The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A centenary tribute to a bhadralok editor

Were he around, Sachin Chaudhuri, the founder-editor of the journal, Economic and Political Weekly, would have been bemused to see that his journal has become a phenomenon, the imprimatur of recognition for young social scientists, and èminences grises too feel proud to be part of it. He would have reason to be. He was nature’s escapist, vaulting from one passion to another, from one pastime to another — and, shall one add, from one pretence to another. A dilettante of the most noble order, this extraordinarily brilliant student of economics from the University of Dacca in the mid-Twenties loved to flunk examinations and walk away from responsibilities. He could have been a Sanskrit grammarian and easily slipped into the mantle of a Mahamahopadhyay. He could have been a first-rate professor of English literature specializing in Tudor poetry. He could have been an eminent Tagore scholar. And of course he had the natural flair for delving into abstruse economic theory.

Instead, he became in turn a khadi clad Congress volunteer, an aspiring ascetic in the High Himalayas, a vagabond in Calcutta subsisting on spasmodic private tuition, a modish bohemian in Bombay, an accidental entrant into the journalistic circuit. Other roles followed: a part-time film critic, a market reporter, a PhD scholar at Bombay University, a script-writer for BBC news reels, an editorial writer for Sunday magazines. This was, after all, the annals of the depressed Thirties and war-ravaged Forties. In between, hold your breath, he was for a stint, general manager of the Bombay Talkies. The few left-overs from those times still remember the sartorial transformation of Sachin Chaudhuri during his Bombay Talkies days: the all-white dhoti-kurta and sloppy chappals substituted by prim three-piece suits, a display of demure ties and shoes imported from Oxford Street.

Then an accident derailed him, and permanently. Shortly after independence one of his younger brothers went as a member of a semi-official trade delegation to the United States of America. The delegation was led by an economist of repute who also edited a weekly economic journal for a leading business house. The younger Chaudhuri was sick of the senior economist’s inanities and marvelled at how reputations got built in India. Returning to Bombay, he began pestering Sachin Chaudhuri: if that doddering fossil could run a successful economic newspaper, why not his senior brother' The younger Chaudhuri talked to his business associates, some funds were scraped together and the The Economic Weekly had its debut on January 1, 1949.

In the beginning, Sachin Chaudhuri took the weekly paper as a joke, much like the other experiments in career-building he had till then indulged in. He infused its milieu with the zest of a Bengali adda. His flat at Churchill Chambers behind the Taj hotel was the epicentre of the gossip sessions which constituted the fountainhead of the output going into the The Economic Weekly; a formal office however existed right in the heart of the Bombay business centre. Young cubs from the research staff of the Reserve Bank of India and the University School of Economics and Sociology at Churchgate were at Chaudhuri’s beck and call: it was a badge of honour to be a part of the journal’s fraternity.

Well-wishers from other seats of learning contributed their mite. For instance, D.P. Mukerji wrote from Lucknow the first editorial note for the journal’s inaugural issue, “Light Without Heat”. A.K. Dasgupta, still installed in Benaras, kept sending his pathbreaking musings on economic theory. Besides, the editor had his innumerable friends in the world of politics, business, journalism, films, music and the other arts. They climbed the rickety lift of Churchill Chambers from morning till late evening, supplying the heat that was transmuted into the The Economic Weekly’s light. It was an absurd cocktail of visitors. Aruna Asaf Ali, Ram Manohar Lohia, Devika Rani, the economics professor, D. Ghosh, the senior civil servant, P.C. Bhattacharya, the stock market vigilante, H.T. Parekh, maybe a stray Harindranath Chattopadhyay, or Krishna Kripalani down from Santiniketan.

The editor was sort of a patriarch, and he would control this mad menagerie in the manner of an adept magician. Ideologies clashed, politics separated the adda participants, mediocrities rubbed shoulders with the clever-clever ones: each of them was made to feel comfortable. Once the crowd melted, Sachin Chaudhuri would negotiate the distance to the formal office of the The Economic Weekly and don the editor’s garb. He would take a chiselled lead pencil and spend hours on end turning raw material sent in by nondescript outsiders into publishable copies. This is what made him a hero to the young lot. Articles came in the post, crudely written, lacking in logic, overwritten, reaching otiose conclusions. Should he though discover the glimmer of a new, intelligent idea in such a draft, the editor would pounce upon it, and, after several weeks’ endeavour, render it into a substantial-looking paper. That was the editor’s sense of fulfilment. That also helped to build a permanent cadre of loyalists for the journal.

Sachin Chaudhuri’s sorcery had another dimension. He could order parallel lines to meet — and opposites to co-exist. Which is why the The Economic Weekly remained a forum, and never turned into a caucus. This enhanced its general acceptability, even when it chose to go against the establishment grain. A product of the Jawaharlal Nehru heritage, Catholicity came easily to Chaudhuri and left ideologues too were allowed a free run in the weekly’s pages. The editorial notes were often idiosyncratic, often contradicting one another, for they were products of heterogeneous minds. Quite a few economists and civil servants wrote anonymously, giving vent to views which could not find official outlet. It was great fun in that liberal hour trying to guess which civil servant was hiding behind which nom de plume.

Jawaharlal Nehru was known to keep a copy of the journal on his desk. That set off a fashion amongst politicians and social climbers. Economic policymaking was in that phase assumed to be a collective co-operative venture belonging to the public domain. The Economic Weekly was free with its advice on the burning problem of the day. It would reprimand the high-ups with gay abandon. A governor of the *RBI had to put in his papers after a tongue-lashing from the The Economic Weekly.

Churchill Chambers and the The Economic Weekly kept open house. At different times, Joan Robinson, Hiren Mukherji, Vidia Naipaul, Hallam Tennyson were house guests. Finances were always precarious: there were days when the editor would have to borrow from his acolytes to be able to take out to lunch this or that distinguished visitor. Chaudhuri’s pride would not permit him to approach industry for patronage, nor would he cringe for government favours. Ministers treated him with respect; he treated them, sometimes without justification, with condescension.

The Economic Weekly grew. Fame and circulation have often a negative relationship with revenue accrual. That was its fate too. At a certain stage, the original financiers balked and Sachin Chaudhuri thought of calling it a day. He was outvoted by his admirers and disciples. The consequence was the Economic and Political Weekly. There was some toying with the idea of giving it a corporate shape; the final decision was to set up a trust. But Chaudhuri, one suspects, was not terribly interested. Although he loved his whisky, he was a dormant Gandhian too, and presumably he liked his journal to stay as a cottage industry, surviving on a shoe-string basis. This also gelled with his chaotic style of living.

There he was, the reluctant skipper, watching from his lonely cabin the launch of the new ship in August 1966. It, the EPW, in due course conquered the world. The founder-editor died within six months.

Whether they acknowledge it or not, at least two generations of economists and other social scientists —some of them now global celebrities—had their teething in the journal. Sachin Chaudhuri the certified dilettante, saw to it that cogitation over economics in the Indian climate was something the rest of the world have to look up to.

Today happens to be the centenary of his birth.

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