Remembering Suresh Tendulkar

I cannot forget the parting advice of a professor who just departed. It was a ritual that he followed batch after batch, and as far as I remember it was the only time in the class that he ever strayed out of the course topics; he was a kind of a serious man. As you go out of the school and start your lives, typically you will have two major options. You could choose a career and accept a lifestyle that comes with it, or choose a lifestyle and accept the careers that come with it. Very rarely is one fortunate to have both the lifestyle and the career that one wants… I wish you luck that you find it and the wisdom to accept your choice. Best of luck. I wonder today what prompted Prof. Suresh Tendulkar to give us that advice. Is it because he settled for a simple lifestyle by being dedicated to the Delhi School of Economics with its modest pay? I doubt if I will ever know.

He taught us Economic Development and Planning of India. It is exactly 11 years since I took it with him, and I vividly remember how he took us through the intellectual history of planning, its problems, the alternatives and exposed us in-depth to various ways of understanding and estimating poverty. It was rigourous to the core, and we had to read at break neck pace. It was one of those rare courses in economics that combined historical understanding with good statistics and an unrelenting focus on salient policy issues.

We would disagree with him at times, only to find that he had strong opinions. He will state his reasons, he will state his numbers and he will say that we can have our opinions, but he just wanted us to understand how he arrived at his. Another distinctive aspect of his teaching was that he would give us a dataset, a big bunch of papers at a time when computers were not quite used by Master’s students. On any given topic, we were expected to understand the world by looking at an array of tables and making our own analysis, all in our head. That was the only course in economics that I have ever taken which involved such active learning, asking us to probe, analyse and to form our own conclusions. As a young teacher, I realise today what effort it must have taken him to put that together, and what courage he must have had to put himself in a position where new interpretations could challenge him on any given day. He always had an informed response.

He was among the few at the Delhi School who were keenly involved in policy making and was involved in landmark commissions including the Disinvestment Commission, the Pay Commission, and recently with the Planning Commission in an effort at revising the poverty estimates for India. Having come a long way from my D.School days, I find myself disagreeing with him over a number of things in these reports. But then, I cannot help but realise that my understanding of these reports and my thinking about these issues owe much to the fact that he taught me with impeccable clarity.

Along with clarity, there was impeccable integrity. We knew him to be disciplined, simple and principled to the core. A government car would sometimes pick him up when he did policy related work. He would not even be dropped at a social engagement using the government vehicle. Thinking back about it in an era of scams, it is comforting to know that we have policymakers who work out of conviction and on the basis of thorough knowledge. I may disagree with the reports, but I know that it is what it is due to good reasons.

It is difficult to think of a lighter moment with Prof. Tendulkar. The class was always focused. You only saw him walking briskly with his little stoop and the bag that carried, glancing quickly at the passersby with a quick smile as he walked on. There was one light moment though. A research assistant who admired him decided to arrange the books that were always piled up on his massive table. A distraught Prof. Tendulkar asked them never to do it again since he was unable to find his way through an orderly room. For a man who found so much clarity amidst chaos, it was interesting that he could not find clarity in order!

– By a student, and an admirer of a great teacher and a wonderful human being.

About Vivek Srinivasan

I work with the Program on Liberation Technology at Stanford University. Before this, I worked with the Right to Food Campaign and other rights based campaigns in India. To learn more, click here.

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