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The Abhijit Banerjee I knew, and the geometry problem he gave me

Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer have won the 2019 Nobel Economics Prize for their work in fighting poverty.

Uddalok Bhattacharya 

Abhijit Banerjee
Abhijit Banerjee speaks at a news conference in Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge after winning this year's Nobel Prize for Economics. | Photo: AP/ PTI.

The problem of writing about Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee for me is finding a suitable starting point. I know him as long as I can remember, and surely much before that also, because of the very strong closeness of our families. His is a family of academics. Abhijit’s, like his father's, forte was mathematics. I remember in 1979 he gave me a problem in geometry to solve: Prove this — if the bisectors of two angles in a triangle are equal, the triangle is isosceles. He said it took him a few days to crack it.

It is by chance that we went to the same school, South Point High School, and the same college, Presidency College. Exactly at the time I joined college in September 1983, he was moving to Harvard University for his Ph D and had become a legend as a student, though that at that point did not overwhelm me much because the number of legendary students in our college was overwhelmingly large.

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I did not feel I was much close to Abhijit, or Jhima, as he was better known as, when he was in Calcutta in his early days. Not that he had a stern exterior. In fact, far from it. My elder brother was (and is) his friend, and my friend was (and is) Abhijit’s younger brother. He wouldn’t open up much except with his friends. All this changed after he came to JNU in 1981 to do his MA. I met him in JNU the next year, 1982, during my Puja holidays and found a much transformed person. He was taking an active interest in student politics, something, if I am not wrong, he was averse to. He did not have much fondness for Marxism in his early days (I do not know if he has much fondness for it now). But in JNU I found him an angry man — angry at the state, the ruling classes, the establishment. And full of compassion for the poor and how they are “left to die”.


Nirmala Banerjee

Nirmala Banerjee, mother of Nobel laureate Abhijit Binayak Banerjee, interacts with media at her residence in Kolkata | Reuters

All this did not make him a hard-boiled communist. Maybe these were latent in the personality earlier too. But they certainly became manifest in his JNU years. I asked him, “Between Presidency College and JNU, which do you like more?” He instinctively replied, “JNU.” Then he corrected himself and said, “Both, in their own ways.” That JNU had a lot of impact on him is evident also from the fact that he took a plunge in student politics in 1983, when there was a famous movement in the university under Nalini Ranjan Mohanty, then the president of the students’ union.

ALSO READ: Indian economy on a shaky ground, says Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee

He was not a nose-to-the-grindstone student in school. A mathematics teacher once said about him: “Brilliant, but a shirker.” He had a slick sense of humour, too. A physics teacher, Anjan Dasgupta, who was also some kind of a legend, advised him to begin to start writing answers to questions because the class 12 board exams were approaching. “Sir, I have written many,” Abhijit said. Anjan babu asked: “Why don’t you show them to me?” The reply was: “Let it be, sir. I have to hire a truck.”

The piece of today has been in the works for many years. It’s an emotional moment for many. But it’s a matter of great regret that many who would have literally jumped at the have departed.

And I am left here still struggling with his geometry problem.

Indians in the Nobel gallery

First Published: Mon, October 14 2019. 18:37 IST
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