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The Many Lives of Kalyan Sanyal

Kalyan Sanyal was trained as a trade theorist in the mid-1970s and initially made many signifi cant contributions in the fi eld. But he later abandoned neoclassical economics to turn to a study of the Marxian approach to development. An appreciation by a former younger colleague who has an intellectual debt to Sanyal's work in trade theory.

The Many Lives of Kalyan Sanyal Sugata Marjit a description that was not meant to be of a great virtue. Yet, people knew that he belonged to a class of students that made the department, one of the top ranking ones in the world, proud of their existence.

Kalyan Sanyal was trained as a trade theorist in the mid-1970s and initially made many significant contributions in the field. But he later abandoned neoclassical economics to turn to a study of the Marxian approach to development. An appreciation by a former younger colleague who has an intellectual debt to Sanyal’s work in trade theory.

Sugata Marjit ( is at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

t has been exactly 35 years since I was inducted into the subject matter of pure theory of international trade as a student of Presidency College, Calcutta though till date I am still at a loss to ascertain the exact nature of such p urity. In some ways it meant a structure devoid of nuances of arguments that cloud the elegance of abstraction. It also meant an apparent distance from the concept of reality as we ordinarily understand it. Reconstructing the real from its physically visible form in terms of the bare essentials of a falsifiable theory is never an easy job. Yet, that is what trade theory does.

My experiment with trade theory substantially materialised during my years as a PhD student at the University of R ochester in the early 1980s. Someone there who impressed me beyond bounds, as a teacher and as a human being who eventually became my guide, mentor and co-author for many years was the legendary trade maestro Ron Jones, one of the early builders of general equilibrium trade theory.

Jones just had a brilliant Bengali student who after writing a remarkably original thesis and ignoring a postdoctoral offer from University of Chicago returned to Calcutta, back to his teaching position at Calcutta University. I did not meet him then, only knew of him from another trade theorist, Abhirup Sarkar, now a professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Calcutta and my room-mate who shared his room earlier with that brilliant graduate student of Ron Jones – Kalyan Sanyal.

Sanyal a ‘Marxist’

Kalyan, a blue-eyed student of my mentor, used to be referred to in the corridors of the department of economics at Rochester, a department more Hayekian in its philosophy than Hayek himself and more conservative in its approach than the Chicago school, as a “Marxist”,

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Kalyan’s third chapter of his doctoral thesis contained some work on Sraffa and trade and got the full approval of our guide who himself was and has always been a free market neoclassicist. It was Kalyan’s originality of mind that made a huge impact on Jones and led to the well-known joint paper with Kalyan as the lead author in the American Economic Review (1982) on the Theory of Middle Products, cited and worked on extensively in the literature.

On Trade in Intermediate Goods

Trade in intermediate goods more popularly known now as trade in vertical supply chains or fragmentation, though prevalent way back in the colonial period in the trading relationship between a colony and its owner, did not come up as a topic of interest in formal trade theory even in the 1970s. Kalyan’s Economica paper in 1983 somewhat pre-empted the well-known work of Avinash Dixit and Gene Grossman on trade and stages of production. Kalyan (1983) did the Ricardian version earlier in his thesis and Dixit and Grossman (1982) did the Heckscher-Ohlin analogue later. Those two were the pioneering papers on how to handle trade in goods in processes or intermediates in terms of basic trade models. Avinash Dixit, when I met him as a graduate student at Rochester immediately mentioned Kalyan’s name with reverence knowing that I was from Calcutta. Similar was the reaction of Gene Grossman, a contemporary of Kalyan from MIT, when I met him later. These were the creme de la creme of trade theory and they could identify easily the innovative content of Kalyan’s work. Needless to say as a junior researcher with similar lineage of Presidency College and Calcutta University, I felt elated.

My thesis, yet another on intermediate goods, drew its inspiration in full from Kalyan’s thesis and literally speaking from the very look of it, crisp,

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precise, mathematically full of elegantly explored ideas. While Abhirup Sarkar (1985) transformed a similar kind of inspiration into the Austrian Model of trade in intermediates involving Wicksellian and Hicksian concepts of capital and time, I kept pushing the more conventional Ricardian and Heckscher-Ohlin frontiers in extending Kalyan’s work, that yielded my Economica piece in 1987. The significance of Kalyan’s work was to suggest that countries could get worse off from technological progress trading in intermediates as was believed to be the case with the final goods, due to adverse terms of trade effects. Subsequently others, such as my own work in 1987, could argue that where within the vertical chain you specialised mattered. Needless to say, my early experiment with trade in intermediates, inspired by Kalyan’s work, has travelled new routes and avenues dealing with more complex issues related to trade policy (Marjit and Beladi 1999), fragmentation and development (Jones and Marjit 2001, 2009) and very recently virtual trade (Marjit 2007; Kikuchi and Marjit 2011). Thus my intellectual indebtedness to Kalyan lingers and lives on denied by any means.

Kalyan and Ron Jones’ work on m iddle products had a powerful idea. The idea that nothing in the world can be a purely traded good as local nontraded inputs must be used to bring them finally over to the local consumers, has been well appreciated in the literature. In fact any type of physical trade must involve middle products even if there is no explicit vertical chain. The good may be vertically integrated and shipped as a whole to a country. Yet, it will technically be a non-traded good if that needs to be transported by local vehicles to the doorstep of the consumers. Thus both ideas, one exploring comparative advantage within the v ertical chain and the other the intrinsic non-tradedness of traded objects, have been substantial enough to allure many researchers.

Study of Marxism

Kalyan returned home and after few visiting stints in the west chose to refrain from further exploring neoclassical e conomics in general and trade theory in particular. However, he remained one of the most outstanding teachers of trade theory producing excellent students, a few of whom I was privileged to supervise later. Instead Kalyan chose to do original work on rethinking the Marxian process of development and produced a commendable, now wellcited, book from Routledge that is being translated in other languages. Perhaps the appetite of his original mind could not find solace in the mechanisms of neoclassical and mainstream economics. He could not trade his intentions as an intellectual with the lucrative early offers in the west as he knew that by such a trade he could be easily sucked into the bandwagon narratives of a paradigm that he inherently disliked.

Full of wit and sharp humour Kalyan was not very easy to satisfy and, in fact, his defining personality put off many. He was a discerning scholar who would not hesitate to discard the run-of-the-mill contributions according to his judgment of scholarship and hence a diffi cult man to be popular in conventional terms. As a young scholar when I had approached him to do some joint work he had said that doing neoclassical economics can be fun and games of childhood, but it does not help growing up. This was not a very encouraging comment at that time for someone who had just returned from the bastions of neoclassical economics and who had all the affinity for that paradigm. Later I realised that it was his way of saying that one needed to do remarkably good work to make a real impact in the field. Eventually many years later Kalyan became quite generous showering compliments on my work even though he had no active interest in the subject matter. In fact one of such comments communicated through one of our common friends could have raised many eyebrows. One should note that such generosity came in spite of the fact that, inherently I was never convinced of the intricacies of the Marxian paradigm and as time moved on became even more convinced that the strength of neoclassical logic was far more diffi cult to tarnish, exactly opposite to Kalyan’s philosophic orientation.

Sense of Humour

Kalyan’s sense of humour was fantastic. This is a story I have heard from my friend

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Sanjay Banerjee, now of Nottingam University, who got it from Kalyan and I am repeating this roughly the way Sanjay had told me. The story was on the state of research and poor infrastructure of the economics department at Calcutta University sometime in the late 1990s or so.

Someone came to Kalyan to talk about possible research cooperation with the department and wanted to know about the general research atmosphere, etc. Kalyan said that he did not want to disappoint and dismiss him early and tried to pretend that everything was in order. He started by suggesting that the department had a great research portfolio. He had just completed the first statement when a gush of wind literally came from nowhere and had a noisy impact on the doors and windows. He had to get up and close the doors and windows properly.

Next he said that the infrastructure was all right. As soon as he completed the sentence, a small part in the corner of the ceiling caved in and the trash fell on the floor. He still tried to look convincing and remarked that lately the department had been engaging in a lot of collaborative work. This was the last nail in the coffi n, as Kalyan put it. As if hearing this, the earthen water container in the corner of the room turned upside down on its own with water streaming and spilling everywhere! Kalyan said that he could not pretend anymore. He could not fi ght against the wrath of god! The guest had to leave.

Kalyan Sanyal will be missed dearly by many.


Dixit, A K and G M Grossman (1982): “Trade and Protection with Multistage Production”, R eview of Economic Studies, 49(4), pp 583-94.

Jones, R W and S Marjit (2001): “The Role of International Fragmentation in the Development Process”, American Economic Review, 91(2), pp 363-66.

– (2009): “Competitive Trade Models and Real World Features”, Economic Theory, 41(1), pp 163-74.

Kikuchi, T and S Marjit (2011): “Growth with Time Zone Differences”, Economic Modelling, 28(12), pp 637-40.

Marjit, S (1987): “Trade in Intermediate and the C olonial Pattern of Trade”, Economica, 54, 173-84.

Marjit, S (2007): “Trade Theory and the Role of Time Zones”, International Review of Economics and Finance, 16(2), pp 153-60.

Marjit, S and H Beladi (1999): “Complementarity between Import Competition and Import Promotion”, Journal of Economic Theory, 86(2), pp 280-85.

Sanyal, K K and R W Jones (1982): “The Theory of Trade in Middle Products”, American Economic Review, 72, 16-31.

Sanyal, K K (1983): “Vertical Specialisation in a Ricardina Model with Continuum of Stages of Production”, Economica, 50, 71-78.

– (2007): “Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality and Post-Colonial Capitalism”, Routledge.

Sarkar, A (1985): “A Model of Trade in Intermediate Goods”, Journal of International Economics, 19, 85-98.

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