Sanderien Verstappen – New Lives in Anand

Describe your book

In 2002 widespread communal violence tore apart towns and villages in rural parts of Gujarat, India. In the aftermath, many Muslims living in Hindu-majority villages sought safety in the small town of Anand. New Lives in Anand describes the meanings and consequences of these moves. For the town’s new residents and transnational visitors, Anand’s Muslim area is not just a site of marginalization; it has become an important regional center from which they can participate in the wider community of Gujarat and reimagine society in more inclusive terms.

New Lives in Anand shows how in Anand the experience of residential segregation led not to estrangement or closure but to distinctive forms of mobility and exchange that embed Muslim residents in a variety of social networks. In doing so, the book moves beyond established notions of ghettoization to foreground the places, practices, and narratives that are significant to the people of Anand.

Why did you decide to publish it with a university press?

I wanted the book to go through the highest possible standards of academic review, while also remaining accessible to wide range of readers. I found a perfect match with the University of Washington Press. The UWP offered a step-by-step review process, and an ideal frame for the book in their Global South Asia series. Through their collaboration with the Sustainable History Monograph Pilot, an initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation, it became possible to publish the book as Open Access. 

Do you enjoy the writing process?

Very much so! Ever since I learned to write as a child, I have been keeping diaries with detailed observations of what I have seen taking place around me. When I was 11, in primary school in Zoetermeer in the Netherlands, I recorded my observations from the back of the classroom. My peers read my essay and found it funny. But the teacher was annoyed. All the same my essay ended up being published in the school newspaper. This is how I learnt about the power of writing. 

Writing in an academic style has not always been enjoyable. It took me a while to relearn how to write in these highly codified ways, following the conventions of the field. But now that I have found my voice within these structures, I enjoy writing again. In the book I talk about mobility and home-making. For me, writing now seems to be a kind of home-making practice. While writing New Lives in Anand, I moved among five different cities and found a space to write in each one.

What do you read not for work or research?

I listen to novels in the form of audiobooks – mostly while taking walks or while cooking. So far, my favorite audiobook is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, read by Adjoa Andoh. It’s a love story that pans out over the decades across three continents. It is full of reflections on migration and the making, unmaking, and remaking of transnational relations.

Who inspires you?

Well, countless people have inspired me but there is one person in particular, whom I mention in the book: Mario Rutten. It was Mario who introduced me to Gujarat. He was professor in Comparative Asian Studies at the University of Amsterdam, and my mentor, colleague, and friend. Unfortunately, he suddenly fell ill and died in 2015. Yet his lifelong commitment to regionally rooted, yet transnational ethnography remains a source of inspiration to me to this day. 

What is the best piece of writing advice anyone has ever given to you?

Mario used to say: “if you have written one good piece in your life, you can trust that you can do it again.” When I get a bit lost in a big pile of fieldnotes, I still think of that. I just keep going even when I am not sure where it may lead, and trust that the “aha” moment will come. 

What piece of advice might you give to young academics looking to follow in your footsteps?

Frankly, I am not entirely sure if it’s advisable for young scholars to follow in my footsteps these days. Freedom of research and expression is shrinking around the world and India is no exception. When I started my research in Anand more than ten years ago the Indian government gave me a five-year multiple-entry research visa. To obtain it I had to go through some time-consuming bureaucratic hoops, but after that I could research, publish, and go back to India to do more research without any further questions or interference. Nowadays, scholars of India have to deal with increasingly stringent restrictions, and some have encountered political obstacles. It has not become easier to conduct research in India.

What’s next?

I have started new research on the social lives of cyclists, focusing on cities where the bicycle has been sidelined in favor of motorized transport. While the connection between Muslims in India and cycling in car-dominated cities may not be immediately obvious, both projects are centrally concerned with questions of belonging and not belonging.  

Sanderien Verstappen is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Vienna. She is the author of New Lives in Anand (2022) published by the University of Washington Press.