Invaluable memories

Print edition : September 11, 2020
The economist Prof. M.A. Oommen’s autobiography is an intimate account of personal experiences and also has interesting insights into the social history of Kerala from the perspective of a deeply committed academic.

Seldom do academics pen autobiographies; this is perhaps so because they spent most of their lives thinking “about” the world in all its macro and micro dimensions so much so that they often avoid themselves. The major part of their life is spent in referring to and poring over books, researching, writing, and teaching and lecturing. They rarely occupy positions of power, and the institutions they are mostly associated with, such as colleges, universities, research centres and academic institutes, are islands of quiet, patient, painstaking, mind-numbing, page-thumbing and pen-pushing toil. The outcomes and trophies of such toil are often also within the limited, maybe intense, circles of the academia and the intellectual community. All historic events happen outside and except for a few, academics remain, sometimes vehemently so, dispassionate witnesses, critical commentators or “objective” observers.

They also seldom play a direct role in active politics or become part of other happenings that hog the headlines or turn the tide of events. If at all they play a part, it is limited to being policy advisers, heads of academic or research institutions, members of committees, commissions or delegations—again vocations that are mostly uneventful and paperbound, whose activities are more behind-the-curtain and whose results are long-drawn-out and indirect.

Although the postmodernist wave has erased such boundaries between the writer, the writing and the written, the subjective and the objective, the situation and attitude of the pre-postmodernist academics have remained the same. As a result of the lack of first-person narratives from this field, whole continents of contemplative lives immersed in research, education and knowledge production in society go uncharted and the world behind it remains unknown and unexplored.

Although Malayalam is a language with a tradition of rich generic variety, enriched in recent decades by a spate of autobiographical writings, very few academics have felt the compulsion to write about their own lives. Apart from Prof. M.A. Oommen, whose autobiography is being reviewed here, Dr M. Kunhaman, the eminent social scientist, maybe the only exception. It is in this context that Oommen’s autobiography, Ormapadikal (Memory Steps), assumes significance, both for readers interested in the history of academic institutions in Kerala and for the general reader. As the author himself says in the prefatory note, “Consider this a small book written by an ordinary social scientist who took his academic life seriously. A man at the dusk of his life, looking back at his life, musing about who he was.”

Reminiscences

Beginning with the memories of his childhood spent in the idyllic village of Venmani along the shores of Achankoil river, with its ancient temple and its cyclical agrarian life, the first chapters of the book are rich with striking images and poignant memories about incidents and people. His parents, neighborhood friends and classmates, the flora and fauna of the village and the sociopolitical events lapping its shores all find brief but sharp mention here. The day he met the great social reformer and leader of the underclass Ayyankali, the night India won Independence, and the news of Gandhi’s assassination—all form part of the reminiscences of this period. The next chapters are about his college education at University College, Thiruvananthapuram, when he opted for economics as his area of specialisation, which went on to become the passion of his life and career.

Records on people who influenced him deeply, like M.M. Thomas, his academic visits to places such as Naples, Yale University in the United States as a Fulbright Scholar, and later his brief academic stint in Botswana reveal a passionate academic’s exploration into the frontiers of his discipline in all its theoretical and academic formats as well as its application at the level of national and regional policies. His love for economics as an academic discipline was always energised by the urge to connect it with the all-too-real world of market competition and national economic policymaking.

And this is what makes Oommen’s romance with academics an engaging narrative that transcends the limits of the personal and the local that any autobiography of this nature could get confined into. For instance, all through the book, he looks at the discipline of economics as a lifelong student, a teacher and researcher, and as a social critic and policy adviser. There are interesting digressions into the limits of classical and institutional economics, involving brief but profound critiques of the market-centred economic thought along with excursions into some striking voices of alternative thinking in his field, that ranges from Marx to Amartya Sen and Thomas Piketty.

His academic sojourns to socialist nations such as the Soviet Union, Cuba and China also become occasions to map and follow the predicaments of socialist societies in the second half of the last century. While Oommen foresees the degeneration of the communist regime in the Soviet Union—he mentions the curious sight of towering cut-outs of Brezhnev in the city squares and his convoy of vehicles whizzing past—he is critical of China and its “Market-Socialist” economic policies. He finds in Cuba a much more humane and people-oriented governance that has succeeded in providing its people basic necessities and access to education and health against all odds, with the threats of capitalism and globalisation looming large over its horizon.

As an economist who has consistently studied various aspects of Kerala’s economy and polity, his work in the past five decades spans a wide range, right from small-scale entrepreneurship, small finance and film industry to budgetary trends, public finance and decentralisation.

His experiences as member and head of various commissions and committees, including the State Finance Commission, also provided him with opportunities to look at the system from within. Of particular significance are his analyses about the outcomes of the much-lauded land reforms in Kerala, and the pros and cons of decentralised planning in the State, both of which are testimonies to his lifelong critical engagement with Kerala economy and society.

Decentralisation

About decentralisation, he raises some pertinent questions. Admitting the fact that Kerala is far ahead of other States in terms of transfer of funds, functionaries and functions, Oommen is circumspect about the full and effective realisation of decentralisation’s original goals.

He asks whether the decentralisation process could a) enhance the quality of democracy; b) succeed in stemming corruption in public life; c) realise its promise of empowering women in the real sense; d) nurture sustained and strengthened real and active participation of people at all levels; e) encourage and empower panchayats to do anything significant in the area of production; and f) succeed in taking into full consideration and in integrating into its vision and process the unrelenting pace of urbanisation?

Oommen is most vehement and trenchant in his opinions when he deals with higher education in Kerala and especially regarding various university courses and research initiatives in the discipline of economics. Drawing inspiration and also on bitter experiences from decades of teaching, research and pedagogic engagements in the field, Oommen records his deep disappointment with the state of research in economics and the curriculum of the subject today.

According to him, though there has been a significant increase in the number of colleges and universities in Kerala, there has not been any radical improvement in curriculum, pedagogy or quality of research. Apart from that, the increasing dominance of private players in the field has transformed education into a profit-driven industry rather than a knowledge centre.

Another chapter dwells on his encounters and interactions with six erstwhile Chief Ministers of Kerala, viz. E.M.S. Namboodiripad, K. Karunakaran, C. Achutha Menon, E.K. Nayanar, Oommen Chandy and A.K. Antony. It throws interesting light on the spectrum of receptions and responses involved in the interaction between politicians and academics.

Looking back at his journey so far, Oommen thinks that the three major influences on his life and thinking has been Jesus’ philosophy of life, Marx’s insatiable thirst for justice, and Amartya Sen’s deeply humanist thoughts on development.

A recount of Oommen’s life from childhood to the present (he is 85 now), Ormapadikal is a highly readable and intimate account of personal experiences and views which also provides interesting insights into the social history of Kerala from the perspective of a deeply committed academic.

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