In memoriam

Mrinal Datta-Chaudhuri 1934-2015

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TEACHERS from one’s own hoary past are always difficult to analyze. One tends to remember the good bits. The not-so-good bits are usually buried in that happy process the mind has to ensure so that one is not constantly miserable. In any case, there was little by way of misery as far as life at the Delhi School of Economics was concerned. The studying was hard, sure. But the professors were uniformly renowned (either already or inexorably soon). The students, ah they (or maybe just us) were arguably hilarious or merely studious. And the atmosphere was always electric. This was the Delhi School of Economics in the late 1970s. India was at the cusp of losing its socialistic schlep and all of us were blissfully unaware that an era of glasnost (translated into Hindi as liberalization) would ever emerge. Those were indeed blissful days and, in many senses, the heyday of classical economics.

Nobody quite epitomized the classic economist of those times as much as Mrinal Datta-Chaudhuri, who passed away on 19 May 2015, and who was then Head of the Economics Department at the D-School, as those who were really cool referred to it. Sandwiched between the Hindu College and the road abutting Ramjas College, D-School both added to the cool factor that was MDC (as he was widely known) as was itself also enhanced by his presence, his approach, his empathy and his wit.

Those of us who had travelled there along the long winding road from Presidency College, Calcutta (referred to of course, in economic jargon, as the shortest distance between two points in Economics), loved the fact that Mrinal-da was a quintessential Bong in many ways. Not that it made him in any way lesser or more fond of creatures from there, but in some senses he was beguiled by a procession of the extraordinarily bright from Presidency College who had migrated out of Bengal during the last days of Naxalism. MDC fondly believed that these boys (and there were of course delightful exceptions among the women) were already half-baked economists and only needed the refinement of a D-School to achieve Pareto optimality.

The classic thing about Mrinal was both the aura and that haze of smoke that surrounded him. He spoke in his inimitable style, stuck somewhere between Stanford and Sylhet, and was occasionally difficult to understand but always pleasant to hear. His lectures could be humourous. V. Ramani, who rose to be a top babu, remembers him mentioning, in the context of international trade, that the proof of its efficacy and perceived inequity lay in the fact that some Arab was enjoying the finest mangoes, which were denied to his (i.e., Mrinal’s) next door neighbour’s wife. ‘She’ was the subject of other tales too. Some lessons were more obtuse and self-deprecatory. Amitabh Pandey, the latter-day transportation whiz, recalls MDC’s comment on his own statistics professor advising him never to sit on his r-square!

His lectures were the stuff of legend even in a D-School which was practically overflowing with legends like Amartya Sen (who studied with him at Shantiniketan), Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Manmohan Singh, Dharma Kumar, Suresh Tendulkar, and later Kaushik Basu and many others. His main specialization, Transportation Economics, was far too daunting for mere mortals to understand, but his Growth Theory lectures and other starters were always crowded with the faithful, predominantly of the fairer sex.

Like many of his colleagues, MDC’s influence extended well beyond the D-School campus, wafting through the corridors of high government. He was a major influence on planning and our former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often acknowledged the influence of MDC’s prescient and brilliant papers on his own outlook. He tried to repay this considerable intellectual ‘debt’ by having him on board as part of an unofficial but powerful think tank that drew up policy reforms in 1991. As for Mrinal, he wore it lightly. Always.

In a sense the high regard that his former students hold for MDC is no different from how he felt about his guru, Paul Samuelson of MIT, under whom he completed his PhD several decades ago. As a teacher he was awe-inspiring, as an economist and policy advisor, his work was path-breaking.

A no doubt purely apocryphal nugget that is part of D-School myth goes that MDC was the one who designed the Delhi Transport Corporation’s famed ‘Mudrika System’ – which traverses Delhi clockwise and anti-clockwise. His study, including some dark econometrics, came out with the magic solution for Delhi public transportation. It was pronounced majestically to the full DTC board in a cheerful style by MDC. He told them the truth, garnishing it neither with graphs or stochastic variables. He put it simply, ‘Buy more buses’.

As Shiv Visvanathan, eminent sociologist and somebody who saw MDC from close quarters during his years at the Delhi School puts it, he had a unique way of ‘humanizing economics’. This was probably his most outstanding quality. A classmate remembers how he had once encountered Mrinal outside the Ratan Tata Library, a dreaded haunt of cavernous reference reading in those years. Mrinal, at the time Head of the Department, asked him in his happy collegial manner, ‘So how are things?’ and Harsha Vardhan Singh, who many years later, went on to become a serious (and as we would put it those days, solid) economist, said, ‘Not so good, sir.’ So Mrinal asked him, ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I have just attended your class in growth economics and I can’t figure out how it could ever apply to anything in real life.’

Thinking that he had unwittingly revealed a plaint of pathos, Harsha tried to move on but Mrinal was not one to let go so easily on an issue that he felt went deep. He sat Harsha down on his favourite spot – the grassy knoll outside the Delhi School coffee house, which was the scene of constant interaction and endless intake of caffeine and adda. He spent the next couple of hours explaining how Solow’s model of growth had been used in India’s first two Five-Years plans and why understanding the concepts in economic growth was crucial to understanding India’s own development process. It was like a moment of epiphany for Harsha, a moment that some of us less enlightened ones missed entirely. MDC had worked his magic, and to use Shiv’s phrase, ‘humanized economics’ yet again.

His insights were not always so profound. On one occasion he encountered a bunch of us huddled together on a late winter evening desperately exchanging handwritten tutorials on subjects we thought would be in the exams barely a fortnight away. So he asked one of us, ‘Are your guys scared of exams?’ Rhetorical though that question was, the chorus of answers in a groaned affirmative caught him by surprise. Clearly, he was a man unperturbed by exams, or at least that is what our own internal legend of him would have us believe. So he picked on an unfortunate one and asked, ‘How do you know that you are scared?’

She said, ‘Sir, I’m waking up at all kinds of hours in sheer despair to get through the course.’

Mrinal asked, ‘Do you get dreams of exams?’ to which the young lady, who probably was too tired to even remember dreams in the hostel, said ‘No’.

So, Mrinal laughed his cheerful laugh, tossed his mane and passed along. ‘If you don’t dream of exams,’ he muttered, ‘then you’re not scared of them.’ He left our bunch, open-mouthed with his psycho-babble profundity delivered swiftly and yet lightly.

There are aspects of Mrinal that are probably part of tales that haven’t been told. There are those in the know who whisper that his role during the days of Emergency was stellar. He was a shining beacon of democracy and his enormous clout in the corridors of power ensured that he was able to whisk people away into alleys of security as also provide inputs and insights that helped those resolutely fighting for liberal democracy, as it was enunciated in those days. Little is written about him and those times but those who have experienced it either refuse to talk or merely shake their heads in sheer admiration.

Perhaps that is the way of all great men – to tread lightly, to laugh cheerfully, to treat kindly, and to humanize the experiences that they know best. And if one is also blessed to educate many along the way, then one multiplies the blessings received.

Mrinal was one of those. If he was lonely he hid it well, if he was in doubt he never showed it, if he was angry he merely glowered, and if he enjoyed it he laughed out loud. Here was a Titan who had touched the hearts of generations of young economists who were to follow him into the real world and take on tasks, chase dreams and achieve things that were perhaps well beyond Mrinal’s own desires.

His happy loping stride from where he parked his car to the RTL and then to the Director’s room was his world which he straddled quite comfortably. Travelling seamlessly to global seminars, teaching in campuses elsewhere and being the toast of his students was achievement enough. Here was a man who went gently into the night.

Dilip Cherian