Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 40

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Andreu Mas-Collel, a mathematical economist from Catalonia, came to Berkeley before I did. He was a student activist in Barcelona, was expelled from his University for activism (those were the days of Franco’s Spain), and later finished his undergraduate degree in a different university, in north-west Spain. When I met him in Berkeley he was already a high-powered theorist using differential topology in general-equilibrium analysis, in ways that were far beyond my limited technical range in economic theory. But when we met, it was our shared interest in history, politics, and culture that immediately made us good friends, and his warm cheerful personality was an added attraction for me. (His wife, Esther, a mathematician from Chile, was as decent a person as she was politically alert).

A few times it so happened that when I went to see some obscure Latin American film in a special showing at a remote movie hall in Berkeley, at the end when the lights came up, I discovered that Andreu was also in the audience, and then we sat down somewhere to discuss the film animatedly. We used to frequently visit each other’s home. One time Romila Thapar, the eminent historian of ancient India, came to visit us from Delhi, and we asked Andreu and Esther to join us. Later he told others about meeting ‘this very impressive woman’ at our place.

When, after a few years, he left Berkeley, first for Harvard, and then in 1990’s back to Barcelona, I sorely missed him. At Harvard Andreu co-authored what is probably the most used graduate textbook in microeconomic theory in the world. In Barcelona he was a Professor at the Pompeu Fabra University. He later joined politics, serving the Catalonian government in different capacities, including as the Minister of Economy and Knowledge in 2010-16. In 2021 he was slapped with a multi-million-euro penalty by the Spanish Court of Auditors for allegedly participating as Minister in activities that led to the abortive Catalonian bid for independence; I believe the case is still pending.

Over the years I have visited him a few times in Barcelona. Let me narrate the rather eventful first time. I was visiting Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris (founded by the famous historian Fernand Braudel) for a month. Kalpana was visiting her parents in India, but I took our early-teen son Titash with me. Both of us had Eurail Pass, and we used it intensively to visit different parts of Western Europe by train almost every week. When Andreu came to know I was in Paris, he called me and demanded that we should visit him in Barcelona; he said we could stay in his apartment, as he had to be with his parents in a coastal town not-too-far away.

So we went to the very crowded Spanish consulate in Paris for visa on our Indian passports. After spending most of the morning waiting in line, when our turn came the consular officer had one look at our passports and said there was no way we could get a visa there. He said that as we were residents in California but citizens in India, according to standard rules we could get visa only at a Spanish consulate either in California or in India, not in a third country like France. So we went back to our hotel and called Andreu to tell him that we were not going to Barcelona after all. Andreu refused to accept that. He asked me to wait near the phone and called back in half an hour and instructed us to go back to the Spanish consulate for visa. We went there and found our visas waiting for us; I realized how politically well-connected Andreu must have been in Spain.

Next day we took the overnight high-speed TGV train from Gare de Lyon train station in Paris. We were told that we’d reach Barcelona in the morning. Both of us fell asleep. When we woke up, we found that the train was stationary at some non-descript stop in the middle of the night, but strangely there were no other passengers left in the train. It was dark and for a time we did not dare getting off the train, lest it suddenly started again. But after some more time we had doubts, got off the train with our luggage and started walking in the desolate station. Finally we found somebody who told us that Barcelona passengers had to change to another train (nobody in Paris had told us about this), and if we ran we could probably still catch it. We barely made it. In the new, smaller, train an elderly passenger explained to us that most trains from France required change of train at the Spanish border. The story apparently is that when the Spanish railways were built in the middle of the 19th century, the memory of Napoleonic invasions of Spain several decades back was still fresh, so the gauges in the Spanish train tracks were deliberately made different, to make things difficult for French troops. This was an interesting story, though it may not be the only explanation. (I understand in recent years Spanish train tracks have got standard gauge).

In Barcelona there was another event for which we were unprepared. Andreu was waiting for us in his apartment. As soon as we arrived, Andreu explained a few things about the apartment, and before leaving and giving me the keys, he said that his father was a locksmith, so the locking system at the front door of the apartment was somewhat fancy and unusual. He gave us a demonstration, and left us to see his parents. Titash and I were both sleepy, particularly after the early-morning adventure at the Spanish border, and we decided to have a nap before going out for lunch. But at lunchtime the intricate locking system, which looked easy enough when Andreu showed us, now baffled us, we could not open the door to go out! In my life I have been locked-out a few times, but this was the first time we were locked-in. (I remembered as a child reading the story of Alibaba and forty thieves where his brother Cassim forgot the secret code for getting out of the thieves’ treasure cave, and had to pay with his life for this). So I had to make an apologetic call to Andreu who had just reached his parents’ home in the coastal town. Poor Andreu had to come all the way back to rescue us. We felt ashamed, but Andreu was his usual cheerful self.

Since that time I have been to Barcelona quite a few times mostly in connection with conferences. Almost every time Andreu and Esther, for all their busy engagements, took me out for superb dinners. Of course, dinners in Barcelona usually started near about midnight. In Barcelona even at 3 AM the streets are full of noisy crowds—I often wondered when these people slept, if at all, as the offices started in the morning at usual time.

On my first visit I went around the museums in Barcelona. I saw the one on Joan Miró, but the Salvador Dalí museum was outside Barcelona, in the small town where he was born. (The Dalí painting I like more than many of his more famous surrealist paintings is a realist painting of his early youth, the one titled ‘Young Woman at a Window’, which was not in this museum, but in Madrid). I was pleasantly surprised by the Picasso Museum in Barcelona—its collections were not as large as in the Picasso Museum in Paris, but still quite substantial.

Picasso’s most powerful anti-war painting ‘Guernica’ I had seen in New York before it moved back to Spain, to Madrid where I saw it for the second time on another visit. There is a story that in occupied Paris when looking at a large photo of ‘Guernica’ on the wall of Picasso’s studio and the devastation depicted in it, a Nazi officer, asked him, “Did you do it?”; Picasso answered, “No, you did it”. (There is an alternative story that Picasso actually said this to a Nazi officer with reference to a different painting, ‘The Charnel House,’ which showed a pile of corpses underneath a kitchen table– that was kind of a sequel to ‘Guernica’).

After the end of the Second World War Picasso joined the Communist Party. At that stage his simple sketches of the ‘dove of peace’ became an iconic symbol of the international peace movement. Before the first World Peace Congress in Paris in 1949 his friend the poet Louis Aragon lobbied hard with the Soviet authorities that Picasso’s ‘Dove’ should be officially recognized as the symbol of peace. When he finally succeeded, he rushed to Picasso to give him the news. Picasso reportedly said that he’d not object to his drawing of the dove adopted as a peace symbol, but Aragon did not know that a dove or pigeon was not a peaceful bird at all. If you kept them in a cage, as he himself had personally observed, they could be ferocious with one another. Nevertheless in 1949 around the time of the Peace Congress when his second daughter was born, she was named ‘Paloma’ (the Spanish word for dove or pigeon).

One of the most memorable sights strewn all around in Barcelona is, of course, the anarchic and fluid geometry of Antoni Gaudi’s style in many architectural landmarks. The first time I visited La Casa Mila, Gaudi’s iconic work of civic architecture, I walked through and went all the way to the rooftop—there after a few minutes suddenly it occurred to me that I had seen this roof somewhere before. I tried hard to remember but could not. Was it in some dream? In the afternoon haze I sat down there amidst the curving peaked structures for quite some time. Then it slowly dawned on me that it was in this roof Michelangelo Antonioni filmed a scene of The Passenger, a movie of existential ennui; in this roof the nameless woman in the story (acted by Maria Schneider) decided to help the protagonist (acted by Jack Nicholson) to escape from his previous identity as a journalist. Later I saw the same rooftop used in Woody Allen’s 2008 movie Vicky Christina Barcelona.