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Standing up and being counted

books Updated: Jul 23, 2010 23:38 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Headcount: Memoirs of a Demographer
Ashish Bose
Penguin Viking
Rs 450 pp 224

If a demographer — essentially someone who counts people — escapes death twice, he’s got a story to tell. Ashish Bose recalls an Uttar Pradesh village mob, incensed at his ‘fieldwork’, that would have killed him and his driver had a sadhu not intervened. All right, so the other time India’s most famous demographer lived to tell the tale wasn’t quite as dramatic. “Chingri maachh (prawns),” he blurted out in Bengali before collapsing. His Bangladeshi friend and revolutionary rural doctor, Zafrullah Choudhury, knew of his allergy to prawns and treated him in the nick of time.

Bose, now 80, is known as the man who, in the 1980s, coined the term ‘Bimaru’, the acronym that refers to the untrammelled population growth in north India’s four largest states. But his book is much more than a discussion on birth rates and health workers. It’s a lively insider’s chronicle of people, places and events that changed India, from the heady 1950s to present day. Any narrative that encompasses a refusal from Jawaharlal Nehru (Bose wanted him to talk to Delhi University students; but when Nehru heard there would be only 100 gathered, he said sweetly, “No luck, young man”) as well as an invitation that originated more than 50 years later by a former colleague named Manmohan Singh merits attention.

A member of several government commissions on population, an international expert on the subject and the author and editor of more than 25 books, Bose’s memories are sharp, his tone sharper. He recounts conversations with the Maharaja of Kolhapur (where he grew up), Indira Gandhi, Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi, JRD Tata, sundry godmen and the party-happy Imelda Marcos, wife of the former Philipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. He calls Indira a “benevolent despot” and reserves his acerbic best for her son Sanjay. “The Emergency was a big, blundering, bullying bluff, sustained by Indira’s attempts at political survival, a servile spineless bureaucracy, and the hoodlum tactics of Sanjay Gandhi and his sycophants,” says Bose, who correctly read his fieldwork among rural populations terrorised into castration and sterilisation that Indira would be booted out of office.

Headcount often swings wildly between decades and personalities. But Bose’s chatty, even staccato, style is endearing because he is an old-fashioned raconteur. You can imagine him sitting opposite you, whisky in hand, letting his life pour out.

His conversational style extends to his experiences counting Indians. In 1957, that wasn’t an easy job. It still isn’t. To the seemingly simple question: ‘How many children do you have?’ Bose found multiple responses. Some counted the children of every brother in the household. Some counted only unmarried daughters (because married daughters ‘belonged’ to other families). Some counted only sons (because the unmarried daughters would ‘belong’ to someone else anyway after marriage).

The best of his memories come from official conversations and parties. At one tea party, says Bose, he was introduced to a man who appeared to be “pandering” to Maneka Gandhi’s mother, Mrs Anand. Bose mistook the man for a proofreader on Maneka’s magazine, Surya India, and told him: “I hope... there are no howlers.” The man turned out to be Navin Chawla, then special assistant to the deputy commissioner of Delhi and today India’s election commissioner.

There are boring bits, mostly intricacies about attending international conferences and drafting papers. But you can skip those. Grab a drink and join one of India’s most important social scientists on his engaging, often laconic and always humourous journey into emerging India.