when we live each day saddled with the constant fear for our health, our best bet to stay optimistic lies in what we do to keep ourselves healthy. The bicycle is a low-cost, socially-distanced way of doing this during the lockdown.

The current surge in demand for bicycles is a global trend. More than 4 million bicycles were sold in India during the lockdown period, and the manufacturers struggled to keep up with the demand. In the United Kingdom, British cycle stores sold as many bicycles in three months during the lockdown summer and as they sold in entire 2019. Cycling was the hottest exercise trend of 2020 and the hottest personal mobility product. In the United States, bicycle sales saw the biggest spike since the oil crisis of the 1970s.

This sudden, pandemic-led boom in the global demand for bicycles is reminiscent of the British bicycle mania between 1895 and 1900. During this period, Britain saw a rapid increase in the number of registered cycle manufacturers, but the boom didn’t last with half of these companies closing down by 1900 due to cheaper American bicycles flooding the British market. Yet, the craze for bicycles led to firms adapting during the crash by moving into newer technologies, especially motor cars, establishing the positive effects of technology bubbles — in this case, they directed high levels of investment in the most innovative section of the economy at the time, the innovative bicycle manufacturing companies.

While the British bicycle mania was driven by a series of technological innovations that drove the demand for bicycles, the current boom could accelerate innovations in the industry led by fresh challenges of demand, supply and delivery.

Some of the innovation may already have begun. Bicycle manufacturing is a complex chain of production that passes through a global value chain which is currently adversely affected by the pandemic. With many of the spare part suppliers located in Asia for the British bicycle manufacturing industry, many companies ordered stocks in advance and several of them even shifted their focus to target healthcare workers and doctors who were encouraged to cycle to work and avoid public transport. In London and Paris, hundreds of kilometres of pop-up cycle lanes were added to incentivise ridership and reduce traffic and emissions. The biggest revolution seems to be happening in the e-cargo bike segment, a phenomenon that has the potential to entirely remodel transportation as e-cargo bikes can be ridden on roads and bicycle lanes, without polluting the air.

In India, the bicycle industry is the world’s second-largest producer of bicycles, next only to China. However, the industry is severely challenged by technology gaps, inferior quality materials and demand-related bottlenecks. The unexpected uptick in sales is an opportunity for the industry to innovate. Projected to now grow at a rate of 15-20 percent annually from 5-7 percent the previous year, India’s bicycle industry might be on the cusp of a revolution.

The time for legacy companies to remodel their businesses may just be right. Increasingly, brand equity has been shown to be a tool for growth in an age of volatile markets, and companies such as Atlas Cycles could use its heritage appeal to revive business.

In a recent paper, business historian Sudev Sheth showed how businesses have leveraged history to become global brands as brand equity gets less and less tied to the productive capacity of firms. In India, many legacy businesses, such as Arvind Mills, Raymond and Tata, have played on brand equity in recent years to revamp operations, and be profitable. In 2020, Parle re-launched its Rola Cola after a social media movement seeking the return of the product went viral.

In this fast-altering universe that favours nostalgia associated with legacy brands, Atlas Cycles has plenty riding in its favour — its rich history from being the official supplier of bicycles to the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi to being the bicycle that made saree-clad women cyclists a currency in India. Its brand appeal cuts across generations and for decades purely built on the back of affordability, brand agility and product offerings that kept up with the times.There isn’t a better time for Atlas to come back into the race.

Originally published in moneycontrol.

PALLAVI SINGH is a journalist and business historian in training at Queen’s University Centre for Economic History, Belfast. Views are personal.

When does furlough end ?

This was one of the top 5 “when” queries in Google search in 2020. Understandably, furlough has been a big topic for discussion here in Northern Ireland as well. Ever since I landed here, I have made countless friends and met complete strangers out of my journalistic curiosity a number of who I found were on ‘furlough’. Furlough is not too much of a concept in India so I took a while to understand but now I do.
The question got me thinking – when does furlough end? For many I know, it has continued since last year while they and their families have gone through countless miseries including health setbacks. While much of the UK has been opening up and out of the lockdown, the Delta variant of Coronavirus is causing some concern even though restricted to only some areas in England so far. Until economy gathers pace and economic activity comes back up on its feet, furloughs are here to stay, I fear.

Can Atlas Cycles make a comeback?

I wrote this for @moneycontrolcom and the inspiration came from my brother. More than a decade after he left high school, he invested in a bicycle. This reminded me of our favourite wheels as children — Atlas cycles.

COVID-19 and the restrictions it imposed had clearly tested the patience of thousands like him who had had enough of indoor workouts, and thought cycling outdoors was a better way to burn calories. Sadly, Atlas cycles shut shop last year. The company is out of the market at a time consumer demand has boomed and the humble bicycle has made a fierce comeback.

The pandemic has induced changes in customer behaviour and preferences and the surge for the demand in bicycles is a global trend. This reminded me of the British bicycle mania in history when Britain saw a rapid increase in the number of registered cycle manufacturers. Check out @wquinn05 ‘s excellent working paper for @QUCEHBelfast which offered me great insights for the piece: http://quceh.org.uk/uploads/1/0/5/5/10558478/wp16-06.pdf

Demand leads to innovation. Will it for India where bicycle production is second only to China? I learnt a great deal from Sudev Sheth’s paper on small businesses who used history to leverage their brands. A summary of the paper is here https://linkedin.com/pulse/tapping-history-how-empty-mills-leapfrogging-todays-global-sheth/

Some of the innovation has already begun and there isn’t a better time for Atlas to come riding back into the boom. Read the full piece here:

You could download the piece below.

Also, for a learned deep-dive into the British Bicycle mania and other booms and busts in history, do read @ProfJohnTurner @wquinn05 ‘s @BoomBustBubbles. Book available here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Boom-Bust-History-Financial-Bubbles/dp/1108421253

That’s it for now, back again with more. Watch this space or follow @econhistorienne @moneycontrolcom.

Enjoy your Sunday,


Note to Self

Being quiet is being loud with your soul. Ask how worries become oceans and swallow the shanty towns of existence, as if all there was to life was a hopeless struggle to not drown. Imagine being quiet with a life like that. No, you can’t. There is no noise to this state of being.

Bookmark these reads on culture

It’s fascinating to look at multidisciplinary studies in understanding culture. To this purpose, Jared Rubin‘s posts on the Broadstreet blog are amazingly well-articulated and engage with the critical questions in research on culture not excluding other writers who write for the blog.

I came across the work of John Mohr who is no more but had a major release just before his death – Measuring Culture. In this book, he discusses approaches to measuring cultural attributes of people, institutions and cultures.

Another interesting read is Joseph Henrich’s The weirdest people in the world.

How to write meaningfully

You might want to check this video out, as recommended by Prof Michael Muthukrishna in his newsletter. It’s long (and yes, I went through all of it) to genuinely recommend it to you all. But of course, see if this works for you.

Professor Sir John Hills

This is a post commemorating Dr John Hills who passed away yesterday. Professor of Social Policy at the LSE, and Director of its Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion @CASE_LSE, Dr Hill was a hugely influential thought leader and academic with more than three decades of research/policy work on welfare and social security issues and more importantly, someone with genuine generosity and kindness towards his colleagues, students and everyone he met as one notices in exuberant condolence messages for him. His influential body of work looked at issues of inequality, social inclusion, the welfare state and the role of social policy.

Dr Hills was also a @BritishAcademy_ Fellow and one of the members of the Pensions Commission where, during his tenure, reforms to the state pension as well as the idea that employees should be ‘automatically enrolled’ into an employer pensions scheme were proposed.

John authored the most authoritative review of social housing policy of a generation. Here is a very interesting Guardian interview of him. His pathbreaking book Good Times, Bad Times‘ made important revelations about the welfare state in the UK and how it works for all, and not just a minority of welfare seeking class, in effect busting myths associated with the welfare state.

Here are two highly engaging videos of his talk on the changing patterns of inequality in the UK, and How Inequality Works.

R.I.P. Dr Hills.

Categorized as BLOG Tagged

Writing like a nerd

Lol, that’s my slang for academic writing. It’s rigorous, theory and evidence based and critical in its pursuit of facts. In a newsroom, I prided myself on the different genres of writing I could dabble in – news reports, reviews, op-eds, long form, investigative, features, memoirs et al – and now, I think I can say that I am beginning to enjoy academic writing, or writing like a nerd. In newsroom, my challenge was to simplify and explain the news and offer a news peg; in academia, the challenge is to encapsulate complex ideas without repetition or obfuscation, never forgetting that critiquing is equally important to any good academic work.

Here are my list of top resources for you, if you are getting started in academia or ever plan to.

The Barker Underground

Phrasebank, University of Manchester

Critical Thinking, University of Leeds

Reading and writing an essay, MIT

Academic Integrity, MIT

Strategies for Essay Writing, Harvard

Beginning the Academic Essay, Harvard

Harvard tutorials on TikTok (not accessible from India)

Difficult Conversations

If you hate networking

Writing guides if you are teaching

How To Teach

Components of a successful essay

Disciplinary Writing Guides

Research Paper Writing

Cambridge University Guide to Writing

Dissertation Toolkit

Book a session with Christopher Woodall

Online sessions at Cambridge

Ok, so this list is not exhaustive but definitely worked for me. Check these out, should help.

The Imperfections of Literary Criticism

In a workshop I was part of recently, various aspects of criticism were discussed including the style, structure, forms and motives of criticism. As much as I gained from the discussion, I also got the opportunity to reflect on some of the key things that have guided my own criticism of a literary piece or a book from any genre for that matter.

In a newsroom, everyone has the fair chance of becoming a book reviewer. As part of our work, we read and stay abreast of work in our fields or related fields, policy documents, expert opinions and fresh approaches in covering the issues. That is why, it’s easier to find a number of book reviewers in a newsroom, but book critics can be rare to find. This and other important distinctions in the practice of reviewing and criticism have occupied my thought over the last few days, which I am laying out below with an attempt to refine my own understanding and to critically engage in the key questions that must be answered by anyone engaging in literary criticism.

  1. What is the difference between a book review and literary criticism?

I have done book reviews as a journalist and also as someone who has specific knowledge of a subject by years of professional training. Now that I am an academic in training, I can safely navigate the spheres of academic criticism as well. However, largely drawing from my own experience of book reviews carried by newspapers, it would be safe to say that book reviews are mostly generalist in nature written by dilettantes. While they meet strictest of disdain in literary circles, I have to underline that newspapers are for mass consumption and hence, book reviews in the newspapers have to discard technical jargons or academic contexts to be easily digested. Having said that, literary criticism done by critics who hone their craft and expertise with years of reading and reviewing tend to appear in literary magazines (London Review of Books is a good example) and rigorous critiques of the work they are based on. Both, in my view, are important, and preferring one over the other will be a very classicist approach to reading literature which I argue will not just lead to the ivory tower syndrome but also cost the publishing industry a great deal, not just writers. Personally, I like both, and depending on the preference and appetite of readers, both forms must peacefully co-exist.

2. Why should we review / critique books? Who does a review serve?

The difficult question posed here would be – should we review a book because we want to help the publisher boost sales, or because we like the author, or because we owe it to the readers, or to enrich literature itself?

I’ll be straightforward here and say that a lot of reviews today are done to help the publishers achieve free publicity for their releases. That explains a lot of flattery in reviews or plain uncritical desperation to sell. Publishers routinely send releases to newsrooms and may personally see to it that they are reviewed by people they know well. Often, reviewers and writers may know each other well and no disclosures to this effect may be made while publishing reviews. Some reviews are done simply for the money and can therefore be lazy.

But these clearly shouldn’t be the reasons why we should do reviews. Should we then do this for the readers, or for the cause of literature? This should be tricky to answer but I would lay out my personal take on this. I think every time I have felt compelled to do the review is not because I feel a responsibility towards the readers. Readers no longer refer to one person or one publication reviews anymore; with social media explosion, they have diverse sources to tap into, and a lot of those could be pedestrian but fun nonetheless. So no, I don’t feel driven by the responsibility towards the readers.

My responsibility as a reviewer and a critic is primarily towards the work and to the field of literature. When I read something compelling, I feel the impulse to review that work. The book may underwhelm or overwhelm me and in both the cases, I have felt the need to critique the work, especially if it challenges my understanding of the subject in any way or moves me at a deeply personal level. I may be agitated or euphoric after reading a work but in both states, the only cause I want to serve is the demand of the work to be critiqued or reviewed in the most passionate manner as is possible. A good review enriches literature and furthers our perception of truth and for that alone, that review must be written.

3. What kind of review should be done?

Some reviews are funny; some downright condescending, some too afraid to make a point, and some are just too insipid to react to. Which one must we write?

I think when we decide to do reviews, we should be true to ourselves first and truly express how we feel about the work. Once we do that, how we write the review becomes easier. At no point in time would a good review sound like a personal attack, and that’s something I would be very careful about. Rest comes easy. Book reviews must also preserve the distinct voice of the reviewer. The reviewer must not serve second fiddle to the form or structure of the review; instead, the review must sparkle with reviewer’s distinct style that enthralls the reader and the writer both.

5. Can a review be judgemental?

“Making a judgement” is a poor choice of phrase to be used here. If you dispassionately argue for the merits or flaws of a book, it’s impossible to sound judgemental about the work. If you make an argument but don’t have the rigour to back it up, then I am afraid you are being judgemental. So, I guess, the phrase to be used here is, can a review make some “observations about the work that could be reviewers’ opinion” on the work? O yes, definitely! All reviews do that, and represent at least some part of truth that the work or the writer himself/herself may not have intended to convey but was perceived by the reviewer anyway. That’s why reviews, however rigorous, are subjective. Art and its reception is a subjective experience and reviews aren’t any different. Judgemental isn’t the right way to go about it, neither in practice nor in use of terminologies, neither does the word fully convey the purpose or essential character of reviews.

6. Must a review always either praise or dismiss?

A review can be balanced. Often times, we like a work but also find trouble with it. It can uplift and upset at the same time, and reviews can reflect the crests and troughs of our reading experience. I don’t believe in taking a stand on a piece of work. That’s rabid dismissal of a work that I am finding important enough to review. I may find problems with it and sometimes, the number of flaws may exceed the merits and that’s fine. But a review is not an opportunity for anyone to either praise or dismiss a work. Any reviewer with this as a starting point won’t do the job well.

7. How can we avoid echo chambers in literary criticism?

By not reviewing works of people we feel strongly about. If I love Ocean Vuong, I must not review his next. I am in love with his writing and chances are, I may cut him some slack even if his next work is not half as good. Secondly, by not reviewing works of friends or colleagues. These are potential conflicts of interest that reviewers have to routinely navigate but they must take the side of ethics and fairness here. Else, they will lose credibility — sooner or later.

8. Can a book review truly capture the essence of a work?

Again, reading a work is a subjective experience. A review can capture parts of a work, may be large parts of a work but to say that it can fully capture the essence of a work is like saying, a reviewer can feel like all the readers of the work in an instant and can convey it too in a piece!

9. All things considered, what is the role of a critic?

To appraise and uphold a work for what it truly is – a deeply personal work that can at once be universal with everlasting appeal, and if it fails to do so, to call out the flaws or the weaknesses so the writer gains from it and grows richer in his/her craft, which will enrich literature as a result.

10. Must we always rely on a book review before buying a book?

I don’t usually do that. I have learnt it the hard way. Reading glorious reviews only to feel let down by the work later. I rely on book release catalogues from the publishers when I pick what I want to read and review.

11. What are the ways to read better and independently, without being biased by reviews?

Don’t read reviews more than you should. Instead, get out there and browse through new releases. If you like something, you should give it a shot and see if it lives up to your expectations. And, always read first time, unknown authors!

This list may not be exhaustive for a topic such as this but it covers critical questions. Hope to return to this at some point later, with more learnings.

Read some of my book reviews here.

Gender gaps in education

Interesting new paper from Dr Ashwini Despande of Ashoka University on gender gaps in school education in India, which underlines the persisting gaps in the quality of education offered to girls as compared to boys. The paper notes that “the gender gap in private schooling increased slightly over the period, with the largest increase in families with unwanted girls. The expenditure gap between girls and boys was driven by families with unwanted girls” during 1995-2018.

These gaps can have large implications for economic growth in a country where numerous studies have highlighted the culture of son preference stunting the rights of the girl child to education and work opportunities. Even as the total fertility rate (TFR) has rapidly declined in India during 2001-2011 and some change has been recorded in the culture of son preference, there is a decline in the already low female LFPRs indicating the low priority accorded to women’s place in the labour force. As the paper notes, “growth, development, and structural shifts in India have not acted as natural antidotes to gender discrimination. Sex selection and educational investments in children appear to be part of family strategies to achieve upward mobility”.

Read more here.

Market for Economists 2021

Here is an interesting paper on what the academic job market looks like for new PhD economists in 2021. The findings reveal that while the supply of PhD economists is likely to be stable, the share of employers with at least one position open is likely to go down with a drop in demand.

Read the full paper here.

QUB Podcast

QUB Belfast has a postgraduate podcast now and the first issue is already out. Do check out Student Voices without any further delay. This looks very promising and I am biased for obvious reasons. 🙂

Follow them on Twitter as well.

David Graeber

David Graeber passed away earlier this month. Around the same time, I tested positive for Covid, hence the late post. I kept reading the condolences and remembrances pouring on the internet, as tweets, articles and newspaper obituaries, starting with his partner Nika Dubrovsky tweeting about his demise:

She later also shared Graeber’s plans for his childhood home:

I had in a passing reference sort of way come to learn of David. His work, as I realised over time, is important for work of economists and economic historians who are keen on interdisciplinary work. But for the book I have been working on unemployment, his importance can’t be stated enough. Graeber made the case for the dismantling of a work situation where it offered no opportunity or incentive to develop or share creativity/brainpower. Here, in conversation with Peter Thiel, he made the argument that much of creativity in the world is scuttled because of unimaginative or uncreative jobs people were given to do. This happened this year.

Here is another very popular talk he gave in 2018:

Here and here are two more that I absolutely recommend that you give a listen, besides this very popular talk of his at Google.

A tribute in Tribune Mag described Graeber as a happy and kind man, quintessentially seeing kindness in people and what they can be beyond capitalism. To quote:

David thought that we all needed to act as though we are already free. We need to challenge – play with – the oppressive structures that seem to dominate our lives; even if that’s as simple as a small rebellion like, as Nathalie Olah puts it, ‘stealing as much as you can’ from your employer by reading, writing or learning in the hours your chained to your desk. We might not be able to destroy capitalism by pushing at its ideological boundaries in such a way, but we’ll probably learn something about just how fragile the system is, how much it relies upon our obedience, and how powerful we could be if, together, we just said ‘no’. 

But perhaps, David’s most abiding belief – the belief that was the foundation of his politics, his research, and his friendships – was that people are, at their core, good. More than his writing, more than the organisations he set up, David’s life – and the way he impacted the lives of the people he left behind – is a testament to the fact that by believing human beings are capable of great altruism, compassion and solidarity, you’re helping to create a world filled with just those qualities. As he put it – far better than I ever could – “the ultimate, hidden truth of the world is that it‘s something that we make, and could just as easily make differently.”

Another obit recounted the time he was invited by  German President Steinmeier to talk about his book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. The article said:

With Graeber and Steinmeier sitting together on stage side by side in front of 750 people at the Admiral’s Palace, Graeber gave an invigorating no-holds-barred summary of his research about how debt had historically been used as a tool of enslavement. Some of the first prisons built in England were debtors prisons like The Clink, and debt repayment is a common justification for human slavery and imprisonment continuing even today.
Graeber concluded his presentation by detailing how Germany’s demands for Greek debt repayment were in practice merely a tool of punishment promoting immoral violence, and not an effective way to solve the wider European problem. A question from the audience to Graeber and Steinmeier asked, “What should be done then to solve this crisis?” Graeber turned to Steinmeier and bluntly told him in no uncertain terms, “Germany and the banks need to wipe out this debt now.” Cheers broke out in the audience, and many rose to their feet.

Here is a collection of moving tributes from some of his friends and colleagues who worked closely to him and were influenced by his work.

On Twitter, through some of his tweets, heartwarming glimpses of his personal life appeared from time to time, including this announcement of his wedding to Nika last year:

Later, Nika shared pictures of the hospital where David breathed his last. Looking at these photos, I could only pray he is at peace wherever he is, even as he lives on with his work in our world:

Why my heart gently weeps

I cried all the way while driving back home. This was three weeks ago. I was at the Aadhar enrolment centre in New Delhi for an update in my national identity card, my first outing after the lockdown in April. If I didn’t have to leave for the UK in December for my research, I wouldn’t risk my life trying to get that update. A cash-strapped researcher can not afford the treatment if the pandemic strikes, but worse would be the cancellation of my dreams and a future I have diligently worked for over the past year.

India is, any given day, a nation of swarming multitudes and when the government reopened select services at carefully curated, stringently limited centres to facilitate the outbound journey of researchers like me,  it came with a tacit understanding that there would be crowd, streams of it, and social distancing would be impossible. That update, as it was, was the first step in applying for the visa. I just couldn’t miss it.

As soon as I stepped out of the centre and got into the car, I broke down. Ten kilometres of the journey back home was tearfully difficult – I stopped at traffic signals and felt ashamed at my emotional outburst. A woman crying at the wheel is a woman in distress. I didn’t want the world to see and make assumptions about my life, especially not when I had a tough time making sense of the outburst myself. And then, the reflection came to me in a blinding moment. The mask and the conversations from behind the mask at the centre flashed before me. It’s weird that I am saying this but I am quite awkward with social conversations. So, isolation and lack of social interaction shouldn’t affect me much, I have always told myself. Except that in many ways, we skip life’s profound realisations only to get a handle on them in the simplest of ways. Like, stepping out after months for an update in the identity card.

I am not the life of a party but street conversations with strangers is my strong suit. They say introverts excel at one on one conversations. Never ever in my life have I survived an Uber ride without conversing with the driver, for instance. It’s true that common, working class people set off something in me. I want to connect in deeply spiritual ways that only life connects all human beings irrespective of class, caste or religion. But that day, I couldn’t bear what I had just lived through – being inside an enrollment centre throbbing with people but all I did was to keep looking at my watch to count the minutes, making sure I didn’t spend too long inside the air-conditioned enclosure. Someone like me, who has given days to long conversations with strangers even at the risk of not meeting writing deadlines, was fearful, observing frantically the six-feet distance and constantly adjusting the face mask. At the moment this happened, I didn’t realise the tragic turn our human lives have taken. In the solitude of the steering, it hit me hard. I cried and cried and cried. Perhaps, I needed to vent, let it all out and at that very moment, it felt like a dam had broken inside me, oceans heaving in my heart and tearing me up like the rivers they swallow.

I had feared on some days that Covid-19 will turn us into socially reclusive human beings. I write about this today because I want to put it away, like a small note submitted towards building human memories on the pandemic. But what I am becoming is more than just my grief melting into tears in moments of emotional weakness. I am doing socially awkward things, just the way extremely recluse humans do. In recent weeks, I have kept cancelling important work calls. Often, I tell them that I am unwell or someone I know is. Often, I just want to postpone everything to the week that never comes. I read a message and respond to it hours or days later. I shy away from taking calls unless it’s the courier guy with my ear pods or stationary. I have set my phone to two call and app block schedules, which offer strictly limited scope for conversations. I have deleted Instagram, Twitter and WhatsApp from my phone, as if I were winding down for a long hibernation. I feel like a giant, fatigued panda, who just have started a war with spoken words and no fellow humans without a valid reason to back it up.

I once told a friend going through a divorce, my dear, do not postpone joy. Even as I recollect this here, I remain on the hurting, sorrowful trip of delaying it for myself. I feel inertia, anger and stoic stubbornness about self-isolation that I have never felt before. The quarantine may have gotten to me, you might say. I would merely say that I still wake up everyday and try to shun all of this distress by writing. Just trying these days, like today, is an act of courage.

Notes on how to write

The short and beautiful answer to this, in the words of my dear friend Shriya (find her lovely blog here), is: Just write. Don’t think much, just write, write, write. I followed her advice and I think, just writing helps overcome writer’s block and gets rid of the imposter syndrome. It’s super effective.

That tackled, I am proceeding to the finer questions writers often face:

  1. Should writers write from personal experience or attempt something completely foreign to their understanding? How can they write anything beyond what they know and if they can’t, can we say they aren’t writers but mere memoirists?

    2. It’s very true that writing is an exercise in building awareness of the world around us and of us. In that case, should it matter to a writer that he / she makes a note of his writing habits and styles besides his own reaction to other people’s knowledge and stories?

    3. Should I writer always focus on his / her strengths and speak to it through writing or should he experiment more? What are his limitations?

    4. Does assessing and getting around to answering these questions help evolve with one’s writing and thrust it in new directions?

I am thinking these over and trying to answer each one by one. I don’t know if I am making sense but if you are a writer too, chug along –

First, I enjoy writing memoirs. Memoir writing is like letting loose a vast reservoir of personal memory – joy, sorrow, struggles and convictions – and bringing them all together to share something others can connect with. If a memoir doesn’t make you connect with it, half of its purpose is lost. It’s like writing on love but the experience of love (that can be universal) escapes you even if you have read it multiple times. Or, if you write about growing up wanting to be a writer, your struggle to earn legitimacy for your ambition escapes the reader. This exercise in personal memory comes easy to me. I don’t know about others but I can imagine memoirs can be very difficult for some people who are reluctant or hesitant or still coming to terms with their memories. And some people may just be very private and shy.

This brings me to the very question of attempting something we don’t understand or know much. Should we write about it? Yes, we must. Familiarity can be acquired or imagined, in my view. Journalists do that all the time and I think, I am saying this partly because my years as a journalist equip me to traverse other universes and people’s stories with a certain empathy that comes with years of professional practice. Yet, it can be difficult, especially if you are fictionalizing it. Some of the stories I have done in the past lie as story pegs for some of the short stories I have wanted to write. The plot has come to me in minutes, but stitching together details has been a painstaking effort. I say this in spite of all the ground work I put into the stories, all the interviews and social mapping that goes into reportage.

Second, do I make a note of my writing habits and styles besides my own reaction to other people’s knowledge and stories?

I am breaking this into two parts to first assess what my writing style is. I think my style comes most eloquently in my memoirs. I am more direct, often intense and emotional about whatever it is I am addressing through my writing. That’s where my true voice emerges. I am not playful with prose – I am all heart, bare all writer, who feels deeply and churns out intense pieces. I don’t know where a lot of this fits into but I guess I am happy not getting fixed into frames or genres. The one single aim of my writing – even when I was writing stories for newspapers – was to touch people’s hearts with my writing. I have always tried to achieve that quality with my writing where my prose is empathetic, simple and profound all at once, evoking sentiments and sparking off deeper reflections and personal experiences in readers. I prefer writing about common people, or problems of the working class. I prefer breaking down complex ideas and trends down to how those affect lives of the common men and women. That’s all the more reason why I think the writing done to convey their issues need to place them first in the narrative and do so with utmost empathy and ethos.

My writing habits are eccentric, to put it mildly. I often wake up middle of the night just to write. My poems are mostly written on the phone, because poetry writing is not a conscious or planned effort for me. It just erupts any moment and phone becomes the most accessible writing pad for me at that moment. Of late, I have attempted to build a routine where I dedicate first four hours of my waking day to writing, ideally immediately after my morning workout and bath. This usually is quite early in the mornings, around 5-6 am. Silence in the world with no cacophonous noise from the street calms me and I think that’s when I consciously write. For newspaper columns, I spend a few hours over the weekend and that’s the only structured writing I do besides writing memos for my research.

Third, the starting point for me is always to do what I think is what I am good at. Playing to your strengths is a time-tested adage every writer follows. I think the point of exploring other novel frontiers in writing comes once you have written enough and are craving for creating something completely different from what your readers expect from you. So, yes, one must forge into new areas in writing but when and how usually will depend on when you would feel the need to do that. This is related to the question on the limitations a writer can face. I think a writer’s familiarity with the subject or genre of writing style, which is his strength when starting out, can also become his limitation in the long run. That’s why forays into new frontiers of writing become so important.

Four, I think actively thinking about writing is very important. I never realized its importance until I reached a stage where much of my writing exercises were getting stuck midway. Thinking through the various aspects of my writing helped me steer myself ahead with my writing goals and develop an understanding of my idiosyncrasies as a writer.

That’s all for now. Will be back with more when I struggle with questions and will try and process them here.

50 before I die

Making to-do lists is banal. We may never get around to doing them. But perhaps, putting them on a list will help me stay focussed. I need daily reminders of things I want to do before I die.

Here is the first 14 out of 50 in the order of priority:

1. Work on strength training and lifting weights. Get a ripped body.

2. Travel all across Europe, solo.

3. Learn to draw illustrations.

4. Publish my poetry.

5. Take acting classes.

6. Join a poet’s collective.

7. Write memoirs more often.

8. Build a list of detailed archives in Economic History in India.

9. Go on a rowing trip.

10. Practice trampoline.

11. Learn make up.

12. Build a successful startup.

13. Learn embroidery and knitting.

14. Learn how to make Ayurveda products for beauty and healing.

What has happened to Shinzo Abe?

Shinzo Abe
Photo credit: Wikimedia commons

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has resigned on account of poor health. Speculations to this effect were rife after he was seen emerging out of a hospital earlier this week. Abe has been Japan’s longest serving prime minister, quite a remarkable feat for a country obsessed with consistently high performance, so replacing him will be a difficult task, though many contend his long tenure was made possible by the lack of dissent in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

I read David Pilling’s Bending Adversity, a sharp book or rather a portrait of contemporary Japan essentially detailing how, despite years of stagnation, Japan continues to be one of the world’s largest economies. Pilling, in his launch event at the LSE where I was a student that year (2014, I think), talked in great detail the fascinating cultural aspects of Japan that make it a resilient economy in the face of financial distress and natural and man-made disasters. In the book, Pilling particularly described the devastating impact of the 2011 tsunami and subsequent nuclear catastrophe that only served to highlight both the resilience of ordinary Japanese people and an arrogant and negligent political culture. Pilling‘s own experiences living in Japan as a foreign correspondent for six years resonate throughout the book with deeply engaging reflections and reportage. The book, I remember, had generated quite a buzz that year, especially at the LSE where my advisor, herself a widely respected Japan expert, had moderated the event and that had partly attracted me to the mysticism and exceptionalism of Japan in history.

Where do we place Abe in this context? Certainly very high up in the analysis, I think, since he has ruled for great many years during which Japan has struggled with disasters and stagflation that has wrecked Japan’s economy. A hawkish politician, Abe worked circumstances in his favour and luckily and the stocks too tilted on his side besides the currency advantage in comparison to Yen much before he became the PM in 2013. His efforts at reviving the Japanese economy from stagflation, much popularly called ‘Abenomics’ apart, securing Japan as the host of Olympic Games 2020 was quite a coup for Abe (which sadly has now been disrupted by Covid-19). His government has been widely criticised for its inaction during Covid-19. Observers now say, this is an “honourable” way for him to relinquish office. On a normal day, he would be criticised for abandoning Japan at this moment of financial and health crises.

Now, on to the speculation over his health: Abe hasn’t been well for quite sometime. With quite the reputation of a workaholic, he took a three-day break recently and used one day out of that for his medical examination! Meanwhile, his political rivals are what they are everywhere – challenging, demanding, often inconsiderate of his circumstances.

The CNN reports:

The do-or-die mentality gambaru permeates Japanese society, where the pursuit of a goal can carry more significance than the outcome.
“The prime minister insists that he be there to lead himself,” said chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga when asked why Abe, 65, had worked 147 days straight.
Abe has long suffered from ulcerative colitis, a chronic intestinal disease, and many worried that the stress of the pandemic combined with his health problems had finally caught up with him. 

Ulcerative colitis, when given prompt medical attention and care, can be treated so this brings me to why this condition has driven Abe to quit work. Partly, Japan’s extreme workaholic culture, popularized as “death by overwork” is to be blamed. Abe, like any average Japanese, worked long hours with no work-life balance, which also compromised his health severely. According to Japan government’s internal studies, one in five workers in Japan are at risk of working themselves to death. The Japanese word for it is Karoshi (death by overwork).

Here is the list of possible successors for Abe.