Partha Dasgupta interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 6th April 2010
[The summary benefits from additional thoughts by Partha Dasgupta]
0:05:07 Born in November 1942 in Dhaka, then known as Dacca, now in Bangladesh, but then part of India; my maternal grandfather was a prominent lawyer in Dacca, which is where my mother was born; my paternal grandfather was born in a village called Goila, which is in Barisal, a district in the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta of East Bengal, now Bangladesh; my fatherís mother was from East Bengal as well; by the time my father was born, the Dasguptas of Barisal were impoverished financially, but it was a family with a long scholastic history, as I understand it they were a dynasty of scribes dating back to the seventeenth century; some made considerable reputations as Sanskrit scholars, but that didnít make them rich; my father's father was an officer in local government; he worked in the district capital, also named Barisal; three of my grandparents died before I was born, but I did get to know my mother's mother; she died in 1954; she was a lady of considerable independence of mind; one of my mother's sisters, quite a bit older than she, was married at the age of thirteen and widowed at fifteen; my grandmother took a stance subsequently, which meant that my mother didnít get married until she was twenty-two: she was encouraged by my grandmother to graduate from Dacca University; my mother had a deep interest in both Bengali and English poetry but I didn't get to know that until she was old; when I was growing up she was wholly engaged in raising a family and looking after my father; my father was a professor of his times; his students visited our home regularly; many lived away from their own homes, so my mother assumed the role of a surrogate mother to a rather large extended family; I have one older sister; we shared our parents with many others; my father was an economist, having begun his career in Dacca University; later he settled in Benares, now known as Varanasi; his last, arguably his best, book was published when he was eighty-five; my father had an enormous influence on me, in many ways he was my closest friend; of course, there would be many personal matters I would never discuss with him, but I would consult him on matters of scholarship; we enjoyed each other's company; he was a rationalist; he imbibed, I suspect in Dacca University, perhaps even before joining the university as an undergraduate, a deep-rooted affection for scholarship, possibly reflecting the scribal history of his ancestry; learning was hugely prized in Bengal even if you didnít have much money; Bengal enjoyed an intellectual and social renaissance in the second half of the nineteenth century; it was influenced by British culture; the Tagores, for example, didnít come out of nowhere, they came out of a fusion of Brahmanic culture and a nineteenth century import of utilitarian, rationalist thinking; I think the two cultures combined to make my father an exceptional person; he was not religious; we were a sub-caste of the Brahmins, named the Vaidyas; there are two theories regarding the reason why the Vaidyas had been demoted; one is that we were medical practitioners, and because we studied cadavers we were downgraded; another less aggressive theory is that we began charging a fee for our service; I don't know if either is true, but itís certainly the case that the Vaidyas spawn a disproportionate number of professionals; my father's father, although an official in a provincial town, had connections with some eminent thinkers who were trying to found a new religion, which they called Satya Dharma; Satya means truth, and Dharma is Dharma, I donít know what the latter means; what I do know from my father is that the god his father revered was ďtruthĒ; my father had a Spartan attitude to life; he was always tidy, meticulous in doing things; my mother was similar in her bearing; at the time I was growing up, my father had a secure salary as a professor at Benares Hindu University; I never experienced any hardship; in fact, when young I was in danger of being spoilt silly by a doting elder sister and our parents.
11:40:16 I donít remember the Bengal famine but I do recall communal violence, albeit dimly; we left Bengal for Delhi in 1946; we lived in Old Delhi which even then had an even mixture of Hindus and Muslims, so the mood was pretty tense at times; my fatherís younger friends and colleagues banded together to protect our flats from rioters; I have only dim memories of the time because I was only four years old; in the event the riots didnít reach our home, but communal violence was fairly routine at that time right through northern India and Bengal; my father didnít have a satisfactory teaching post, so we remained in Delhi for only six months; we moved to Orissaís Ravenshaw College for a few months; once there, he was offered the Chair of Economics at Benares Hindu University; that said, my reliable memories begin only from the time we moved to Benares, in autumn 1947; we had a comfortable life there; the campus was and still is one of the most beautiful in the world; I wasnít sent to school until I was nearly eight years old; I once asked my father why he didnít enrol me at a school until then; he said he didnít because I appeared to be uninterested in studies; I played all day every day on the street next to our house; I had a tutor who came once a week to teach me arithmetic and Hindi, the latter because my mother-tongue is Bengali; everyone in the university knew of my teacher as Master-ji, because he was tutor, or Master, to many of the professorsí children; apart from that I didnít have a formal education until we moved to Washington DC in December 1950; we went there for what turned out to be three years; my father worked at the International Monetary Fund, or IMF as it is known, on leave from Benares Hindu University; as education was compulsory in the United States, I was enrolled in school.
16:56:11 Before moving to Washington my interest centred on cricket, which I played all day with street kids from the university campus; I used to supply the bat, a wooden ball and sticks; my memory of Washington was that we all missed India for a month or two but then grew to love the place; my mother, for the first time I think, enjoyed freedom from social obligations and financial worries; although my father enjoyed a good salary as a professor in Benares, he had financial obligations towards his elder brother and his family, so my mother economised ruthlessly; the IMF salary, on the other hand, was so large that for the first time my mother felt she could encourage my father to take us to concerts and movies, for example, and generally indulge in extravagances she wouldnít have dreamt of in Benares; she, my sister, and I enjoyed life in Washington thoroughly; itís hard to imagine a greater contrast than that between Benares and Washingston, especially in those days; my father didnít like it quite so much; he missed university life and didnít enjoy office work; he had an afternoon nap even at the IMF; if you called him between one and one-thirty, his secretary would tell you he was having a nap; I attended Bancroft Elementary School, which was our neighbourhood school; in recent years I have been back to our neighbourhood a few times, but have never entered the school because even during school hours itís locked against what my mother would have called ďundesirablesĒ, in this case drug dealers and the like; in those days however life was more innocent, the gates were open all day; it was a wonderful school, though only a local state school; in those days America was well ahead of Europe in elementary schooling; you will appreciate that there was racial segregation then, so Bancroft was a nearly all-white school, with a few foreigners like myself thrown into the pool; I had marvellous teachers; I fell deeply in love with a class mate, a beautiful girl called Joan Edwards, who I still like to think reciprocated but demurred out of shyness; on academic subjects, I remember being fond of geography, which was taught in a very location-specific way; the geography of Washington streets, for instance, and our chores involved making paper-m‚chť buildings like the White House, the Washington Monument, and so forth, which I remember enjoying greatly; I used to play softball, which replaced cricket; I can't say any teacher shaped me in any discernable way, although I was very fond of Mrs Dietz, my class teacher in my second year; the other day I re-discovered a book she had given me in 1952, 'Great Composers'; there is a lovely inscription in it, she was thanking me at the end of the school year for the help I had given her, wiping the blackboard at the end of the day, re-arranging desks and chairs, that sort of thing; I can't say I have any memory of intellectual growth in that period; however my sister, though 14-15 years old was even then hugely grown up and very, very clever; she influenced me greatly; she used to read grown-up books, even Dostoevsky, and spent her pocket money on a number of titles in the Modern Library series; I peeked into them even though I could make no sense of them; my fondness for the US dates back to those three years; even now, whenever I show my passport to the immigration officer at a US airport, I feel Iím returning home.
22:23:24 My father joined IMF because he had been asked by the Finance Minister of India to go there to represent India; he was Chief of the South Asian Division; he was reluctant to leave Benares Hindu University, but was persuaded to take leave for two years; once there, his friends urged him to stay for three years so as to be eligible for an IMF pension; he stayed exactly one day longer than was necessary; that pension was a bonus in retirement, as he had no inherited wealth; he and my mother enjoyed a comfortable retirement, as the small pension from the IMF converted into rupees wasnít negligible; we returned to India in November 1953, to Benares; my father reasoned that because I spoke English fluently and because the medium of instruction in schools in Benares was Hindi, I would lose my fluency in English if I went to school there; the nearest English medium school he could locate was La Martiniere, a public school in the mould of minor public schools in the UK; La Martiniere is well known in India, with campuses in Calcutta and Lucknow; I went to Lucknow as a boarder, and was there for two and a half years; I hated the school; objectively speaking I suppose it was a reasonable place, and a number of my contemporaries were comfortable there, but in contrast to the life I had enjoyed until then, life in La Martiniere was overly regimented and lacking in compassion; for example, corporal punishment was a commonplace; there would be mass caning if no one in class owned up to a misdemeanour; we were taught Hindi as a second language, which later created problems for me, but English was the medium of instruction; it was the first time I was away from home; as it turned out I didnít get to live with my parents again until years later, in 1970 when my wife and I visited Delhi for a year; we were taught Latin at La Martiniere and I remember receiving five out of hundred in my first Latin exam; I don't believe the subject, or for that matter any other subject, was well taught; nothing excited me academically, so I got nothing out of the place; I played some cricket, but not much; I was unhappy at La Martiniere, although I did pretty well in the annual exams; I remember during school holidays in the summer of 1956 mentioning my unhappiness to my sister, who is five years older; she marched to my parents and insisted I wasnít to return to La Martiniere; so, my father made enquiries; there was a school about ten miles from the University campus, Rajghat School, one of whose patrons, a renowned freedom fighter and social activist, Achyyut Patwardhan, was a friend of my father; it was Achyyut-ji who suggested I enrol at Rajghat, even though the medium of instruction there was Hindi; my father, no doubt with Achyuut-jiís help, arranged for me to be admitted at Rajghat; ten miles in those days was a long distance, so I boarded there; it was an extraordinarily good school and was the place that made me as I now am; Iím talking of an external institutional influence, not my familyís influence, which of course has been profound; Rajghat is a fort, but the campus itself is in a forest clearing; about 400 acres in size, the school is on a plateau overlooking the Ganges and a tributary called Varuna; it was founded by Annie Besant, an eccentric theosophist; as befitting the paradoxical nature of the Indo-British relationship, she became President of the Indian National Congress at one time; she founded Besant Theosophical School, not far from the campus I attended; she had discovered a young man, J. Krishnamurti, who she reckoned would be the next messiah; he grew up to be a spiritual thinker, very well known for his teachings, not only in India but also in England, Continental Europe, and the US; when some years later Krishnamurti dissociated himself from the Theosophical Society, he really was a free thinker, our school followed him and became part of the Krishnamurti Foundation; sometime in the 1930s or Ď40s the school moved to the campus I was enrolled in; it was really a remarkable school, there is no question about it, and I had a number of phenomenal teachers; I went back there last month with my wife; we spent a magical week on Rajghat campus, which today is even more enchanting than it was when I was a student there; the quality of teaching was exceptional; most of my teachers joined the school because of Krishnamurti; my teachers were of an intellectual calibre who, sadly, would not normally have become school teachers; a person who influenced me greatly was my physics teacher, Mr. Shashi Bhushan Mishra, who also taught me chemistry; in the first few months, when my Hindi was still raw, he would write in Hindi on the left side of the blackboard and then in English on the right side so that I would know what he was talking about; in due course he stopped doing that because I informed him I was able to write up my notes in English even though his instructions were in Hindi; the summer following my final exams, that was 1958, he taught me trigonometry in preparation for college, but refused to accept a fee from my father; I graduated from Rajghat at fifteen; at that time schooling in India typically involved ten years, which was followed by two years at an intermediate college, then two years as a Bachelorís student, followed by two years as a Masterís student; you completed your education at about age twenty-one, pretty much as in England; I think the person who in the long run influenced me most at Rajghat was my geography teacher, Mr. Vishwanathan; I have had a delayed response to his teaching; I am convinced my interest in nature and the work I have done to help create ecological economics grew out of those two years of classes with him; he taught us geography as an analytical subject, not as an assembly of geographical facts; I also had a fantastic teacher in English, Mr. Tarapado Bhattacharya, a Bengali who lived a bachelor's life on campus, in a single room; all his worldly possessions were there in that one room; towards the end of my first year I was ill for a while, when recovering I went to his room to borrow something to read; I knew he had a collection of novels, which he kept in a trunk in his room; I chose 'The Woodlander' and asked if I could borrow it; he looked doubtful, but agreed; I read it over a weekend and went back and asked for another book to read; he offered me Dickens but I was intrigued by Hardy; I asked if I could borrow 'Jude' and still remember his distress; I was thirteen and he didnít want me to read Hardy, but as a scholar he found it impossible to say ďnoĒ; he allowed me to take it but was anxious about having done so; I couldnít see then but understand now why he should have been worried, but I loved Hardy; the next book I borrowed was 'Tess', and I worked through Hardy that winter, much to Tara-babuís distress.
39:13:01 Apart from school work, I played cricket; I was captain of the cricket team; I did no drama or music, as I had no skills in the performing arts; as you can see from what I have been recounting, I was happy at Rajghat, it was a most productive two years; the school was very liberal, but with strict codes of conduct, sustained by the most reasonable of ways, which was by an appeal to reason; those who addressed us at our daily assembly were some of the noblest minds in India; the school campus was home not just to students, staff and teachers, but also to a number of very eminent retired people who were friends and admirers of Krishnamurti, among them Achyyut-ji; they had been freedom fighters, social activists, and civil servants; to listen to them, being in their presence, was a privilege that I even then sensed; Krishnamurti, or Krishna-ji as we knew him, visited the campus for a month in each of the two years I attended Rajghat; he could speak no Hindi, and because I was the only student on campus who could speak English fluently, I was asked to accompany him on walks when he asked for company; I canít say Iím an admirer of his writings, thatís because I don't understand them, but for a boy of my age to have somebody with that intellectual curiosity and intensity to accompany for walks was a wonderful experience; religious beliefs in the sense of the Abrahamic faiths have never held any attraction for me; I am certainly not religious in that sense, but I have never felt hostile to religion excepting when it takes on an ugly stance as it does periodically; obviously, I have nothing but contempt for the strident expressions of religious ardour that we are currently being tested with in the Muslim world; but I greatly admire the caring, liberal expressions of religion, such as the current Anglican Church with its humanist tradition, or the Catholic priests in the worldís poorest parts who bring comfort to so many households in times of especial stress, even risking their lives doing so; the Church was a great source of strength among the outcastes in India, nuns and priests educated many who were then able to enter the professional world, but you wonít ever read Indian intellectuals acknowledging those gifts; that said, Iíve never experienced religious feelings in the Abrahamic sense, no god has ever spoken to me; Krishna-ji was a spiritual leader, not a religious leader; in fact he spurned formal religions and regarded them as suffocating; recently I read a few of his published lectures and found that his teaching have a strong flavour of the teachings of the Buddha; I can't say I have got much out of him though, probably because he is even less clear than the Buddha; but you ask whether I have ANY kind of religious feeling, and the answer must be ďyesĒ; when my physicist and biologist friends insist you can't but be awestruck by the beauty of the truths of nature, I know what they mean, not only because I know some of those truths, but also because I have had those experiences when unravelling socio-ecological pathways; if you call that religious feeling, which I think it probably is, I have it; I do go to Chapel in my college, St John's, because the music is truly magical and the atmosphere is exceptional; itís what the Chapel must have been designed for, to allow for moments of reflection and tranquillity; I had grown used to the twice-daily school assembly at Rajghat, where we all, teachers and pupils alike, sat on the floor to listen to sanskritic devotional songs or hymns from the Upanishads; the thoughts invoked there are altogether exceptional; we were brought into contact with the bardsí incantations to dawn, dusk, the natural world around us, and the truths that are there to be uncovered; my mother was not overly religious, but she was a practicing Hindu; she looked after a small icon of the goddess Lakshmi, given to her as part of her bridal package; she left it for my wife who keeps it snug in our bedroom; my mother prayed twice daily, but her prayers were anchored to her chores, her mind was in the kitchen even while she prayed; whenever I went home from school or college, or even in later years when visiting her and my father in their retirement in Santiniketan, one of the first things she did was to go to the nearby temple to thank the deity that I had returned safely; I always accompanied her, as I knew she would like me to do that; I experienced no discomfort doing so.
47:25:04 When I was growing up you left high school at about age fifteen, you then went to an intermediate college; my parents moved in the summer of 1958 to Delhi; it had the best university in India at the time, so it made sense for me to go there and not to Benares Hindu University; Delhi had a different system involving eleven years of schooling, then three years for a Bachelor degree and two for Masters; I had just completed the school finals that involved ten years of education, but there were a couple of colleges affiliated to the University of Delhi that offered a one year transitional year amounting to a ďpre-universityĒ degree; I enrolled for that, in Hansraj College, and later moved to the Bachelor's programme, remaining in Hansraj College; so I studied in Delhi for four years before coming to Cambridge; for the Bachelorís degree you concentrated on one subject, much as in Cambridge, and I took physics; my choice didnít reflect any particular fondness for the subject, I took it as a matter of course because in those days good students studied physics; it was a good physics department with some significant figures as professors; I graduated from Delhi in 1962 and came to Cambridge as an undergraduate; as most able graduates in Delhi in those days obtained scholarships to study in the US for a PhD, I lost touch with my Delhi University friends; the 1960s were in the pre-internet age; in any case, undergraduates are busy people and concentrate on making friends in their new habitat; moreover, Delhi, being the capital city and not much else, was a place of refuge for migrants; if my parents had remained in Benares, there would probably be boyhood friends with whom I would have kept in touch during vacations; in the event I wasnít able to keep in touch with my fellow students at Delhi; my closest friends are all post-1962.
52:23:07 In my second year at the University of Delhi I became ill with jaundice; even when recovering I was unable to do much physically; so I went to the library and by chance picked up an anthology of American plays, the Pulitzer Prize plays of the 1930s and Ď40s, as I recall; I found them altogether original in thought and experience, and over the following two years I read nearly all of O'Neill, Williams, Miller, Inge, and also a number of outstanding playwrights of the 1930s, such as Odetts, Wilder, and the Andersons; the drawback was that there was no theatre in Delhi, so reading was my sole point of entry into the world of drama; and drama has been my sole entry into the world of literature, because after leaving Rajghat I lost my ability to read novels, excepting for detective novels; in recent years I have added the Greek classics to my reading list; my wife and I visit the theatre frequently, and did so even when raising our children; the Aldwych Theater was our base in the 1970s because itís next to the London School of Economics which is where I taught then; so we saw a number of phenomenal productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company; I enjoy listening to music and attend concerts regularly; when I lived in Washington as a boy I developed a taste for Western classical music; in the long summer breaks I would wander from store to store, reading comic books at drug store counters while eating hot dogs; I used to visit a particular record store regularly, not far from our home on 16th street; in those days you could listen to a record before buying it, in fact you could listen to lots of records without buying any; I listened to music in the store booth; the store keeper knew mostly I had no money to purchase an LP, but he still welcomed me every time; I could afford to buy an LP at best every couple of months, using what I had saved from my weekly pocket money; the first record I bought was Brahmsís 1st Symphony; I became so friendly with the store keeper that when the day before leaving Washington I went to say good-bye, he asked me to choose an LP; he gave it to me as a gift; I chose Beethovenís Eroica; I was not taught any musical instrument, in the event my interest in Western classical music effectively died when I returned to India, because the vinyl records deteriorated; I couldnít even get replacement needles in Benares; my interest in music resurfaced after marriage because my wife plays the piano and loves music; I have little understanding of music though; I understand the theatre a lot better than music; I donít mind music in the background even while at work, because Iím oblivious of whatís happening while I am scribbling or doing mathematical calculations; music has not inspired me in any fundamental way; nor have I much understanding of art; as I grow older and reflect on the enormous privilege I have enjoyed in being able to attend concerts and visit art galleries, I feel it is all a resource allocation failure; I would have readily given up those privileges to art students, who could have made much more of those experiences.