memoir Reviews

‘Breaking Through: A Memoir’ review: The quiet economist who shattered the glass ceiling

A life-affirming memoir, Breaking Through is simultaneously a brief record of the economic policy debates through the post-Nehruvian decades and the reasons for India’s slow growth, including during the last leg of the second UPA government.

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The author, Isher Judge Ahluwalia, an outsider — she calls herself a ‘Hindi-medium person’ at heart — arrived in the capital in 1965 from Calcutta to study at the Delhi School of Economics.

A brilliant student, she went on a scholarship for further studies to MIT, where her professors were would-be Nobel laureates.

Books and values

Told linearly, the account is not simply a chronology of the author’s life events. At every turn, she talks about her value system, guiding ideas, faith in the Gurbani, ambition and relationships in her adult life, with well-known economists mostly, and even sentiments for odd possessions, a particular teapot for instance, and their collection of books, which belong to her and husband Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

It’s a remarkable life that shows what difference scholarships, merit-based systems and soft education loan schemes can make to students from financially stressed families.

We get to know Isher, the economist who shattered many glass-ceilings; the wife, the mother, the institution-builder, the Lutyens’ Delhi resident — all in equal parts. No part is under or over-emphasised.

For grandchildren

The memoir seems deceptively written for her grandchildren, to know her when they grow up. But it is more. She is a determined, successful woman in a man’s world, on her own terms; not the stereotypical rebel, though. At MIT, she makes a case in her term paper against foreign direct investment and her professor’s known positions on it. He remains unconvinced, but is sufficiently impressed to give her a good grade nonetheless. On another occasion, she presents a class paper discussing how developing countries’ problems could not be fully explained within the Keynesian paradigm, receiving a barrage of questions and an ‘A’ grade from Paul Samuelson.

On returning to India, though, she ran into difficulties economists committed to markets were known to face in publishing even empirically-backed studies that challenged the ideological dominance of the Left. But she was quickly able to overcome those and get her seminal book, Industrial Growth in India: Stagnation since the Mid-Sixties, outlining how much of the fault for slow growth in India lay with excessive controls, published.

On Manmohan

The author’s regard for former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a key figure in her and her husband Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s personal and professional lives, is unmistakable. She calls herself a cheerleader, as she details the significance of the role he has played in changing India’s economic prospects, has paid fulsome tributes to his reforms and shared anecdotes affording glimpses into his personality and intellect, in more than one place. But she does not shy away from reporting the sense of puzzlement and frustration that she feels at his government’s underperformance: “I wondered why the PM didn’t just resign”.

There is something very moving about the memoir, its account of simple joys, ambition and determination, interest in the best for India and the importance it gives to family bonds. It brims with the celebration of the gift of life and the human qualities of quiet dignity and inner strength, and acceptance and gratitude.

Breaking Through: A Memoir; Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Rupa, ₹395.

The reviewer is the author of The Lost Decade.


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