Padma Desai is the Gladys and Roland Harriman Professor of Comparative Economic Systems and the Director of the Center for Transition Economies at Columbia University. She is well known for an influential tome on industrialization in India, written early in her career with economist (and her eventual husband) Jagdish N. Bhagwati. Since then, she has become a prominent American student of and expert on the Russian economy. In this book, she takes the reader on an extended tour of her personal and professional life, in the process delineating the people, the places, and the events that have shaped her life in noteworthy ways.
Desai grew up in Surat, a small town in the state of Gujarat in western India. Early in her life, the three dominant influences were her father, her mother, and Kaki, who was her father’s brother’s widow. Although her relationship with her father evolved over time, Desai is clear on the point that her father was her moral compass and that she learned a lot about how to conduct one’s life in a salutary manner from him. From her mother, Desai learned the value of having passion in one’s affairs and the importance of undertaking tasks that were not always personally rewarding but nonetheless led to an increase in the welfare of the family. The plight of Kaki in particular, and that of widows more generally in India, bothers the author. She notes on more than one occasion that she “felt guilty about and grieved over…” (p. 47) the way in which her parents interacted with Kaki and the situation that Kaki was in.
Academic excellence came easily to Desai, and she describes with considerable excitement the justifiable pride she felt in her stellar performance in a whole host of school and college examinations leading all the way to her Bachelor of Arts examination. Since no educational institution in Surat offered a graduate program in economics, Desai moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) to pursue the same. This move to Bombay led to one of the most traumatic events in Desai’s life, an event that she refers to as “the seduction” (p. 83). As Desai tells the story, she was relatively young, naïve, and knew almost nothing about sexual relations with men. Over time, she was seduced by a man she identifies only with the acronym RB. She engaged in premarital sex with RB and, as a result, felt a great sense of shame for having brought dishonor to her family. Even so, she married RB, who proceeded to infect her with a venereal disease. These events understandably scarred her for many years, and she was able to deal with the aftermath of the emotional effects with some degree of finality only when she left India and accompanied her then-significant other, Jagdish N. Bhagwati, to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1968.
It is clear that Jagdish N. Bhagwati, Desai’s second husband, played a significant positive role in resurrecting not only her emotional but also her professional life in the United States. Together, they enjoyed a good measure of conjugal bliss, and after some initial difficulties, also had a daughter named Anuradha. Anuradha’s birth thrilled Desai, and it “helped [her] overcome [her] past and [her] neurotic preoccupation with having been infected with infertility” (p. 196).
This is an interesting book that ought to appeal to readers who are interested in diverse perspectives on the immigrant experience in the US. In a sense, this is also a courageous book: Desai reveals a lot about happenings in her personal life that, under alternate circumstances, might never have allowed her to have the successful life that she had and continues to have in the US. My only lament is that despite the manifest professional success she has enjoyed as an economist, she says almost nothing about what she calls “the complicated reality of American academic life” (p. 230).