Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 37

by Pranab Bardhan

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

We arrived in Berkeley and found it to be a pleasant place to live. I always have a partiality for small university towns that are culturally and politically alive. And yet Berkeley is not far from a thriving major city (San Francisco—“the unfettered city/resounds with hedonistic glee”, as Vikram Seth describes it in his verse-novel The Golden Gate) on the one hand, and from wide-open spaces on the other. Nature in Berkeley itself is quite beautiful, nestled as it is on a leafy hillside and facing an ocean and its bay, with gorgeous sunsets over the Golden Gate Bridge (on days when it is not shrouded by the mysterious fog—which appears almost as a character in San Francisco noir, like in the crime novels of Dashiell Hammett). Once driving in the dense fog in a winding street in the Berkeley hills I missed a turn and lost my way; I fondly remembered that famous scene in Fellini’s semi-autobiographical film Amarcord, where one winter-day in Rimini, his childhood town, the fog shrouds everything, the piazza disappears, and the grandpa loses his way home.

I found the people here also somewhat more laid back than in the intense cities of the east-coast. (Once a friend from New York visiting Berkeley told me that when a shop-assistant at the end of the transaction gave him a smile and said ‘have a nice day’, his first instinct with his New-Yorker neurosis was: ‘what? what did she mean?’) The cafes, restaurants, book shops, music stores and cinemas just outside the campus hummed with lively people. Strolling through the Sproul Plaza in the campus you sometimes get an experience associated with the soap-box speakers at Hyde Park in London or the performers in Latin Quarter in Paris: at one corner a religious preacher with Bible in hand is sternly telling us that the wages of sin is death, while a group of non-believers is busy mocking him; at another gathering some group is loudly bashing Israel for oppressing Palestinians while some Hillel International students are protesting; at another place five women are silently standing each exposing one breast, pointing toward donations for research on breast cancer; at another some Punjabi men and women are doing a vigorous bhangra dance;  at another a group of PETA women for animal rights is protesting the abuse of those rights in university labs; at another a stand-up comic is entertaining a large crowd; in a quiet corner you see a man covered with gold dust standing perfectly still like a golden statue, and so on.

In Berkeley streets I was initially struck by the number of people in wheel-chairs and with other forms of physical handicaps. Later I realized the city of Berkeley being liberal with help for the disabled is a magnet for such people from less-liberal cities. (The same goes for the number of homeless people; but over time I sensed that the extremely high housing costs in Bay Area is also a major factor). There are also many panhandlers—in order to discourage their use of the money collected on drugs or drinks, the city at one time introduced a system of vouchers: if you want to give to a panhandler, you hand out a city-designated voucher (which can only be used on food or medicines). Around that time walking on Telegraph Avenue, I saw a panhandler with a placard saying ‘keep your goddam voucher, I want beer’!

The left-liberal city government of what was sometimes called the People’s Republic of Berkeley in their deliberations sometimes reminded me of the municipal government in Kolkata under the Left. A significant part of the day in both used to be spent in passing resolutions deprecating the latest outrage perpetrated by American imperialism or in expressing solidarity with the people of Vietnam/Nicaragua, while small matters like the gaping potholes in the city roads did not get much attention. (In contrast in some Left-run cities of central Italy you’ll, of course, see a prominent Piazza Gramsci, but the cities are relatively well-run and –maintained).

In line with the left movements in Berkeley there have been historically some important cooperative ventures here. For quite some time the supermarket we regularly went to was run by the Consumers’ Cooperative of Berkeley, which at its peak was the largest cooperative of its kind in North America. One of the first things that struck me as I entered their supermarkets was that there were some goods on their shelves (like cereal brands with too much sugar) which they didn’t really want you to buy were marked by a distinctive red tape on the shelves, with green tapes indicating the brands they recommended. These coops went out of business by the late 1980’s, marred, I understand, by internal disputes about governance and bankruptcy issues. But to this day a store next door of the employee-owned Cheese Board Collective, selling cheese, pizza and baked goods is doing roaring business; they now have a large network of stores throughout the Bay Area. There is also a popular student housing cooperative in Berkeley which provides affordable housing and meals to more than 1300 students. You occasionally hear about problems of drug use and cases of irresponsibility of some residents on the use of the commons, but they provide a very useful service in an area of excessive housing costs.

My friend George Akerlof (and his then Chinese wife, Kay) helped us settle in Berkeley. George sometimes came to take our son, Titash, for a walk in the park. George even now remembers that in one of those walks when he asked Titash how old he was, he got the prompt answer: 5 years, 4 months and 17 days. Titash was then going to a pre-school nursery, where I was astounded by how quickly children could learn a new language (English in his case) and unlearn another (his Delhi pre-school Hindi).

After I started teaching, I soon realized that several people in the Department wanted me to consider staying on in Berkeley, and there was a Chair on International Trade which they were thinking of filling. When the formal offer was made to me, I was torn. I liked the city of Berkeley (its life, its natural surroundings and relatively temperate climate) and the very friendly and good Department, and a great University. On the other hand, less than a decade back I had taken a difficult decision to leave MIT for India on the basis of some deeply-felt reasons. (Just before leaving MIT, Roy Radner, who was then the Chairman at the Economics Department at Berkeley had approached me to see if I’d be interested in joining the Berkeley faculty, and I said no, citing some of those reasons. Now Roy was my colleague at Berkeley; he incidentally expressed his interest in my new work on share-cropping). My research projects analyzing NSS data and with Ashok Rudra on village surveys were still on-going. Of course, the future life of our son was now a predominant consideration with us.

I told myself that the immersion in Indian data was a goal which I had started accomplishing in India in all earnest, and it had been an invigorating experience for me, in spite of the various initial aches and pains; it might be possible now to sustain it, though imperfectly, through frequent visits and maintaining the various contacts I had already established. Frequent visits were also the highly imperfect way of keeping up with the cultural and family connections with India that I valued. So I decided to stay on. But even after accepting Berkeley’s offer, initial doubts lingered for a period (so instead of resigning from DSE I asked for and got an extension of my leave for the next year).

My project on analysis of NSS-collected data could be carried out in Berkeley. But those days it was not easy to pry large sets of data loose from a government office, particularly to take the data out of the country. After a lot of effort, and with the help of V.M. Dandekar who was then the Chairman of the NSS Governing Council, I got the permission to bring the data copied in the form of open-reel tapes that were in use at NSS office in Delhi. The tapes were ancient Honeywell tapes, which I found out to my distress the Berkeley computers were unable to convert. I called the Honeywell company office headquarters in US and described the problem of tape-conversion I was having. The officer who finally took the phone asked me: “Where are you calling from? The Smithsonian (the museum)?” I felt like saying, “yes, the tapes were with the dinosaur exhibits”. After many inquiries and several days they told me that the only machine in the whole of US that could convert such ancient tapes happened to be located not far from Berkeley, in the Alameda Naval base. But when I called the Naval station on a Thursday, they told me that they were scheduled to junk that machine on Monday, so I should better come immediately. I was lucky to save my NSS data in the nick of time.