Miniya Chatterji: ‘I am an academic as well as a practitioner’

Miniya Chatterji’s ‘Indian Instincts’ contemplates the inner workings of the evolving Indian mentality through philosophy, anthropology and history

Published - April 10, 2018 02:16 pm IST

It’s not easy to pen a book on the overarching development of the fabric of the Indian people. But turn this project into a set of academic essays that explore from the first arrival of man in India to the current conventions across the country, and you have Miniya Chatterji’s Indian Instincts (Penguin India).

Miniya, who heads up the world’s first sustainability incubator Sustain Labs, says she spent a lifetime pulling this book together — a lifetime of study of the man-made institutions in which they’ve “trapped” themselves. A combination of intense data analysis along with first hand investigative field research, helped her reach this goal.

Miniya, like many other studious writers, faced plenty of challenges in writing her book, commenting, “Some of the writers on India whom I admire the most write from afar — either in distance and/or in proximity to the social issues in India they write about. Their arguments are sound and grounded in theory, but often infer from sample groups or a bird’s eye view on certain issues. Some other writers do report from the ground but lack the analytical skills and approach of good academics. I am an academic as well as a practitioner. And so my greatest challenge was to balance and draw from the wisdom of both perspectives.” Having written about social and economic issues in India she viewed from close proximity, she’s found such experiences have been easy for non-academic readers to understand.

A true turning point was when Miniya saw that hardly anyone in India really has the incentive and power to dismantle inequality in society. “Living in a society fraught with social and economic inequality works for most of us,” she explains “I am an optimist but this realisation saddened and disturbed me immensely.”

How far have we come?

In terms of women’s issues does Miniya —who’s also the founder of The Stargazers Foundation, a not for profit organisation that works for improving education and health for women in India — feel that the country has come far, considering that India has legally abolished practices such as sati and dowry, infant mortality has dropped by 30% in the past decade or so, literacy has risen from 16% in 1951 to 72% for all, although female literacy is still just 63%. “I think the real challenge is to not measure progress — or not — for women just on the basis of laws passed in India but on the efficacy of their implementation; and similarly to not go by data alone on socio-economic issues but by an immersive exercise that will give a qualitative reading of complex issues. If we do this, it is possible that the findings on women’s progress might be very different from what laws and data indicate,” she says, citing the examples of maternity leave, something she’s personally had trouble getting despite a policy being put on paper.

Approaching issues such as casteism can be challenging but she’s managed to take an objective approach, retaining the tonality needed for such essays. “I think what really helped - and perhaps what sets this book apart — is the fact that I am an academic and practitioner. There are academics who benefit from their training to be objective on issues that they are involved with via academic field work, projects or consulting work on the ground. On the other hand there are practitioners... business gurus and civil servants.. who write of their experiences from the ground. Both perspectives have their own merits. But I am fortunate that I straddle both domains, and have made an honest effort to write from both perspectives.”

‘Indian Instincts’ by Miniya Chatterji is available at leading bookstores across India

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