Looking back: Breaking Through is a chatty, warm and humorous account of a full life lived well

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August 30, 2020 3:00 AM

The trigger for these articles was Isher Judge Ahluwalia, who was then working on her 1991 book on productivity and growth (for Indian manufacturing).

Isher Judge Ahluwalia with husband Montek Singh Ahluwalia (Express photo)Isher Judge Ahluwalia with husband Montek Singh Ahluwalia (Express photo)

Customs nomenclature now follows a harmonised system (HS). Earlier, there used to be Indian Trade Classification (ITC). That’s on trade. For industry, there was/is National Industrial Classification (NIC). Indian Institute of Foreign Trade (IIFT) used to have a Foreign Trade Bulletin (FTB)—a bulletin, not a journal.

In 1992/1993, I wrote a series of articles in FTB, matching ITC with HS, and matching both with NIC. It was a boring exercise, a series of tables, with a series of codes—of no interest to anyone but the stray researcher. I still get the odd email from the stray researcher, wanting to know if I possess soft copies of those articles (I don’t). Empirical research can be painstaking and boring, unlike flashy theory.

The trigger for these articles was Isher Judge Ahluwalia, who was then working on her 1991 book on productivity and growth (for Indian manufacturing). That’s when I first met Isher, probably around 1989. She needed the matching for her empirical work. I met her in her Centre for Policy Research (CPR) office, not knowing I would join CPR several years later, in the same ICSSR-funded position. I met her at her Pandara Road house and distinctly remember the black Labrador she speaks about. Indeed, I first met Montek (who till then, was just a name to me) through Isher.

Most people know, and know of, Isher and Montek and their work. Montek’s semi-autobiography (since it directly discusses the economy, it is not just an autobiography) was published and released a few months ago. A few months later, back to back, with the same publisher, we have Isher’s autobiography. Any economist’s memoir is bound to comment on the economy. But other than that, Isher’s book is more of a pure autobiography, written, on health grounds, in difficult circumstances. Montek’s writing style is analytical, wit and humour under-played. Isher’s writing style is chatty, charm and humour evident. Husband and wife tread the same path in life. Therefore, they describe the same events, albeit with differing perspectives. As a reader, if you expect Rashomon-type contradictions between the two versions, your hopes will be dashed. Barring a slightly different take on Montek’s culinary expertise (salad versus shepherd’s pie), the two versions are in complete harmony.

Not surprisingly, in Isher’s case, but not in Montek’s, the glass ceiling features prominently, explaining the book’s title. Economists and social scientists will naturally be interested in Isher’s book, since she talks about familiar names, but never with malice. Having been through the same educational institutions (Presidency College, Kolkata, and Delhi School of Economics) and having been taught by several common teachers, I was probably more interested than most.

Most people know, and know of, Shankar Acharya. “Shankar was both intellectually gifted and very good looking with a boyish charm that he somehow retained well past his middle age!” Who can possibly disagree? I certainly did not know that Satyajit Ray had considered Shankar for the role of Apu in Pather Panchali. “I have often wondered whether a different choice might have given us a truly outstanding screen hero, albeit at the cost of losing an outstanding economist!” Having read this, I have started to wonder too. If one former CEA (Chief Economic Adviser) is ribbed, why should another be left out? In the MA examination, “I got a first division. Utsa (Mukherjee/Patnaik) stood first in the University and I was second. Not only that, there were eight first divisions in that year. The first seven ranks were women, and the eighth was Deepak Nayyar, who later on became vice chancellor of Delhi University.” Other than such titbits, never salacious or malicious, the book is laced with wonderful and rare photographs, better than the ones in Montek’s book. The ones in Montek’s book are more official. The ones in Isher’s book are more personal.

Montek and Isher have lived full lives and left their legacies. This is a chronicle of Isher’s and reflects the times—independence and Partition, middle class hopes, educational aspirations funded through public scholarships, a shortage economy, a return to India despite carrots abroad, a somewhat muted internal debate on economic policy-making and the economy’s breaking through. This will probably find broader resonance than her academic books.

The author is chairman, Economic Advisory Council to the PM.
Views are personal

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