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Deepak Lal: Profound philosopher in all travails & joys of life and living

Mani Shankar Aiyar remembers economist Deepak Lal, who remained for 65 years one of his closest friends, as a deeply empathetic confidante and a mentor on everything 'civilised'

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Deepak Lal

Mani Shankar Aiyar 

Economist and Business Standard columnist Deepak Lal
Deepak Lal was perhaps the most generous person, says Mani Shankar Aiyar, not just in money but in sharing his vast store of knowledge

I knew little of the Deepak the world knew: renowned right-wing economist; eccentric defender of Empire; impassioned advocate of The Hindu Equilibrium; author of 16 best-selling academic works, many that were as easy reading as novels.

We disagreed about almost everything and many of our arguments would end as shouting matches. But, despite our differences, he remained through at least 65 of his 80 years one of my closest friends, a deeply empathetic confidante, a mentor on everything “civilised”, something of a bon vivant, and a wise guide and profound philosopher in all the travails and joys of life and living. Above all, a person who laughed at all my jokes, and could converse with verve, good humour and knowledge on everything from politics to literature to art, poetry, aesthetics and Wittgenstein’s “logical positivism”.

He was perhaps the most generous person I have known, not just in money (to which I hardly had any recourse), but in sharing his vast store of knowledge, picked up from an uncanny speed and spread in reading. His floor was always littered with books ranging from technical economic treatises to the latest in fiction. I asked him once whether he had actually read everything on his bulging shelves and, in a quite off-hand and casual way, he nodded his head in affirmation. More even than his friends, surely his brimming library will miss him.


We first crossed swords on the debating floor at school. Partly because he was older than me, but mainly because he was so much better informed, I almost always lost and it became something of an obsession for me to get the better of him at least once. I tried then to get closer to him but did not succeed because, deep down, he was essentially a very shy person, quite at odds with the privilege of brawn that dominated the school ethos. He, like me, was hopeless at sports and games but shone, unlike me, in the classroom effortlessly, standing first in every exam he took.

Our friendship really took root when we found ourselves in the same wing of the Allnutt South residence at St Stephen’s. I neglected my class-work since I found I learned so much more from friends and slightly older peers, Deepak foremost among them. I particularly remember arguing with him over the difference between “culture” and “civilisation” all through the night until dawn broke over the “dreaming spires”. His sophistication in both culture and civilisation is what I most admired in him. Like the villagers in Oliver Goldsmith’s poem of the village schoolteacher, I too “in wonder grew/That one small head/Could carry all it knew”.

As expected, he got a first in his BA Hons History and so moved on smoothly to Jesus College, Oxford. I went up a year later and continued my education under him – not academic but in culture and civilisation. In London, we went together to the theatre – notably Albert Finney in Luther – and to the cinema –La Dolce Vita and L’Avventura, neither of which I fully understood and left it to Deepak to acquaint me through long letters to fill me out on the message and minutiae of what we had seen.


The following year, we appeared together for the civil services exam at Indian House. We both made it to the Foreign Service and after many a joust with the Intelligence Bureau, who had labelled me a “security risk” (largely because I did not subscribe to Deepak’s economics or politics!), I got to share a room with him at the Academy.

Deepak left the Foreign Service within a year to pursue a brilliant alternative career in academia. Our meetings became less frequent as we usually found ourselves in different continents. He married a wonderful girl from Brooklyn called Barbara, whose extrovert zest for life complemented and completed Deepak’s more reserved demeanour that many quite wrongly took for arrogance.

He became a cancer victim a few years ago but, coldly rational to the end, refused to subject himself to the hazards of invasive treatment. Then, tragically, he was caught in London just as the coronavirus pandemic broke. It got to him, and he breathed his last on 30 April. The light has gone out of my life.


The author is a former diplomat and Congress leader

First Published: Fri, May 01 2020. 15:31 IST
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