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Economist? Whatever...

india Updated: Apr 27, 2008 00:08 IST
The visible hand

The worst lecture I ever gave was to a kindergarten class in Princeton. I had just arrived from India as a visiting scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study and the principal of my son’s elementary school invited me to speak on India — its culture, its geography and “of course some economics”, he added politely. Aware that kindergarteners suffer from acute attention deficit disorder, I decided to capture their interest at the start with an arresting account of how to save oneself in the event of a bear attack in an Indian forest. My teacher had told me when I myself was in KG that the trick was to lie on the ground motionless, holding one’s breath and pretending to be dead. Bears have little interest in corpses; so they would sniff and then walk away. The children listened riveted.

Seizing the opportunity, I moved to more serious topics, beginning with India’s large population. But before I could say “million”, a little hand went up. Could I please tell him how he should save himself in an Indian forest if he were attacked by a tiger. Not wanting to scare a little mind with the truth — “there is no chance in hell”, I said that he should aim for the animal’s eyes. Once he had gouged them out (the presumption being the tiger will sit quietly like a customer on a barber’s stool), the tiger would not know where to bite and the boy could simply walk away. They all laughed at how easy it was.

I realised I was making it a bit too interesting because no sooner had I finished on the topic of the tiger than I was asked about the art of escaping from a snake attack. And then we were on to the rhino, the elephant, the lion, an elephant and a snake together and other imaginative coalitions. The teachers and the principal watched me in bewilderment devoting a full 45 minutes to the art of fending off attacks in the Indian wild, no doubt wondering what kind of economics research I did and also why anyone ever died in an Indian forest.

My second-worst lecture was at a school for the poor, a few miles outside Kolkata. I had just finished my PhD from London and returned to India. My mother, with her unwavering urge to help less-fortunate children and equally absolute belief in my abilities, persuaded the school’s principal, whom she had met somewhere once, that he should invite me to speak so that I could inspire the children to go on to higher education and contribute to the world. The principal was reluctant, but my mother is strong willed.

My mother came on that occasion and over tea in the principal’s office told him how brilliant and famous I was; he nodded in courteous agreement. We then went to the classroom, a cavernous hall with some fifty rowdy children in their early teens. The atmosphere was that of a correctional facility. The principal began by saying how they were lucky to have me speak to them, that I was dedicated to spreading education in India, that I was an economist committed to change. He went on and on, describing me more than once as “this famous economist.” I did puzzle about the length and content of the introduction but did not realise that the poor man was prevaricating while waiting for that light-bulb moment. It never came. He eventually had no choice; he turned to me and asked, “Excuse me, what is your name?”

The children were poor but not unintelligent. The class broke out in a roar; I was destroyed and gave an incoherent lecture.

My mother is now about to turn 90. So many years on, she continues to be an optimist — for India, for the world. She also remains steadfast in her belief that I am doing good work. Her only sign of age is the occasional tripping up on words, such as confusing between ‘economist’ and ‘communist’. On a recent visit to Kolkata, I told her that I would soon be on my way to Delhi for an international conference of economists, exaggerating its importance a little to make her feel happy. She listened with great interest and, as soon as I stepped out of the room, I heard her phone a favourite cousin of hers and tell her, that I was headed to Delhi to participate in a conference, where “leading communists from all over the world were gathering to discuss how to make the world a better place”.

(Kaushik Basu is C. Marks Professor and Director, Center for Analytic Economics, Cornell University)