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Encounter/T P Sreenivasan
August 12, 2005
Books on economics are not my cup of tea. I was like Francois Mitterand, who answered, "Not one!" when he was asked whether there was any book on economics on his bookshelf.
I now have one book on economics in my collection: In Defense of Globalization by Professor Jagdish Bhagwati.
It was not the subject, which took me to the book, but some fascinating encounters I had with the great professor by courtesy of my son, Sree, who is also at Columbia. Every conversation was both enlightening and entertaining and I was sure that his book even on a subject like globalization would not be different. "It is immensely readable and surely the most humourous piece of economics ever written." (Hernando De Soto)
Professor Bhagwati, like his book, garbs erudition and vision with charm and humour and takes puckish delight in sending his listeners to peals of laughter at the most unexpected moments. He himself breaks into his patented laughter when a most profound idea is expressed in simple terms with a deep sense of humour. He does not mince words when he rubbishes a theory or its author, but the criticism is always cerebral and not personal. He wears his intellectual integrity on his sleeve.
Professor Bhagwati, whose seventieth birthday is being celebrated at Columbia, with the participation of his admirers, including scholars and statesmen, is best known for transforming the whole philosophy of development. He championed free markets and liberalized trade regimes long before the collapse of communism. His prescription for his motherland even during India's socialist phase was not different.
I remember sitting in awe of Professor Bhagwati and his wife, Professor Padma Desai, at the Tabla, New York's fusion restaurant as he talked to us not about economic theories, but about every day life and Indian and international politics.
Encouraged by his openness and cordiality, I offered to share my occasional musings with him. He welcomed it then and even today responds to my writings with characteristic generosity and wisdom. He says he has discovered that Sree's father is no less brilliant than the son, a handsome compliment for any father. His compliment to my wife was that she had not diluted the family genes!
Professor Bhagwati astonished me with his response to a speech I sent him on climate change when he said that my speech made him see the issue in a new light. He referred to his own treatment of the issue in his book and asked me to reread the portions and tell him whether it needed revision. I was delighted to tell him that, like the rest of the book, the portion on climate change too was perfect.
Professors are professors, who trust others to make up for their absentmindedness. I saw Professor Bhagwati falling victim to this in Vienna. I had volunteered to meet him at Vienna airport and to put him up at the embassy residence, but he declined, saying that his hosts had taken care of everything and that he would drop by for dinner in the evening.
Bhagwati named UNHRC chief
I happened to be at the Vienna Intercontinental Hotel on the day of his arrival and I saw him poring over the Wall Street Journal in the hotel lobby with his baggage beside him. I thought that the hotel had done it again. It had the habit of making the guests who arrive in the mornings wait till noon to go to their rooms. Having had to baby-sit ministers and others in the lobby, I had decided that we would book the rooms a day ahead so that important visitors did not have to cool their heels in the lobby after overnight journeys.
But Professor Bhagwati's problem was more serious.
His hosts were not expecting him till the next morning as the conference he was addressing was on the next day. He was scheduled to leave the next afternoon, but he could still address the conference next morning. His secretary had got the date wrong and booked the flights. There was no car or room waiting for him when he arrived. He said he wished that he had accepted my offer. He had, of course, made alternate arrangements by the time I met him.
I felt sorry that a man like him should lose a day in Vienna, but I felt grateful to the secretary who made it possible for Professor Bhagwati to spend an evening with us. Had he come the next day, the evening would have been taken up by his hosts. The next day, the hosts had given him such a large suite that he remarked that he felt lonely there. When I said he should have brought his wife along, he said that, with the kind of wife he had, he would need a second one to travel with him, and broke into his characteristic laughter.
I discovered, again thanks to my son, that Professor Bhagwati goes to a particular Chinese restaurant on west side Manhattan on Sundays at noon to enjoy his favourite dim sum, and the best way to meet him is to sneak in there. We did that one Sunday with the whole family, together with the tiny tots, Durga and Krishna and we had a delightful time.
Not much economics or politics came up as the professor was busy taking care of the little ones, trying to feed them some of his dim sum delicacies. But I did manage to elicit his views on the contemporary world, which were revealing. The name of the restaurant is being withheld for fear of causing a stampede there on Sundays.
Bhagwati takes a swipe at Stiglitz
Perhaps, many years from now, the restaurant will display a plaque saying, 'Nobel Laureate Professor Jagdish Bhagwati dined here' to attract customers. (By then, the Nobel Academy would have discovered his genius.) Many restaurants in Cuba have such plaques about Ernest Hemingway having visited them. Not to be outdone, a particular restaurant in Havana put up a plaque, 'Ernest Hemingway never dined here.'
The unprecedented effort made by the Indians in the US led to the setting up of a chair for contemporary Indian studies at Columbia and when the time came to name it, the choice fell on Professor Bhagwati, who beat many other illustrious Indians. No one deserved the honour more. He is undoubtedly the most celebrated Indian so far at Columbia.
I once requested Professor Bhagwati to write a confidential note about me as reference for a research project. He promptly did so and told me that even my mother would blush to read it.
Later I found that it was so generous that I blushed!
T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador to the United Nations, Vienna, and former governor for India, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna
Encounters: More in Ambassador Sreenivasan's series on interesting people.