Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 22

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Though I decided to go back to India, which institution I’d join there took some more time to determine. I had a standing invitation from K.N. Raj at the Delhi School of Economics. Even before I left MIT he asked me to teach a course in MIT’s summer-vacation period. I went and taught part of a course, which had good students (including Amitava Bose, who in his later professional life became close to me, served as a Director of the Indian Institute of Management in Kolkata, and finally lost his long battle against cancer). But I soon found out that the only job Raj could offer me was that of a Readership (Associate Professorship), as a full Professorship was not yet vacant. Amartya-da advised me against accepting a Readership, since in Indian universities there could be ‘many a slip’ even when a Professorship became vacant. I went back to MIT after the vacation, and soon after I got a message from T.N. Srinivasan of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Delhi, offering a full Professorship there, which I accepted.

I was somewhat familiar with the Kolkata headquarters of ISI, a world-class center for statistics those days, with a leafy campus, but I did not know much about the Planning Unit of ISI in Delhi where I was to work. It did not have a campus at that time, it was originally linked to the Indian Planning Commission, which was housed in a large Government building, called Yojana Bhavan. When P.C. Mahalanobis, the distinguished statistician and founder-director of ISI was a member of the Planning Commission, from 1955 to 1967, he wanted this unit to provide research input to the planning process. By the time I joined ISI Mahalanobis had left the Planning Commission, and this unit turned itself into a general research outfit, though later some teaching of post-graduate students started. It continued being housed in that Government building until a new campus for the Delhi branch of ISI was completed.

My main attraction to this place was T.N. Srinivasan (everybody, including his son, used to call him TN—once the Danish economist Bent Hansen, who later was my colleague at Berkeley, told me that he wondered if when TN was a baby, his mother while putting him to sleep on her lap, also called him TN!). He did his dissertation (at Yale) and immediate post-dissertation work on economic theory, and yet after returning to India he immersed himself into detailed applied empirical work on the Indian economy, which is what I now intended to do, after my primarily theoretical work in the two Cambridges. For the next few years it was with TN’s meticulous guidance I plunged into the murky waters of Indian data, and also coauthored with him several papers and books, analyzing those data.

Shortly after I joined ISI TN told me that it was customary for a newly-appointed professor at ISI to go and talk to Mahalanobis for an hour or two. The latter, usually in Kolkata, was soon going to be in Delhi for a visit and would give me an appointment. I asked TN if this was an ‘interview’; TN said, not quite, but he might ask me a few questions. At the appointed hour I went to see him on a very hot afternoon at the place where he was staying. I remember he wore Khaki shorts.

Let me first give a bit of background for Mahalanobis for those who do not know much about him. He was a major figure in Bengal’s cultural and intellectual life. His family belonged to the reformist Brahmo sect, closely involved with the Tagore family which also belonged to the same sect. He was an advisor and confidant of Tagore, served as his personal assistant particularly during Tagore’s international travels, and was the general secretary of the university at Santiniketan for 10 years. During his student days at Cambridge University he became a friend of the mathematical genius Ramanujan. On his return to India he was teaching Physics at Presidency College, but became interested in the relatively new subject of Statistics, and the idea of ISI was born in his Presidency College office. He made many contributions to the field of statistics, but his major public service included setting up the framework of the Indian statistical systems, like the National Sample Survey (NSS). When Nehru involved him in Indian economic planning, he provided not merely its statistical base but also a theoretical framework (called the Mahalanobis model).

It so happened that I had met Mahalanobis a few years before that hot afternoon of the ‘interview’ in Delhi. When at MIT I was once invited by Harry Johnson, the famed international-trade economist (a large man, a Henry VIII look-alike), to give a talk in his seminar at University of Chicago. When I was a graduate student, Harry had helped me a lot by giving detailed comments on my papers in correspondence, long before I met him. After my talk Harry told me that there was a gala dinner that night at the University for a visiting Bengali professor, Mahalanobis, and he’d like to take me there. There at the large dinner table I found that Harry had arranged for me to sit next to Mahalanobis. I introduced myself to him and said in Bengali that I did not imagine having the good fortune to meet him there in Chicago. He quietly listened to me and then continued regaling the whole table about his travels in China (including his meeting with the Premier Zhou Enlai) just before coming to Chicago. At some interval he turned to me and whispered in Bengali, “You said it was a good fortune to meet me—are you interested in a job at ISI?”

I was taken aback, and slightly annoyed; I told him no, I had a good job at MIT. He said I should not misunderstand him, he was a man of clear-cut words, not given to beating-around-the-bush; he had heard good things about me from Harry, and so if I wanted I could have a job at ISI the next day. I again said no. After the dinner, maybe to assuage me, he said he was proceeding to the home of the famous Indian astrophysicist S. Chandrasekhar (later to get the Nobel Prize) and insisted that I joined him. At Chandrasekhar’s place he introduced me, but I did not have any further opportunity to talk to Mahalanobis. Little did I know at that time that I’d end up at ISI in a few years.

At the ‘interview’, I realized that he did not remember our encounter in Chicago, nor did I remind him. He started by asking me what my dissertation was on. In the first half-sentence I could utter in reply somehow the word ‘model’ was there. He immediately assumed it must have been the ‘Mahalanobis model’ of planning, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the models in my dissertation had nothing whatsoever to do with his model. Then he went on and on about various things, full of his sparkling intelligence and, of course, his self-absorption. In the one and half hours of my ‘interview’ I doubt if I uttered more than a couple of half-sentences.