Behind every Greek tragedy, there's a...

(please don't blame a Bengali this time)

By Amit Roy in London
  • Published 12.07.15

(From top) Yanis Varoufakis, who resigned on Monday as the finance minister of Greece after he infuriated the Eurogroup, on a bike that has pumped up his celebrity; Monojit Chatterji, who was sought out by Yanis to be his PhD supervisor because of the academic’s “Left inclinations”; and Yanis with his wife Danae Stratou, an installation artist

London, July 11: If this were a movie, it would be called something like "When Mono met Yanis".

Yet, their encounter 30 years ago at Essex University provides some understanding of the latest chapter in the unfolding Greek tragedy.

Will Greece, once the fount of western civilisation that gave Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to the world but is now a byword for a country that lives beyond its means, be able to remain part of the Eurozone?

The film would begin in Athens on July 6, 2015.

Yanis Varoufakis, 54, is stepping down as finance minister of Greece. The self-styled "libertarian Marxist" had been elected to the Greek parliament for the anti-austerity Syriza party in January.

On January 27, he took office as finance minister in the new government of Alexis Tsipras. With his motorbike and his black leathers and good looks, he is hailed as a "rock star".

As he is forced to quit after barely six months in office during which he managed to grate on the nerves of other European leaders and accused Greece's creditors of "terrorism", he does so in style.

He gets onto his motorbike, with his blonde installation-artist wife Danae Stratou riding pillion, and roars off into the night. But the prediction is that like Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, Yanis "will be back".

Already Yanis is depicted in movie-type posters with rugged Hollywood looks. A young Bruce Willis could be a good choice for the role.

The movie then goes into flashback to Essex University in the early 1980s when Yanis, who has emerged from a well-to-do Greek family with Marxist leanings and is doing a PhD in economics, is searching for a suitable supervisor. He settles on a young Bengali lecturer, Monojit Chatterji.

Why, of all people, Monojit?

Today, Monojit is director of studies at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he is a Fellow.

On holiday in Andalusia, Monojit - "Mono" to his mates - remembers it all as though it were yesterday.

"Yanis selected me as his PhD supervisor because he knew I had Left inclinations," Monojit tells The Telegraph. "He worked on strikes and bargaining."

Was it a guru-shishya relationship? Monojit shakes his head.

"I'm not sure how much I influenced him because he was always his own man. Definitely not guru-shishya. We are friends still," Monojit says.

"Yanis was forthright and never in doubt about his convictions. As a student, he played an active part in Leftist student politics."

So what were the influences on Monojit who, in turn, was taught by "Amartyada"?

It is best to cut to Bombay where Monojit was born on January 15, 1951, at Northcote Nursing Home.

"My father Manuj Mohan Chatterji was a journalist. He was the last editor of the Leader newspaper in Allahabad before it closed in 1968. He was a regular contributor to newspapers, radio and the BBC and an expert on 19th-century Bengal. He ghost-wrote a book on Ram Mohan Roy. My mother was a social worker," Monojit reminisces.

"I grew up in Bombay and went to the Cathedral School whose famous alumni include (Muhammad Ali) Jinnah, (Zulfikar Ali) Bhutto and Salman Rushdie. When my father was transferred to Delhi I went to St Columba's. I returned to Bombay and went to Elphinstone College, graduating with first-class honours and the first rank in economics and maths in 1970. In between school and college, I spent six months with my father in Allahabad and met Mrs (Vijaya Lakshmi) Pandit, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Mrs (Indira) Gandhi."

Monojit then won a British Council scholarship to Cambridge. He chose Christ's as his college because the Hamied brothers, Yusuf (the chairman of pharma giant Cipla) and Muku, well known in Bombay, as well as Monojit's own cousin, Jayabrata Bhattacharya, had all gone there.

It so happens that Monojit's wife Anjum Rahmatulla and Muku's, Shireen Hamied, are cousins.

In 1970, as Monojit arrived at Christ's, "Amartyada (Sen) was visiting and gave lectures on growth which I attended. I loved Christ's and the intellectual and social freedoms I got. I was lucky to be taught by the last of 'the golden generation' - (Nicholas) Kaldor, Joan Robinson, Richard Kahn, James Meade - and by the young Turks - Mervyn King and Nick Stern. I graduated with first-class honours in the Tripos in 1972 and was awarded a college studentship to pursue my research."

Culturally, "my roots lie deep in Calcutta", Monojit says. "On my father's side, my ancestors include Dwarkanath Tagore and Ram Mohan Roy. My great-grandfather Mohini Chatterji translated the Bhagavad Gita directly from Sanskrit to English."

The Irish poet Y.B. Yeats "stayed with Mohini Chatterji when he visited Calcutta and wrote a poem about him".

"The ancestral home was 33 McLeod Street, built by Job Charnock. Due to a family mishap, my father was disinherited by the proverbial wicked aunt when his father died. Hence he became a migrant. My mother's father was Professor R.N. Sen of Presidency College. Sadly, both my parents have long passed," Monojit says.

These have been the political and cultural influences on Monojit, who has had a full career.

"My first full-time job was at Essex where I taught both Yanis and the current Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow," says Monojit.

"At the age of 37, I went to a chair in Dundee. I retired a few years ago and took up a Fellowship at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge. I also have a college lectureship at Trinity Hall. Returning to Cambridge after 35 years was like coming home."

He has also had several visiting appointments - the University of California, Purdue in Indiana, Vassar College in New York, Tam Mexico and the Indian Statistical Institute in Calcutta.

"I do lots of public roles in Britain, advising among others the secretary of state for schools, the first minister of Wales and the Speaker of the Commons."

Yanis became an author and academic - he was for a while professor of economic theory at Athens University.

He has described himself as a "libertarian Marxist": "In truth, Karl Marx was responsible for framing my perspective of the world we live in, from my childhood to this day. It is not something that I volunteer to talk about in 'polite society' much these days because the very mention of the M-word switches audiences off."

Since his student days, his path has crossed that of his former teacher.

Monojit says: "We were colleagues at Sydney University in Australia in 1999-2000 and later in Athens University in 2011 and 2012. Despite some European bankers thinking of him as being abrasive, his classes went down well with students because he encouraged them to think out of the box."

On the deeper question of the final solution being imposed on hapless Greece by the EU financial institutions, Monojit voices grave doubts.

"The austerity imposed on the Greeks cannot solve their fundamental problem which is that their per capita GDP is just too low and too unevenly distributed. It's like giving someone in dire straits due to a job loss a credit card. What he actually needs is a job," Monojit says.

"Unless the Greek government can induce private firms from abroad to invest in Greece by building factories and employing people, austerity cannot help. Is this an opportunity for Indian companies, I wonder?"

Footnote: Since Yanis's recent departure from the finance ministry, Greece Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has risked rebellion and won lawmakers' backing for painful austerity measures his Left-leaning party was elected to prevent. Similar austerity measures, against which Yanis had campaigned, were rejected in last Sunday's referendum.