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Some marriages are made in heaven, others at the World Bank. Isher Judge and Montek Singh Ahluwalia met in 1970 when she (a brilliant student at MIT) interned at IMF while he was already a risen star in the World Bank’s bureaucracy. They were both Indian Sikhs, both economists.  Fate saw to it that they married, which they did a year later. Their well-matched partnership – they were once dubbed ‘two budgerigars’ - lasted 49 years, ending a few days ago in New Delhi with Isher’s final submission to cancer.

My wife Shahnaz and I knew little of Isher’s background when we first met her and Montek in New Delhi at a dinner given in Hyderabad House in March 1997 by I.K. Gujral (then Minister for External Affairs) for Dr Henry Kissinger and his wife Nancy.

I met the Ahluwalias the next time by chance in the Lahore Museum. He and Isher were on their way back from Islamabad where he had been participating in a SAARC Finance Secretaries conference. I noticed them wandering in the Sikh Gallery. I arranged for them to see the more interesting paintings in the reserve collection. They assumed I must be a museum employee, until they learned of my professional career and books.

Over the years we and our families met – in New Delhi, in Lahore, in Washington D.C.  They saw fragments of our lives, we shared episodes in theirs. It is only after I read Isher’s chronicle of her life – Breaking Through - that I appreciated more fully and deeply her unquenchable resolve, her determination to succeed, and the well-spring of her religious faith.

Isher’s father took his brood of eleven children (ten daughters and one son) from their home in Lahore in 1940 to Indore and then to Kolkata. Isher studied there, moving upmarket for her M.A. at the Delhi School of Economics (where Amartya Sen taught), and for her PhD at M.I.T. where her mentor was Professor Paul Samuelson. Both matured into Nobel Prize awardees.

While at M.I.T., Isher interned at the I.M.F. She had been given a list of eligible Indian bachelors she should cultivate in Washington. One of them - Montek Singh Ahluwalia - called her. She liked him: he ‘carried his brilliance lightly, had a very good sense of humour and was a great conversationalist.’

After marriage, they surprised their cocooned IMF/World Bank colleagues by returning to India. Gradually, they inched up the greasy pole of New Delhi’s meritocracy until Montek at the enviably early age of thirty-six was asked to become Economic Advisor to the Government of India. Isher maintained her professional career in parallel, becoming an increasingly renowned economist.  

On their way up, they met Dr Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur. In an earlier age, they would have exchanged turbans. Instead, Manmohan Singh-ji and Montek shared the same blue colour for theirs. In 1991, Manmohan Singh as Finance Minister invited Montek to become his Finance Secretary. Isher supported and shared Montek’s success but never allowed herself to fall into the trap of becoming ‘Mrs Finance Secretary’. She remained, as she reminded anyone who asked for Dr Ahluwalia, ‘This is she’.

The secret of their frictionless compatibility lay, as she explained in her memoir, because ‘Montek and I have always kept a degree of separation when it comes to our work. We have never authored a paper together, for example, and while we are always happy to respond to the other’s request for feedback on a specific issue, we have been quite clear that our relationship is not defined by the fact that we both happen to be economists.’

To have seen Isher participate in seminars, particularly in her specialty of urban infrastructure, was to witness a force that at its best could influence government policy, always for the better. Her expertise, honed over years of research, made her an obvious and dependable choice for official boards and international bodies.  

In 1997, she was offered the top job in ICRIER (Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations). She hesitated. Montek gave her the nudge she needed: ‘Montek assured me that having been Chief Executive of our household for three decades I had mastered the art of multi-tasking and I would certainly be able to manage ICRIER.’

Isher’s devotion to her religion never wavered: ‘Gurbani kirtan is hardwired into my mental system, ‘she wrote, ‘and, through my life, has been a tremendous source of strength in difficult times.’ The Gurbani kirtan played at her bedside as Isher passed from this life into immortality. Her sons Pavan and Aman each held a hand.  She had often told them: “There are two things we should give our children: one is roots and the other is wings”. One budgerigar of the pair has taken wing.



[DAWN, 1 October 2020)


01 October 2020
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