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Do we share any glory in Abhijit Banerjee's Nobel recognition?

  • Published at 04:34 pm November 11th, 2019
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Photo: Reuters

Introspection, not meaningless chest-beating nationalism is the way forward

This is not the first time this has happened, and this is far from being the last time we will witness this. However, this is the most recent incarnation of something that, to me at least, betrays an intellectual poverty in us, Bangladeshi, or even Bengalis.

My thoughts on this have been triggered most recently by one of the Economics Nobel laureates in 2019" Abhijit Banerjee. First, there was a rather distasteful episode when a leading national daily referred to one of the other laureates, Esther Duflo, as "his wife". 

While I was not surprised that many of my countrymen did not seem to see the problem with this label, it was still rather disheartening to see people defending it by saying that our interest in the news is solely due to the fact that  Abhijit Banerjee is of Bengali descent, hence every other aspect of this news is to be seen through the lens of how it relates to him.

Never mind that somehow the Nobel, a recognition of civilization's greatest achievements, does not evoke curiosity or excitement in so many of us. Never mind that few of us show any interest in reading a little about what his work was on, how it relates to the modern world and the influence it has on our lives. We could not be bothered any less, and we are content to simply pat our collective national backs because "one of ours" has won the Nobel.

And yet it is on this very point that I have the greatest contention. Is it really fair to think of Abhijit Banerjee as "one of ours"? I am not alluding to the fact that he is not Bangladeshi. I am happy to concede that he is of Bengali descent, and that does mean that there is much in common between him and other Bengalis. 

My question is, have we done anything to merit being able to refer to him as one of ours? Did we provide him with the opportunities, the atmosphere of intellectual curiosity and freedom, and the academic infrastructure where he could have done the research which eventually led to the Nobel prize? Is our pride in him now, our eagerness to include him, any different from the numerous other occasions we have acted the same way? Be it an academic, an athlete, an artist, or an engineer, it seems we have a penchant for depriving our most gifted individuals, driving them to leave for better opportunities, and then rushing to "own" them once they make it big.

Be it Abhijit Banerjee, Margarita Mamun, or Jawed Karim, we lost them to the rest of the world, a world that afforded them the opportunities to pursue their passions and leverage their gifts. Now that they are successful, we want them to identify with us, we want the world to acknowledge that they are one of us. I disagree. 

They are not, and we do not deserve the recognition of their sharing roots with us. Not only have we done nothing to utilize such talent, it is possibly even safe to say that had they chosen to live in our societies, they would have had to give up on all their most cherished dreams and aim to become civil servants, engineering students, or doctors, because we as a nation do not respect anything else.

At least, not until success has already been achieved. Put that way, we want to reap all the benefits without taking any of the risks. That is not fair. 

We do not deserve to bask in this second-hand glory of people whose success and influence could only come at the cost of leaving the society we have created. At the risk of repeating myself, these people may be of Bengali descent, but they went on to become global citizens and were only thus able to pursue their dreams. We do not deserve to call them one of ours.

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