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May 02, 2020

Jayshree Sengupta Represented the Gracious Qualities That Have Become So Rare

The economist-journalist always handled herself with poise, courtesy and civility, even in contexts that have grown increasingly less appreciative of these fine qualities.
Jayashree Sengupta. Photo: ORF/Twitter

Jayshree Sengupta was a fighter—but a graceful one, someone who did not really let you see that she was fighting. From her persistent championing of particular causes to her last valiant battle with cancer, she always handled herself with poise, courtesy and civility, even in contexts that have grown increasingly less appreciative of these fine qualities.

Born before Independence in the city of Allahabad, she lived through momentous times and was often very much in the thick of the policy discussions and decisions that shaped those times, because of her marriage to the eminent economist, policymaker and parliamentarian Arjun Sengupta. She was an accomplished economist in her own right, with degrees from the Delhi School of Economics and the London School of Economics. But like many women who share their lives with very successful men, she tended to subordinate her own career and potential to those of her husband and to underplay her achievements. Her husband’s work took him across the world to many different locations, and Jayshree-di would accompany him uncomplainingly, without either demanding or expecting professional recognition in the many different places that she had to make her home over the decades.

It is probably for that reason—and because over the years she chose more journalistic vehicles for her analysis and views—that she did not receive as much recognition for her fine economic insights as she deserved. Yet, she has left behind an impressive body of work. She was the author or editor of several books including A Nation in Transition: Understanding the Indian Economy (Academic Foundation, 2007) and (edited with Sandro Sideri) The 1992 Single European Market and the Third World.

But she was probably most well-known as an insightful economic journalist: she was a correspondent for the Economic Times from Washington, DC and later became a columnist for newspapers like The Tribune, besides contributing hundreds of articles to many other national and international publications. These brought out her talent for conveying complex ideas in a clear and simple manner for a more general audience. In her later years, she was senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. Her approach was always progressive, with evident empathy for poor and disadvantaged groups, and she evaluated macroeconomic and other policies from that perspective. She persisted in this focus, even though, as she confided to her daughter Mitu (herself an academic based in Canada) that various editors advised her not to write on such “heavy” topics such as poverty and inequality, since most readers did not have the appetite for such “depressing” news. She also had a particular focus on women, being especially concerned with the lack of social and economic recognition of women’s work.

Jayshree-di knew how to enjoy life: she loved entertaining and was a generous and expansive hostess; enjoyed good company and was always ready for a good adda; and appreciated and valued beautiful things. She was herself a fine painter and became an avid collector of art: the Sengupta homes were always full of very impressive paintings, often acquired when the now-famous painter was still a relatively unknown struggling artist. She also had a great affinity for plants and the proverbial green thumb that could coax wondrous results even out of potted plants. Perhaps tellingly, she preferred cacti—the supposedly less beautiful and more ignored species.

The “sense of an ending” that comes from learning about her death on April 19 at her home in Delhi is not only because of the utter strangeness of life under the COVID-19 lockdown, when even her many friends could not be with her daughter to mourn her. It is also because she represented the gracious civilisational qualities that have become so scarce, the qualities that make life worth living.

Jayati Ghosh is a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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