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In a league of their own: An interview with authors Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Freidog

Life in science Aashima Freidog (left) and Nandita Jayaraj went labhopping for these stories

Life in science Aashima Freidog (left) and Nandita Jayaraj went labhopping for these stories   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Freidog talk about why and how they wrote 31 Fantastic Adventures in Science

Have you heard of Natasha Gurung? Or Namrata Gupta? Or Aurna Naorem? Or Jahnavi Punekar? These and 27 other names feature in 31 Fantastic Adventures in Science: Women Scientists of India (Puffin) by Nandita Jayaraj and Aashima Freidog. And, yes, you read that right! It is 31, not the usual round figure of 10, 20 and 25. Nandita admits to a “slight pressure” to make it 30 but “we insisted on this ‘odd’ number because it reflected the fact that this is in no way complete.”

The scientists featured range from a horticulturist, archaeologist, palaeontologist, molecular biologist to a chiropterologist (someone who studies bats), seismologist and sociologist among others. “We wanted to feature as diverse a set of stories as possible,” says Nandita, so they chose on the basis of “nature of their research, their stories, and the places in India they came from.”

31 Fantastic Adventures in Science

31 Fantastic Adventures in Science   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Talking of many things
  • People you look up to
  • Nandita: My mother for teaching me it’s okay to clown around. I believe I inherited my sociable nature from her; a trait that is my biggest strength as a journalist who gets stories from in-depth conversations.
  • Aashima: As a young person, looking up to the stars led me to astronomer Jill Tarter (possibly Carl Sagan’s doing) and many years later I got to interview her and thought my life was made. Now I think very differently and admire strong local heroines like Gagandeep Kang. Also, all Indian mothers who never get their due credit.
  • The kinds of books you like to read
  • Nandita: I read a lot of fiction and rely on dissolving into these made-up worlds to de-stress after the heavy-duty nature of my work and research. I’m currently greatly enjoying Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. Before this I was gobbling up Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan Novels. I also enjoy books that have green and monsoony feels to it, like Kiran Desai’s.
  • Aashima: I like science fiction, often I find my thoughts stuck in Asimov’s Foundation series. Recently I found this wordless book In Pieces by Marion Fayolle; it was the best one hour of my life. Angela Saini’s Inferior and Superior are a must for all inclusion-in-science focalisers like us. I have severe backlog on reading actually. I want to wrap up our next book and sit and read.
  • Other interests
  • Nandita: Apart from reading and watching TV shows, I like going on walks, bird and insect watching. I've been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. I like travelling and have led a very wandering life for the past four years. I feel it's time for some stability now, both for myself and for some plans Aashima and I have for TheLifeofScience.com.
  • Aashima: Besides social media you mean? I am also a nature lover and like to take pictures. Taking pictures of the women scientists in their labs has been a highlight for me.

The aim was to “tell a story where real Indian women scientists are seen doing amazing work while also acknowledging that there is a gender gap in science,” says Aashima who accepts that “it can be difficult to make it all the way in Indian science, especially for women and gender non-binary people from excluded communities and disadvantaged backgrounds.” However, she also says that Indian science institutions, which she describes as “isolated, slow and restrictive”, are changing.

The book itself was an offshoot of TheLifeofScience.com, the website they founded. Growing “tired of the stereotype of a scientist: an old man with lab coat and big hair shaking test tubes,” they went “labhopping”, says Aashima, to find Indian women in science across the country. And these stories were first told on the website.

Whether it’s the individual’s story or scientific concepts, the text is simple, concise and eloquent. This happened, Aashima says, because they had each other “to raise red flags when we used jargon” and “the possibility of having a glossary at the end of the book was our very small cushion. We also want young readers to learn new words so that we can open up new realms for them.” Nandita adds that the two have been professional colleagues from 2015 and are also very close friends.

“The disagreements are our greatest strength as journalists who cover gender issues in science. It ensures that we keep each other in check, and support each other through challenging times.”

What of their individial writing styles? Nandita describes Aashima as “much more whimsical, poetic, raw and creative as a writer” while she is “a stickler for structure and proper sentences.” But, with children’s books, she says, “the magic comes when we let go a little.”

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 7:37:41 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/an-interview-with-authors-nandita-jayaraj-and-aashima-freidog-on-their-book-31-fantastic-adventures-in-science/article30074528.ece

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