Former I4I Managing Editor Nalini Gulati pens a heartfelt tribute to our founding Editor-in-Chief Prof. Ashok Kotwal.
As the Managing Editor of I4I – working with founding Editor-in-Chief Prof. Ashok Kotwal over the past 10 years – ‘words’ have been my job. Yet today, as I write this tribute for Ashok with a heavy heart, I am not sure I can adequately convey what his mentorship has meant to me. I will try anyway.
It was the summer of 2012. We were at the brink of I4I’s launch. I was walking towards the room at the India International Centre in Delhi where Ashok was holding a meeting with economists such as Prof. Abhijit Banerjee to discuss his vision and strategy for the portal. Prof. Rohini Somanathan of the Delhi School of Economics was headed there as well, and I mentioned that I would be meeting Ashok for the first time. ‘Ashok was among the first Indian academics to contribute significantly to development economics’, she told me with a smile. As a fresh economics graduate, one can imagine my thrill at the prospect of working with him. Little did I know at the time, that my association with Ashok will shape me not just as a professional but as an individual.
It quickly became apparent to me how deeply Ashok cared about evidence-based policy. I was roped into the project and his commitment to I4I’s mission inspired me to give it my best. He was generous in sharing his vast knowledge, and vocal in his appreciation of the team’s efforts. I began learning about analysing research and communicating insights outside of the specialist audience. He taught me to work hard, and he taught me to unwind. In October 2014, when I was on vacation in Santorini, an email from Ashok to the team popped up on my phone. I could not resist sending my input right away. ‘You are not supposed to be working on the coast of Mediterranean’, he replied solemnly.
Since I had the privilege of working closely with him, I keenly observed his soft skills while engaging with stakeholders, during the journey of building I4I. ‘How can someone be so consistently kind?’, I often wondered. Eventually, I also got to know more about his amazing family in Canada and had the chance to meet his wife Truus during her visits to India. Truus has been incredibly considerate, keeping all of us informed through the difficult times when Ashok was unwell. He spoke fondly of his daughters and grandchildren. He was always content and talking to him gave me a sense of calm as well.
Just a few days back, Ashok wrote a heartwarming note on my exit from I4I to return to graduate school. It ended up being the last thing he wrote on I4I and it is a treasured memory for me. He mentions there that the time difference between Vancouver and Delhi meant that my workdays were unreasonably long. I want to tell him that our I4I chats never felt like work. No matter what kind of day I was having, Ashok’s 9 pm calls (morning coffee time for him) sparked joy and engaged my mind in our shared mission. Even though he lived miles and miles away, his presence was uplifting for me – right until he breathed his last.
Ashok played multiple roles in my life. He guided my professional work and supported my plans for doctoral studies. When my pet died, he consoled me like a parent. We gossiped about the British royalty like friends. When I was planning to visit Turkey, he introduced me to the fascinating history of Hagia Sophia. My last physical memory of Ashok is from September 2019 – just ahead of the pandemic – when he was in India for a public event of I4I. We had lunch at Amour Bistro in Malcha Marg, with one of our mutual favourite people Vikas Dimble (Content Editor, I4I). We must have talked shop but what I still remember from that day is excitedly telling Ashok that I had finally learnt to drive in Delhi. He thought it was crazy and asked if I had good health insurance! I drove him to Parikshit Ghosh’s (I4I Editorial Board Member and Ashok’s close friend) home in CR Park. He said he was impressed, and I was chuffed. His stamp of approval – at work and beyond – meant a great deal to me.
There is now a huge void. But I will instead attempt to focus on the invaluable time I got with Ashok and the way he enriched my life and positively influenced my perspective of the world. With I4I, he has left a mark on the research-policy ecosystem. His mental strength and sheer grit, especially in the last few years, is an inspiration for us all. Every time I think of Ashok, I will be motivated to carry forward his legacy by creating and communicating rigorous evidence for sound public policy – and more importantly, to strive to be a better person.