Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 30

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Even though my ISI office was in the Planning Commission building in New Delhi I was living in an apartment complex far away in ‘Old’ Delhi, nearer Delhi University. The main attraction of staying there was the number of academic friends who lived in the same complex, apart from its being in a rather open, leafy, quieter part of the city (the hilly walkway at the back—called ‘the ridge’– was full of parrots and monkeys). My MIT friend, Mrinal, who stayed there arranged with the landlord for our accommodation.

Mrinal was then a popular teacher at Delhi School of Economics (DSE). His wife Eva was a feisty and resourceful Italian woman, coming from a political family—her father was an active anti-fascist, killed in Rome in 1944 by a Nazi ambush; her maternal uncle was the famous development economist Albert Hirschman (whom I admired and met a few times at Princeton). Eva coming for the first time to India quickly figured out the tricks of negotiating the daily complications of life in Delhi, and by the time we arrived she, a savvy foreigner, helped us settle in Delhi. It used to be quite a spectacle to see a sari-clad Eva haggling in street Hindi with the wily shopkeepers of Delhi and relishing it.

Hardly any day went without my long chats with Mrinal. We shared a great deal in our interests. His wacky sense of humor was combined with a serious thoughtfulness on many issues. On political issues in particular he was one of the wisest and shrewdest observers I have known. When Eva later left him and went with (and married) his best friend since their boyhood in Santiniketan, Amartya Sen, I saw a different side of Mrinal, that of pained dignity and graceful fortitude.

There was a large number of other academics in different apartments in that complex—Ashis Nandy (the social-psychologist, one of India’s leading social thinkers, whom I knew from my Kolkata college days) and his musician wife Uma; a historian couple Sumit (my classmate from Presidency College) and Tanika Sarkar; R. Rajaraman, a prominent physicist, and his wife Indira, a notable economist; Veena Das, a remarkable sociologist, and her husband the economist Ranen; my ISI colleague Sanjit Bose and his wife Uttara; two economist-couples Arjun and Jayashree Sengupta and Badal and Swapna Mukherji. There was even a time when some of these academics took the responsibility of getting the children in the complex together and taking informal/fun afternoon teaching sessions with them. But much of the time the neighbors had lively chat-sessions in one another’s apartments. This was probably the finest experience in my life of a vibrant living-together with so many bright academics, and yet each respecting the privacy of the others. Apart from Mrinal, in my later life I kept up mostly with the Nandys and the Sarkars, and with Indira Rajaraman (whom I saw often in Delhi conferences).

I used to spend many evenings either in Mrinal’s or Ashis’s apartment. Mrinal often had get-togethers with his DSE economist colleagues like Amartya-da, Sukhamoy Chakravarti, and Dharma Kumar, historian Tapan Raychaudhuri, and the sociologist André Beteille, or Government economic advisors like V.K. Ramaswami and P.N. Dhar. Of these the most erudite and serious was Chakravarti; the best collection of amusing stories was with Raychaudhuri (an Oxford don in his later life); and the narrator of inside political gossip with a languid grace was P.N. Dhar (who was close to Indira Gandhi, and part of what used to be called the ‘Kashmiri mafia’ around her).

Quite frequently some combinations of these people plus some of the mandarins in different Ministries of the Government and a scattering of visiting foreign academics would meet in one or the other of the two reigning residential salons of New Delhi in those days. One was presided over by the economic-historian Dharma Kumar and her bureaucrat husband Lovraj Kumar (in his early life he was India’s first Rhodes Scholar), and the other run by Devaki Jain, a feminist economist, and her husband, Lakshmi Jain, a Gandhian (in his later life he was an ambassador to South Africa, but recalled by the BJP Government in 1998 because it felt that as an ambassador he was not properly enthusiastic in supporting India’s nuclear tests). Mrinal was the ‘darling boy’ in both of these salons. He used to give me a ride in his VW Beetle to these two salons, where I had quite an edifying experience; it gave me a lot of insight into the manners (upscale, whiskey-drenched) and thought processes of the Delhi intellectual and bureaucratic elite.

A different kind of gathering used to take place in Ashis Nandy’s small apartment. That crowd was mostly of political scientists and sociologists— like Rajni Kothari, Bashiruddin Ahmed, D.L.Sheth, Veena Das, and André Beteille. Mrinal and I were often the only economists there. Kothari was the doyen of Indian political scientists. My leftist friends often did not like him, but in discussions with him I have found his astute understanding of ground-level Indian political processes highly valuable. He and his colleagues had a more society-centric approach in contrast with the state-centric approach of the leftists. The discussion in the two salons mentioned above was also often state-centric.

In a way this was a reflection of the continuation of the differences among past Indian leaders—Gandhi and his followers emphasized the centrality of village society and community, whereas Nehru and Ambedkar were suspicious of the oppressive forces of traditional Indian society and sought social justice mainly through the instrumentality of the state. Ambedkar called the Indian village community “a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism”.

Reflecting on these alternative systems of Indian thought, later in the 1980’s I wrote an article on the ‘great divide’ in Indian social science discourse. I pointed out that the divide in Indian thinking is not ‘left’ vs. ‘right’, but more in different ideas on state vs. society. This sometimes leads to strange bedfellows. State socialists are often in the unwitting company of rightwing nationalists when they both want to strengthen the nation-state (against forces of imperialism for the former, against forces of social disunity for the latter), and to follow autarchic economic policies of import-substituting industrialization and large capital-intensive projects. Pitted against them are the motley bunch of anarcho-communitarians, activists involved in preservation of environment and tribal autonomy, ‘subaltern’ historians focusing on the lives of the lower social strata, small-is-beautiful enthusiasts, and advocates of decentralization— among great Indian thinkers both Gandhi and Tagore wanted to promote small self-help communities and to reduce dependence on the state.

Comparatively, votaries of classical liberalism in India have been few and far between. The socialists (in their criticism of ‘bourgeois democracy’) are almost as suspicious of liberalism as the Hindu nationalists. The experience of the short-lived, ill-fated Swatantra Party which espoused some classical liberal values showed that Indian polity in general is not hospitable ground for such values. Even the Gandhians who emphasize the community overlook that the traditional community values are highly patriarchal and often illiberal (Gandhi himself was quite authoritarian as a father, husband, and the guru of his ashrams). Today as a Hindu-supremacist state is trampling upon basic liberties of citizens, many are discovering afresh the old values of liberalism.