Random truths in common things

TCA Srinivasa Raghavan | Updated on May 04, 2012 Published on May 04, 2012

Breaking OutPadma DesaiPenguin VikingPages: 222 Price: Rs 500

For the last 42 years I have wondered, if only now and then, who Padma Desai is or was. That she is an economist of some repute, I knew, of course. After all, we had to read her book — written along with Jagdish Bhagwati — for the course in Indian economics.

But when I was admitted to the Delhi School of Economics in 1970, she had been gone for around a year. Whenever her name came up, there was always a strange undertone — as also a tinge of regret that she had left. She had gone back to Harvard from whence she had come a decade or so earlier after finishing her Ph.D.

But as this wonderfully crafted autobiography shows, she herself was very relieved to have left D-School behind. She had a low opinion of the place: boring classes in microeconomics and disinterested students.

In the event, she has written very little about the place. There is no mention at all of Amartya Sen, Sukhomoy Chakravarty, A.L Nagar, and others. Manmohan Singh is mentioned once, but only as the chap who won the Adam Smith Prize at Cambridge the year after Jagdish Bhagwati.

Hardly any economics

There isn't much about Harvard either, or Columbia, where she taught for so long. There isn't anything on the Soviet economy, on which she specialised for 30 years. Indeed, thank god, there isn't anything at all on economics. That would have been simply too dreary.

Nor does she have much to say about Delhi, where she lived for nine years. That's quite surprising, considering it was there that Jagdish Bhagwati courted her — in Moti Bagh, as it happens where we also lived — and it was there that they got married, in a manner of speaking.

The formal ceremony came somewhat later, for a very good reason: her first husband would not give her a divorce. That first relationship pops up throughout the book, as well it might because, as Ms Desai writes, not only did he bed her before they got married — in the early 1950s, mind — but also infected her later with venereal disease.

She won a scholarship to the US and never went back to him. In the end, faced with his refusal to grant her a divorce, she converted to Christianity, because under the Indian law, religious incompatibility is a ground for divorce. The suggestion had actually come from him and she converted. She describes in moving detail how the forlorn ceremony took place on a rainy day in a small village in Gujarat. In the end, though, it came to nought. Her husband withdrew his offer to divorce her if she converted to another religion. I wonder if he would have gone ahead had she become a Muslim.


So, what makes this book so gripping? It is the clarity and frankness with which she tells her personal story. Perhaps, thanks to a very insistent editor or maybe because of her own preference ordering, the book is completely non-judgmental. Adjectives are used only to describe nature.

There isn't much wit — except when she narrates an incident when someone asked her two-year old daughter what her dad did. “He talks”, said the child.

That, Jagdish Bhagwati most certainly does. And it is only when writing about him — an entire chapter — that Ms Desai also becomes animated.

I read the book in two sittings, but only because the plane landed. So will you, I assure you.

The D-School Stable

The Delhi School of Economics was set up as a co-operative society in the mid-1950s and merged into Delhi University as a post-graduate department of economics.

There is actually no such thing as the Delhi School of Economics because the building in which it is housed is called Birla Bhavan and the library is called Ratan Tata Library (not the current Ratan).

In the 1960s, D-School, as it is known, attracted a large number of young economists trained in the US and the UK: Amartya Sen, Sukhomoy Chakravarty, A L Nagar, Jagdish Bhagwati, Padma Desai, Tapan Ray-Chaudhuri, Manmohan Singh, Mrinal Datta-Chaudhuri, K.L. Krishna, Prasanta Pattanaik, Dharma Kumar to name a few.

By the end of the 1960s, however, many of them had begun to leave for one reason or the other. The 1970s and 1980s were difficult years. In the 1990s there was some recovery but in the last few years, the institution has fallen off somewhat from the international ratings map.

Published on May 04, 2012
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