One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from the great Susan Sontag, who said, quote, A writer is someone who pays attention to the world stock, quote, Now, that may seem banal. Don't we all pay attention to the world? The truth is that we don't all of us tend to get drawn into a comfort zone, not just in terms of physical spaces, but also the mental maps we draw of the world, the frames of reference with which we see everything around us, even the universe of acceptable facts outside of which no facts matter.
This is why art is so important. It can take us outside of ourselves, even into someone else's head in someone else's life. This is also where journalism and narrative nonfiction are so important they can reveal a part of the world in such vivid detail that we come alive for a moment and see everything differently. This is why Tom Wolfe once said Good nonfiction is the most important literature to come out of the second half of the 20th century structured and in times which are so complex when they are surrounded by such simplistic narratives.
I would argue that we need nonfiction more than ever before to make sense of this world we live in.
Welcome to the Scene and The Unseen, our weekly podcast on economics, politics and behavioral science. Please welcome your host, Ahmed. Welcome to the scene of The Unseen. My guest today is someone Subramanian, a journalist whose narrative nonfiction has appeared in publications like The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Guardian, Wired, Harpers and many, many more. He's also the author of three acclaimed books, the most recent of which is a dominant character, The Radical Science and Restless Politics of Jesus.
Holding Someone is also a legendary Indian cuisine. And he used to be my colleague at cooking for around 17 years ago, which is so far back that if you wrote a book about it today, it would qualify as a book of history. I was eager to get him on the scene in The Unseen to talk about his new book, and I also wanted to chat with him about an art. He has mastered the art of narrative nonfiction. So this episode is therefore an episode of two halves.
The first is about writing and the second is about someone's book on JBS Haldane, which is a fascinating study of a great scientist and a flawed human being. Before we get to a conversation. Let's take a quick commercial break. If you enjoy listening to the scene on The Unseen, you can play a part in keeping the show alive. The scene in The Unseen has been a labor of love for me. I've enjoyed putting together many stimulating conversations, expanding my brain and my universe, and hopefully yours as well.
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Someone welcome to the scene and The Unseen, thanks so much. It's a pleasure to be here, Samantha. You know, before we get started and get to this book, let's talk a bit about sort of your personal life and your personal journey. You know, I've known you for a long time. We've got, of course, colleagues at work and food. And so I've known you as a wizard, as a writer and as someone who's always also, very interestingly, thinking at a metal level about these things and writing about them as well.
Tell me a bit about how you grew up. How did you become. Were you a voracious reader? What were your early influences like?
I think I was always a reader. I mean, I started to remember the first sort of book of, quote unquote, serious literature that I read was Smith journalist by p.g what I was. But somebody gave me back in the day very sort of prophetically, I guess. And I was you know, until then I'd been reading comic books and adventure novels like The Hardy Boys. And this gave me a taste of what a real book could do and what real language could do.
And I think that sort of hooked me. And so throughout my childhood, that was what I did. You know, I was not a very sporty kid. I was asthmatic. And so there was not a lot of activities I could pursue outside. And so I would stay indoors and read. And I think my quizzing sort of came out of that, because when I read, I found that I was reasonably good at reading what I read. But more importantly, I used to like read across Arizona's across topics, not just fiction at the time, but non-fiction of all kinds.
And I would even sort of, as the cliche goes, read the newspaper packets in which the roasted peanuts were sold when they were sold to you. I mean, it was that kind of reader. And the cuisine, I think, started when I was in school and I just sort of never giving it up. I think I started on the ninth grade in Chennai where I was living at the time. And it was just it was such a sort of good community of people and such an interactive activity at the time that I just I decided I just wanted to do this on the back.
Let's kind of talk a bit about what you wrote. This piece in The Guardian, which was a link from the show, notes, where at one point you said, quote, Whatever I'm doing at any point of the day is probably safe to assume that I would rather be quizzing Stockwood. And at another point to say, you drink to forget, you remember. And, you know, one of the things I was struck by was how you refer to a friend of yours calling, quizzing, act particular.
You know, don't Bistro's used to talk about how different small ideas can be mixed and bring about something new, which seems to me to be both sort of a team of, you know, a guiding philosophy of Haldane himself. And you get to the book shortly, but also something that also seems to drive you in the sense that the subjects that you've written on are very eclectic and varied. And it seems that even when you wrote about cricket, for example, you brought a lens to it, which was not necessarily of cricket.
You've spoken about how, you know, when you wrote about cricket, you looked at it as a metaphor for a bigger thing. So it's almost, you know, as I said earlier, that you're kind of stepping back from every subject you're writing about and you're applying all of these different things. Is that how you see yourself as well? And is that part of what makes you a very good wizard? And then what drives you writing that it's not just a subject you're writing about, you're bringing everything to the table?
Well, that's an interesting question. OK, so there's two things here, and I think we can. One is just what you might call in whatever limited form. It is my philosophy of writing modern journalism. And we can come to that later because maybe there's more to be said about that. But the second is, just as you put it, is this some kind of magpie like obsession and fascination with small, interesting things and then also sort of a curiosity to see what all those things build into?
You know, I think a lot of this comes from people that you and I would both have read when we were growing up. You know, for example, in the nineties, still, for a lot of people, the archetypal cadres and cadres famously was a music critic for The Manchester Guardian, even as he was a cricket writer. And he brought that same approach to his cricket fighting. In my opinion, he brought a knowledge of the world with him when he went into the stadium to watch.
And it was not just a question of analysing the game for its own sake, but a question of drawing bigger themes out of it. I think that is interesting to me because once you have perfected, it's too strong a word, but once you become addicted to that approach, you can then apply it to anything. You can kind of read and write about science and you can draw these themes out. You can look at sport. You can look at art and culture.
It's all in the process itself, the process of viewing, of regarding these subjects as an outsider. And the thing is that we will always be an outsider. You know, I mean, that is in cricket writing, for example, there is always the eternal conundrum of why people who are not able to play our games under some delivery should be writing about how this batsman out in the cricket field should be doing that. We are not able to do it.
Why should we comment on it? And I know a number of cricketers who have held this view in the past, but I think, you know. To bring this particular philosophy of viewing and regarding and analyzing to bear is to privilege that outsider ness to a certain extent and to privilege what the outsider brings in by way of insight and perception. So I think that's where all of this comes from. And Nikolaj is a part of that. I mean, the quizzing is a part of that in the sense that you are reading about and learning about second hand or even third hand, a lot of these topics.
But in your own particular way, they somehow add up into something, you know, a larger answer. Or if you're setting a question, a larger question, which is interesting in its own right in that particular moment.
So I have a couple of larger questions relating to what you just said, but a couple of mundane things that I'm genuinely curious about that, you know, for the benefit of my listeners, I'd tell them that, you know, when someone that I have a colleague that we can for long ago and I hadn't heard of, it was improvised at the time. To me, he was just another young colleague. And there was a phrase we heard about in Ireland, of all places, and our office was inundated and we said, let's go and take part.
So we went as a team in this Riquetti or all the way to Malone and to myself. Basically what happened in the quiz was someone to answer every single question and just it on his own. And everybody else, including me, was a spectator. After which, you know, I think one a.m. the audience came to you and said, are you that guy from Chennai who wears a cap backwards? And then turned out that you were a legend and that was like an iconic image of you with that cap backwards and all that?
To the mundane questions I sort of want to get out is regarding your reading habits and be the new retention habits, because obviously, you know, all regular quizzes in the circuit that you are part of. And I was very briefly part of not good enough to stay there for a while. All of us look askance at the notion that quizzes are just memorizing stuff and memorizing facts. So there is an element of that. You wrote in your Guardian piece about how bad Gibson keeps Excel files and you know, he'll have across categories of different sizes and up to a hundred bucks a day.
But, you know, most quizzes when the quiz is like a deductive process, you're bringing all your knowledge to that and you're really working out problems as such. So my sort of two part question is that what was the process of retention like barring the fact that you read very widely, did you also have to make specific efforts to make sure you remembered or categorized information? And apart from that, what was your reading like and what is your reading like?
How much would you read? How would you pick what you read?
There's a cultural difference, actually, which is quite interesting, and I didn't have time to get into it my Guardian piece. But it might be interesting for our listeners here, which is that in the US and in the UK, quizzing is is about memorization and memory and retention to a far greater extent that it isn't so bad. Gibsons of the world, when they compete to compete in something like the World Quizzing Championship, a lot of their prowess comes from having created these databases and these lists of facts which they then revise almost.
It's very much a student like activity over here. It's not like that in India, I feel. I mean, India is my big theory about this is that Indian cuisine has grown up as a reaction to Indian education because Indian education is already so steeped in rote learning and memorization that Indian cuisine is like some form of lateral thinking exercise that has grown up as a reaction to that. And so in India, cuisine revolves largely around what you might call the interesting bit of trivia, the piece of information that sits at slightly odd angles to the rest of the world.
And just because of that, you remember it as soon as you read it. I mean, it's just it's not an effort to memorize it in any particular way. And so I think I have never and I know a number of my friends and colleagues in the world have never gone in for the pure attention exercise. I mean, the truth is definitely that we all have possibly quite good memories. And we will remember a lot of what we did because we read widely.
We tend to just remember a lot of those things. But that's never the it is the basis. But that is never the key. The key to unlock a lot of these baroque Indian quiz questions is a particular kind of lateral thinking that kicks in depending on the framing of the question and these facts that, as I said, slip at slightly older than most of the rest of the world. So that is a charm of Indian cuisine, I feel.
And so retention is important, but secondary in my opinion, in terms of my reading itself, has tended to vary over the years as all of us have experienced. You know, I used to read a lot more fiction than I do now. To my regret, I went through a phase, I think, about five or six years ago when I realized, you know, I kind of look back upon my calendar year and I realized I had just not read that many books.
And this was, of course, again, something we've all experienced, the profusion of the Internet and various other things. And I was reading and I continue to read a lot of magazine pieces because of my own work. And so that takes out a lot of my reading time. And so I decided I would make a conscious effort to read more books for one year. I set a target of a book a week, at least read more challenging books.
I felt that habit. Had gone out of the window to sort of read books that maybe you have to read passages two or three times to get the import of that. So I started doing that and it's gone reasonably well. Some months are better than others. You read a lot of work anyway. So sometimes at the end of the day, the last thing you want to do is take up yet another book. But the range is there. Fortunately, and partly this is because of the eclectic range of topics that I work on for my journalism.
So you tend to read across subjects anyway, but then also my own interests just lie in different fields. So I will look at book reviews and try to figure out what is new and interesting that I might pick up. So right now, for example, I'm reading this book by the philosopher Daniel Dennett called Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which is an extremely dense and very, very rigorously piece of writing about how the idea of natural selection, Darwin's idea of natural selection in the world, but also sort of white, was dangerous in the sense of how it upset a lot of preconceived notions about the world and how those preconceived notions were put in place by the power structures that were around in the 19th century.
And so how it was, quote unquote, dangerous to all of these power structures. But it goes far beyond that. I mean, he goes into computer science and algorithms and he goes into systems and how systems and processes work. It's very much a magpie like approach to evolution and natural selection, which is why I was attracted to the book when I first read about it. And it's definitely one of those extremely difficult books because you have to kind of immerse yourself in it for a month or two to get a sense of it.
And so obviously, in the middle of all of that, I will sometimes read, as I did this time, detective stories. I had a perfect autobiographical thing which I've been meaning to get to for a long time. So it's it's as I said, it's varied and weird and quite whimsical.
But the rate of intelligence a few years ago and love as well as consciousness evolved, which is another book by him, which is sort of sitting right here very rewarding. I just realized, you know, one thing that kind of resuscitated my own reading habit was that when I started doing the podcast, I had to read a lot for research on multiple books for a particular episode, and then just a practice of reading so many books for work also makes it easier to read it for leisure.
And I guess that's the case with you also, as you said. But that strikes me. And this is something that came up in the last episode I recorded with Russ Roberts of Corn Dog Fame as well, you know, is how much the technology around us and the gadgets around us can change who we are as a people by changing our experience of how we imbibe knowledge, like back in the day. If you're reading a book, you're taking a book, you're sitting down with it.
And there isn't that much distracting you relatively. I mean, those lack of distractions also indicate life for somebody because it was so popular in India. But today we're sort of surrounded by distractions. And all these distractions inevitably mean is that we are constantly in a state of shallow scheming, that we rarely have the time and the attentional bandwidth to be able to immerse ourselves in something. So a lot of people like I find that when I'm not actually sitting and reading a book, I'm not reading anything, you know, longish stuff on the Internet or whatever.
You know, it's just you're on social media, you're choosing different dopamine rushes between notifications of Facebook likes and how you discover content is your following links from here and there. And if you want to know something about a subject, you'll do a quick Google search and you might read a couple of articles in the Wikipedia page. But it's all incredibly shallow. And because the knowledge that we consume and which is our learning, therefore, is what shapes us as people would see.
Either of us have been growing up to be different people. If we were kids today, I don't know. I mean, I'm just kind of thinking aloud. Yeah.
And I always say the guy who has a lot to answer for in the history of technology is a guy who invented the shortcut, has basically kind of completely destroyed us in that single stroke. I don't know. I mean, it's interesting because 2011, we look at kids who grew up today. We'll see the kind of work that they do, I mean, in the sense of more creative work, because creative work, I think, requires some sort of sustained attention to what you're doing, but also other forms of work.
And maybe there's a you, for example, have been writing and thinking about technology a lot. And creativity is quite ripe for our age. I mean, it's that short attention span. But how creative you can be within those confines is something that I guess we will only find out once all of this has reached a certain kind of fruition and maturity and we can look back upon it and assess it on its own terms. I mean, right now is mostly a diversion, sometimes a Chinese security threat, but not yet kind of full fledged creative form in its own right.
I mean, we'll have to see what kind of creative fruit does best know.
I'm a big fan, of course. What all of the shallow so could also indicate is it would enable a different kind of regulation. But to sort of get back to a couple of questions I had from what you said earlier, one is, you know, you often looked at cricket as a metaphor for other things if you're writing. About Subject X, you'll also bring to bear upon it a larger view of the world and of society and all of those things, and it strikes me that there is also a danger in that.
For example, you've also spoken about how I mean, all writers will speak about how you want to avoid cliched language. You also said you want to avoid cliched ideas, and that's also important. And that's something that you're conscious of. And it strikes me that the danger of sort of, you know, having these different lenses through which you look at the world and applying it to different things. The danger can also be that, you know, you have a bunch of hamos and you apply one of them to every nail.
And you're not kind of going beyond that. I mean, just as an example, thinking aloud, you know, if you look at something like the IPL, for example, depending on your ideology, you can come to the IPL either from a point of view of all this capitalist greed. And this is a corruption of what the spirit of the game is all about. And you no longer cricket reveals character and blah, blah, blah, and you can bemoan the commercialization if you come from another ideological lens and you can talk about that.
No, it empowers so many people and expands the reach of the game. And look, escort women viewing the game and so many more cricketers make money from the game and the incentives for it's coming into the game have changed for the better. And all of those things and danger there is that, you know, whatever lens you bring to bear, it expands your view because you're obviously not just looking at, you know, the sport alone or IPL alone.
You're bringing other things to bear on it. But it can also constrict your view because it is a particular lens. And I'm assuming that as someone who's sort of taken a mature approach where you you know, you don't just write what you think about writing at a broader level. Is this something that you've thought about? And is this something that you have to watch out for in yourself? Am I going into a particular lens with a preconceived narrative? And to what extent is it necessary and to what extent we do need to watch out for the fundamental truth is that I think everybody goes into everything with a preconceived lens.
We all know this already, and so there is no such. The myth of the objective journalist has long been shattered and replaced by hopefully the myth of the fair and balanced journalist. But this would be a problem, I think, if I was an opinion writer. I think if I was commenting on things and doing nothing but that it would be a very difficult thing because you would, as you say, only have a limited set of hamos that you would bring to bear on everything that came before you as a journalist.
I feel there is a deeper Riggo, which is quite enjoyable, which is that whatever lens or ideology it is that you've been covered on something, it is your responsibility to go out and find, quote unquote proof of that. You have to illustrate. You have to show, for example, how the IPL has empower people who are empowered, what their stories are, what are these stories of empowerment? Where do they come from and where they come to?
If you think the IPL is a machine for corruption, you have to show how it is a machine for corruption, what kind of hyper capitalist excesses it indulges in and how it's distorting the game. I find that there is where the power lies in the kind of work that I and many others like to do, which is that it is not only a question of selling, it is a question of showing. And it is not only a question of postulating, it is a question of then going out in some limited way and proving.
And that is also where I can indulge my absolute love for narrative. I mean, just the fact that you can tell a story. And through that story, these teams can sometimes even be implicit. You don't even need to sort of explicitly make them feel the way an opinion writer might do. This is also, by the way, why I have a huge amount of respect for people who write opinions on a daily or weekly basis, people like you and me and Sharma and many others, people who are able to somehow sort of bring a certain freshness to each column and not make it seem as if it is all a question of just looking at the world to these set of lenses.
I'm unable to do that for some reason. I think it's because I perhaps I don't have as many opinions as I would like. They are not as fleshed out as I would like, but fortunately my job gives me the liberty to to feed my opinions and nurture them and nourish them by going out and doing this kind of reporting. And that is something that I think that I sort of transmit to the reader. So there are a few cases in which I have gone into a story, not at least in my view, not having a particularly strong opinion on it and coming out of it with a particularly strong view.
There are many other instances where, as you say, I've gone in knowing what I think and kind of looking at narratives that I think that larger truths, you know, and in fact, I must start disappointed.
I found all your journalism and your book on how to do in an already extremely fair and balanced model of how journalism should be done. But it also strikes me like you illustrated with the kind of questions that you brought up, that different people chasing that idea story from different angles might ask that, you know, the fact is that you can actually write their stories from both points of view. You can find evidence of the grand corruption, you know, the degrading of the skills in the game, all of which will be true.
But you can also find evidence of. Empowerment and all of that. And to some extent, the choice of what material you get or what angle you take, what questions you ask and who you ask those questions to also kind of shape some peace. But I guess you sort of already answered that. But, you know, for those of my listeners who might wonder, like, of course, no one is subjective. You all bring your own bags of biases to bear on anything that we do.
But given that you made a distinction between objective on the one hand and fair and balanced on the other hand, so can you define fair and balanced a little bit? You know, that's a good question.
I mean, because even that is actually there's a lot of talk about what it means to balance the story these days. So in my view, fair and balanced is not so much a question of what the output looks like as what the procedural aspect of journalism is. So, for example, if X has said something about why it is my responsibility as far as it is possible to go away and ask him or her what they think about this and whether they would like to say something in return.
Now, this you know, this applies very much in the case of these cases where, you know, it is about people talking about each other, which happens quite often in journalism. The bigger debate in journalism that has come up now about balance is when you are tackling things like climate change. That is a huge resistance now to the fact that you have to be balanced when you are presenting a new set of climate change data. You have to also necessarily include on your panel of experts on TV or in your story as a talking head, somebody who is a climate change denier.
That kind of balance, I think, is is not what I'm talking about. And it's something that we have increasingly come to learn is is fruitless. I mean, if there are ninety nine point five percent of scientists out there who think that climate change is real, it is not incumbent upon you to seek out the other point five percent and ask them and include their views just for the sake of, quote unquote, balance. I don't think that's the kind of balance we're talking about.
Fairness is probably a better word for it, because then there is a responsibility that comes upon the journalist to decide what is fairness is subjective. Again, everything is subjective. Fairness also is and you have to decide whether if somebody has said something about a topic, whether there is a value to be added to the story or truth to be gained about the story by talking to people from the other side, I think that is so. It's a procedural thing that we wrestle with on a Day-To-Day basis.
As your reporting the story itself, the output may or may not reflect. And this is where this whole notion of journalists being gatekeepers of these kind of narratives comes into play, because as a journalist, you are actually deciding well before the story is out what is important and what is not, what truth is better reflected by what kind of writing and what kind of quotes that you include. But that is the job, I mean. And so you have to unfortunately hope that readers report a certain amount of trust in you and in the institution to be able to discern all these various aspects of truth and fairness and objectivity and balance.
Fair point. Another example of, for example, the surveillance used to be, you know, in a subject that you've written about is when people used to insist that if you're talking to someone who believes in natural selection, you also must have an intelligent design guy, thereby implying that equivalence and that kind of balances. I mean, just nonsensical. Tell me a little bit about your process of writing nonfiction. And even before that, like, of course, you went to the U.S. in the late 90s to study journalism and then you went again to Columbia to study yourself to your for Streambed.
But before that, what shape your ideas of what narrative nonfiction work? Because I remember, you know, growing up in India, as I did in the 80s and the 90s, you didn't really unless you were very privileged to. I have to accept. I was you didn't really get to read much great writing of the sort you had access to a whole bunch of great books would be Internet. You didn't really have access to great long form journalism.
What was that process like of discovering what journalism can do? And, you know, is your desire to be the writer of narrative nonfiction something that happened gradually? Or did you know early on that that's the kind of thing you want to know?
I had no idea. You know, like many other people, I think growing up in India in the 90s, I had no exposure to any of these great writers and magazines that published narrative journalism. I think, you know, when I went to study journalism and after I came back for a long time, my idea of what I wanted to do, what kind of journalism I want to do was driven very much by language. And we go back again to the books that maybe all of us read in the 80s, in the 90s growing up, you know, books where we came to admire literary style, a certain kind of literary style.
For me, that was sort of the driver of of good writing itself and that was the pillar of it. And so this was one of the reasons why I got into cricket writing, for example, because I thought cricket was the. That would allow a certain literarian us to flourish. I didn't realize at the time that the era when you could be literally in your pocket fighting at long past for the most part, and that there was a lot more sort of Day-To-Day journalistic rigor and stripped away language that went into effect in the early 2000s.
But I thought at the time that that is what I wanted to do. And then I tried a number of other things, you know, after I quit Crick and for I was a film critic for a little while. And again, I thought that that was a way in which I could indulge my love of the language itself. I would write features for newspapers. I would write travel pieces. But all of these were still sort of what you might call a medium form journalism, maybe thousand fifteen hundred words at the most.
And then I think in this must have been around 2003 or 2004, which is when you must also remember that The New Yorker famously decided that they would sell 80 years of archival issues on a set of DVDs. And I splashed out from one of those DVDs and they arrived by courier to my house in Chennai. And I just started sort of picking articles and writers at random and reading off those DVDs. And I would simultaneously also read on these new websites that were springing up, Slate and Salon, all of these websites that were doing longer journalism.
I think even The New Yorker at the time had started to have a website where they put the entire issue online. So anyway, so I would read all of this stuff and I was entranced by this because I think I felt it was a perfect marriage of all of these things that I love, which is that a writer was not necessarily wedded to one big story after story. There was a certain flexibility of structure, stories of different functions. They went into elements like character and plot and scene.
And importantly for me at least, is that there was a certain encouragement of imaginative language, literary language. When I read those stories, I think I felt as if I had finally found a form in which I could which I wanted to occupy. Now, from doing that to actually occupying it, it was like a completely different ballgame altogether, involving a lot of luck. But I think that was when I think was around 2004, 2005, when I read these articles on these DVDs that I decided that if I wanted, you know, for me at least the ideal kind of journalistic work that I wanted to pursue was that I think also I think this is a huge confession, but it also just suited my own metabolism of, look, I had tried and completely failed at.
Doing big journalism, that requires you to sort of pursue the same topic day after day and write stories almost day after day. Each story is sort of an expansion of the previous one, each story running its own 500 or 600 words I found. I didn't enjoy it. I wasn't cut out for it. The inherent problem is laziness, as it always is with me. And so therefore this with this piece on these kind of pieces, I felt that I had time, sometimes months, to think and to read and maybe sometimes not to think about it, to put it away for a while and come back before I started writing it.
So what I realized all of these things, I think maybe that is around the time that I decided this is the kind of work I wanted to do.
So, you know, before we continue with the process of a brief digression, something, I wonder what your thoughts are. I mean, you're a little younger than me, but we grew up around the same time. I think you're four or five years younger than me, perhaps, you know, so I teach this writing course online and, you know, one of the sort of bad habits I warned my students again, which is something that Indians especially seem to have internalized in their writing, is the use of these pompous phrases like instead of stock, they'll be like put an end to and instead of now, they'll be like at this moment in time and always a use of, you know, bigger Latinate words with shorter Anglo-Saxon words will do so, you know, like in a world of rectify or even technical language like that.
At one point it struck me as I was seeing that one, I have a feeling that this is more commonplace in India than elsewhere. But two, I think one reason for that that I have speculated and I wonder what your views are, is that part of it is because we carry this postcolonial baggage, that English is a marker of class and therefore one way of signaling how sophisticated you are or where you stand in society is somehow showing, you know, quote unquote good English.
And that includes using bigger words and, you know, the mastery of phrases like this, a mastery of cliches like, you know, when we were both be good writers in the early 2000s, one of the things that struck me was that a lot of the old cricket writers were ordered mastery of cliches as a badge of pride. It was a feature, not a book. It was a good thing to have a cliche for every occasion. And so question number one, do you think that's kind of true?
And question number two, is there something that in your own writing, did you see an evolution of the sort of writing which was I mean, on the one hand, of course, we were reading great books and reading great writers from abroad, but on the other hand, we were surrounded by the sort of language around us and in our newspapers. Is that something you have to consciously think about and fight against? Did your style evolve in a meaningful way or did it sort of organically, just through reading good writing become what it is?
No, I think you're definitely right. In addition to the marker of class aspect that you mentioned, I think that is also the question of, you know, the sort of language which we in India received a lot of what you might call literature. And so I think in the 80s and 90s, we were not yet at least I mean, not a lot of us. At any rate, we were not reading the kind of stripped away new journalism kind of thing.
I mean, you would read some Hemingway, but you would also often read a lot of 19th century British literature and British literature was flooded and it was ornate. And so you would read that and you would kind of internalize those words and think that they were just to be used in everyday writing, not realizing that time had, in a sense, but even in Britain. And so I think that was one of the key drivers of this, the kind of literature you read growing up in school as part of your detailed exercises or whatever was all sort of from a particular set in stone.
It was frozen in time. And you internalize that in your classroom and then you move out and you continue to think that that is a matter of good writing. And of course, we all know that Indian bureaucrats, for example, still use a lot of pompous, obfuscatory jargon. So you see that kind of stuff in government documents and releases. And that then makes its way into the newspapers and in the newspapers well, for a long time, produce for the usage of government as well.
And so you it was this all around you at that time and there was no Internet to update you on how people were writing at this particular moment in time in the 90s. So that was definitely again, this is a question purely of privilege and nothing else.
The fact that I was able to go away just after school for university to study journalism and be exposed at what was still quite a formative age to people, consider good writing and what is actually, I think, in my view, good writing, which is to strip away a lot of the the form around language.
I still haven't done it to the extent that I think a lot of my colleagues do. I still do like a certain element of play in language, a certain inventiveness. I will sometimes sort of use uncommon synonym for a common word if I think it fits into the rhythm of a sentence and if it fits into the context. But what a lot of this did and what reading a lot of this did forced me to actively, consciously, as you say, question how language works and when it is permissible or even desirable.
Use an uncommon synonym for a common word, as I said, Fructify may actually have a particular use and connotation in a particular sentence. It is just a question of knowing when that is and and knowing that those instances don't come by as often as you think they might.
So as you made this sort of shift towards you no longer writing, longer narrative nonfiction and you in fact say that your comfort zone is in the seven to 8000 would be sort of what are the only memorable pieces that you remember and what are your learnings along the way that, you know, what would your process be like when you set out writing?
One of I mean, between my reading of these in my writing of these, I think that was like a good six year period before I began to work on my first piece. But I remember among the first ones, the first pieces I did, there were a lot of, you know, A.J. Liebling, who was a New Yorker writer, who wrote a lot of boxing on food and on the Second World War in France. Again, eclectic range of subjects.
I remember reading him and enjoying him thoroughly because I think he was he was sort of funny and irreverent when it came to two out of these three subjects. He was quite serious about boxing. And he was, again, hugely inventive with the language in a way that has gone away to a large extent in American journalism now, but was still back in the day in the nineteen thirties and forties, was still a feature of the journalism. And I loved reading him.
And I remember buying a compendium of his book of articles and devouring that. I remember reading a lot of Calvin Trillin, who was a food writer. I read a lot of Joan Didion essays from California. I mean, all of this stuff was introduced to me again in the early part of the 2000s by people who had gone to college with or people who had read these in the US and passed them on. To me, getting all of these I mean, I was just I would read them almost.
And this is, again, the sort of foundation of a particular kind of narrative journalism is that they should read almost like fiction. And so this is how I would read these pieces. I mean, they were almost sort of fictive in that effect. You could read them and not realize that you were reading nonfiction at all. And that appealed to me enormously. And so when it came time to write sort of my first piece, I think the first piece I would have written in this vein was profile of it more difficult than I think that was the first long piece I actively set out to do.
And all of that. I mean, I was just like, wait, it was like an explosion of desire to write these kind of pieces and all of these ideas and things I've been thinking about for the last six or seven or eight years. All sort of came out, I think, in that eight thousand word piece on Monday that came out.
And I think 2011, you know, one of the things that is sort of notable about the piece is, you know, which sort of mocked it out from the sort of stuff you would read in India that time is the accretion of details. You know, in your very first letter, you sort of put it deliberately and talking about how he's very first with SMIs. He has to think as fast as he types, which immediately gives you one little picture of the guy.
Then you talk about how he smokes a cigarette. So not just a he would smoke ceaselessly, but even the show, if you would begin a cigarette, go a couple of things and then throw it away as if you know all of that. So when you write a story like if we talk about process now and you begin work on a story like, I'm guessing there are two sort of distinct phases. And one is where you conceptualize the story and you start getting the material together and the other would be when you actually sit down and write.
So at the stage, when you start getting the material together, you know, what is your process like? Because I'm guessing here you see, it seems as if you have to be simultaneously mindful of two different kinds of narrative elements. One is the key narrative of what is happening and what people have done and all of that. And the other is you're also looking for these rich, vivid details which can then make that work, you know, shine in a novelistic way, sort of to say, so how do you think about it?
How do you go about it? You know, how do you take notes? I'm just very curious about that process.
Yeah. I mean, I feel like all of this has changed over time for me also. I mean, the way I do it now is that there's three phases, actually. There's sort of once the story has been pitched and accepted, we can get to pitching and accepting letters. That's kind of interesting. But once it's been accepted, I then set out to do a whole bunch of reading that I never used to happen before. I would just go out and start reporting immediately because I thought that's what John listed.
Now, I think, like I I buy a couple of books. I go online and read everything that has already been written. I'm midway through researching a profile now and I had to read three books. Two of them were memoirs written by this guy before I even thought. It is important when you go into that world to be as prepared as you can be, which is not something I talked much about earlier. And the second thing is, of course, this whole roster of interviews, the more the better for I think I had like 30 or 40 interviews.
And it is difficult. It is surprisingly difficult to get people to describe. I don't know what your experience has been with this, but when I you know, when you ask them to describe a room, when you ask them to describe a. Utzon's habits, when you ask them to describe what it is like to be around someone, to be in a particular place, I don't know whether it is it's it's just that we have not learned to do this as much as we should or whether we don't pay attention to these details or whether we think they are not important when they tell the story of somebody like Lalit Modi, it's more important to focus on his achievements, on his character.
So it was you know, it's it's an enormous sort of challenge to grow this out of people. I mean, there are some Americans for some reason to do this much better than anyone else in the world. I mean, they are immediately thinking in terms of almost cinematic, though, they will tell you sort of even if you want them to talk about the team and their work, they will tell that you they will dedicate it to you in a story like fashion.
It's uncanny, almost uniformly. And no one else in the world, no other culture in the world sort of manages to do that. So in my opinion, what has usually work is that you start off by allowing them to talk about what they want to talk about, which is sort of how they built the IPL. Well, first he did this and then he does all of these details. And you allowed them to get that out of the system almost.
And then you keep asking again. And at that point, having run out of things to say about his work, they will then automatically reach for other things, the kind of detail of the scenes that I want them to talk about, the personal ethics and habits that make this guy go.
How do you get the security detail to how he smokes? How did you get those details?
I can't for the life of me, remember? But I think I mean, I will just ask. I think that was part of a larger question that I asked about what he would do at the stadium. What was it like to be at the stadium? And I think that is where well, I can't remember who it was, but was telling me about how he would sort of constantly just be looking around him. He would kind of be trying to direct all these operations at the same time, he would drop into the celeb boxes and talk to them over there and smoke a cigarette.
And so it sounded to me like he was just like really keyed up all the time. And I asked I remarked on this. And at that point, I think this person said, yeah, you know, I mean, you these cigarettes that he kept smoking, he would never finish them. You just sort of lost. We have a couple of drugs. That's how keyed up he was. So, I mean, that is the kind of thing that you want ideally these people to see.
And it's very difficult to get them to say. I have realised and this is interesting because I was thinking about this yesterday in the context of our upcoming interview, is that I realised that very often people think that these details bore the journalist because I was thinking more often. For example, when I I was thinking yesterday when I talked to Ahmet, what are the sort of things that he would even want to know about a journalist's process? I mean, it I sound immensely boring to the average listen up and possibly even comment, even though I'm into sort of a journalism self in a sense.
But like, why would he want to know about the process of writing? But then I realised this is exactly maybe this is the kind of process that goes through a person's mind, and maybe that's why they decide that these details are not important or or even to register. So you have to convince them that you are there, you have time for them. And every time they drop a morsel of detail, you pounce on it and show enthusiasm and say, yes, yes, I want more like this and slowly then these things.
So it's also very often it's a question of just getting to spend enough time with that person.
What are you useful way? Indians are also descriptive and Americans are, for example, it's not just Indians.
I mean, even India, as I find now. And I'm living in England. I mean, even people in England, it's very difficult to get them to describe with Americans. I don't know. I mean, I have a number of theories, all of which are completely sort of speculative. One is that they have grown up listening to talk radio and things like NPR and NPR does this kind of storytelling, oral storytelling and oral storytelling at such length that, you know, that you have to that this is the way to tell a story.
Maybe it's the influence of Hollywood where you think in sort of a cinematic way right from your childhood, there is just a certain kind of discussants about that conversation. Even on a Day-To-Day basis, when you're not interviewing anyone that I have not found anywhere else, it's quite remarkable. I would do I was a co-host for a time of this podcast called The Intersection, which is a science podcast. And the idea was to get scientists to tell stories, not just to describe their work and analyze their data for you on the podcast, but also talk about how they set about researching this and what kind of teams they're interested in and so on, and tell stories about their own lives.
And again, invariably, it was so difficult to get known American scientists. It's definitely there's an essay, British column in there somewhere for someone.
And at some point I it that's really fascinating. So when you gather material, are you also forming the narrative in your head or is that a process that comes later? You know, Joan Didion once said, quote, I don't know what I think until I write it down or stop it. And she would, I guess, perhaps have been speaking more in the context of personal essays and so on, where you're sort of working out your thoughts as you kind of get into those.
So what's that process like? Like, I imagine you get into a story fairly often. You have some notions of the angles you want to tackle, but when does it start? If I if I may use them, you it's completely appropriate. It's so you go into a story not with one of these big stories, you go not so much with angles as with what one of my editors like to call teams, which is that you have ostensibly one surface narrative, a surface story, but then you have three or four layers below that.
And obviously listeners can't see the thing I'm doing with my hands, but I'm kind of sandwiching them one below the other. But these layers that operate at a level below the main or the main story and those teams sort of weave in and out of the piece as you tell it. And I think the craft, the only craft worth talking about and writing long form journalism is how you weave the main plot and the teams in and out of each other.
That is basically the only thing you have to do when you sit down with it. And so when I go into a story, most often I know the team. Sometimes I discover new teams as they are coming up and as I'm interviewing people. And so I will kind of replace one with the other. But then I will essentially as as the reporting goes on and this is a matter of months in many cases, my reporting in my interviewing will get more and more pointed by reading, will get more and more pointed.
So I will stop seeking out some kind of social because I think they possibly can speak to the teams that I want to pursue. And I will look more for another time. My questions get more involved, more and more around these teams until I feel, as one does, a great piece of advice and a book on journalism called The New New Journalism. But somebody says you keep reporting until you see yourself coming the other way. By which I mean that the minute you know that you already have a more detailed answer in your mind to what this guy has just given you, you can kind of stop reporting at that point because you feel like maybe that is maybe you keep it going to get some more anecdotes and so on.
But basically the information that you have it all mostly there. But that takes a long time. You know, there's thousands and thousands of words of notes. I always these days record whatever I can I so that I can take notes about other teams, which includes follow up questions that have just stuck me or the scene that was setting in or whatever that might be or what this guy is like. And then I come back and and at that point is when you kind of sit down and you put a structure down and you kind of know I have a right now next to me, I actually have a legal pad on which I have a structure for this profile I'm writing.
And in the top right hand corner, I have teams and I have a list of four teams, which is Profile said of the guy who I am profiling. But then the second team is locked down over the last three or four months. Her team is fast bowling because of the profile of cricket on the team is longevity. So, you know, these kind of things that I want to pursue as ideas in the piece that go in and out of this story and then you structure it according to that, and you kind of keep wondering how you can bring these things to the surface occasionally.
Again, the thing with long form journalism also is that it isn't always a question of just saying this happened. And he said this and she said this and then this happened again. It is also sometimes a question of inserting in your own voice your own idea about what is happening. And so you need a definite take on some of these teams that they will then put in there at some point. And that's kind of the joy of it. It's an intensively subjective form.
It has never meant to be objective. In fact, the objectivity in long form journalism, I think would be sensible. The whole point is to have a narrative and the whole point is to have it be subjective.
That's quite fascinating. How is seen the writing process like you've gathered all the material the teams have sort of rectified as we've gone along and actually discipline yourself during the writing process? I think the key problem most writers find is discipline. And you've spoken about how, you know, without a deadline, you wouldn't get anything done. Having said that, you've written a bunch of books. So clearly you those have such concrete deadlines usually. So you've managed it.
But how do you kind of discipline yourself? You write first thing in the morning. What are the challenges you faced just in that process of getting things right?
Yeah, I mean, I write I write very slowly. If I write 500 words a day, I consider it a job well spent. I try as much as possible to write first thing in the morning. It doesn't always work out that way. Today, for example, we're doing our interview at six thirty in the morning, my time. So I only get to writing maybe later in the afternoon, but I try as much as possible when I'm working on something to do this.
Five hundred words editing. If I do six hundred, it's a bonus. The thing that was really difficult was when I was doing long form. I mean, it's easy to discipline yourself to that. I think the real difficulty came about when I was working on books in parallel with these pieces. I needed the pieces to make a living and I had to write the book because there was still a deadline for writing and I wanted to do it. And so that would involve writing five hundred words of the book in the morning and then setting that aside and then doing another five hundred words of whatever piece I was working on in the evening.
And that's quite exhausting. I mean, I think once you've done that for a year, by the end of the year, you are ready to take a few months off and not do anything. That was it.
I mean, I think I think with the journalism itself, once the structure is down and the structure is key, once you have the beginning and maybe the end, it's sort of it's. Tends to flow, I mean, and then you just kind of obsess over things like what word to use in the sentence and that kind of thing, you are free to then devote yourself to the party part of the writing process, which is just a selection of words and the rhythms of the sentence and how they sound.
So, you know, the final question before we get off the writing process and actually get to your wonderful new book is sort of you make a living doing long form journalism and doing journalism. And you write for The Guardian, The New Yorker. And all of these people know it's sort of a dual question one. And both parts of the question really relate to voice. One is that over time, have you developed a particular journalistic voice or is there something that shifts from piece to piece, depending on your writing on I mean, and someone pick up a piece and say only someone could have written this or that, this is so typical or can you switch depending on the needs of the subject?
That's part one and part two. And something that struck me because a decade and a half back, I used to write obits for The Wall Street Journal and a couple of others. And one of the things that struck me about writing for foreign publications is that the cultural difference between you and your editor also applies to how you look at your writing. So one thing, for example, that you have to do for those guys is that you need to explain things which the Indian reader would take for granted, and therefore you need to simplify slash dumbed down.
And that really became an irritating process, because if you're, for example, talking about the BJP, you don't always want to say from the Hindu Nationalist Party, which came to power in twenty fourteen.
That's amazing. That's always the example that I use also when I'm talking about how frustrating it is and how I never want to write another piece about Modi again, because you have to find some short, brief but effective way of talking about 2002. That is the most annoying. So there are many reasons why 2002 should not have happened. But one of the reasons is that you have to keep summarizing it in a sentence before moving on to what he is doing now.
A very specific answer to that.
It was also among the many other things that I did wrong. It was a boon for writers who occasionally write for foreign publications to complete the second. But the question then, how does that affect your voice and can that process get frustrating? Like do editors in these places, you know, are they trying to fit your piece into a particular kind of house style or their conception of how good we should be? Or, you know, a Kuzio, someone who's been writing for so many years and, you know, you're a trusted and recognized writer.
Do you get a certain amount of leeway with language and voice?
OK, the first part of your question was about voice across publications. And so it does change a lot. I mean, The New Yorker has a very distinctive style that very few people who write for the magazine and the website are allowed to break on a regular basis. I mean, first of all, New Yorker geeks who are listening to this, you know, Anthony Lane in the movie clearly has a very distinctive style, a writer like Nick Baumgarten, who writes quite often and has a very distinctive style.
But for many others, you would only have to you know, if you block out the byline and you read the rest of the piece, you would guess who wrote the piece only by what it deals with. So if it's a law piece, you know, it is written by Jeffrey Toobin. And, you know, if it's like a deep state piece, it's a Jane Mayer piece and so on. So I'm better's and it's a cultural thing also in the sense that.
So from The New York Times magazine is a little bit more flexible. Harpo's, the magazine is still more flexible. It's a cultural thing across the Atlantic that British publications allow you a lot more leeway and sort of playfulness with your language and your structure. But even in that, The Guardian long reads a little bit more American than, say, eighteen forty three, which is the features magazine of The Economist. So it varies from publication to publication, and you have to also impose your voice to suit the subject.
You know, a piece like quizzing piece, which is partly a personal essay, has a lot more flexible than a piece would be if it was about say, I mean, I wrote a piece on trade, which is for the body language, which is a very sort of intense, quite detailed subject about a particular kind of niche in the industry. And you have to there's very little flexibility over that. But the personal essays a lot more flexible.
And so so you do learn over time to critique each article according to who's publishing it and how and what it addresses. Now, having said that, there is still, I think, underlying all of that, that is still out. There should be a voice which is particular to me and unique to me. And I don't know whether it is a case that somebody will read a piece and know instinctively that it was written by me, that is, for readers to say in a sense.
But I think in my mind, at least what I set out writing a sentence for the most part, it is still the same kind of approach that I bring to it. And so I and the words that I use and the kind of structures that I use, for example, I use a lot of semicolons and dashes. That is just a linguistic kind of in my writing that never goes away or whatever I'm writing about. I love things like interleaving, dialogue between passages of text, you know, wherever that is possible, I will do it.
And so there are these things that make up I love extra sort of prose itself is such that, you know, it's almost like a visual thing on the page. When you're looking at the page, you don't necessarily just see three equally sized blocks of text. Big block, small blocks, just a stand alone court sometimes how much you use courts and where you squat. So all of this stuff is tailored to what I like to read and how I like to read.
And so therefore, I think it reflects in what you might call a voice. We were talking earlier. I think we put it off for a later part of the podcast, but this is probably a good time to bring it up, which is the whole philosophy behind this kind of journalism, at least for me, is you have a certain set of tools and you are like a handyman. You can go out and you can quote unquote, fix or address practically any topic out there.
Given that, you know, you have taught yourself how to read deeply and how to talk to people and know whom to interview and then what kind of questions to ask them and what kind of detail you want to put into your story. And then you have learned how to synthesize all of this and assimilate in your mind and then craft a story, a narrative. This is a limited like Liam Neeson. I have a small but limited set of goals, but they are effective.
And the philosophy is that you should be able to go out and apply this to any subject out there, whether or not you are a newcomer to that subject. And this is why I enjoy doing this kind of work which ranges across subject matter, both in my books and in journalism, because every time I do one more of these pieces, it kind of strengthens my belief that really the set of tools is immensely useful. And I love the I just adore the idea of being able to apply to anything in my world.
I think that's sort of the thing that keeps me going on a day to day.
Why did you call it a limited set of tools?
So why is it because the form itself, obviously, like every form, this form also has certain limitations. I mean, you know, for example, I'm not an imaginative person in the sense that a novelist is imaginative, you know, so I don't have a world building sense.
I have a world discovering that. And a lot of these set of rules is limited because they are quite functional tools. Also like how to structure a piece is like a very specific skill that you will use only in this field and nowhere else. So that's why I called it small and limited, but effective in this particular field, as I said, are functional things that maybe people outside this field would not even care or have heard about. But for some reason it finds its own intense utility.
So, you know, when I teach my writing class, I often sort of talk about the difference between strategy and tactics, where strategy is sort of the approach you bring to a particular piece of writing, or it could be your overarching writing philosophy and tactics, or, of course, all of these tools of the language, you know, the paragraphs and the punctuation and the if the ways in which you manipulate rhythm and the music of it and all of that, those are at the strategic level.
Obviously, part of your strategy would be dictated by what you're trying to do in a specific piece or you're writing it for and all of that. But another part could be sort of an overarching writing philosophy that you have set for yourself. Is there something like that that you use to guide what kind of writing you are going to do?
I mean, as far as possible, I think this this I have still not lost my fascination with making a piece of writing as effective as possible, by which I mean it still has the effect of fiction. It is, as I said, not always possible, but more possible with some pieces than with others. But insofar as it is possible, I want to give the reader an easy and organic reading experience in a lot of these long reads, these long form pieces.
Very often it is necessary to encapsulate a set of difficult ideas in prose that might be jargony because the nature of the subject is such. Although you try to mitigate that as much as possible, it is necessary. It could be abstract, maybe even sort of talk about ideologies in this weird abstract when a lot of people have no problem reading that. But I know a lot of people do. I for one, do. I mean, I am always much better when I'm reading things that are set in the concrete world that kind of have an underlying message or idea, rather than having those ideas expressed as sentences, you know, section set in words.
So this is one of the reasons why I find it really difficult to read lengthy political analysis that is completely divorced from what is actually happening in the real world. So in my mind, what I want to do is to avoid that as much as possible, to give the reader an easy way into a lot of this material. And that inevitably involves sort of doing things like presenting characters, setting scenes, having dialogue, almost sort of it's sort of a spoonful of sugar to make the rest of it go down more easily.
I think that is, more than anything else, the guiding philosophy for me. And it's again, it's determined entirely by what I find easy to read and difficult.
Yeah. I want to explore the use of your word, the like in presuming you can be one of a couple of things. One is that, like you just said, you make it more vivid so you avoid the abstract and you go for the concrete so you won't talk about, say, quote unquote, the great crisis of migrant labor having to work through highways. Instead, you know, you look for an image like a. A woman pulling a suitcase and her three year old child is on a diet, and you make that, that is one of the possible interpretations, I'm going from it.
And the other one is that you have people who believe, like in the novel, you would have sort of a universe of things and not just one narrative, but just one sort of linear narrative. And I guess long form non-fiction also gives you the scope to do that, to have these different layers, as you pointed out. So are these two things what you mean by this?
They are both. I mean, they both what I mean by fictive, you're right. I mean, to present somebody the essence of what it's like to read fiction, but to have it be fact, which involves sort of creating a little mini universe for the reader, populating with real people, with real settings, with real occurrences. One of my editors has a nice phrase, which is that over the long read, you should somehow be able to convey the passage of time in some sense or the other.
And that is important, I think, because I think people move through time, events happen over time. And so to even have that happen is a novelistic things, I think.
And this populating with real people thing, I think is something that is often and I mean, one of my editors in particular, I we have intense and enjoyable differences of opinion on how much a real person should be focused on as a person rather than as just as a vehicle or a carrier for ideas and themes. My own view always is that I think people read about people and they are interested in other people, and through that they will then assimilate in a much more effective way.
The things that you are trying to convey, what is his view is that that, you know, you should just sort of describe the person only insofar as it's necessary, but then to actually beyond that, just have him or her be a name that occurs in the rest of the piece as you are trying to explain something. So it's these philosophies are quite enjoyable. They differ from publication to publication, editor to a journalist, a journalist. And it's nice to talk about these things and discuss them.
So, you know, we'll move into a commercial break now. And after that, come back and talk about your book and you obviously in. But before we do that, you know, for people who are interested in writing, for people who are interested in long form journalism, you know, one, do you have any advice to share on maybe what you've learned through your journey of all these years? Like if someone was to ask you to over the last 20 years, what have you learned about writing?
What are the big lessons or even what are the things you wish you knew 20 years ago and thought about?
I think I have only recently come to really appreciate the power of structure of an outline before you set out to write for a long time. I did it without an outline, but I would just sort of have Section one is about Section two is about why. Section three is about that. I would not actually break those sections down further for myself. I do it now to the extent that I know what each paragraph in each section will address. That is obviously fluid as you writing, because sometimes what looks good on a structure, an outline does not look good on the page once you've started writing it.
So it's subject to change. But I think that is something I think is is important. I think the thing I have done a lot more of over the last few years is really pieces four or five times and the first and second time maybe this is on my own piece. These are pieces that I admire and appreciate. The first and second time I was to be reading it almost as if I am a regular reader. But in the third and fourth time I will actually take pen and paper and I will start breaking things down, trying to understand for myself how these various things interlock with each other, what the section is doing, and why this particular writer started with an image like this, which then moves on to a graph of this kind, which is then exemplified by the scene that comes next.
All of these things, why this character pops up here and not that these things I think I've started understanding in a way only over the last five or six years as I've started doing this exercise of breaking these pieces down or reading them again and again.
And I think that is something that I think all writers could stand to learn from and about and other pieces which are like, you know, models to you of which you think you learned a lot from or you would present as a model of what long form narrative nonfiction is capable of.
I mean, there are models in each genre and field, I guess. So like the list that would be tough. But I mean, one of the things I use in my own writing workshops and in classes is a profile of the chef, Mario Batali by the writer available for which is a long piece, and eventually then went on to become the basis for a book, a very fine book. But it is a perfect example of what I'm talking about, which is that Mario Batali, is this intensely larger than life, sensuously inclined kind of chef in New York, an Italian chef, and, you know, Bill Buford of weeks, his language to suit the subject.
And so the first paragraph is a long and deeply detailed scene of what happens when Mario Batali once came over to his house to cook for his guests and what that is like and the kind of excesses that Mario is prone to. And, you know, it just it strikes me as a piece that gives you this deep insight into a person, populates his world, describes what the kind of. Says that he moves through why he is the way he is and what it is like to be in his presence.
I think there are very few pieces, I think, that convey better what a person is like if you were to meet him. And that is something that I'm always trying to do with my profiles as well, because that's the whole idea. It has create a sense of how to use detail, how to accreted and how to deploy it in the language is also, in a sense, slightly larger than life, but in a good way because it's such a subject.
But if this was the same, if you were writing about a much more sober, restrained person, maybe you wouldn't quite write the same way. So it's something I talk about often in my classes and I kind of break down how the piece works for people who are sitting in my class system. And I maybe that's something that people want to check out in this book that I get from the show notes.
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Welcome back to the CNN, The Unseen, I'm chatting with someone Subramanium, about his book, a dominant character about gibbous heldin what drew you to this interesting figure? Because, you know, you've been a cricket writer. You've studied international relations at Columbia. There are so many things you could have and there are so many things you do write about in your journalism, has so many eclectic subjects. Why, Haldane, how did you arrive at him?
Ironically, I think perhaps for the first time I'd heard about him was in a quiz many years ago, and then I kind of looked him up a little bit online. And even his if you read his basic Wikipedia biography, it's a very fascinating read. I mean, the kind of work that he did, but also the kind of life that he led because a really sort of larger than life, so to speak. And it seemed to straddle all of these worlds that I found myself interested in.
I mean, he was a scientist. I have been interested in science for a long time. But also he was intensely politically committed. He lived an adventurous life in the sense that he fought in the trenches in the First World War. He went to Spain during the Civil War. He did sort of research on himself for the British Admiralty in the Second World War. And then he had this Indian connection, of course, although it wasn't necessarily because of that that I latched on to him.
But I found it interesting that he came to India and lived the last seven, eight years of his life and died here to the extent that he became an Indian citizen.
In that movement itself. We are always familiar with the movements in the reverse direction of scientists leaving India to go overseas.
And so I thought it might be an interesting life to which to examine these intersections of science and politics, science and society, and also to examine his particular milieus in that time, the first half of the 20th century. That is the explanation that I would give from the point of view of Haldane himself. But then the second thing which is diversed of Haldane in a sense, is that I had written a bunch of profiles by the time I started working on this book, and I was intensely curious to see whether I could write a biography, a form that has fascinated me and that I read a lot of.
And it seems to be an extension of the profile, although, as I realized isn't exactly. And then all my journalism until now has been structured around places that I can go to and people who I can meet. I depend on my being in a particular place to make things vivid for the reader, which is definitely the case with my first two books. And I wanted to see almost as a kind of experimental farm, how you would pursue and achieve that kind of vividness if you were not in a place, if you were not able to talk to people, if you had to rely purely on archival and documentary material to present your scenes.
So it was sort of a mini challenge that I set up for myself and then seemed to be sort of a good way to do that, partly because he himself wrote a lot. So there's a lot that you can glean from his own materials and writings. But then secondarily, he lived through such interesting and widely described times, the First World War, the Second World War, that there's a multiplicity of sources you can consult to then synthesize all of that and make a vivid scene out of it, something that can hopefully come alive in the mind of the reader.
And these are the two reasons, I guess, that I was drawn to Holden as a subject.
So, you know, when I think of the biographies I love and I love the autobiography of Holden, you know, one book which I spoke about on a recent episode and I really loved was Robert Garos, a powerbroker. And one of the main reasons I love that was it works for so many different levels. It is the life story of one man. Yes. But it is also, in a sense, a biography of New York City. It's a study of hope, our good old character.
It's a study of how political economies evolve over a period of time. It's a study of competing ideologies. When you look at the battle between Moses and Jacobs. And similarly, it seems to me that what I really enjoyed about a dominant character is not so much the biography of this one incredibly interesting man, which is fascinating in its own regard, but also the larger themes that came up specifically. And of course, we talk about it in much more detail about the intersection between politics and science, which is, you know, such a victim in this.
So, you know, did you sort of have these themes in mind when you actually entered the project or did they take shape, as he had to say, or did they take shape as you were sort of moving through the material?
I think the main theme of which is the theme of the interplay between science and politics, I think was something that is quite transparent to anyone who has even read a little bit about hoarding. So I think even when I started when I sent a picture out for this book, that was definitely one of the themes that I wanted to explore. There were other things that I thought were interesting that came up much later. One of them, for example, was Haldane's view of what a utopian society was for him.
And that view itself changed over time as he got older and grew to be disillusioned with certain things and entranced by new other things. And so those themes, I guess, that came up as I researched it. But this question of the quitting of science and politics was something that I was fascinated by when I first started reading about art.
And this was in that I think it was in twenty fifteen. I think January twenty fifteen is when I started really reading to research this book in some detail. I could not have known at the time how intensely those teams would resonate. Five years later. Definitely the what I already had at the back of my mind, you know, some notion of how science and politics intersected in the realm of climate change. My wife was for a long time a climate change journalist.
And of course, anybody who is reasonably well read these days has read enough about how climate change science is itself shaped by political and economic interests. But I wanted to broaden that a little bit and kind of look at the history of that and look at how Dean himself dealt with it. Indeed, even acknowledged it and then built upon it. But five years later, here we are where a president is in power in the US who denies so much of science to the extent that science matters for science started three and a half years ago in America first and then spread to the rest of the world.
And even as that built, we come to 2020 when a pandemic is in place all over the world, when the science of vaccine research, of disease, of epidemiology, of how data is interpreted and presented has become an intensely political idea, because to lose control of this narrative would be to admit not only political failure, but also to admit a certain lack of comprehension of science. I'm living here in the UK where, for example, the government took a decision to go with one kind of model to control the epidemic before changing track.
After a couple of weeks, they wanted to pursue the Swedish model of trying to build herd immunity before they realized that health services would get swamped and they had to just lock the whole country down. So this is even more than two years ago or two years ago or even last year. This is a moment in time when I think politicians would have spoken most eloquently to what the government isn't doing, how literate and numerate policymakers are, and even how literate or numerate all of us are in terms of science.
Because I think Haldane's overarching principle was that everybody should have a scientific mindset and ability to look at information and assess it based on evidence that is not just useful to people who work in labs and in biotech companies, but people who go about their daily lives in a world that is dictated by science.
So I was sort of fascinated also by the Bidstrup you have on things childhood one, of course, because he was extremely prodigious, like you write in his book called The Time Holden Legend has it, he looked intently at the blood trickling out of a cut on his forehead and asked, Is it Occy hemoglobin or carboxylic hemoglobin? He was not yet four, which is obviously a crazy kind of prodigy, but also a creature of circumstance in the sense he was born to a certain kind of extreme privilege where his father was a great scientist.
And more than that, what possibly made him different from the spiels was that his father believed in actually going out into the field and practicing science. Like if he wanted to figure out why my nose was diving, he would go down into the mines himself and spend time and experiment on him. Says that the whole notion of taking your candidate to the coal mine came from him and the young genius of a company to him on all these trips. So he saw this sort of this other side of English society, which similarly privileged kids would not have.
You know, how much of, for example, when you look at, say, the British intellectuals of the 1910s or 20s or 30s, would it be fair to say that they were pretty much all born to extreme privilege and that what kind of might have drawn Haldane apart was that he also had a sensitivity to the other side, which came both from accompanying his father to all of these places and also the time he spent in the trenches in the First World War, as you point out.
Yeah, I think definitely among the intellectuals in the field of biology and physiology whom I read about was writing this book, you had to have done the whole public school, which is a book. It's called A Public School. Elsewhere, it's a private school. So a public school education, followed by a stint at Oxford or Cambridge at the very least, maybe two stints, and then did follow that model in some detail. He went to Eton as a king scholar.
He followed that up by going to Oxford undergraduate degree. So all of that seems to fit the CV of many other intellectuals and the physiological sciences at the time. But you're completely right. And that what set him apart and what sets us apart was this exposure to parts of British society that none of the others would ever have had. Very few would have had. And I think this taught him a few things. One is that it taught him that effects of science has real world effects and it has real world problems that can be addressed.
And as his father believed, it didn't just all have to be done within the confines of a lab or pen and paper. This is ironic because Haldane himself would, for the most part, use pen and paper and very little else in his own work. But he was always aware of the link between what he was doing and what the real world needed or required or had a deficit. So there was the fact that he got to meet people like this all the time.
But the second thing that was quite egalitarian about what his father did was that he used himself as a guinea pig. This is something that would have been quite unthinkable at a time when you could be a poor person to serve as a guinea pig for, you know, the distinctions and class in race. All of these things were so vast that you didn't have to use yourself. It was a very. You move on the part of to subject himself to the kind of pressures, quite literally, I mean, air pressure, temperatures, humidity, lack of oxygen, all of these factors are going to play for sailors and submarines, for minors very deep down in a coal mine.
He would put himself through those same conditions and examine what the effects were like on holding logic in this was how would you ever know the precise physiological effects unless you underwent them yourself? And maybe that was a scientific way of looking at it. And he didn't quite think about the egalitarian ness that was implicit in this. And I think that young GB's a lesson that he would remember all his life, which is basically that everyone is essentially physiologically created equal and that they should therefore then be equal in the eyes of the law and of society.
And I want to read a little bit from an essay that Colin wrote much later, but I want to bring it to bear on a question about his upbringing, in fact, where, you know, towards the end of his life, you wrote an essay called What Ails Indian Science. And in that he wrote, quote, I noticed that in India, a new caste system is developing before the old one has to support. The new system is based on academic degrees.
One cannot teach Bengali chemistry, history or what you will without a degree in that subject and a higher degree given for research is almost obligatory. If one hopes for a professional teacher, it is only a matter of time before I am debarred from teaching science or statistics, since I have no degree of any kind in these subjects. But in terms of the new system, I'm qualified to teach the classics and I have secured a somewhat marginal first class in literary humanos, vulgarly called griots at Oxford Stockwood.
And my question sort of here goes also to the term which you mentioned in the context of quizzing, which is bricolage, which is holding those born in the 19th century in November 1892 seems to be that classic, maybe in the last generation of 19th century intellectuals who have studied a variety of different subjects. They haven't specialised in one thing and you know, which shows even in his scientific work, I think one of your chapters is called Synthesis, where he's bringing this broader outlook, this ability to step back and solving that debate between, say, the Mendelians and the Darwinist, because he can take that step back because he has all that feeling and other things and you can quote Plato and Aristotle and issues and all of those guys.
And how important do you think that is to break through thinking in any field? And is it a loss for how knowledge develops that we don't seem to have much of that anymore? Yeah, I mean, it's interesting.
I think Hardeen would have been among the last generations in science who could come to science without a degree in it. I doubt and as a part of research for this book, I would I mean, obviously, I didn't have anybody to interview in court. But what I would do is talk to other scientists about his work, but also about some of these teams. And one of the teams that came up quite often is this question of specialization and how Haldane would have been among the last of the serious scientists, sort of not specialized in at the undergraduate level.
In part, it is a nature of how science develops, is that it has gotten over the 20th century genetics. Let's take an example like genetics and got so specialized that you had to start specializing quite early to be able to then fine tune your research to an even deeper point. By the time you reach a post, you couldn't start off, or very rarely could you start off studying English and then switching broadly to biology at your masters and then going further.
And I mean, it didn't happen. You have to you know, this is also the structure of higher education itself today is that by the time you finish your undergraduate degree, you're expected to have completed two internships and spent time in a lab, in a university somewhere. And it's a very intense and intensely specialized field. And a lot of that is inevitable. A lot of it has benefits because obviously, if you start thinking about specific problems from the time you're twenty one, by the time you're talking, you've actually sort of made great headway in that particular problem.
But a number of scientists told me that there is a loss in it as well, as you said. So this is what Haldane said about the Indian caste system, about the specialization of knowledge has permeated every field by now, and it particularly includes the sciences. And I think a number of scientists felt that loss felt the loss of the generalist, other journalists, the generalist coming to science and seeing bigger problems and being able to knit various aspects together from a multidisciplinary point of view.
And this catch phrase multidisciplinary, I think is only now slowly starting to reemerge in academia, some more in the sciences, I think, but in other fields as well. I think the advantage of what people like Haldane brought to this table is being starting to be recognised again because precisely because scientists have not over the last half century, they have stopped thinking too deeply or too intensely about the political effects of their work. If you are in one silo, you rarely see the effects of that silo on other silos or upon the general world or upon the world outside.
And I think that is starting to be realised more and more as a. Everybody becomes a little bit more politically aware. I think that is starting to be realized. I hope I mean, and again, the last two years have seen a complete efflorescence of political thinking on the part of scientists, aided in no small part by the kind of political regimes in power all over the world. I think more and more we will start to see the benefits of that in scientific research and what was also sort of apparent in the biography.
And I want to discuss three different aspects of Pauline, first, as a scientist and as a writer, slash public intellectual and then finally his politics. But it struck me when reading about his scientific career that in a sense he went wherever his intellectual curiosity took him. And it also strikes me, and I don't know if you would have a view on it, that a modern day scientists or people training to be scientists are subject to different sets of incentives.
Whereas, you know, this is your tenure track and this is your publication track. And if you want to get funding, these are the kind of projects which are, you know, quote unquote sexy. And all of these incentives will then shape their entire careers and their entire bodies of work is read broadly. True. Is there something you've heard about from the scientific community? Is that something that people kind of have thought about and written about? Is it a problem?
Absolutely. I mean, a number of scientists told me, for example, the fact that many scientists for a long time chose to not have too much of a political voice. In part, it's because the ivory tower phenomenon has become up more and more over the 20th century. Academics feel that they are insulated to an unreasonable extent from the real world because they don't often experience its problems, especially once you have. So all of that is there. But there's definitely people who told me that having a political voice meant often speaking out against a government that doesn't pop when it is a government that decides what grants and institutions decide what grant to get, and so therefore you try not to piss them off.
Sometimes entire research programs are funded by corporations that eventually want to monetize technologies or processes for themselves. Speaking out against those corporations is not a wise thing to do if you're depending on them for your research money. And so a lot of these constricted scientists ability to have a voice. Now, this is also, again, a natural byproduct of just how science evolves. If you look at what the field of genetics was like when heldin was born, Mendel had not been rediscovered.
There were big problems out there that you could access, sort of from a generalist point of view with very little equipment, certainly. And whatever equipment you needed wasn't sort of very expensive in Haldane's case has always turned out to be pen and paper. And you could apply yourself to these things without having to depend on large grants and so on. And even holding, despite all of that, did feel the pinch of the lack of finances at various points in his career.
Now, the situation, as you know, has progressed to the point where you need a plethora of expensive equipment. Your big problems have been addressed for the large part, and you have to drill down into small problems. And as a result of all of this, you know, you don't want to jeopardize, perhaps quite rightly and understandably, you don't want to jeopardize your ability to get these big grants to then work on these quite specific problems. I think it's an inevitable nature of the march of science from when the twentieth century started and when the twenty first century started.
Science is unrecognisable, whereas you couldn't always say that of, say, the 16th and 17th century, the 17th and 18th century. I mean, the paradigm shift has been immense and I think it's a consequence of that. Scientists feel that a lot of their freedoms and a lot of what they would otherwise want to say and do is dictated quite heavily by the nature of their work and the way their work is funded.
So let's talk about holding as a scientist now. Obviously, his major contributions are in the field of genetics, but he also dabbled widely elsewhere. For example, I was not aware. It's something that I learned in your book that our notion of the primordial soup, so to say, comes from holding that simultaneously and independently with the Russian scientist conceived of the origins of life, lying in some kind of chemical soup, the sun interacting with chemicals and created amino acids and so on, which I wasn't aware of.
But broadly, he's remembered for his contributions in genetics. So tell me a little bit about that. And then I say broadly, he is remembered, as you point out, that he's not even remembered that much because much of his work was so foundational and essential that we kind of just take it for granted, which is something he always thought was the best fit for a scientist.
By the way, he thought that the best compliment to a computer scientist work is to not even think about how it's done, that you just think that there are natural laws and axioms that we found out that are then attributed to one person. So, I mean, Haldane's biggest scientific contribution was in the subfield of what we might call modern synthesis. So take us back to the early 20th century. What had happened was that Darwin had set out the theory of evolution by natural selection and it had found a lot of traction.
But for some reason nobody could quite understand how natural selection would work at a cellular level. And when I say that, the reason is that Mendel, who had published his papers also in the 19th century, is what? Had been sort of largely forgotten or not quite recognized for its significance in the way that it should have been. Nobody had died meant that nobody had seen that Mandela had set out these units of hereditary information called genes and the dignity left by Darwin's theory, which is how actually natural selection works at that level, at the cellular level, that could have been answered by uniting Mendel and Darwin.
And that rediscovery happened in nineteen hundred and a few years, that after about eight years after Howard Dean was born. So that was a state the science was in when they went to the university. And broadly, people who work in this new field of genetics and evolution split themselves into two camps. One was a Darwinians and one was of intelligence. And the Mendelians believed that these units called genes existed and they produced big discrete changes in organisms because they were going by Mendel's work.
So they believed that, as Mandela discovered, there was a gene for determining whether a pea had a smooth surface or whether it had a textured and wrinkly surface. There were two types of genes, and whichever one was dominant would dictate what the texture was like. The Mendelians assume that this is how genes work. Big, discrete changes. The Darwinians believe because Darwin had also postulated this, that what was actually happening in a population was a number of very small variations that could eventually accumulate over time to produce enough variation to then distinguish species from another one.
So the Darwinians would criticize Mendelians for saying, look, you can say that up is texture or smooth, but you can't explain a variation of height in a population, for example, because it's not just people are either or short. That is, every single height of the spectrum is to be found. And you have a smooth bell curve where there is an average kind of height. And the Darwinians believe that that was explained only by their own theory of small variations in a population.
But they couldn't explain how these small variations would have the kind of huge effects that would then create a new species altogether or to create a completely different feature altogether. And so this was a big inherent puzzle that nobody could quite expect.
And holding along with a couple of other scientists explain this essentially united, these are synthesize these two views of genetics and evolution with what we call the modern synthesis, which is intensely mathematically based.
But what he and a couple of others did was to show to map that the small variations that hold in the Darwin postulated those small variations could with the power of natural selection, and he would build models out to explain how this would be possible, could have enough of a selective advantage to actually create new species or to create big changes in a species. So the power of natural selection and at a time when people thought natural selection was almost dead because it couldn't explain speciation as powerfully as that at a time when it was almost dead holding in these two other scientists, Ronald Fisher and Civil Right, they managed to explain to mathematics how this was possible.
They essentially brought natural selection from the 19th century into the 20th century and pushed forward towards 21st.
I also found it fascinating how big and how passionate he was about maths and how big that was a part of his arsenal, like you've described on how he'd be on a bus and he'd always have a briefcase with him. And it was very common for him just to pick out people from there and start doing algebra on the bus. And he was scribbling all the time. And you also illustrated how using math alone, he showed that natural selection was responsible for a certain kind of mocked population instead of having mainly think silvery swings going to Black Wings, which I found so fascinating and so illustrative and so amazing that someone can just, you know, essentially get to that groove by just taking pen and paper and getting it done.
You want to talk a little bit about this? Because I just found it really fascinating and.
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. One of his favorite phrases was an ounce of algebra's worth a ton of verbal argument, which is, I think, like a fascinating way to describe it. So Colin was consummately the pen and paper guy to the extent that he would not even go out and collect his own field field. That was often collected by other people. And he would just sort of get those datasets and he would look at it. So one of the things that he worked on was the dataset of most populations in and around Manchester in the 19th century.
And what had happened, what Oleta what lepidopterists had observed was that there used to be a moth with silver cravings called little area, a surprisingly short period of time. These silvery moths disappeared to be replaced by moths, but almost entirely black. And it happened so fast that people couldn't quite figure out how this was possible for a long time. One of the theories was that the soot from the factories of the Industrial Revolution was darkening the wings of the moths.
It was actually as a layer of black layer on top of the wings. There was another theory that said that there were a lot of chemicals in the air that caused these moths to mutate very fast. So a silvery moth itself became a black mark in its own lifetime. These were the kind of theories floating around at the time. And then eventually, of course, people realized that the moths that had black wings were getting some kind of selective advantage because the trees in that area where these moths used to put their bark was gradually getting blackened by the trees in the branches of the tree.
And so these motss black moths would sit on these trees and they would be camouflaged because they couldn't be seen by the birds that hunted them. They were black on black also.
It was silvery bark. So earlier it had properties. And as the black darkened the black and the similarly moths would stand out, they would be easy prey for birds, whereas the black moths and so they would survive. But even then, it wasn't sort of an established nobody had confirmed it. And the only way to confirm this was to prove in that short span of time, natural selection could work on giving the silver moths a disadvantage and the black marks an advantage to the extent that they could almost completely replace the silver population.
And this is where holding that he took this data that was published over the years and he set up an equation by which he could figure out what coefficient of selective advantage was for black moths. And he proved that with these data sets, he proved that this kind of selective advantage was indeed possible. Natural selection could act in a short span of time so as to completely replace one population with them. And it was the first time anyone had done that kind of rigorous analysis of data on the smallest population or indeed on any other biological population.
And it was the first of a series of ten papers that he would publish over the next ten years in which he constantly refined and tweaked this model of selective advantage in various kinds of settings. He would examine what would happen if a population migrated elsewhere, what would happen if a plague struck a population, all these kind of various permutations and combinations of situations and you would seek it out. Selective advantages in each of those. And to an accretion of all of this.
He built up, I think, body of evidence to conclusively demonstrate the power of natural selection and the fact that Darwin was right, that Darwinism was not dead after all.
It's also such a great example of the scene in The Unseen that you have chemical influence from a factory making the. The bark of trees dark and then within two or three human generations, all the more chinstraps are going to black. It's fascinating and also so beautiful the way the whole sort of process works. Douglas Adams once said that if you stop believing in God when he understood natural selection because the beauty and the all that he felt when he really understood it was, you know, God could not compete with that.
That's kind of you know, all this scientific work is enormously amusing. But then we also amazing rather. But then we also sort of come to where, you know, the shade over into his political beliefs of his political beliefs are almost shaped by his scientific beliefs. Can you talk a little bit about that? And would you say it was kind of inevitable that attraction to Marxism would happen, given the dual propensity of him being that sort of man of science, as it were, obsessed with how systems work, and therefore, as Marx was being therefore drawn to Darwin's theory for that reason and also the sympathy that he would have felt for the underclasses, given that, you know, he had far more interactions with people from other classes and others like him did.
I think it's interesting how the autobiography works, which I realized through this mean in the sense that you look at another person looking at alternate life story might pick up completely different reasons for why he eventually became a socialist and then a communist. And I think it depends. This is where the subjectivity of the biographer comes in, which is I in my own life, I tend to place a lot of emphasis on what my childhood was like in order to explain who I am today.
And it's just something that I have done. And everybody constructs their own origin stories for themselves. And this is possibly mine. And so therefore, when I came to Haldane's life, I sort of yielded to my proclivity and I just sort of also explained a lot of it, although not all of it, a lot of what he became later to his childhood. And so I expanded to the model that his father set up, which is the model of a scientist who believed that science had to be done for the benefit of the masses, a man who believed in a certain kind of equality in society.
And so all that exposure that Holden had at some point, in my view, helped a lot towards making him a socialist. Definitely. He was never a conservative of any kind, even though his uncle was a conservative politician, his own family and his father and himself never went into that side of the political spectrum. But then as he grew up and as he continued to work in science, even though his own science was not in any way directly related to the practical matters of society, in many aspects, he always had in his mind this link between science and society, the fact that science had to work for the upliftment of society more than anything else, that was the noblest thing.
And so when the Russian Revolution happened in a couple of decades, that also as the Soviet Union paid at first real attention to science and then after that lipservice, obviously, and not anything else. But as they continue to champion this model of a scientifically egalitarian society, it was inevitable that he would fall for the attraction of that. He thought he went to the Soviet Union once with his wife in 1928. And while his wife came away with decidedly mixed views about how well the Soviet Union was succeeding, he came away completely captivated.
He genuinely saw or talk. He saw an enormous amount of funding and attention being paid by the government to science and scientists and scientific institutions. It was something that was always sort of a quibble for him in England itself. He thought capitalist societies were inevitably organized around what corporations want and not what the people want. And so therefore governments will do what interests wanted them to do. This was a view that his father also had and he again, multiple times over the course of his early career, he had seen that politicians in England frequently disregarded the advice of scientists much further, and they never bore the brunt of that ignorance.
If I the people of the countries, that ignorance was regular people. So, for example, if his father designed a particular kind of gas mask to protect against chlorine gas attacks in the First World War, the government and its civil servants would substitute one ingredient for another, make the mask less effective than it should have been. And, you know, the people who bore the brunt of that were the soldiers in the trenches, working class men quite often who would be saddled with these non-functional masks and would die as a result.
And he saw this time and time again, I mean, he would see politicians be rewarded for scientific advances that had been made by scientists. And I think all of this disillusioned him quite a bit about the way that Western capitalist society was set up at the time and drove him more and more to the left of the political spectrum.
I always found it curious that, you know, Marxist social Darwinism as a validation of the natural sort of extension of what they believed in. Because, you know, I did an episode with Metrically a couple of years back called The Evolution of Everything, based on a book he had written where he pointed out that common force between natural selection itself and the way languages develop and the way markets work is basically that it is a kind of emergent order. Isn't a grand plan or there isn't a grand design?
You know, I mean, the whole intelligent design argument which came from William Daley was that, look, this is so complex and beautiful, someone must have designed it. And the genius of Darwin and those who followed him, like Holden, was to point out that, no, you don't need this because I know this stuff happens on its own, which is so counterintuitive. And, you know, and that would lead you not to therefore believe in things like central planning or that you can design a society.
And I think, you know, when I read about Holden, I thought he kind of fit the description of what Adam Smith would have called the mental system. I just sort of beat out what Smith's house meant to find out by writing in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith wrote, quote, The of system is apt to be very wise in his own conceit and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his ideal blend of government that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.
He goes on to establish it completely and in all its faults, without any regard either to the great interest or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as a hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard. He does not consider the pieces upon the chessboard, have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them, but that in the great just world of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might use to impress upon.
It struck a chord. And it strikes me that one in this sense that Holden and so many others in that view also spoken about how eugenics held so much sway over both the left and the right, and was almost common wisdom in a sense, and how so much of that seems to come from the belief that, you know, when scientists realize the power of the tools and there is no denying that they are incredibly powerful, you know, the things that Holden could do with algebra and sort of the advances of knowledge you could make, it's easy to get carried away with that sense of power and then be arrogant enough to assume that it applies to society.
And, of course, a classic illustration of that which you've given an excellent first chapter in your book of was, of course, a Soviet scientist, Lysenko. You got carried away by this. But Lysenko, of course, was a shitty scientist. Holden was a great scientist. But what it seems to me is that he is applying a certain kind of vigour to his science, but not a similar rigour to his politics, which we again see labelled in his defence of Lysenko, for example.
What is sort of your sense of all this? An aesthetic danger, that same mental system, scientists or people who are, you know, very accomplished know it could be science, it could be managerial work. Like there is this notion that if you're the CEO of a company, you can run a country as well, which is another mistaken notion people seem to have as if there is any Vemork comparison between the complexities involved. You think that this was sort of Haldane's kind of mistake and not just his, but I think a lot of Marxists embraced Darwinism because as you point out in your book.
Yeah, OK, well, there's so many layers. So let me like let me unpack some of them. I mean, a couple of things that I talk about while you were talking about this mystery as to why Marxists and Darwinists at the time seemed to find common cause. One is I think that in the 19th century, these were both challenges to the established order in Marxism was obviously a challenge to the way that markets were structured and Darwinism was a challenge to the church.
But it was sort of a refutation of any principle of God or that God had in any way. And I think as many as to happen quite often differences were papered over just because these two were allied at the time, sort of quite radical causes.
The second also was I think both I mean, Marxists and Darwinism, both, I think might have been seen to believe in what might be called the theory of Bottom-Up change, that basically that organizing happens from the bottom up, animals change. Well, species evolved because first there was one unit or one individual mutant variant that emerged that then proved to be more. So there are these broader principles that operate, but the change happens at the bottom. And I think the idea of Marxism as a kind of revolution that begins from the bottom to the agglomeration of people and how to change that material well-being in order to then change society, I think, again, there is a similarity over there.
But the interesting thing and maybe the point where maybe we can choose to part ways here is that I think everybody who approaches politics underplays the emotional reasons or the irrational reasons for which they are drawn to a particular political ideology and overplays the rational reasons that they are drawn to it. Certainly Haldane and other Marxist first time examples. Then, as I point out in my book, I mean, a lot of the reason that he was driven to the left was because of the circumstances in which he grew up, the kind of things that he saw that left an impression on him and that directed his both his work and his political ideology.
But equally, I think people who tend to believe that economics is an exact science and that they have figured out that there is an exactitude, there's a precise way in which a market can work for the best benefit of society and approach it from, then insist that they are being rational when they're doing that, that there is no tug of emotion or sentiment or irrationality or even sometimes blind belief in the way in which this works. I think you could say it for people on every part of the political spectrum and not just for Marxists.
Of course, that is a completely valid argument to be made about how Haldane and other Marxists and Communists should not have been blind to the visions of science that were happening in the Soviet Union at the time. And in fact, this is a point I make in the opening chapter and suddenly Haldane's insistence on defending Stalin, even in the 1950s, when the extent of show trials and Aspergers was starting to become quite well-known. I mean, that was completely mystifying and I can only ascribe that to pardon's stubbornness, which is demonstrated in many other forms.
So he didn't really you're completely right. You didn't bring to his politics the nimbleness and flexibility and willingness to change his mind that marked his scientific work. But I think that is the nature of most people who approach politics in any part of the political spectrum. Bunch of things to unpack here, one, that's a great insight that you shared, that we often underplay the emotional reasons and or the rational reasons that I can I would completely agree with Haldane.
And I think, you know, that the was that society was broken, that government was in the sway of private interests, which kind of remains the case today. So one can sort of understand that attraction. That said, I think and he could not have known at this time. But, you know, while in terms of science is Riggo was spot on and he was obviously one of the great geniuses of the time. He didn't understand the principles of economics, for example, like you referred to.
I'll quote from your book, in 1932, he released a science fiction story, The Gold Makos, an approximation of a Belgian yarn in which a new technique to distill gold out of seawater threatens to disrupt the world's mining concerns. The inventor plans to use his profits to start endowing science as it should be built a better course for holding, although in the end, he doesn't recognize how these profits will plummet if the markets are suddenly flooded with fresh gold stocks.
But leaving that aside, the other thing that I've kind of taken issue with this idea in Marxism, in theory, they might talk of it being bottom up, but in practice it can only be achieved through Top-Down coercion. And that is something that, you know, Haldane also seemed to have turned a blind eye to the moral question of do the means justify the end? For example, in 1928, when he met one of the scientists who hosted him and showed him great hospitality was Nicholas Ivánovich and his name was.
And then later Vavilov was arrested because, you know, Lysenko didn't like him and he was murdered in 1942. Essentially, he was imprisoned and in prison. And that is something that Haldon completely shattered over when he was asked to comment on, for example, the many political prisoners of any scientist. You point out in the book about how at one point in an stretched his writing, he mentions that a couple of scientists were no longer in their positions.
But then later on, he sort of says, oh, they didn't do any important work anyway. And you see these sort of this kind of finessing happening where, you know, again, it seems to me to be in that sense, a wonderful study of how his character also is corroded by this political affiliation and this ideology. To the extent that where there is a clear choice to be made between his science and his politics, that is when Lysenko basically says there is no such thing as a gene and, you know, goes into that Lamarckian assume that, you know, there are qualities we acquired during a lifetime could be inherited.
And that point, when it is completely clear that the science is on one side and these guys on the other side, he sticks with these guys because he's a card carrying member of the Communist Party and he feels right for the larger cause of Imust. And this was incredibly fascinating to me. And you've pointed out in an interview somewhere that you sort of see this as the exception, the one weak moment, the defense of Lysenko. But to my eyes and just judging from I haven't read anything else on him except your remarkable book and there are enough details on that.
And my sense from that was that this was sort of a pattern like even in 1928 when he went to squaller, was that it's just that he fell for the confirmation bias and chose to completely ignore it while his wife. You don't notice some of it. And it seems to me and it's almost a very tragic human story in that sense where he is letting his politics. And this brings me to sort of or I'll ask you to I'll get to my question to ask you to comment on this.
Yeah. His one fatal mistake, I think, was, as you quite rightly point out, was a defense of Lysenko and by extension, the defense of the Soviet Union at a time when many of its policies could not bear defending. And the fact that he did this in itself sort of instructive. But let me point out a couple of things. First is that as a scientist, it used to be a scientist in the 1910s, in the 1920s, and to look to a regime which promised to bring the benefits of science to the masses to promise a whole new political system.
I mean, we have to look at this from the point of view, not of people who are living in the 21st century and have seen what happened in the 1980s and 90s with the collapse of communism. But as people living in the 1910s and 20s who are seeing a whole new alternative system of government and society spring up somewhat in one of the great nations of the world, and the promise that science will be used to equalize people and all investment in science will be used to improve livelihoods, to improve agricultural practices, for example.
I mean, this must have been an immense value to the extent that it for somebody like Haldane who went there in 1928 and even in 1928, as we know from the chronology of events, the show trials had only just about begun. They were often inaccessible to people who can probably speak Russian. Squalor around you is one thing. And you think that maybe it has only the effect of the new Soviet regime not having been in power long enough and that eventually the squalor will disappear.
But to gauge perversions of power that was starting to happen at that time already was another thing altogether that I think would have been invisible to holding quite naturally as somebody who didn't speak Russian. His entire visit was possibly curated by Vavilov and other people from the Soviet state. I won't accuse them of blindness at that point so much as just an inability to access a lot of what was happening at all as things progressed, I think, in the 1930s. This is very much a human factor, as you rightly point out, a human frailty, which is that, as you said yourself, more and more to a political cause.
You dig yourself in more and you are unwilling to make radical changes in your political judgment. And this is something we see all the time. And so it's particularly instructive to read of Haldane's experience, which is my big curiosity about the Lysenko affair, was whether he genuinely believe that what Lysenko was doing was saying was accurate account of him, because then that meant he was negating his own decade's worth of work. So then did he believe that this was all sort of permissible, that a few lives lost and a few scientists imprisoned was permissible for the larger cause?
And the third thing I wonder is, did he ever stand up within the Communist Party itself for some of the principles that he believed? It was a third thing that intrigued me the most, because nobody had written books either. Nobody had analyzed his papers and his documents deeply enough or hadn't read them. It felt to me to kind of look to his correspondences with other members of the British Communist Party at the time, the memoranda he circulated within the party.
And the thing I found that is he criticized the Soviet Union and Lysenko and Soviet science extensively within the party itself. So what he clearly taught was that he was best serving the cause of both science and society. If he restricted his criticisms to that close group, if he tried to effect the change from within rather than seeming to abandon the party in the public eye. And I think this is a choice that many of us very often are called upon to make, even if we all have entrenched political beliefs in one way or another, we are all painfully aware, at least those of us who think about this seriously, we are all painfully aware that these.
Political positions are limiting in and of themselves. Very often they are tied to the fortunes of one party and every party is fickle and flawed and we have to stand up for that party or that cause, even while ignoring its hypocrisies or its flaws. It is particularly true in our two party system like the US. It is even true in a multi-party system like India. And my point and my the reason I wanted to explain this Halloween episode in depth, this Lysenko episode in depth, was to illustrate that this happened even to people who purported to approach all of this with a scientific point.
No, I found it very interesting and relatable. And it's another theme that you sort of pick up on is you talk about how, you know, Hollywood, of course, was a prolific public intellectual, wrote a lot, which we'll talk about. But one of the themes that you pick up on is how there was that sort of space where scientists were speaking out in politics. You refer to the book The Visible College, and you've spoken about the you know, the five guys at Cambridge who were, you know, prominent scientists and people who were speaking out politically at the same time, one of them, but wrote a book called The Social Function of Science.
And then you lament that it went off over the decades as scientists got into an ivory tower and so on. And then in the end, in a hopeful note, you said that they are now gradually coming back. And I had sort of two opposite reactions to this. One reaction was that we need more of the scientific viewpoint in politics because otherwise politics, you know, they build their own narratives which need to be countered with good science so that I completely agree with you.
But the point that I'm conflicted about is that while I would like to see more science in politics, I'm not sure I would like to see more politics in science, because what happens today and this is something that is, you know, I think a crisis on both the right and the left is that politics impinges upon science in a way that in some particular context, it has a chilling effect upon scientists. For example, there was a recent debate on, you know, involving J.K. Rowling about whether biological sex is real or not.
My point is not to take a stance on that, but my point is to say that this is something that scientists should be able to debate and discuss. But it seems to me that today it's just one of those subjects which has been put out of bounds. You cannot debate and discuss it any more. And if you take a particular position on it, you could lose your job or you could not get hired by the university you were applying to.
And this is just one example. And again, I'm not taking a position on this one way or the other. And, you know, there's even been a similar chilling effect. For example, when you talk about something like inheritable differences. And there again, you see sort of perhaps an overreaction to an earlier politics with a particular kind of science. The science of inherited differences was used to justify horribly coercive state action in eugenics, which we've seen, which is one of the big lessons we've learned.
But regardless of that, you know, when it is prescriptive and is used in a particular kind of politics, it's a problem. But when it's descriptive and you just have scientists exploring different subjects, why should you stop studying it? So my point here is, again, not to take a stand on any of these issues, but I would just point out that the scientific improvement, as I think you in holding would have agreed, is that you study all sides and you let that openness remain where anybody is free to study anything.
And yet today we have politics impinging upon science where some areas of potential study are just out of bounds because of political reasons. We're both guilty.
I mean, what Hopkins argument and what his experience was, is that politics has never, ever stopped being a part of science. And it is a sort of a fool's errand to believe otherwise. And it's exemplified so beautifully during the course of Dean's own life, which is that as soon as genetics became a team, as soon as a very, very first decade of the 20th century, as soon as people talk about evolution and the fact that there were genes and there is such a thing as fitness, immediately they started to apply to races to the extent that the British government, which had suffered terribly in the Boer War and in the early nineteen hundred, they started to think about the thickness of their population.
I write extensively in this book about this campaign of sterilization in the US to weed the people out of society for sort of sequestering people who are in the UK to make sure they don't breed and produce further, quote unquote, unfit people. So this is this has been a part of science since time immemorial. The things that we talk about here that you mentioned, which are enormously interesting, which is somebody like J.K. Rowling sort of talking about. Biological sex, for example, wouldn't quite characterize that as, I guess, a scientist ability or inability to work on the intricacies of biological sex.
I don't actually know. I haven't looked into this in any detail. Whether funding has been granted, not granted, publication status has been granted, not granted to people based on political views. But certainly the pressures are immense and the pressures have always been one of the things we talked earlier about how the Lysenko episode was this regrettable one, often an alternate career. And what I meant to add on to that is also relevant here, which is that Haldane's scientific approach to things in so many other cases led him into exactly the right direction.
Hollande grew up as a child of the 19th century, early 20th century, and he was saddled initially with a lot of the racist biases that belong to the Englishmen of his generation. He grew to outgrew that because he did more and more science understood more and more about how human populations and genes work. It led him to take an extremely vociferous stance against fascist notions of what science and racial purity were to the extent that he put himself in harm's way when he went to Spain during the Civil War to help in whatever way he could on the front to fight the fascists.
I mean, he was that committed to an anti fascist stance. So, you know, in many of these cases, scientists speaking up and having the weight of scientific experience behind them, I think has inevitably enriched public debate. And it has definitely very often stood up against the distortions of science that are propagated by politicians or people on the left of people on the right. I think the Lysenko episode is remarkable precisely because it was the only time where he allowed his political beliefs to override his scientific beliefs.
If he had acted in character in that episode, as in every other episode, he would have stood up against the Soviet Union, perhaps quit the party, and said that this was a clear violation of scientific knowledge. And and he didn't do that. He did with Stalin after he died as well. So it's you know, so I would question for you, but before that sort of I want to move on to Haldane's writing now. And you cited this excellent article he wrote, which was almost Mehtar because he was extremely prolific in terms of writing and even giving talks.
You mentioned there was a joke that he gave one hundred jokes and he then got down and wrote this piece called How to Write a Popular Scientific Article. And you write his first piece of advice, not a great deal more about your subject than you put on paper and look for the familiar analogy or pull it out of the facts of everyday experience. And now you go to compare the production of hot gas and the bomb to datastream to the changes which occurred in the boat each year, to those which take place in men once in a lifetime activity.
The precipitation of gassin by calcium salts to the formation of SOAPSUDS. If you know enough, you will be able to proceed to your goal in the cities of hops rather than a single jump stoppered. And you also sort of talk about his philosophy towards his craft, which, you know, I think Hemingway, who he hung out with during the Spanish Civil War. I mean, he seems to have been like Forrest Gump. He was everywhere.
Exactly. He was very much a kind of Kilroy's. Yeah. Yeah.
So, you know, the picture that one gets of him as a writer about science is of a person of remarkable craft and knowledge and bringing it to bear. In another part of the book, you write about sort of political writing about communism, which is again, though you didn't use those words. I'm kind of just thinking aloud. But what more fully would have tended to be more abstract and concrete, unlike in these amazing scientific exemplars that we used so well.
You were going to the archives. Is that a difference that you noticed? Did it feel like, you know, the Haldane who was writing about science and about things which he had deep knowledge was, you know, was writing different?
I think the purpose was different. I think when he was writing about science for the public, I think his effort was to get to explain and to get people to understand, but more importantly, to get people to understand how scientists think, you know, the kind of seeds of logical steps in the weighing of evidence that scientists often do. I think when you spoke about when you wrote about politics or spoke about politics, his purpose was to convince, persuade to bring people to his point of view.
And I think necessarily for that reason, he often allowed himself to slip into what might sometimes be called propaganda, not always and not with every political article. For example, a lot of the political pieces he wrote about Nazi science, about racial science, he was very clear about and he was quite over that. He was sharp and clear and unambiguous and scientific even. But I think every time he tried to refer to the Soviet Union and to communism as an ideology to be admired, he let himself slip into propagandistic mode, which was I mean, the distinction is quite clear.
You read a lot of his essays in the essay for essays, for the most part, will stick with science and then be clear and precise and little gems of exploration. And then towards the end, he'll want to draw a political model out of it. Just about. As his own political philosophy and at that particular instance, he will slip into a kind of nebulous mess in his language that he would otherwise have deplored.
While you finish the book and we're kind of getting to the later stage of his life, and while you finish the book, did you sort of get a sense of the evolution of his character, quite apart from the things that he's doing in the scientific domain or the political domain? You know, you've spoken about how is the transition between his marriages and all of that, but do you get a sense of him as a person? For example? One thing you pointed out is that many people would wonder about why he chose to come to India, of all places, in 1957.
And one reason that you point out, which you discovered when you went through his bank statements and, you know, all of those papers which are otherwise inaccessible, is that he was actually very short of money. You describe how you know, partly because he had alimony payments going out to his first wife and all of that. And you describe at one point about how an American journalist wrote to him with a bunch of questions and he said that it would take me hours to answer these personal questions.
Are you willing to pay for it? Which reminded me of an experience I had in for I don't know if you ever had a similar experience or other wisdom when I called up one of the famous string quartet forecourts and he said, tell me about retirement and blah. And I said, what? And then I realized and I felt so sad. I felt crying because. Yeah, a legend of the game. Yeah. And so it kind of strikes me that after this immense career where he's been a hugely successful public intellectual and all of that has happened and he stood up against fascism and fascism as lost.
And at the same time communism is crumbling and he's not crumbling, but has revealed a new face and he's sort of in denial about that. Does one get a sense of sort of the human side of this great man like one of the court's most loved in your book was when he talks about going to India and he says, one of my reasons for settling in India was to avoid wearing socks. 60 years in socks is enough. Stop, stop.
Go there. I love that quote. It gives such a great sense of the guy.
I mean, it's absolutely right. The context, the broader context for his brokenness itself also should be explained, I feel, which is, of course, the alimony is one part of it.
But all the money he made, he gave to his own university, the university that was supposed to be paying him. He was giving money to the university to make sure that labs could remain funded. He once gave he bought a set of teaspoons for ten shillings for the men's stuff from the men's room in the university because they had no funds in the university. This was a post-war period. University College London had been heavily bombed. You know, the nearest to tennis court, as I said, was 14 miles away.
It was it was just a complete shell of itself. And rebuilding was going on. At this time, funds for doing science were quite limited. And so he would you know, he once gave three hundred pounds, which was an eighth of his annual salary. He gave back to the university to make sure his department could continue doing research. So a lot of this money, the aspect of money that I talk about in the book are not personal enrichment because he was a bizarrely low maintenance guy in that sense.
You know, also his life, not just in India, but he was definitely living a very simple life, but even before that. But I think he felt that there was enough money for him to do the science that he wanted to do. And all of the money that he will get from writing articles he would make over to some grad student of his or to some lab. There are letters to that effect saying, listen, I know you owe me this much money.
Can you make it over to university college? And similarly for is this money that he asked for when he did interviews the money. The money was not for his own bank account. It was actually. So in that sense, he was a remarkably uniform character throughout his life. He never cared. He was never fastidious about himself. He drove all beaten up cars, lived in an almost slovenly mess, and continue to do that well into India. In fact, the thing that attracted him to India was that you mentioned this line about socks, which is a beautiful sort of bond.
More he just kind of took away. The thing that is inherent in it is that a certain simplicity of lifestyle is what attracted him to the fact that, for example, you don't need winter clothing. You could just sort of go all year round and cottons and maybe one jacket or whatever it was when you were living in Calcutta, you didn't have to have expensive furniture.
You in a relatively poor country, he could live the sort of relatively poor lifestyle that he had always, you know.
And it also struck me and this is a complete aside, that one of the letters you quoted from him is where he's writing to my Nobilis and he's saying that please forgive me for not being more productive. It's just not in those words. But I just thought that, my God, I think another thing that is unseen by most people is a massive difference that the invention of air conditioning has just made to humanity in general.
As Lee Kuan Yew said, it is the greatest invention of the 20th century, at least from the point of view of Singapore and other Asian nations, because it transitioned them from being sort of an economy that had to work outside, not at all to be able to work indoors.
I mean, it's an entire lifestyle and professional change. It's a. Magnificent, my two great inventions of the sea and the jet spray. But yeah, so here's the thing. I read your book and I in fact, I read it yesterday because I wanted to save it. You know, I bought it months ago when it came out, but I wanted to read it just before the conversation so it would be sharp in my memory. And I absolutely loved it.
It's so beautifully written and so many insights and I learned a lot from it. But my question to you to throw that back to you is in the process of writing, it is how did you thinking about the world in society and perhaps things expand and be just about the craft of writing. I mean, you've written two excellent books before this made you, which we don't even mention, but in the sense that this was just such a different project.
Also, how did your sense of, you know, your own writing and the craft of writing in general? How did those evolve?
But to answer the second question first, I mean, the writing was, as I mentioned earlier on the podcast, it was an extremely interesting process because I had to depend on what I read to make things vivid for the reader to bring this character to life who I had never met, to get an insight into him and to write about him that word, again, in an almost fictive sense and convey him as a character and a person. So, you know, a lot of this was quite challenging.
I was doing it for the first time. I would read extensively from other books that I thought had done this well and much longer to write as a book than either of my previous books. And partly that was done to the writing, partly also to the material. I'm not a scientist. I haven't been trained as a biologist, certainly, and understand a lot of the subjects that he worked on in the papers that he wrote. I had to train myself.
I mean, obviously not to the level of a scientist, but to the level of somebody who could at least understand the science and simplify it. And that involved very often talking to other scientists to get them to explain it to me as if I was a first year college student to read papers again and again and to kind of scientist friends who I could call at a moment's notice to ask them doubts about one thing or the other. All of this was very different from my previous books.
And then the act of boiling that science down itself is something else altogether. I mean, it's something that I've never done before because it's inherently more complex and technical than the Sri Lankan civil war, for example, sort of constantly find real world examples, very much as Haldane did, in fact, to find real world examples in his papers or to find real world examples that his papers retrospectively applied to or went on to apply to. I mean, all of these things were challenges that I set myself precisely for this purpose because I felt that I'd never done this before.
And I wanted to see what the limits of my language and my prose and and my writing were so and so that was really difficult. And I think in terms of how I myself changed over the course of researching this book is well, I mean, we talked about this earlier. I mean, a lot of these thoughts and ideas about the frailty of our political stances and how contingent they are just on what we already do. You know, I've been thinking about that perhaps superficially even before and certainly events since twenty fourteen have helped me clarify some of these a lot more bitter events in India or in the UK or in the US.
But writing to this book helped me understand it from the point of view of something that happened within one person's lifetime. And kind of you can look back on your life, but it's still only a limited life. You haven't seen the full extent of your own life, whereas writing through someone like Haldane's life enabled me to see the whole thing in its entirety and.
I grew immensely fond of him. I can't think of it, this is a most unusual thing, the most unexpected thing that came out of this process. Of course, everybody says if you write a biography of somebody, you should be fond of the person. It doesn't apply to people like Hitler. But obviously, to spend that much time inside one person's mind, you are fond of them. I agree. But I told others, I said, like you never told me how sad a biographer feels when he or she reaches the end of the subject's life.
It felt like somebody very close to me had died and I was somehow witness to it and not. I wrote a small piece about this somewhere else, but Haldane's handwriting and sort of just how I grew to adore it and how, you know, describing the end of his life felt to me. And this is a terrible example. So I apologize in advance for anyone who has ever lost a child. This is in no way comparing the scale of the two things.
But only in these two instances do you see the entirety of a person's life from birth to that and be there to observe the death itself. Of course, mine is a much more sort of superficial case of the same. But I you know, you see the person being born used. I saw GB's sort of childhood letters. I saw the mistakes he made when he was a kid. I saw how he was bullied when he was at Eton. I saw the person he went on to become.
I saw the mistakes he made as a personal and professional life, and I saw the way he died. When else do you ever get to experience this? So there was a real sense of acute loss I felt when I was writing that last scene when he died, you know, and that, again, sort of there's so much about the biographical craft that we can discuss, although you should probably talk to people who've written more than one biography, but that I think a real emotional charge to it that I didn't expect quite moving in.
And also in the show and also linked to this talk you gave in the book, which is on YouTube, you have this fascinating slide which shows three handwritten letters by him at different points in time. It actually gets neater as it goes along. And I thought it'd be like a Belko over the middle one, which is the single be the best, but it's extremely lucid and readable at the end. And, you know, maybe this is the reason Robert Caro hasn't yet finished his biography of Lyndon Johnson.
He doesn't want to say goodbye to the guy.
But Robert Caro, I mean, I once had the extreme good fortune to sit next to him at a dinner. And he told me about, you know, he was talking with the first book and he said about how he didn't understand LBJ, his background at all, sort of Texas in small town Texas that he came out of. And he said, well, so I only saw one solution to this. And I said, what was that? He said, well, I moved it.
So I moved there for three years. He lived in a small town in Texas for three years just to understand the Texan background that LBJ would grow up in. So, I mean, that kind of commitment to the biographical craft is something else entirely. Could you do that? Oh, man. I mean, you know, look, if publishers are willing to pay me enough, I will go anywhere to, you know, he was not being paid at that time.
I have I have to point out, I mean, he was still sort of but this was just what he wanted to do this year, also being a journalist for a while. And he decided he just wanted to get into the nuts and bolts of a person's life at that level. It's really admirable.
Some of them have taken enough of your time and let you go. No, but thank you so much for your time and your insights.
I mean, this has been such a pleasure and it's been great to catch up with you if you enjoyed listening to this episode to hop on over to your nearest bookstore online, offline and pick up a dominant character. The medical science and politics of TV is holding someone's previous books following fish. And this divided island are also worth your time. You can follow someone on Twitter, someone on the school. S You can follow me at Amitava Amitay. We ARMM to check out my writing course at India.
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