Oral history interview with Pranab Bardhan

Bardhan, Pranab

Manjapra, Kris


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Today is October 13th 2010 here in Berkeley, California and this an oral History interview with Pranab Bardhan. Thank you very much for this opportunity Professor Bradhan. Lets begin by locating your place of birth and your date of birth and then we can go from there.
Yes, I was born on September 11th-- you may not believe it because every time I show my ID, they say "September 11th, oh my god". So I tell them that, you know, one good thing about this is that your loved ones will not forget your birthday.
But September 11th 1939, and I was born in Calcutta, Calcutta medical Hospital, but maybe I should tell you a couple of things about my parents. My parents are originally from East Bengal, later Bangladesh-- my father is from the border districts of Kumilla and Noakhali, and my mother is from Dhaka. But my father had his education largely in Dhaka.
what was the name of your father’s town or village he is from?
That I used to know but I don’t remember the village. I know the nearby small town is Feni, but from there he went to school in Kumilla but then for College etc. he went to Dhaka. And so the dialect, the Bengali dialect that I used to speak with both of them, is not regular Bengali-- it is the Dhaka dialect. So in a sense, the Bangladeshi’s will find it easier to see because that's the dialect many of them use and that’s the dialect which, until they died, I used to speak in that dialect. But both of them came to West Bengal many, many years back much before partition.
Both of them migrated in the middle-- I think around middle 1920’s. So in that sense they were not post partition migrants; they came to West Bengal much earlier and my father had been in Calcutta almost continuously since then, and my mother too. And so, I am a West Bengal product brought up in a East Bengal household because the whole culture in a household -- food cultural habits etc -- are really east Bengal habits and culture. So that’s the first question about where I was born and when.
Then how about the culture of your home and your childhood. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about how it was growing up in Calcutta, maybe even beginning with where your family home was?
Yes. I grew up in a very cramped rented house in Central Calcutta, near College Street in Calcutta.
College street is very famous in Bengal because this is where the place where main Colleges, main hospitals -- medical college where I was born -- and the main book district of Calcutta. Its probably, to this day, one of the largest book districts anywhere. But its also a very, very narrow lane and bylanes-- very congested area. And my father rented this house, I think, around the time when I was born.
Do you remember the address or the street?
Yes. In fact it so happens because once you enter house you don’t want to part with it because rent is nominal. So some distant, not so distant, relatives still lives there so that way they can have cheap accommodation. So the address is 71/2 Sri Gopal Mallick Lane. This is one of this long winding road-- these lanes that come out of College Street [break in audio] and move back and forth. Because of the around -- I forget the exact year but in the early 40’s sometime there was Japanese bombing on the city.
I think in different periods -- not devastation but some bombs did fall in Calcutta, but of course compared to how many bombs got dropped the scare was there and so my maternal uncle lived in Shanti Niketan, which is Rabinranath tagore’s University town. And so in that early period, and in fact until about 1952, 1950 large part of the year I was in Shanti Niketan in my maternal uncle’s house.
what was his name?
His name is Apurba Ghosh and he was not in the academia, he was more in the construction business for Shanti Niketan. In fact in the earlier time most of the buildings in Tagore University, because that is a residential place in the University and College and School, many of the residential buildings were actually made by my uncle. And so I used to spend quite a bit of time there because the 1940’ went through a lot of problems in Bengal with the war and then war related things.
The famine in 1943 which primarily devastated the villages that the people started coming to Calcutta and then '46 the notorious riots in Calcutta and '47 the partition. And I mean independence came in 47 but bound with a huge devastation, of course, and one of history’s largest migration. So around '46 or so that cramped rented house got filled up with distressed relatives from east Bengal. So 1940’s all through I spent quite a bit of my time in Shanti Niketan.
My father used to commute every 2 weeks or so he would go to Shanti niketan. My mother was with me in Shanti Niketan. And -- I sent you my biography, this biography I wrote probably for a French blog, encyclopedia -- which where I stayed, on the one hand, this commuting between those 2 places showed me the tremendous contrast in life, surroundings of yours life, because Calcutta is very congested, cramped.
I used to play with kids on this narrow streets: you plat cricket, you play football and of course you play cricket tennis balls and so called football is also with tennis balls. So I used to play with lot of these kids in those narrow streets.
In the rainy season the ponds overflow and that’s where you catch fish, I mean if you don’t have big nets etc.
So we used to have these transparent towels and put them where they overflow so all of this fish etc, sometimes snakes too. And all of these village kids showed me which snakes are poisonous and which are not because I was afraid of all these things but they showed me, "don’t worry you can catch it". And so it was a lovely time… And then I also did something, which was slightly later, was the Shanti niketan school, they had sport classes.
So Gong goes the bell and this class, whole class, comes out and plays-- maybe football, maybe cricket, this that. So I would play with them because I am hanging around and so I used to play with them. And then gong goes the bell they will go to the class but then another class comes out for sports and I used to play with them. So in fact I can tell you an anecdote about that many years back, many years later, this son of a famous writer in Bengali who used to live in Shanti Niketan.
But his son was my friend -- I used to play with them when they used to come out of the class -- I didn’t go to school but they did. So he saw me playing with all these different groups so many years later the first day in my college, Presidency College, through the corridors he saw me from a distance, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He said "what are you doing here?!" He thought I am one of those village loafers.
what was this friend’s name?
His father is a well known Bengali writer on Mani Shankar Aiyar and his name, my friends name, was Annada Shankar rai, and to this day I joke with him. And anyway, so that was a lovely life that I had, but then I gradually realized that one goes to school not just for learning but also, you know, social stuff.
And also as over time my time in Shanti Niketan, the part of the year in Shanti Niketan was diminishing, because the need to go away from Calcutta was less. So then I was telling my father that I should go to school and he resisted in the beginning but finally I went to, at that time certainly, and I think today, one of the best schools in Calcutta. Its called the Hindu school, its one of the oldest schools in Bengal.
It’s a Government school, it’s an elite school but a Government school. But it retains its reputation for various historical reasons. It’s actually established in 1817, along with Presidency college, its actually a part of Presidency College, the school is a part of Presidency College. At that time the whole thing used to be called Hindu College-- Presidency College used to be called Hindu College. It was established by Ram Mohan Roy and then they later -- I think around 1850’s, the school part got separated.
But it’s just across the street: one side is Prseidency College on the other side of the street is Hindu School and this street is College Street. So its about 8 to 10 minutes walk from my home.
how old were you when you started going to Hindu school?
I think I was -- let me try to remember -- 10 I think, about.
and was it Bengali medium or?
It’s a Bengali medium. In fact, I hardly spoke English; I read English, a lot of English, but I hardly spoke English. I remember when I went to college, Presidency College, one time the principal of the College was -- I think he was a Goan Christian and he spoke only English, he probably spoke a few words of Bengali, so we had to speak in English with him and I had tremendous problems in the beginning.
Later it changed because I started participating in debates, college competition debates etc, and gradually, and in fact that also helped me in my later speaking, because you know the style of debate at that time was that in fact quite at some times they will not tell you even what subject. So suddenly they will spring the subject on you and then they tell you to speak in favor of this motion or against the motion, so quickly you have to think about something.
So todays day I find many issues when people tell me what are your views on, I can immediately see the pros, I can immediately see the cons, so my position is not fanatic on either side. Even to this day, and of course I tell people that there is a saying -- I think is it Mark Twain or somebody who said that -- no not Mark Twain somebody else but it is an American who said that don’t stand in the middle of the road, you are going to get run over.
So I often stand in the middle of the road because I can see both sides. Anyway that I think is the legacy of the debate, I participated a lot in the debate. But going back to the school, the school was very good but I realized after going to school that I am quite well above the standard of the rest of the class in some subjects, but quite behind them in some other subjects which my father did not cover.
Like I remember geography; my father never taught me geography and things like that but over time I made up. So school was, I think, a very good education in terms of school that education that I had and then after school I just crossed the street to Presidency college. And that really opened my horizons, and between the Hindu school and presidency college, on one side of the street is also this very famous coffee house, India Coffee House, which played a very important role in Bengal’s intellectual history-- they were just all of them were there.
And then around this coffee house there are these you know dozens of lanes where, I said already, this largest book district.
In terms of your entrance to Presidency, was that an anxiety-ridden time in your development, when you were wandering which institution to go to or was there an institutional link between Hindu School and Presidency College?
No direct institutional link, but there used to be the historical link.
No I did very well in the exam; in fact I did very well all through school. In fact the problem with my father is that my father, unlike American father’s, American parents who think and believe in positive feedback, my father did not believe in positive feedback, he did not praise you for doing well. So after a point in the Hindu school he would look at the scores, not A,B,C, but actual, so many scores out of all the papers up to thousand, if you would do 800 something or 900 something. So he would always compare that with the person stood second.
The gap, the gap has shrunk little, so he will give me trouble. But since I did well in the school, and then there is a school leaving exam, I think I stood in the top, I think I was number 3, so there is no problem: the top 10, top 30 almost automatically go to Presidency College if they want to, which at that time everybody wanted to go to Presidency College. So I didn’t have no anxiety, nothing, because I knew that there would not be any problem.
But there was a different kind of tension and that tension in some sense is a dynamic tension but it was a also class tension. Since I grew up low middle class and my standard of living was lower than even low middle class because of all these relatives my father had to bear the burden of, there were many things that I was -- this Presidency College, when I met there I immediately saw the class difference between me and very large part of the class. So these very good students would come from affluent families, many of them would come by cars.
I think by that time hardly I would have been in a car except once in a while in a taxi, you know. And then they would talk about all these things which is essentially class related things which I have never been exposed to. But at the same time they could see that I read books that they have not. Not just standard academic stuff but in terms of literature.. So I could then, you know now looking back I could see that it was a dynamic tension, a class tension no doubt but -- I mean I didn't have a phone.
Everybody asked me what is your telephone number -- at home, I didn't have a phone. When somebody asked me for the first time what is your telephone number, for a moment I did not know what to say, I didn’t even realize that people have telephone numbers. But gradually, you know, you have some things I have something else, so that kind of attitude developed in me. But the other way there were of course other things that I have not read about.
All these intellectual debates, and in a sense many of my friends even to this day some of them are my friends, really opened my eyes on things. I have a particular friend who now lives in London who used to be very knowledgeable about international politics. So I used to go with him to the local British Council Library waiting for the next issue of the New Statesman, I remember. So I'll read up, gobble up everything that came out in the next issue.
And then there used to be a literary magazine, encounter, which Stephan Spender was the editor… So you know we used to just go to these libraries because this current issue would go to this foreign library: British Council, USIS, United States information Service. So these magazines -- I started along with some of my friends, used to go and read the most current issue and are is debates going on in London and somewhere else. I think it was at that time more and more British oriented than American oriented but still, both American oriented too. So New York and London, the major debates, even during the beginning years of my BA I was up on that.
how did you first meet your say cohort of friends. Did you find that there was a class similarity or was it just in terms of an intellectual interest or a political orientation. And can you maybe even give some names of who your friends were?
Yes in my -- I think as I said ¾ of the class, of my contemporaries in my class, came from much richer households.
So there was a class barrier in that sense, but we shared intellectual interests and very soon I became with a selected group of people, I became very friendly. And so in fact in general I became particularly friendly with those who shared my interest in literature and my interest in politics, which I retain even to this day. And so they were different -- people who pursued Bengali literature -- because since I came from a Bengali medium I have been interested, in fact even in school I used to write in mostly fiction, and I had also written Bengali essays; school magazines used to publish my Bengali essays, and then In college I had also written in the college magazine.
The other day somebody pointed out they read a love story in the college magazine, which she still remembers.
Do you remember the name of the magazine?
Presidency College magazine-- so every year there used to be a magazine that come out.
And probably worth going to the archive because some of the good writers in Bengal had written originally in there. So just to give you an example in my class the editor of the magazine was our best literature student and she is now in Oxford, she lives near Oxford and married to an Englishman. Ketaki Kushari Dyson, have you heard the name?
Yes, yes, the Tagore specialist.
She is a Tagore specialist but she is most independently a poet. In fact in my wife's anthology my wife has included some poems of Ketaki. So ketaki was the editor of it in my year, it changes from year to year, but she got many of us to write. So she told me you have to write both in Bengali and English so I remember in the year Ketaki was the magazine editor of Presidency College, I wrote one on the -- an English essay on -- trying to remember.
Her year I wrote, "Whether Communism" [unclear], I still remember the title. I think another year previous year, subsequent year I wrote "Whether capitalism". So that kind of interest, and then I wrote a Bengali love story for her in the Bengali section, a book for the Bengali section.
what was it called the Bengali love story do you remember?
Its title was -- I don’t have a copy of that -- it’s called, how to translate. The translation would be, "I, the Fugitive".
and the Bengali is?
“Ami Polatok” Ami means I, Polatok means Escapee or Fugitive, yeah, I the fugitive.
Anyways it’s a long story that she published. Anyway I think that magazine, if somebody, I don’t know where it is, probably not available on the internet. I will give you the writings by many of the later who became important in other fields, and including literature, who wrote there. But anyways so literature circle I had friends, in Bengali literature people one set, and they are not very good in English etc. And I also have friends who have done, and Ketaki is one of them, she was one of the best students in English literature.
Same with Gayatri -- in fact with Gayatari I had a different interaction. Gayatri and I, along with others, used to represent Presidency college in debates. So Gayatri and I represented Presidency College many times and then I also participated in Bengali debates, which Gayatri did not, Gayatri was only an English student. And Bengali debate, one of my frequent co participant who is now very important drama and film critic in Calcutta, Somik Bandhopadhyay.
And I don't know if you go to Calcutta, he probably should be included in this because he is a major intellectual. He is the most important Drama, film, and in general, performance arts, critic. So I see him every time I go to Calcutta. Samik Bandopadhyay, Samik is a good friend of Gayathri. So Samik and I used to go to do Bengali debates, we used to represent Presidency in Bengali debates, and Gayathri and I and few others used to represent Presidency College in English debates.
And I know most of this as I say, the subject is not pre announced; you go there open the screen and you see… so that was very important at that time, rather intense exercise.
where would you debate, would you debate only in the college or also at some other college?
Inside the college there used to be inter college competition, so we will be invited by another college and debate with their team etc.
And there was also, debate was also organized by the British Council but I have debated mostly in these inter colleges, British council occasionally, but mostly with different colleges, in Bengali as well. Sometimes the Bengali ones used to be outside Calcutta in the suburban areas. But the other aspect about this I told you about my friends in literature in Bengali and in English. The other friends were essentially politically interested-- actual politics, not reading about politics, but actual politics, so all around me, many of them were left politics.
So I used to argue with them all the time and the -- in fact to this day those arguments carry with me because as I told you I have a tendency to see problems on both sides. Some of these left people believers, I found them too dogmatic, even though their belief in cause of social justice resonated me, and to this day I believe in the cause of social justice, but they were prepared to give up on things like personal freedom for the sake of social justice.
And I used to tell them that this is a false dichotomy and I used to be very much anti-Stalinist. Many of my friends were Stalinist at that time and I told them that there is a Stalin imposed dichotomy, bread verses liberty: if you want bread you have to give up liberty and I said no, that’s not necessarily true, that’s a rationalization of Stalin taking away Liberty. It is as if I want to give you bread... so those kind of debates all the time.
who were the, say on the side of, other students who shared your perspective, were -- did you have a group in which there were say certain say older students who when you first entered you respected or saw as mentors in this political view or did you feel that youbecame a mentor, perhaps eventually to younger students, how did that…
no I don’t think I acted as a mentor and none of the older students were mentors.
Some of these older students were actually very strong dogmatic supporters of the communist party and I could not bring myself to really their just towing the line without question. So this somehow, many of these dogmatic communists, have a habit of taking things without questions, and whenever you raise questions or you read about problems they said "oh that is an American propaganda"-- that is a very easy way to dismiss. I said forget about who, what is the source, tell me whether it is correct or not.
So this kind of debate. Now, for a short time, not for a long time, for a short time there was one Professor, who was not at that time in Presidency College, he was a Presidency College alumni, he used to teach in Calcutta university, I think I would say -- mentor is not the right word -- he is a sounding board for discussing many ideas. And he was very open, he was much older than me, and he recently died. His name is Amlan Dutta and he is the name which you may hear from many contexts.
He is a man who the communists used to hate because, and he is also a very good debater. So in my college there were lots of big debates between Amlan Dutta and the communist member of the parliament or member of the local assembly. And in my judgement Amlan dutta completely dissected them because he was very logical whereas the communists because they are often emotional argument and think about the proletarian, think of the cause of doing good for the poor etc.
So Amalan Dutta wrote a book, and I just ended college at that time, called "for democracy", which the communists you know would completely disagree. You know this is American thing about freedom of expression etc not looking at the poor etc but Amlan Dutta acted really, because he used to come to Coffee House everyday. Most of the older Professors used to go home in the evening, that you know after college I used to go home and then come back sometimes play and then in the evening go to the Coffee House.
He’s there, so everyday there will be some new issue in newspaper -- have you read this what you think etc -- came up and he used to debate. And one good thing about that we were all juniors, immature people, but he gave respect to others so that encouraged us. And he said ok, if you think so you should read that particular book and see the opposite arguments. If I don’t agree with that book I will go next day and argue with him, and so he encouraged that argument.
I ended up quite often not agreeing with him, so in that sense he was not my mentor, but he gave me the scope and in some sense he self-confidence, that I am so young, junior immature person, but he is respecting my argument-- that played some role. The other person who also played a kind of mentor like role, not quite a mentor, is also a famous Bengali intellectual, long dead. His name is Sachin Chaudhary. He was the editor of probably India’s best magazine in socio political matters, in socio-political, economic, matters called economic and political weekly now-- this is india's leading magazine in social economic political studies.
At that time it used to be called economic weekly and Sachin Chaudahary was the founding editor of that. He used to run it from Bombay but he actually -- the reason that I came to know him is that he was my father’s classmate in Dhaka University, so that’s how my father introduced him to me. And he and I got along even though he's my fathers generation. And in political matters I used to discuss much more freely with him than my father, because I found him kind of a very -- in fact Amlan Dutta, the other person, once described him as the most liberal among Marxist and most liberal among Marxists.
And he used to encourage me to write for his magazine so I wrote for his magazine even when I was an undergraduate and slowly -- to this day I write for that magazine, so more than 50 years I've been writing for that same magazine on several different matters. So he played a role in this, you know, even though he was in Bombay not even in Calcutta. He would often ask me to write something and send it to him. He would say "no I don’t agree", he would send me long letters, small handwritten script and I would then argue back with him. I didn’t have telephone so it's all this long letters.
Talking of letters, the other thing that played a very important role, looking back, is that so in these long vacations, some of my friends, particularly literature friends, they used to go, they were better off so quite often they had relatives in different parts of india they will go and spend the whole summer vacation with them etc and I was in Calcutta. So we used to write letters and these letters were not ordinary chitchat. I read a book -- if he has not read that book then I tell about the book, what I like about the book.
So, in some sense, this long literary discussion and then, for example, those who were interested in Bengali literature, I had a pact with them: that in our long letters I would not be using a single English word. So sometimes its very tough because you see when you speak you use English words, its easier, but I had to find the corresponding Bengali word, which helped me, looking back in my Bengali writing, in writing Bengali even now, and it really -- the other day somebody asked me to give a memorial lecture in Calcutta in memory of a very dear, all of us are very fond of him, economics teacher in presidency College.
So he died and I was asked to give the first memorial lecture and I knew this person who was very interesting in many ways and but he was also a follower of Bengali literature.
Who was it?
His name is Dipak Banerjee. His son is now actually one of the bengal’s most important, much younger than me, economist, who is a professor at MITL: Abhijit Banerjee. Did you meet him?
So Abhijit is my teacher’s son, and he is a very good friend of mine. So Abhijit and his mother invited me to be the first memorial in the memory of Presidency College. Just in the spur of the moment I you know in the lecture hall in Presidency College. I said we used to discuss Bengali literature not just economics, he is a professor of economics.
I was speaking in Bengali but the subject is actually globalization, economics of Globalization and -- but these early years of my Presidency college debating Bengali came after having said that I will speak in Bengali… but I did it without using any English word. I gave a lecture about globalization, technical terms were coined, sometimes I would say the English is this but I am using this Bengali word. And in this I have been helped, apart from the practice of Bengali speaking in College, in School I had Sanskrit as one of my subjects and one of the things that fascinated me about Sanskrit is that Sanskrit is very rich in vocabulary and so if I have to make up a new Bengali word Sanskrit is a source or control point.
And Sanskrit is very, it has the same characteristics English has is that, things that in other languages you say it in two sentences -- there are some English words you can just in 2 words you can explain, similar in Sanskrit -- economy of expression. And that is the reason English attracted me because I always went for economy of expression in my writings, maybe not in my speaking but in my writing.
And to this day I try to draw up on Sanskrit quite a bit and in my coining new words Sanskrit is very helpful. Anyway, so -- I don't know why I got distracted, probably in terms of this lecture that I gave. So, I was talking about, there is a deliberate sometimes hard practice of -- when I write Bengali I will minimize using English words and even now when I write in Bengali mostly tell me that other Bengali writers use more English words than I do…
And in terms of your studies at Presidency, you have these interests in literature and you have them very strong at that time but in the bio sketch that you sent me you also said that you were attracted to precision and eventually to, you know, economics and also precise study of society. So how did you broach those two interests — why did you become interested in economics?
You see in some sense I was reacting to some dominant tendencies among Bengali’s.
Bengali’s are very, probably it's true of other people too, but Bengali's are very emotional. And that's why the literature is kind of agog with emotion. And over time I was reacting against it. In some sense I said, you know, one gets arrogant and carried away by emotions. The same way I found people getting carried away by dogma, you know because it's their belief rather than their logically dissecting it, that’s what attracted me to Amalan dutta. Even though many of my leftist friends detested him: "he is supporting the cause of counter-revolution", they would tell me.
But it is this logical argument. I would actually -- in our days, it no longer exists, there used to be a course called intermediate course, somewhere between, like here, this country it's called advanced placement. Between school and college we had something like that and in that I remember in the logic exam, at that time people told me that I had the record in Calcutta university in terms of marks, but that doesn't tell you much-- you probably memorize better then.
In India the way the exams are… but anyway logic always fascinated me and therefore, and that was very useful in my political arguments with my friends. And logic is about precision in some sense, but as I mention there my primary interest was History, in college. And I was quite well-read at that time in European history and I was obviously interested in Indian History as well. But many of the writings that used to attract me is Marxist History. I remember reading once, people’s History of England, looking at History of England not from communism and their mobility but from the ground-- that attracted me immediately.
More than that, its more the theory of History that attracted me. So I remember even in early days of College reading by Marxist economist writings on History -- Morris Dogs is his name, he used to be a Professor in Cambridge, England. And Morris had a book called studies in the development of Capital; I was fascinated by that book. So essentially looking at European History, through the prism of Marxism no doubt, but giving a kind of economic view.
So I remember reading that book over and over again and I used to think, use that prism to understanding Indian history also. So that gradually I realized to really explore this I need to know more economics, so that brought me to Economics and since then I stayed there. Of course good historians sometimes find this too schematic-- History is not that precise and that easily digestible, or easily put in box kind of stuff, and I realized that later.
But at least in the beginning -- I think Lenin has a famous expression -- he said history is a Jungle, Marxism gives us a clue how to enter and negotiate that Jungle. That’s how I end it, you know, and I really thought that Marxism provides… otherwise anything goes, and somehow you are disturbed by that-- if anything goes, you don't find a coherent pattern. So I was looking for coherent patterns; ultimately I realized that I was not necessarily looking for a coherent Marxist pattern. I want a coherent pattern, and the only coherent pattern available to me at that time was Marxism. So I got interested in Marxism, Marxist History, and from there economics.
How about some of the -- you mentioned Professor Bandopadhyay -- were there others who had a very important role in forming your interests or that you even reacted against perhaps, and that itself would be important
No I would say that Dipak didn’t teach me for long. When he came back from London, I was in the 1st batch, of course, and I was almost on the way out of College at that time, so I didn’t have him for long.
He became a friend later; endless numbers of evenings either at Coffee House or at his home, and Abhijit at that time was small. So I know Abhijit Banerjee and Dipak Banerjee and his wife for a long time. So he was this --you know you must have heard this word, adda, which is different than the Hindi word adda. In Bengali adda is really getting together, chatting away on umpteen things, and of course it encourages [unclear], which Bengalis are quite good at it.
It discourages going -- it is too boring to me to narrowly specialize, which I find many of my colleagues here, they are good economists but they much too narrowly specialize. Give them a completely different subject and they go mute, they have nothing to say. This is something that is completely different tradition to Bengal and the adda is -- anything comes, sometimes your discussing Physics, sometimes you are discussing latest cinema, sometimes you are discussing sex, all through, and it changes -- if you sit in an adda its just how fast it changes, and of course I used to get attracted to people who had good sense of humor.
Dipak Banerjee used to have a very good sense of humor. So, no, but going back to your question, a person as a teacher who certainly was much more influential in terms of teaching was a Professor of Economics, widely known as one of the best teachers in Presidency College, his name is Bhabotosh Datta. And the rest of the world does not know much about him but he’s the one, my generation and the generation before, would regard him as one of the best teachers anywhere.
I have said this to people, one of the best teachers, in all these years abroad, that I can remember. And I was struck the other day, Amartya Sen has said this as well, one of best teachers he ever had, anywhere, is Bhabotosh Dutta. And the thing about him -- he was, of course, a very lively teacher in terms of his presentation but what he did, he used to encourage us to -- what is the English word, expression, you try to grasp more than you can reach. So he used to give us "ohh you read this", and you go and read this-- 3/4th of it I cannot understand, its too tough for me, but Bhabotosh Dutta said "no, no you have to read that" -- so essentially beyond my reach but try to grasp it.
So that, even as an undergraduate -- even now none of the undergraduates in a world class university like Berkeley would not do -- he used to give us as an undergraduate to read the latest journals in economics, technical journals. Very tough for us, but we gradually -- but also it encourages self confidence: "ohh I can read at least 1/3rd of this article, maybe I can manage!" Over time we became journal article readers and this certainly helped a great deal. So economics, I think, not just myself but most of my generation became economists and the earlier generation, the Amartya Sen generation, really profited very much from Bhabotosh Dutta as a teacher.
You used in the bio sketch the term-- we felt, you said, something like "we felt we lived in a global village of ideas". And you went on then to do your PHD in England, Cambridge University, I believe. How did, when you were preparing to leave, did you already have a feeling that you had a world class education so to speak or that you could compete with other intellectuals on the world stage or did you have any of the angst of being from a former colony? How did you work through that question?
I think being in Presidency College we have the confidence. I think may of us not just myself, had the confidence that at the frontier level of our subjects, even if we are not familiar with something, we will be able to manage. So when I went to Cambridge I didn’t expect that things will become very tough for me you know. I think this is something in general in Indian elite colleges. For example in Berkeley, for which many subjects is top in the world, the other day somebody was telling me, a Professor in the engineering school was telling me, that the students who come from IIT, Indian Institute of technology, the first year its just all the familiars so they are just, what is the word, coasting around; they have done this.
No in Cambridge we had no problem at all in terms of… however what one gains is the interaction of ideas, because compared to Presidency College, Cambridge obviously had a much larger famous economists, number of famous economists, and they have different views and this interaction of them really used to open things for us. This interaction among the professors and sometimes with students. I was very lucky we had, at the same time, some visiting students from other places; very bright, I interacted with them etc. But I never felt that, you know, say drawn in because you know say would not be able to do. But it was certainly an enriching experience.
how did you -- it seems that at that time -- when did you leave Presidency and when did you enter University for your PHD?
…is when you left presidency.
…ands went for PHD in Cambridge.
And what fellowship you travelled on?
This was an All India competition of the commonwealth scholarship, its called commonwealth scholarship; I think it still exists till this day. So the -- its all the commonwealth countries. I think there's an inter-country arrangement, so British scholars go to India on commonwealth scholarship and Indians go to Britain on commonwealth scholarship.
There is some secretariat in London which I think overseas the whole thing. That was very useful because it was a kind of reasonably good amount at that time, by those standard at that time.
In terms of -- you said you came to University, I mean Cambridge, where there was interaction of different views with economics but probably other disciplines. At that moment in 1970’s there would probably be many divergent views about development?
Not just development.
What did you write on and what did you kind of study when you were doing your PHD?
Actually my PHD quite on Development it’s on International trade. And already economics was getting, and of course it’s very much now, highly mathematical, so I went into -- in fact my thesis is all equations.
And probably the word India doesn't appear anywhere, it's just all equations. But of course ultimately the questions that I think are important is influenced by my background in India. But so, for example, the person who was supervising me, he was the nicest person but he was also one of the most famous economist-- he got a nobel prize. James Meade is his name. So he used to supervise me, and the honesty, I mean he gave so much time to me, but the honesty of his, is something that is unbelievable.
So I used to write something for him and then he would read and next day I would go and discuss it with him. He will mark 6 lines in 1 page and say this mathematics is beyond me -- can you get it checked by somebody else. This is something you don't usually expect your professors to do… And then from the 7th line onwards he is checking again and then another page. So gradually my thesis was quite mathematical so I was supervised by 2 professor-- James Mean and then there was Professor Frank Cohn who was much more mathematical economist so there were 2 of them together who supervised me.
But again I did not meet only Professors you know, but fellow students, what’s going on, and different discussion groups.
Do you remember -- are there any names of fellow PHD students that were very important to you or maybe not just even PHD maybe professors you had conversations with?
One of the persons, at that time, a young man somewhat older than me just joined the University as a lecturer but he was just back after spending 2 years in India.
A Scottish economist who is now a nobel prize winner, James Murlis is his name. He taught in Cambridge for many years and then Oxford and now just retired. He was very helpful for me-- very sharp, extremely sharp mind, not very much older than me, so we are talking almost somewhat older. And so because of that I could get help from him -- on many things I couldn’t solve this or I could solve it but in very convoluted way so there must be an easier proof, James helped me in that.
So he was a big -- I mean I have a good relation with him even now but he was very helpful. The other person who was older, slightly older than me I think, but was still finishing his PHD, in fact maybe even he finished his PHD after I did -- he took a long time because he was also teaching -- his name is Christopher Bliss. He is currently in Oxford, he is a Professor in Oxford. So those names I do remember from not my classmates. Amartya Sen actually told me that, you are going to Delhi school [unclear] -- Amartya Sen was at Delhi school at that time -- but on the point of leaving Delhi school.
So he said that "no, no don’t accept that easily" because In India its very hierarchical, the position that they have for you is what they call Reader, which is Associate Professor. He said then once you go there it will take years to get promotion , the politics etc. So don’t accept anything below Professor. And me I already told Raj that I will go. So I told Raj that this is what Amartya Sen is telling me so he started laughing he said, Ok I will see what I can do but he couldn’t manage a professorship. So meanwhile Indian statistical Institute Delhi offered me a Professorship.
in Delhi?
In Delhi. In fact it used to be in the Indian Planning Commission Building at that time. This is Malanavish, actually, [unclear] who is the builder of the Indian Statistical Institute, was associated with the Planning Commission. So from those days Indian Statistical Institute -- now they have moved, at that time was in Nihojana Bhawan which is Economic planning commission building.
So I went there first and accepted their Professorship there, and then in couple of years, 3 years I think, Delhi University had a professorship and they invited me. Delhi University was more lively than Indian Statistical institute because being in that governmental building was not particularly it was like these bhawan’s in Delhi, very bureaucratic places. The statistical Institute had very good colleagues and I learned a lot from those colleagues in terms of Indian Data but Delhi school was much more lively because of the students, and the very good students.
But going back to your question on Institutions-- so the thing that I started working on is things, simple things, like share cropping. Why is it that share cropping is an arrangement between landlord and peasant so ancient. Several centuries, several thousand years, china in almost 5000 BC used share cropping in almost the same kind of term 50:50 etc. So one of the questions was why does this institution persists thousands of years.
What is it that -- we know that it is very exploitative for the peasants but its just exploitation. What is its -- I can think of other even more exploitative institutions --why didn’t they persist. So I wanted to understand the economics, not just the simple factor of exploitation. What is the economics behind this persistence of this Institution. So that's my first -- I came from this mathematic background, first I wrote a theoretical mathematical article trying to understand the mechanism behind it, and then very soon I had data.
So I started working with already available data and then being in Delhi helped me a lot because the -- most of the, even to this day, if you want Data, official data, Delhi is the place. Even in State capitals you don’t get as much data you have to -- because in India the way to get Data is to know people otherwise very bureaucratic. So through various people I opened doors in several ministries, I got data. So I started working with secondary data, available detailed data, sometimes firm level data, with each firm giving data but then using and working with other people's data there is always -- you wanted to ask other questions which they did’t ask.
So fortunately at that time -- so I was dissatisfied, increasingly dissatisfied with the data, including data on share cropping. We had some data, but I would have asked the share cropper which they didn’t, so fortunately at that time I got to know a very also deceased by now, a very famous intellectual Bengali intellectual, Asok Rudra is his name. And he -- to this day I would say that he has been very influential in my intellectual career not just as a fellow economist-- his degree was in his PHD was in Statistics, only then he came to economics but its very useful for me because he could make up from my lack of knowledge in statistical sampling techniques, for example.
So anyway before I will come to him, I will say that I saw him and I was telling him that I am here to collect some data myself and I know you have been collecting data for some years; that time he already had some village service going. So he said that’s a great idea and I am also interested in the same issues. So he and I -- and this I am talking about middle 70’s -- he and I got together and found some money from Indian studies of social science research, organized a whole team and for the next 10 years, almost 10 years, we organized several service in West Bengal, and sometimes went back to the same villages.
So we ultimately had a sample of 110 villages and in 110 villages we asked lots of questions about land relations, lots of questions about labor relations, lots of questions about questions on credit, moneylender borrow relations; so primarily looked at Land labour and credit. Masses of data we collected at that time and nobody else has collected by that time because the official surveys don't ask these kind of relational questions, relation between 2 persons what kind of things -- most of these relations are informal.
So then we started analyzing. By that time, from the end 70’s to middle 80’s, he and I wrote many joint articles on West Bengal. These are all, you might call, congress call these relations or what Marxists called relations of productions; we also call them institutions. Institutions are not International monetary fund or Harvard University-- those are institutions in a different sense; we call them organizations. But institutions are durable arrangements between people, it could be even between any two people.
Marriage is an institution between 2 people, so in that sense institution is very general sense. So that is how I got into institutional economics. So in those days people thought it was crazy, people told me "oh you ware an anthropologist", going to villages and asking questions about their relations etc. It was not very fashionable in economics. Fortunately economics has changed, very large part, certainly developmental economics but even economics in general is institutional economics already 1993 the first nobel prize in economics was for institutional economics in 1993. So lots of students are doing institutional economics but when I was doing it in the mid 70’s it was rather rare.
Not to overstay my welcome but maybe just two last questions, the last question would bring us to Berkeley, but before that question I would just curious about again about your -- this period..
Before you go I would tell you a little about Asok Rudra because he is a famous and in some sense unique person.
So he helped me in this particular statistical etc but we had a routine -- oh by the way he was a professor in Shanti niketan, so that was very useful for me so from Delhi I used to go or even when abroad from Berkeley, whenever I, I go to India two three times every year even then, I would go and my parents were alive at that time living in Shanti Niketan so I would visit them, but most of the day in Shanti Niketan was with Asok Rudra. We had a routine: in the day we will discuss our survey analysis, survey data, all the students were working with us etc but come evening no more economics.
The whole evening, in fact, we used to -- and he was a -- Amartya Sen's argumentative India, he is the argumentative India, he will not accept anything you say. He will give counter arguments. So whole evening we used to argue and argue on literature, films, drama, you know, politics, of course, was the major source of argument. He was at one time sympathetic with the Maoists, and in fact until he died he would be pro-Maoist, and so that's why I used have lots of arguments with him.
But enormously well-read in literature, by the way he’s also fluent in French, very well read in French literature, he was married to a French women. So whole evening, you know, suddenly we would look at our watch-- oh what it’s 1’o clock. So he was one of the most influential persons whom I miss to this day.
it’s interesting because one thing that has been a recurring theme in many of the interviews is charisma.
That there are there -- it seems that the Bengali intellectual world had figures of immense charisma, whom one could speak with and lost track of time. Do you have a sense of what explains the way that -- do you think that intellectual life operates through Charisma--
its not charisma it’s this fluidity of discussing different subjects. You know as I said we would move from one to another.
Asok Rudra was quite distinctive in his personality. In fact I can tell you an anecdote, which I'm presuming Amartya Sen wouldn't mind my telling it. So Amartya Sen is also Shanti Niketan based: he grew up there, he went to University there, I believe. So I remember one day in the daytime when we were doing our survey at Asok Rudra’s house, actually, we were doing this… so suddenly around 2.30 or so Sen, riding a bicycle, comes and tells us that he wanted to do adda, this Bengali… Rudra is very fond of Amartya Sen and so he looked at the watch he said its 2.30. No, no Pranab and I are working-- no adda.
You come back in the evening, I have the whole evening for you. Now I don’t know anybody has done this to Amartya Sen, who came to have a chat with you and you say go away! "No this is work time, we are doing". So this is the thing I want to say, there is devotion, dedication to scholarly world, and this devolution also to adda or you know free flowing chatting on different subjects in the world. You know I've spent hours upon hours arguing with him about attitude to sex-- he was very prude in some sense in sexuality, on matters of sexuality.
Arguing with him, he is much older than me-- in fact he is older than Amartya Sen, much older than me. I remember spending evenings after evenings sometimes discussing on that subject or on some other subject-- films even if we did not agree. So it is charisma, it’s the, the downside of this is what I already said [unclear] on Bengalis is full of [unclear] people who, you give him a topic and they say something, but not a depth… So in some sense I got together with people, maybe its mutual attraction with people, who have some some depth and something but also this width. I miss in the United States, this width.
In Britain I get some more width. I think the British College tradition encourages this, because in the dining halls you -- one day next to you is a physicist, next evening is a theologian, and you have to carry on while eating, having an intelligent conversation. So I think British also a lot of [unclear] even in France, France also has the same thing. US its completely, somewhat different. But anyway I don’t think it's charism, it's this fluidity of discussion.
My second last question is about the move that you -- you said, you know, some people said that you are moving towards anthropology and you used that term in the bio sketch as well, but I wander about the intellectual engagements that you may have had across lies of national disciplines. So for instance, the way that continental European’s do economics might have some things to say to these questions or even Russian economists. But did you have any touch points outside -- of course, you did -- what were your touch points outside of Britain and America and India that were important for you. Also were there discussion partners that you had outside Rudra, who were particularly important in this interesting move that you make in 70’s.
Let mention two things in that connection, its both interdisciplinary and also international in terms of borders. While doing this village service that I told you at that time economists didn’t do much, economists usually do analyzing the existing data. So you know in some sense you become an anthropologist because you come and talk to people and they are not just thinking economics they are also thinking other things. So I then started thinking myself is that, what is the essential difference between the methods that the economists use, and anthropologists use?
So I talk about in my bio sketch, so then thinking about that I found there are some essential differences in the methodology, not just in the method, the way of thinking about methods are different in economists. So that time in Berkeley, the social science research council in New York, somebody got in touch with me, I think for a time I was in their South Asia Council. So they -- when I was talking about this kind of different approaches, somebody in that organization said we'll fund you, why don't you organize a conference on this subject. And so I said that since my topic is on India can I organize it in India, so they said yes sure.
So I got together a bunch of anthropologists -- those who do nothing but anthropology, even cultural anthropology, some do social anthropology -- and I got together a bunch of economists and statisticians. Now -- and put them together in a conference and I think the first conference was in Bangalore. And then I realized that if I put these people together they are going to talk at cross-purposes.
So I thought that maybe I should give them a very narrow topic so they have to engage each other, they cannot go completely of the tangent. So I gave them this narrow topic: I said, so you anthropologists go to a village and you have been in this village say 20 years back and you say "oh these conditions have improved", and this economist, who has data about that village, says "no I see economic conditions has gone down in this village -- gone down or gone up". So how do you measure change? How do you think about measuring change in a village? Tell me about that.
So that's the topic I gave gave them. And so that was the conference, and yes there was there was some cross-talking and cross-purpose in spite of all that, but they engaged. And so then I edited a book -- I don’t believe in conference volumes, I usually tell people that I may not accept all the papers etc, it should be a new thing after, in the light of the discussion. So some papers of the conference was revised, others were not included. So I edited a volume.
That first volume is called conversations between economists and anthropologists. So that probably attracted a lot of attention, not among my fellow economists but for other social science, it attracted, even though it was published in Oxford, India. In fact so much so that recently the Ford foundation, about 5 years back I think, the Ford foundation got in touch with me and said can you give do a sequel, a conference and a volume.
And I organized something in Goa-- again, conversation between economists and anthropologists, it had just come out. And I said that again let me give you a narrow topic, so this time I get the topic is that this has to do with environmental resources. Like in a village what are the environmental resources like irrigation water, like forests, like fish-- these are the commons. So anthropologists tried to understand when does cooperation among the villagers, among the use of these resources, succeed and when it fails. Economists, in fact economists have very technical game theoretical model about when you cooperative and when you don’t cooperate.
So I said there are these 2 different ways of thinking about essentially the same thing, get together again and talk again about the methods. So now the book has come out, conversation between economists and anthropologists number 2, like terminator 2, conversation 2. So that has -- oh the other way -- so that’s a crossing discipline, the other way I crossed discipline already in 1983 I was invited by All Souls College, Oxford. They have a endowed lecture series called Radha Krishna memorial lectures, which is in the name of ex-president of India Radha Krishna, he used to be a Professor of Philosophy at Oxford.
So after he died they have this memorial… so they invited me to give this lecture and I took that occasion to have a kind of big think piece, thinking about Indian politics and Indian economy. Now that is probably, in some sense -- again 3 lectures and then Oxford, I think Blackwell in Oxford wanted to publish it so it came out in 1988. It's a very, very short book, tiny book probably about 90 pages or something. And that probably, if in terms of my -- the number of people who have read my books -- that probably is the most successful book in that sense because it is for a general audience.
So there I was crossing the boundary between economics and political science, so the book actually, the book is now well known more among political scientist than economists. So that’s the other crossing of boundaries. Talking of crossing of boundaries, as well as nations happened in my life particularly in the early 80’s, I was invited by an international group, which is a very interesting group, which meets even now, so they meet every year. This group was started by a bunch of philosophers, and particularly one philosopher who just recently died, Oxford philosopher, his name is Gerald Cohen, who was a Marxist philosopher.
However, asked many questions about Marxism, and then gradually around him a group came in whose unified principal to this day was the following: that Marx asked many important questions, his answers may have been wrong, sometimes been wrong, but whether an answers is right or wrong, for that we need to apply precise logical, analytical methods. That’s the unifying principal-- some of the members were Marxists and some other were not but they are all interested in Marxist questions but using analytical techniques.
They are using analytical philosophy, the philosophers are using analytical philosophy, and I as an economist a, using economics methods. There are some historians, there were some -- you are a historian, right? -- the only member, history member, of the group -- you may have heard his name -- Robert Brenner who is at UCLA. I think he calls himself a Marxist historian. So he was already a member when I joined, the sociologist Eddie Colin Wright, there are some -- now this group is really international, the names that I have mentioned are primarily American, but the majority are Europeans.
So that there is a Belgium philosopher who actually often visits is Harvard, Philip Van Parijs, and then there’s a Dutch philosopher, Jon Elster who is a Norwegian, who now is in France-- all of these people met, in fact usually in Europe, but now for the last few years mostly in New York. So we meet every year.
What is the name of the group?
There is a kind of a nick name of the group which is what they used to call -- the group was originally started even before I joined reacting to certain kind of Marxism which they call Bullshit Marxism. So this group, the nick name is non-bullshit Marxism ok, but they also have a kind of aggressive name it’s called, well some people call it the analytical Marxism group. there’s actually a whole book now called Analytical Marxism, but even it’s become more general, sometimes you ask we discuss questions which were not originally asked Marxists either but important questions, you know on judgement.
So sometimes you call it a September group on Social theory, because we usually meet once a year in September. But that kind of crossing of borders, national borders crossing of -- because I really became more exposed to continental thinking through some of these people. Jerry Cohen, who in some sense is the only British person in that group, being a Professor of Oxford, is not originally British, he is a Canadian by birth. But he brought in the British tradition, analytical tradition. But mostly, large number of non-Americans were continental, so in that sense the crossing of borders as well as disciplines. You know I am one of the very few economists there.
my last question -- it does not have to be a very long answer -- as I peer out your window and I see the beauty that is the bay, perhaps not even a question why you would choose to move to Berkeley, but what was the decision for?
I told you that we left my—
You mentioned weather—
Weather is one of the things, and then we settled down in Delhi etc, my child was born in Delhi. Then there was a certain period when I was dissatisfied in Delhi. One of the reasons was it was purely bureaucratic: in all these Indian Universities, they cannot leave you alone to do your teaching and scholarly research. In colleges there is lot of politics, and the politics particularly which affected us was promotions, appointments. We did not have a full say on who will get appointed.
Going back to Michael Raj wanted me to be a professor but it is not -- even though he was the Head he did not have the full say. The whole university politics comes to you, and the reason why it becomes complicated is because people who do not do much work, they know that the only way they can move up is through university politics. So quite often the simple technique they do is that they make the life of the Vice Chancellor miserable, through sometimes teachers Politics or some other politics. So the Vice Chancellor, just to get rid of the nuisance, will try to promote him.
So those kind of things -- so we as Professors of Delhi School tried to stop that. There will always be -- so then I realized that many of my waking hours I was spending on this petty politics, but it really has to be done if you have good colleagues. I got tired of it, and then something happened coincidently which made me really disgruntled. This is the Indian, Indira Gandhi imposed emergency in 1976, 75-76, so Delhi was quite unpleasant at that time. Nothing happened to us although people used to say that unless you give a job to one of the candidates of the Indian trouble -- nothing happened to us, but it was certainly unpleasant, you know.
I am so used to Indian democratic freedoms, I mean that get even temporarily restricted. So I then '77, I was invited by Berkeley just to come as a visiting Professor. And so in the sense you might say push and pull, because I came for 1 year, and my wife told me she doesn’t want to be in United States, but if I want to be in United States we can stay here. So we liked Berkeley, the same year Berkeley offered me -- even then I dilly dallied for 1 more year, extended my leave from Delhi but then finally decided. And this view certainly played a role, and the weather, the climate, climate doesn't change much.
Thank you so much for your time.
welcome, I don’t know whether this serves your purpose, I went blabbering along. But it may or may not have served your purpose
it had both depth and also expansiveness, so it was wonderful.