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Abhijit was an economist by accident, but is an ace cook, says mother Nirmala

An eminent economist in her own right, Nirmala said she was reading a book at home when her younger son broke the news.

Oct 15, 2019, 10.43 AM IST
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Nirmala Banerjee, mother of Abhijit V Banerjee
(This story originally appeared in on Oct 15, 2019)
KOLKATA: A brilliant student who never ranked first in school, a bits-and-pieces sportsman, an ace cook, a complete family man and an economist by accident — that is how Nirmala Banerjee (83) describes her elder son, Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee, hours after she got news of him bagging the economics Nobel, along with his wife Esther Duflo.

“What can I say? I am elated and, at the same time, surprised at the news,” said Nirmala, sitting at the drawing room of her three-BHK apartment at Saptaparni Complex on Ballygunge Circular Road. “He has always been brilliant, but I had never thought he would bag the honour at such a young age. It’s a proud moment not only for me but for the entire nation.”

An eminent economist in her own right, Nirmala said she was reading a book at home when her younger son, who stays in Gurgaon, called her up and broke the news to her. “I switched on the TV and, within minutes, it was all over the news channels,” said the proud mother, surrounded by relatives and journalists, holding a bouquet and tray of sweets sent from chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s office.

Speaking about the inspiration behind his research work — experimental approach to alleviating global poverty — Nirmala said it was possibly Abhijit’s childhood, spent at a house on Mahanirban Road, that had helped him understand economics and poverty like no one else. “Jhima (Abhijit’s nickname) spent his childhood playing with poor kids from a slum near our home. He always wondered that they were better at the street games, and used to talk about their approach to life,” Nirmala told TOI.

Nirmala, a Marathi by birth, and her husband, the late Dipak Banerjee, were both eminent economists. She mentioned how their family shares a close bond with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, and how Sen still mentors Abhijit whenever he can. “Sen knows Abhijit since he was just two years old and they catch up often even now,” she said.

Still waiting for a phone call from her son, Nirmala remembered that her son was never a top-ranker at school and that he had quit the reputable Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) a week after getting enrolled there. “He loved mathematics and thus chose ISI over any other institute but a week into the curriculum, he quit the institute and took up economics at Presidency College. Had he not shifted his subject, we would have never seen this day,” she said, happily obliging photojournalists with a framed photograph of her son and a copy of his authored book, ‘Poor Economics’.

Nirmala said that one of the main reasons that her son leaving ISI was the “fact that he had to travel a lot of distance which was curtailing his other interests. “He has a keen interest in classical music and spends hours listening good music. Further, he loves playing all sorts of sports — from table tennis to cricket — although he was not very good in any of these. But even till date he plays table tennis whenever he gets time,” said Banerjee, adding that Abhijit Banerjee is a member of Tolly Club and visits the club mostly for the TT games during all his visits to the city.

Speaking about another side of her son, Banerjee said that he is an expert cook. “He loves cooking and is honed the skills from a very small age. He is good at both Marathi and Bengali dishes and is an expert when it comes cooking deserts. Even when he was in home on June this year, he had cooked for me and his friends,” she said.

Abhijit Banerjee’s friends, who had come to congratulate the family after the news, described him as a complete family man and the one who takes the center-stage among their gang of ten school friends. “He calls us the moment he lands at the Kolkata airport and plans a get-together. Earlier we used to catch up at Dhakuria Lake but these days, we generally meet up at his home,” said Bappa Sen, Abhijit Banerjee’s school friend and a filmmaker.

Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee was married to Dr Arundhati Tuli Banerjee, a lecturer of literature at MIT. They had a son together, before they divorced. “That was one of the saddest moments of our life. He had a tough time coming out of the loss of his son,” Banerjee said. He married Esther Duflo, a Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT and has two children.

“I am happy that he has won the prize at a time when our country is witnessing some strange economic decisions. I wonder if at all the decisions are benefitting the common men or the poor,” the mother chuckled.

She finally spoke to her son for the first time around 6pm on Monday, when he called her from Cambridge in USA. “Why didn’t you tell me the news earlier? Whatever stay safe and had your father been alive he would have loved to see this day. Come home quickly,” she told over phone. “He will be in India next week for the launch of his second book. Then we will have a gala celebration at home,” she said.
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