Beyond the boundaries

Book cover of Breaking Through: A Memoir
I first heard of Isher Judge Ahluwalia in the mid-1980s when I was in Delhi University and again during my PhD days in the US, for her seminal work on productivity. Much later I heard of a gentleman called Montek Singh Ahluwalia who was married to Isher and was also a very good economist.  

But this book is less about economics and more about a life well lived, on the author’s own terms. And it is very aptly titled —Breaking Through to be like this at all. I expected deep conversations on the range of economic issues with which Isher Ahluwalia has grappled, both as a thought leader and economist. And yes, I also expected greater investigations into the many economic debates that have buffeted Indian policy since the 1960s and 70s. Instead what I got was a fast-paced ride through her personal and professional life.

What I found was perhaps far more unique and peppermint-fresh than most economists’ biographies typically are — because the book is less about economics as about breaking through the horizons. The first few chapters are charming; she shares her early life as her family moved from Lahore to Indore to Calcutta and Delhi. It is about a young woman in a large, traditional yet forward-looking family steadily finding just the right cracks in the structure of conservatism and managing to squeeze through them — a woman from a business family who manages to find the right support so that she does not have to revolt.  Perhaps this story touched me because it was almost the opposite of my mother’s, who went from Calcutta to Indore to marriage and a defunct potential academic career.  

But there is much that lies behind what may seem like Isher Ahluwalia’s charmed life, of which she reveals only a little, leaving a lot to the reader’s imagination. Is this a lapse of memory?  I think not. Isher Ahluwalia makes light of the intellect and hard work that would have gotten a middle-class girl from middle-India, educated in Hindi, Punjabi and a little English to achieve her academic highs. From Presidency to Delhi School of Economics to MIT to IMF. She mentions with the lightest of touches how her scholarships helped her, but does not talk about what went into getting those scholarships. She is very matter of fact about people walking up to her and helping her out, leaving us to guess why they would do that. The names she drops read like a Who’s Who of both Indian and global economic academia, but she only rarely reveals the confident attitude that got them to open up to her. There is a classic story here about how she went up to Paul Samuelson before a presentation and asked him to keep quiet for the first 20 minutes so that she could develop her arguments before he could start attacking them.   

Women always have a greater set of responsibilities to manage, some imposed by society and some simply taken up by women themselves. Isher Ahluwalia’s life, not only as a young girl breaking the barriers of traditionalism but as a woman making a mark for herself while being married to a key player in India’s economic establishment for over two decades, is a great read in itself.  Managing a home and career is difficult, but managing a home, an academic career, (re)building an institution and staying away from controversy as the spouse of a key policymaker is exponentially more difficult. In a sense that is what this volume is about, though Isher Ahluwalia does not dwell on the difficulties she faced as much as the actions taken.

Building institutions is a very difficult task, especially in India where for some unknown reason personalities always become more important than processes. Taking on the task of leading the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations and rebuilding it has been a great achievement in itself. And doing so while not being in the driver’s seat even more so. It would have required finesse, diplomacy and some hard decisions as well; unfortunately, we don’t get to know about the nuts and bolts of that experience. 

In case it is not still clear to the reader, I am quite taken by her autobiography.  And yes, this is a good read for everyone, women and men, to get a glimpse into how great careers and lives are built.

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