Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Lord Desai, economist and author

'I finished my PhD in 21 months'
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The Independent Online

Meghnad Desai, 69, is Professor Emeritus at the LSE and the author of 'Marx's Revenge'. A former member of the Labour front bench in the Lords during the early Nineties, last year he referred to Gordon Brown as "weak". His political novel 'Dead on Time' is out in September and 'The Rediscovery of India' will be published in October.

I can't remember an age when I couldn't read. My education started very early at home in a highly educated family but I didn't feel all that pushed. At six I went to the Central Primary school in Baroda. In those days before Independence, it was a "native" state in India with its own maharajah. It was the best educational building I ever went into, a beautiful red-brick building. The teaching was pretty straightforward.

I only did one year of primary school and at seven I went to Sayaji secondary school. I never felt smaller than everyone else but in the first year I had to stand, instead of sitting on the bench, to reach the desk. I faced no bullying and was regarded as a curiosity. The teachers were OK but I was made conscious at home that I should not expect too much of them.

We moved to Bombay when I was 10 and I went to Premier High, a considerably less well-built school on the top two floors of a tenement where my aunt used to teach and could keep an eye on me. It was a low-budget, subsidised school. It was serviceable with one really good teacher, a Parsee gentleman who taught me how to parse and analyse a sentence: very good training.

At 14 I took the leaving exams and went to Ruia College in Bombay. I took an arts degree, much to the disappointment of my parents; I should have been a doctor or engineer but I hated maths.

It was a four-year degree and the first two years were general: English, Gujarati, Sanskrit, Hindi, history and civics. Then I took six papers in economics, which in those days had not become very mathematical, and two papers in politics. I came first in my college but no one got a first-class degree.

I did a Masters. I wanted to do politics but my parents despaired that I had a suicidal tendency in my career. Then I met someone who had done economics and found a job in the Bank of India. I thought: "Wow – this is the job for me!"

I was two years at the Bombay School of Economics and got my MA just before my 20th birthday. Then I got myself into a PhD in international commodity agreements. That didn't last long, as I applied for a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. I got spectacularly good grades in the Graduation Record Examinations, an American exam that people can take anywhere in the world.

The four-year fellowship required that I did coursework and work as a research assistant to Professor Lawrence Klein, an econometrician (applying statistics and mathematics to build economic models). I enjoyed it immensely. It was very hard work and I was plunged in at the deep end but the man never publicly acknowledged my ignorance. I finished all my coursework and PhD in 21 months.

I went to my supervisor and offered to do another PhD. He said, "Go and get a job." He got me a job in agricultural economics at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. After two years at Berkeley, I became eligible to be called up for the draft for Vietnam, so I came to England and went to teach at the LSE.

My parents thought I had done very well but there were still relations who thought that I should have gone back home and got a job in the Indian civil service.