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A Teacher, a Colleague, and a Friend

 Away from the public domain, Suresh formed deep and enduring friendships which extended to friends


A Teacher, a Colleague, and a Friend

Ashwini Deshpande

“Call me when you come to Pune in

June. You must come over for

dinner along with your father. Here are my numbers.” He wrote down his numbers on the conference pad in his characteristic handwriting, which was still just as neat and clear, refusing to deteriorate with age. I kept that piece of paper amidst the set of conference papers and said goodbye to Suresh Tendulkar. This was in Mumbai in March this year. I was looking forward to seeing him again in June and resuming the conversation I had started in Mumbai. Of course, that was not to be. The proverbial cruel hand of fate intervened and that turned out to be the last goodbye. He was gone, all too soon, a victim of medical complications, leaving behind a sense of utter disbelief and shock, and a huge void for his family and for the community of professional economists.

A Formal Relationship

Suresh Tendulkar was my teacher at the Delhi School of Economics and subsequently my colleague as I joined the faculty. Generations of students would remember his systematic and methodical lectures on “Economic Development and Policy in India”. Some of our professors were noteworthy for the meticulousness of their lectures and Suresh Tendulkar was certainly one of them. His lectures were remarkable for the amount of detail they covered, where every “i” was dotted and every “t” crossed; it was clear that he took teaching very seriously. Those were the pre-PowerPoint days, where each lecture was delivered the old-fashioned way – handwritten, on the blackboard. The blackboard at the end of a Tendulkar lecture was a sight to behold – filled from corner to corner with neat, short, clear points. As a student, to me it appeared like an ability that seemed to come naturally with the job. As a teacher, I realise now how difficult it is to be so thorough, and I have finally reconciled to the fact that I will never learn to utilise the blackboard so well!

Even though I have personally known him since the mid-1980s, there were many schisms separating us such that until recently, the relationship remained at a formal but cordial level. The first was age and seniority (he was just a year younger than my father and was my teacher). We kept meeting at department meetings, social events, conferences and so forth. I was well aware of his important work on various government committees, especially his pioneering contributions to the measurement of poverty, and of his inputs into economic policy. I would occasionally contact him with specific questions about methodology, for instance, during the time when the issue of compatibility across various rounds of the National Sample Survey (NSS) on consumption expenditure was being debated following the introduction of two different recall p eriods in the 50th round. Along with his co-author of long-standing, K Sundaram, he had suggested one possible method of ensuring comparability across the

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various NSS rounds. Later, when the report of the expert group on estimating poverty (under his chairmanship) was released, I again had a few discussions with him about the new method. He welcomed all the questions and was patient and d etailed in his answers, never once giving the excuse

of being too busy, which he undoubtedly was. I was always struck by how lightly he wore his success, the complete absence of pomposity, lack of officiousness; in general, a genuine simplicity in tone, appearance and behaviour, which was like a breath of fresh air in Delhi, where one-upmanship and the desire to show off proximity to power is the defining culture of everyone, from the very elite to the hoi polloi.

Empirical Rigour over Ideology

The other schism separating us was ideological. Even though he taught about planning in India, he was a critic of the planning process and a firm believer in the s uperiority of the market as an allocative mechanism. It is interesting to note that this was not how he started out – his journey from a student of planning to an advocate of the market spanned several years. His doctoral thesis was on multi-sectoral planning models for India and his early publications covered two broad areas – quan titative analysis of consumption expenditure patterns and analyses of India’s five-year plans (his first publication in the EPW in 1974 was called “Planning for Growth, Redistribution and Self Reliance in India’s Fifth Five-Year Plan”). However, over the years, he became increasingly critical of not only the planning process, but more generally, of the role of the state in shaping economic activity, and by the time I did my master’s, his ideological transition was complete. I remember questioning him rather brashly as a student, forcing him to

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talk about market failure and so forth. He answered all my questions patiently, but we remained on opposite sides of the divide.

However, he had a deep commitment to empirical rigour and to a careful, minute scrutiny of data, and thus, would not a ccept an argument simply because of its laissez-faire stance. I noticed this on several occasions, but recall a recent incident vividly. Early this year, there was a conference in Delhi with extremely high-profile participants. Tendulkar was the discussant for a paper on India’s growth story and inequality, presented by a senior and internationally eminent economist. The evidence in that paper (as indeed in virtually all the papers at the conference) suggested that inequality in India had not only not worsened in the last two decades of marketdriven growth, but in certain instances, might have even lessened. The argument at the conference, broadly speaking, was that the market-oriented reforms, through specific measures such as trade liberalisation, had unleashed growth and introduced several features that might be i nequality-reducing (such as equalisation of wages across groups or regions). Even though this would be a view that he would normally support, Tendulkar demanded a more cautious examination of the numbers, and highlighted the need for outlining the causal mechanisms carefully. He made the extremely important point that sometimes the ease of access to sophisticated computing makes researchers less vigilant about thinking through the theory that ought to underline and guide the empirical p rocess. Technical sophistication (which should not be confused with empirical rigour), not guided by a solid sense of the underlying realities or processes, could throw up hasty conclusions that might not withstand deeper scrutiny.

A New Friendship, and an End

Along with the schisms, there was one common factor. We were both fellow M aharashtrians; additionally he knew my parents well because my father was a very close friend of his brother, the iconoclastic playwright Vijay Tendulkar, who has now acquired iconic status. However, another of Tendulkar’s sterling qualities was that he was not parochial, while being firmly rooted in the liberal cultural traditions of Maharashtra. He always inquired about my parents very warmly, but never treated me differently due to our common linguistic and family connections. In a world of rampant nepotism, where even academics often succumb to the temptation of forming linguistic fraternities, this was an e xtremely rare trait.

Last year, both of us got invited as speakers to a conference in Michigan. We spent long hours together, talking both about work and about personal lives. I had always been curious about the very divergent life paths, not to mention world views, of the






two brothers – Suresh and Vijay. I gingerly asked him a few questions. And to my pleasant surprise, he was very forthcoming and gave me a fascinating account of their respective journeys.

When he heard my talk on labour market discrimination, he told me that he did not believe that markets would discriminate on the basis of social identity, but would be very curious to see the evidence. I sent him a set of papers, which he read very promptly. We continued the conversation in Delhi, and then during the Mumbai conference, where he again surprised me by recalling all the details of our previous conversations and offered me very specific help with data sources. As we were sipping tea together at the Delhi airport waiting for our flight to Mumbai in March, the thought struck me that after formally knowing him for over 25 years, I had actually just started to get to know Suresh Tendulkar. I was excited by this new friendship.

On the morning of 21 June, as I was looking for some other papers, I came across that slip of paper with his phone numbers. I had not been able to see him in June but was hoping to meet him during my next visit to Pune. Little did I realise that at the very moment I was looking at the slip of paper, he had bid this world farewell and passed on.

Ashwini Deshpande ( teaches at the Delhi School of Economics.



Economic & Political Weekly

august 6, 2011 vol xlvI no 32

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