Finding heroism in the stories of working class

What a pleasant surprise and Christmas gift I received when a friend sent me this clip from Ahmedabad Post, Gujarati e-paper, dated December 26, 2020, which featured this Blogger’s blog ‘Unni-Verse’. A journalist had done a freewheeling interview with me more than a month ago. The online paper Ahmedabad Post was highlighting Professional women engaged in activities not related to their profession. We spoke of my interest in many things, but she picked the Blog and this interesting storyline to write about. As the print is in Gujarati, Janvi, the journalist, provided the English translation pasted below. The print version is a slightly edited version of the same.

Management Professor Jeemol Unni shares interesting insights into reading People’s History

Kicker: Welcome to the Blog: Unni-verse
Head: Finding heroism in the stories of working class  Byline: Janvi Sonaiya

Strap: History got a new meaning when this economist read it from people’s perspective instead of the rulers. Jeemol Unni, professor at Amrut Mody School of Management, Ahmedabad University, tells us about her interest in reading global history, travelling to unearth stories of a different era and penning down her experience in her blog, Unni-verse  

“Mr Percivel, a white cat, is Jeemol Unni’s current work companion. She often talks to him in Malayali and he listens patiently when she is taking an economics class on Zoom. “In a pandemic it’s alright to talk to plants and animals, the problem begins only when they talk back to us!” said, Unni, an economist with a sense of humour.”

She is currently a professor at Amrut Mody School of Management. Earlier she was the Director of the Institute of Rural Management (IRMA). When we met her at her residency in IIMA campus, we talked about books, her love for tailoring, her blog (Unni-verse) and most importantly, history. As a child she was never curious to learn about the bygone eras but historian Irfan Habib’s book Atlas of the Mughal Empire changed her outlook of approaching history. “In school, we learnt history from the perspective of rulers, kings or the party in power but Irfan Habib writes history from the lens of its people. How did the decisions of rulers impact its people, what were their dilemmas and where did they find joy. Stories of the working class reveal the core truths of any era.”

The former International Labour Organisation Consultant and Senior Advisor to the National Commission for Enterprises (NCEUS), Government of India, Unni, admires author Amitav Ghosh’s work. She talked about his book, The Shadow Lines’ (1988), a rambling story about two families from Dhaka who moved to India and the UK respectively. The author presents history wrapped in the cover of fiction.
Argentina-based late author Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths which represents a surrealistic maze, is also on her list.

Her fascination for learning history made her read Mary Barton: A tale of Manchester life. “Elizabeth Gaskell paints a very real picture of the life, trials and tribulations of the English Working Class of the period. I was impressed by the description of the conditions of the English working class, their negotiations tactics, and the behaviour of the capitalist class in the book. The negotiations between the capitalists and workers on wages and the conditions of labour, is a chapter I will remember for a long time.”

When she visits western highlands of Scotland she would write about the tales of gallant clans and their battles for the throne of Britain, a visit to Nazareth would make her juxtapose it with sites referred to in the Old and New Testament of the Bible…her travel is driven by her curiosity to dig out stories from the past and learn more about the people who inhibited it. “The authoritarian rule of the Tzars was followed by the pains of revolution and then what is called the totalitarian rule during the Stalin era. When I visited Russia, I saw its tumultuous history depicted all over the place.”

As we talked to her, sunrays fell on her wooden desk and the chirping of birds at the campus added charm to the pleasant morning. Before she resumed working on a research paper, she said, “I think a lot, observe a lot and write a lot. Technically, that’s my happy life!”


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