Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 32

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Soon K.N.Raj gave up his Vice-Chancellorship and moved to his home state, Kerala, and started a new institution, Center for Development Studies (CDS). He tried to lure me (and Kalpana) to join the faculty  there, and even offered to get us land on which he’d persuade his friend Laurie Baker (a resident British-Quaker architect) to build us a low-cost, energy-efficient beautiful house (like his own). At CDS, he not merely provided intellectual leadership, he was the pater-familias for the group. After a whole day of teaching and seminars, in the evening he’d visit his colleagues’ homes, try to solve their multifarious domestic problems, while his wife, Sarsamma, will minister to their sundry medical needs. Once driving me to the airport, when I was all praise for the young institution and the community he was in the process of building, he asked me if I had any word of criticism. I told him it was too much of a “Hindu undivided family” for my taste. Raj corrected me and said it was not “Hindu” — he did not seem to mind the “undivided family” part.

While I did not join CDS, though visited it a few times, Raj did twist my arm to take up the only work I ever did in my life for any government anywhere — he got me to chair a commission of enquiry into Kerala’s plantations, appointed by the CPI government of Achutha Menon, a friend of Raj. Suresh Tendulkar, whom I brought as a co-member, and I worked hard to write a detailed official report, which by now insects must have chewed up in some ministry dungeon in Thiruvananthapuram, but this gave me an opportunity to travel up and down the countryside, have a closer look at Kerala’s remarkable society and economy, and the beautiful lush green landscape.

One early morning I remember we were driving through a village and I saw some workers with red flags congregated around a paddy field. I asked the driver to stop by the field and we saw there something remarkable for a remote Indian village: there was a scene of collective bargaining, the leader of the landless workers in the field—a low-caste (Pulya) woman—doing her hard bargaining with the land-owner about the daily wage at some distance away, and when they came to an agreement, she waved her red flag to the waiting comrades to signal the agreement and then they all started the day’s work.

I also had the occasion to see a different aspect of trade unions in the formal sector in connection with my work on the plantations. I interviewed a large number of trade-union leaders, belonging to a whole assortment of political parties. They-insistently asked me to recommend to the government nationalization of the plantations (at the time the large ones producing tea, rubber, etc. were mainly owned by British planters). But I asked them, if after nationalization the plantations, instead of being run by state bureaucrats/managers, were to be given over to the workers to own and manage, and to share the profits, would they agree. I was struck by the unanimity of all trade-union leaders, communist or non-communist, that they were all against worker–managed firms. I partly understood their reluctance because running a firm requires money and facing risks; so I promised also recommending to the government for substantial help in both credit-raising and risk-bearing—even then they were all opposed.

As for the plantation owners, we noticed some inconsistencies and gaps in their balance-sheets. The accounts were audited by Kerala’s top auditing firm. So we made an appointment with this firm and went with our list of questions; but it was a waste of time as we got nothing but bland unhelpful answers from the accountants. As we were coming out of their office we saw in their premises large clay figures of three monkeys, one with hands on its eyes, one on its lips, and the other on its ears—apparently this was their motto. Later in life I came to realize this was pretty much the motto of some of the world’s top-ranking auditing firms in rich countries.

We also discovered later that what was reported in the plantations’ balance-sheets was quite different from the confidential accounts they sent to their British owners. Using the legal powers of our commission of enquiry and guided by our legal adviser (Mohan Kumaramangalam, a veteran leftist lawyer, who told me he was a student at Cambridge in the 1930’s), we managed to get hold of those confidential accounts.

During my travels in the hilly plantations, I observed something remarkable around 5 PM or so when the siren went off indicating closing time of the plantations or factories. From one hill you could clearly see on the next hill two distinct streams of people coming out of the factory gate, one stream (mostly of women) going in one direction toward their homes, and the other stream (mainly of men) going in a different direction toward the near-by toddy-shops–toddy is the local liquor made from the sap of palm trees.

After the commission’s work was over and we were at the point of departing for Delhi, its office arranged for a winding-up party the evening before. The office manager was arranging for bottles of whiskey, beer, etc.; on an impulse, I said instead let the alcohol served in the party be all toddy. Everyone responded enthusiastically. When the bottles started coming, wrapped in newspapers, I noticed something scribbled on each bottle in ink. I asked what it was and found out that one bottle was marked as “12:30 PM”, another as “2 PM”, etc. They explained to me those were marks of when they were prepared in the day, as toddy did not remain drinkable for long. I had never before encountered alcohol vintage by the hour. (I have to say that all the excitement of my office people was not matched by the taste; I did not particularly like toddy).

I was once invited by Achutha Menon, the Chief Minister, to a wedding at his home. I went there with Raj and was immensely impressed by the simplicity of the ceremony and the sparsity in the decorations, jewelry on display and food servings. I asked Raj if this was because it was a communist household or this was the general custom in Kerala. Raj said, it was both; you’d not usually see the North-Indian-style extravagance in Kerala weddings.

Later, when I was invited to an ex-royal household by someone who was a descendant of Ravi Varma (one of the greatest Indian painters in the 19th century), I was taken to an old palatial building with much less gaudiness than one expected. In the dining hall, lined with large paintings of Varma, I sat down on the red-cement floor and my food was served on a banana-leaf with several small stainless-steel bowls arranged in a semi-circle. Before I started eating, my host said that he felt compelled to warn me that the left-most bowls always contained extremely hot pickles. Apparently, the last Bengali who was a guest in that hall many decades back started on the left, and jumped out in distress, and could not finish the meal. That was Rabindranath Tagore.