Differential calculus

  • Kaushik Basu
  • |
  • Updated: Dec 18, 2009 20:55 IST

This was my first week in office as Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India and this will be my last column. As I enter my new life, there will clearly have to be many adjustments; and the loss of my column and the accompanying sense of wistfulness is just one.

The changes were apparent the very first day I arrived at my office in the North Block within the imposing ramparts of Lutyens’ New Delhi. As I got out of my Ambassador car with my weather-beaten briefcase and cheap laptop, two persons emerged from nowhere and whisked these out of my hand. My first instinct was to run after them and recover my belongings.

My usual experience, for instance, when going somewhere with my wife, is to have heavy things given to me, not taken from me. The only times I have had things taken from me has been in mugging incidents, such as the one
in Venice.

Relieved of my bags, I walked jauntily into the high-ceilinged building. As I approached my office and reached out to push open the huge wooden door, my men Friday did it for me. In these five days, I have not once touched the office door when getting in. It is like those airport doors with sensors that open up automatically when people approach them.

The hardest learning that I am expected to do is not about these mechanical and, in some ways, trivial matters, but concerns speech. The problem stems from the fact that I speak clearly. The art of political speech is apparently to say things that sound meaningful but are impossible to pin down. No one can say what you said is wrong because no one can say what you said.

I now realise that I had, prophetically, created a character like this in my sole literary venture — the play Crossings at Benaras Junction, which appeared in The Little Magazine in 2005. There is a sham travel agency that organises tours for foreigners. The travel guide, Lachhu, is a street-smart ignoramus. No one can ever accuse Lachhu of giving wrong information because he has mastered the art of indecipherable speech. When a group of travellers from Europe ask Lachhu about the history of Benaras, Lachhu is on the mat, but recovers quickly: “Benaras is valdest city… Wayne the tame cum the river Ganga the people catlest the centium dreem….” The foreigners nod unsurely and Lachhu’s confidence picks up: “Gem kalidusten gest come. Ve de mandareen kartejenna ven ten lethen is Agra, Jaipur, … and the Benaras city.”

Since I mentioned the Venice mugging incident, let me complete the story because it is one achievement I am proud of. Also, it illustrates the art of translating theory (in this case, game theory) to practice, something that I will have to do in my new job.

My wife and I had bought ice-cream from a road-side stall just outside St. Marks Square. The best time for a mugger to strike (I realised later) is when both hands are occupied juggling cones. And indeed, within minutes of buying ice-cream, I realised my wallet was gone. It had money, credit cards and travel documents. Alaka wanted to rush to the nearest police station. I felt that would be useful service to Venice but of no use to us, and I was not feeling charitable. I told her that there were two possibilities. Either the thief had run into the milling crowds in the main square or was still in the small cluster of people buying ice-cream. If it was the former, the wallet was lost; if the latter, there was some hope.

Just then a young couple walked away from the group licking ice-cream. There was some probability — they fitted the age-profile of pick-pockets — that they could be the culprits; so we began tailing them. If they were guilty, they would soon check if we were still behind them, I reasoned to myself. Soon they paused to look into a shop window and casually turned back.

So we also turned back. I told Alaka I was now almost certain that they had taken it. Alaka did not believe me but, being intrepid in these matters, promptly walked up to them and asked if they had seen anybody fishy near the ice-cream vendor since we had lost our wallet there. To this the man turned his pocket inside out and said, “Check my pocket if you think I have taken it.” I told Alaka, in Bengali, that that response clearly confirmed his guilt. And I got aggressive and insisted that he allow me to check his back-pack. He agreed and said that, since we were in the middle of the street, we should move to a side. As we did so, his girlfriend moved away. The readiness with which he opened his bag made me signal to Alaka not to let the girlfriend out of sight. Alaka was clearly now persuaded for she literally held the girl physically.

As the man rummaged around in his bag, I threatened to call the police. The game, he realised, was up. He asked me to speak softly and called his girlfriend. The wallet emerged from her back-pack.

Late that night my wife and I walked to the same vendor to have another round of ice-cream to make sure that we did not get scarred for life with a phobia of street-corner ice-cream.

The views expressed by the author are personal


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