Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 23

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Over the years I have heard many stories about Mahalanobis. One relates to his youth. He and Sukumar Ray (Satyajit Ray’s father, a pioneer in Bengali literature of nonsense rhymes and gibberish) were the two contemporary Brahmo whiz kids active in literati circles. They used to arrange regular meetings at someone’s home for serious discussion. But as usually happens in such Bengali middle-class gatherings, much time was taken up in the serving and enjoyment of food delicacies. Mahalanobis objected to this and said this was leaving too little time for discussion. So he sternly announced that from now on no food should be served in the meeting. For the next couple of times people morosely accepted the rule. But Sukumar subverted it, by one time arriving a little early and persuading the food-preparers in the household (usually women) that for the sake of the morale in the meeting, food-serving should be resumed. By the time Mahalanobis arrived, everybody was relishing the delicacies, which infuriated him, but he gave up.

His sternness was evident also in the way he ran ISI in Kolkata. Those days most people there had as office space only a cubicle with adjustable wooden partitions. I have heard that Mahalanobis used to express his satisfaction/dissatisfaction with your work by overnight adjustment of those partitions. In the morning you arrive and find your cubicle shrunk, so you know the Director’s adverse evaluation of your work. I used to know a very decent soft-spoken artist, B.N. Parashar who at one time worked at ISI. One morning when he saw his cubicle shrunk, he was found quietly sobbing. (When I met Parashar later, he was a renowned artist in Kolkata. This generous unassuming man was very popular with the street children near his hostel. He trained a poor village woman, Shakila, to do montage art, and she excelled in it and had several exhibitions both in India and abroad.)

When I was in high school I read a Bengali novel about a research institution run by a revered authoritarian Director–later I came to know that the author was an ex-employee of ISI. Once when the ISI workers’ union was restive with the Director’s rule, I am told Mahalanobis summoned the union leaders and warned that if they gave him trouble he was going to wind up ISI; and that he and his wife had stored large numbers of letters that Tagore had written to them, they could manage the rest of their lives by selling the publishing rights to those valuable letters, but if ISI closed down what would these workers eat?

At the same time it is undeniable that he not merely got together and stimulated the work of a large number of excellent Indian statisticians at ISI, he also attracted some of the world’s leading statisticians and scientists (and some economists) to come and visit ISI during its heydays.

One of the distinguished people who came to ISI and stayed on and became an Indian citizen was JBS Haldane, possibly 20th century’s most accomplished biologist. I remember when I was a student in Kolkata we often went to the ISI library, as it had the best journal collection in Kolkata. In that library we often saw this large Englishman in an Indian tunic, with a fat unlit cigar in hand, reading Biometrika. I now wish I had the courage to go and talk to this formidable-looking man. Later I read a lot about his eccentric personality. As a Marxist, he once claimed that reading Lenin cured his gastritis. He said political dissent led him to leave England for India, but another reason was that he’d not have to wear socks—“sixty years in socks is enough”, he said.

He often experimented on himself. In one of his self-experiments he suffered perforated eardrums: he later said, “The drum generally heals up; and if a hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment”. Once in Trinity College, Cambridge he was going to be appointed a Fellow, but he ruined his chances when he brought along a large jar of urine from his laboratory to the College dining table.

When he was asked by some theologians what he’d tell God if he met Him after his death, he replied that he’d ask why He had a partiality for beetles—there are apparently 400,000 known species of beetles in the world. (Another atheist, Bertrand Russell, when asked the same question, was reported to have said that he’d ask Him why He made the proof of His existence so hard).

The day I joined ISI at Yojana Bhavan, one of the first things TN told me was about the state of toilets. The ISI offices were located on the sixth floor, and those days in all Government buildings the higher-up in the building the worse were the facilities, due to water-pressure problems and more people. So he recommended that I should go down to the second floor where the offices of the exalted members of the Planning Commission were located and the toilets were better. Thus during my days at ISI I mainly went to the Planning Commission area to relieve myself. In that area I also noted that all the offices were air-conditioned (while our offices on the sixth floor were not), and each air-conditioned office had an attendant at beck-and-call seated just outside the closed doors, stewing in the heat. Our offices at least had ceiling fans.

I remember my friend George Akerlof, from MIT and later Berkeley, on a one-year visit to ISI had a sixth-floor office, but he’d not switch on the ceiling fan. I asked him why, and he said all his loose papers would fly away, which made him crazy. I told him about the paper-weights, but he found that was too arduous, and so while at work in his office he was bathing in streams of sweat. Another time I visited George in the apartment he was staying at. I found half of his living room taken by stacked-up V-8 juice cans. He said his stomach could not stand spicy Indian food, so he mainly subsisted on V-8 juice, which he procured from the American embassy where a large supply came at the beginning of every month. Yet here was George busy finishing that path-breaking paper of his, which was later to get him the Nobel Prize. (Most western readers are surprised by the first few pages in that paper, full of Indian examples).

Yojana Bhavan being a Government building had a liveried gateman who’d check your ID card for entry. Every day I had a long bus journey to reach there. The bus stop was near the gate and every day he’d take some minutes to scrutinize my ID card. One day I was called in office by an American friend who was visiting Delhi and he offered to take me to lunch. After lunch he dropped me at the gate of Yojana Bhavan in his large American car. The gateman saw me coming out of that car. He not merely did not ask for my ID card, as a bonus I got a big ostentatious salute.