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Fragile Goodness: Meeting The Nashes At Delhi University

26/05/2015 1:17 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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FILE - In this Oct. 28, 1997 file photo, John Forbes Nash, 1994 Economics Nobel Prize winner, takes a break during the European School of Economics conference in Rome. Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician whose struggle with schizophrenia was chronicled in the 2001 movie "A Beautiful Mind,” died in a car crash along with his wife in New Jersey on Saturday, May 23, 2015, police said. (AP Photo/Plinio Lepri, File)

Professor John Nash and his wife Alicia Nash visited the Delhi School of Economics (DSE), which is part of the University of Delhi (DU), on 14 February 2007. I was fortunate in being able to set aside time from my own teaching and research supervision at the university in order to attend the Q&A session that he agreed to have with students of DU - and, it turned out, also from elsewhere - at the Vivekananda Hall of the DSE. When the Nashes arrived and were ushered into the auditorium, it was already overflowing with students and faculty members. Professor Nash had expressed more of an interest in this Q&A session with students than in delivering a formal lecture at DU, I was told.

The Nashes were accompanied by their son John Charles Martin Nash, and - from a distance - the three could be mistaken for any other Western family visiting the campus. However, as they came closer, both John and Alicia Nash's distinctively handsome presence became almost palpable - notwithstanding the fact that they were in their mid- to late 70s by then: I recall the awed silence that ensued for several moments (before the applause broke out) throughout the auditorium as they came into clearer view.

"We had heard that Professor Nash was socially somewhat awkward; what we had not bargained for was his child-like charm and openness to questions."

The Q&A session got off to a lively start, following the brief introduction given to John Nash and his path-breaking work (and its applications in economics and elsewhere) by Professor Pulin Nayak, who (as I recall) was then head of economics at DSE and chair of the Q&A session. We had heard that Professor Nash was socially somewhat awkward; what we had not bargained for was his child-like charm and openness to questions. The questions from the young people in the audience ranged from the most esoteric queries regarding finer points that he had made in his papers on game theory to those about his opinion regarding the most recent recipients of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics. Others asked whether he really used to "see" the imagined characters in the movie A Beautiful Mind.

Very occasionally, Professor Nash had to ask the chair for a repetition of a question because he was genuinely unfamiliar with the asker's accent. But he attempted to answer every question, even the most banal ones, earnestly and clearly, even if this meant that he had to point out quite unequivocally what was fictionalised about him in the movie! For sheer lack of time, a number of queries had to go unanswered, but I got the sense that the students dispersed with the feeling that here was an unusual genius of a man who refused to "talk down" to students or younger people because of his stature or his stardom. He was a living example of simplicity and dignity in one.

Some of us got to meet the Nashes up close only during the tea and coffee session that followed the long-drawn-out Q&A session. It was here, in the coffee lounge of the economics department at DSE, that we saw them as beautiful - albeit unconventionally so - and vulnerable individuals.

Professor Nash remained in animated conversation with my colleagues about both technical matters and the programmes of the DSE and DU, with particular attention to the students' needs and aspirations, as I recall. I approached Mrs. Nash, and found her civil and unpretentious, but also somewhat reserved, possibly because she was rather acutely conscious of the spotlight on her and her family even in this relatively protected setting, besides of course still being jetlagged, just as any ordinary mortal would be after having recently flown halfway across the world.

She gave us this shy, very fetching smile, and through her few words and her body language, nonetheless communicated volumes as one who had gone through rather a lot in life, notwithstanding her still-evident elegance and gravitas, perhaps a vestige of her aristocratic Latin American upbringing. (With great civility, she made it rather clear that she was not very happy being photographed in that setting - and I felt persuaded to respect her privacy.)

"Their sudden demise last weekend brings home even more poignantly the fragile goodness in them that I was privileged to witness from up close for that brief afternoon."

Their son, John Charles - despite his own history of schizophrenia, just barely evident in the Sudoku and teen-fiction books he carried with him - was more forthcoming in chatting with us, possibly also because he w closer to us in age than his parents did. He came over to the table where the tea, coffee and snacks were laid out and asked us for recommendations on the beverages and eats before he ventured to try the samosas and bakery biscuits, while looking all around with curiosity.

It was the senior Nashes, however, who were really striking as beautiful people - they were acutely aware of the stardom thrust upon them, and appeared so much the more vulnerable for that. I was reminded of a conversation that I had had five years earlier with classicist Robert F. Goheen, the India-born President of Princeton University during the crucial years of 1957-1972 (and later Ambassador to India during the Carter years) about the Nashes.

Ambassador Goheen told me that he had continued to check on Nash's health through those troubled years in the latter's life (via colleagues of Nash in mathematics at Princeton) since he knew that this was a special scholar fallen on hard days - a far cry from the present-day Indian ethos of "Monsanto-isation of education", to use a phrase mentioned by Arundhati Roy at a meeting today, that would immediately have had Professor John Nash thrown out as a useless vagrant from our increasingly policed and biometrised university campuses today.

The Nashes reminded me, once more, of the title of a volume, The Fragility of Goodness, by another established classicist, Martha C. Nussbaum. Their sudden demise last weekend brings home even more poignantly the fragile goodness in them that I was privileged to witness from up close for that brief afternoon. Their child-like unpretentiousness and their charming smiles remained and will remain etched in my memory, and, I am sure, in the memories of all those who had the good fortune to meet them.

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