Book Review: Isher Judge Ahluwalia’s Memoir Breaking Through Is Luminous And Inspiring
When you hold Isher Judge Ahluwalia’s autobiography Breaking Through in your hands, you can’t but gaze at her photograph on the cover—pensive, deep in contemplation. As you read her unvarnished story, multiple strands emerge—those of a determined young girl born into a modest family with eleven children (her grandfather Bhai Wadhawa Singh was a well-known pickle-maker from Lahore), a brilliant student with an enquiring mind, a sensible young woman focused on making the best of life’s opportunities, and a consummate researcher with an undying thirst for growth and knowledge.
You can actually visualise her absorbing words, thoughts, ideas, opinions, constantly learning, assimilating, and researching. There is a continuous sense of movement and vitality in the narrative, of a woman on the go, achieving one milestone after another through a tough grind, while staying close to her roots. This approach is not limited only to the professional sphere. It encompasses every aspect of her life, whether it is as a wife and mother, or friend and mentor. Sincere and authentic, her yearning to try her hardest to add value to whatever crosses her path is evident in her every thought and action.
Growing up in Calcutta exposed Isher to “more pan-Indian influences”, and “the Hindi-medium person at heart” who had “no exposure to English at home” knew that her desire to pursue higher education was about something as simple as retaining control over her life. Very early, with wisdom beyond her years, Isher made difficult but prudent choices. She writes, “I worked very hard at my exams, often having to lock myself out on the small balcony to keep away from all my sisters, most of whom did not share my academic drive.” Her determination, scholastic achievements and scholarships propelled her along and her father “became supportive over the years” telling her as she left for Boston that he was proud of what she had achieved.
Isher received a solid grounding from her socially conservative and religious family, which had a Gianji coming home to teach her and her siblings Gurumukhi. With Gurbani kirtan hardwired in her mental system, as she took flight and became one of the leading Indian policy economists of her generation, it was the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib that bolstered her and was “a tremendous source of strength in difficult times.” Isher graduated from Presidency College, and later joined the Delhi School of Economics (DSE) where she had the good fortune of being taught by outstanding minds like Prof. Amartya Sen, Prof. Sukhamoy Chakravarty and Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati. A government soft loan scheme and a student loan enabled her to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Isher took a firm stand on matters of conviction right from her student years in MIT, where she had opted for a course on ‘Schools of Economic Thought’, offered by Paul Samuelson (who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics). After a presentation by her classmate which ended up a disaster because of the Samuelson’s interruption, Isher went to his office and made him promise to allow her an uninterrupted 20-minute presentation, and insisted on a fair chance. “He readily agreed to this request and I was impressed that he did not seem to mind my implicit criticism,” she writes. After a year at MIT, when she received news of her father’s passing away, though miles away and alone with her grief, Isher took a gritty and pragmatic decision to not travel back to India, though she deeply regretted that she could not be with him during his last moments.
Isher’s autobiography is not just about her glorious career as an accomplished economic policy researcher and her professional prowess to build institutions and think tanks, teach (a brief stint at the University of Maryland), write (her two major books are: Industrial Growth in India: Stagnation Since the Mid-Sixties and Productivity and Growth in Indian Manufacturing), and head the most prestigious institutions like the Centre for Policy Research, the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER), the Punjab State Planning Board, and other such.
It is also about love, her 50-year-old marriage to Montek Singh Ahluwalia (Indian economist and civil servant who was the Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of India), the challenges of parenting, and her many cherished friendships (with Sudha Murty, who thought of her as being very wealthy because she had a great collection of books, with Mrs Gursharan Kaur, whose characteristic grace and simplicity she admired, with Kiran Mazumdar Shaw in whom she saw a combination of intelligence, energy and warmth, with Kenyan farmer, Purity Gachanga, who she felt was “an inspiring example of someone who had crafted success out of adversity”). Over and above, it depicts her struggle to retain her hard-won identity and not become Mrs Finance Secretary, and shatter the proverbial glass ceiling to claim her well-deserved place right at the top of the cerebral pecking order.
Throughout, Isher’s mindfulness while hobnobbing with political heavyweights and the cream of intelligentsia is clearly to stay unaffected by the indisputable effect of exposure to the corridors of power. She knew that while growing up in the status-conscious environment of Lutyens’ Delhi, she would have to counteract its influences. “While I was happy about Montek’s achievements, I didn’t want his official position to define who I was. And I most certainly didn’t want it to define who our children were, or would become,” she reveals.
While she acknowledges her mercurial temperament, it is Isher’s humility and her fierce intent to not allow the vanity of elite education and social position to define her way of life or her personal and political decisions that is most striking. As she expresses her gratefulness towards the many people who influenced her life, she talks fondly and with deep respect about former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh “who set an example for people like Montek”. But, she does not hesitate to express her disappointment at the “policy paralysis” that the UPA-II government was cornered into before it reached its halfway mark and that “Dr Singh appeared to have lost control of his government”. She confesses having wondered “why the PM didn’t just resign”.
Isher’s life, she affirms, has been “an absolute joyride”, and she did not realise that there was a crash-landing ahead. Diagnosed with a brain tumour, it was only after Montek’s book launch that she decided to pen her own story, in the most trying circumstances, and with a heart filled with gratitude for the good fortune in her life.
Written crisply, in an easy and engaging style, Isher’s compelling memoir is testimony to the extraordinary heights one can reach on one’s own merit and chutzpah, while keeping one’s feet firmly planted on the ground. A luminous, inspiring, fulfilling read.
Image Credit: Rupa Publications/ Isher Judge Ahluwalia
Archana Pai Kulkarni is the Books Editor at SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.