Dipak Banerjee

These are transcribed notes for a short talk on Dipak Banerjee.

Dipak babu has had a fundamental impact on my life, not just on my professional career, but also on the way I think. Dipak Banerjee, Mihir Rakshit and Nabendu Sen --- three great professors at Presidency College --- all did research to varying degrees, but first and foremost they were deeply devoted to teaching.

In early 1974, I was 16 years old, and had just been granted admission to study at IIT. I was moving close to making a final decision on the IIT campus when I came across Paul Samuelson's book, Economics. It jolted something in me (of course, it must have been present before but perhaps I was not fully aware of it), and it soon became obvious that I was not cut out for an Engineering degree. It would have to be either pure mathematics or a subject with a strong social component. So I decided to take the entrance exam to study Economics at Presidency College, and I also took the ISI entrance exam. At that time, the Presidency exam had two components, English and Mathematics, and when I went back to the College to get my results I found I had done well. That was the first day I met Dipak babu. You walked into his office via an anteroom. To the right as you entered sat Dipak babu, smoking his ever-present Charminar. On the left wall was a large blackboard. I will tell you more about the blackboard in a little while.

Dipak babu wanted to know what my options were, what I wanted to study. I told him I was stuck between Engineering and Mathematics, with Economics in between. He said that I should do Economics, that I could study all the Mathematics I wanted along with it, but that there was a philosophical touch about Economics that I would be drawn to. Maybe I am romanticizing the past, but from a distance, it seems that Dipak babu already had a better idea about me than I did about myself.

Our first classes at Presidency College were truly inspirational. Even leaving the professors out, I was inspired (and a bit intimidated) by my classmates, all of whom seemed to have won an award in their schools, and most of whom were incredibly well-read and wide-ranging in their knowledge. There was an even balance between males and females, and the atmosphere was very lively indeed.

Dipak babu taught us Microeconomics, Mihir babu Macroeconomics, and Nabendu babu taught us Economic History. There were other excellent professors, but for me these three stood out. Dipak babu would walk into the classroom, generally in a bush shirt and trousers. He would invariably look a little absent minded. There was a sink in the room (why was it even there?), and he would spend some time twisting the tap, presumably to make sure it wasn't leaking, but more likely he was gathering his thoughts for the lecture. Then he spoke. He was a striking-looking man, and his English accent (very British) only added to the aura and legendary tales that swirled around him. Apparently he had dropped out of the very same college that we were all now in,  as a chemistry student, and then set sail for England. He worked in England (was he a coal-miner? an assembly line worker? a kitchen hand?). The more proletarian the work the cooler it was --- it added to the legend --- and on the side he had apparently taken evening classes in economics at the LSE, and had come to the attention of the great John Hicks, who had encouraged him. He had even published a paper on the continuity of the lexicographic ordering. To me, he was the very embodiment of "cool." 

And he was quick, very quick, with his wit, and with his ability to engage in repartee. We all admired him, we all respected him, and we were all intimidated to some degree, but we were never scared of him. One of my classmates, Abhijit Sengupta, wasn't even intimidated apparently, because the following exchange occurred in class:

Abhijit: <answers a question wrong, but otherwise unperturbed>

DB: "Tumi gadha. Jao giye goru chorao."

Abhijit (very quick): "Sir, gadha hole guru chorabo kemon kore?"

DB (just as quick): "Ohe, sheta jaanle ki aar gadha hote?"

[Rough translation:

DB: "You're a donkey. Go herd cows."

Abhijit (very quick): "Sir, if I'm a donkey how would I herd cows?"

DB (just as quick): "Ohe, if you knew that you wouldn't be a donkey to begin with."]

I remember that some of us were trying to do some research even in our first year. Shubhashis Gangopadhyay and I took our first efforts to Dipak babu. He read the notes carefully, then recommended we ask Dilip Mookherjee (then a third year student and already a mini-legend in his own right) for advice. But what was Dipak babu thinking? He was reading the attempted research of his students and treating us as fellow-scholars. He was directing us to other students --- whom he respected --- for peer advice. What kind of atmosphere was this? Then, it seemed natural, but looking back, I see how incredibly special it was.

Not soon after that Dipak babu had a question for me: "[Kenneth] Arrow'r lekha porechho?" ("Ever read Kenneth Arrow?") When I said I hadn't, his reply was, "Porbe? Kintu shoptae ek baar eshe amaar shonge alochona korte hobe." ("Do you want to? But you'll have to come in once a week and discuss it with me.") Even writing these lines makes me emotional, because this was nurture at its best. My parents were wonderful people, but they were not academics and could not nurture me along this dimension. Dipak babu could, and I grabbed the opportunity. It was amazing. There I was, all of 17, reading one of the greatest intellectual works of the twentieth century, and every week I would be in Dipak babu's office, and he would ask me questions. The method was Socratic. Dipak babu would ask, and I had to go to the board to reply. I was apprehensive but again, never scared, and this continued. After Arrow came a mathematically much tougher book, Gerard Debreu's Theory of Value. Back I went to the board. The questions came non-stop: always probing, always direct, but never aggressive. I did not know then that I was experiencing a teacher at his best. I know it now, and to this day, when a first year undergraduate or even a school student in new York emails me to set up a meeting, I can never say no. 

It was especially because I came from a non-academic setting, that this was magical for me. I had only one goal: to master the material so that I could dissect it with my teacher, and he (I now imagine) was fulfilling an implicit promise to me --- that I would see and appreciate the philosophical beauty and logic of economic theory. Only much later did Abhijit, his son, tell me that I was one of Dipak babu's favorite students. Maybe Abhijit told me that to be nice, but now that Dipak babu isn't around to confirm or deny that assertion, I would like to believe that it was true. But what is more important to me is the time he took --- over and above his duties to teach classes or mark exams --- to truly engage with me, to teach me in the truest sense of the word. And for this my gratitude and respect know no bounds.

Comments

  1. A very heartwarming story - thanks for sharing, Debraj.

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