By June 1956, at the end of my first year as a research student, I had a set of chapters that looked as if they could form a dissertation. A substantial number of economists at various universities were work ing then on different ways of choosing between techniques of production. Some were particularly focused on maximising the total value of the output produced, whereas others wanted to maximise the surplus that was generated, and there were also some profit maximisers.
Analysing these – and other – approaches, and taking note of the fact that a higher surplus, when reinvested, could lead to a higher rate of growth and through that to a higher output in the future, the different criteria could be compared through assessing alternative time series of outputs and consumption.
I was sure that the unruly literature on all this could be sorted out and nicely disciplined through comparative evaluation of alternative time series, which turned out to be fun to do. I called it the “time series approach”. I was glad to be able to outline an easily discussable general methodology for the various alternative proposals that were being offered.
I presented the general picture in an article that I sent to the Quarterly Journal of Economics (a leading journal in economics – then and now), which was kind enough to take the paper for immediate pub lication. They also accepted a second paper to come out not long after.
There were a few related concerns that were dealt with in separate papers, which also found their way to publication. By then, at the end of my first year of research, I started wondering whether I had – in the papers taken together – something like a doctoral dissertation. But I also worried whether this was a delusion of grandeur.
So I asked my teacher Maurice Dobb to have a quick look and give me his assessment. I had forgotten that for Dobb there was no such thing as having a quick look. At the end of two weeks I received from him an enormous set of helpful comments on how to improve my presentation. But there was also his comforting general conclusion that there was certainly more in my chapters than would be needed for a doctorate.
Maurice warned me that the regulations of Cambridge University would, however, prevent me from submitting a doctoral dissertation at the end of my first year. The university regulations did indeed say that a student could not submit a PhD thesis until three years of research had been undertaken.
So I asked myself the question: should I get away to do something more interesting than the topic of the doctoral thesis which I had, for one reason or another, come to choose? And, thanks to the already completed chapters, couldn’t I go back to Calcutta and forget the doctoral research for two years? I wanted a break and, on top of that, I was missing India.
So I went to Piero Sraffa who, in addition to his role at Trinity, was a Director of Research in the Economics Faculty, advising doctoral students. I sent him a copy of my putative thesis which he looked through and seemed to approve. So I asked him whether I could go to Calcutta and come back after two years. “You are right,” said Piero, “the University will not allow you to submit your thesis for two more years, but nor will it allow you to go away during that time, since you have to be in residence in Cambridge, at least pretending to work on your thesis here for the threeyear research requirement.”
This was very disappointing for me, but the dilemma had a happy resolution, smartly worked out by Sraffa himself. On his advice, I asked the Faculty to give me permission to be in Calcutta for the remaining two years of my research period so that I could apply my theory to empirical data from India.
I had to get another supervisor in India for this plan as I would not be allowed to go without one. But that was the easiest part, since in Professor Amiya Dasgupta in India there was a brilliant economist ready to help me. Additionally, I knew that any conversation with Amiyakaka on any subject would be entertaining as well as highly educational. So I wrote to him and received his welcoming consent in reply.
Having resolved the regulation problems, with Sraffa’s help, I began to prepare to travel to India. I felt that at least one phase of my association with Cambridge was coming to an end – I would come back only to submit my thesis and then be off again. I also fell into the trap of a kind of premature nostalgia about missing Cambridge since I was planning to cut my presence at the ancient university so short.
I could afford to go to Calcutta by air this time, since between 1953 (when I came to England by sea on the SS Strathnaver) and 1956 the cost of air travel had greatly fallen, while the expense of travelling by ship had risen even more rapidly, because of rising labour costs.
Just before I flew to India, I suddenly got a letter from the Vice Chancellor of a new university (Jadavpur University) in Calcutta, which was then being established, saying that they would be happy if I could lead the founding of an economics department there, and serve as the head of department.
I was unsuitably young for that job – I was just short of twenty-three – and had little desire to be suddenly catapulted into a restrictive administrative position. But, along with the anxiety, the unlikely proposal tempted me to try my hand at setting up a department and its curriculum in the way I believed economics should be taught.
It was not an easy decision, but after some hesitation I agreed to take up the challenge. So I found myself in Calcutta, working hard in rainy August to create syllabuses for the courses to be taught as well as trying to recruit people to join me in teaching at Jadavpur. Given the shortage of staff at the beginning, I remember having to give a great many lectures each week in different areas of economics.
In one particular week I think I gave twenty-eight full-length lectures of an hour each. This was really exhausting, but I also learned many new things from having to apply myself to so many different areas of economics. I hoped it might also have been of some use to my students. In fact, I was learning so much from teaching that I felt convinced I could not really be sure of knowing a subject well until I had tried to teach it to others.
In economics, this applies particularly to the classificatory devices to be used in economic epistemology, and that particular thought reminded me of my old friend, the grammarian and phonetician Panini from the third century BC whose classificatory analysis had been very influential on my thinking.
Given my youth and the widespread rumour that I had got the job at Jadavpur University through nepotism rather than merit, there was a predictable – and entirely understandable – storm of protest at my appointment.
On top of that there were grounds for political suspicion because of my leftwing convictions – my days of active student politics in Presidency College had been only three years earlier. Among the sharpest attacks was a series of denunciations published in the rightwing magazine Jugabani.
Amongst other things, I learned from them that, thanks to my appointment, the end of the world had become more imminent. One of the attacks, which I have to confess I did enjoy, was illustrated by a skilfully drawn cartoon showing me being snatched from a cradle to be immediately made into a professor, standing in front of a blackboard, chalk in hand.
I was sustained by the enthusiasm of my students, for which I was tremendously grateful. Some of them were truly brilliant, such as Sourin Bhattacharya, who would go on to become a distinguished academic and a writer. In fact, most of the students who had dared to join this totally new university to study economics were very talented. Other than Sourin, there was Reba (who subsequently married Sourin), Dhirendra Chakraborti, PK Sen and others, making up an excellent group. I kept in touch with them for many years after I left Jadavpur University.
I enjoyed the opportunity and the challenge at Jadavpur, which was an exciting place intellectually. It had in fact been a distinguished engineering college for many decades – well before it was turned into a university by adding departments (in literature, history, the social sciences and the “arts” in general) to their preexisting engineering and natural science base. My colleagues in the department – including Paramesh Ray, Rishikesh Banerjee, Anita Banerji, Ajit Dasgupta and Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri, among others – were unfailingly lively.
Apart from me, all the professorial appointees, who headed different departments at Jadavpur, were well-established scholars and much older than me.
The chair of the department of history was Professor Sushobhan Sarkar, who had been Professor of History at Presidency College when I was studying economics there. A superb teacher and researcher, Professor Sarkar had had a big influence on my thinking when I was a student at Presidency. It was a fantastic privilege for me to be Sushobhanbabu’s colleague and, thanks to his affection for me, I also received regular advice on what I should (and, even more importantly, should not) do as a new and unacceptably young professor.
The chair of the department of comparative literature was Buddhadeva Bose – one of the leading Bengali writers, with a formidable reputation in poetry as well as in innovative Bengali prose. I was a great admirer of his work, but also knew him personally as he was the father of my college friend Minakshi who, with her boyfriend (and later husband) Jyoti, appeared earlier in this memoir.
The head of the Bengali department was the wellrespected scholar Sushil Dey. Both Sushil Dey and Buddhadeva Bose had taught earlier in Dhaka University, where they were colleagues of my father. More alarmingly, Sushil Dey also knew well Sharada Prasad Sen, my paternal grandfather.
He would sometimes remind me that he was senior to me by more than forty years. He used this reminder particularly when we had any disagreement – Dey was quite conservative on university matters. He would supplement his reasoned arguments disputing my proposals by invoking my family tree, which left me rather helpless. “Your grandfather, who was such a wise man, and whom I knew so well, would see the point you are having difficulty seeing without any problem at all.” Professor Dey won all the arguments I had with him.
In the faculty we also had a remarkably innovative historian, Ranajit Guha – I called him Ranajitda since he was a few years older than me, though still relatively young. When I ran into him for the first time on the campus shortly after classes began, I was delighted, since I knew about him and his uncanny originality of thought.
“You are very famous,” Ranajitda told me when we first met. “I have been constantly hearing about your severe shortcomings and about the mistake made by the University in appointing you. So let’s get together straightaway – in fact let’s have dinner tonight.” I went to his apartment in Panditiya Road that evening, which soon became one of my regular haunts.
Ranajitda was previously an active communist, but by the time I met him he had decided that this had been a mistake. He still remained a revolutionary – in a quiet and nonviolent way – working for the neglected underdogs of society, but he had completely lost his faith in communist organisation, particularly Stalinism, which was very much in vogue in Calcutta at that time. Ranajitda was then married to Marta, who was of Polish origin with Jewish ancestry, and together they regularly hosted gatherings of friends.
Ranajitda was in the process, at that time, of writing his first book, A Rule of Property for Bengal, which would establish him as a historian of unusual imagination and vision. The book investigates the intellectual background of Lord Cornwallis’s deadly Permanent Settlement of land tenure, imposed on Bengal in 1793, which did incredible harm to the economy.
It was a work of quite profound originality, differing from standard works on British colonial policy in India by focusing on the role of ideas as opposed to greed and self-interest (which had become the mainstay of critical history at the time). The British officers who had a voice in the choice of land rules in Bengal were motivated by their well-considered views on how to improve Bengal agriculture. The ethics behind the rationale of permanent settlement, and on the reasoned and humane ideas that led to it, were actually different readings of good governance.
What is striking is that, despite their sincere attempts at doing good, the Permanent Settlement agreement produced quite disastrous results. Guha’s focus, unusually in colonial history, was not on imperial exploitation and the dominance of British interests over the concerns of the subjects, but the various wellmeaning thoughts that led to a jumble of proposed arrangements for land settlement in Bengal – and their botched application.
A Rule of Property for Bengal is not, however, the work for which Ranajit Guha is now most famous. That distinction goes to a series of publications under the generic title of Subaltern Studies, the product of a highly influential school of colonial and postcolonial history which he initiated and led. (As I noted in Chapter 4 it had some correspondence with my grandfather Kshiti Mohan’s giving precedence to those poems of Kabir which the poorer followers loved.)
The school of Subaltern Studies comprehensively disputed elitist interpretations of history. In his introduction to its first volume, published in 1982, Guha is deeply critical of the fact that the historiography of Indian nationalism had been, for a long time, dominated by both colonialist elitism and “bourgeoisnationalist” elitism – which Ranajitda did much to dis-establish.
This was a big move to liberate the writing of Indian history – and by implication history everywhere – from a debilitating concentration on elitist perspectives. Although Subaltern Studies had not yet been born when I first knew Ranajitda, our daily conversations made it clear that he was already thinking in terms of an antielitist reassessment of history.
Ranajitda and the circle around him were not only intellectually important for me; they also contributed greatly to my social life in Calcutta. Regular conversations with the group, which included Tapan Raychaudhuri, Jacques Sassoon, Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri, Paramesh and Chaya Ray, Rani Raychaudhuri and many others, were a huge addition to my life as a young teacher in Calcutta.
When Dharma Kumar visited Calcutta and came with me to Ranajitda’s addas, she expressed astonishment at the range of issues we managed to discuss in our evening gatherings. Even now, I feel that as academic discussions go, it would be hard to match those in the small unassuming apartment in Panditiya Road in the mid 1950s.
Once I had settled into my new job and got to know the new students, I did not of course neglect my old haunt – the coffee house on College Street, opposite Presidency College and not far away from the base of Calcutta University. It was the summer of 1956 and among the vigorous debates going on then were the immediate reactions to Nikita Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalinist practices, in the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The Congress had taken place in February 1956, a few months before I returned to Calcutta, and the implications of what had emerged were sinking in slowly in leftwing political circles there. When I asked one of the old loyalists I knew well what he thought, he told me immediately, “I hate Khrushchev more than any revolting little insect” and refused to have any further discussion. When I ventured that what Khrushchev had reported was shocking but completely unsurprising, I got a blast of political rebuke.
My own awakening to the tyranny of the Soviet system had come a decade earlier with my reading about the “show trials” and the Stalinist purges, including the treatment of Bukharin, the leading Leninist philosopher of his time, whose writings I knew well. So I did not see a sudden break in what was happening – only a change in what was being officially admitted.
When one of the faithful followers, angry with me, referred to the American writer John Gunther’s observation that he (Gunther) had been present at the trial of Bukharin and others, and they all looked very healthy and unmolested – so they really could not have been tortured or restrained – I was truly astonished by the political naivety on display.
I liked Khrushchev’s story, told by him a few years later, about visiting a school and asking the students there a friendly question, “Tell me, who wrote War and Peace?” There was silence first, and then one of the children replied with a terrified look, “Believe me, Comrade Khrushchev, I did not do any such thing.”
Khrushchev complained to the head of the secret service that this was an unacceptable state of public fear and the bullying must stop immediately. The story ends with the secret service commander telling Khrushchev a few days later “You need not worry any more, Comrade Khrushchev – the boy has now confessed that he did write War and Peace.”
In October and November 1956, as the shock of the Twentieth Congress was being absorbed by leftwing circles, the Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule occurred and was brutally suppressed by the Soviet Army. The Communist Party of India failed to denounce Soviet authoritarianism in the way various other communist parties (the Italian party in particular) had and it was becoming increasingly clear that the days of a united Leninist Communist movement in the world were coming to an end.
I was disturbed by the brutality of the Hungarian suppression as well as by the shocking revelations in Khrushchev’s denunciation at the Twentieth Congress. The questions now being raised seemed to me to be issues that should have been addressed much earlier. While I was never in the Communist Party (nor ever tempted to join it), I did think that classbased militancy had a very positive role to play in India, plagued as the country had been by longstanding inequalities and inequities.
In that context, I tried to argue that the ability of a Communist Party to be effective and constructive would be much enhanced if it took on seriously the kind of prodemocracy questions that were at last being aired in the 1950s.
The Communist movement in India did eventually take up the issue of its compatibility with India’s political democracy, and, while the process of response was painfully slow, it was good that the shocks of 1956 and later remained present in the political debates in the coun try. However, unlike the Communist parties in China, Vietnam and Cuba, the Indian party never became powerful enough to be a decisive political force, and it split several times, first in 1964.
While I was a dedicated teacher in Calcutta, enjoying my classes at Jadavpur, but waiting for two years to pass before I could submit my doctoral dissertation in Cambridge, there was a development in Trinity College which put me into some confusion. The College has a small number of Prize Fellowships – four in my time – given on the basis of competitive assessment of the research work of postgraduate students. (You could have more than one go, within a time limit.) A Prize Fellow is, in fact, a full Fellow of the College and receives emoluments for four years, without having to do any prespecified work – in other words, free to work on any subject he or she chooses.
As I left Trinity for India in the summer of 1956, Piero Sraffa had remarked, “Why not submit your thesis for the competition for the Prize Fellowship? You won’t get it so soon, but you could improve your thesis with any comments that you might receive, and you might have a serious chance the year after.” So without much thought I had sent in a copy of my thesis in waiting from Calcutta and forgotten all about it.
The results of the Fellowship Elections were announced in the first week of October and, since I was not expecting to be elected, I paid no attention to the timing of the announcement. Instead, since there was a break in teaching in Jadavpur University for what is called Puja vacation in Calcutta, I went off to Delhi without leaving any forwarding address.
I had a great time in Delhi, meeting for the first time remark able economists such as KN Raj, who would later be my colleague at the Delhi School of Economics, IG Patel (who was married to Alakananda – or Bibi – the daughter of Amiyakaka, who was like a sister to me) and Dharm Narain, an outstanding empirical economist whom I came to know well, along with his wife Shakuntala Mehra.
There was also a lively young woman, Devaki Sreenivasan, visiting Delhi from Chennai (Madras), who would later become Devaki Jain after her marriage to Lakshmi Jain, a stalwart in the old Congress tradition, while she herself became a leading figure in the global feminist movement. I met Devaki for the first time at a friend’s house: at that meeting she seemed most amused by my traditional Bengali attire, which presumably she had never seen before – over the years she would become a close friend.
So I was having a sequence of jolly talkative evenings in Delhi, far away from Jadavpur University, which was meanwhile receiving a cluster of communications from Trinity telling me that quite unexpectedly I had been elected to a Prize Fellowship.
Since Jadavpur had no knowledge of where to reach me, Trinity received no response – or acknowledgement – to the telegrams they (and my teachers – Sraffa, Dobb and Robertson) sent me. However, Trinity decided to elect me formally as a Fellow anyway, without waiting for me to sign in. By the time I saw all the accumulated communications in Calcutta, I had been a Fellow of the College for a few weeks already, without being aware of it.
But then I had to do some thing I had not planned, since I now had two fulltime jobs which I was unintentionally holding simultaneously. I had to choose between continuing in Calcutta and going back to Cambridge. After talking with both Trinity and Jadavpur, I split the time and returned to Cambridge earlier than I had intended, in the spring of 1958.
Excerpted with permission from Home in the World: A Memoir, Amartya Sen, Allen Lane.
Respond to this article with a post
Share your perspective on this article with a post on ScrollStack, and send it to your followers.