Remembering MDC, Economist, Teacher and Institution Builder

File photo of Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri

File photo of Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri

Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri (MDC), who passed away in Pune some days ago, a city far removed from being his own, was a very special man. As the days pass, I think of him each morning — less so as a high flying character called MDC who was a legend of the Delhi School of Economics, and more as a deeply thinking man who was a mentor, a colleague and person who belonged to a tiny league of gentlemen who I had the privilege to know and interact with. As a person known to imitate MDC’s clipped Sylhet-Boston accent, I could easily regale you with hugely funny stories of this larger than life man. But I shan’t. Instead, allow me to speak of him as Mrinal-da — a man who taught me the fundamentals of economics; one who I deeply treasured as a colleague; a person who was forever inquisitive of knowledge; who enjoyed the elegance and precision of an argument; and who showed how one could be fundamentally liberal and free of the slightest patina of meanness.

Mrinal-da could have been the top of the pops. After studying in Santiniketan and Presidency College, Calcutta, he secured an all-paid-for scholarship to do his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) under Paul Samuelson. Those were the heydays of MIT. Other than Samuelson, Mrinal’s teachers were Robert Solow, Franco Modigliani and Kenneth Arrow — four giants of economics who won the Nobel Prize. His class-mates were the likes of Joseph Stiglitz and George Akerlof, also Nobel Prize winners.

That’s not all. Growth economics was the rage those days, and the most challenging variations were embedded in the two-sector growth models — which required demanding mathematics involving the calculus of variations. The high priest of two-sector models was Hirofumi Uzawa, then teaching at the University of Chicago. Mrinal was selected along with Stiglitz, Akerlof and Eytan Sheshinski to spend a summer with Uzawa to work on various problems relating to the subject. It was akin to Da Vinci selecting you as an apprentice.

Nationalism was in the air. Many who went abroad for their Ph.D. wanted to return and build the academic sinews of a new India. Mrinal-da was no exception. Like Amartya Sen, Jagdish Bhagwati, Sukhamoy Chakravarty and others, he returned home. After a short stint at Jadavpur University, K.N. Raj succeeded in luring him and Sen as full professors at the Delhi School. As he did several others. Soon, Delhi School was the shining star with the likes of Sen, Bhagwati, Mrinal, Sukhamoy, Anirudh Lal Nagar (an outstanding econometrician), Dharma Kumar (who had finished her thesis in Cambridge under Jack Gallagher) and a bit later, Pranab Bardhan.

That dizzying glory lasted a decade or so. By the mid-1970s, Bhagwati, Sen and Bardhan had left, as had Prasanta Pattanaik, a Ph.D. student of Sen and a master of social choice theory. It is difficult for me to judge whether, had he so wanted, Mrinal-da could have returned to a top class university in the United States in the early to mid-1970s. But it was great for Delhi School that he stayed. He, along with Sukhamoy, Nagar Sahab, K.L. Krishna, Dharma, Raj Krishna, Balvir Singh, Om Prakash, J. Krishnamurty, then followed by the likes of Kaushik Basu, Suresh Tendulkar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, comprised a core group of excellent teachers.

In the process of teaching and administering Delhi School, Mrinal-da wrote less in academic journal than he could easily have. He was fully aware of it, and I shall never forget his valedictory lecture to our M.A. batch, many of whom were going abroad for their doctoral degrees. He asked us to imagine waking up thirsty in a dark, hot summer night and going to the fridge for water. “As you drink the water”, he said, “let not a thought cross your mind that years have passed, and what have I really done.”

As a teacher, he was beyond compare, which was no mean feat considering the likes of Raj Krishna, Nagar Sahab, K.L. Krishna, Om Prakash and Krishnamurty. Each of Mrinal-da’s lectures in growth economics or planning was a study in academic elegance — perfectly counterpoised between the rigours of theory and the essence of understanding the core of what drove that theory. Forty years later, I can still remember how, without a sheet of paper in his hand, Mrinal-da moved from various treatments of business cycles to the Harrod-Domar growth model, then to Solow’s variant, followed by Kaldor’s, and then to the theoretical challenges of two-sector growth models. I can remember the elegance with which he taught us the Harris-Todaro model of rural-urban migration and the sheer heuristic simplicity with which he explained why, in equilibrium, there would have to be urban unemployment. Or, when some students could not understand Harvey Leibenstein’s theory of x-efficiency, how he explained it in terms of a fairy tale involving “Mama Bear, Papa Bear and Baby Bear” — exposited in Mrinal-da’s brilliant accent with a wicked grin or two.

As a colleague and institution builder, he was second to none. He did everything possible to attract good teachers and a young faculty. Forever convivial, he never behaved like a ‘senior professor’ and was available to all, especially his younger colleagues. In staff meetings, he went straight to the point. He wasn’t afraid of taking hard decisions, including preventing the entry of those who he felt were not up to the mark of his beloved institution. Most of all, Mrinal-da wanted to learn from others — economic history, game theory, social choice, the trading world of the Dutch East India Company, financial economics, the theory of incentives, and good old politics. The only thing he abhorred was inelegance — be it in appearance, speech, writing or the world of ideas. And some of rare venom would appear when describing such people, who were always referred to “as that bloody pompous bore”.

As a character, he was the supremo. MDC. Slim. Dark. Handsome. Elegantly dressed. Witty. Girls ogled at him like nothing on earth. They took turns among themselves to line up to a get a lift from him in his Volkswagen Beetle from Delhi School to Mall Road. They gushed about him after that mother-of-all-event. Mrinal-da loved it all. A sexy good-looking graduate school professor. He couldn’t think of himself otherwise. Not even for a waking minute.

Go well, wherever you’ve gone. There’s another Delhi School to win.