Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 63

by Pranab Bardhan

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

The international academic conference circuit—for an amusing account of such circuits, one may read the British writer David Lodge’s novel Small World, which is second in his trilogy of campus novels, the first of which Changing Places is largely on Berkeley in the 1960’s—also brought me to some potentially hazardous situations. Once a reception given for us conference participants by the King of Spain indirectly helped me in what could have been a serious loss from a pickpocket in Madrid. The public reception hall was not far from the hotel where we were staying. I was walking there from the hotel with a fellow conference participant. I was busy explaining a particular point to her in conversation when I had a half-sense that two young women who brushed by seemed a bit too close, and I ignored that for a minute. The next minute I felt the inside of my jacket pocket and it was gone—a wallet containing not just money but a few important cards including credit cards (since then I have been careful not to put everything in the same wallet or pocket). So I excused myself from my companion and ran to a nearby policeman and told him about it. He brought out a whistle and made a signaling sound. Within 5 minutes another policeman from the opposite pavement came toward me with my wallet and asked me to check if everything was in place. Those two unlucky young women did not realize that as the King was to be there soon, the whole area was thick with plain-clothes policemen.

My conferences sometimes took place in cities where more violent robberies were quite frequent even in broad daylight. I remember the first day we were in our MacArthur network conference in Rio de Janeiro, at the lunch break we were told that the lunch would be in a restaurant just one block away. When we came out the building we saw that some giant commandos were guarding us all along the road as we were walking to the restaurant. I was told that this was part of the conference arrangement. I thought the organizers were over-doing it. But in the afternoon during the conference one woman in our group, who without telling anyone went to the store just next door to the hotel main gate, came back in tears saying that she was mugged. I faced a roughly similar situation in Nairobi and also in a couple of cities in South Africa; during the lunch break I thought I’d just go out for short walk around the big hotels where our conferences were, but the hotel guards would refuse to let us go out for the sake of our safety. I noted this situation might not be unrelated to the fact that in all those 3 countries, Brazil, Kenya and South Africa, the level of inequality is extremely high.

Having talked about visa troubles and muggings connected with travels, let me now turn to their more pleasant aspects. Apart from exposure to rich varieties of culture and landscape, one simple feature of international travel was the different kinds of delectable food that it brings to your easy reach. I could never get tired of Italian, Peruvian, Chinese or Thai food. In China, however, I have noted a sharp difference between regular restaurant food (particularly in some of their vegetarian dishes the subtle combination of taste and nutrition value achieved is unparalleled for any cuisine) and when on special occasions there were official ‘banquets’ (yànhuì). In the latter you often get strange and exotic dishes, some of which I did not much care for. I remember during our MacArthur network dinner banquets in Beijing, I‘d make sure to have Abhijit Banerjee next to me at the dinner table. Abhijit is a great cook and connoisseur of food, but another side of him is that he is highly adventurous in exploring food, and would try everything on offer (be it a reptile or a 100-year old quail’s egg or bird’s nest). So seated next to me, he’d whisper to me what the banquet dish he had just tasted was, and what it could possibly be made of. I’d then decide if I’d touch it or not, as the rotating food table with more than a dozen dishes went past each of us.

In general food plays a special role among Indians in India or abroad, for them the predominant culture is one of foodies. Even Indian women often express their love through food, making their loved ones over-eat. (I have already referred to a tussle between Mahalanobis and Sukumar Ray in Kolkata in the early part of the last century about disentangling serious intellectual discussion from enjoyment of food delicacies in the discussion venue).Talking of food connoisseurs I cannot resist narrating here a New York Times story about an Indian-origin Guyanese. The story goes something like this. This Guyanese Indian came to New York to seek his fortune, but his luck ran out. He ended up having no job, no income and soon no friends. But his love for good food never left him. So he worked out a strategy. He’d dress himself in his only remaining good suit and choose a posh restaurant in one part of New York. In the restaurant he’d order the choicest of wine and the best delicacies in food. His expensive choices would impress the waiters and they’d go out of their way to make this gourmet with good taste happy.

At the end when the large bill came to him he’d quietly tell the waiter that he did not have any money. After the initial ha-ha among the waiters, soon the truth of his statement would dawn on them. So the police would be called, while the man unflappably would go on using the tooth picks and wait. He’d be arrested, and in the trial convicted, and when the judge’d ask him if he had anything to say before he was to be sentenced, he’d politely request the judge if possible to assign him to a particular jail in the area (because they do “Swedish meat balls rather well”). Then for such an offense he’d get released after a few months. And he’d repeat the same thing arriving at an expensive restaurant in a different part of the city in his suit, and New York City is large enough for one restaurant not knowing what happened in a restaurant in another part of the city. The cycle would thus continue for some time this way. The New York Times reporter commented: “In the long and checkered history of serial crimes in New York, this is the first case of a serial diner”.

To pick a story on almost the opposite end of the food scale, in the lunch break of a conference in Cambridge, England, once I was approached by three non-local women participants. They said that they had decided to skip the usual college lunch for the participants and that they had heard there was a good farmers’ market somewhere in the city center. They wanted to know if I’d like to join them in having an informal lunch event with helpings from fresh fruits and vegetables in the stalls in that market, direct farm-to-mouth as it were. This was not quite my idea of a lunch, but I decided to accompany them, particularly as a Cambridge ex-student I knew precisely where that farmers’ market was located. The women enjoyed their skimpy lunch there, something that I could not say I did, but I enjoyed their company. When they were gobbling their tomatoes directly from a shop, one of them naughtily pointed me to a sign that the tomato-seller had put up in the tomato heap, which said, “Don’t squeeze me until I’m all yours”.

The first time I went to New Zealand on a lecture tour, Kalpana and Titash accompanied me. It is not just a beautiful country, the nature there gives you a completely different feel as the flora and fauna are so very different from what we are used to in the northern hemisphere. We took a special one-day nature tour from Auckland, and I asked them to take us to the rain forest which I had seen in the recently famous and award-winning film by Jane Campion, The Piano. In the film after a long voyage from Scotland all the belongings (including a piano) of the mute pianist Ada sent on an arranged marriage to a farmer in the outback had been dumped from the ship in a beach, and the strong Maori workers manually carried the piano through a trek in the rain forest, with Ada and her daughter Flora following them. The tour took us to that rain forest and we walked all the way to the beach where the scenes were actually filmed.

When our conference met in Costa Rica, we stayed in a rain forest villa. The frequent squalls and rain there and the colorful birds fluttering around guava trees were quite a sight, but there is no comparison with the memory I have of the gorgeous monsoon rains rushing through green paddy fields in Santiniketan–no wonder Tagore had composed more than a hundred monsoonal songs; many of his poems, short stories and letters are also suffused with the rainy season. When I was in Ecuador, after my lecture in Quito, I tried for variation staying in a cloud forest resort in the north, but there were too many mosquitoes throughout the day there for us to enjoy the outside.

In warm places swimming used to be a special attraction for me, particularly because the water in Berkeley swimming pools was a bit too cold for me (the ocean water is also very cold here). When we first arrived in Berkeley, Titash and I started using the local YMCA swimming pools. But I found the water in the main pool too cold, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the authorities to raise the heating in that pool. They advised me to go to the childrens’ pool where my son was. There the water was comfortably warm but the level came only up to my knees. The knee-level water reminded me of a story I once read about Groucho Marx. It was a lovely summer day and Groucho decided to give his son a special treat by taking him to a local swimming club pool for the first time. But the front desk people at the club told him that Jews were not allowed in the pool. Groucho then reportedly asked them if they’d permit his son, who was half-Jewish, to wade into the pool at least up to his knees.

I have enjoyed long walks in many cities of the world. In Oslo my friend Karl (“Kalle”) Moene, a noted economist there, once took me on a long pleasant walk through the city, which included going through Frogner Park where there is a large collection of sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. He also took me to the Munch Museum where I discovered that Edvard Munch had many kinds of paintings, which are quite different in style from his iconic painting “The Scream” (for example, many of his late paintings celebrate farm life). Kalle also accompanied me when I took the scenic train journey from Oslo to Bergen. (Incidentally, I have learned a lot from talking to Kalle and reading his papers on the specific features of Scandinavian social democracy).

Among metropolitan cities Paris is a city where I have always liked walking aimlessly in the streets (once my walk was so aimless that it caught the attention of a plain-clothes policeman who approached me and asked for my passport to check that I was not an illegal immigrant). It is a small enough city for you to stroll through the central arrondissements in two or three hours. This is the city of the flâneur, celebrated by the 19th-century bohemian poet Charles Baudelaire. For him the flâneur was the passionate spectator of the multifarious life-forms of the city. In the previous century Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s last book, The Reveries of the Solitary Walker, about ten walks in the outskirts of Paris, was a meditation on solitude and society.

Of course feminists have pointed out that flânerie by oneself is often a male privilege. Social conventions, inconveniences and dangers limit the freedom of the flâneuse. Still Virginia Woolf in her 1927 essay, “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” celebrates rambling through the streets of London, pretending the need to purchase a pencil in order to justify what is in effect an aimless stroll through the city. In her novel Mrs. Dalloway strolls through central London, as Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses does in Dublin, and the city bustle stimulates streams of thoughts and memories. In the 1962 movie Cleo From 5 to 7 by Agnès Varda the protagonist Cleo has an afternoon of flânerie, when she walks by herself into cafes, crowded streets and gardens of Paris, and the city mainly mirrors Cleo’s inward journey. Of course such solitary flânerie in a city by a woman is almost unthinkable in much of India, or for that matter most parts of the world.

Once in Paris my friend François Bourguignon took me to dinner at an old Café-Restaurant, and motioned me to sit at a particular corner. Once seated, he told me that the place where I was sitting was precisely where Honoré de Balzac, one of France’s greatest writers, used to come and sit many afternoons in the first half of the 19th century. I have heard that Balzac when he was writing a book used to subsist on little more than coffee, but after the publication of the book he used to gorge himself (I read a description: “in a single sitting, a hundred oysters, four bottles of wine, twelve lamb cutlets, duckling, a brace of partridge, sole, and pears by the dozen”; the bill was charged to the publisher). There is a lovely 2010 book Balzac’s Omlette, where the author shows how in Balzac’s novels food could evoke character, atmosphere, class, and social climbing more suggestively than money, appearances, etc.

Over dinner when I told François that in public life in Kolkata a poet or writer was valued much above an economist, he said the same was true of Paris. I then told him about an incident in my life. Once a well-known Bengali writer/poet friend Sunil Ganguly and I were walking in a Kolkata street, where every few minutes he’d be surrounded by young women asking for his autograph. While obliging them, he saw me waiting at a distance with a bored look and told these women that I too was a well-known person. At this a couple of women came toward me and asked me what I did. As soon as I said I was an economist, they turned back and rejoined the crowd around Sunil. This put me and my discipline in our place.

When in Paris, after a day of meetings or museum-hopping, I used to go in the late afternoon all the way up to the Basilica of Sacré Coeur, where seated on the steps you could have a panoramic view of the whole city. With the setting sun in the background and the birds flocking back to the trees nearby or to the nooks of the Basilica, you could have some moments of serenity. Talking of serenity, one of the best places in the world in my experience to savor it is in the gardens of the shrines in the city of Kyoto in Japan. I have seen some visitors deep in meditation there. Meditation does not quite work for me, but sitting silently in a tranquil scenic place is good enough.

In the 1960’s I used to see a lot of people practicing what was called ‘transcendental meditation’. (By the way, the first word of mantra in this meditation, ‘Om’ is called Pranava mantra, which is the Sanskrit origin of my first name). Then in the 1970’s I heard people talking about ‘dynamic meditation’, introduced by Osho or the Indian godman Rajneesh. Once in the middle 1970’s I had a brief encounter with a couple of disciples of Rajneesh in Pune, India where I went for an international conference. I was put up at the Blue Diamond Hotel. One evening I was reading a magazine in the bar-lounge of the hotel, when two blonde German girls in identical crimson robes came and sat near me. When we got talking, they told me that they were disciples of Rajneesh, whose ashram was around the corner outside the hotel. They said they could not have beer in the ashram, so they regularly came to that hotel to have beer. I then asked them about life in the ashram. They were in general quite reverential about Rajneesh, but their cult seemed to me somewhat hedonistic compared to most other cults.

Noticing my curiosity they offered to take me and give me a guided tour the next day. At the appointed hour next day when they came to pick me up from the hotel, they said they forgot to ask me something the previous day: did I use shampoo to wash my hair? I said, yes, like most other people. In that case, they said, I’d be denied entry in the ashram. This was because Rajneesh was extremely allergic to the shampoo smell. I then suggested that we could go to other parts of the ashram where Rajneesh was not nearby. They said, no, they were very strict at the main gate. Apparently two six feet plus Scandinavian women stood guard at the gate and regularly sniffed every entrant’s head. So I missed my chance to have an inside look at the cult I had heard much about.