Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 9

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Sachin Chaudhuri, who lived in Bombay, came to know, I think from Binod Chaudhuri, about my teenage forays into writing political pieces, and he asked me to share them with him, and sent back detailed (handwritten) comments on them. A little later he started encouraging me to write for EW (copies of which he sent me every week). But I was too diffident; I was a neophyte Economics student, and I knew of EW’s sky-high reputation (Prime Minister Nehru had a standing instruction to his assistants that as soon as the weekly comes out it should immediately be at his desk). Many years later in my MIT days when I met Paul Samuelson, the great American economist, he once told me that he thought EW was a unique magazine, having topical columns on every week’s events and at the same time publishing specialized analytical articles, some quite technical. I found out that he, like many stalwart economists and other social scientists in the world at that time, had himself written for EW—this was partly a tribute to the magnetic personality of Sachin Chaudhuri which attracted some of the finest minds and created a rich intellectual aura around the magazine.

Finally I yielded, and my first EW article (it was a review article on a book by the Chicago economist Bert Hoselitz, the founding editor of the journal Economic Development and Cultural Change) came out while I was still at Presidency College. Since then over many decades I have lost count of the number of pieces I have contributed to EW and its successor EPW, some articles on quantitative analysis, some others straightforward opinion pieces. (Every time I have felt like paying a small part of my debt to Sachin Chaudhuri).

In my interactions with him I was struck by two of his special qualities. One was that he argued with me at equal levels. I remember, when Milovan Djilas, an ex-Vice President of the then Yugoslavia, came out with his book, The New Class: An Analysis of the Communist System—referring to the party bureaucracy under such a system having the characteristics of a dominant class—it caused quite a stir, and the communists were, of course, scathing in their criticism. I wrote a review article on the book, finding some elements where I agreed, and found it belonging to the tradition of disillusioned communists who had seen the system from inside, like Trotsky, who in his 1937 book The Revolution Betrayed analyzed the impact of what he called a ‘bureaucratic caste’ in the communist system. Sachin Chaudhuri told me that while he partly agreed with me, he thought I was going too far in the other direction. We argued back and forth in (handwritten) letters, but he was always very fair and decent even in disagreement. The other attribute of his that impressed me was the catholicity of his views. Amlan Datta once described him to me as ‘the most liberal among leftists, the most leftist among liberals’. It was his broad-mindedness and openness to all kinds of intellectual discourse that attracted to the pages of EW and EPW intellectuals from the whole range of the political spectrum.

When I was a student at Cambridge, England, Sachin Chaudhuri visited there for a Term. Since he was less busy there than he was in Bombay, I had a great opportunity to have long conversations with him on wide-ranging topics, including, of course, the Indian economy and polity. Cambridge at that time had some fans of Mao Zedong both among students and faculty—observing them, he privately expressed to me his skepticism about the fad.

He was also very generous as a person. I have been told that in Bombay it was widely known that his large apartment (which he shared with his brother Hiten Chaudhuri, a film producer and businessman) was open at all hours to guests. There was apparently a standing instruction to their live-in servant/caretaker that when any guest comes, he was to make arrangements for their comfortable stay. Once a gentleman whom neither of the Chaudhuri brothers knew, was looking for a place to stay in Bombay, and was unsuccessful in his search. Then someone asked him to try the Chaudhuri apartment. When he arrived at the apartment neither brother was around, and the servant followed his instruction of arranging for the new guest’s food and lodging. In the next few days each brother casually greeted the guest, assuming that he must be an invitee of the other brother. One day in the morning Hiten Chaudhuri was having his tea and reading his newspaper, while in another part of the room this guest was doing the same. At one point the guest, just to strike up a conversation, told Hiten that the arrangement at this place was nice indeed; he assumed that Hiten must also be a casual guest like him. Hiten said, “What do you mean?” You can imagine the rest of the conversation.

I first met Sachin Chaudhuri in Kolkata at another brother’s apartment, when I was still in college. One time he came to visit our house, and commented on the number of sweetshops in the neighborhood; I said Kolkata was unrivalled in the number of rosogollas (a favorite Bengali sweet) and poets per square mile. I last met him when I was on my way from Kolkata to my teaching job at MIT, and he had asked me to stop on the way and stay with him at his apartment in Bombay. He threw a dinner party for me, and afterward took me to his study and insisted that I wrote an EPW editorial for the next issue, and kept on plying me with my favorite after-dinner liqueurs. It was quite late when I finished, and then, half-drunk, I overslept, and almost missed my morning flight. A few weeks later my MIT colleague Paul Rosenstein-Rodan walked into my office and grimly said, “Sachin is no more”.

When the three people who were most influential in my intellectual development in early youth—my father and his two classmates—passed away, apart from grief I also felt desolate that I had lot more things left to discuss with them. In my father’s case I was actually expecting to see him as part of my regular visit; I was on an India-bound plane for this visit, but by the time I arrived after the long journey from California he was suddenly gone, a cousin had just completed the cremation. Long time back my father had instructed me not to follow any after-death rituals, so I did not. But soon a priest appeared from nowhere and kept on insisting that at least some minimum Hindu rites have to be performed. When I stubbornly refused, he became angry and started cursing me that my father’s ‘unpropitiated soul’ was going to haunt me and the house, at which point I showed him the door.

I remembered a story attributed to Voltaire who was opposed to most established religions. On his deathbed a priest arrived to give him one last chance of redemption and asked him to disown the Devil. At this Voltaire is reported to have whispered: “Father, this is not the time to make new enemies”.