Designing an auction in such a manner that it is impossible for the players to collude and to secure a high price is a science in itself. The 3G auction was well conducted.
One thing with India’s Chief Economic Advisor, Dr Kaushik Basu. You can’t, as this correspondent has discovered on quite a few occasions, mention ‘Triplicane’ to him without getting him started off on a trip of nostalgia.
You can almost see pleasant memories flooding in, but they find expression in two key words — Presidency College and Ratna Café. Once in a while he might ask you if there wasn’t a Murali Café too, but the other two ‘temples of Triplicane’ never fail to get mentioned.
Little surprise therefore that when he stood before the audience that had gathered under the auspices of Triplicane Cultural Academy in Chennai last week, Dr Basu should begin with a sketch of his happy days in Triplicane, back in the early ’80s, when he used to teach in the Presidency College as a guest lecturer. “I used to watch the moonrise. It was so beautiful.”
It should have been easy for the Triplican’ite audience to imagine that. The British-built red-brick structure of the Presidency College stands facing the sea and it is indeed very beautiful when the early moon gilds the college’s seaward walls and the clock dome.
Soon Dr Basu’s memories took him to his next favourite jaunt. “We used to walk to Ratna Café to have idlis.”
It was impossible for me to resist the temptation of going up to the renowned economist, at the end of his lecture, and proffer the invitation. “Sir, how about some idlis and a cuppa coffee at Ratna Café this evening?”
Dr Basu was clearly caught in the pincer-grip of nostalgia.
The famous Ratna Café of Triplicane may have had its glory, prominence and custom plundered away by the Saravana Bhavans and Sangeethas of the world, but was to enjoy that evening the patronage of a great intellectual, a professor of economics who has taught at Delhi School of Economics and Cornell University, an amazingly down-to-earth and affable VIP, and India’s Chief Economic Advisor, Dr Kaushik Basu.
One for the camera
Ratna Café is practically a wayside restaurant, bereft of any star-hotel opulence and glamour that VIPs are generally used to, but Dr Basu was totally at ease. “Gimme a minute,” he said, as we got out of the car and scurried to the other side of the insanely congested Triplicane High road, unmindful of the heavy traffic, camera in hand. A click later, Ratna café was in his digital memory too.
The 12-minute drive from the Chola hotel where he was staying to Ratna Café was spiced with conversation that leapt from topic to topic, a little bit about his children, Karna and Diksha, about the concept of Travellers’ Dilemma (a behavioural paradox that was outlined by Dr Basu in the early ‘90s — his signal contribution to Game Theory), about Dui-doko — the two-player board game he invented and how rupee trade can help boost exports. All that was light talk for him, but being too cerebral for a simple journalist, had worn me out and therefore when he finished photographing Ratna Café, I spoke the only Bengali sentence I know: “Sir, amar khide pai chi.” He laughed and said “sure, let’s have food”.
Poring over the menu card, Dr Basu’s finger lingered on Rava Masala Dosa a bit, but I was firm. Although it serves a range of south Indian foods, Ratna Café is known for its idlis, and I recommended it to Dr Basu. Unlike in other eateries, they keep a kettle of hot sambar on the table for you if you order idlis, and you just pour as much of it as you want, as often as you want. Then you order one more idli and pour more sambar.....The idlis too are unique in their texture and shape, not too chubby in the middle and gently sloping off, much like a cricket field.
Food for thought
When the stuff arrived, it was food for me, but a plateful of memories for the guest. He spoke of his days in Madras University, where he taught Econometrics. Inevitably the conversation segued into his heart being in the academics. He said while he immensely enjoyed his work with the Government he felt he had to return to Cornell. “They have been very good to me,” he said of the American institution that kept his seat warm right through his two-and-a-half-years’ stint as India’s CEA.
Dr Basu spoke of his extremely comfortable relationship with Mr Pranab Mukherjee, a thoroughbred political person but one who also had a grasp of economics. He spoke of how he enjoyed the confidence of the Prime Minister. Did he know Dr Manmohan Singh from his Delhi School of Economics days? “No, I met him first when he was the Governor of RBI,” Dr Basu said.
We ordered Onion Rava Masala Dosa. Over it, the conversation veered to economics. Dr Basu is in favour of rupee-denominated trade, and wants India to push it as hard as possible — like China does. He wants India to take the lead in evolving auction science.
Fortunately for us, the chef had made the rava masala crispy and it tasted divine with mashed potato, coconut chutney and sambar. “I have this in Delhi, but is never as good as here,” said Dr Basu. Presently, an argument broke out over dessert. He wouldn’t have any, not even coffee. Finally, I had to play the senti. “Sir, how can a Bengali not have sweets?” That did the trick. “Well, I will have a single piece of gulab jamoon.”
The art of auction
We had to wind up, because Dr Basu had told me earlier that he had to be back in his room by 9.45 p.m.. On the return drive, I asked him about India’s prospects. He said he was optimistic about India’s long-term future. He reiterated his belief that India should do more to develop fundamental research, mathematics, etc. Even in economics there are areas where India can take the lead.
Take auctions, for instance. An auction is not something as simple as selling a resource to the best bidder, he says. Designing an auction in such a manner that it is impossible for the players to collude and to secure a high price is a science in itself. The 3G auction was an instance of an auction well conducted. There are some brilliant Indians in this field. We should tap into them.
As we reached Chola, I invited Dr Basu to pay another visit to Triplicane. Maybe he could visit the Parthasarathy temple. “Oh yeah, you know, my co-brother’s father was a priest there,” he said. Small world, indeed. But after two-and-a-half gruelling years as a policy maker the peaceful and salubrious environs of Cornell University must be close to Dr Basu’s heart than Triplicane.