by Pranab Bardhan
One remarkable redeeming feature of my dingy neighborhood in Kolkata was that within half a mile or so there was my historically distinctive school, and across the street from there was Presidency College, one of the very best undergraduate colleges in India at that time (my school and that College were actually part of the same institution for the first 37 years until 1854), adjacent was an intellectually vibrant coffeehouse, and the whole surrounding area had the largest book district of India—and as I grew up I made full use of all of these.
College life was a big and refreshing change for me in many ways. There was a lot of independence and opportunity to think in new ways and participate in a great deal of vigorous discussion in a whole range of discourse, including radical thoughts and risqué topics. Interaction with so many bright young minds all around was scintillating. Also, the proximity of so many women (this was my first experience of a co-educational institution) added to the excitement. There was, of course, a lot of one-upmanship, intellectual pretensions, and showing-off. But in general the discussion both in college, and in the coffeehouse (which was really an extension of the college) usually rose above all that. There were invidious class distinctions among students, many of them coming from far richer households than mine, thus with more access to not just material goods—they were much less shabbily dressed than I was–but cultural artifacts and networks and the inevitable name-dropping. But soon I figured out that I was not any less well-read and politically less aware or informed than some of the rich or culturally snobbish students, and that, to my giddy delight, even some women were prepared to listen to what I had to say. Slowly I developed an intellectual confidence to overcome some, though clearly not all, of the class barriers.
The College had inspiring teachers in many fields. At the beginning my most favorite fields were History and Literature. I was an avid reader in literature; in college I had regular interactions with students both in English and Bengali literature. One of my maternal uncles who stayed with us accumulated a large number of cheap-edition books which the USSR used to distribute in India at throw-away prices. My uncle’s collection had the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, but also of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gorky. In high school I found the prose in the former set too dense to do more than leafing through; but the latter set of literature books I gorged on. Earlier, apart from bits of Shakespeare to Dickens to Graham Greene, I remember having a special liking for Huxley’s dry novel Point Counterpoint. In College after reading Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins about the intellectual milieu in Paris I was so fascinated that I thought (unrealistically) about writing a similar novel on the Kolkata milieu. In the long break between high school and college I had systematically gone through many of the classic novels and short story collections in the treasure-house of Bengali literature. Each afternoon I used to go out for long walks with a school friend who was also a literature freak, and we used to discuss our previous day’s readings in a frenzied, intoxicated way.
Among my contemporaries in College in Bengali literature were Arun Sen, later a noted Marxist literary critic, and Prasanta Pal, the famous Tagore biographer. I was close to Prasanta for many years (I was the first to take him to Santiniketan, he used to remind me). He was planning the Tagore multi-volume biography all the way to Tagore’s death-year 1941. After his terminal cancer was diagnosed, I have seen how heroic and indefatigable his attempt was to get all the materials to write as much as he could. He ruefully commented to me: “It’s a race between my death and that of the ‘old man’ (Tagore)”. Prasanta’s end came too soon, and he could finish only the 9th volume (taking Tagore to 1926).
In College among my contemporaries in English literature Gayatri Chakravorty (later Spivak) is now most well-known. But I also used to interact with the poet and writer, Ketaki Kushari (later Dyson)—who, I remember, as the editor of the College magazine made me write an English essay on the literature of the then ‘angry young men’ in England, as well as a Bengali short story, a rather sentimental one—and with Samik Banerjee, now one of Kolkata’s distinguished theater and cinema critics. Gayatri, Samik, and I had represented the College in debating teams in English; Samik and I also participated in debates in Bengali. In recent years Samik has been my unfailing guide in the world of theater and cinema in Kolkata, taking me to many of the performances, and introducing me to some of the notable actors and directors. Samik also once took a long interview with me for a magazine in film criticism on how as a social scientist I looked at the last few decades of Bengali cinema.
The experience of debating in college helped me in many ways. First, it removed the stage-fright of speaking, which has helped in my later career of giving lectures from public fora to large audiences. Also, in many of the debate competitions, we were told only at the last minute what the topic was, or we did not know if we were to speak for or against the main proposition. This gave us the practice of thinking on our feet and of carefully considering both the pros and cons on a given topic. The latter was consistent with my general mode of thinking: on many issues I can see both sides to some extent, and often take a middle position. This displeases passionate partisan people. After a lecture in England many years back, where I pointed to both sides on the state vs. market debate, a veteran development economist came up to me and said that it seemed to him that I was ‘running with the hare and hunting with the hounds’. As Ambrose Bierce, the 19th century American writer, said, “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road, they get run over”. Throughout my professional life, I have been a little skeptical of certitude, and more comfortable with ambiguity and complexity. Vaclav Havel is reported to have said, “Keep the company of those who seek the truth; run from those who have found it”.
But in college debates in English the style at my time was a certain British Council-encouraged light frothy style, where the topic did not matter, the main purpose was to keep the audience entertained through sharp repartees, jokes and putdowns. (I knew some debaters who collected jokes and used them whatever the topic was). This did not quite agree with me, even apart from my disabilities in those years in light English conversation as opposed to bookish talks. Later in my life I was twice invited to the Oxford Union, the mecca of such British-style debate. Both times I had some other engagements, so I declined. Somehow it also did not seem worthwhile for me to fly from California for such a short flashy performance.