Six Nobels and counting in the City of Joy

I knew my history alright but never before in my lifetime had I seen it unfold like this.


Abhishek Sengupta

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Tue 15 Oct 2019, 9:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 1 Sep 2020, 4:57 PM

The evening had just descended upon Calcutta, nice and early, like it does every day around this time of the year. Playtime over, I had just begun putting books in the bag for school next day when the telephone rang.
The spectre of social media hadn't arrived yet, mobile phones weren't in vogue and news on the television made a great deal of sense with less hyperbole and more substance. My mate from school had called and asked me to turn on the TV right away. A Calcuttan like us, he said almost breathlessly, had just won the Nobel Prize in Economics. I leaped to switch on the TV and within moments the entire family had gathered in front of the screen sensing the extraordinary. It was the peak of autumn in 1998 and BBC's news of the moment was Amartya Sen winning the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel or the Economics Nobel, as the world often calls it.
I knew my history alright but never before in my lifetime had I seen it unfold like this. Almost two decades after Mother Teresa won the ultimate global recognition for her work on the streets of my city "in bringing help to suffering humanity" amidst all the squalor and grime, it was yet another person from our neck of the woods winning the Nobel. Nineteen years apart. Peace in 1979 - three years before I was born. Economics in 1998 - the first such instance in my lifetime.
When news of MIT's Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo winning the nine million Swedish krona (Dh3.3 million) purse with the Harvard's Michael Kremer broke the social media on Monday, it was a special Calcutta encore, after 21 years. This time for their research findings that "dramatically improved our ability to fight poverty in practice".
If there's a city that defines India's succinct Nobel story, then it is Calcutta, as it was always called. Calcutta became Kolkata only in 2001 but not before it raised at least three other Nobel heroes including Rabindranath Tagore. A polymath who influenced Bengali literature and music as much, if not more, as William Shakespeare helped shape early  English, Tagore won the literature Nobel in 1913 - becoming not just the first Indian and Asian but also the first non-European to win the award. Like Tagore, CV Raman and Ronald Ross too won the Nobel for their body of work, largely based in Calcutta.
Raman, who won for physics in 1930, like Tagore, was the first Asian to win a science Nobel. It is during his time at Calcutta University as a professor when he worked on the scattering of light that eventually led him to discover what is now the Raman Effect.
However, Calcutta's Nobel saga began way back in 1902 in only the award's second year when Ronald Ross won the Nobel for Medicine. He was also the first Briton to get this award. Yet his discovery of the malarial parasite and his studies that eventually proved that mosquitoes transmitted malaria - all happened in Kolkata where he arrived in 1989 as a member of the British-era Indian Medical Service. Decades later, it inspired Amitav Ghosh, another Calcutta-born, to write his 1995 English medical thriller, The Calcutta Chromosome. What's about them? Perhaps only the Nobel committee knows best.

More news from