Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 11

by Pranab Bardhan

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

At age twenty-three, after a brief stint of teaching at Calcutta University, I, accompanied by Kalpana, proceeded to Britain on a Commonwealth Scholarship. The Scholars from different parts of India were asked to assemble in Delhi, from where we were to take the international flight. The only experience I had of an air flight before was when I flew from Kolkata to Guwahati, representing Calcutta University in an inter-University debating competition. That flight experience had not been good, as our propeller-driven Dakota plane had hit a supposed ‘air pocket’. So I had some unnecessary trepidation for the long Delhi-London flight.

A few months before I went to Delhi Jagdish Bhagwati, already a star economist, had written an article in EW advocating the case for devaluation of the Indian rupee, to which I wrote a kind of counter, arguing for a more general policy. When Jagdish read it in EW, he enquired with Sachin Chaudhuri who I was. I got a message from Chaudhuri that as I was soon to be in Delhi, Jagdish wanted to see me there. In Delhi he (and his colleague and partner, Padma Desai) took me to Delhi School of Economics. This was a good opportunity for me to know Jagdish particularly as his expertise was in International Trade Theory, an area I was planning to specialize in, and Jagdish gave me appropriate encouragement. I also met there K.N.Raj (more on him later), the doyen of Indian economists at that time—many years later when Samuelson at MIT challenged me if I knew any low-caste Indian economist, after a frantic mental search Raj’s name came handy.

In the administration of Commonwealth Scholarships those days the host country (in my case Britain) was to decide which University the student would be assigned to, and they were inclined to send students to British Universities that were less in demand. They had initially chosen the University of Glasgow for me, but when Amartya Sen (whom I had not yet met but had correspondence with) came to know about this, he persuaded the administrators to switch my scholarship to Cambridge University. In the University a College then had to be chosen. Amartya-da who was a Fellow at Trinity College told me that all the seats in the College that year were already taken; he introduced me to a Fellow at Pembroke College who then arranged for my admission there. Kalpana got admission at Newnham College.

The day we arrived at Cambridge the British Council put us up in a hotel for three days, and asked us to find some accommodation ourselves in that period. We went to a housing office which gave us a list of rental vacancies. We took that list and went to several places, but everywhere they said that there was no vacancy. We went back to the housing office, and they were (apparently) puzzled, as their office was supposed to be notified whenever a vacancy was filled. After a couple of days’ futile search it suddenly dawned on me that the landladies simply did not like how we looked.

On the third day of search we gave up on the housing office lists, someone in the Economics Department advised me to look into the rental ads in the local evening newspaper, Cambridge News. After a couple of failed searches from the ads there, I chanced upon an ad which at the end added a significant expression which I have not forgotten to this day: it said “No petty restrictions”. We rushed there even though it was a bit far from the campus, and immediately got a bed-sitter for us to stay in. The house was a bit dingy, and in weekends there were loud parties and splashes of vomit in some crannies, but for us “No petty restrictions” was a great relief. We needed lots of coins to feed into the machines for gas fire in our room and for heating the water for the shower. Several times in the middle of the shower money ran out and cold water started coming out relentlessly and you had to jump out. There was a common kitchen with a stove to share with the other tenants on the floor. I remember a Nigerian co-tenant took hours to get his meat ‘properly’ cooked; while waiting for him to finish, I’d be regaled by him with stories about Nigeria (including how his Igbo community people were ‘superior’ to the northern Nigerians—this, incidentally, was the time just before the Igbos in Biafra seceded from Nigeria and a devastating civil war ensued).

Another co-tenant, a sweet French girl named Claudine, once got me into trouble. One day she frantically came to me asking for help in kicking out a ‘guest’ in her room who was obviously overstaying his welcome. Since my childhood I have always, I think prudently, tried to avoid situations where there was a possibility of fights, particularly with bigger fellows, but here I was with a ‘damsel in distress’ appealing for help. So very gingerly I went to her room (imagining to myself the scenes where Charlie Chaplin fought with big men in some of his films). To my good fortune, the man in her room, quite drunk, eyed me closely, grabbed a bottle, and left the room cursing both of us all the while.

Cambridge is a beautiful city, so the outside made up for much of the drabness of our living arrangements. In any case to save on heating costs we both spent much of the day and the evening in libraries and other university spaces where there was central heating. Later I found out how some other people, financially constrained like us, saved on heating costs.

In some of the Cambridge cinema halls they’d often have film retrospectives of various important European directors, which I had missed in Kolkata. Twice or thrice every week I used to steal away from my desk in the library to watch movies in the matinee show, which were cheaper than the regular shows. The halls at that hour were largely empty, except for some old people who had found out that given the senior discounts for the matinee show, they were a much cheaper source of warmth than heating their own homes in the damp cold of Cambridge. Thus many an afternoon in those dark halls, amidst a symphony of snoring pensioners, I undauntedly concentrated on the sublime films.

In Kolkata the Film Societies often showed more-easily-available East European films, usually involving grim, but occasionally gripping, stories of heroic life struggles under Nazi occupation. (I realized much later that some of these stories were also indirect protests of the directors against the then Soviet domination in their countries. This was the case, for example, in some of the films of the great Polish director, Andrzej Wajda; his father was among the thousands of Polish officers killed in Katyn forest by Stalin’s secret police).

So in Cambridge I came upon what can be called an ‘abundanza’ of European art films. To borrow the words of the Irish writer John Banville, for me it was an “opulent pleasure garden where I sipped and sucked, dazed as a bumblebee in full-blown summer” (though Banville’s context was exploring a lover’s body).