The Terry website and magazine devotes a lot of attention to faculty contributions that impact students, the field of research, and the reputation of the college. However, an essential part of the college experience is a student’s personal path to acquire knowledge.
The “In Their Own Words” series examines some of the more personal paths of faculty at the Terry College. Answering a single question, the professors and lecturers share a breadth and depth of experiences that, while unique, are also universal of the journeys of prospective and current students and alumni.
In Their Own Words: Santanu Chatterjee
What was your undergraduate major and why did you choose it?
I thought I was going to be a chemist, because chemistry seemed easy to me. My father thought the same thing. But between my father’s work and growing up in India, I imbibed an interest in economic development.
He was part of what was called the United Nations Organizations, which is an umbrella group for non-government organizations that seek funding from the United Nations. The group used to act as a liaison between policy makers and the people on the ground that needed policies.
Growing up in India also had an influence on my decision to study economics. A developing country that, at the time, had a political philosophy very close to socialist principles – India was almost cut off from the rest of the world because of all the government control on the economy and the media as well as private activity.
Especially in Calcutta, which was the bastion of Communism in India. Even today, the local and state government where Calcutta is the capital is under Communist rule and it has not been voted out of power for the past 30 years even though the rest of the country is more capitalistic.
Growing up and seeing all the graffiti on the wall eulogizing Karl Marx and Lenin and Che Guevarra and Fidel Castro, you thought about them as powerful people who had strong influences on certain regions of the world in terms of economics, politics, and society. Most of the books we read were critiques on the capitalist system seen from the eyes of Marx or Lenin.
Questions started cropping up among my friends and me. It was the 1980s and 1990s and we were students and witnessing all the poverty and inequality, the social injustices, gender inequalities, and complete government inaction on these issues.
The presence of the government was in so many spheres of private life and yet private life was quite miserable from an economic point of view. We were reading these great philosophies of Marx and Lenin and being told that the U.S. was imperialistic and materialistic with no good intentions and Russia and China were our great friends, but then why are we so miserable if these theories are so good?
Over time it dawned on me that there was nothing wrong with Marx or communist principles, but just the interpretation and application of them that distorts them. Remember these are just philosophies and you can never really apply philosophies to real life. I had the option to get my masters from the regional university where I came from as an undergraduate, but I wanted to break away from that and see the other side of the story. So I moved from Calcutta and go to New Delhi.
The Delhi School of Economics was the premier economic institute. The running joke in India is that it is like the U.S. Visa office because their curriculum is designed off U.S. universities so they are a break from what was going on in the rest of the academic sector. Going to New Delhi was an eye-opener in terms of what I learned and saw.
It coincided with my break from my undergraduate philosophy as an economic student and I began studying more of the western capitalist theories. At the same time the country was shifting towards more market-oriented thought and policy and today India is more market-oriented than many developing countries. Even though there is still some socialist bent, it is minimized to certain aspects of policy making and it’s a far cry from where I grew up.