Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 14

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Among other members in the Economics faculty at Cambridge, there was the great Italian scholar, Piero Sraffa. He was administratively the professor-in-charge of us, graduate students. So I met him a few times in that connection, but never quite intellectually engaged with him, partly because by that time he was a bit reclusive and did not teach classes or attend seminars; but also because I was so much in awe of his reputation in areas where I had little expertise. His work in Economics was path-breaking in taking price theory to its classical roots, he had an influence on Wittgenstein’s philosophy (which the latter acknowledged), and he was a close friend of the Italian Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci (when the latter was jailed by Mussolini in 1926, Sraffa used to regularly supply him with books and even pen and paper, with which Gramsci wrote his famous Prison Notebooks, procured by Sraffa from the prison authorities after Gramsci’s death in 1937).

Other faculty members with whom I wish I had more interaction were Nicholas Kaldor, Maurice Dobb (I did tell him that his book had helped me come to Economics), and Luigi Pasinetti (many years later when I gave the first Luca d’Agliano Lecture in Development Economics in Turin, Luigi called me from Milan, which was a pleasant surprise, and we had a long talk). Both Kalpana and I saw quite a bit of two young faculty members, one was Geoff Harcourt (the friendly Australian) and Ajit Singh, an astute Marxist academic and organizer (the leftists, including some gorgeous upper-class British women, doted on him).

Among students I knew quite a few Italians, including Michele and Bianca Salvati (Michele later became a member of the Italian Parliament and a major ‘theoretician’ for the Democratic Party of the Left), Giorgio La Malfa (he once took me around Napoli and the beautiful island of Capri, later a leader in the Italian Republican Party and twice a Minister in the Italian Government), and Marcello di Cecco (when he was in the University of Rome, every time I passed through, he’d take me to dinner at superb Italian restaurants and talk in his world-weary savvy way). We had a South African fellow student, Francis Wilson, who later was a professor at the University of Cape Town. When in 2000 the International Labor Organization in Geneva invited me to give their Nobel Peace Prize Lecture in South Africa I jumped at the opportunity to make my first visit to South Africa. After my lectures were over, Francis took me and Kalpana to a long trip to the north, almost to the border of Namibia, and it was that (brief) time of the year when the nearby deserts were all in bloom which was a feast for the eye. His wife Lindy, a noted documentary filmmaker, showed us her remarkable film The Guguletu Seven.

The South Asian friends with whom we were close included Aziz Khan and Swadesh Bose of Bangladesh, and Uswatte Arachchi and Nalini de Silva of Sri Lanka. Nalini, a no-nonsense Sinhalese woman, decided to marry a fellow student from Sri Lanka who was Tamil, and all hell broke loose at her family back home, with whom she finally decided to break relations. Until then I underestimated the intensity of hatred for Tamils among some Sinhalese, about which I knew only vaguely. (This was almost two decades before the ethnic civil war broke out in Sri Lanka). Much later Uswatte invited me to give lectures to graduate students in Colombo, and I saw the elaborate military security arrangements all around Colombo, amidst ethnic hatred run amok in a beautiful lush green island. We kept up with Aziz and Swadesh and their families in their later professional career (particularly when Aziz was teaching at University of California, Riverside, and Swadesh was at the World Bank). At Cambridge Aziz had introduced us to the songs of Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Aziz also shared my avidity for Bengali literature. Swadesh had a past life of leftist party work and imprisonment in East-Pakistan days; he had quite an acute sense of current politics which is what I mostly discussed with him.

In our last year in Cambridge one of the retired teachers of Kalpana’s Newnham College rented us a large room, where we moved. This was in a quiet, leafy area of Cambridge, and a short walking distance from the Economics Department. Soon our room became the meeting place of several of our Indian friends almost every evening. Some like the historian Premen Addy (friend from my Presidency College days) would often come early in the evening and announce to Kalpana that the food at the college dining hall was particularly ‘inedible’ and politely ask her to feed him.

Shortly thereafter, others—Kalyan Mukherjea, a mathematics student (in later life a professor at UCLA and then at Indian Statistical Institute, but also, importantly, a professional player of the Indian stringed instrument sarod), Prabir Roy, a physics student (later to be professor at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai), Suhas Chakravarty, a history student (later taught at Delhi University), and Partha Dasgupta, an economics student (later a professor at Cambridge) would arrive. Quite intensive discussion, after a point in a somewhat hushed tone (as the Newnham teacher retired to bed rather early), fueled by drinks, followed until late into the night. Then after midnight all will depart, with the frequent exception of a drunk Kalyan, who’d declare with half-closed eyes that he’d like to spend the night there, and promptly fell asleep. But then his loud snoring kept us awake much of the rest of the night.

Before the Newnham lady went to bed, Kalyan would often lustily sing for us, and occasionally entertained us with his musical spoofs. Sometimes along with him an effervescent Telugu woman, another mathematics student, Sucharita Desiraju, would arrive. She was the grand-daughter of the philosopher and President of India, Radhakrishnan. I was told that the son of Pakistan’s the-then military ruler Ayub Khan who was a student at Cambridge once propositioned Sucharita and said that between the two of them the India-Pakistan problems could be resolved, but Sucharita rebuffed him, obviously not mindful enough of those problems.

Talking of progeny of country leaders, Nehru’s grandson, Rajiv Gandhi was also then a student at Cambridge, often seen together with an Italian woman, named Sonia, but I did not know them. (I met Sonia Gandhi later in 2010 when she invited me to a conference in Delhi at the Nehru Museum. When the invitation originally came to my email, I was at the point of deleting it, which I usually did with the frequent invitations I used to get those days from the widows of various African dictators eager to share their wealth with me, and I thought here was another such email from another political widow.) Rajiv’s brother, Sanjay, was also sometimes in the area, though not a student. Rumor had it that he was into fancy cars, and if he saw one he liked parked in the street, he’d take it for a joyride, with or without the owner’s permission. His penchant for cars and for taking liberty with other people were both quite evident in his later life.