Being Equal

In the long queue outside the Wrights bar at lunch hour every day, an overwhelming sense of equality grips me. It is here that I stand in unison with many to avail the benefits of scholarship: a jelly-filled dough nut for 60 pence and a steaming can of hot chocolate for another 60. Let truth be told: on any given day, this is the best I can afford for lunch on days I choose not to cook. In the inviting lunch joints on Kingsway next to the LSE, a modest lunch pack usually comes for 5 pounds. That counts to 500 in the currency of my country. I still haven’t stopped calculating every time I look at a menu. Almost always, I turn away and walk back to the Wrights Bar. The people at the Bar know me by face now – a hard-earned recognition in the middle of the madness of college life; an unintended happiness in a city where everyone’s time, including mine, comes at a premium.

Sometimes, I share a treat with a friend and classmate from Austria: a mixed platter of meat and beans. When we split the bill, it’s never more than 2 pounds. On days I run out of money, there is free lunch from the Hare Krishna temple. There is yet another incredibly long queue to get by for a plateful of fusion food, best exemplified by the pasta-rice I was served once. But the overwhelming sense of equality doesn’t escape me in this queue either. I am a student of political economy and while a number of classrooms at LSE are plumbing the depths of the North-South divide academically in an increasingly unequal world, I know I don’t have to worry about it as long as I am here. I have the equality of opportunity, education and freedom to access everything that the LSE and London has to offer. I’ll continue to feel equal and even when I run out of money, there will be food on Houghton Street. What’s better is, perhaps, this: standing in a queue for food doesn’t make me an undignified beggar here.

Back home, people in my hometown in India think I must be incredibly rich to study at the LSE. Through the superfast Internet highway at the school campus, I often bridge the distance between them and myself through a computer screen. Their curious faces float on my screen and I sometimes give them a virtual tour, my finger pointing to the numerous photo frames of economists from the LSE in its corridors. They haven’t heard of them, but they roll their eyes and giggle, especially when the taps in the bathrooms run on their own. Back home, there are no taps in many households, and power supply remains erratic. We are often told that we are a nation of promising prospects – “the emerging market’’ – but we haven’t fixed our basic needs yet. Because I am here, people in my hometown can see the `other world’ they have only heard of.

I tell them that besides the expensive demands London makes on its residents, there is space for those who live on grants – in my case, it means living next to the St Paul’s Cathedral and catch the posthumous whiteness of its magnificent dome from the window of my shared room at Sumner Street every morning. Within a few kilometres are the luxury shops on Oxford Street and the lively pubs in Soho, but what I extract out of London is not something one could buy. Like fresh air, for example, and sunshine that warms my back as I walk along the Thames. Spring is in the air. There is hope, not just in nature but also in the hearts of students that this burst of beauty in a new city has a purpose; that the consequence of a world class education is the opening up of exciting opportunities.

For me, being at LSE has meant pushing my limits and learning new things, not just in the classroom but beyond. A rewarding exercise regimen is one of them. But to build an unflinching walking routine was more of a challenge to the mind than to the body. A fatal attack of Pneumonia had drained my health a couple of years ago. I was fearful of the London winter, of getting wet in the snow someday, and eventually, dying in wilderness. But our dreams are not only venerable for the gift of equality they bring to us, they also instil courage so we can realise them. When Londoners run on Victoria Embankment, a stone’s throw from the school, my fears recede and resolve takes over – if London couldn’t make me walk, no other place could. What I began in December is now the powerful hymn of my morning prayers, my zealous ode to the city I have come to treat as my own.

Within the distance of my daily walks, I traverse worlds of varying hopes and promises – children playing along the shore at Gabriel’s Wharf, a musician strumming his guitars for the lovers on Queen’s Walk, an old woman selling flowers, clowns on Westminster Bridge brightening up tourists’ photos. My walk is a physical monologue in a world full of conversations and noise. I walk through pubs and extravagant diners; giant hoardings of Stephen Ward at the Aldwych Theatre and the glittering Shard where everyone goes for an aerial view of beautiful London. I pause, sit on a bench by the river, and write. Sometimes, I cry too. Perfection in life can be overwhelming.

Like most of the students, musicals have enthralled my evenings and countryside travels have soaked my feet in adventures. That’s not a joy in the slightest doubt here because an LSE student, inevitably, becomes a student of life. LSE is at the core of a circle that reverberates with a cultural and intellectual variety few cities in the world can offer. But what I learn within its classrooms brings to me a purpose for the world, the realisation of my strength in a queue and how I can make that happen for others when I go back.

(C) Pallavi Singh. March 2014. Photo by PallSin.

Grandma’s romance

This February, when mother and I met after almost a year, she recollected the grand funeral organised by our family of bureaucrats for the woman who had reared six children to be officers of the republic. Suddenly, those magical sketch pens, the chocolate-raisin cake, lemon pickles, Amla Oil — everything about this remarkable personality — come back to my mind. So, too, did the ache in the fingers. Grandmother would constantly hit us with pencils if we ever made mistakes while solving maths problems.

Last December, in a winter that froze tears, she passed away, gasping heavily in her mulmul quilt. My grandfather, sitting by her side, silently watched her as she left him after 67 years of companionship. He had brought her in her bridal finery hundreds of kilometres away from where she was born — the restless hamlet of Sidhouli in the United Provinces of pre-independence days. She was the first woman intermediate that Gangania village, in Bhagalpur, Bihar — her new home — had ever seen.
Grandfather was a scholar-lawyer, she became a teenage freedom fighter. He drafted petitions, she roused crowds to take on the British. He mesmerised the juries, she thundered from chaupals. They were two diverse souls, united by a common ferocity of passion. Grandmother, my father says, was a lone warrior, the unusual woman who did not value jewellery or rations, but freedom. And, as he recalls now, she used to complain after every argument with grandfather, who clearly did not measure up to the chivalrous prince of her dreams who would write poetry and build a Taj Mahal for her.

Sure, grandfather didn’t ever write a poem, or build a Taj Mahal, but while she suffered for two years from a paralytic stroke before she died, he was every bit the dutiful, caring companion. On her deathbed, she was accorded the glamour of a bride — deep red sindoor, benarasi sari and gold jewellery, as is customary for a woman who dies before her husband. As she was placed on a sandal-wood pyre, grandfather pulled her wrinkled cheeks, stroked her hair and exclaimed: “Oh! she looks as if she has just arrived from Sidhouli.”

This evidence of a romantic disposition in an otherwise stoic man made us all cry.

First published on April 25, 2007 in The Indian Express. Photo by Pallavi Singh.

Flying

My flights are in imaginary skies

Beneath the limitless confines of my shaky roof,

my broken wings shed feathers.

Occasional wind gives them a swing

before they fall —-

I call that `flying’.

(C) Pallavi Singh. Dec, 2012. Photo by Pallavi Singh.

Inspiration:

People Who Ate Delhi’s Smoke

We are the cursed boat people

They said we have snatched their jobs

And then, we were killed in a factory

before we could call them murderers.

~~

They outraged over jobs, onions, freedom

They said we were dying, with anger in their hearts,

fire in their voices …

We applauded, eyes moist,

“They stand up for us, our hungry bellies, our empty plates”

We had to die to know

Those were mere speeches.

Liars! 

(C) Pallavi Singh, December 2019.

Photo credit: https://www.pexels.com/photo/burn-cooking-delhi-india-906526/

#Labour #FactoryFire #MigrantLabourers

Good research is vital: Alpa Shah

This very interesting interview with Alpa Shah is a must-read for anyone aspiring to write narrative non-fiction. Shah, a professor of anthropology at my alma mater London School of Economics, speaks beautifully and honestly about her writing process while working on ‘Nightmarch’ and has great messages for both academics as well as writers of the non-fiction genre. Her photo is taken from her website, alpashah.ac.uk

Here is the piece on this blog TELESCOPE as well:

Literature in narrative non-fiction is undergoing an academic shift, lending to works in the genre richness of ethnographic research and multi-layered narratives. From Pulitzer-winning author and academic Matthew Desmond to more recently, Alpa Shah, works of narrative non-fiction by academics in recent years have contributed remarkably to our understanding of the most critical challenges facing the world. Embedded research, which often accompanies work in the genre, creates an intimate view of communities caught in the midst of unfolding complexities, offering a rare and empathetic understanding of not just compelling issues but also the people at the crux of it all through masterful storytelling.

Alpa Shah, author of Nightmarch: Among India’s Revolutionary Guerrillas, spent 18 months in the forests of Jharkhand and Bihar between 2008 and 2010, living among the tribals in huts without electricity and water. Shah, who was raised in Nairobi, read Geography at Cambridge and is currently a professor of anthropology in London at the London School of Economics, sought to understand how and why the tribals—mostly belonging to the Scheduled Tribes, often neglected by the local administration and the state and central governments—were picking up arms to create a “different world”.

The book’s lucid prose sensitively straddles the world of Naxals to tell stories of conflict, hierarchies, inequality and inherent contradictions in the movement with compelling takeaways for everyone. Nightmarch is an insightful exploration of conflict and its origins, and how the understanding of both eludes politics and policies for tribals in India. The book has been shortlisted for the 2019 Orwell Prize for Political Writing and the New India Foundation Book Prize. It was also on the longlist for the Tata Literature Live Nonfiction Award. Shah spent four and a half years doing anthropological fieldwork among Adivasis – one stint in 2008 to 2010 but also a longer one earlier – and draws on all of this experience for Nightmarch.

She is also the author of In the Shadows of the State’ and co-author of Ground Down by Growth.

In an email interview, Shah discusses her thoughts on writing non-fiction as an academic and whether she thinks the trend is going to catch on:

Pallavi Singh (PS): Your book has been acclaimed for its superlative craft in political writing. What are the key elements in your writing style that you think makes the book so immersive?

Alpa Shah (AS): Thank you. I’m not sure I have a style as such. I think most important (to the process) was a feeling, a compulsion if you like, of the need to share widely the knowledge I have been fortunate to attain. What was happening in the guerrilla strongholds had been silenced for the world outside. Meanwhile, a lot was being written on the Naxalites, which was either falling one way into those who radically opposed them, or the other, into those who tried to counter that position. This created polarising views. Adivasis were shown to be joining the rebels because they were forced to, because they were gaining utilitarian benefits, or because the insurgents addressed their grievances. My fieldwork had shown that the reality was more complex and that it was important for the world to understand that because so many lives were at stake. Many of the people I knew – those who lived in the jungles and those in the cities who could have brought light to their stories – were incarcerated if not killed. The responsibility of the uniqueness and significance of the stories I carried with me weighed heavily and I realised that I could not let the unexpected insights that I discovered through them be confined to the ivory towers of the university. I had to touch the hearts of people who read the book – as many as possible – in the way that the people I met, during the course of my research, had touched mine. I had to try to reach as wide an audience as I could, but without simplifying the analysis or dumbing down my scholarship. How to do this was the next question. I think a lot of my inspiration came from George Orwell, for whom the initial motivation for writing was similarly to get a hearing because there were lies to expose, facts to draw attention to, but to also make that process into an aesthetic experience. Writing, then, must be thought of as art.

PS: How different do you find narrative non-fiction from academic writing and in what ways?

AS: Academics these days are mainly trained to write for each other and not the general reader. It wasn’t always like this but over the years, there has been a kind of scholarly enclosure, especially in the West. It is partly to do with how neoliberalism has materialised itself in the university context. Austerity narratives have brought pervasive marketisation and the ethos of business into universities, determining how we monitor ourselves, bringing crude evaluation criterias of promotions rankings and research evaluation frameworks to bear on our writing. A kind of scholarly enclosure has advanced as academics are encouraged to address whatever conversation seems to be in vogue in a particular moment, and this is often the one that others can’t understand, and all of this becomes further validated through the inwardly looking practices we perpetuate of recognition, citation and promotion. Our writing is sapped off its vigour. Indeed, academics have increasingly ceased to be public intellectuals, the spaces of which are claimed mainly by people outside of the academy. So really, today, academics have a lot to learn from writers of narrative non-fiction, in finding ways of communicating the complexity of their scholarship to reach beyond elite audiences. I hope Nightmarch can create greater space for other scholars who want to make the wealth of their scholarship accessible to people outside the academy.

PS: How long did you take to write Nightmarch? What were the key challenges before you as an academic as you set out to write a book focused on narrative non-fiction?

AS: A very long time! The fieldwork for Nightmarch ended in 2010 and the book was published eight years later. It took me all that time to figure out what the significance of the stories I carried were and then what to do with them. I had to rework much that I had learned, the habits I was trained into, the traps of mystification common in academic writing. New concerns filled my imagination. Character, dialogue, journey, cliff hangers, audience and how to show and not always tell. But at the same time, it wasn’t all just about telling a story but also about drawing out the complexities of the analyses, the contradictions and tensions, thinking through the lessons for different kinds of audiences, including the Naxalites themselves.

PS: Do you foresee possible shifts in academic writing so it could be made more approachable for the masses? A number of academics – right from Matthew Desmond to yourself – have now written award-winning books in narrative non-fiction.

AS: Yes, I do.

Change is enabled partly through continuity. Despite the overwhelming insularity of so much of academic writing, there have always been those who bucked the trend, tried to reach beyond to a wider audience. Change is also enabled by the fact that serious conversations about writing itself were kept alive in academia. And then, there are contradictions in the way the pressures from above work that can be utilized as a force for change. Today, top university presses are feeling the financial crunch; books need to sell. Editors are encouraging us to move beyond academic prose in favour of compelling, clear writing. Bringing about change is also helped by the fact that those who have taken the risks to write jargon free books engaging broad publics are being rewarded with prizes.

But also, change is coming from ‘below’. Perhaps, it is the very pressure of decades of professionalism, the knowledge that years of tenure criteria and academic ranking have dumbed potential brilliance into mediocrity in writing, that we feel the need to push back. Perhaps it is because in this era of rising inequality and authoritarianism, we feel Orwell’s sense of political and artistic purpose in writing more than ever to keep alive the spaces of democracy, hope of justice, and demands for a more equal world. I think a collective will, across generations, will be a force for overall change for giving more room for writing that matters, and matters beyond the academy.

PS: Nightmarch was not just a book of engaging narratives, it was also the result of years of research on the field. What is your advice to researchers and academics aspiring to write narrative non-fiction in future?

AS: I think there are no blueprints, no models, no prefigured ideals. But one question we should all ask ourselves, is the simple one, ‘Why Write?’

What is at stake? Who is our audience? What is our intent? What makes us tear up our pages and rebuild? What is our political purpose? Our historical impulse? Are we aware of it? Why, if at all, does it matter that we are writing as scholars and researchers? What are the consequences?

Another important issue to bear in mind is to first and foremost be committed to good research itself. Don’t go about the research just in order to write a good story, or with preconceived ideas of what you may find. Always challenge your own ideas, seek hidden truths and unexpected insights. Never forget to be critical, including, of yourself.

In terms of writing, I think it is important to be committed to the insights you have gained from the people you have been lucky to study. There’s also something very special about doing deep immersive field research in communities, which allow researchers to draw upon the affective resonances that are born of intimacy with the people we meet to make our writing more engaging and effective. Keeping the lives of those we have studied close to us at all times, including when we are back at our desks, will help us make our analysis in writing more compelling.

CAN INDIA ACT IN TIME TO GAIN FROM THE US-CHINA TRADE WAR?

Almost every trade expert I speak to has been talking about the great opportunity that the continued US-China trade war offers to India to expand its trade with the US. Its true that global manufacturers reeling under the tariffs imposed by the US govt have begun looking to South and Southeast Asia to shift their manufacturing operations. High tariffs are hurting their business and they are now looking out of China. This could clearly be an opportunity for India to step in and fill the supply gap. But can it do so?

China has for years exported a wide range of products to the world_from machinery to electric products, and this bouquet of exports is starkly different from the range of products India exports, predominantly jewellery, pharma products, metals and textiles, among others. To replace China overnight in exporting such manufactured goods is very clearly a tough ask for India. What India could do is find gaps in the supply chain in product categories it already exports in. The real gain, though, lies in India’s ability to draw in manufacturers who may be on a mass exodus plan out of China. Here again, India pales in comparison to China when it comes to business-friendly policies. It’s hardly a secret that a number of global companies foraying into the Indian market have complained of delay in land acquisition, procuring business licenses, and other govt permissions for operational ease and a number of them have gone to the extent of wrapping up their operations.

India, thus, at this stage needs bold government policies that truly ease the process of doing business in India. A Mint edit notes that for global firms to move to India from China would need “a very substantial improvement in the basic factors that drive FDI. These include competitive labor costs, a tax and regulatory environment hospitable to business and easy and hassle-free access to all of the factors of production—land, labor, capital and other inputs such as raw material and intermediate inputs.”

Despite the clamour of economists and trade policy enthusiasts, India’s chances at filling the supply gaps in the global supply chains are difficult, if not impossible.

The Case For No Econ PhD

It’s the loveliest Twitter thread I discovered in Tyler Cowen’s recent blog post. Melissa Kearney, Economics Professor at the University of Maryland,  argues that 6 year Econ PhDs are terrible, especially for female students. Tyler goes a step further and says Econ PhDs should be abolished. Instead, he suggests three years of graduate economics education and off to job market straight away! I agree when he says economics needs lifelong learning, and feel kind of nice when he reminds us that Smith, Keynes, and Hayek did not study for an Econ Ph.D.

What do you think?