Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 49

by Pranab Bardhan

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

In the early 1980’s apart from joining the September group, there were two other outside organizations I was invited to join which expanded my intellectual horizons. The first was the South Asia Committee of the Social Science Research Council in New York. This Committee planned some research projects on different topics of social science in South Asia and also gave out research fellowships and postdoctoral research grants. It gave me the opportunity to interact with some of the top scholars working in the US on South Asia, including Myron Weiner, the distinguished political scientist, Bernard Cohn, the historical anthropologist, Wendy Doniger, the Sanskrit scholar, Ralph Nicholas, cultural anthropologist of Bengal, Richard Eaton, cultural historian of medieval India, and Ronald Herring, political scientist on agrarian development in India.

Of these the most colorful person was Wendy who used to entertain us with her charming stories drawing upon the erotic aspects of ancient Hindu texts. Myron, when he was the chair of the Committee always began the meeting with his collection of jokes. Myron was downright serious, though, in his work where he was insistent in bringing to the attention of Indian policy makers the crucial importance of universal child education and reform of the prevailing, widely connived, practice of using child labor. Ralph used to share with me his stories of his experience of ethnographic work in Bengal villages (he was fluent in Bengali and during his field visits he’d often be chatted up by curious villagers who’d tell him that as he was from America interested in their lives, he must be a CIA agent, and were utterly disappointed when they heard his emphatic denial).

Three of my fellow Committee members have become controversial in India in recent years. Wendy Doniger who was originally attracted to the study of Hinduism as a religion that is more joyful and less puritan than some western religions is, of course, attacked by the Hindu fanatics for her zestful depiction of the erotic anecdotes on the Hindu gods (her publisher Penguin India had to withdraw her book The Hindus: An Alternative History from circulation). Richard Eaton, a foremost scholar of Islam in India, is of the view that the Hindu-Muslim binary in the understanding of medieval Indian history is a complete caricature—this has also drawn ignorant criticism by the Hindu right-wing in India. Ronald Herring, however, has faced the fury more often from the opposite end of the political spectrum for his view that the militant opposition to transgenic crops (or ‘GMO’ in agriculture) was not consistent with the scientific field evidence in India that he had looked into.

I was also involved in the organization of three conferences sponsored by the Committee. One of them I have already mentioned earlier that took the form of Conversations between Economists and Anthropologists, specifically on their contrasting ways of identifying and measuring economic change in rural India. The second conference was another interdisciplinary one on local community-level response to water management in South Asian irrigation, how, for example, farmers resolve (or fail to resolve) local water conflicts. Both of these conferences took place in Bangalore. The third conference, held at MIT, was mainly around the draft of my 1984 book, The Political Economy of Development in India, based on a set of endowed lectures that I gave in 1983 at All Souls College, Oxford.

I was in the South Asia Committee for 5 years, and during this period the SSRC staff person associated with the Committee was David Szanton, an anthropologist, who became a good friend. I remember once David took some of us on a flâneur-like strolling of parts of New York City that tourists do not usually go to (I was reminded of similar strolling I have had in Paris and, of course, in Kolkata). Later David moved to Berkeley and was the Executive Director of International and Area Studies. One of his passions for many years has been to promote ethnic art, from the Madhubani district of Bihar in the Mithila region of India near the border with Nepal, where for several centuries women have been painting mythical gods and goddesses. David and his colleagues regularly arrange to get these beautiful paintings using natural dyes and pigments (mostly on religious and social themes, but now also occasionally on political themes) sold in the US and distribute the profits back to these women artists.

The second major intellectual enterprise outside my immediate research I got involved in the early 1980’s was the Journal of Development Economics (JDE), the premier international journal in the field. I was asked to be the Chief Editor, and initially I was a bit reluctant as I knew this was going to be a rather arduous job (particularly the administrative part was tedious and time-consuming—keep in mind this was still the pre-internet age). I have been in the Editorial Board of quite a few international journals (American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Perspectives, International Economic Review, Review of Social Economy, World Bank Economic Review, Asian Development Review, etc.), but the load was relatively light, whereas for JDE the whole responsibility of running it was mine, and the only administrative assistance I got was from a half-time editorial assistant (I used to employ one of my students for this job).

The person who finally succeeded in persuading me to take the Editorship was a Cuban-American friend of mine, Carlos Díaz Alejandro, who used to be a Co-Editor of the journal. Carlos was born in Havana, was stranded in the US by the rupture in the US-Cuba relation in early 1960’s when he was doing his doctorate at MIT (the rest of his life he kept on trying whatever little he could do to improve US-Cuba relation—once he was part of a group of Cuban exiles that successfully lobbied Fidel Castro to release some political prisoners).

He was a Professor at Yale for about 15 years. He primarily worked on Latin American economic history (concentrating on Argentina and Colombia), macro-economic crises, and international finance. Apart from his sharp intellect and very warm personality, his interest in history, politics and culture made the two of us good friends almost immediately after we first met. He was in general very popular among development economists, and large numbers of young economists in Latin America adored him. In any discussion group his pleasant manners, collection of historical anecdotes and his considerable erudition borne very lightly made him easily the center of the group.

Once on my visit to New York he called me and invited me to a Sunday brunch at the prestigious Yale Club in Midtown Manhattan. With 22 floors it is, I am told, the largest college clubhouse in the world, very posh and with a great deal of restrictions in membership (which for a longtime was confined to ‘pale, male and Yale’ people) and dress code. I did not know all this, and I arrived at the appointed hour at the gate in a very casual dress. They’d not allow me to enter without at least a tie. Carlos had not yet come, so I was loitering nearby waiting for him. Soon I saw coming from a distance not Carlos, but a common friend Ronald Findlay and a fellow invitee to the brunch; from that distance Findlay was dangling a tie for me. When he came near, he said “I knew the Berkeley hippie will not have a tie on him, so I brought an extra”.

I had known Ron Findlay, a warm and amiable distinguished professor at Columbia University, for many years. Even though our common research in the area of international trade and development originally brought us together, later I found out about his deep scholarship in economic history, as reflected in his panoramic perspective of the global economy in the co-authored book titled, Power and Plenty: Trade, War, and the World Economy in the Second Millenium. In fact I have known very few economists who were as well-read in diverse areas of social sciences and history as Ron. I have been to his New York apartment a few times and seen the massive piles of books on all kinds of subjects in his study.

He was born in Burma but at age seven the Second Word War and the invading Japanese army forced him and his family to flee and trek hundreds of miles of hazardous forested territory to reach India. After his MIT doctorate he went back to teach at Rangoon, but soon the military coup and the rise of xenophobic and autarchic rulers made him leave the country. I have heard that while he was still in Rangoon Joan Robinson, my Cambridge teacher, once on her regular visit to India made a special trip to Rangoon to meet Ron; taking him on an energetic walk around a lake she tried to convince him why he was wrong on a formalization he had attempted of her ideas in a journal article.

When Carlos finally arrived and met us at the gate of Yale Club I asked him to complain about the gatemen blocking the entry of the guest of a big-name Yale professor like him. He laughed and said, “If I complain to them, you know what they’re going to do? They are going to push me off to the kitchen in the basement where half the kitchen workers are Cuban”. With Findlay’s tie I got entry into the building and in one of the first staircases came upon a wall full of photographs of several generations of the Bush family (all Yale men going back I believe to 1844), a family I did not much care for. The Club atmosphere was as glittering as it was suffocating, but the food was good.

Last time I saw Carlos was also in New York, where at a dinner party much of the time we discussed literature. I told him that even in my limited reading of the great literature of Latin America I was getting a bit jaded by magic realism, but at the beginning how I was obsessed with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. The first time I read that book in my youth, it was a case of ‘love at first sentence’:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

I had also noted that the concept of historical time in that novel was cyclical, not linear, in a way that was akin to the cycles of time in some ancient classics in India. (I had discussed this with the historian of ancient India, Romila Thapar, who referred me to her article on “Cyclic and Linear Time in Early India”). Carlos in turn said that he had read very little of Indian literature, and, of course, whatever he had read was by Indian writers in English. He was keen to read some of the vernacular literature that was translated. When we parted, I think in a subway station in Manhattan, I promised to send him some time a list of a few such translated novels of different Indian languages.

I came back to Berkeley and shortly afterward, one morning in July 1985, I was shocked to read in the New York Times about his death from pneumonia at age 48. I rushed to the office of my colleague Albert Fishlow, who knew him well, and Albert told me that Carlos died from AIDS-related pneumonia. I also did not know that he was gay.

Looking back at the last dinner party in New York sometime the conversation had turned to E. M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India (may be apropos the recently released movie based on that novel, directed by David Lean), and someone in the party speculated that the character of Dr. Aziz in the novel might have been based on a homosexual affair that Forster had with an Indian on his first visit there. I remember Carlos corrected him and said that Forster’s first full-fledged homosexual affair took place much later with a man in Egypt. I remembered being impressed by how well-informed he was on Forster’s life. (Much later I read somewhere that Forster did fall in love with a young Indian man named Syed Ross Masood, but Masood did not reciprocate, and Forster left India in some despair; I also came to know that literary critics now think that the Dr. Aziz character is partly based on Masood).

Albert Fishlow and I went on to organize a symposium of articles in memory of Carlos in a special issue of the Journal of Development Economics. Later it came out as a book.