The Economist Statesman: Dr. Manmohan Singh

Khushwant Singh

Dr. Manmohan Singh

Cruise to Cambridge

Going abroad was not without its challenges – a long sea journey, financial constraints, and cultural adjustments. In September 1955, a mixture of excitement and nervousness filled young Manmohan as he embarked on a train to Bombay and then boarded the magnificent ocean liner, SS Stratheden. With its 653-member crew, 527 first-class rooms, 453 tourist-class berths, a dining room, dance floor, and a swimming pool, it represented the epitome of sophistication for him.

During the voyage, he took the opportunity to send a letter to his prospective tutor, CW Guilleband. Enjoying the brief stops at Aden, Port Said, Marseilles, and Gibraltar, he eventually arrived at Tilbury in the UK. There, he was greeted by Jai Dev Verma, a fellow teacher from Hoshiarpur who was pursuing a PhD at the London School of Economics. After spending two days exploring London, Manmohan eagerly boarded the train bound for the esteemed University of Cambridge.

For Manmohan, Cambridge marked another significant milestone. It was a place where he experienced intellectual growth, pursued the pursuit of truth, fearlessly expressed himself, and forged lifelong friendships. The environment in Cambridge encouraged the acceptance of diverse perspectives. Similar to his previous educational experiences, he found exceptional mentors at Cambridge, and his respectful behavior and excellent tutorials were appreciated by his teachers. While he held steadfast to Keynesian principles, he also admired the views of Sir Dennis Robertson and Joan Robinson. He contemplated social equity and capitalism, ultimately incorporating aspects of both into his ideology later in life.

Despite his immersion in studies, Manmohan maintained a connection with India through his correspondence with his friend Madan Lal. There was even a time when he had borrowed money from Madan Lal. In 1956, he received the heartbreaking news from his father, Gurmukh, that his grandmother had passed away, leaving a profound void in his life.

Manmohan excelled in the Economics Tripos at Cambridge and was honored with an honorary law degree from the university in later years. Despite his consistent academic achievements, he remained modest. After topping the Tripos, he humbly wrote to Madan Lal, “I wonder if I am brilliant… it is all luck.”

His exceptional abilities were recognized through awards such as the prestigious Wright’s Prize and the Adam Smith Prize for his essay on “International Investment and Economic Development.”

His professors consistently praised him, highlighting his ability to analyze and synthesize information effectively while remarking on his modesty, which sometimes bordered on being excessive. One of his professors, Robin Matthews, expressed his confidence in Manmohan’s brilliance, stating, “If it were a question of appointing an economic advisor to the government of India, I should certainly recommend him…”

At the age of 25, the world was at Manmohan’s feet. Nicholas Kaldor, one of the Tripos examiners, wrote a letter to the then Finance Minister, T.T. Krishnamachari, suggesting that Manmohan was ideally suited to work for the treasury. He was offered the position of senior research officer in the ministry. Additionally, the United Nations Administrator’s office expressed interest in recruiting him, and the Delhi School of Economics extended an invitation for him to join its faculty as a lecturer.

Even though he had been awarded a scholarship to pursue his D.Phil at Nuffield College (which he completed in 1962), Oxford, Manmohan Singh couldn’t immediately fulfill this opportunity. Panjab University required him to repay the scholarship money with interest before releasing the bond. On top of that, his father fell ill, compelling Manmohan to return to India. However, his determination remained unwavering, and he made plans to go back.

With Kiki, on her third birthday, Oxford, 1962 With Kiki, on her third birthday, Oxford, 1962

Dr. Singh embarked on his career in Hoshiarpur, joining Panjab University as a senior lecturer with a salary of Rs 500. The brilliant young man now stood at the precipice of adulthood, poised to embrace the challenges and triumphs that awaited him.

Bonded for Life

Dr. Manmohan Singh, with his inherent humility, may never openly admit it, but his wife, Gursharan, gleefully reveals that he was utterly captivated by her shy and unassuming demeanor from the very moment they first encountered each other. Their union, destined by fate, was swiftly and decisively sealed within a mere half-hour of their introductory meeting. It is Gursharan’s amiable and sociable nature that beautifully complements Dr. Singh’s tranquil disposition, forging a harmonious balance within their relationship. During our visit to the Singh household, I had the delightful opportunity to meet Gursharan, who passionately engaged in conversations with my wife, Harmala, discussing her art workshops, life in Chandigarh, and various other topics of shared interest.


Government College for Girls, Patiala, 1955: Gursharan in row 1, second from right. To her right is Miss Malhotra, later Padma Verma Government College for Girls, Patiala, 1955: Gursharan in row 1, second from right. To her right is Miss Malhotra, later Padma Verma

Notably, the Singhs are our esteemed neighbors in the charming Sector 11 of Chandigarh. As our engrossing conversation effortlessly flowed, Gursharan graciously extended an invitation for another cup of tea—an offer we gladly accepted, cherishing this rare encounter that we wished would never come to an end.

Gursharan’s father, Chatar Singh, also experienced the trials of traversing borders during the tumultuous period of Partition, relocating his family from Nowshera. Fortunately, her father secured employment with the esteemed Burmah Shell Company, now known as Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited. Abiding by the company’s directive, the family settled in Amritsar, given the opportunity for employees to choose the side of the yet-undetermined border on which they wished to reside.

Prior to the unsettling events of Partition, Gursharan, affectionately known as Shanni, was born in Jullunder in 1937. Subsequently, owing to her father’s employment circumstances, the family journeyed from Chaman to Kohat and eventually found their home in Ambala. It was in Rawalpindi that Gursharan completed her education, pursuing studies in science, music, and English as part of her graduation—an achievement that set her apart as one of the exceptional female graduates of her time.

But it was Gursharan’s enchanting voice and her deep love for music that truly endeared her to others. Coming from a family deeply rooted in religious traditions, she began singing shabads (devotional songs) after reaching the fourth grade. Although she didn’t consistently pursue music, her passion for it has endured throughout the years. In fact, when the couple relocated to Chandigarh after their marriage, Dr. Singh gifted her a Morphy radio so she could enjoy her favorite programs.

During their one-year engagement, Manmohan would frequently visit Gursharan, joining her family for meals and taking her out for movies. Their wedding ceremony, attended by 150 guests, was a simple and heartfelt affair.

Over time, their shared values have served as a strong foundation for their relationship. Both Dr. Singh and Gursharan appreciate good music and lead simple lives, never engaging in religious discussions. They embraced an austere lifestyle and forged many friendships. They also instilled a love for books in their three daughters—Upinder, Daman, and Amrit.

While Dr. Singh remained occupied with his work, Gursharan efficiently managed their household affairs. Like her husband, she formed close bonds with her teachers, and they both cherished the company of cheerful individuals. Dr. Singh would often gift her brightly colored saris, and she effortlessly adapted to the dynamics of his large family. Gursharan never felt the need for a career or higher education, despite Dr. Singh’s initial plans of enrolling her at Oxford.

Eventually, the couple settled into a house near the Panjab University campus in Chandigarh, with Dr. Singh often walking or cycling to his workplace. They embarked on their married life with warmth and hospitality, making new friends and opening their doors to relatives and loved ones. Their time in Chandigarh was so fulfilling that they even purchased a house there, envisioning it as their post-retirement residence. However, life had different plans in store.

Dr. Singh found fulfillment in his role as a teacher, realizing his lifelong dream. As the youngest lecturer, he imparted knowledge in subjects such as macroeconomics, public finance, and agricultural economics. He also organized visits by esteemed faculty from Cambridge, welcoming prominent economists like Harry Hinsley and Joan Robinson.

The couple’s first child, Upinder, was born in a government hospital in Amritsar. According to family accounts, Dr. Singh cherished fatherhood and would spend long hours playing with his baby daughter. He even obtained a book on childcare by Dr. Spock and studied it diligently. Dr. Singh felt at ease with children under the age of five, but he admitted to being perplexed by older ones.

He was also adept at offering guidance to young individuals seeking advice, yet he never interfered in his daughters’ lives. Although he didn’t always approve of their college majors, he learned to remain silent and make amends. Nevertheless, his daughters carried forward the family’s legacy of teaching and serving others.

Although their relationship wasn’t characterized by a highly active father-child dynamic, there was always mutual respect and love. Daman fondly recalls her father as a busy and disciplined individual. She also vividly remembers his brisk walking pace and fast driving, recounting an incident from their time in the United States. “He initially faced challenges in obtaining a driver’s license in the USA, but when he finally acquired one in India, he drove a Fiat car so fast. In India, Dr. Singh earned admiration for driving a humble Maruti 800 during a time when most people had transitioned to larger and more luxurious vehicles.

Daman, also vividly remembers his disdain for the misuse of official resources, which meant that the family had to exercise caution when using the telephone, refrain from using the official car for personal purposes, and live within their means.

As the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Dr. Singh took the initiative to compile an inventory of all the artifacts and antique furniture present at the official residence in the Governor’s House in Bombay, highlighting his meticulousness and attention to detail.

The family rarely had the opportunity to spend quality time together, and their most memorable trip was a visit to Nainital in 1974. They also delighted in exploring bookstores such as Ramakrishna and Sons in Connaught Place and Galgotia. Additionally, they savored South Indian cuisine at Krishna Sweets in Kamla Nagar, indulged in Mughlai delights in Daryaganj, and relished the flavorsome chaat in Bengali Market.

Although it may be challenging to envision Dr. Singh’s lighter side, Daman fondly recalls his penchant for giving nicknames. One uncle was affectionately known as Jewel Babu, while another was called John Babu. Daman herself was referred to as Little Noan, Amrit as Little Ram, and even their dog, Penu, received the name Nut Babu due to his mischievous nature. Dr. Singh found amusement in Penu’s antics, while Gursharan often expressed concern.

While the Singhs didn’t actively follow religious practices, they always maintained a deep respect for tradition. When their eldest daughter chose to marry someone from outside their community, it was initially a stressful decision for them. However, they eventually embraced the goodness of the human spirit, and life carried on. With subsequent decisions, accepting their daughters’ choices became easier, and they have nurtured positive relationships with their sons-in-law. Now, as grandparents, their lives have entered a whole new dimension of joy and fulfillment.

Despite Dr. Singh’s serious disposition, his lighter side emerges when he is in the company of his close friends.

Khushwant Singh