Oral history interview with Amiya Bagchi

Bagchi, Amiya

Manjapra, Kris


  • Interviewed in Kolkata, West Bengal, India by Kris Manjapra
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This is a Bengali intellectual history, oral history recorded on January 11, 2010 with Professor Amiya Bagchi in Kolkata and Professor Bagchi it's an honor to have this time with you. I wanted to begin this interview the way that we're beginning all the interviews which is to ask for just basic information of your place of birth and your date of birth and then to speak about your childhood context from there. So, when and where you born?
I was born in in a village called Jadupur, in the district of Murshidabad in Bengal, undivided Bengal, now in West Bengal. This village has become famous -- well they don't know it as Jadupur, but this is the village where the remains of the Raktamrttika Vihar which Hiuen Tsang writes about, where these remains have been discovered there and well much of that has disappeared, much of that is under peasants' fields but this was where the Raktamrttika Vihar was located.
And what was the year of your birth?
28 December 1936.
What kind of family context were you born into and if you like more specifically what was the kind of religious context and also the political leanings of your family, of your family life, your family home?
Well, on my father's side of the family I come from a Vaishnav lineage, the -- our home was actually I mean that place was a seat of an important Vaishnav pith, I don't know, pith or guru. My paternal grandfather's maternal grandfather was an Adhikari, a Vaishnav Adhikari, Gadadhara Adhikary.
My paternal grandfather, who I think basically had a small landlord background inherited that pith or seat. The family came over because their own lands and property were washed away by the Podda [Padma River] on the just on this side of the border with Rajshahi. So they came over there.
What was the name of the – do you know name of the village in the area close to the Rajshahi?
It was not in Rajshahi, It was on this side of Murshidabad, Katlamari that was the name of the village. Then they moved I think some where called Naoda, that was an interim base and then finally to Jadupur. So they had as far as I can make out thousands of disciples of the sect spread over districts of Rajshahi, Murshidabad, Nadia, Birbhum, and Jessore and at some stage they probably had disciples also among they who are called Namasudras in East Bengal and Chandals in West Bengal but they were dropped at some stage as far as I can make out and that these sheshas -- disciple is not quite the right word -- devotees. Jasodhara, my wife, Ratna.
Very nice to meet you
Nice to meet you
You are busy working, I will just take my diary
I'm sorry to interrupt you
No problem, madame.
They, I mean they are devotees rather than disciples also many of them had to take Diksha as you, as you know the guru and after my grandfather's death my father acted as the guru, my father -- grandfather died when I was about 7, 1943.
And my father was a, had gone to school only up to class seven. My grandfather -- because there was no secondary school in the village. They had to go to a neighboring big, also a village really. My grandfather brought him back because he thought that his digestion would be spoiled by eating food cooked by mineral coal. So that was the kind of household I grew up in but my mother came from an educated family. She was, she got enough schooling at home. I have been told always that she was the intellectual among the brothers and sisters. She obviously knew enough English to teach me the basics of grammar before she died when I was eight and a half, and I never had to learn tenses and, you know, number after that. Only difficulty was constructing sentences. She also knew some Sanskrit
how did she develop her
Well my
maternal grandfather was a was a not a very successful man materially. His brothers were very successful lawyers and doctors. He was a Mukhtar he was a lower level trader and acted as manager of zamindar.
The story goes that when the in a tricky case the zamindar wanted him to arrange false witnesses. He refused, resigned his job and then basically lived on his property and partly on the charity of his sons in law and so on. But he was an educated man I mean he when I visited him last, I visited my maternal grandparents' home twice while my mother was alive.
Where was that, where was their home?
That was in Dharadaha that is in Nadia district. It's still in West Bengal, Meherpur subdivision that was -- and on other side lies Kushtia with Lalon [Fakir Lalon Shah] and all that.
And she taught me I mean she was absolutely determined that we should grow up educated and instill that somehow into us. My father didn't talk -- it was not until in fact later on after her death supported us to the best of his ability throughout.
How many brothers and sisters did you have?
Well, I have one sibling. I have one brother, and I had another brother who died of typhoid in 1948 and then my father married quite a few years later so I have three half sisters.
So your education when you were a child began with your mother, was that home schooling in that you I mean you studied with her?
No, there was a primary school very I mean it was a mud structure, thatched roofs. We sat often there were very few wooden benches, we often sat on a mats woven of palm leaves
Remember the name of it?
Well it was a it was a district school grand name what is it, Jadupur Upper Primary Free Board School. There was no board at all what it was a free board school, so we didn't have to pay fees. So I studied there until class four and then came to Baharampur and stayed with my aunt. My aunt's husband, my uncle by marriage was a very active member of the Forward Bloc [All India Forward Bloc]. He was a Congressman then followed Subhas Bose in to the Forward Bloc and
What was his name?
Chatrapati Ray, Chatrapati Ray and he was very loyal and whenever Subhas Bose's name was mentioned he would burst into tears pitifully, he was released only in late 1946, spent I think four years in jail some thing like that, before that also he was in and out of jail, Civil Disobedience Movement he was in jail and so on. So the political background was there that you know that family the strong national and many of my uncles on my mother's side they are also involved in the nationalist movement and my mother's first cousins were all in the nationalist movement. One of them in fact had been sent to Andamans [Andaman Islands penal colony] and when he became very ill then he was sent back and then he died.
Was this in the 1930s?
It was in the 1930's, and Baharampur when I went to school was full of political activity so, you know any thing happened we are dragooned as a boy volunteers and so on. I remember marching for miles and miles supporting the Congress candidate to the Constituent Assembly, Shyamapada Bhattacharjee. That was of not organized from Baharampur but from some local people in our village you know Shyamapada Bhattacharjee against a Hindu Mahasabha candidate. Shyamapada Bhattacharjee won I mean the so these were some of the you know the strong nationalist things. I didn't understand most of it at that time but
Thank you.
But since I was supposed to be well I did well in the school and
Was it a Bengali Medium school you went to?
It was a Bengali medium school?
Bengali medium school. The school also had an interesting background. Krishnanath College School was -- this I found later on when I was made president of the 150 year celebration committee of the school. It was founded by a zamindar family, Murshidabad, Kasimbazar there was family of zamindars, Nandi's, you know, Krishnakanta Nandi, and then his nephew later on Manindra Chandra Nandi and so on they're.. They're all descendants of Kanta Babu long time back and they, they made their money in the 18th century as banians of the British I can't remember -- Barwell [Richard Barwell] I think -- and but they had a strong tradition of educational philanthropy so they founded Krishnanath College in 1853 and the school was founded along with that so it was one of the oldest schools in this part of the country
English language English style schools, and in 1941 or 1942 the students of this school before I had joined, I joined it in 1945 as a student, class five, after came my from village school, the boys put up a national flag on top of the building and the district -- it was aided by the government at that time -- the district inspector took strong objection to that and wanted the head master to punish them. The head master refused, so after that the aid was stopped and part of the expenses of the school were met by the founding family, the Nandi's. So there was a strong nationalist background to the school also and when Sarat Bose died -- you know Sugata's grandfather -- I was told to give a speech as a student of class nine in then '49, in the huge hall. They had a very big hall in the first floor of the building. Told sort of, talk about the great deeds that he performed and so forth. So there was that kind of background
So was it the Forward Bloc Subhas Chandra Bose, Sarat Bose but there was also the movement for the Congress candidate against the Mahasabha. What was the major political, nationalist, but what kind of nationalist figures were most important in this context I mean who were -- did it matter or were they all were
That is my real political education began only when I came to college. I mean these were all instinctive I mean we all sort of in the village we prepared national flags with bits of cloth we could beg from our family, color them with vegetable colors you know green and yellow and so on and drew the Chakra the (0:55)
Did Gandhi play an important role?
No not so much
Not so much
Mainly Bose, well Bose and Congress -- Congress meaning, you know the figures that were there in Murshidabad. At the time we didn't have any much idea of the conflicts within Congress and so on.
We knew that Forward Bloc was there and Subhas Bose was the great national figure, but there was a strong movement also in Baharampur of the RSP [Revolutionary Socialist Party] at that time. Congress party was there but not very, at that time not very prominent, it was mainly the RSP and there was a charismatic leader of the RSP who made Baharampur is best Tridib Choudhury, who in fact later became MP for several terms and once the opposition put him up for the post of president later on. These were the parties that mattered at that time. This is hindsight. I really didn't you know this was all very under, submerged I mean I only recall that these were the things that were happening.
Did the famine [Bengal famine of 1943] and the Partition -- or how did the famine and the Partition come in to this?
Famine I was in then in living in the village, we didn't experience famine directly in the village but there was shortage of food grains and we learned that eating some kinds of grass seeds, people got beriberi that we heard. That beriberi could be a fatal disease was something that I later learned. I, we only knew that the feet were swollen and so on because lack of basic vitamins they didn't (2:53)
I remember one of the crop eaten I can't I don't know what it really was, but it was not generally Bengalis ate rice and the some times at in the evening we ate bread often that Hutten bread but not these kinds of seeds, didn't effect directly, but the Partition affected us very directly because one of my cousins was married in Rajshahi and the whole family moved to in fact we heard I think we gave shelter to that family for probably 6 months. At the time of Partition this cousin of mine gave birth to a child in our home and it was quite a burden for all of us and and people came over to try and exchange land with land on the other side and they were scared that Murshidabad which was a Muslim majority district could go to Pakistan.
What would happened to us? That sort of scare, but the Murshidabad District was not affected by communal riots any time I mean this is what has also to be recorded that the Nawab of Murshidabad had a secular attitude I think basically he regarded all Hindus and Muslims as his subjects. So how dare they quarrel among themselves and he was in fact president of the peace committee that was organized after the riots of 1927-28 you know Dhaka and so on -- There no riots in Dhaka. My aunt with whom I lived was vice president of the women's committee which was organized at that time. So that sort of our village was half Muslim and half Hindu, no record of any communal riot any time in our history. So that was the kind of background but the Partition definitely effected our, you know, fortunes directly in the sense that some of these years were difficult years.
So what was your transition then to to Kolkata, Calcutta how did you end up moving?
Well I did well in my matriculation examination as a result of which you know I got a scholarship -- How much? Sixteen rupees or twenty rupees? I forget excuse me and my tuition will be free and I have my maternal uncle had a house in Kolkata.
Where did he live?
In Kolkata in -- across Hazra Park on that side
Do you remember the address?
Yes, 51A, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Road, he had a he had two flats there, I mean they shared two flats not their own but rented but very low rents. So I got admitted into Presidency College. I came over but I didn't attend any class there.
This is at age -- this is for your intermediate, that you came
So you were how old at this point?
So you were fifteen or
Yeah, because you know so after that I got admitted to Presidency College but first of all I thought that there I came from a village basically and you know still extremely gauche in every way and I thought that these boys and girls -- there were some girls looked much too rich and then somebody, a professor from Belur Ramkrishna Vidya Mandir who knew my one of my uncles -- I had 2 maternal uncles -- came over and said look we'll make everything free for him if he comes over to Belur Ramkrishna Vidya Mandir.
To stay there?
So I went there.
And what is the name of this Professor who?
This was in 1951, before attending any class in Presidency College, I took transfer and went to fill out an application at Belur Ramkrishna Vidya Mandir, but something disastrous happened for them and I think for me it was a real educative experience really. I was you know, I had been given the sacred thread, my father was not a very dogmatic he was orthodox in his own rituals but didn't -- I brought friends home he never asked about his their caste or anything.
He wouldn't eat outside, but he would never bother about that kind of thing. When I went to Ramkrishna Mission they had classes on religion and these are compulsory classes. These were basically lessons in theology that was the mistake. They then gave epistemological proof of the existence of God, ontological proof, teleological proof all of that. The more they taught me all of this, the more convinced I became that such a creature could not exist, and by the end of about 3-4 months of this teaching, I had become an atheist, and ironically I got the highest marks in the religion paper also, nearly full marks because you know mainly because I could write English and they could not, and then it leaked out through the betrayal of a friend, a roommate that 3 of us were sharing a room that I had become an atheist and these maharajas, these monks who see must have superintendents one of them was a very stupid and you know a crudely oppressive person he then began to question their compulsory prayers and we began boycotting them.
I came back and he said why don't you do these prayers, I said I don't believe in God. If you think that a God will be pleased by an atheist performing some thing he doesn't believe in then your God must be very peculiar. Following me other boys began boycotting the prayers and it escalated throughout that period, and they had a song of a -- composed by Vivekananda, Khandano Bhaba mandala (0:20), it means that you, you know please let me sever all earthly ties so I said, Our parents didn't send us here to sever earthly ties why should we sing this song? And secondly its not a very good song. So they said, What song should you -- this is where my real revolt began. What song should you sing then? So I said there are many Tagore songs, wonderful songs, Rabindranath Tagore.
And then one of them who had been specially sent to sort of persuade me said, Do you know that he was a dissolute character? So I said, how?
He said he had illicit relations with his sister-in-law. So I said can you show me a book where it has been written down? He said no but every body knows it. So I said you are resorting to gossip, to malign one of the greatest men that the world has produced? What are you doing? From then on it was no holds barred war between them and me, and then they raised sort of the room rents. I didn't have to pay any rent but I joined this strike and in fact was one of the leaders of this strike, boycotted classes. Naturally my result suffered with all these activities. So at the end of this first year the principal who was fond of me.
He was not a stupid man, but thought you know I could be persuaded to stay on and to wrote a long letter to my father saying you know what he is doing is harmful both to him and to our college and there are other students, classmates of mine who had been with me. Three of them joined the Congress party later, and I never became a member of any party, and all their parents I think are middle class men and they persuaded them to go back. So when I showed this letter to my father he said what will you do? He had no idea about what I should do. I said I think I'll leave the college and go back to Presidency College. Will they take you? I was confident enough that you know my results were good enough for them to readmit me, so I said yes. So he wrote back a very short letter saying that it would appear that it would good for both your college and for my son if he leaves the college, so please issue a transfer certificate.
That's how I came over it's a that was my real education and in Belur they also gave me special permission to consult the Belur Math library and from there I brought out some of the my most first radical texts
What were you writing from there?
Marx's Communist Manifesto, Capital: Volume 1 which I didn't understand at all and so on but that was the real education.
So they had Marx in -- they had Marx in their library?
They had Marx, I mean there were some very learned amongst them. There's no question about that.
How many was how many men, how many young boys were at the school, at Belur?
At that time I can't remember there were had only intermediate classes. I think they have must have been all together 200 boys. Three of them joined the Communist Party among my contemporaries. One of them I think he has been one of the great men of my generation.
What is his name?
A.K.Roy, Arun Kumar Roy. Every body knows him as A.K.Roy of Dhanbad. He became a chemist and a chemical engineer really joined the Fertilizer Corporation of India and Sindri, their research division and then began organizing workers and at some point he decided to leave the Fertilizer Corporation and become a full time activist organizing miners, adivasis, peasants together really and has spent his life doing that, hasn't married, lives like a real sannyasi. I visited him once and I have no words he you know is one of the great men of my time.
Who were the other two?
The other two were one became a doctor he is a one of the outstanding specialists on diarrhoeal diseases and also neonatology Dilip Mahalanabis. He was a consultant for the W.H.O. and a still is there continues to do real you know both research work and as a pediatrician but also a gastroentric specialist. There is a Johns Hopkins centre of gastroenterology in Dhaka which he headed for some time and you know and the third one -- but Dilip left the party after at some stage and became a full time researcher and doctor and so on. Third one was a doctor, a surgeon. He remained with the CPI-M [Communist Party of India Marxist], became an MLA at some stage. He has died now. He was a head of the student cell, though. So these were some of my contemporaries at College at that time.
Before we go to Presidency, when you go back to Presidency, I was wondering that you mentioned Tagore, your, you already had this
Would you like another one?
I am o.k. for now o.k. what is the what kind what aspect of Tagore were you was it already the social message or the was it the beauty of his songs, the beauty of his language
I must have fifteen somehow because I remember writing an essay in my matriculation examination at the end of class ten where I quoted his Bhagavan tumi yuge yuge dut pathyecho bare bare (1:48) that is God you have sent messengers age after age. They have said you know I am sure there is a translation, they have said love every body, they have said do not commit violence that the world is full of violence, the world is full of hatred, the world is full poison. God have you loved these men also, those who have done this? So I quoted that so it must have seeped in somewhere. So gradually I am in I don't think I formulated it very consciously but unconsciously it must have seeped in anyway
And so it was in 1952 that you were back in Presidency?
I came back in Presidency, yes
And what was -- who were the professors, the teachers, or even the older students, who had an influence on you and also your immediate colleagues or fellow students that you remember as friends
Conversation partners
Well it was the fellow students were much more important for me that sort of way. One of my fellow students was a boy Amar Bhaduri, who was a brilliant cricketer, very popular and became later on a wonderful chemist. He was one of the experts chosen by WHO to head a group on leishmaniasis, you know, Kala Azar and all that, that kind of disease. He died 3-4 years back.
I'm now unfortunately president of a foundation in his memory, and there are other students I mean again this was not directly political my some of my students from '52. One was a man who I think must be rated the most important scholar of Bengali literature after Suniti Chatterji and Sisir Kumar Das. These are the people with whom as friends and in, well in '52 I had intermediate science but I my eyes were bad and bad at doing practical experiments and the part of science that really interested me was not taught at all in college, that was atomic theory, and so I was interested on all these social issues already so I decided that I would do economics, so I after my examination I always went back to our village after because
a) I didn't have enough money and b) I really liked going there so in that village I first read Samuelson's [Paul Samuelson] Economics [Economics: An Introductory Analysis], second edition, a book by Gettell [Raymond Gettell] on political theory and came back to Presidency College to do economics in 1953 and a bit -- I suppose between '53 and '54 were my most active years politically. We welcomed Cheddi Jagan the first prime minister of Guyana as you know who was deposed by American machinations welcomed him along with my friend who became General Secretary of the Union. There was a students federation. I was not a member of the federation, but I was supported by them to contest the elections and I supported their activities and we went and brought him to give lectures in the college.
Where did he, was he a guest of the students who is he why
No ..no he just came here we found out that he had come to Kolkata we went and met him and invited him to the college and the principal was not very happy because we had not informed him.
Who was the principal at this time?
The principal who became my father- in- law later on. But you know he has just I mean he didn't punish us but said why didn't you inform me? You know this is an event which requires the use of a, the college auditorium and so on if would inform me before inviting him. He was absolutely within his rights too.
Was there a sense among the students that
But you know the basic thing was that the teachers in Presidency College that I had were genuine liberals you know, unlike the two persons that I mentioned earlier, were gut anti-Marxist.
They were not Marxist at all but genuine liberals. So they didn't mind my dissenting views activities and so on and one occasion in fact I should mention that because you know it so rare to have a teacher like that. There was a Professor U.N. Ghoshal was head of the economics department and he taught us political science and public finance. So he gave us an essay to write on multi-party democracy. I had exposed already to the theory of oligopoly in economics and the outcomes if you.. you know and various claims of welfare economics the outcome of a oligopolistic industry for consumers could be worse than a monopolistic industry.
So I thought that multi-party competition could produce a worse result than a benevolent single party dictatorship, argued that out. In later I found that the similar arguments can be found in Gaetano Mosca and Robert Michels I had not read them but simply from analogy from this I wrote this out. And if partly in defiance I showed it to Professor Ghoshal and you know when he was assessing these essays he came to the class and said you should all read Amiya's essay. This was the kind of liberalism they had instead of you know punishing me, scolding me they really welcome some body who could think differently. That's of what I valued most and I still value most.
In terms of the syllabi at at Presidency the way that economics was taught.
Well I met Sukhamoy Chakravarty when I was in my at the end of my third year I did very well in the annual exams and he came and met me and
He sought you out?
Sought me out. His later wife Lalita was a class mate of ours and a this is the sort of thing that is important he said I mean he was in the students federation but he was also very much interested in mathematical economics and all that. As we all were fascinated by. He said have you read Samuelson's [Paul Samuelson] Foundations of Economic Analysis, I said no. He said why not I said I have been told it's too difficult. He said, read it and then find out. You know that's the sort of thing and then he asked me to write an essay for the college magazine so I wrote a paper called "The Myth of the Welfare State", tracing its origins I didn't know the whole history but I knew that Bismarck had first instituted the social welfare primarily to counter the Social Democrats who were rising at that time and they published that in the college magazine. So this is the sort of way that the education went I mean
What was the culture of discussion where did, when you would read Samuelson or other books that were not being taught in the syllabus and where would you go to discuss it or would you?
Well normally I would read in the hostel [Eden Hindu Hostel]
You would read – you were living in Eden, I see
Well at that time I mean and when I came back from Belur, I didn't go to live with my uncles but lived in the Eden Hindu Hostel. Again I had a scholarship, although I didn't do as well as the monks in Ramkrishna Mission thought I would do. I still had a scholarship, full scholarship and you know fees are not didn't have to be paid, so my father could support me little bit of money from there. So the discussion was in the hostel rooms deep in to the night, you know some times 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock in the morning and also I didn't have enough money to go to coffee house regularly. I mean that was the haunt of Kolkata boys or boys with more money and the smarter ones could cadge coffee out of the women not the girls but I was too scared of of these very smart girls to ever try that. Discussion with them
Did you feel that some of the class issue I mean that you were from the village and that they were from Calcutta and they came form more richer family. Was your family
You see I never had any inferiority complex in relation to any of these people, you know it's just different. That's all and sometimes I felt in fact superior to them because I knew some of the basics of village life much better than this people did and in some cases well if I may jump a little much later when I went to Cambridge and my among my contemporaries was a very nice boy called Arun Abhyankar.
His father had been in the -- had become part of the Indian Foreign Service, I mean economic counselor or something in the Indian Embassy in Washington, so he had gone to school in the states, had done his B.A. in Harvard and so on and I found out that from another friend of mine, John Davies who has become one of the most famous historians of Wales, history of Wales, that Arun couldn't figure me out because I had obviously come from a village my accent was not at all pukka as it is not still, but I seemed to have read far more than he had done in areas where he thought that he had read a lot and I knew far more about India than he ever did, and for people like them I mean it was inconceivable that a boy from a village could possibly know all these things, but in our case it was simply well you know some body came and said have you read that book, have you read this, go on find out and then we read it and came back and said oh that's nonsense or some body say well this is some thing quite new.
You mentioned that you wrote this essay on oligarchy versus a monopolistic kind of governing structure you spoke you've spoken about the interest in Marxism and Sukhamoy Chakravarty and so forth. This is all happening in the aftermath obviously of Partition, or sorry independence, so the question I have is when you were studying and when you were reading did you have in your mind that you were trying to figure out how this new nation should be organized how was this a continuation of this then the sense of fact the you know you were all in a new era and that there needed to be leaders for a new era was that in your mind was it simply, purely a kind of intellectual?
No, it was it was it was beyond that I mean you know we participated I mean I was in the students union and can't remember which year '53 or '54 there was huge teachers' strike here. We participated in that for the whole week we picketed the you know this was so it was.. it was not just an intellectual matter it was also something that I wanted to engage in, but I was dissuaded from joining active politics but this friend of mine to whom I owe an enormous lot for that advice Amar Bhaduri because at one in one college election because of floor crossing we lost out to you know some opportunists who used our base and then because they were offered something, debate secretary or some thing they crossed over and we lost the election. So I wrote a virulent attack against them in a wall paper of which we were editors
You were the editor one of the?
As one of these
What was the name of the wall paper?
It was at Presidency college Dewali I think it was, yes.
I also got my friends to write poems there but you know I also wrote a using my privilege, I also wrote a virulent attack, which was not done really, and then I always had a short temper so my friend Amar Bhaduri said, why are you thinking of joining politics? So I said well if the you know if this becomes a grandiose job don't. With that temper you will not do well, and I heeded that I knew that I was not cut out for active politics in that sense.
How about the context of Calcutta? To what extent was Presidency and Eden College College Street area, how -- to what extent did it feel the social changes that were happening in Calcutta the refugee problem and so forth was it --
That I that I did not perceive so directly because after all it was a cocoon life you know hostel, college, back to hostel and so on that sort of life I mean we might have participated in the teachers' movement. There was also a movement in 1952 against the raising of the fare of tram cards by a single paisa. It was a long, drawn out movement that kind of thing. But even then we didn't really observe the social changes, we knew that there were refugee on Sealdah [Sealdah Railway Station] platforms and so on but beyond that I mean in terms of thinking about it intellectually didn't come in to it and I was at that time well I was already a Marxist and opposed to the Congress government instinctively. I knew that you know the landlords and lawyers were still calling the shots here and I had not really as yet formulated why it would be wrong for them to go on ruling but I knew instinctively that this was wrong. I mean this and it's only after I suppose doing my PhD that I formulated some of these things consciously.
So what happened after you completed Presidency what was the next step in your I mean you were heading towards your move to Cambridge but
How did you in other words I should say how did you get to Cambridge?
Well, the I mean I did badly in B.A. because you know again my reaction always to this kind of thing has been not of depression but of anger because I knew that this the examination was not fair in 2, 3 at least in 2 papers I knew that they are ignorant and they had not read after their student days any thing new and in one case I knew that deliberately -- there was a professor deliberately marked down any student from Presidency college whom he considered too promising. This has happened the year before me also. So I was angry and then the M.A. result came out and I was offered a job in Presidency College also in Calcutta University. I knew that I was not cut out for an administrative job so I opted for that and then I was offered a state scholarship to go to Cambridge and I took that.
So you went to Cambridge on a state scholarship?
Yeah, on a stretch scholarship. Well I had been offered also a scholarship which had been organized by Sukhamoy Chakravarty.
Sukhamoy Chakravarty at this time was teaching where?
Sukhamoy Chakravarty was had taught for a few months in Calcutta University when I was just finishing my M.A. and then went over to the Netherlands to do his thesis with Tinbergen [Jan Tinbergen].
I was formulated let us say political insight than these people because their intellectual ambitions were stronger I suppose. Then he had arranged a scholarship for me to go to the Netherlands. Then I asked my teachers Professor U.N.Ghoshal, Professor Bhabotosh Dutta whether I should accept that scholarship because I my no question that it was unimagined that I could be supported by my family. Without a scholarship I could not go there, and here the facilities for PhD work were very poor at that time.
In economics it would have been
And all my teachers thought that I should go, I mean the teachers that I respected greatly Professor U.N.Ghosal, Professor Bhabotosh Dutta, Professor Panchanan Chakraborty in Calcutta University. These are the three great teachers that I had, and so I said that well what shall I do if I reject this. Professor Dutta said well that is state scholarship. Why don't you wait for that.
State scholarships were offered every year?
From West Bengal, Government of West Bengal.
Yes, it was every year they would offer one?
Every year they would offer one.
And one student would be selected to go?
And one student would be selected. I was not sure that I would get it but somehow or other I got it because there were other candidates with qualifications I thought well better than mine, but I got it.
Was the decision based on marks and in -- how was the decision made?
Interview assessment of the interview was about the you know scholarship capability. There was one man who was senior to me and had better results. I was chosen in preference of that. Well I don't know long time later he was a contemporary of Amartya's.
What was his name?
Amartya Sen. Amartya was two years senior to me. It was he who arranged for me to be admitted to Trinity College.
Amartya Sen?
Amartya, he was a fellow there, I had met him after my M.A. so after that we got to know each other and we were in the college together and much later I asked him, I said well this man who didn't get it the committee make the right decisions perfect I mean anyway...
anyway I luck was in my favour I .. I attributed much of what I have done to luck. See you have being in the right place in the right time before the right committee, nothing else and
There are some people who say that they always felt that let's say the academic world was obvious, it was never a choice to be, to go in to academia to become a professor, it was always obvious that this was the path they would follow.
Well, once I did well in my M.A. in my own mind there was no question that I would be nothing but a professor I mean I
so was it clear for you after the M.A.?
Yes, but if I had done badly in M.A. then I don't know what I would have done. After I this was clear then and throughout the encouragement of some of my best teachers was very valued. Including of course I mean the fact that Sukhamoy Chakrovarty or Amartya Sen would sponsor me and so on and you know they are two of the very best students of the college.
That also gave me confidence that I can't be an idiot if these people are prepared to sponsor me and so on. So that that was there and then then I did my PhD, I mean for two years I did very little work on my PhD topic. I read everything, I wrote a paper on, for the Labour Party on the economics of disempowerment, I wrote an academic paper on choice of techniques, taking up some of the recent controversy and then after two years when things began to be grim because my scholarship ran, out I began to work on my thesis.
What year did you end up at Cambridge, what year did you begin?
From '59 to '63 came back in '63 and then went back to teach again in '65.
And how did you find your your dissertation topic and who are the kind of influences in
Well, the dissertation topic suggested itself. You see the economist I suppose I mean the my most influential teacher in some ways was Panchanan Chakraborty in Calcutta University who wrote very little, did badly in his profession. He only succeeded Amartya as professor when he went away to back to Cambridge.
They had not promoted him from lecturer to professor in Calcutta University because he did not have a PhD and did not write many papers though he was the most inspiring teacher and a he with him I studied the general theory more intensively than I had done before and so since investment the rate of investment that this structure is a basic dynamic motive force of any capitalist economy I wanted to find out how private investment was governed in India. So my thesis was on private investment in the first 2 Five Year Plans, and I built a very Simple Walras econometric model for that and tested it. Some of the results which are wrong in fact I published prematurely because of pressure from here and then other people followed it up and then I was told when I visited in Delhi in 1971 by one of them said, We have proved that you are right in all this, but I said, I was wrong.
You know because when I re tested them with better techniques I found that many of the results were washed out. Some of them remained some of them were washed out but the thesis is not full of errors and that contained the real results. So that's how I did and then I began to worry about why private investment in India was so sluggish compared with you know the possibilities because the rate of saving in India could be much higher than it was and in any capitalist economy it is the investment exposed in best ways determines ultimately what the rate of saving would be so why was the rate of investment sluggish and that's how I was led to write my first book Private Investment [Private Investment in India 1900-1939] and it was to write that book I went back to Cambridge to teach.
So that's interesting, you your dissertation was not your first book, your first book was different from your dissertation?
Yeah, yes dissertation is quite different.
Why did you decide to have your first book different from the dissertation?
Well because I thought that the dissertation was ill organized if I had to really do it again I would have to thoroughly organize it again and it was just to fulfill the requirements of PhD. You know, I did proper regressions I would really have to rewrite the whole damn thing and I didn't want to. So but I could write my first book with new questions which economic historians have not asked, and I asked questions that were never asked so it was not an answer to old questions but a set of new questions and the answers to those questions.
What led you in your first book to focus on this period that you went back in to the turn of the 20th century?
Ahh, partly convenience, this was a period I could manage. Partly I mean I can't remember whether I had planned it but you know I had access to all the Keynes [John Maynard Keynes] papers on India. Keynes's first book was on Indian currency and finance [Indian Currency and Finance] and so all the volumes that Keynes had gathered for that work were there in the basement of the Marshall Library so I could just call them up and write it and use them. So I mean I didn't really want to go back I am not a historian I mean I have been forced into history rather than having to do it because I have been forced in to history because I find that often historians don't ask the questions that I think are important. That's how I went and this was the period that I could manage that you know from 1900, also from 1900 there are reasonable national income data for India that was also an important thing. I didn't want to reconstruct my own national income figures I wanted to use what other people had done along with other data that I bring in and that's how the book emerged.
In this early period your let's say your early professional period of your academic life did you have a kind of intellectual conversation partner not just I mean say living but somebody who you were reading, for example Keynes or Marx or who I don't know.
No, I had conversations with Maurice Dobb and this is also something that has to be recorded and communists are supposed to be dogmatic and so on. In my very first, well when I arrived there and I mean there is it's interesting I have I tell you when I arrived Amartya said that -- he was a great friend for the first 2-3 years he really I mean now I realize that how much support he gave me in many ways -- he said “you will have to sit for two tripos papers before you qualify to do a PhD.” So then I said “I am going back.” You sure you don't want to have another?
Yes I am sure I'll have another, sure I will have one.
You will have one Ok
I'm going back. I am not going to sit for any exam. So then he cited the name of one man who had become the head of the department at Calcutta University and also president of the Indian Economic Association it is a terrible association unprofessional and all that.
He said if he had come to do a PhD he would have object to his having to sit in to these exams so I had to admit that I will not do it because he said he is almost an idiot, cramming and just got through cramming very stupid man unprofessional ability. So for the first 3 months I was supervised by Michael Posner who later on became the chairman of the SSRC [Social Science Research Council] in England and was -- I have just written his biography for Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. I wrote it a year back but they have just put it online. So for the first 3 months I wrote essays for him and then he said well that was the compromise that if Michael thought that I did not have to sit for those exams then I would be all right. For these first 3 months I didn't understand I was really I mean in dark about what Michael thought about me. He would not say anything.
Although he was the son of an immigrant he had become thoroughly English and it was only at the end of 3 months he said that no I don't have to sit for an exam, so was I passed one. And then a I think in the beginning of 1960 two books came out. One was on Amartya's Choice of Techniques. He had shown some chapters and find acknowledgement or mine. Amartya has the habit of acknowledging everybody he has met from birth so he find my name and then Maurice Dobb's Economic Growth and Planning [An Essay on Economic Growth and Planning] and I thought that his chapter on the pricing of capital goods could not be sustained in a thoroughly interdependent economy. I think I am right even now so I wrote a critique of that and with Amartya's encouragement sent it to him, and do you know Dobb wrote a 4-page reply long reply to a beginning research student yet to do anything at all. So that's the kind of atmosphere that was there in Cambridge and lots of friends both Marxist and non-Marxist traditions, historians and so on.
What was your experience like with say when you said Amartya Sen was a great friend in these years, did you feel that it was similar kind of way of being together that you had in Calcutta when you were same kind of friendship that you have had in Eden College?
I made very good friends there. I met John Davies became one of my closet friends. I remember one of my friends, I mean I was not that close to him but Jim Mirrlees who became Nobel laureate in Economics in 1996, he taught me some mathematics. He was a mathematician to start with. He taught me some mathematics in return I gave him some lunches.
I was very poor you know that's all and I am still friends with him. He has visited our institute [Institute of Development Studies] last year and this year again came to the China-India conference. I made very good friends all through when I go back I meet some friends I mean we had a meeting with 2 friends and one became radio astronomer, was head of the radio astronomy in Max Planck Institute and still is an emeritus professor there, Richard Wielebinski and another Michael Gallagher who went back to Sydney. He came from I think Brisbane went back to Sydney to become a professor of chemistry. We met up in 2007 in Sydney very good friendship still. So there was no problem. I have faced no problems in terms of racial discrimination in England, either as a student or later on as a professor.
When did you begin teaching in England, what year did you start?
In Cambridge?
In Cambridge
In '65 and I returned in '69, because, partly because I had finished my book but I had meant to return a few months later but my father-in-law suddenly died. My wife is an only child. She had done her PhD when I was doing my ah teaching there. Had come back with our daughter. So then I took, resigned, and come back. I had a fellowship in Jesus and a faculty job.
Between the time that you finished your PhD and that you began teaching at Cambridge, what was happening in that phase?
The, just two years.
Two years.
Just, two years.
I wrote a paper on, I think the most, intellectually the only thing I did, was I wrote a paper on India's agricultural growth, which was followed up later on by a man I supervised, S.K. Rao, who did a PhD on regional patterns of agricultural growth in India. He is now the director of the Administrative Staff College of India. Ah, apart from that I don't think... I also wrote a paper for the Indian Economic Review on shadow prices and all that. I don't think it has any particular meaning. It was partly Sukhamoy-da who induced me to write that, why don't you write it up for us.
Where were you for those two years? Those two intermediary years?
At Presidency College.
Presidency College. You came back to Presidency College. You were teaching at Presidency College for these two years? Um, a couple more questions and then we can conclude. The, one of your major... one of your many contributions has been to think about development, say, in the in the in the postcolonial context. Um, and obviously beginning the the 1950s with the starting of the Cold War and so forth, there was a whole, a whole engine for thinking about modernization, modernization theory. How did you ah come to this work of providing a different voice about development, you know in that historical time?
And who were the other, internationally speaking, who were the other thinkers, philosophers, historians, economists who you felt you were in league with? I mean, did you feel this was kind of a global project that you were participating in to provide a different perspective?
Well, partly, I mean it was, the series of books which had been written, uh, from, 1943 I think Rosenstein-Rodan, Mandelbaum, Herman Knox, uh, Maurice Dobbs. His Delhi lectures, which are not as well known as they should be... I think these were... and Kalecki, Michal Kalecki. They were the people who set me thinking about development in this way. And Mahalanobis of course.
Yeah, Mahalanobis.
What are, What was it about Mahalanobis which inspired you?
Well he provided a framework for, I mean I, Mahalonobis Feldman, what is the importance of investment as such, investment in capital goods as such, how does it promote growth, and then his four sector model where he, I mean you could have a transition with cottage industry co-existing with large-scale capital industry.
That transitional path, he didn't trace it out, but particularly there. So these are the, some of things, and may I say something. My mind was never colonized in that sense. I mean I never had a very great regard Western style modernization as such. I mean, you know, yes they showed the way in some ways, but they also showed the way to imperialism. I mean, imperialism and modernization in that sense were always in my mind connected.
Did you feel you were writing against this kind of modernization school?
And particularly it was a, mostly an American, kind of, set of figures I think right...
Yes, because I knew about America, about what the Americans had done in Guatemala. I knew first-hand what they had done in Guyana.
So I had no illusions about any of their so-called democratic pretensions. I never took then seriously.
How about, were there any, what did you think about Soviet scholars, Soviet development economists. Where there any that...?
Well, I, let me say, no not much either. If you look at my Political Economy of Underdevelopment you will find that I have a very clear statement that if a country takes aid from the Soviet Union also, it would also be tainted by the interests of that state. I had no illusions about that.
You know, I knew that they were friends in the sense that they were battling the United States and provided a space for the Third World countries to find their own way. But that space had to be created by themselves, and not just by aid from some friendly country. That is something that I knew very clearly. I have a paper in 1971 in the Economic and Political Review on, on ah underdevelopment long before I wrote my Political Economy of Underdevelopment, which I dedicated to Kalecki. So you know, I didn't have to unlearn a lot in this area because I never thought that it was worth learning.
How about your, what was your relationship with Sukhamoy Chakrabarty, ah, in this period?
Sukhamoy Chakrabarty is, well, if you want that, well, I never had any illusion of his kind that you could do anything really positive through a state apparatus which was so badly, which was so dominated by landlords and bourgeoisie who were just coming up, many of them, within quotes, were still compradore bourgeoisie. Very short-term horizons and so on. And in 1971 when I went to Delhi, I was a visiting fellow in Delhi School at that time, I mean they offered me for a whole year, but I could take it up only for two weeks. So, at that time he was already thinking of joining the Planning Commission, and ah, at a friends house I didn't debate directly with him, but debated partly with Lalita
His wife
His wife about this. And when he joined the Planning Commission I never visited him.
I visited him again after he had a severe heart attack and had come out of the clinic. I thoroughly, I thought Indira Gandhi was one of the most diabolical politicians in India. Very powerful, extremely able but she twisted our constitution in a way that no other politician had been able to do before. That was my view and I still retain that view.
Two last questions. Did you have any personal relationship with Mahalanobis?
So it was only through his work?
No, I was, No
Because he passed away
I, I, when I got my MA I once, went to ISI and I was offered a job to do something on, what is it, services or something. Moni Mukherjee who was in, you know, he is a good man, was trying to construct national income series but I was not interested.
Hm. And the final question is on institutions of education in India, post-Independence India. What, such a big question, but even a little uh impression is is is fine. What was your sense of the work that needed to be done? When you came back and you started teaching here and this was a post-Independence environment, there was a need to build up education programs, how did you see yourself and your role in your context.
Well, I thought that you know, one of the most important things to be done, let me say, is to give the students a sense of reality, reality which is concealed by most of neo-classical economics.
Neo-classical economics has its, can be used you know, if you want to discuss price relations, relative prices, demand elasticities, etc., which are important. You have to. But there is an overall structure which governs all these price relations. And the Indian economy is not just the replica of any other economy. It's an extremely complex phenomenon and none of us individually is capable of understanding the whole of it. But you at least have to have the sense that this is, this is how people live, this is where they're going. And so my, I mean, the courses I taught in Calcutta University, I left Presidency College partly because I realized that I would not be able to teach these undergraduate courses anymore. These were primarily microeconomic theory, macroeconomic theory, that were taught as if you believed in them, all of it.
I mean macroeconomic theory, most of, much of it, I could believe it, but not all of it. And later on I had to write a paper on macroeconomics for the journal that I edited for the U.N., the U.N. Journal for Development Planning. Jean-Paul Fitoussi whom I had commissioned, who was the secretary general of the International Economic Association, and a big professor in France had promised to write it, he didn't, he failed, so I had to write a chapter on macroeconomics and I realized that it had been, you know again, these, these academic economists, and many of them mercenary economists like, what's his name, Stanley Fisher. His textbook says something and he recommends something quite different when he is chief economist of the IMF. These people are really intellectual dishonest I would say.
And I found out, that you know, that these rational expectations that Robert Lucas floated, is such as a huge, huge swindle. He got a Nobel Prize on the basis of that, he had a lot of followers on the basis of that. And it's a huge swindle. Nothing less than that. That was later, but I already knew that much of academic economics was just mercenary economics. Economics at the service of the rich. Nothing else. So I wanted to try and see whether there is something could be done to at least diminish the mercenariness of the subject. That was my objective. It's a very big objective. I'm nowhere near getting at that. But we have to do that. Now only some people are waking up to what is happening.
Now only even Kaushik Basu has to talk about, you know, precautions that have to be taken in a market economy after this huge financial crisis. And the US economy is still not out of it. 25,000 jobs have been lost this December, I just saw in the New York Times. But you know, we knew it for a long time.
Thank you very much for this interview.
But if you make a transcript please show it to me.
I will.