Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 10

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Presidency College had a good Department of Economics and Political Science. I’d say that the teaching standard at my time there would compare quite favorably with the standard I found later when teaching undergraduate classes in Berkeley. I remember in my first lecture in Berkeley in a large undergraduate class I was using some bit of calculus. After my class a female student came to see me to complain about the use of calculus in class. I told her that I was not using any advanced calculus, so if she brushed up her high school-level calculus she should have no difficulty in following the class. She said that in her high school in Carmel, a California coastal town, there was the option to take either calculus or yoga, and she had chosen the latter. I told her, unhelpfully, that this was a choice unheard-of in the land of yoga, India, and, I thought to myself, certainly in Presidency College.

One outstanding teacher I had there was Bhabatosh Datta. I can say that if I have to count four or five best Economics teachers anywhere in the world, I’d include him in the list. He not merely had an excellent expository style, more importantly he inspired us, even as undergraduates, to aspire to reach the frontier of the subject. I remember once rushing to the Library to take out a front-ranking research journal (Quarterly Journal of Economics) to read up some new article that he referred to in class. This is somewhat rare at the undergraduate level in most parts of the world. Of course, I did not understand half the article without taking his help. As the poet Robert Browning said, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp; by pushing us this way Datta wanted to see us achieve more.

While he was teaching us abstract economic theory in class, we used to read in newspapers (and in the pages of EW) his frequent writings on Indian economic policy. While most of these writings were in English we hardly knew that he was at that time editing a large set of economic essays as part of the massive enterprise to bring out a Bengali Encyclopedia undertaken by the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad (Bengali Literary Society). Shortly after my graduation he invited me to write essays for that Encyclopedia. A couple of decades later he invited me to write a book in the Economics book series in Bengali for the common reader that he was co-editing. All in all he was a great inspiration for me in many ways.

On several occasions in my later years in different parts of the world, people have asked me why among the prominent Indian economists there are so many Bengalis. I have usually responded jocularly that Bengalis are notoriously bad in business, so they tell the world how difficult it is to make money, and thus they all become experts in the economics of poverty. But the real answer has partly to do with the high standards of undergraduate Economics teaching in Presidency College for some postwar decades, begun by professors like Bhabatosh Datta; the other part of the answer I suppose has to do with role models—when Amartya Sen and his Presidency contemporary Sukhamoy Chakraborty published several research articles in top international Economics journals, it inspired generations that came later to the College.

Another legendary teacher in College was Dipak Banerjee (many people now hear about him as the father of the Nobel-laureate economist, Abhijit Banerjee); he has inspired generations of students, including Abhijit. Unfortunately for me, he joined the College only a few months before I left it. In those few months he taught us a course on the rather dry subject of Methodology, but later students have experienced the whole range of his teaching in diverse fields of Economics.

But I had the good fortune to know him personally outside and beyond College. He was fond of me, and it was a pleasure to know this attractive person, a man of versatile interests, great style, and charming conversational wit. Over the years whenever I have been in Kolkata I have never missed an opportunity to visit him (his wife, Nirmala, a noted economist, and Abhijit) and bask in the warm glow of the Banerjee household. I have known Abhijit since when he was quite young, and to this day treat him like a younger brother. When Abhijit and Nirmala invited me to give the first Dipak Banerjee Memorial Lecture in College, after his untimely death, I remembered how he had encouraged me to keep on writing in Bengali, and on an impulse I gave the Lecture in Bengali (although the prepared slides I had were in English).

Dipak Banerjee fought a valiant but losing battle in protecting the high standards of Economics teaching at Presidency College against interference by the Left Government in West Bengal in the name of anti-elitism. Of course, such interference in Government-funded educational institutions is not the monopoly of the Left, it continued with successive Governments as part of their political patronage distribution. Now the right-wing Government in Delhi with their pernicious ideological agenda is systematically decimating educational institutions that they consider as full of liberals and lefties, and taking every opportunity to stack them with loyalists. I shall later discuss as I have seen from inside how a public university like the University of California, Berkeley tries to maintain institutional insulation from the political process and preserves world-class academic excellence.

In my Presidency College Economics class I was particularly close to three students: Manish Nandy, Kamal Mitra, and Kalpana Bose. Manish, an accomplished debater, was the first to encourage me to participate in college debates. He and I were both interested in literature, and in writing both in English and Bengali. Both of us were somewhat allergic to the typical Bengali inclination for over-sentimentality and verbosity; in reaction we were somewhat reticent/condensed in our expressions both in talking and writing. Through Manish I got to know his remarkable family, particularly his elder brother the social-psychologist Ashis Nandy (on whom more later).

Kamal had a distinctive style, with curiosity more into human-interest stories than intellectual ones. He used to stay with his grandfather, Satyen Bose, the famous physicist–the subatomic particle Boson, that follows what is called Bose-Einstein statistics, is named after him. There is a story that once he was being felicitated in a big Kolkata public gathering, suddenly in the middle of it he said, ”What am I doing here?” and promptly left. He was a great promoter of Bengali writing in science (Tagore dedicated his science book, Vishwa Parichay, to him). We regularly visited Kamal at his house. At home Bose often played the Indian stringed instrument Esraj, and while playing it alone in his room sometimes tears would stream down his cheeks. We heard the music, but never dared going near his room.

Kalpana and I started going out together while in College. We did not have the resources to go to any clubs or posh lounges. So we mostly went to public parks, and took long walks in the streets of Kolkata, miles and miles, quite a feat of what the French call ‘flânerie’. After four years or so, we married.