Sudhir Mulji

Keynesian columnist and businessman
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The Independent Online

Sudhir Mulji led a wonderfully varied life as a businessman, economist, academic, journalist, sportsman, a Wiltshire country gent, father of four and member by marriage of the extensive Guinness clan. In his last week he was, first, father of the bride at the wedding of his younger daughter, Gopali, at his wife Rosaleen's family home, Biddesden (with all its Bloomsbury Group associations); and then part of the celebrations when his friend Manmohan Singh, the 14th prime minister of India, received an honorary degree at Oxford.

Born in Bombay in 1938, Mulji was sent by his anglophile father to be educated in England, first at prep school and then at Charterhouse. He read PPE at Christ Church, Oxford, where his economics tutors were Sir Roy Harrod and Maurice Scott. He returned to India in 1960 an eager polo player (despite the serious handicap of being left-handed), an avid bridge player (and reader of books on the subject), a bon vivant interested in food and wine and an already gracious host. But above all Mulji was a young man with a keen curiosity and a lively and inquiring mind - so much so that this young graduate was chosen by Sachin Chaudhuri, founder editor of the Economic Weekly (now Economic and Political Weekly) as his assistant editor. (Mulji later named his first son after him.)

During this time, Mulji was also secretary of the Maharashtra wing of the Swatantra Party. Founded in 1959, the party opposed the democratic socialism of the Congress Party by advocating liberal, market-friendly views. From 1962 to 1970 Mulji was manager of Great Eastern Shipping, a company with which he had a family connection, becoming joint managing director in 1974-79, CEO of Great Eastern London, 1980-85, and deputy chairman from 1992.

In 1965 Mulji married his fellow Oxford undergraduate the vivacious Rosaleen Guinness, daughter of the second Lord Moyne, who as the writer Bryan Guinness was a close friend and neighbour of Carrington, the painter, and Lytton Strachey, when they lived at Ham Spray. (Carrington did some decorations at Biddesden, including a remarkable trompe l'oeil painted window, and Strachey's letters also contain memorable descriptions of visits to the Guinnesses' Dublin house, Knockmaroon.)

Mulji spent a year back at Oxford in 1970, at Nuffield College, where I remember him vividly as a warm and urbane member of the college, ready to talk about every subject under the Oxford sun, unlike some of our single-minded peers. Even so, he took a very active part in the intellectually effervescent discussions of development economics being led by Ian Little, Jim Mirrlees and Maurice Scott. This experience touched Mulji profoundly, and from then on both Oxford and economics vied for his attention with his shipping and entrepreneurial interests. Nuffield elected him a Visiting Fellow from 1979 to 1988, and he became an Honorary Fellow of the college in 1998.

He and Rosaleen moved from Bombay to Delhi at the beginning of the 1970s, to a house at Malcha Marg in Chanakyapuri that not only accommodated their growing family, but allowed them to host many visiting economists, among them Professors Little and Mirrlees, Amartya Sen, Vijay Joshi, Deepak Lal and Nicholas Stern, and resident friends such as I.G. Patel, Mrinal Datta-Chaudhuri and Manmohan Singh. For 30 years the Malcha Marg house resounded to the clash of economic ideas and policies. Mulji's own views were shaped by his close reading of Adam Smith, whose microeconomics he endorsed, and Maynard Keynes, from whom he took his macroeconomics. He would sometimes startle those with whom he was debating by quoting, with an amused glimmer in his eye and a self-deprecatingly modest smile, detailed passages verbatim from obscure corners of their works.

Mulji acquired another string to his bow in the early 1990s, when he began writing a regular fortnightly column for the quality Indian newspaper Business Standard. His views on India's economic policies and financial issues were expressed elegantly and without equivocation, but, though the topics were always to do with contemporary matters, he dealt with them with a wealth of allusions to the past - sometimes literary, sometimes historical or philosophical, and often bolstered by quotation from great economists of earlier times.

Some observers were surprised by the popularity of these carefully crafted columns among the hard-headed business community of India, but Mulji had a substantial following. Through his column he brought Keynes's ideas to life for his Indian businessman and policymaker readers, while himself advocating the liberalisation of the Indian economy via lower interest rates, greater public spending and freedom of capital movements. The Indian economy seems to be moving in these directions, though probably independently of his advocacy.

In 1986 the Rajiv Gandhi government appointed him chairman of India's State Trading Corporation. But the post lasted only a few months because, wrote Shankar Acharya, chief economic adviser to the government, "Sudhir's appetite and skills for futures trading in commodities far exceeded the Indian bureaucracy's stomach for such commercial enterprise and the experience ended unhappily".

Both in India and at their country house at Ludgershall, the Muljis lavished food, drink and good conversation on their family and friends on a scale reminiscent of the Bloomsbury Group, in whom Mulji became increasingly interested, chiefly because of his reverence for Keynes. He especially relished visiting Charleston, the restored house in Sussex that belonged to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, and strolling down the farm track to Keynes's own house, Tilton, to visit his friend Robert Skidelsky, Keynes's biographer, who lives there now.

Only a few days before his death from a stroke, Mulji told Shankar Acharya that he was himself thinking of writing a book on Keynes. It is sad that it will never happen, for the book would have been elegantly written and full of erudition, humour, affection, wit and humanity.

Paul Levy

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