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Engaging the mind and the heart

Udayan Mukherjee is the winner of the Valley of Words/Shabdavali 2023 Book Award for his novel No Way In, adjudged the best work of fiction published in 2022. The Jury was chaired by Professor Satish Aikant.
No Way In is an important and evocative novel, written with passion, about the challenges of rising inequality in India today, which are compounded by the astonishing indifference of people of privilege to pervasive injustice and suffering around them, and the wide sway of prejudice in the middle classes against vulnerable groups. Udayan gives us a story of disenfranchisement and exclusion in the midst of plenty, and the studied indifferences of India’s elite to the underprivileged.
It is also a story of the searing communal violence that periodically erupts in some parts of India taking its toll on the lives of those without any defence.  When Sabita, the protagonist of the novel, is caught up in a riot that breaks out in the north east India she and her son Dinu survive on the benevolence of Ila an upper-class woman with liberal views. Yet her destiny remains precarious and the novel ends on an uncertain note. Benevolence can also be paternalistic reinforcing social hierarchies.
Unfortunately, ‘inequality without outrage’ has become a defining feature of Indian society. Various forms of discrimination and injustice result from the absence of empathy for those without the advantages of birth and social status. What is most distressing about the Indian society today is the erosion in the propensity for sympathy which principally gives rise to the vast inequities which afflict India. No Way In offers a sobering checklist of all the things we must collectively get right of if India is to become the promised land that was envisioned in the foundational document of the republic guaranteeing freedom and dignity, in equal measure, to all its citizens.
Empathy requires both a leap of imagination to see how the other feels and solidarities of feeling. It has both a cognitive and affective element: it engages both the mind and the heart. It is outside the normative framework of politics which undervalues difference and fosters indifference. One may often encounter the ‘equality paradox’ – We don’t care because we are unequal, and because we don’t care inequality will persist. With a pronounced  rightward turn in Indian politics, minority communities in particular are under constant threat and their very status as citizens is in question as a belligerent, monolithic idea of the nation takes the place of an inclusive, tolerant one.
Social inequalities can severely undermine democratic practice even when democratic institutions are in place. Social exclusion becomes institutionalised form of social distancing affecting the sense of self-worth and the sense of agency of those who are on the margins. Reducing the asymmetries of power associated with social inequalities is one of the central challenges of democratic practice in every democratic country in the world. That challenge is particularly demanding in India, given its historical economic and social baggage. Yet there are also stories of survival, extraordinary courage and individual compassion that provide glimmers of hope.
Udayan Mukherjee is best known for the pioneering role he played in introducing financial broadcasting to India. A student of economics from Presidency College, Kolkata and Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he was the face of the Indian financial markets for two decades as the Managing Editor of the country’s most popular business TV channel, CNBC. He has also been a popular columnist for the Indian Express, Hindustan Times and India Today, and was awarded the prestigious Ramnath Goenka Award for Journalist of the year in 2012. At the age of 40, he quit his day job as a TV anchor/editor and relocated to the Himalayan village of Satoli in Kumaon, where he has a home and spends part of the year. He wrote his first novel Dark Circles, published by Bloomsbury India in 2018. Since then he has penned a collection of short stories titled Essential Items (Bloomsbury) and a crime novel featuring the Parsi detective Neville Wadia called A Death in the Himalayas (Picador India). No Way In is his fourth novel. He divides his time between London and India.
The writer is former Professor and Head of the Department of English, H.N.B. Garhwal University