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Sixty Years Ago

This article was published in EPW on 9 January 1999, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the launch of Economic Weekly. Given the content, that article, titled "Fifty Years Ago", is reprinted here almost entirely in full.

ECONOMIC WEEKLY: 60 YEARS AGO

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Sixty Years Ago

Ashok Mitra

This article was published in EPW on 9 January 1999, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the launch of Economic Weekly. Given the content, that article, titled “Fifty Years Ago”, is reprinted here almost entirely in full.

Ashok Mitra (ashok3@vsnl.net) has been a contributor to both EW and EPW for more than five decades. He was also on the board of Sameeksha Trust until 2004. Reprinted here with the permission of the author.

O
f the Chaudhuri brothers, the fourth and youngest, Sankho, the sculptor, was away in Paris. The rest of the brothers were in Mumbai (nee, Bombay). The second brother, Debu, held a comfortable assignment with a multinational company assembling and distributing electronic products. The third brother, Hiten, was a gadfly, with varied business interests: production and distribution of films, export and import of raw as well as semi-processed cotton, presiding over an engineering concern producing small tools and equipment, managing a printing press, and so on. The eldest brother, Sachin, was a pucca patriarch. The brothers adored him and were in awe of his scholarship and intellectual powers. He had lived the life of a nomad ever since he disappeared from Dacca in 1927 after faring disappointingly in the master’s examination in economics. His performance in the examination was no reflection on his scholastic talent. His friend and classmate A K Das Gupta used to recall Sachin Chaudhuri’s countless escapades: he refused to sit for the examination in the year it was due, 1926, and embarked on a Bharat darshan instead and scampered back to Dacca even as the next year’s examination schedule was announced. He did not even know the syllabus. So what, sang froid was sang froid. When the results were announced, Sachin Chaudhuri, it was seen, had just scraped through. Half-dejected and half-embarrassed, he chose to decamp from Dacca.

Debu and Hiten had meanwhile nestled in Bombay and, after an interval of some months, the senior brother joined their sometimes separate, sometimes joint h ousehold. Sachin Chaudhuri simply pottered around. His charm, his wit and the sharpness of his mind drew in no time a flock of friends and advisers, politicians, journalists, social philanthropists, a hand

ful of economists too. Sachin Chaudhuri himself did not take his economics seriously, but others did. D Ghosh, who was at the moment on the economics faculty of the University of Bombay, took the initiative to arrange a university research fellowship for Sachin. The scholarship money came in handy while he would stand rounds of drinks for acolytes in Churchgate restaurants. Economic research otherwise, he had not the least doubt, was not his cup of tea. Sachin Chaudhuri imported the Bengali adda into Bombay. He perhaps took a proprietary pride in the fragility of the adda. There was no ostensible means of livelihood, for the research fellowship could not obviously be renewed, and in any case the money it offered was small beer. Hiten introduced him to Himansu Rai and Devika Rani. Both were bowled over. Sachin became, of all things, the manager of Bombay Talkies. Whether precisely on account of his appointment, or sheer happenstance, Bombay Talkies soon downed its shutters. Sachin Chaudhuri was a free bird once more, even though the friendship with Devika Rani endured.

Vagabond Par Excellence

At that juncture, Sachin Chaudhuri was a vagabond par excellence. The man nonetheless continued to have a fearsome reputation – on account of the clarity of his writing, the range of his scholastic interests and the depth of his political and economic commentaries during exciting sessions in newspaper offices and Apollo Bunder cafes. His links with friends in academia such as A K Das Gupta or B N Ganguli did not snap and they did not ever give up the dream of encouraging

january 17, 2009

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

ECONOMIC WEEKLY: 60 YEARS AGO

him back into serious economics. Sachin Chaudhuri, however, had diverse passions

– and circles of friends and acquaintances straddling the spectrum of academia and politics and business would all compete to share an evening’s company with him. By now he was known as a confirmed bachelor. His sartorial style – white “khadi” dhoti and kurta, and an occasional “chaddar” or shawl – was passport to the most exclusive places and mansions. The horrors of Partition could not quite drain away the euphoria of independence, and Sachin Chaudhuri’s hero, it goes without saying, was Jawaharlal Nehru. Hiten had a way of sidling into famous households, including the Nehru household. Sankho’s wife, Ira, had family links with the Nehrus. Sachin Chaudhuri had occasion to meet Nehru, both before and after independence. But he kept his distance; he was no job or licence seeker.

As the cliche goes, destiny nonetheless was awaiting him. Socio-economic dynamics apart, accidents too play a role in the shaping of history. A few months after independence, the government in New Delhi decided to pick a trade delegation to visit Europe and North America to explore the prospects of expanding the country’s foreign trade. Hiten Chaudhury found himself a member of the delegation, which was led by a well-known Indian economist who believed in maintaining friendly connections with prominent business families in Delhi, Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Whatever the reasons, Hiten Chaudhury took an immediate dislike of the economist leader of the delegation; he was, in Hiten’s view, shallow to the core; such men, given their prejudices and pre conceived notions, would be dangerous presences in any arena; it would be monstrous if such men would have the ear of the nation’s leaders and assist them to shape their economic ideas.

Hiten Chaudhury returned with an idée fixe. He knew the depth of his senior brother’s intellect and the range of his scholarship. He must be persuaded to start an economic journal, pronto, to prevent the genre of mischief-doing individuals such as Hiten Chaudhury’s delegation leader was capable of. Hiten’s enthusiasm bubbled over. He found the New Jack Printing Works (address: Globe Mills Passage, Off Delisle Road) at his disposal, he would persuade his closest business partners to set up a joint-stock

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
january 17, 2009

venture, he had already arranged for office premises for the journal in a by-lane veering off from Apollo Street, he had his very wide contacts in the advertising world, it was now for the senior brother, the patriarch of the family, to give his consent to be editor: after all, filling the pages of the journal with thoughtful, attractive pieces of writing would pose no problem for him, he had his academic friends who had stayed loyal to him from his Dacca University days, he had acquain tances within the fold of the university faculties one after another, he could bank upon constant help and support from the research staff of, for instance, the Reserve Bank of India, so what was he hesitating for? All he had to give up was the often-weary-sounding column for the Evening Standard. But he had a kingdom to gain.

Fear of Entrapment

The reservation Sachin Chaudhuri felt was not difficult to comprehend. He was wedded to his vagabond living, now he was being asked to enter into a commitment, a commitment to be regular and responsible. The fear of entrapment was genuine; at the same time, the allure of grand adventure into the hitherto unexplored terrain of tendering advice on crucial issues to the nation’s highest from an independent pulpit could hardly be ignored. The brothers, and friends, hemmed him in, and Sachin Chaudhuri succumbed. The Economic Weekly was born.

That event took place exactly 60 years ago. The transformation of The Economic Weekly into Economic & Political Weekly occurred nearly 17 years later. The EPW represents a continuum of what the EW hoped and dreamt. This reverie of the circumstances of the latter’s birth has therefore a certain relevance for the present generation of the journal’s acolytes. From the very first issue, The Economic Weekly became a duality, and that characteristic has not ceased to be over these 50 years. Sachin Chaudhuri’s cronies from coffee bars and Dalal Street – journalists, stock tipsters, political workers of different shades and hues, some outright bums – took honorary lease of the first half of every issue of the journal: comments, often cheeky, on current political and economic developments, on fluctuations in share prices, on who was conspiring against whom in New Delhi’s South Block or Bombay’s Mantralaya, on the reasons a particular block of industrial licences went to industrial house A rather than to industrial house B, and other gossip of similar ilk.

Second Half

The second half of the Weekly was taken over, through a gradual process, by the academic crowd from the universities and research institutions. This unusual coexistence of the mundane with the highly abstract created the ambience of an unstable equilibrium, an equilibrium which threatened to break down any moment. It did not, and half a century has elapsed without much murmur of dissatisfaction from any quarter. Perhaps the only other instance of a weekly publication daring to cram its pages with diagrams and mathematical formula is the Ekonomist from the Netherlands, and yet that journal too has not had the temerity to carry nonsense verse and pictorial cartoons as The Econo mic Weekly has done in its various phases. The first instinct of an aspiring social scientist in the subcontinent was to get himself or herself published not in a so-called scholarly journal, but in The Economic Weekly. At the same time, parliamentary debates have taken place in the two august houses on the basis of a report or a comment in the EW or EPW. Ever since Jawaharlal Nehru made it a habit to flaunt a copy of The Economic Weekly on his desk, the snob value of the journal has spread and spread, ministers and civil servants have regularly subscribed to the journal while scrupulously ignoring the flurry of advice strewn in its pages.

But, then, Sachin Chaudhuri exuded a magnetic charm. Part of this charm was a Chaudhuri heirloom. Once the journal got floated, with Hiten Chaudhury unobtrusively taking charge of the crass details of management, the crowd flocked either to the Weekly’s cramped offices in the Dalal Street neighbourhood or to Sachin Chaudhuri’s digs at Churchill Chambers. Old friends, and new ones, foregathered. Within the space of a few months The Economic Weekly became a cause. Its editorial notes were idiosyncratic, often naughty, often cocking a snook at the establishmentwallas, but it never strayed away from the moorings of the civilisation Tagore had preached or the formula of

ECONOMIC WEEKLY: 60 YEARS AGO

t olerance Nehru expiated upon. It was therefore almost inevitable that D P Mukerji from Lucknow would contribute The Economic Weekly’s first editorial article, “Light without Heat”, in the inaugural issue, and was followed soon after by A K Das Gupta with his rigorous piece on the theory of black-market prices. One had to wait only a while before Sachin Chaudhuri’s retinue of admirers from the world of sociology and anthropology i nvaded the journal’s pages.

To run a weekly journal, though, you needed a team to do the sustained work of deciding on themes to focus, writing, copy editing, proof reading, liaising with the press, keeping channels of communication open with the post office and distribution outlets. A vagabond, a near kindred soul, almost as contemptuous as the editor himself, A Fernandes, soon turned up and was named the office manager. The impressionist style he adopted while taking care of the journal’s administrative side matched Sachin Chaudhuri’s haphazard modalities of editorial living.

Sachin’s Company

Who kept Sachin company while he used to put the paper together, week after week, in that early phase? There is always a danger that in naming names, memory would play a trick or two and some names would be lost in the melee. Much enthusiasm was imported into the ramparts of the editorial office by the ever-ebullient B V Krishnamurti from the Bombay School of Economics and Sociology. Perhaps Sripad Rangnekar and Ramdas Honavar too were around, unobtrusively helping Sachin Chaudhuri to put together an editorial note on monetary theory or international trade. There was the devoted crowd of young scholars and college teachers who made a beeline for The Economic Weekly

o ffice once their daily official chores were ended: Hannan Ezekiel, Ravi Hazari, a few others. They contributed rough first drafts of notes, the editor honed them into shape, their gratitude knew no bounds. And how does one forget the Reserve Bank crowd: K S Krishnaswamy, his mind always a haven of maturity and his knowledge of economics mounting guard over the effervescence of quite a few young cubs, K N Raj freshly a rrived from Ceylon, where he had done a stint in financial journalism, and his accumulated experience in this area, alongside his f ondness for adapting Keynesian prescriptions for tackling emerging Indian situations, contributed to the essential flavour of what The Economic Weekly was. Others who were drawn in would include the sprightly Dharma Kumar, bitterly complaining that the editor under-assessed the quality of her economics merely because she had, according to him, “a pretty head”; the gender battle was obviously on that early. Should not one also mention Anand Chandavarkar, Vinoo Bhatt and Deena Khatkhate?

What about the Calcutta crowd though? Sushil Ghose, Sachin Chaudhuri’s friend from his down-and-out days, would send in weekly notes on share price movements, and the editor would take meticulous care with Ghose’s copy. The second brother, Debu, had several drinking cronies in Calcutta whose flair for writing modish prose was well recognised. One of the early ones to join The Economic Weekly stable was Niranjan Majumdar, who innovated the Calcutta Diary for the Weekly and, a Kingsley Martin admirer, signed his pieces with the nom de plume Flibbertigibbet. Samar Sen, the poet, always a lazy writer, could also be persuaded to contribute, his contributions becoming more regular once he encamped in Moscow. Nirmal Kumar Bose, the Gandhiite sociologist, would chip in now and then with an article, and soon a significant slice of The Economic Weekly was captured by M N Srinivas and his disciples.

The Delhi School of Economics was yet to find its feet, but The Economic Weekly had succeeded in generating awe inside the superstructure of officialdom. Several young economists and civil servants would contribute anonymous pieces to the Annual and Special Numbers of the journal and, once the issue was out, it became a guessing game amongst the contributors – as well as others – who had written which particular piece. There is also the famous apocrypha concerning the government’s chief economist at that time, J J Anjaria. Anjaria, God’s good man, was a cautious conservative who would not be hustled into views.

Folklore

A raw recruit in the economic division in the ministry of finance had sent an otiose note to Anjaria suggesting the directions along which the country’s monetary policy ought to be forthwith reformulated. Anjaria

read the note and nervously shoved it in a

bottom drawer of his secretariat table. After

waiting a full three months for an opportu

nity to discuss the contents of the note with

Anjaria, the apprentice economist mailed

the piece to Sachin Chaudhuri, who

promptly printed it as the week’s main edi

torial article. Chintaman Deshmukh, the

finance minister, apparently read it with

avid interest and wanted to have Anjaria’s

assessment of it. The entire economic divi

sion was summoned in no time to Anjaria’s

chamber and long commentaries were

despatched from the division to the finance

minister’s office, here and there endorsing

Sachin Chaudhuri’s editorial sermon, here

and there entering a demure caveat.

Such folklore was the product of the

time. The Economic Weekly was a forum

which accommodated each and every point

of view, reflecting the ethos of the immedi

ate post-independence years. Economists

at that point of time did not mind coexist

ing with colleagues who professed faith in

a different structure of values. Each and

all were welcome to send their musings to

The Economic Weekly. Sometimes the major

editorial pieces contradicted each other.

They were bound to, since they were written

by persons with altogether contrary ap

proaches to life. This kind of phenomena

did not worry Sachin Chaudhuri, nor did

they worry the journal’s devotees.

The dialectics was elsewhere in arriv

ing at a decision on what shape the journal

should take in the future. Sachin Chaud

huri, the instinctive anarchist, was full of

distaste for method and orderliness. He

refused to submit to accountability. Close

friends drew up plans about how The Eco

nomic Weekly was to be run as a successful

financial newspaper, with its uniqueness

fully preserved, if only it were organised

along sound business principles. The very

idea was anathema to Sachin Chaudhuri.

He wanted The Economic Weekly to remain

a small-scale operation, a cottage craft so

to say, and always in the maelstrom of a

financial crisis. Hiten Chaudhuri had sleep

less nights, but the patriarch was unwavering

in his determination. So the debate was ad

journed – and resumed after some while,

for yet another inconclusive adjournment.

That in fact encapsulates the history of

The Economic Weekly and, subsequently,

the Economic & Political Weekly.

january 17, 2009

EPW
Economic & Political Weekly

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