Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 54

by Pranab Bardhan

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

In recent years the institution in England I have visited frequently is London School of Economics (LSE), in 1998 as a STICERD Distinguished Visitor, and in 2010-11 as a BP Centennial Professor (this was shortly after the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, so I hesitated telling people about my designation), and numerous times as visitor just for a few days. In recent times most of my interactions there have been with the development economists Tim Besley and Maitreesh Ghatak in the Economics Department and with Robert Wade, economist  Jean-Paul Faguet and some years earlier, John Harriss (the political sociologist specializing in India) in the International Development Department. In recent years, apart from departmental seminars, I also gave two somewhat formal public lectures in a large LSE auditorium, once on China and India, and the other time on A New Agenda for Global Labor.

In earlier decades on my way to or from India I’d often stop in London, and go to LSE and spend some time with my friends, including Nick Stern and Meghnad Desai (since then both of these people became Lords). Meghnad once invited me to a visit at the House of Lords, showed me around and took me to lunch there. Meghnad with his distinct Afro hairdo and all has always been a flamboyant character. He used to claim to be a Marxist economist. Rumor had it that he and his first wife (Gail, who I think was related to the wealthy Guinness Family) had a summer villa in south of France, where reportedly the only book on the shelf was Das Kapital. During the Vietnam War days he was active at the LSE protests against the War. I was told that my teacher Frank Hahn, who had moved from Cambridge to LSE by then, once suggested to Meghnad, in a characteristic Frank Hahn way, to publicly immolate himself in front of the LSE building in a spectacular anti-war protest gesture (around that time some Vietnamese monks immolating themselves in protest in Saigon had hit the headlines). Later Meghnad became one of the Thatcher-admiring (or –internalizing) Labor Party members. Now I hear in India he is a Modi-admirer. He is also the Chairman of the Meghnad Desai Academy of Economics he has founded in Mumbai.

In my transit stops in London I used to stay with my historian friend from college days, Premen Addy, and also occasionally with Sudipta Kaviraj, an erudite scholar of Indian politics and intellectual history (then teaching at the School of Oriental and African Studies, now a Professor at Columbia University) and his musician wife Nilanjana. Over the years I have seen London visibly changing. Now it is a vigorous, youthful, dynamic, cosmopolitan city, of course largely unaffordable except for the financially better-off. Even some of my French friends say that London has now some of the top-rated French restaurants. Good restaurants in London are expensive even on my American salary. Some of London’s wealth is derived from the thriving financial district (‘the city’), and from the investments by kleptocratic oligarchs of the whole world. Once the capital of a plundering empire London has now become the preferred laundromat for the world’s corrupt money.

This, of course, has never blinded me to the fact that some of the world’s best writers, journalists, theater actors, etc. are in London or nearabouts. In economic journalism, for example, The Economist and The Financial Times have remained among the very best in the world—I regularly read them for their usually coherent well-informed arguments expressed in crisp witty prose, even though I may not always agree with them (I give myself a useful exercise: if I disagree I should be clear in my mind exactly why; I often consider them as intelligent opposition, which I am afraid I cannot say about the Wall Street Journal).

I have always been a fan of BBC, probably Britain’s most important public cultural institution, but successive attempts by Conservatives to dismantle it have made it much weaker than before, with its budget cut almost to the bone. Even apart from culture, to an institutional economist like me BBC in principle is a reasonably successful example of a public institution, funded by and accountable to the public but retaining a great deal of autonomy and independence in its day-to-day functions (the severity with which it still criticizes the Government or bites the hand that feeds it is a shining example for other countries). For all the conservative propaganda against it, BBC has retained its popularity with the general public. In 2015, the government asked the British public for their views on the BBC and received 192,000 responses, of which 97 per cent were favorable. Its fans in the rest of the world are even more numerous.

I was thrilled when about a decade back, after my China-India book came out and I was visiting LSE, I was invited to appear in BBC for an interview on the theme of the book; I just had to walk across the road from LSE to the building where BBC used to be. (In the middle of the interview, they took a short break, but I was told that immediately after the break and before the interview resumed, following a practice in their program they’d surprise me with an unrelated question. It turned out to be about what kind of a practical invention I’d like to see in the world at large. I said I’d like an invention where I could carry something like a mobile phone in my pocket which’d constantly monitor certain vital parameters of my health, so I could get a sufficiently early signal to get medical help if necessary. This was long before any of the current wearable health devices on the market now were anywhere in the horizon. So I now feel prescient.)

I have already mentioned before about British supremacy in the world of theater and detective fiction. When visiting LSE I have often walked across the Waterloo Bridge over the river to watch a play at National Theater on the South Bank. Recently some Berkeley cinemas have had programs of showing full videos of plays under the ‘National Theater Live’ program. This is a good way of showcasing the quality of British theater to the wider world. (During the pandemic you could see some of their plays free online).

Every year I look at the list in The Guardian for the year’s best British detective novels, and read some of them. Recently I wrote an article on my reflections on feminist crime novels. In that connection I read quite a bit of Scandinavian noir and some good recent American writers (like Laura Lippman, Lisa Unger and Megan Abbott) but also quite a few British ones (for example, Erin Kelly’s taut psychological novel He Said/She Said). More than dramatic murders and mayhem with beautiful female corpses or exploits of femmes fatales (often creatures born of male anxiety) in male crime novels, some of the feminist crime novels (mostly by women, but some by male writers) prominently feature meditations on rape, suicide and child victimization. Both vulnerability and agency of women with impaired and world-weary female protagonists are upfront in the feminist crime novels. The exploration of the inner lives of women, slow development of characters rather than fast-paced action (‘less gunplay, more foreplay’), emotional damage in domestic settings and relationships—these are often in the main focus. In any case we’ve come a long way since the days of Miss Jane Marple with her knitting needles.

I don’t usually read much of spy stories which thrived during the period of cold war in my youth, but I’ll be amiss if I don’t mention about my fascination bordering on reverential awe for the spy stories of John le Carré. His real name was David Cornwell. An English patriot, disgusted by Brexit, he wanted to remain European, and shortly before his death in December 2020 he gave up his British citizenship, and took the Irish one. He was helped by the Irish writer John Banville to trace the Irish roots of his grandmother. By the way, John Banville used to write crime fiction with the pen name, Benjamin Black. I have read most of the latter’s crime novels, as I have read almost all the espionage stories of le Carré, including his posthumously published Silverview.

Le Carré’s plots are nuanced and complex —the real-life double agent Kim Philby, one of the infamous ‘Cambridge Five’ spies, said in a letter to Graham Greene in 1982 that he found le Carré’s plots “more complicated than anything within my own experience” though “they were good reads after all that James Bond nonsense”.   The plots involve the morally compromised spies of both the West and the East, their sordid hypocrisies and games, the office drudgery and the bureaucratic turf wars, all narrated in a taut and witty style. But the all-pervasive theme is one of betrayal both in personal and public lives.

Le Carré introduced some new terms in the espionage literature, which have now become commonplace, like mole, joes, honey trap, scalphunters, babysitters, lamplighters, etc., which actual spies apparently use now. The writer Ian McEwan said that le Carré had gone far beyond “being a genre writer and will be remembered as perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the 20th century in Britain.” Philip Roth called le Carré’s semi-autobiographical novel A Perfect Spy (a perfect spy is the one who betrays everybody), when it came out in 1986, “the best English novel since the war.”  It is a kind of meta-fiction, with stories within stories, largely based on the author’s tortuous relation with his own father, Ronnie Cornwell, a charming swindler in real life.

I personally prefer his Smiley-Karla trilogy, three novels where the central focus is on the intricate and treacherous cat-and-mouse games between George Smiley, a world-weary, clear-headed, donnish, badly dressed (his clothes “hung about his squat frame like a skin on a shrunken toad”), cuckolded, old spymaster, called back from retirement, and his fiendishly clever Soviet rival Karla (the only time they ever met was briefly in Delhi airport). Of the trilogy, I like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy the best. I saw the superb 7-part BBC TV serial on this in 1979-80, where the masterly Alec Guinness acted as George Smiley—his acting in that series is so indelibly etched in my mind, I just cannot think of anybody else in that role (in the 2011 movie based on the same novel Gary Oldman acted well in that role, but I still could not accept him).

It is worth noting that even le Carré’s traitors are at heart English patriots; the ‘mole’ in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when outed, says that he lost his allegiance to the West when after the Suez crisis in 1956 he realized the waning influence of the British on the world stage and their abject subordinate status to the Yankees he disliked. There is also an Oxbridge connection in recruitment of young educated spies, apart from the long shadow of the betrayal by the Cambridge spies in the Smiley novels. In an early novel George Smiley is nostalgic about his days with the spymaster in Oxford, when “you took your orders over a glass of port in his rooms at Magdalen” College.

Le Carré has told an interviewer that at KGB training schools they have used his books as essential reading. More interestingly, when Yevgeny Primakov, a former KGB head and later Russian Premier, came to London in the mid-1990’s, he sought out le Carré and told him about reading his books. During their meeting someone asked Primakov which character in the books he identified with. “George Smiley, of course!” Primakov replied.

I have enjoyed but was less enamored with his ‘angry’ polemical novels in the post-cold-war days—The Night Manager (about international arms dealers), The Constant Gardener (scandal involving global pharmaceutical companies), Our Kind of Traitor and Single and Single (about international money-laundering), A Most Wanted Man (about international terror, torture and migration), etc. As I have said before, I prefer sad novels to angry novels.