October, 2016

‘Half Lion’ – Behind the scenes

By Team Ashoka

 

For political scientist, lawyer, and journalist Vinay Sitapati, former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had a story that was waiting to be told. After the release of his book ‘Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao Transformed India’ in June, it seems like the world was reading the story of this influential leader.

This academic and commercial success had an unlikely beginning. In late 2014, while Vinay was completing his Ph.D. in politics at Princeton University, he received an email from Penguin Books asking whether he would be interested in writing a biography of Sardar Patel. Vinay had just finished reading a book on the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. He remembers, “It was the story of China changing in the 1980s, along with the story of the man at the political helm. I knew then that there was a story waiting to be written about India changing in the 1990s and the Prime Minister of the time”. So Vinay responded to the email by suggesting a biography of Narasimha Rao instead. “At that time”, Vinay says, “I didn’t know much about Rao”.  He began research in April 2015, and submitted the manuscript a year later. Just two months after that, the book was released by the vice-president of India to much acclaim.

While Rao has generally been neglected, a slew of recent books and articles have referred to him. This includes Jairam Ramesh’s account of the liberalisation reforms, and Sanjaya Baru’s recollection of the year 1991 and the role played by P.V. Narasimha Rao.

Vinay completed the draft of the book in April 2016. Subsequently, it was released in the month of June.

Vinay completed the draft of the book in April 2016. Subsequently, it was released in the month of June.

So, how is Vinay’s book different?

“Well, mine is a biography – I looked at Narasimha Rao’s entire life, not just 1991. Mine is also an academic book, with no personal recollections to rely on. I employed around 1100 footnotes, read around 200 books and articles, and interviewed more than a 100 people – from Rao’s cook to his finance minister. The heart of the book, of course, is exclusive access to 45 cartons of Rao’s private papers.”

With his background in law and journalism, Vinay says it was easier for him to sift through conflicting interviews and documents. “In statistical terms, it’s like this – there is so much noise, how do you get to the signal?” He continues, “This is where my training in law really helped. I could weigh the evidence and reconstruct the most likely version”.

The book has been both an academic and commercial success. In just three months of its release, ‘Half Lion’ has sold nearly 18,000 copies. “There is no shortage of opinions in India. It is research that is rare. So I packed the book with lots of footnotes, data, and details. In that sense, it’s a conventional book of academic research.” But, Vinay adds: “It was also important to me that the book attracts a wide readership. So I made sure my sentences were simple, jargon explained, and the reader treated with respect. The other day, an Ashoka student came up to me and said his 82-year old grandmother was reading the book. This thrilled me.”

Vinay recently joined Ashoka University as an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Legal Studies. “During my undergraduate degree at NLS-Bangalore, I remember that I loved the liberal arts component the most – the courses in sociology, political science, and history. Had Ashoka been around then, I would have definitely applied.”

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