Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 52

by Pranab Bardhan

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

After my student days in Cambridge, in my professional life I have been to Britain many times, occasionally for lectures and conferences, but sometimes more formally on visiting assignments. The latter, except for the two terms at Trinity College, Cambridge, as a Visiting Fellow, have been more to Oxford and London School of Economics; this may be partly because for some time there was a relative decline in the quality of the Cambridge Economics Department after the internal troubles and the exit of some big names that I have alluded to before. In Oxford I have been on formal visits to All Souls College, St. Catherine’s College, and Nuffield College.

The first time in Oxford I was a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College in 1983. The occasion was an invitation to give a set of endowed lectures at the College, named after S. Radhakrishnan, who used to be a philosophy Professor and Fellow at the College, and later President of India. Amartya-da was then a Fellow at that College. I remember I arrived one afternoon straight from California and Amartya-da said he’d take me to dinner at College and explain the various quaint customs practiced in this College founded in 1438.

The College had no undergraduates and hardly any graduate students, only Fellows. I already knew that it had the reputation of being a Tory citadel and rather stodgy and rigid in its customs. After a great deal of contentious debate it admitted women only in 1979. I had also heard the story of the famous historian and Shakespeare scholar, A. L. Rowse, who at age 22 sat for the Prize Fellowship Examination at All Souls and did well in the written exam. But then there was another hurdle; he was invited to the dinner to check his table manners. At the end of the dinner pudding was served, and on top there was a cherry. Rowse did not know what’d be a proper way of disposing the cherry stone that was in his mouth. He pondered about alternative ways, but could not make up his mind, so he swallowed it. He did get the Fellowship, but even when he was past 90 years in age he told a journalist that he still had not figured out what was the proper way of tackling that stone at the All Souls dinner table in 1925.

At the dinner table most of the time Amartya-da and I talked to each other. At one point I whispered to him that all around us there seemed to be many distinguished-looking people but he had not introduced me to any of them. He looked around, and said to me in Bengali: “The people tonight at this table can be classified in two groups, one obnoxious, and the other highly obnoxious.” That sounded like a good enough explanation. After dinner when we were parting company, I told him that he had explained to me about the customs at lunch and dinner times, but what about breakfast time? He said he never had breakfast in College, but it should be simple, as it was self-service, and he pointed me to the breakfast room.

Next morning I went to that room and saw the scattering of a few elderly dons, each seemingly absorbed in their Daily Telegraph newspaper, and grunting a perfunctory ‘Morning!’ at me. I then served myself some cereals, and took from the table a copy of The Guardian, and sat down at a quiet corner. Then I realized that I had not brought a napkin; I went back to the table and saw some neatly folded cloth napkins and some paper napkins. I started taking a cloth napkin for myself, but immediately a distinct shudder rippled through the whole room. For a moment I was confused and didn’t know what happened. All these fuddy-duddies were obviously watching me from behind their newspapers. One of them then kindly came over and explained to me that cloth napkins were for permanent fellows, as a Visiting Fellow I was entitled only to paper napkins!

Jon Elster, who I think was a Visiting Fellow one year earlier, had warned me about a particular Fellow of the College. This elderly gentleman would apparently ask me about the area of my research, and finding it out, he’d then mention a few books, which Jon assured me I had never heard of. Then he’d try a few other books which also I was unlikely to have heard of. Then he’d gently exclaim, “Oh! I thought these were pretty central to your area of research!” and move away. I did meet this gentleman; in fact he invited me to tea in his large office in one of the college towers. He did not tell me about the books central to my area of research. It is possible he did not consider me worthy to play his little one-upmanship game with.

The first day of my Radhakrishnan lectures at All Souls there was a minor fracas about my attire. Amartya-da thought I had to wear a gown while lecturing, so he procured one and gave it to me the day before. But when I went to the lecture hall, Amartya-da rushed to me and relieved me of the gown; if I remember right he said he had just found out that the protocol was that the lecturer in the College could wear a gown only if he was at any time an Oxford student or faculty, which I was not. (Talking of gowns, I remember a story I heard when I was a student in Cambridge. In those days undergraduates were supposed to wear a gown whenever they went out in the evening. A senior don, called a proctor, and two university officials, known as bulldogs, would punish any gown-less student they caught with a fine. It used to be quite a sight in Cambridge streets in the evening to see these three chasing some students with their own gowns flying in the wind. The story is about Roger Bannister famous as the first who ran the sub-four-minute mile in 1954. As a student from Oxford he once went to Cambridge and in the evening was confronted by the proctor. “Excuse me, sir,” said the proctor, “Are you a member of this university?”  Bannister made a run for it, with the bulldogs in pursuit. After about a quarter of a mile, Bannister waited for his pursuers to catch up. “No,” finally said Bannister, leaving the panting bulldogs in some confusion.)

On the last day of my lecture at All Souls a man from the audience came up to me and introduced himself as Peter Dougherty, an Editor (and part-owner) of what used to be called Basil Blackwell Publishers (I met him again much later when he was with Princeton University Press). He said if I wrote up my lectures as a book he’d like to publish it. The book was published next year, 1984. Recently I was approached by an Oxford group of young faculty saying that they’d like to hold a conference at All Souls to celebrate my original Radhakrishnan lectures. I gave an inaugural lecture at this conference reflecting on the theme of change and continuity in Indian political economy since 1983, and others made presentations on themes related to my original lectures. A book finally came out of this conference, titled Class and Conflict: Revisiting Pranab Bardhan’s Political Economy of India, edited by Elizabeth Chatterjee and Matthew McCartney and published by Oxford University Press.

During my first visit at All Souls I came to know a distinguished Bengali philosopher and Sanskrit scholar, Bimal Matilal, who was a Fellow at the College; he also held the same Spalding Professorship at the University that was held by Radhakrishnan several decades back. He firmly believed that it was unfortunate that Indian philosophy “has remained identified with mysticism and mistakenly thought to be inseparable from religion” (to quote from the Preface he wrote for his book, Epistemology, Logic and Grammar in Indian Philosophical Analysis). Through his many writings he tried his best to convince western philosophers about looking at Indian philosophy as a rigorous, theoretical, logical, and analytical enterprise, incorporating in its own way most issues addressed in western philosophy.

I had much to learn from him and I asked him to join me at dinner in College. He said he did not go to College dinners any more. As an explanation he said in Bengali to me, “There are ‘scorpions’ out there at the dinner table. Amartya-da with his urbane sophistication can deftly handle them. But I am a country bumpkin from Joynagar (his birthplace in rural south Bengal), I cannot handle these people.”

One day he said that after dinner he’d come and pick me up from College, and we’d go see a movie (‘Heat and Dust’, an Ivory-Merchant production based on a novel by Ruth Jhabvala). But he said it was difficult to even double-park near the College gate, so I should wait outside the gate exactly at 8:50 PM when he’d come with his car. That evening I had my dinner at High Table, and it ended around 7:45 PM. The young English mathematician I was talking to at the Table urged me to join him at the adjacent room for dessert and Madeira wine. I thought it was more than one hour before my appointed time at 8:50, so I agreed. Already a line formed for moving to the dessert room; unknown to me the line had quickly got itself arranged in terms of seniority of the Fellows, with whoever happened to be the senior most that night at the head of the line. The line then marched on to the next room where we seated ourselves with the senior most Fellow at the head of the table.

I talked mostly to the same young man, and at around 8:30 I took leave of him and was getting up to start my leisurely saunter to the College gate. The young man hushed me and forced me to sit down. Apparently the custom was that you could not leave the room until the head-of-the-table did so, and by that time he was fast asleep after his glasses of Madeira. This continued for some time and Mr. head-of-the-table was still asleep. I explained my urgent need to my companion. Around 8:42 he joined me in making tingling noises with spoons and wine glasses. Fortunately that worked in waking up the old man, and I could get my release and ran fast to the gate, where I saw Bimal’s car approaching.

In my several subsequent visits to Oxford (and once in Berkeley when he was visiting) I always made it a point to see Bimal. But soon he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the last time I saw him, a few months before his death at age 56, he was at his office, where he was lying on a bed and still tutoring a few students, though his voice was feeble. When I quickly said good-bye, I’ll never forget the soulful eyes with which he looked at me from his bed. The official name of All Souls College is “College of the Souls of All the Faithful Departed”; this College is associated with the memory of two of my dear departed friends who were both philosopher Fellows at the College: Jerry Cohen and Bimal Matilal.