Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 39

by Pranab Bardhan

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

In the Berkeley hills there is a campus bus but the nearest bus stop is about a one-mile walk from my home, if you take a short cut through a meadow, but it gets quite muddy in the rainy season. Still, after some years I opted for taking the campus bus rather than my car on weekdays. One regular passenger I used to meet in the bus was a distinguished nonagenarian, Charles Townes, who had won the 1964 Physics Nobel Prize for inventing the laser (later he was also involved in the team that discovered the black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy). In a campus lecture that I once gave on Globalization I was thrilled to see him at the front in the audience. He was active in the campus even in his 100th year, shortly before his death.

I also came to know that he was a deeply religious man. He claimed that his invention of the laser came to him like a ‘flash’ akin to religious revelation. When he got the 2005 Templeton Prize that celebrates scientific and spiritual curiosity, he said that “Science and Religion are quite parallel…..Science tries to understand what our universe is like and how it works, including us humans. Religion is aimed at understanding the purpose and meaning of our universe, including our own lives”. This reminded me of what Tagore said to Einstein on the relation between Science and Religion when they met at the latter’s home in Berlin in 1930: “Science… is the impersonal human world of Truths. Religion realizes these Truths and links them up with our deeper needs; our individual consciousness of Truth gains universal significance. Religion applies values to Truth.” Einstein did not fully agree with Tagore, nor do I  with either Townes or Tagore. But no one can deny that in interpreting facts scientists cannot be independent of values (this is an important issue in some debates in life sciences now), and I also understand a bit about the possible appeal of deep spirituality even for atheists.

It used to be quite an experience for me to see astute Marxist scholars around me in Kolkata deeply moved by some of Tagore’s spiritual or devotional songs. Many non-believers share the sense of wonder at the vastness and the as-yet unresolved mysteries of nature, and are moved by the ability of spirituality sometimes to capture the infinite beauty of the universe particularly when expressed in the form of art or music. Why does an irreligious person like me sometimes get goosebumps from listening to religiously-inspired classical music (both western and Indian)? Why do non-believers find healing properties in Gregorian chants? I am also reminded of a short unfinished essay that was found in my Marxist philosopher friend Jerry Cohen’s table in Oxford after his sudden and untimely death, where Jerry says that one beautiful morning in Oxford he came outside, looked around, and felt deeply thankful and blessed—he then asks, thankful to whom? Blessed by whom?

As with Charles Townes, I came to know, only marginally, another great scholar in Berkeley outside my Department; this was Steve Smale, who got the Fields Medal in Mathematics in 1966 for his work in topology in higher dimensions. Smale actually had an honorary appointment in our Department, but I hardly ever saw him there. Most of the time I saw him walking leisurely in different parts of the campus, with a slight inward smirk, as if he was amused by himself. He was an activist in the anti-war and the free speech movements in Berkeley. He co-founded the Vietnam Day Committee in Berkeley, whose most prominent act was a 1965 Oakland demonstration intended to stop troop trains. When next year he received the Fields Medal at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Moscow, he held a controversial press conference there in which he criticized the actions of both the U.S. and Soviet governments. I once went to a campus lecture given by him on a game-theoretic interpretation of international relations. Over the years he also amassed one of the finest private mineral collections in the world. Many of Smale’s mineral specimens can be seen in the book, The Smale Collection: Beauty in Natural Crystals.

In other Berkeley Departments the preeminent people I became friendly with included the sociologist Peter Evans, Janet Yellen at the Business School (currently the US Treasury Secretary), Pravin Varaiya in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences Department, Michael Watts in the Geography Department, Robert Cooter in the Law School, the Sanskrit scholar Robert Goldman, and the Sanskrit and Tamil scholar George Hart. At frequent gatherings at George Hart’s home we met many South Asian scholars. On Tamil religious occasions George used to perform ritual puja at home, sometimes even wearing a sacred thread for his priestly role—he jocularly claimed that he came from a ‘Boston Brahmin’ family and was thus entitled to wear the sacred thread!

I also knew Bharati Mukherjee of the Berkeley English literature department. Born and raised in Kolkata, she was an award-winning American writer (she’d insist on her American-ness); her fiction is about the internal culture clashes of the Indian immigrant’s experience in the US. Conversation with her over a dinner at her home and later in the campus made me see clearly the difference between her and my attitude to our immigrant status. She found it difficult to understand the inherent resistance and ambivalence I have inside me to a complete assimilation into American culture. She used to celebrate what she called her cultural and psychological “mongrelization”. Later she wrote a piece in the New York Times on this subject, differentiating herself from her sister Mira who had also migrated to the US around the same time, in early youth. She wrote:

“Mira and I differ in the ways in which we hope to interact with the country that we have chosen to live in. She is happier to live in America as expatriate Indian than as an immigrant American. I need to put roots down…The price that the immigrant willingly pays, and that the exile avoids, is the trauma of self-transformation”.

Maybe I too have been avoiding this trauma.

In my own Department I had many friends in the faculty, but over the years I found myself developing some kind of a special relationship (born I presume out of an affinity in what the French call mentalité, often used in a historical sense) with three Europeans: in the early years with the senior Italian economic historian Carlo Cipolla and the vibrant Catalonian mathematical-economist Andreu Mas-Colell, and in more recent years with the Belgian comparative-systems analyst Gérard Roland.

Even before arriving in Berkeley I had read some fascinating short books by Carlo Cipolla (on Guns and Sails and on Clocks), and parts of his edited Fontana Economic History of Europe. (K.N.Raj in Kerala had told me, when he heard that I was going to Berkeley, that he was a fan of Cipolla). On meeting him as I expressed my admiration for those books, he presented me with some of them and told me that most of his economist colleagues did not read such books anymore. When I pointed out that one commonality in some of his books was that they were centered on early-modern Italy, he said that Italy was historically lucky in being geographically situated at the center of the trade routes between Asia and Western Europe in this period. Later when he was writing a couple of historical books on the plague in Italy, he told me he was stimulated to write them while thinking about the epidemic of HIV/AIDS that was ravaging several countries around us at that time.

He said that like me he had also come to Berkeley first as a visiting professor, and then decided to stay on. By the time I met him he was dividing his time, half the year in Berkeley, and the other half in Pavia, Italy, where he was born–until later, after developing Parkinson’s disease, he gradually stopped coming to Berkeley. I have been told that in Italy he had an impressive collection of ancient coins, old clocks, and Roman surgical instruments. I also came to know that his light-hearted treatise on ‘The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity’ was a best-seller in Italy, and made into a play in France.

For a period I was surprised to see him sitting at the back of my International Trade class; I soon asked him not to come because the boring theoretical models I was doing in class were worlds apart from the rich historical sense pervading his books. Outside the world of books Carlo always looked a little lost. Once at his home his wife Ora (a Californian woman) described to us how when Carlo in his well-intentioned way tried to help her in gardening she’d quickly send him back to the house, “as the trees have a way of attacking him”!