Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 53

by Pranab Bardhan

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

In the early 1990’s I was a visiting fellow at St Catherine’s College and an academic visitor at Nuffield College in Oxford. At Nuffield College at that time two friends from my Cambridge student days were Fellows, Jim Mirrlees and Christopher Bliss. (I think Jim was mostly away during my visit, and graciously asked me to use his large office at Nuffield). The other person I used to see there off and on was Tony Atkinson who became the Warden of Nuffield shortly afterward. I knew Tony since our student days in Cambridge. Like me he also moved from one Cambridge to the other, to MIT, roughly around the same time. Both of us were heavily influenced by our teacher James Meade, though Tony never did a Ph.D. (as used to be the old British tradition—neither James Meade nor Joan Robinson had a Ph.D.) Tony did not follow Meade in the latter’s work on international trade, as I did, but in other respects he broadly followed on the footsteps of Meade, apart from sharing Meade’s personal characteristics of modesty, decency and a positive vision of the future. Tony was certainly among the best economists of my generation, with pioneering work on inequality, poverty, public policies, redistributive taxation, and welfare. He was also an advocate of Universal Basic Income. I had co-authored a chapter for the Handbook of Income Distribution that he co-edited with François Bourguignon, a French development economist friend of mine.

Among Meade’s international trade students one of the most famous was Max Corden (who grew up in Australia after fleeing Nazi Germany), also a very decent cordial man, who was a Fellow at Nuffield College, but had left for US some years before my visit. I had known Max since his earlier Oxford days. Whenever we met we shared our experience and memories of our common teacher, James Meade. Max was of the opinion that whatever people later discovered to be important in international trade theory was somewhere in the dense prose of Meade’s two big volumes on international trade, published in the early 1950’s.

In 2003 I was invited to give the first Max Corden Lecture at University of Melbourne, where Max had just resettled after years in the US. My topic was Globalization and the World’s Poor. In his preliminary remarks he said, sweetly, “I am glad Pranab is here, but why is there a lecture in my name, I am not dead yet!” In my audience I was pleasantly surprised to see my friend Jim Mirrlees, who was visiting Melbourne. Max is actually still going strong at 95, and the last Corden lecture given just before the pandemic was by Paul Krugman, also on the topic of Globalization.

At St. Catherine’s College, Oxford I was mainly invited by my friend Sudhir Anand who is a major economist on inequality, development and health. (I think Sudhir was among the childhood playmates of Salman Rushdie when they grew up together in Bombay). Both Nuffield and St. Catherine’s were among the more recently established Colleges in Oxford and were less encumbered by the quaint customs of the older colleges. Our son, Titash, who was then a Physics undergraduate at Berkeley, spent his education abroad program at St. Catherine’s, and my visiting fellowship time partly coincided with his time there. His Physics tutor at St. Catherine’s, Neville Robinson, introduced us in a tea party at his home to his son, Andrew Robinson, a writer and a biographer of both Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray.

At St. Catherine’s I also remember meeting John Bayley, a Fellow there and a professor of English literature at the University. I had read quite a few of his essays in literary criticism in the New York Review of Books. He was the husband of the writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Iris once described him as “perhaps the greatest (literary) critic since Coleridge”. We attended a talk by both of them where it was quite a touching sight to see how much care he was taking of Iris. Later, of course, when Iris lost her extraordinary mind to Alzheimer’s disease, he was her meticulous caretaker, accounts of which are reported in his book Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, which was made into the 2001 film Iris by Richard Eyre. I recently read about Iris Murdoch in her youth being part of an Oxford quartet of women philosopher friends (the others were Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, and Mary Midgley) who tried to “do philosophy in a more engaged, creative and open way” than the male Oxford philosophers of their time.

When John Bayley came to know that I was coming from Berkeley, he said he’d share a guilty secret with me. When the two of them were visiting Berkeley, and staying at the campus Faculty Club, once on their walk they saw and were tempted by fresh California asparagus being sold at a bargain price. On an impulse they bought some without thinking what they were going to do with it. In their Faculty Club room it was strictly prohibited to cook anything. The two of them finally decided to ignore this and quietly and surreptitiously boiled the asparagus in their room and went on to enjoy it. I saw in his face the memory of that guilty pleasure, as Bayley chuckled to himself.

In Oxbridge colleges I have met so many amiable, decent people, yet there is something to Amartya-da’s reference to the ‘obnoxious’ and ‘highly obnoxious’ and Bimal Matilal’s reference to the ‘scorpions’. I don’t think they were referring to people who were necessarily racists or to conservatives still suffering from lingering imperialist delusions. Of course, there are snobs and curmudgeons all over the world, but I have found some Oxbridge dons taking a special pleasure out of what can only be called refined malice, and suave verbal expressions of sheer bile. For a mild version of this let me recount a, possibly apocryphal but highly credible, story I have heard of two elderly dons busy talking in the college lounge, when they were interrupted by a hapless young American visitor who wanted to know where the nearest ‘restroom’ was. One of the dons told him, “You go down the hall, turn right, and you’ll find a door saying ‘Gentlemen’, don’t let that deter you, you go right in”.

The absurdity is not confined to dons; it can also be among some students, particularly those described as ‘toffs’. In a recent book titled Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK the journalist Simon Kuper writes about how a section of smug, snobbish, entitled group of his Oxford classmates in mid to late 1980’s blustered their way up the English totem pole. One of them, the outgoing Prime Minister, even wrote in a tongue-in-cheek way about his Oxford group: “what a sharp-elbowed, thrusting and basically repellent lot we were”. (Self-deprecation of this kind is part of the arrogant style of ‘toffs’).

My son, Titash, used to be a cellist at the Berkeley Youth Symphony Orchestra. For some years I used to take him to a cello teacher, Megan, who’d give him private lessons at her home for about an hour; I used to wait outside in my car, and take him and his large instrument back home when he was done. Once Megan’s husband, a distinguished British cellist (and at one time Megan’s own music teacher) saw me waiting and invited me inside. We talked for a while, and as I was enquiring when he had moved from Britain, he started talking somewhat nostalgically about the ‘green and pleasant land’ of the English countryside, and then abruptly said, “It’s such a beautiful country, but if only the people were nice!”. I was surprised and said that the proportion of nice people was probably about the same in all countries, but he did not agree. I did not explore his particular experience with not-nice people, but it kept me wondering.

(Let me take this opportunity also to mention a somewhat peculiar experience I once had while waiting in my car for Titash to finish his music lesson. One day a gentleman in that somewhat classy quiet neighborhood approached me and said that he had often found me in a car in the neighborhood though I clearly did not live there. So he wanted to know what I was doing there. I thought of telling him that I was casing the neighborhood to plan my next burglary).

I have sometimes flippantly told others that in England in public space sometimes I have felt as if English mothers have instilled in their children two strict lessons: one, never talk to a stranger unless you really have to, and two, don’t express your emotions in public. When I first went to England, travelling in a train was a strangely eerie experience for someone used to noisy, messy, nosy extended-family like experience of being a passenger in an ordinary Indian train. If you are lucky to get a seat in such an Indian train, very soon someone’ll ask for your ‘good’ name (once my half-French sociologist friend André Beteille, who looks like other Bengalis, told me that in a train other passengers were confused by his name and asked what caste did he belong to, as many Indian surnames are indicators of caste). Then they’d ask about your family, if you look young whether you are married, if married, how many children, etc., and if they like you, they’ll insist on sharing their food. If you are reading a newspaper, other passengers will take away some pages you are not currently reading for them to study. In trains in England people hide themselves with newspapers in front of them, and once a friend told me that when he was trying to see the headline of his neighboring passenger’s newspaper, this man moved aside in his seat and held the newspaper now at an angle that the headlines were no longer visible.

In Oxford I used to visit the historian Tapan Raychaudhuri (whom I knew from his Delhi School of Economics days), a distinguished historian of Indian social, economic and intellectual history, a Fellow of St. Antony’s College; but I visited him mostly at home, since in that surrounding he was at his best as a raconteur of juicy stories and his wife Hashi prepared delectable dishes for us to savor. (By the way, Hashi’s sister, Sonali Dasgupta, caused quite a stir when in 1957 she left her husband and child in Kolkata and ran off with the great Italian film director Roberto Rossellini, and lived with him for a time in Rome, as he was breaking up with his famous actress wife, Ingrid Bergman).

Once at their home Tapan-da took me to the back of their house where the River Cherwell flowed. There was a wooden bench by the river where we sat and chatted. I asked Tapan-da if that lovely area was part of his property. He said no, it was part of a common property for all the neighbors. But then, he said, for all practical purposes it had become his private property, since when he’d sit there, none of his English neighbors would come out lest they’d have to engage in casual conversation with him, even though these were reasonably nice people and he had good relations with them.

On expressing emotions in public, the British stereotype of reticence and the stiff upper lip is, of course, well-known. In the film version of A Passage to India there is a scene where you see the characters Ronny and Adela watching a horse race from the racecourse gallery. Then it goes roughly like this: after some silence they break up their long-standing engagement to be married in just a few clipped sentences, and then keep on watching the race, as if nothing has happened; after sometime one of them says, “We are being rather English about it, aren’t we”, to which the other replies, “We are English after all”.

On August 31, 1997, the day Princess Diana died in a car crash, I happened to be in England and I saw on TV thousands of English people openly and uncontrollably weeping in the street. On this day of tragedy I thought I was witnessing a major rupture in English character. Virginia Woolf famously wrote in her essay ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ in 1924, “On or about December 1910 human character changed”.  I don’t know about that but on or about August 31, 1997 may be the English character changed.