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A FORGOTTEN BRILLIANCE - An explorer in the world of ideas

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  • Published 1.07.13

It happens on the rarest of the rarest of occasions, but it happens. Someone passes from childhood to adolescence, from adolescence to youth, enters the prime of life, achieves tremendous recognition in the chosen profession or attains the peak of academic distinction, and yet remains a child at heart. While exhibiting outstanding intuitive gifts and extraordinary depth of mind in exploring new ideas in the area he/she has specialized in, in daily living the person is innocence all over, helplessly naive in handling domestic situations and altogether dependent on others for the most mundane of affairs. He/she would fumble in purchasing a railway ticket standing in the queue or would not even remember what day in the week it was. At the same time, if a relative or a friend or a neighbour drops a casual suggestion concerning the reason for the delayed arrival of the season’s fruit, the person might find the idea to be fodder for fascinating follow-up and would embark on an interminable voyage of exploration. Ideas would take wing from preliminary premises, these further ideas would march on on their own. Such intellectual adventures fill the person with delight beyond measure, transporting him/her to a qualitatively different universe. The world of reality ceases, the world of ideas takes over.

Sukhamoy Chakravarty is now a near-forgotten name in academia as well as in officialdom. He, in my view, is one of the aptest instances of the rarest personages who revel more in the world of ideas than in drab, hard reality. Simple and innocent as much as simplicity and innocence could proceed, he had the eerie ability to read and retain the substance of a dauntingly great number of books covering the expanse of literature, philosophy, history, economics, mathematics, even quantum physics, and, in later life, physiology and medical science as well. In spite of his brilliance and range of learning, he did not top any of the examinations which the country’s educational system offered. He cared little for the discipline and organization that answering an examination paper conventionally calls for.

His choice fell on economics as the specific sphere for advanced studies. It did not really matter; had he chosen philosophy or physics, the future turn of developments would have been almost similar. From economics he migrated to mathematical economics and on to econometrics. In the early 1960s, Paul Samuelson hailed him as among the front-ranking of the world’s ablest young econometricians. His doctoral dissertation with what is now the Erasmus University in the Netherlands is still considered to be one of the most outstanding ever submitted at that most distinguished precinct of learning.

Sukhamoy found his niche in the Delhi School of Economics where K.N. Raj provided him with all the facilities and freedom to be what he was: a thinker extraordinary of abstract and yet more abstract ideas; he could continue with the pursuit of his passion till the cows came home.

Unlike the lectures of his classmate from Presidency College and colleague at the Delhi School, Amartya Sen, which sparkled with wit and lucidity holding the students spellbound in the classroom, Sukhamoy’s presentations mostly went above their heads. A child at heart that he continued to be, Sukhamoy had no sense of discrimination and would not compromise with the intricate texture of his ideas even when he dearly wanted to share them with his students. The students nonetheless recognized a genius when they came into the proximity of one and accorded him great respect. Sukhamoy was exceedingly happy in the Delhi School environment; he had, after all, valued colleagues around with whom to discuss abstract propositions. He was, besides, hemmed in by books, both at the DSE and at home. He could wade through one book after another, maybe a dozen every day and on a dozen different branches of knowledge. He grasped quickly the essence from each such tract and the rest of the proceedings would be his kingdom: he would latch on to a particular thought gleaned from a particular passage of a particular chapter in a book and the familiar routine would begin. He would develop a theorem, one which would furnish him with the context to develop perhaps an altogether contrary hypothesis, which would then form the base for going further and further.

The university campus was the most perfect locale for installing a phenomenon like Sukhamoy. He would be there in his room surrounded by piles and shelves of books, colleagues, researchers and run-of-the-mill students would hesitate to disturb him, and yet would. He would not mind at all, the child in him loved company, as long as such company excluded prize bores. He in fact loved to interact with his visitors since each of them would come with a problem. Howsoever unexciting it might be, Sukhamoy would have joy in exploring its ramifications in his own way and offer a solution. The solution he proffered could be somewhat remote from practicalities, the visitor would still leave Sukhamoy’s room with awe and admiration.

This equilibrium of existence should have been allowed to continue. This would have enriched both the academia as well as the environment. Sukhamoy would, every now and then, visit other seats of learning in the country and overseas, encounter new intellectual challenges, feel re-invigorated, then return to his cove in the Delhi School. That happy possibility was ruptured and in a rather abrupt manner. Indira Gandhi had dismissed the entire Planning Commission, including the deputy chairman, D.R. Gadgil, in early 1970 in the wake of Gadgil’s disagreeing with her decision to nationalize the country’s commercial banking system; she felt insecure being surrounded by independent-minded people. At the same time, she and her advisers were aware of the adverse public reaction to the crude manner in which Gadgil was removed. Her scouts were scouring the academic world to find economists of distinction and credibility who could compensate for the loss of public image the episode had caused. One of their targets was Sukhamoy. Sukhamoy had written profound papers on the mystique of investment planning, but he had zero practical knowledge of the ways of government and the functioning of the Planning Commission. His innocence made him capitulate to Indira Gandhi’s beckoning. Again, it was the baby within him which took the decision. Was it not a thrilling idea to be an integral part of the reality, the reality being the actual process of planning the country’s development? Those who were his persuaders were single-minded in their determination: the broader implications of Sukhamoy’s being snatched away from academia did not detain them, the fact that his being in the Planning Commission would enhance the prestige of the government was their only consideration.

Sukhamoy succumbed to the importunings. It was, many of his friends felt, a terrible decision of which he would be the ultimate victim. It was surely a disaster for the scholarly world. His departure from teaching and research in order to adorn Indira Gandhi’s Planning Commission created a vacuum in academia which was never really made up. To be blunt, none else had that depth and expanse of mind to comprehend the rapidly emerging new streams of thought in the different branches of learning.

Indira Gandhi was quick to perceive that she had in her retinue a most formidable scholar. She was, however, candid enough to admit in private that Sukhamoy’s vocabulary was beyond her comprehension, she had great difficulty in understanding what he was saying. For the new entrant to the Planning Commission had his own way of formulating a sentence with clauses and sub-clauses that travelled into a great many detours of thought. In the academia there were at least a handful around who could interpret Sukhamoy for the benefit of lesser beings; there were none within the portals of administration. In spite of Sukhamoy baffling the prime minister of the country, she, the craftiest of politicians, straightaway recognized his worth to her. As her authoritarianism mounted, several important members of the academia began increasing their distance from her. Once she and her younger son decided to clamp the Emergency, no economist of enough repute and capability would be there to offer her support, barring of course those in government service. Sukhamoy was the only exception. Here too, the kid in him took over. The idea that the nation’s prime minister, who happened to be Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, no less, had invited him to be next to her was something which appeared to him as magnificently magnanimous on her part. From that moment onwards, Indira Gandhi could, for Sukhamoy, do no wrong. He was steadfastly loyal to her till the end and did not dishonour her memory even during the half-a-dozen years he survived after her grisly death. His devotion to her persuaded him to attend meticulously to the dull, meaningless routine meetings of the Planning Commission. He threw himself heart and soul into assimilating detailed data relating to the national economy, something which was not quite his cup of tea in earlier days. When effective planning was dead and over in the country for all practical purposes, he plodded on, refining and filling in the contents, chiselling and yet re-chiselling one plan model after another. He took himself seriously as an important government personage, and expected his colleagues in the academic world and other acquaintances to observe the proprieties before trying to get in touch with him. The consequence was that many friends became former friends.

During the Emergency, Indira Gandhi fully availed of his unflinching loyalty to her. He acted as her personal envoy in visiting Europe and the United States of America and trying to convince important academic persons that the Emergency was not her choice, it was thrust upon her by evil forces which were intent on thwarting India’s economic progress. I was in England in 1976, furiously campaigning against the Emergency, when a small news item in the papers had me stunned. My former teacher, Jan Tinbergen, one of the most respected public figures in Europe and a dedicated socialist, had issued a statement endorsing the imposition of the Emergency in India: I met him next month and was forthright in expressing my surprise and unhappiness at the views he had reportedly expressed: after all, Indira Gandhi had let loose a most horrid kind of oppression in my country, she had placed behind bars not only her own partymen, not only those of rigid Marxist persuasion, but even thousands of socialists who swore by the same Socialist Intervention of which he, Tinbergen himself, was a patron. Tinbergen was visibly embarrassed. He paused for a while, and then let it out softly: Sukhamoy had met him recently and had argued that Indira Gandhi had no other alternative but to declare the Emergency and entreated him to sign that statement. Tinbergen, I remembered, was Sukhamoy’s teacher too.

The mood in the nation was one of subtle resentment. As she was surrounded by scared sycophants and totally under the spell of her son, Indira Gandhi’s calculations went altogether wrong. She revoked the Emergency and went for the polls. She and her party were decimated. A dazed Sukhamoy returned to the Delhi School. It was though far from returning to one’s treasured private sanctum. For one thing, the Delhi School itself was no longer the abode of rarefied learning K.N. Raj had given shape to one-and-a-half decades ago; most of the scholars extraordinary he had gathered, including Raj himself, had dispersed. That apart, the social distance Sukhamoy had purposely cultivated between himself and academic colleagues when he was in the Planning Commission was a hindrance to the revival of the ambiance of the 1960s. Even worse, the long hours of hard work he had put in during the tenure in the Commission were beginning to tell.

Indira Gandhi’s ghastly killing on the last day of October in 1984 meant the final termination of Sukhamoy’s links with those in the citadel of power. By then, he was very seriously ill and constantly in and out of hospital. He had already agreed to chair the committee being set up by the Reserve Bank of India for a comprehensive review of the country’s monetary system and policy framework. It was once more spending long hours on the committee’s work. He produced a thoughtful report full of rich scholarship. Even so, it was more a fund of ideas than a compendium of recommendations easily accommodable within the existing politico-economic infrastructure. So what, he literally withered away in preparing the final draft of the report. The best medical advice and efforts of specialist physicians were of no avail. Death was knocking at the door. He was not even 57 when he passed away.

Sukhamoy is now a nearly forgotten name to the outside world. He is remembered only by a handful of friends who had little opportunity to be proximate to him during the last 20 years of his life; their affection for him did not stray. For when they remember Sukhamoy, they remember the baby in him, his innocent inquiries about the affairs of the world, his child-like love for food — food of any genre, his overflowing affection for those around him and his total, absolute dependence on Lalita, his wife. When he was next to the centre of power, there would be an unending flow of hangers-on and favour-seekers crowding his house. Lalita has now no visitors; nobody bothers even to put in a telephone call.