Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 36

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Most of us were in deep admiration of my DSE colleague Sukhamoy Chakravarty (I used to call him Sukhamoy-da). He was a prodigious scholar, a voracious reader of books (when discussing a book it was not unusual for him to point out to us that the author had slightly changed his position on an issue in question in the third edition in a long footnote), a man of wide intellectual interests, but also a man of charming simplicity and other-worldliness. In my period at DSE as he was mostly in the Planning Commission, I’d occasionally meet him at his home (or at Mrinal’s) in the evenings. I remember one evening I was discussing something with him in his living room, while a whole army of children (his daughter and her neighborhood friends) were enthusiastically carrying books, shifting them from one room to another corner of the house under the general supervision of his wife, Lalita (his partner and fellow economist since their Presidency College days). At one point he digressed from what we were discussing, and pointed to the army of load-carrying children, and said, “You see this is how the Industrial Revolution came about, on the backs of child labor”.

He had many physical ailments and his life was cut short at age 56. Even though he was mainly a theorist, in the last two decades of his life he was dedicated in search of solutions to India’s policy problems. I remember once an Australian economist friend, the renowned trade theorist Murray Kemp, on a visit told me that he had noticed in some of his Indian economist friends (he particularly mentioned Sukhamoy-da and also me) a kind of divided loyalty in their pursuit of economics—even when they were deeply thinking about some theoretical issue at the frontier of economics, half their mind was distracted by the buzzing question: how would all this help India? (He, of course, implied that as a result they would neither scale the theoretical heights they were capable of, nor really help India that much!)

What in this context somewhat dismayed me about Sukhamoy-da’s dedication to India’s policy problems was that he carried this on in serving the government even when it was turning sordidly authoritarian. All through the Emergency days in Delhi Mrinal and I often privately suggested to him that he was giving respectability to Indira Gandhi’s government, but he continued until it fell in a discredited heap in 1977. One argument he used to give was that he could change the undesirable policies of the government working from inside, instead of resigning. This is a common enough illusion many intelligent well-intentioned people serving a loathsome government have. (I heard that in one meeting with Indira Gandhi when Sukhamoy-da objected to some policy, she said with an irritated smirk, “Professor, you must be pulling my leg”). Later I wrote a somewhat satirical piece in EPW titled “An Imaginary Conversation with a Leftist Intellectual in Government”, without naming anyone, on the nature of this illusion.

Many people were amused by reading this piece. One of them who discussed it with me in some detail was Amiya Dasgupta, the veteran economic theorist, who was a classmate in Dhaka University of my father and Sachin Chaudhuri. He was then living in Santiniketan after many years in Delhi. I got to know him well when he visited Cambridge in my student days, and then again at his Santiniketan home. I remember one of his stories involving my dissertation supervisor James Meade. Dasgupta’s son, Partha, had married Meade’s daughter, Carol. So once Amiya Dasgupta told Meade that the relationship between the two of them could be neatly described by one simple Bengali word, beyai, but it was a deficiency of the English language that no simple word could describe it in English. To this Meade apparently tried constructing a new word: he said, “Let’s see. You are my daughter’s father-in-law; my daughter’s father is myself—so you are my self-in-law.” This, in turn, reminds me of my Marxist philosopher friend, Jerry Cohen (more on him later), who once in London introduced to me a highly-embarrassed Englishman (who happened to be the partner of Jerry’s then-separated wife) by saying: ”Meet my lover-in-law”!

Going back to the dismal Emergency days, I once again realized then how intensely political a person I was. My teaching and research were reasonably thriving, I had by then many good friends in Delhi, and in any case we were busy bringing up our son Titash who was not-yet five, growing in the warm and congenial company of other children of his age in our apartment complex. Yet it seemed that the unaccustomed undemocratic political surrounding had deeply enervated me, as if a human stain had defiled the civic life around to leave an ashen taste in my mouth, as if there was a creeping darkness at noon.

Around this time one day completely out of the blue I got a message from the Economics Department at Berkeley asking me if I’d be interested in visiting Berkeley for a year. The terms were quite attractive: I had to teach part of the year and rest of the time I’d be on a Ford Research Professorship. I knew very few people at the Department, except for my friends George Akelof, Albert Fishlow, and to some extent, Steve Goldman (he was a student of Hirofumi Uzawa whom I knew). I did not know much about the Bay Area either. When I was at MIT one summer I attended a two-week colloquium at Stanford organized by Ken Arrow and others; at that time I had a tourist visit to Berkeley for half a day, but I remember liking the surroundings. Of course, I knew about Berkeley’s reputation as an epicenter of Vietnam War protests. My friend Avinash Dixit who was teaching at Berkeley at the time of those protests had a rather negative view: he later told me that one of several reasons why he left Berkeley was that tear gas was frequently wafting through the window of his office—for someone from Kolkata that could be part of the excitement of life in Berkeley.

But I was completely unprepared for this invitation. I had quite a few data-intensive projects with a whole research team that were only halfway through, was not sure if I’d get leave from DSE only a couple of years or so after joining, Kalpana had a job at ICSSR, our son was managing Hindi at the kindergarten school we liked and Bengali at home, with hardly a word of English in his repertoire, and it was going to be a big displacement for him, and so on.

At the same time I was quite disturbed about the political situation around. I remember one evening asking Sisir Gupta the diplomat about his prediction for the next couple of years. He thought the situation was going to get much worse before possibly getting better. After a lot of cogitation I asked Berkeley if they were prepared to postpone my visit by half a year so that I could wind up a few ongoing things in Delhi. To my surprise, they agreed. So then I had to accept the invitation. In 1976 we were off to Berkeley.