Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 29

by Pranab Bardhan

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

The Naxalite phase in Bengal was a short, tragic chapter in politics, but in Bengal’s cultural-emotional life its implications were deeper, and reflected in its literature (and films)—most poignantly yet forcefully captured by the writer Mahshweta Devi, one of Bengal’s most powerful political novelists. Again and again in the 20th century some of Bengali youth have been fascinated by the romanticism of revolutionary violence–as was the case in the early decades in the freedom struggle against the British (I have earlier mentioned about my maternal uncle caught in its vortex), then again in the 1940’s when the sharecroppers’ movement (called tebhaga) was soon followed by a period of communist insurgency in 1948-50, and then in the Naxalite movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s.

In the early literature Tagore often engaged with this theme (something already familiar in 19th-century Russian literary imagination). By temperament and political judgment he was opposed to revolutionary violence and the unthinking passions associated with it, and yet he had some soft corner for the young people involved. This theme is dominant, for example, in his novel Char Adhyay (‘Four Chapters’), and in its preface he writes about his once-close friend Brahmabandhab Upadhyay, who parting company with Tagore joined the revolutionary movement. In this preface Tagore recalls the brief touching moment one evening when he came back after some years as a disillusioned man to see Tagore. In much of the profuse literature generated by the Naxalite period, while the repressive state is in the background, there is a pining over the wastage of the lives of so many idealistic youths for a brave social-justice cause–a cause that was in my judgment an insufficiently thought-out one.

With Ashok Rudra (who was much senior to me and yet my most frequent co-author in this period) I shared a great deal of common interest in economic, political, literary and cultural matters, but we had some serious differences. One of them was on this issue of revolutionary violence. He did not quite agree with my belief that however just the cause may be, violence inevitably begets a monster that can easily go out of control and devour the cause itself, apart from triggering the brutal counter-force of the state. Another issue of difference with him was on market reforms. He did not care much for the efficiency arguments that preoccupy reform-mongering economists; the primacy for him was social justice plus the vulgarity and alienating effects of crass commercialization that capitalism brings. I could not persuade him that the alternative of state monopoly itself generates injustice (particularly as the state-favored bureaucrats and oligarchs can exploit small people) and that in India’s structured society a low-caste person may sometimes prefer the anonymity of the market to supplicating patrician state officials.

He’d often give me the manuscripts of his literary output (including that of a novel and a play that he wrote) and journalistic writings for my comments before publishing them. On his literary pieces I often told him that I found some of them a bit too romantic for my taste, and that I also found him rather conservative (not uncommon in the Brahmo sect background he came from) in his outlook to sexuality. He’d keep on arguing but we never had a falling-out, which he had aplenty with fellow scholars. He was a very bright though difficult person, but I found ways of negotiating his rough edges. Whenever we met we spent hours discussing all kinds of things, until I last saw him at his home in Santiniketan when he said he was feeling out of sorts, and on my return to California, I heard about his heart attack and death following some medical bungling.

My village surveys jointly with Rudra were more economic-anthropological than the usual statistical surveys, and yet different from anthropological studies which were usually on a small scale. This started my thinking about the methodological differences between economists and social anthropologists. The latter would often go to a village and even live there for a time, closely observing the villagers’ behavior, their ways of making sense of their life and of participating in the community—all this yields rich ethnographic accounts, which sometimes (not always) suggest some generalizations about a society. But such generalizations are often hampered by my-village-vs.-your-village-type differences, and the difficulty of defining standards of comparability of findings across villages. Besides, the ethnographic approach sometimes is prone to give too much attention to striking but not-too-typical events or characteristics —“outliers” in statistical parlance.

On the other hand, economists in order to be policy-relevant have to generalize over very large numbers of villages, and so pay particular attention to sampling designs and validity of statistical inference. The largeness of sample size necessarily leads them to use standardized, coarse, lowest-common-denominator categories to describe what are essentially delicate, nuanced, complex, ambiguous and fine-grained features of a society or economy. Economists find it particularly difficult to capture processes and relations rather than their outcomes. My work with Rudra to capture those ‘relations’ thus had to go beyond standard economic surveys, we had to design special statistical methods for this purpose.

Carrying out field surveys is now more common among economists, but I think they can benefit if before launching their large-scale surveys they talk to anthropologists, sociologists (and social workers) who have intimate knowledge of the area; this may help in deciphering what are the important questions to ask and what is the appropriate local way of framing the same generic question; and after the survey such talks may help in understanding the mechanism or the process through which the observed/measured data generate a particular finding.

In 1984, with support from the Social Science Research Council, New York, I organized an international conference in Bangalore where some economists, statisticians and anthropologists were invited to thrash out the methodological differences between the disciplines, when they try to configure changes in the rural economy. One ultimate outcome of that conference was a volume that I edited titled “Conversations between Economists and Anthropologists”. Later in 2003, supported by the Ford Foundation office in New Delhi I and a Berkeley colleague, Isha Ray, organized a kind of follow-up inter-disciplinary international conference in Goa; this time the focus was on how the different disciplines look at the problem of cooperation in the local village commons. This also resulted in a volume, a sort of “Conversations II”, that we jointly edited.

Economists and anthropologists do not usually talk to one another, and even when rarely they do, there is a tendency to talk past one another. We tried our best to minimize this by keeping the focus on somewhat narrow topics, and I think in this we were moderately successful.

In academic conversations my experience in American universities has been that people talk mostly to people in their own discipline (or even in a narrow sub-field within the discipline). There is a contrasting pattern in Oxford-Cambridge colleges. There at dinner one day next to you is a physicist, and another day a post-modern literary-critic, and you have to carry on intelligent conversation–this gives rise to a lot of clever dilettantism. Throughout my professional life I have been a specialist-in-some-things and a dabbler-in-various-things, so I want a bit of both kinds of conversations.