On the 26th of September 2020, Isher Judge Ahluwalia breathed her last. An effervescent and endearing personality in addition to being a brilliant economist who juxtaposed vision with common sense, the Padmabushan awardee was also the wife of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, former deputy chairman of the Indian Planning Commission. “Breaking Through” is Isher Ahluwalia’s autobiography penned in a disarmingly candid and refreshing manner. The inspiring story of a pickle manufacturer’s great grand-daughter who influenced the decisions of policy mavens and rubbed shoulders with some of the most prominent economists and powerful politicians globally, warms the very cockles of the heart.
When her memoir was completed, Ahluwalia had lost her reading and writing faculties. Her husband, however turned out to be an able ally and scribe. ‘As my health weakened, he would take dictation, type out the chapters, sit and read them out to me, write out my corrections in hand, and work them into the typed version. He is certainly the highest Qualified Research Assistant that I could hope for.”
However as the memoir reveals, before Isher Judge Ahluwalia succumbed to an insidious and rare form of brain tumour, Glioblastoma, she had laid claims to some Herculean achievements and stupendous accomplishments that marked her as an inspirational woman of substance. A role model worthy of emulation, Ahluwalia had through a combination of sheer determination and uncompromising passion shattered the glass ceiling of stereotypes to scale heady heights of success in both academia and professional career. The ninth daughter amongst 11 children (“a full cricket team of 11”), Ahluwalia was also expected to follow in the footsteps of her elder sisters. A few years of schooling followed by marriage children and a docile and uneventful existence as a dutiful housewife. However this rebellious girl bucked the trend of orthodoxy in thinking and made it to Presidency College in Kolkata (then Calcutta) first before finding herself in the hallowed portals of Delhi School of Economics.
Spurred on by an insatiable love for the subject and encouraged by a phalanx of benevolent professors, Ahluwalia obtained a scholarship and secured an admission into the Economics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was taken into the tutelage of future Noble Laureates such as Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow in addition to giants in the field such as Charles Kindleberger. A chance opportunity with the International Monetary Fund results in an introduction to Montek. This chance encounter progresses towards courtship before finally ending in marriage. As Ahluwalia illustrates, in a domain greatly dominated by men, Ahluwalia carved out a niche for herself in the area of policy research. A book highlighting the perils of the Indian economic orthodoxy, courtesy a morass of policy paralysis that was the prerogative of the Left, was published by the Oxford University Press. Ahluwalia also undertook lots of development work for the World Bank and was also involved with ICRIER in India in various capacities. Innovative thinking on Ahluwalia’s part resulted in the Borlaug Institute for South Asia being set up in India and an Infosys Chair for Agriculture being established at ICRIER.
Throughout the book, Ahluwalia emphasizes an imperative to remain grounded and never to forget one’s roots. Whether it be elucidating on her value system, unflinching devotion to the Gurbani, and a need to accommodate Montek’s career progress whilst concentrating on her own professional career, she inadvertently reveals the importance and indispensability of an element of balance in her personal and professional life. A close friend of Dr. Manmohan Singh and his wife, Ahluwalia wistfully reminisces on the futility of the Former Prime Minister’s attempts to revitalize and rejuvenate the Indian economy during UPA II. Exasperated at every turn, Dr. Manmohan Singh was more a helpless nominee than a powerful leader of a nation. “I wondered why the Prime Minister didn’t just resign”, writes Ahluwalia.
The book is in fact a beautifully thought out paean to all those who were responsible for the uplift of the author. It is almost as though Ahluwalia is bidding a fond farewell to a phalanx of beneficiaries before bidding goodbye. Dr Udham Singh, Walter Robineck at IMF-Washington, LK Jha, IG Patel, are some of the names that are singled out for exceptional praise. However an economist who had a lasting influence on the author and her thinking was the late T N Srinivasan Sanjivi Guhan. India’s executive director-alternate at the World Bank, senior economist of the Brandt Commission, professorial fellow at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and a member of the governing board of Kalakshetra, Guhan brought a revolutionary perspective to economic analysis and political philosophy. Ahluwalia remembers with great precision a letter written by Guhan to her that blended metaphysics and spirituality to convey economic thought. “In Bhartakanda, everything is policy. From policy, policy arises and into policy it returns. Take away policy and policy remains”
The reader is hit like a thunderbolt when Isher Ahluwalia in a matter of fact manner elucidates a craniotomy procedure that reveals the presence of the fatal tumour in her brain. With an incredible sense of detachment and an incredulous vein of astounding practicality she confronts the situation head on and while acknowledging that she might not have much time on the planet, she also confesses as to how lucky and blessed she has been to have had such a full and fulfilling life. One cannot but pause to admire this phenomenal woman and wish that her tribe increases manifold.
Steering clear of political biases and controversies, Isher Judge Ahluwalia focuses on urgent and topical issues that requires bipartisan attention and ones that have far reaching ramifications in the future. Thus issues such as urban planning, Solid Waste Management, Water and Food Security that cause policy wonks to have sleepless nights are addressed in a beautifully lucid and practical manner.
Breezy, warm, witty, and wonderful, “Breaking Through” is not just a dexterously crafted memoir. It is a deliberately intended manifesto for every aspiring schoolgirl who aims to make it big in a world dominated by glass ceilings. For such an indelible manifesto we are all indebted to Isher Judge Ahluwalia. Her legacy and contribution are for the ages.