Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri once told me a story about an eventual Nobel prize-winner, then a young man at the cusp of a great career, who had decided that to be a real development economist he needed to spend some time in the field and had signed up to spend some weeks with a family of farmers somewhere deep in Punjab. On his way there, he stopped by at Mrinalda’s place in Delhi, genuinely excited about what he was about to experience. But in a couple days he was back; he couldn’t take it.
The family had no extra rooms, so he slept next to the cattle. That meant lots of mosquitoes and fleas. But he could deal with that. Then there were the noises that buffaloes are apparently wont to make. That too he was willing to endure. What finally broke his resolve were the human noises — apparently the household had a number of young married couples who sought a space for intimacy in their otherwise crowded paternal house in the same cattle-shed. It is the sounds of their lovemaking that ultimately drove him to catch the early morning train to Delhi.
You might imagine that this was pure gossip, which of course in part it was. But as always with Mrinalda, it was also a digression on a bigger point he was making — that development economists tend to be puritans who lack the sympathy needed to understand the lives of the poor, who often live disorderly lives.
Mrinalda passed away over a month ago; despite his obvious intellectual brilliance, it will not be as a scholar that he will be remembered, but as a teacher of economics and much more by his students at the Delhi School of Economics, as well as others, like me, who simply had the good fortune of getting to know him. Every time we met, including the very last time, the usual pleasantries would be abruptly cut short, “accha shono, ami ei boita porchhi, kintu aamar kachhe clear noy keno… (listen, I am reading this book or article, and it is not clear to me why…).” Always a deep question on a difficult book or article, always formulated to invite you to join the conversation, even though he had probably thought deeper about it than you ever will. It was ideas that ultimately excited him, though he had a great love for the little ironies that life throws out.
I know many generations of DSE students who took transportation economics as a special field only for MDC, Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri. Was he a great teacher? Depends on what a great teacher is supposed to do. People attended his classes not because they expected to learn the most content, but because it was an introduction to a wider world of ideas. Most bright students can get through course materials on their own, given some pointers and a little help with the concepts. What they cannot learn by themselves is why it matters, where it fits in the broader pantheon of ideas. I have no idea of how Mrinalda taught transportation, but I am certain that he used it as a way to make his students think about big and important ideas.
Which brings me to a central point: As we, as a nation, start to think of higher education beyond technical training, it is important to be clear about the ideal we are pursuing, especially given how little we are willing to spend on it. experience is that what distinguishes successful institutions of higher education from less successful ones is their ability to create an environment of intellectual excitement. If students can be made to believe that education is more than competently covering the syllabus, they can open up many worlds for each other. When Mrinalda was a student at Presidency College in Kolkata, his contemporaries included Amartya Sen but also Sukhamoy Chakraborty, a now-almost-forgotten giant of Indian economics. Their professors were fine scholars, but no one probably at the intellectual level of this trio. But at least some of them had the gift of inspiring students like these to reach beyond the mundane syllabus they were taught.
This is the kind of institution we are missing today and no amount of syllabus reform or tie-ups with foreign universities will solve that, unless it also helps us attract teachers like Mrinalda, who make ideas come alive for their students. There is a moment of opportunity now — we see some brave attempts to create new kinds of institutions (Ashoka and Shiv Nadar Universities are two) and revive old ones. Let me end with an unashamed sales pitch for one such project: Mrinalda would have approved, he always said we Bengalis are too coy about money. Presidency College, now Presidency University, will turn 200 in 2017, which makes it one of the first non-religious institutions of higher learning anywhere in the world.
Let us find a way to celebrate that moment by thinking of how we can get more Mrinaldas teaching in our universities.
The writer is Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at MIT.