Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 16

by Pranab Bardhan

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

When Robert Solow asked me in Cambridge if I’d like to join the faculty at MIT in the other Cambridge, I was taken aback, and asked for some time to think about it. Until then I never imagined living in the US, a country I had never visited before, and what I saw in Hollywood films was not always attractive. I was planning to go back to India where my aging parents, younger siblings, and the majority of my friends were.

There was also a mental block. Growing up in the leftist environment of Bengal, I had developed a visceral distaste for the American political regime in general, its imperial hegemony and its support of oppressive regimes all over the world in the name of fighting the cold war. The ongoing Vietnam War was obviously a major irritant. At the same time I knew that in the world of new ideas, entrepreneurial innovations, and academic excellence American preeminence was undeniable. In particular MIT Economics Department was then, as now, one of the top two or three Departments in the world.

Most of my friends told me that it was silly of me not to give an immediate positive response to Solow. When I asked about how it was like living in US, most of them were not very helpful. Only Kalyan, the mathematics student, who had some experience of living there, told me that it should be fine, except that I had to be mindful about two things: (a) whenever there was a policeman around, I should keep my hands out of my pockets, otherwise I’d be shot on suspicion of hiding a gun; and (b) I should minimize visits to doctors, not just for the expense involved (particularly compared to NHS in UK), but also because American doctors were supposedly ‘knife-happy’, on the slightest pretext they’d cut out a limb or two, as fees they got from surgery were high!

After about two months of dilly-dallying I accepted Solow’s offer. The process of getting a visa at the London embassy was highly bureaucratic (and included questions like if I ever was a communist, if I ever felt like committing suicide, etc.; strangely, the next time I went for American visa these questions were not asked—presumably once you’ve seen Disneyland, you’d no longer have communist or suicidal propensities).

Through a local friend I rented an apartment just a few steps away from Harvard Square, which was a boon as it was only two subway stops from my Department at MIT, apart from the various delights of Harvard Square (two or three cinema halls, a variety of restaurants, book stores with one of them open 24 hours, walking access to seminars and talks at Harvard, etc.). I did not have a car (or a driver’s license) in Kolkata or Cambridge, England; I barely managed with the same in Cambridge, Mass. This was possible because of the tolerably good public transportation connections from Harvard Square, and also because an MIT economics student from Kolkata, Sanjit Bose, and his wife Uttara became close friends, and often took us around to various long-distance places. For instance, thanks to them a drive through northern areas like New Hampshire during ‘Fall colors’ time was a dazzling experience.

Along with me, several other young economists were hired at MIT that year, including Joe Stiglitz (a future Nobel laureate), Duncan Foley (from a Quaker family, later a Marxist professor at the New School for Social Research), Miguel Sidrauski (cancer claimed this Argentinian friend in a couple of years), and Michael Piore (the labor economist). Duncan and his wife Helene (a classics scholar) became our good friends; we often met and went to movies together (including “Bonnie & Clyde” and “The Graduate”, which represented turning-points for Hollywood movies).

Both Joe Stiglitz and I worked until quite late at night in our offices which were close together. Late evenings the janitors would come to sweep the floors and clean the bins. Sometimes they’d sit down in our rooms and chat about the latest in sports, weather, or politics. To Joe this was routine, but he did not realize how pleasantly out-of-the-ordinary it was for me, coming from India. To this day in India I have never seen a sweeper or toilet-cleaner daring to sit and chat with professors (or students). This level of social equality (even allowing for all the dark history of racial discrimination and oppression) had been a distinctive characteristic of US, even compared to Europe (I remember Gramsci writing about Italian society someday aspiring to reach the American level of social equality). When the janitor at our apartment building found out that I was an economist, he said he’d try to be my ‘buddy’, so that he can get tips about how to make money (little did he know that I had no clue).

Arriving in US, some changes in my daily life compared to that in India or England struck me (of course, these were days long before globalization and internet rendering the American experience almost universal—the German film-maker Wim Wenders once said that America had even colonized his sub-conscious). One big change was the relentless assault of commercials throughout the day, either in TV, radio or in the streets crowded with billboards. A second was an excessively cheerful way of people greeting one another, and stating how ‘awesome’ or ‘amazing’ or ‘fantastic’ things were. It was difficult for me to match such ebullience. Third, in shops and elsewhere there was an exasperating amount of choices to be made at every point. I went to an ice cream shop, and was immediately asked to choose from the 32 flavors displayed on the board. After a lot of effort when I chose one, then a great deal of more choices were thrust on me—cone or cup, plain cone or sugar cone, single scoop or double scoop, and so on. I commented to a friend that such abundance of choice in the ice cream shop was in sharp contrast with the limited choices in political candidates one faced (at least those days). Fourth, I was not at all prepared for the clock changing in the Fall and in Spring—I became suddenly aware of the relativity of time. Fifth, compared to England the heating and bathing facilities (including the mixing of hot and cold water in the same tap) were usually much more satisfactory. Sixth, I did not realize how bone-chillingly cold Boston winters were.

One obvious change in our daily life was, of course, that from an impecunious student I had now become a salaried professor. This, of course, was relative. While going to Chicago shortly afterward to give a seminar, my seatmate on the plane, a businessman, asked me what I did for a living. When I said I was teaching at MIT, I thought he’d be impressed; instead he took a pitiful look at me and my career choice and said, “Don’t you mind being poor?”  I remembered someone once telling me that matrimonial ads in Indian newspapers, after spelling out the desired lucrative occupations of the groom (company executives, or government jobs like income tax officers whose non-salary sources of income could be significant) sometimes added, considerately, that “professors will do”.