Rukmini S: ‘Women are socialised into thinking that math is not for them’

Updated on Nov 15, 2022 04:38 PM IST

The winner of the Tata Literature Live! First Book award, who has also been nominated for the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize 2022, talks about befriending data

Author Rukmini S (Courtesy Westland) PREMIUM
Author Rukmini S (Courtesy Westland)
ByChintan Girish Modi

What is the story behind this striking title – Whole Numbers and Half Truths?

It was actually the first and only title I thought of! I suppose that indicates how neatly it captured the idea behind the book. The phrase “whole numbers” has long appealed to me because it has both a mathematical and a sort of philosophical meaning, and the addition of the phrase “half-truths” really helps tie my central argument together. The argument, of course, is that numbers tell us a lot about India but they can also leave out a lot or even mislead. I think that the title has been just as clear to readers. Another advantage is that when I am invited to give talks around the book, it offers a ready made title for the talk!

324pp, ₹699; Westland
324pp, ₹699; Westland

Why does data scare some people, and excite others? How did you befriend data?

That’s a great question! I think a lot of people’s fear about data has to do with the way many of us were taught mathematics – which is, not very well and without much creativity. This led many people to feel that they were not smart enough for scary math. I think that women and people from marginalised communities in particular are socialised into thinking that math is not for them. I really want to be part of changing that. Personally, I enjoyed math in school but struggled with calculus. I began to enjoy math again when I was introduced to statistics.

I always tell people – don’t be intimidated by data because if I, someone who did not study math or stats, can do it, so can you! I like to emphasise the logical aspects of data to help people befriend it, as you say. I also like to help people see how data enumerates the life that they see around them as well as the world that they want to understand. When people find data dense or boring, that I think is a failure of me and my profession, so I like to see it as an opportunity to do more and to do better.

What are some of the important things that you learnt while writing this book?

Here are a few things that I have learnt while writing the book – sticking to deadlines makes your life that much easier. Having a great agent makes your life that much easier. Trying not to be oversensitive during the editing process is hard but essential. Design is so important – independent illustrator Nithya Subramanian who designed the cover and the publisher Westland’s design head Saurabh Garge who led the art direction have contributed in no small part to its success! Lastly, marketing the book can be extremely enjoyable with a good publisher’s support, and talking to readers is the greatest reward.

In the acknowledgements, you mention that Pratap Bhanu Mehta encouraged you to write this book, and P Sainath was your “mentor and moral lode star.” Did this help you while writing, or did their high expectations add to your stress levels?

Starting with the knowledge that someone like Pratap believes in you gives you the self-confidence that you never knew you had. Being as generous with your time and support as he is, well, that is something that we should all do more of. Luckily, I did not struggle to write as the book was just pouring out of my fingertips!

LISTEN MORE: Rukmini S, author, Whole Numbers and Half Truths, talks about interpreting data to present a clear picture of contemporary India on the Books&Authors podcast.

Did you have an inkling that the book was going to be a success?

I didn’t really give much thought to how the book was going to do, but I did take on board the suggestions of people like Anish, Karthika, and Westland’s marketing lead Amrita Talwar to give it the best chance it had. I have been delighted by people who felt that the book challenged their assumptions. My favourite part is when people gift the books to their parents, children or partners – I love the feeling that this person wanted this book to be a gift, and it is a special joy to write those inscriptions!

Is your book being used in college and university classrooms? Any details to share?

As it happens, I am in Philadelphia at the moment, and I was recently talking to an undergraduate class at the University of Pennsylvania who have had the book as their main text this term. Whole Numbers and Half Truths is also being used in other journalism and social science programmes in India and overseas as well, which is a great honour.

Are there any plans to translate your book into other languages, or work on a version of it that is for young adults who are interested in data and the stories it can tell?

All I can say right now is – wait and watch!

Chintan Girish Modi is a freelance writer, journalist and book reviewer.

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