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Saturday, Nov 23, 2019

‘I had a hunch he would win the Nobel’, says Abhijit Banerjee’s mother

Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee’s mother described him as “friendly, but not outgoing, polite with no airs but fearless about expressing his opinion.” His classmates in school remembered him as “introvert”.

india Updated: Oct 14, 2019 23:03 IST
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Abhijit Banerjee and his wife Esther Duflo during a news conference with  at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on  Monday after they were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics along with Harvard's Michael Kremer.
Abhijit Banerjee and his wife Esther Duflo during a news conference with at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Monday after they were awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in economics along with Harvard's Michael Kremer.(AP)
         

Indian-American economist Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee’s mother, Nirmala Banerjee, who retired as a professor of economics from the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Kolkata, had a hunch that her son could win the Nobel someday.

“I knew it was too ambitious to think but I had a hunch, especially since he turned his focus on poverty. He was looking at the issue from a different angle and was the first on his field to start using large samples,” the octogenarian said on Monday evening, hours after receiving the news of the economics Nobel award to his son, daughter-in-law Esther Duflo and his friend, Michael Kremer.

“But I didn’t expect him to win it so early,” said the professor’s mother.

For her, Abhijit is “friendly, but not outgoing”, “polite and has no airs but is fearless about expressing his opinion.” His classmates in school remembered him as “introvert”.

“At home, Abhijit takes care of the cooking – he is an excellent cook – and my daughter-in-law, Esther looks after the children, a seven-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy,” said Nirmala Banerjee, who is scheduled to go on a holiday with Abhijit and his family to Thailand this winter.

“Esther first came to Kolkata around 1998. They had not married yet. She stayed with us that time,” she recalled.

Last year, Duflo came to Kolkata deliver a lecture named after her father-in-law Dipak Banerjee, a renowned economist, who headed Presidency College’s economics department. He died in 2007.

“His focus on poverty might have come naturally. As a child, he used to play with the neighbouring kids, many of who were slum dwellers,” she recalled.

Deepali Sengupta, who taught Banerjee mathematics in South Point High School in class six and eight, remembered him as a rather shy student who would wait quietly after completing the sums given in class. “I would have to visit his desk to find out that he finished the sums. I distinctly remember him as a frail and short boy wearing glasses,” said Sengupta.

Sharmila De Sarkar, who was Banerjee’s classmate at South Point High School from class 7 to 10, said the MIT professor was an introvert who came to his elements in neighbourhood football games on the streets.

“He was good in his studies though I don’t remember him topping the class. However, he has a streak of individuality in him,” said De Sarkar, who said they used to fondly call him “Calgas”, though after so many decades, she could not recall the origin of the nickname.

Banerjee’s mother recalled that his Part I undergraduate results “were a mess”.

One of the professor’s friends Bappa Sen said, “When he comes to Kolkata, he loves to chat with us. He loves Indian classical music.”

Nirmala Banerjee described herself as a “non-interfering mother”.

“We do not have conversations that usually take place between a mother and her grown-up child. He does not like being asked what he was doing or what he ate. When I have problems in understanding certain aspects of economics, I ask him. Sometimes he explains and at some other times, he refers to his friends who could explain a subject to me better. Sometimes he, too, asks for my opinion.”

“He is critical to economic policies pursued by present government (of India). We share an opinion in this regard,” added Banerjee.

His middle name ‘Vinayak’ is inseparable part of his name, and both she and her son are sensitive about it. “Abhijit did not like his name. I had given him a Marathi name, Vinayak. So, he started using both and he always uses both,” she said.

Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee was asleep in his home in the US when the news of his winning the Nobel broke. In his first reaction to a Bengali TV channel he said, “People started calling me after they got the news and I couldn’t sleep. I could not even call my mother in Kolkata because the calls kept coming. I was not expecting this recognition at all. There are senior people who have done commendable work and who deserve this honour much more than me.”

Describing his work, Banerjee said, “I started this research in 1995-96. My wife Esther joined later in the late 1990s. We conducted research in Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Indonesia, Chile and several other countries, especially China, Tunisia and some African states.”

Referring to his hometown and Bengal, Banerjee said, “I did research on various issues in West Bengal. The history of West Bengal has helped me in reference to several questions that come up in my research. I have to leave space for some unstructured thoughts during my research. My childhood memories have given me many ingredients that helped me in my work.”

Congratulations poured in from all over the city. Ajitava Raychaudhuri, professor of economics Jadavpur University said, “Banerjee’s credit lies in the fact that he has used certain techniques that nobody earlier used in reference to poverty alleviation.”

“His father was my friend and I have interacted with him a few times. We are proud that he got this recognition at such a young age,” said nuclear physicist Bikash Sinha.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, who sent a bouquet of flowers to the professor’s mother in the afternoon, tweeted, “Hearty congratulations to Abhijit Banerjee, alumnus of South Point School and Presidency College Kolkata, for winning the Nobel prize in economics. Another Bengali has done the nation proud. We are overjoyed.”

Even Bharatiya Janata Party Bengal unit president Dilip Ghosh, who, in the past slammed the other Nobel laureate economist from Bengal, Amartya Sen, for his views more than once, also welcomed Banerjee winning the prize saying “it added to the feathers in the cap of Bengalis.”