Find out what data can and cannot tell us about modern India - from the way we eat, work, pray, and marry!
Join Tara and Michelle in conversation with Rukmini S , the author of ‘Whole Numbers and Half Truths’, a book which uses data to decode and demystify the private, but social lives and habits of modern Indians. What does an independent data journalist do? How can numbers and data be used to tell a story? How to have conversations about sensitive issues as a journalist and writer?
Tune in to find out!
Books mentioned in the episode:
•Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
•Raag Darbari by Shrilal Shuklal
•A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
•Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh Khan by Shayana Bhattacharya
•Planning Democracy: Modern India’s Quest for Development by Nikhil Menon
•India Moving: A History of Migration by Chinmay Tumbe
•Age of Pandemics (1817-1920) by Chinmay Tumbe
•Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla
•Lady Doctors: The Untold Stories of India’s First Women Doctors by Kavita Rao
Produced by Aishwarya Javalgekar
Sound edit by Kshitij Jadhav
‘Books and Beyond with Bound’ is the podcast where Tara Khandelwal and Michelle D’costa uncover how their books reflect the realities of our lives and society today. Find out what drives India’s finest authors: from personal experiences to jugaad research methods, insecurities to publishing journeys. Created by Bound, a storytelling company that helps you grow through stories. Follow us @boundindia on all social media platforms.
If he told me clearly that he couldn't drink tea, because he is upper caste, and he could not drink tea from the house of animacy man. But then, you know, when he said this, his daughter yelled at him. And the reason I had been brought home at all is because he was so impressed that I was traveling around and be alone, that he wanted me to meet his daughter so that his daughter would feel inspired to work to do you know, work on her own, after graduating before she got married.
Welcome to Books and Beyond with bound. I'm Tara Candela. I am Michelle D'costa. And in this podcast, we uncover the stories behind some of the best written books of our time,
Michelle D'costa 00:48
and find out how these books reflect our lives and our society today.
So tune in every Wednesday to enter a whole new world with a new author. And a new idea.
Michelle D'costa 01:00
Yes, and after three years and 2 million listens, we are back with a power packed season five,
with hard hitting questions and life changing books.
Michelle D'costa 01:10
So let's dive in. Hi, everyone, welcome back to Books and Beyond. If you have always wanted to know what really and I mean, really goes on behind the closed doors of India, like how to Indians eat, great live love and even what our guests Rukmini s, who works as an independent data journalist out of Chennai will actually show you what exactly happens in India, be it in relationships or you know, even inside workplaces, or even healthcare. She's covered every tiny nook and corner of our country. For me, I think the most interesting bits were the fact that you know, she busted so many myths that we have, like, for example, there are actual crime incidents that take place and there are, you know, completely different ones that gets reported. For example, what do young liberal Indians even think or feel so we actually get into their minds, hearts and souls in her pathbreaking book, poll numbers and half truths, Rukmini demystifies all the stats and data and makes it really accessible and understandable for any ordinary citizen like you and me. So today, we are going to find out how she managed to interview people about sensitive issues like rape, intercostal relationships, inter religion friendships, and how much money do they actually make. So we are going to find out, you know, what she learned through the writing of this book as a journalist. And her book is a comprehensive look into India, which 10 chapters covering 10 different viewpoints. So welcome, Rick, Winnie. I just can't wait.
Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to discuss the book.
Yeah, I really sort of, you know, enjoy the book money a lot. Because, as Michelle said, it demystifies statistics and data and it makes it accessible. And it really tells us what's going on in India, you know, whether it's sort of what Indians are eating, praying, how they're praying, how they're voting, how they're living, how they're loving all of these things. And we're discussing how sort of confident the tone was, and how succinct it was. So before we get into all of these amazing conversations, and honestly, mind blowing data, which I never thought of really made me look at the stories we tell ourselves very differently. I first wanted to understand what is even the process of sort of, because you're an independent data journalist, and that's sort of your skill set. So since you identify as one, could you sort of tell us what does an independent data journalist do in the first place, and maybe sort of walk us through that process?
Then thanks so much for that. And you know, all that both you and Michelle, have said about your feelings about the book and your sort of engagement with it is so validating, because it's really, you know, the things that I hope to set out to do with the book, which really is about demystifying numbers, making them accessible to everyone, not making people feel that numbers are cold and friendly, difficult to understand access, not meant for them mentally, for people who work in financial markets, you know, the idea really was to try and show people how numbers can do a great job of just telling us a lot more about our own country and in fact, can do a better job sometimes of busting myths and going beyond bubbles than what anecdotal experience or you know, even reporting that is based on anecdotal experience can do. Yes, the book does come out of my experiences as a journalist and as a journalist here because it's a sort of combination of my experiences first as a field reporter who was unfamiliar with data, and then going forward in the sort of more recent past my work as a specialized data journalist. is. And the reason I think both these sets of experiences matter is because there is sometimes a big gap between all sorts of qualitative and quantitative experiences. So the world of qualitative insight rarely speaks to the world of quantitative numbers. And I think that often happens within newsrooms and in reporting as well. So there's sometimes this sort of feeling that data journalists do another job that's sort of very different and rarefied, from others. And what few reporters do, you know, could never sort of connect with what data journalists do. And at some point, I too, had this sort of realization that I had had these field experiences. And then I had had all of this experience as a data analyst. And I felt that I wanted to bring together and marry the two experiences, not just because I wanted to pull them together, but also because I felt that they completed each other. So numbers in some way complete our understanding of the country that our own bubbles and blinkers, sometimes restrict us from seeing, while field experience anecdotes, reporting, allows us to see not just the people behind the numbers, but also some of the gaps and loopholes and missing information in those numbers. So this is what my my work as a data journalist has been like. And the independent part of it comes from having been very much a newsroom reporter for the first 10 years or so of my career, and then a shift to doing non newsroom work, working independently for the last five years or so that in some ways, I think, allowed me to sort of stop and think and write a
book. What I really liked about the book is that it talks about interpreting data, right. And what the book does is debunk so many of these narratives of these myths that we tell ourselves, for example, you know, we think that India is a mostly vegetarian country, but your data actually shows us something completely different. And on the other hand, what the book does is it confirms some of these narratives that we have about ourselves, right? It confirms that maybe Indians are not as liberal as one would sort of like them to be. And that's why the book is such an eye opener on so many levels, you know, it really addresses the gaps in our system. And in our society, one of the chapters that I really, really liked is the one on crime, where you speak about the amount of cases that actually sort of get convicted versus the amount that get reported. And a lot of crime that happens is some of these parents also sort of like putting a rape case on because they are so against, you know, this couple sort of be in a relationship that they're using this vehicle to sort of tear them apart. So the data doesn't really show the full picture. As you mentioned, in that view, what do you think data can and cannot tell us about modern India, because that is the subtitle of your book?
Sure. One of the points that I do try to make repeatedly through the book is that there is good data about India. And I'm going to emphasize the good word here. Because I think there is sometimes an impression, particularly among younger people, that there's no good data, and I can't tell us much. So there's the feeling that either, it's impossible to imagine that in the academic school data, it's impossible to imagine that this is good, quality, unbiased information. And it's impossible to imagine that it tells us anything particularly useful. So I do think that my years of experience of engaging with data and when I say engaging, I mean, not just reporting on it, but really trying to understand how it was corrected, by whom, by following what norms how representative, it is down to, you know, understanding how it's actually collected on the field, allowed me to gain some insight into a sort of be able to draw bars around what is good and not good. And I do often, you know, make this pitch that there is sometimes data that's just not of good enough quality. And while the temptation to use it and think about it and write about it, is enormous. One example that comes to mind here is opinion polls, we should draw these bars and sort of set as as quality bars below which we will not accept data. So the first point I probably like to make is that there is good data about India, this is some of the good data. Don't just trust me when I say it is good, I'm saying it's good for these reasons. And from this data, here are some key things we can tell about the country. So this includes, you know, questions around the economy, how we earn and how we spend money, as well as how we work and the remuneration we get from that work. But it also includes sociological questions of the sort to which you referred. So things that are, what do we know about people's thoughts and beliefs? And how do you change over time? What do we know about the experience of discrimination? What do we know about the entire lives of people, what they eat, who they pray to, how they decide who to marry, those sorts of things? And I do think that there is good data. And and this is good data that's been telling us some pretty important things over the years, which sometimes we've actually chosen not to listen to. So you know, when you say that some of the data does confirm narratives that you have felt about India? I think one of the things is really, who believes what so there is a set of people who have been watching and listening and feel like, yes, you know, this general aversion to intermixing, between social groups and religious groups, is something that is, you know, quite a strong feature of India, where there has been another sort of, I would say, more wishful thinking group that has largely believed that no, everybody loves mixing with each other, and always from being neighbors to who you marry. And there's just a sort of fringe of the country who doesn't believe in this. And I really think that it has not shown this to be true for a long time, it has shown that these boundaries are very rigidly drawn and enforced. So in some ways, you know, people who have been paying attention would have held these narratives and the numbers would confirm it for them. But yes, this will be variable around who holds what believes. So I think another sort of sense from it is that there are sometimes these long held narratives to which people have clung to with fond hope, and often wishful thinking. But the numbers don't really confirm those. And then one of the points about modern India that I do feel comes out to the numbers is that numbers presented without context, as often happens in India has led to some truly damaging notions, and not just notions, even laws. So the part about crimes that you refer to is really one that I've spent a lot of time on, and one that sort of, you know, keeps me up at night in a way, because I know that most of our notions and when I say our notions, I mean, people who, you know, consume information from the news media, as well as a lot of academic work, I would say. And then this feeds into policy, politics, all of that. So our notions around safety, particularly the safety of women has been built around statistics that come from the police, and hear from having been a field reporter in Mumbai, I knew the sort of processes that go on in a police station that make police statistics extremely suspect. So something I detail in the book is what I do with court cases where I you know, go and sort of try and do a deep dive into cases around assault in, in Delhi. And what I end up finding that in in a large number, sort of shockingly large number of cases, Assault is actually the parent will criminalization of consenting love, often between inter caste and inter religious couples is sometimes the MIS reported as assault. So numbers can tell us a lot. But without context, they lead us to very dangerous directions. And it becomes incumbent on people who communicate numbers, whether it is those who collect the numbers themselves, or those in the business of communicating numbers, it becomes incumbent on this entire community to present numbers with much more context to avoid sort of feeding into misinformation, false narratives and even bad laws.
Michelle D'costa 13:17
Yeah, totally. And, you know, like you mentioned, many numbers can be misleading. I think more than that numbers are also scary, right? Because I remember during the pandemic, I had friends who were obsessed with looking at the stats of numbers, like number of people dead, those numbers kept just going up and up and up. And you know, since then, I've been so afraid of looking at stats, but then your book gave me a very different approach to that, right, because along with the numbers, there are stories, there are examples. There's concrete evidence, which gives you the context. And you know, from all the myths that you've debunked Rukmini one that, you know, really shocked me was the fact that arranged marriage is something that still all like you've mentioned that, you know, As of Jan 2018 93%, of married Indian still have arranged marriages. And I actually couldn't believe that, because, you know, when I used to see these western stories about India, right, so there are these tropes of arranged marriages that are pulled out and I thought, Oh, such a narrow view. We Indians are not like that anymore. Where you know, we are modern, we are bought into love marriages now. But then this was really shocking. Yeah,
Michelle, I wanted to pick up on a couple of things that you mentioned, one is about the notion of numbers being scary, you know, just to talk about a sort of pre pandemic context to this, which is a lot of people do find numbers scary. And one of the sort of first pieces of advice that you're given as a data journalist is that people find numbers scary. So you know, make sure you don't open with a number. Nietzsche, you said to humanize and start your story in another way. And one of the things I've really come around to understanding Well, a few things around this is that yes, this is true. There is this sort of phenomenon of almost freezing when confronted with numbers is really something that happens but I Have a lot of empathy for people who experience it because it often comes out of being something as simple as being taught math very poorly in school and college. And something that I hear often from people, particularly from the men, and I think often for other people from marginalized backgrounds as well, which is, it gets drilled into their minds that, you know, math or being good at it is a sign of intelligence. And not understanding numbers is a sign of stupidity. I feel such empathy and such sadness for people who are made to feel like this through school and college, because this really is the worst way to get people to understand and sort of connect with numbers. So a lot of what I do is trying to make numbers more accessible. But I think what I tried to do, of course, stories are important, and I'd be happy to talk about them further. In fact, it's the part of reporting that I enjoy the most is talking to people. But additionally, I try to make sure that I'm very clearly explaining what that number is. And even if I'm not always done it perfectly, it's really my sort of continuous attempt to keep doing more and better off, which is to explain how the numbers were collected, and what they really mean and what they really mean. I mean, as you would say, to a six year old, really, truly explain what that number means. After you've done all of that, then I think you really remove a lot of the fear and the opacity in numbers in the absence of that feeling. Jaggi are sort of dismissive of people who either can't understand numbers or don't want to look at them is really not fair. You know, all of this needs to go in before people can be confronted with numbers without fear. And yes, the point that you make about seeing those counters rise in the pandemic and the fear that it gives people Yes, I think we do have to be conscious about how numbers are presented, and the how it makes people feel at the other end, we also need to give them much more context. But just to give you the other side of that, I think there was a time when people knew members of their own families who were not being counted in official statistics. And when there were attempts to sort of understand those numbers better or give a more nuanced picture. A lot of the feedback from people was that they were feeling that people were being counted that people were being given that dignity, even if nothing else in statistics, so why are they you know, numbers can be this kind of frightening or intimidating thing. I do strongly believe in the ability of numbers to offer personhood, dignity, closure are all things that we don't usually associate with numbers. But to me, that is what statistics are. They're a collection of human experiences. And just to sort of quickly bring in the point about arranged marriage. Yes, I think this is one of those numbers that sort of surprises many people, I would say. And it's a reminder of what bubbles can be like. So bubbles don't necessarily have to be a group of very close minded, ignorant, uneducated people sharing their own closed minded views. Bubbles can also be of extremely liberal progressive people who are friends and family with other liberal progressive people. And so then believe that this is what the entire country looks like. If we feel as many of us do that. We're hard pressed to think of friends who had an arranged marriage and love marriage seems so common. These numbers then are a reminder of what the broader Indian reality can be like, to the point that a survey though that that's quite old, now, over 10 years old, another survey, in fact, showed that the share of women who had never seen their husbands prior to marriage, so not just that it was arranged, but they had had no interaction with the man prior to marriage was also pretty large and significant. So, you know, another another reminder of reality is beyond hours.
What I also really liked about that is that, you know, because people are getting married later, one of the statistics was that the age that Indians first have sex is also going up, you know, so how numbers go to date? And numbers? You know, there's this adage, right, that numbers don't lie. But exactly what you said, you know, if we don't have the context around the numbers, then the numbers don't show us the real photo. And this is so apparent in the media, right, where there is this misreporting? Firstly, even sort of taking a number and sensationalizing it. And you know, you mentioned this in the crime reportage. And one of the counterintuitive things you see is that the more time that a state has actually the better it is, because that means that there is at least reporting, you know, and then you compare sort of Kerala, which has a very high crime rate and we know that Kerala sort of, you know, the literacy rates are high, the systems are better for everybody, and then you look it up right, which we all know is a patriarchal We've all heard the stories and the crime reporting is very low. But the medium is take a number and sensationalize it. So how can we as the audience who are you know, being portrayed all of these numbers, all of these, you know, conversations around numbers, you know, how can we look at it in a nuanced way? Like, what is reliable? And what is not? What do we believe? And what are we not?
Yeah, that's a great question. And I'm really happy to talk about it. So one of the things I do try is remind people like yourself who, you know, concern and responsible citizens that? Sure, here are some things you can do. And I'll go on to say that, but I don't want to shift the locus of responsibility from the people communicating numbers to the people consuming them. Having to do two hours of homework after reading a simple news headline should not be our expectation of people. And then we should not go on to say, How ignorant people are, you know, when we just buy a headline without going any further. So I do want to shift the keep the locus of responsibility on journalists like myself and others to make sure that numbers are presented with enough context that we're not requiring consumers of news to do all of this extra digging. So this includes things like giving, you know, full disclosure about what exactly those numbers are providing links providing background data that were available, putting it in context, saying in larger historical context, has it gone up? If it's just gone up between last year and this year? Does it matter? Is it part of a long term trend or not? Then things like putting geographical areas in context, you know, the example you gave is something that matters not just for crime, but even for things like health there, when you're comparing two regions with very different state capacity, very different administrative capacities, it's never entirely apparent if what you're picking up is really differences in what you're looking at. So differences in crime differences in incidence of disease, or what you're picking up is either that state's ability to better capture and report it, or even the empowerment of citizens in that state to come forward. And I would not feel confident of saying it's one or the other. So I would not feel confident of saying Kerala has less crime than up but reports more, I would feel confident of saying that it's a combination, of course is going on here. And it's important to try and understand what is you know, the proper explanation, or at least what is part of the explanation? And what is the risk. And there are ways of doing this, again, as communicators of data, one of the ways of doing it is to triangulate with other data sources. So instead of just taking police statistics at face value, and reporting it as if it's a cricket match with you know, this higher and that lower, you add in the context of household surveys that actually ask women at the household level, what is your experience of crime been? Whether or not you reported it to the police? What did you actually experience? And there that might give you a measure of okay, well, the state that reports a high number of crimes to the police actually has a relatively lower share of women who actually experienced crime, so they're just doing a better job of capturing and reporting it. So that is what's incumbent on people who produce the numbers. But yes, given that we are in a context of misinformation, and in the context of the media, not doing his job well enough, there are certainly ways in which consumers of news can try to arm themselves with with more information and more context. So one is to always look for sources, for example, you know, if the newspaper or the TV channel is wishy washy about where it's come from, that's, that's immediately something that that, you know, shouldn't be something you ask questions about. And I don't mean this to be a quick segue into the shilling about my second book, but I'm working on a book on this information that's actually built around a statistical concept. So the idea is to try and give people handy tips on how understanding simple statistical concepts will help them sort of pass through information and figuring out what's accurate and what's not.
I can't wait to read that book, because I think that will sort of definitely pass and we need it, I think it's what you're doing is so it's, you know, it's such a need right now, for anyone who wants to do anything in India, because we all use data in so many different ways, you know, in our jobs and our personal lives as citizens of this country. You know, I sort of like, like civilians, so So I think it's so important, and coming to sort of like misinformation and you know, assimilating data, I'm gonna want to understand a little bit more about your process in the book, you know, because we all say that, you know, there's this sort of, again, this this narrative that India has very bad data collection, data is inaccurate, so How did you ensure that the data and the book is as accurate as possible, you know, and what is the data? And the other part of that is what is data that should be reported, but is not?
Yeah, I think that is important for everyone to consider. Because, again, this sort of notion that because someone is saying, so this is a good data source doesn't necessarily need to be, you know, how people, they don't have to go along with the trust me, bro model, even when it comes to data. There's a sort of couple of, you know, broad rules that I try to follow. I use a lot of government data. And that's something that I think people sometimes feel surprised by and definitely respond to when they see the book, which is how come why is it that you are using so much government data? I think it's important, you know, just as we often feel that we don't know enough about history, and that cripples our understanding of modern day India, I do think that there is not enough that we know and understand about the history of Indian statistics as well. And if we did, if we paid more attention to this, we, perhaps we'd have more faith in Indian numbers. And I say that because the foundational principles and the sort of way in which India statistical architecture was put in place, is a pretty inspiring story. And it also has a lot to do with why India statistics, even now are in good enough condition to use and to report on. So there's a good book by the young historian Nikhil Menon called planning, democracy that looks at this in a lot of detail that I would recommend highly and looks a lot as a rule of narrow mahalanobis in the early stages of planning, but also in the role that both of them played in the designing of the statistical system and the role that it was supposed to play in planning and development. So all of the sort of key government surveys, confirm with well tested international standards, there is wide discussion across global academia as well as Indian academia, around every survey, its methodology differences with the past, this is a very well understood and well argued and debated part of, you know, in Indian government, as well as Indian Government output. Whenever I have a question about the data, I usually find that someone in the 60s had this question. And there was, you know, a lot of discussion with top scholars, and all of it is sort of published in big journals, and including in the APWU, India's own journal. And so, there is that sense that a lot of very smart people have been paying attention, very close attention, and having oversight over this for a long time. So it is important to continue closely reading methodology, closely making sure that you know, things on the ground to a functioning well, there's no need to sort of give over all trust and credibility for the long term, just because things were set up well. And I think that does continue to happen. There is, you know, healthy discussion still about Indian surveys, when surveys are changed, there's a lot of discussion about it, and what it's going to mean. And I think all of that is essential, and important, does a lot of good. And it's inspiring to know that this is the state of publishing and thinking around, you know, all of these key data sources. So that's sort of broadly my thinking around using in the data, but I do it all with eyes wide open and talking to other people. So I don't just sort of hand over feet for the long term. Additionally, if I'm looking at private data services, I do try to make sure that there is some, you know, sort of widely accepted pedigree of those numbers, that they're very large sample surveys that the again, following international conventions that the track with other data sources and aren't some sort of enormous outlier. And I think in a way this connects with your second question as well, which is data that isn't collected very well, is usually high frequency data. By this we mean, numbers that would give us that have a shorter time frame. So you know, we know stuff about employment every quarter, and it gets published more months down the line by file, we might want to know quickly about what's happening with employment last week, last month. So that is not that does not come from the government. But you know, given the size of the enterprise, perhaps that's understandable. And perhaps this move towards high frequency data will slowly happen over time. So that's where large private data sources come in. So for example, one of the big changes to India's data landscape has been the emergence of CMA the central monitoring of the Indian economy that produces high frequency data privately on various sectors of the economy, including employment. And I think just the last point of that on that is that the pandemic really laid bare that we don't have good enough data on health, and that we really have a lot more work to do to accurately capture, you know, data on all sorts of diseases, not just COVID, we need to set in systems that will do a better job of capturing things that a lot more people have died from for every year, you know, things like gastrointestinal disease, tuberculosis, all of those deserve really great data collection systems.
Michelle D'costa 30:37
Yeah, yeah, totally. We do. And it's really interesting that, like you mentioned, there are some reliable sources, right. So you know, EP W, I was just reminded that they have a section called the postscript where they actually publish creative works. And for me, you know, as a writer, what I also used to understand what's happening right now, in our country, or let's say, even in the world, you know, sometimes just consuming poetry and fiction also helps, right? Because it's very timely, it's almost like, you know, the poets, or the writers react to bigger problems that are happening in the world, and and create stuff around it. But you know, apart from this timely element of money, because see, your book actually covers a lot of stats, or, you know, depending on surveys, which are dated, right, so let's say for example, maybe they happened in 2018 2019, all of that, you know, how to envision that this book will actually stand the test of time, because it is brilliant, you know, it is like a textbook that we've never had in school, it kind of breaks down the economix, and makes it really simple for people to understand. So are you planning to actually put out updated versions? Or, you know, how do you ensure that this book stays timely, let's say even 10 years from now?
Thank you such a great question. And here is the difference between people who work with Indian data and, you know, people who read about it and engage with Indian data at one step of distance. And when you started saying, some of the data is dated, in my mind, I was thinking, oh, did I use any 2011 12 data tried not to use, but I guess I did, in some cases, because we are so used to even data running so late, you know, we don't have a census since 2011, for example, that 2018 19 is practically hot off the press. But I absolutely take your broader point, which is, the idea is to create something that will, you know, be some knowledge for the future and not a sort of flash in the pan news article. So what I have tried to do is make sure that most of the datasets that I'm looking at are part of time series, and come from a set of surveys that have repeatedly said similar things, or are triangulated by different surveys that say the same thing in all sort of similar things in different ways. I think I've largely tried to stay away from something extremely one time and surprising. The data sources that have the smallest samples are the ones around attitudes, and that sort of opinion polling, but even there made sure that I've looked at multiple rounds over time to look at how views change over time, for example, but I would like to, you know, at least plan to be intellectually honest enough that if in the future, there was a, you know, the next round of the census or something else, pointed in a markedly different direction, which suggested that between say, 2011 and 2021, when the book came out and say, 2024, when the census comes out, if it shows that something moved in a markedly different direction than what the book was implying, I would like to think that me and my publisher would have a chat about how that could be broadly updated. But I would hope that since I have looked at historical data sets, the overall thesis largely hold up and won't require the same to be written in in a part two, I will hope that that I've done you know, the work for that not to happen.
Yeah, definitely. I think in terms of the thesis, this is something that is very new, and something that you know, needs to be put out there, in terms of like, the relevance of the book, you know, like 1020 years from now, I do wonder sort of how that would fare because when we speak about sort of modern India, you know, because we always think about books, you know, being future proof. And I think in terms of thesis, it very much is there. And it reminded me of this other book called behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine boo, which is now I think, 10 to 12 years old. And it was about, you know, the whole slum ecosystem in Bombay, and I was just eating it and you know, these things, we think that they don't, they won't hold up because they're supposed to be sort of a snapshot of what's happening in India right now. But as you said, those larger themes are very relevant and these books are have paved the way for For other work that, you know, sort of takes this thesis forward to come about.
Yeah. So I think that's a great book. And yeah, I think all of the Theses in that book largely Hola, you know, if you think of as another sort of Bombay nonfiction book, if you think about maximum city, I think there there are certainly some things that were very much about that moment in time where it's not that they don't hold up, but they do remind you that of something being a snapshot of time, then again, if I was to think of nonfiction, it doesn't immediately come to mind. But if I was to think of even writing the same book, say, five years, pre liberalisation, most certainly it would not, those same processes would not have held up because there was a sort of seismic shift in how the economy and society was organized. I think I'm okay with it being sort of fair assessment of where things are right now, while being a hoping that it holds up while being prepared to be humble about things shifting so drastically in the future, that this being more of a snapshot. And I also think the best of literature somehow, sometimes really, you know, reminds you of what true timelessness is and how hard that is to achieve and, you know, reminds you even of how you fall short of it. So I still frequently feel that one of the best books that I've read on that, you know, helps me think about how things really operate at the ground is rather berry that was written in the 60s. But another book that I absolutely love is suitable VI, which is very much about its moment in time. But in some ways, some of these things, you know, are timeless. But yeah, the timelessness of great literature is is incomparable.
Michelle D'costa 36:48
Thank you. Yes, definitely, I think, I think fiction and poetry, you know, you can definitely analyze so much like about culture, about the government about the way things work. Through that throughout reading your book recently, I got a sense of you know, how much you love conversations, right? So when I actually started the book, I thought, okay, so Rukmini is a numbers person. And you know, she's actually dissected these numbers and made it accessible to us. But what was really refreshing and interesting for me was the fact that you derived all these interpretations from conversations with people, right? Because you have access to all of this ground reality through speaking to a lot of people across the strata of society, right. And some of them actually requested you to change their names, like for example, you know, they could be belonging to an upper caste, they could be a Dalit, like Neha, you know, the medical student in the general category, who believes that, you know, Dalit students, because of the reservation system, they have it all good, you know, versus Revati, the Dalit student who has a very different reality, right, who crowd sourced funds for actually her first flight outside her place. So I really want to know, out of all these conversations you had, you know, which is the most challenging because, you know, sometimes we we realize that, you know, you might not get the info that you're actually looking for. So how did you really navigate that? And what was the most difficult? Yeah, thank
you for that. I completely agree that the conversations, it's probably the part I enjoy the most as well, but I will say that I enjoy it, because it's a part of my job, and not all of it, I think, you know, being able to look deeply at numbers, is also extremely fulfilling, and sort of bringing these parts together is what I enjoy a lot. It's also a reminder to me, you know, and the process of writing the book was that a little bit that some of the rules around journalism had become so rigid over time, for no apparent reason there is nobody sort of decided that this is the only way journalism can be done. And I think it's changing, you see a lot of video content, especially that has a lot more granularity and you know, the voices of a much more diverse set of people. But in a typical Indian newspaper of the sort that I always wrote for, there was a pretty clear sense of who you should speak to, and what you should do with their code. So you know, you always had to have someone from authority. And if you had sort of common people, there would be a few and they would usually be quite purpose fitted. They would be you know, in their their voices would be then to serve the purpose of some sort of argument that you were making. And then, you know, you really lose all of the fun, all of the texture, all of the granularity from conversations that are not purely for the instrumental purpose of that very narrow point you're trying to make this in some ways fits with my process as well, which is when I used to go out reporting, I would come back and have a folder for my desktop with the name of the place I had gone, you know, on deals and food insecurity or something would be the folders name, and then all the photos would go in there, all the transcripts would go in there, and then over time If I would have the pieces that I actually wrote, and then there would be a doc file that would be usually called extras, which would be all of the interviews and things and people I spoke to that didn't make it to the pieces because they were sort of tangential, maybe more long winded, not necessarily sharply making a very strong point. But so many of those were so fascinating. So in the book, for example, I have the story about journalist who came along with me, when I was doing some reporting in Madhya Pradesh, and this journalist refused to, you know, said he would not drink in the house of the Adivasi man who we were interviewing. And you know, he didn't say anything. He said, I'm fasting, so I can't have anything. But the minute we left that Hamlet, and went back to his house, he told me clearly that he couldn't drink tea, because he is upper caste and he could not drink tea from the house of animacy. Man. But then, you know, and he said this, his daughter, yell at him. And the reason I had been brought home at all is because he was so impressed that I was traveling around and be alone, that he wanted me to meet his daughter so that his daughter would feel inspired to work to do you know, work on her own, after graduating before she got married. And none of this excuses untouchability, or discrimination, I would hope that anybody reading the book is not left with that impression. I think that I can fairly say that's the case. But it is important to me to talk about people describe them write about them, like they are multi dimensional, and not as if they are cartoon characters meant there for the single point of advancing the the point that I want to make there. So I think one of the more more difficult conversations to have only because only from the point of view of a data journalist in the book was within it, and one of one of the characters in the book who I speak to, who is in an intercaste relationship. And the reason the conversation was difficult is because I came to him with all of my data, which shows how redlined it as marriages, and I said, I asked him if that made him feel like an outlier. Like made him feel lonely in the Indian context. He very quickly said that, no, I don't, because your data is about intercaste marriage, it's not about intercourse relationships. And he felt both from his own experience, as well as from his friends around him that it's entirely likely that there were many people in IndyCars relationships, who were not able to take that final leap into marriage, because of all of the real physical, even violent pressures that they faced. So in a way, what it did that story did was to undo my carefully constructed statistical thesis up till that point, which, you know, tried to make this point about very low number. So what do you do with a story like that you include it? And then sort of undo all of your work? Or do you exclude it. And I think in journalism, or the sort of traditional journalism I had practiced early on, I didn't have this luxury. But luckily, in the book, I had the luxury of letting numbers complicate what I was writing, and not just have to conform with what I was writing. So in that way, it wasn't a difficult interpersonal conversation. And I really feel that it means a wonderful conversation list. So I really have difficult interpersonal conversations, particularly about their love lives. My God, you can't stop people talking about their love lives, I think, especially to women, where they find it easier. And the minute that they know that I'm in a love marriage, I feel like people are, you know, very, very keen to talk about their own relationships, I've always had that. But it was difficult in trying to reconcile it with, with my data journalism,
I think, what a what a coincidence, Rukmini because that, you know, part about, you know, your colleague who refuse to have the tea, that was one of the moments that really stuck out to me. And when Michelle and I were talking, she was like, Oh, I really liked the part about knitting. So, I think you've sort of touched upon, just like, Oh, what a coincidence. And I really liked that, you know, the book makes you think of the fictions that we tell ourselves, right? So we say things like, you know, we are middle class where, in fact, that is completely untrue. You know, because, as you said, in the data, anyone who spends more than 1500 rupees a month is in the top 5% of the whole of India, right. So, we are all sitting here, part of the, you know, very, very, very top, the center of India, you know, the fact that we can even sit here and have this conversation, and then, you know, all this other fiction where, you know, as young people in our 30s we say that, you know, they're all liberal, and all of these things, but the data shows otherwise and, you know, things like the data shows that, you know, people really want a very strong leader, you know, and shows that you know, how actually comes of diverse society, actually is I think, I think for me, that was very, very interesting.
Michelle D'costa 45:05
Yeah. And for me, really, you know, your story about the person not wanting to eat in the other party's house. So I wanted to share something personal. So, you know, my mom, we've been raised in a in a Catholic household, and she actually had neighbors who are Brahmins, and she was a teacher, so she's a, you know, take tuitions for them. And she's very, very close to the family, and we are still close to them, like one of the most broad minded people we have come across, okay, but my mom was so surprised, because the kind of treatment that she is, she got in their household, you know, like growing up, or it has always been the same, you know, they've been eating from the same place and all of that. But when she was invited to the family's older sisters, like a kind of like, you know, they had like a lot of siblings, and the oldest sister's house, I think they had visited once and my mother was very young, then, um, she was so surprised, because of her day, the reality was completely different. They actually gave her a very different glass, a different plate, and they actually kept it on the side, you know, and she felt really alienated. And she was very, you know, surprised and curious as a child, you know, and then she asked this woman who's actually her friend, and she said, you know, why was this? She said, Oh, that's because you're like Catholics, and you'll actually eat non vegetarian food. Because we don't, but then don't worry, you know, this is just a thing. So I do think that yes, these things still exist. But I'm so happy that we do get to see the nuanced versions. Also, you do get to see like, you know, these exceptions that you come across. Yes. And
I do think that it's important to talk about both. And while being very conscious of just what all of these discriminations including around food, mean for people and that, you know, it's not small, it's not real. And it's, it can be these can be daily insults, and daily sort of reminders of otherness. And of course, as we now know, they can, it can also mean, the actual threat of physical danger and actual violence and even debt. So I do try to sort of bring in all of those facts to be very clear that, you know, the experience of discrimination is very clearly mediated in specific ways. The experience of discrimination, particularly about food, as experienced by sheduled, cast persons, as well as Muslims, acute, serious, perhaps getting sharper, and, you know, manifests in deeply painful ways, including stories of people who are who have in the book. And yes, I mean, I think and really, Catherine Wu is one of the sort of great exponents of bringing out all of the nuances of a person's sort of life and character, none of which makes you, you know, so they don't come out as flat characters, but you don't end up feeling sympathy for the clearly bad person. So I think, you know, it's really sort of masterfully done. So when I do try and bring in nuance and want people to understand things, move it, I think I sort of also, especially through the numbers, but also through stories to try to delineate what this experience of discrimination can actually be like, what it can mean, what what it can feel, and then just how you decrease sometimes, this pushback against it, or the sense of false victimhood, among extremely privileged people that's based on nothing, as the numbers show is really based on nothing, how ludicrous that can be then. Yeah, I
think that as human beings, we remember stories, yeah, emotion. So the fact that, you know, these very lived experiences are also in the book, you know, just drives home the point. And we talked about this in the interview, and you mentioned it in the book as well, that, you know, numbers need interpretation, they need context, that is free from an ideological spin. And you said that, you know, we need not only the what, but we need data that shows us the why, and I really like some of the data that you present that does show us the why, you know, you say that in terms of the crime data, right. Why is there so much under reporting? And you said that, you know, there's a statistic that most people don't want to report, because they often feel that you know, what, the reporting isn't important enough. That's 28% of people, and another 20% believe that the police cannot help them. These are deterrents. So I really like that kind of data as well.
Yeah. And that's, that's a particularly good example as well, because I think if you stopped a person on the street and ask them, What do you think is the top reason that people don't report crime? I think most people would say that the police is corrupt. The police doesn't know accepted that sort of thing. And you know that these aren't separate from each other. The reason it feels like such a headache to report crime is because of how painful systems, both within the police station and in the court system can be. So these are not independent of each other. But I don't think most people would put this down as a reason at all that someone thinking that the crime was not important enough positive worth being reported, because it was perhaps a small theft, a small mobile phone, Silver Chain, not a gold chain, that sort of thing. But it's real, and it does contribute to the overall sort of spectrum of things. And yeah, sometimes this can feel almost like I mean, it is investigative work in that way to try and understand what is it in the numbers that actually explain something? So I think in some ways, even COVID was an example of this, which if you stop people on the street today and ask them, Why do you think that there was some undercounting there? Why do you think that, you know, these estimates of deaths from COVID to none match the government's numbers? Most people would say, because the government wants to hide the numbers lie, that sort of thing. And that's just if you look, go explanation by explanation, it really doesn't add up to that at all, in my opinion, because one of the things we see, for example, is that even pre COVID, India doesn't yet have a good enough, you know, health administrative mechanism to capture deaths from all diseases. So we know in fact that there was an even larger proportion of undercounting going on prior to COVID for other diseases like malaria that killed 1000s of people every year. But this sort of conversation around what is the official number, what is the real number? Why is that this reporting doesn't happen. And there isn't a sense that the government is trying to hush up 1000s of malaria deaths, there is a sense that it's difficult to accurately capture them as any doctor in a rural area, including in Maharashtra will tell you that there is just this wave of monsoon fevers that that happened. And it's very difficult unless you have access to state of the art testing, to be able to tell what exactly the person has died from. So that's one part of it. Another part of it is that not all debts are registered, we still don't have full registration of debts. Again, this isn't an attempt to suppress numbers. It's because states that don't have enough administrative capacity, like Bihar, for example, don't yet manage to register all debts, even in normal pre pandemic times. And then when you add to the mix, things like just how overwhelmed all machinery was during the second wave, for example, and the fact that, you know, a test was needed prior to certification. All of it sort of adds up to a pretty understandable share of underreporting. Now, how you respond to that, when it's put out is another matter. But I think the sort of quick jump to assuming that the numbers are off, because some bureaucrat somewhere or some politician somewhere with his big pen is sitting and fudging those numbers, personally, is one of the fictions that we tell ourselves. And in a way, it's actually useful because you don't have to do much work, then. While the whole task of fixing administrative and Health Systems is a lot of work, cannot be done by one government agency alone. And means that it's not easy to sort of blame one person and assume bad intent and think that's why things are like this. So yeah, I think sometimes a big part of the Y can also be in recognizing that not all y is because someone somewhere is trying to hide something.
Michelle D'costa 53:37
Yeah, and you know, Rukmini actually, throughout reading your book, you know, I kept telling Tara, that I wish we had more women, journalists writing these nuanced books, because you can clearly tell the tone is so nuanced. It's so humbled, right? The fact that you know, you, you can retain all this information and actually distill them for an audience to you know, understand it is really rare, right. So another economic journalist we spoke to was Shayana Bhattacharya, right, who wrote desperately seeking Shahrukh, the book actually analyzes women's contribution to the economy, you know, their desires, their labor, their independence, all of that. So I really wish that we have more women journalists, like you who actually take something really complex and bring it down in order to you know, just just kind of show off with the stats, you know, kind of in this LinkedIn growth style.
Yeah. Yeah. And actually, in my case, they all of this sort of empathy I have with people who haven't been taught numbers very well don't understand them aren't used to using them comes partly from the fact that I haven't specialized in maths or stats or economics or politics or any of this. So I sort of piece together things from a layperson perspective, because in a way, I am a layperson. And so I think that gives me the sort of competitive advantage of being able to write in a more relatable way Because I too am sort of piecing these numbers together in this sort of way. So, yes, I think social conditioning makes women more likely to be interested in qualitative things, including sort of conversations. I don't think these should be gendered behaviors, everybody should be interested in conversation. But yes, that is sometimes how it pans out. I think what we're also seeing is in some ways, the feminization of Indian newsrooms, particularly English newsrooms, that are, in most cases now, over half women. And I think that's extremely different from how things were, say 20 years ago, to older people in newsrooms really do see this shift. Now, of course, what we need to see is the next step, which is not just having female foot soldiers who we do have right now, but also having women rise to the top of newsrooms in places to make decisions, owning publications, and sort of, if these positive gendered aspects, then being able to have a much wider impact on on everything, and even the business model of journalism.
Absolutely. So, you know, we, I, you know, each of these 10 chapters, right, I think we could do sort of like five, or even more podcast episodes, or each of these 10 chapters, because there is so much to unpack from how India lives, right. We haven't even covered that, or how India falls sick, how India spends its money, how India works, how India ages, I would just love to sort of like, have you on for hours. But we don't have time for that, unfortunately. So I guess we can get you know, more into it by reading the book. But if you could summarize for us, you know, because I'm sure that a lot of listeners want to know, how does India really vote? And what is the one myth that you've tried to debunk over there?
So I think my responses is a combination of both things. How does India really vote and myth that I want to debunk it is a myth that we know how we vote. And the reason for this is because all of our understanding whether journalistic or even academic, unfortunately, around elections, is built on a pretty thin level of not great opinion polling. And this has continued for years and years. And people have taken these numbers at face value and built very thin and nuanced bits of understanding around it. So I would say, you know, the sort of evergreen headline, which you would have seen for maybe 2030 years, and you'll continue seeing at this rate into the future is that Indians don't care about caste and religion. And people are only voting for development. For maybe it was be the least money in the past. And now it is more aspirational stuff. And this comes from a very sort of straight reading of most opinion polls, which ask people, What do you want to vote for? What is the most important issue on your mind? And then those survey dutifully respond, economy, jobs, better development for my household, that sort of thing. But we know now from some attempts at triangulating this data with other sources is that other things that aren't measured through this sort of questioning matter enormously as well. So we know, for example, that nearly half of respondents say that they would like the representative to be of the same cost as them. We know that even if unemployment increases, or government that has sort of been in power at the time that that unemployment rose could still be reelected. In the next election. Even if respondents are saying unemployment and jobs is what's most important to them. None of this means that surveyors are doing a bad job or lying. I mean, it doesn't mean they're doing a bad job. None of this means that they're purposefully lying. Nor does it mean that respondents are purposefully lying. It just means that people's relationship with politics is far more nuanced and complicated than our opinion polls currently capture. And we need to do a much better job before even I would be remotely confident of saying that I have any idea what precisely one thing two things five things people are voting for. I will say broadly, a few people vote for ideas more than things, or even economic concepts. And communicating ideas effectively is a far more important job of politics than than people imagine.
Michelle D'costa 59:29
Yeah, and I think also promises and we don't know how far those promises are actually carried out. But okay, that could get into a whole different conversation. But right now, many we have reached a fun quiz round. Okay, so what I'm gonna do is I'm gonna mention a point and give you three options. Okay, so you have to pick one, one subject that you wish you had studied earlier in school, a economix b statistics, C data analytics
I'm trying so hard not to say D all of the above. So let me go
Michelle D'costa 1:00:04
with economics. Okay. One topic you could speak about even when asleep, a gender B, caste C class. Just two. Okay? One trait a researcher must absolutely have a conversationalist B, attention to detail. See, extremely focused. The temptation to
say D to everything is just overwhelming, but I'm going to say,
Michelle D'costa 1:00:38
attention to detail. Oh, yeah, that was the challenge at that time, but you know, often which are very closely related. Okay? What software you can't live without, as a data journalist, a Google Sheets, be data magic, see Infogram.
I'm going to proudly say a Google Spreadsheets because this is a way of me reminding people that as I always say, I have no advanced maths and style skills. So if you can use Google Spreadsheets, you can be a data journalist, because
Michelle D'costa 1:01:11
that's all I use. Oh, that's a relief. Okay. The cover of your book actually has a long nose of Pinocchio on it. If not for Pinocchio, which would be the other cartoon character on the cup. A Beauty and the Beast be the seven little dwarves or see Peter Pan?
I love this question. And I'm gonna give a quick shout out to the brilliant graphic designer, Ninja supramundane. Who who designed the cover? I would say, Peter Pan, because there's just that much magical thinking of going around around India. Yeah. Okay, so
that brings us to the next section, which is our reading recommendation section. So what are two books by Indian economist that you really, really admire?
I'm going to expand it a little bit beyond economists. And I'm going to say one, the historian Nikhil, minions book planning democracy, which I mentioned earlier, I admire it and recommend that. And then I'm going to say economics, stroke history, which is both of the metal base books, one of which is called India moving around migration, and the other is called age of pandemics. I recommend all three of these books highly.
Michelle D'costa 1:02:32
Awesome. Okay. Which are the two books that you read for fun?
So yeah, so I have this habit of, you know, when you want comfort, you end up going back to old favorites. And I would say if I was on a flight, I would love it if I had an Agatha Christie with me. And and and
Gera, Darren's lovely choices. And what are the books that are written about India by women that you absolutely love? Okay.
So I love and among elephants that I read it among books that I read in the last couple of years that that's outstanding. I also really enjoyed Gita hurry Aaron's book. So I recommend that highly. Yeah, those are, those are the two that I can think of. Awesome.
Michelle D'costa 1:03:26
Yeah. And I think for me, one of the books about Indian women in you know, for like forgotten in history is Kavita Rao's book about, you know, women in the medical field. Almost whenever covered, and you don't do so difficult to find information about them. Yes, yeah.
So yeah, we had interviewed her as well. And that was very interesting interview. Okay, so I'm a sad to go for the last section of this interview with us. kept talking. It was so informative, so insightful. I'm an economics student. Okay. Yeah. And I love reading books like this. This just took me back to my sort of like, you know, days when I was engaging with the subject so much more,
Michelle D'costa 1:04:11
that I just want to add something to what Tara said, are many. So in my 12th grade, we had an economic sir, he was called Mr. De Costa. And I still remember, you know, his notes was so much in demand because every other professor who taught economics back then, right, if they would just basically repeat the textbook, they would just read it aloud. And you know, basically how dry it can become right? But he was to make economics fun. And I was just telling Tara that it took me back to those days sitting in the classroom, enjoying economics, learning the graphs, you know, like studying what is demand and supply and actually making it fun. So thrilled to hear that. Thank you.
Okay, so let's go to the rapid fire round. So I'll start. What is the one statistic that always blows your mind because you have 1000s of statistics in your book? What is the one One thing that blows your mind.
He wasn't 4% of Indian marriages are intercaste
Yeah, that is that is crazy. I also blew my mind.
Michelle D'costa 1:05:12
Yeah, I'm believable. Okay. One person you interviewed for the book, who is still friends with you?
Listen, one word to describe what you were feeling when the book came out.
Michelle D'costa 1:05:24
gratified. Nice. Okay. One jargon, every data journalist is proud of knowing, median.
Nice 101 Where
do you write? Only at a table or a desk? Nice.
Michelle D'costa 1:05:43
Okay, one life lesson that you learned while you were a beat reporter with The Times of India,
if you're going to get off at Andy then sort of creep towards the edge early or you're gonna make people go into that are very mad.
love it so much. Yeah. Okay, thank you so much. This was so very amazing. I wanna, I want to ask you what's next, because we know your book is coming out, and we will definitely, you know, be first in line to read that. Can't wait for that. And thank you so much for this interview, because it really really was so very informative. And I think it's going to make me and Michelle sort of like better said, we were discussing this idea like how do we sort of simulate this in our everyday lives and I think it's gonna make us sort of better people, better citizens more informed, you know, and be able to have more nuanced and informed conversation because these the issues that you bring up in the book are issues that sort of we as Indians live and breathe, you know, every single day. So thank you for that and thanks so much.
Thank you that is so kind of you to see I'm absolutely delighted thank you so much.
Michelle D'costa 1:06:56
Thank you. Yeah, and I work with the group many I think your book is gonna definitely make the WhatsApp University out of business.
For sure. That yeah, then I make it to a whatsapp forward and feel like I really made it you know
Michelle D'costa 1:07:16
what, thank you, it was a lot of fun. I wish it could go longer. But you know, like all good things come to an end.
So here we are, where the end of yet another journey into the many worlds of Books and Beyond with bound. I'm Tara Karneval.
Michelle D'costa 1:07:32
I'm Michelle D'costa. And this podcast is created by bout a company that helps you grow through stories. Find us at sound India or all social media platforms.
So tune in every Wednesday if you live, eat and breathe books, and join us as we discover more revolutionary books and peek into the lives and minds of some truly brilliant authors from India and South Asia.
Michelle D'costa 1:07:58
And don't forget to keep your love for stories alive for books and beyond.