Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 25

by Pranab Bardhan

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

At my ISI office there were several good economists. Apart from TN, there was B.S. Minhas, Kirit Parikh, Suresh Tendulkar, Sanjit Bose (my friend from MIT days), V.K. Chetty, Dipankar Dasgupta, and others. Of these in many ways the most colorful character was Minhas. A shaved un-turbaned Sikh, he used to tell us about his growing up in a poor farmer family in a Punjab village, where he was the first in his family to go to school. He went to Stanford for doctorate, before returning to India. He relished, a bit too much, his role as the man who spoke the blunt truth to everyone including politicians, policy-makers and academics. He illustrated his Punjabi style by telling the Bengalis that he had heard that in Bengal when a man had a tiff with his wife, he’d go without food rather than eat the food his wife had cooked; he said at home he did quite the opposite: “I go to the fridge, take out my food and eat it; then if I am still upset, I go to the fridge again and take out my wife’s food and eat it all up—serves her right!”

At ISI Bose, Dasgupta and Chetty were theorists; Minhas, TN, Parikh and Tendulkar did multi-sector planning models as well as quantitative studies of particular sectors like agriculture, water, energy, etc. TN, as probably India’s most versatile economist ever, did both theory and empirical quantitative work. (He and I started editing a new journal on Quantitative Economics, which later became the journal of Indian Econometric Society). To my great benefit, TN was also most knowledgeable about Indian data.

Without TN’s guiding hand at the beginning I’d have felt completely out of my depth in the data world. These were days when data were stored in boxes of computer punch-cards. Data storage was often in awful condition—I used to jokingly ask how we could be sure that some of the data in the form of holes in the punch-cards were not made by the insects that infested the store rooms.

I particularly delved deep into data collected by the National Sample Survey (NSS), which was one of the great contributions of Mahalanobis to the Indian statistical system. He brought Indian data and survey design to the world frontier—I have heard that when in the 1950’s Zhou Enlai first visited India, he was impressed by the advanced stage of Indian survey data collection, compared to China. I also learned a great deal in my discussion with bright statisticians like Nikhilesh Bhattacharyya and others at the Kolkata ISI, who were immersed in survey design and meticulous analysis of NSS data. In addition, there were many veterans of field-level data collection in the NSS office, long chats with whom made me aware both of the high-quality parts of the data and the pitfalls to avoid, which a simple crunching of the punch-card data would never have brought out. After several years abroad of mostly manipulating equations in my theoretical research, this was a big change for me, dirtying my hands with massive amounts of data, which brought me often a lot of exasperation and frustration but also occasional spurts of exhilaration.

Every day at lunch time we used to gather at the office of Minhas—some people brought food from home and shared (giving me a taste of regional food variety). Amid chit-chat and gossip, there was occasional useful information: once from ISI Director C.R. Rao I came to know that the royalty-checks from his New York publisher were being stolen by someone in the publisher’s office opening a fake account in his name. I realized I had not received any royalty from the same publisher for my first book, which I had attributed to no one buying my book. On enquiry with the publisher it turned out that there was a fake account in my name as well.

Some days there would be visitors, usually high-up officers from different policy circles. In India those days a great deal of data were mostly confined to some obscure offices of the different Ministries in New Delhi, and without personal access the data would be out of bounds for most researchers. The lunch connections with some of these high-up officers were useful for me in opening those doors. Also, the lunch discussion made me knowledgeable about the kind of policy issues that were uppermost in the minds of the Delhi policy elite and the intense political intrigues and haggling that were behind many important policy decisions of the government.

Largely because of TN’s international fame many important economists from abroad visiting Delhi would agree to give seminars at ISI. One problem was that the number of faculty we had was rather small (and our students were also not that many), and famous people giving seminars with a very small number of attendees was a bit embarrassing. So TN issued an office order to all clerical staff to attend the seminars. This resulted in an immensely bored audience doing their office-duty but the room was full. I remember one lady whom I used to see knitting wool much of the time at her office desk, now brought her knitting to the seminar addressed by some international luminary.

There was, however, a remarkable exception to the largely passive staff: one Mr. Verma. Many years back when Mahalanobis was hobnobbing with Soviet-type planning, Verma who claimed to know Russian was hired to translate or interpret Russian planning documents. But when Mahalanobis left, there was no on there who had use for Russian documents, so Verma had nothing to do. Every morning at the start of office time he’d come, sign the registry of attendance, and then start his perambulating the corridors of Yojana Bhavan. The whole day you’d see Verma, a small dark man, slowly walking the long quadrangular corridors of the sixth floor of that building, always anti-clockwise–others called him ‘anti-clockwise Verma’. Sometime he’d pause and enter a faculty office, as he once did with mine, and chat. He asked me if I was interested in the universal common language ‘esperanto’. I politely told him yes, and that opened the floodgates of his long lecture on that language and how it could serve the cause of international harmony and peace. Next day he came again and gifted me with several short pamphlets he had written extending the frontiers of esperanto.

Verma used to sit at the front of the seminars given by visiting dignitaries, and always ask questions. One time in the middle of a highly abstract mathematical presentation by a visitor, he raised his hand and demanded to know how all this was going to solve the problem of the rising price of rice that he faced in the market. I don’t think the speaker quite recovered in the rest of his talk. There was a story that in early 1960’s when the great Russian mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov visited ISI and gave a talk, Verma at the end stood up and made a long comment in Russian. Kolmogorov patiently heard him out and said, “You see my English is not good, could you please say it again?” Verma’s Russian-knowing claim got a bit dented that day among his colleagues.