An intimate, guided tour of the Nobel Awards ceremony
G Sreekumar | 16 Dec, 2019
The Grand Hôtel at around noon
Saturday, 7th December 2019. Diyar, a second generation migrant from Syria, drove me from the Stockholm Airport to the Grand Hôtel. He was curious to know why I was there. Though I was evasive, over discussions on Saddam Hussein, India, and the world at large, he managed to deduce that I was there for the Nobel Week. Oh, you are here for the Nobel! All Nobel laureates have been staying at the Grand for years. President Obama also stayed there, he added.
Diyar’s father came to Sweden in 1983, and drove taxis till he retired, his fleet having grown to 12. A graduate in Economics, Diyar was working for a bank. He had availed the provision allowing him a long break retaining his job, and was manufacturing and exporting organic perfumes to different countries. Weekends were for driving taxis. All earnings went to his business. Struggles of such small people, and improving their livelihood, is the subject of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics, officially, The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. Not one of the original disciplines for which the Nobel Prize was started, it was started 50 years back in 1969.
Diyar was elated that I was in Stockholm as a guest of two Economics laureates, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. But, he seemed more proud dropping me off at the Grand. The best hotel in Sweden, he declared. Opened in 1874, it is the only Swedish hotel listed in the Leading Hotels of the World. It is indeed magnificent, facing the Royal Palace, and on the banks of one of the many rivers of Stockholm, situated on 14 islands.
After checking in, the reception directed me to the Nobel Desk. They were ready with my papers, customised for each guest, including the detailed schedule of Abhijit, the programmes for the guests, bus timings to the events, invitation cards, and a key to the city entitling me to free entry to around 65 museums, free sightseeing, and travel on red buses.
After checking in to my top sixth floor room, and refreshing myself, Abhijit messaged that we could meet for half an hour before he goes off for one of his interviews. It was already his third day in Stockholm. Even if he was tired, there were no signs of it. Abhijit and Esther were received on the 5th at the airport by Prof. Göran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and their attachés. After that they must have had a quiet evening preparing for the hectic week ahead.
The next day was for warming up for the more busy ones to follow. The first event was an “Informal Get-together” at the Nobel Prize Museum. All laureates, and their families, were introduced to the history of the Nobel Prize and the Nobel events. The Laureates were required to give interviews to official digital channels, donate an object to the museum, and sign a chair in Bistro Nobel, followed by a light lunch buffet. Esther gifted a couple of books used by them for their work with Pratham. Abhijit donated bags made by women in Ghana as part of their work. In the evening, they were hosted to a dinner with members of the Economic Sciences Prize Committee, by the Chairman, Peter Fredriksson.
By the time I met Abhijit at around 3 pm on the 7th, the Laureates were already through a breakfast meeting where they were briefed for the press conference and the morning’s events. The Press Conference was for the Laureates in Physics, Chemistry and Economics, at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, followed by short individual interviews. Esther announced here the decision of the three Economics Laureates to donate their prize money, in the manner of Pierre and Marie Curie, to fund further research in their area. Accordingly, the money will go to the Weiss Fund for Research in Development Economics, for funding research in Europe, India, Africa, and Latin America. The Weiss family will contribute an additional 50 million dollars for the purpose.
A rehearsal of the Nobel Lecture followed at 11 am, and a preparatory meeting with BBC at 13.30 hrs. When I met Abhijit, an individual interview with him was scheduled at 15.30 hrs. at the Grand Hôtel itself. At 7 pm was a dinner for the Physics, Chemistry, and Economics laureates. But, there was time for a walk on the roads near the Grand, which I also joined. Noemie and Milan, the seven and five year old daughter and son of Esther and Abhijit, under the care of Cheyenne, their au pair, enjoyed every bit of the dazzling displays on show as part of the Christmas season. As the Laureates headed for dinner, I retired early after dinner with Aroon Raman, another classmate, in the quiet of his room.
Sunday, 8th December. This was going to be a hectic day. Nirmala Maasi, Abhijit’s mother, had arrived the previous night, along with Abhijit’s brother, Ani, and his partner, Veronica. But, Abhijit and Esther still found time to host a private breakfast at the Grand Hôtel. Later, Aroon and I joined Esther and family for a visit to the Vaasa Museum. Abhijit joined a bit later after being interviewed by ABP News, the only channel from India to cover the events. Located in the island of Djurgården, Vasa Museum displays the only almost fully intact 17th century ship that has ever been salvaged. It is the 64-gun warship Vasa that sank in 1628 on her maiden voyage of a little over 1000 metres. The museum is the most visited in Scandinavia. As guests of the Laureates, we had the privilege of being taken around by Dr Fred Hocker, Director of Research, the trip ending with a sumptuous lunch at their restaurant. Considering its fragile condition, only Abhijit, Esther, and the kids were shown around the inside of the ship.
This was also the day for the Nobel Lectures in Physics, Chemistry, and Economics. The Medicine and Literature Lectures were held on the 7th. The Lectures started with Physics and Chemistry in the forenoon. Economics was scheduled for 2 pm. After Vasa, we had just enough time to get back to Grand, and take the bus to the majestic Aula Magna Auditorium in the Stockholm University campus. The three Laureates spoke for about 35 minutes each, all on their research that got them the Nobel Prize. The speeches were well coordinated, Abhijit speaking on the field experiments and the science behind the research involving Random Control Trials (RCTs), Esther on field experiments and the practice of policy using RCTs, and Michael Kremer linked experimentation with innovation and Economics.
There have been criticisms of RCT from both right and left wing intellectuals. To me, having known Abhijit for close to four decades, it is an expression of his own self. He was, unlike me, always a very impatient person. Impatient with deficient service, impatient with delays of any sort, and of course impatient with the injustice all around, poverty, corruption, and gender justice being among his priorities. He has no patience with the right wing view of letting growth alone take care of poverty by trickling down over the years. He also has no patience for the left wing view of letting structural changes come in over the years and do their job. He would like to see the changes here and now, in our lifetime. Even if it means only incremental changes here and there, but let create the movement that will build a momentum on its own, and bring about change.
After the Lectures, there was time to relax in Abhijit and Esther’s spacious suite before heading for the Nobel Prize Concert. Invitations were limited to eight per Laureate. Aroon had already bought our tickets when he landed a day before me. The concert gave a preview of the resplendent Stockholm Concert Hall, where the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony was also to be held. The concert by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by 92 year old Herbert Blomstedt, a champion of Scandinavian composers. So, it was no surprise that the concert featured Carl Nielsen, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Edvard Grieg, and Jean Sibelius, respectively Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish composers, all from the late 19th and early 20th century, and contemporaries of Alfred Nobel.
Abhijit and Esther decided to skip the optional post-concert dinner to join their family. Abhijit messaged to ask whether Aroon and I would like to join them, and we did. Riche on Birger Jarlsgatan, “the heart of all things fun in Stockholm”, as they put it, was the venue. Aroon declared that the dinner was on him. So, on a lighter note, we went a bit loose ordering our portions. Over the dinner, I got to know better Esther’s parents, Violaine, a doctor, and Michel Duflo, a retired mathematics professor. There was also Colas, Esther’s brother, and Marie Lajus, Esther’s college mate, who was head of the Police Department in Paris. At the adjacent table, Peter Handke, the Literature Laureate, was also having dinner with his group, and some of them came over to congratulate Esther and Abhijit.
Monday, 9th December. The breakfast spread at the Verandan is always sumptuous and very homely. Quite and unhurried, it was not unusual to bump into a Laureate or another. The choice that morning was whether to go for the recording of the Nobel Minds, produced jointly by Swedish Television and BBC World, and moderated by Zeinab Badawi, the television and radio journalist. The other option was to walk around Gamla Stan, the old part of the city. As one could always watch Nobel Minds online in due course, I opted for the
walk as it also gave me a chance to spend some time with Ani, Abhijit’s brother, who I had not met in many years. Gamla Stan is an island with cobbled streets and colourful 17th- and 18th-century buildings, and home to the medieval Storkyrkan Cathedral, and the Royal Palace, the King’s official residence. After a few purchases, we stepped into a bistro for coffee. Small tables and chairs, I had to literally squeeze in, but the atmosphere was very warm and a relief from the extreme cold outside.
Back at the Grand Hôtel, it was my turn to host Ani, Veronica, and Aroon to a light lunch at its cosy wood-panelled Bar. Meanwhile, Abhijit and Esther were having lunch at the Sveriges Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, and the world’s oldest. The host was Stefan Ingves, Governor, who was the Chairman of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision for eight years till 2019. I remember Ingves for his work in the early 1990s setting up a bad bank in Sweden, called Securum, among the first and best examples of successful resolution of bad banking assets. The Riksbank lunch was followed by a reception for Abhijit and Esther by the Indian Ambassador at 3 pm.
Another reception followed at 6pm, for all the Nobel Laureates, at the Nordic Museum. This was a very crowded affair in the high ceilinged, long and rectangular hall, over cocktails and short eats. I got introduced to Michael Kremer, the third Economics Laureate, Gita Gopinath, IMF’s Chief Economist, and her husband, Iqbal Dhaliwal, global Executive Director of J-PAL, among many others.
The day ended with dinner that Esther and Abhijit had organised for their guests, at the Spritmuseum, the Museum of Spirits, on the island of Djurgården. The menu for non-vegetarians included Kohlrabi and Chestnuts with a Watercress Veloute, Duck Roasted on the Bone with Various Kale and a Spice Bread Miso, and Curd of Grilled Clementine with Sour Milk Sherbet, Prunes, Cream and Rice Meringue. For the vegetarians, Duck was replaced with Grilled and Dried Beetroots with Fermented Elderberries, Blackened Winter Spinach. All with wines to match. I couldn’t help notice Abhijit’s culinary touch in selection of the menu.
Tuesday, 10th December. This is the Nobel Prize Day, observed on the death anniversary of Alfred Nobel. The first Nobel Prize was awarded on this day, in 1901. It continues to be that way. This was the coldest day of the week. Temperature was -6oc in the morning and the peak temperature was expected to be -2oc. As the Laureates went for their rehearsal, Aroon and I head for the Nobel Museum and Gamla Stan. A quiet drink at another bistro, and we were almost done in preparation for the biggest event of the week. The bus was to leave the Grand at 3 pm for the event starting at 4.30 pm.
At the Concert Hall, seats are earmarked. But, Aroon and I are just one seat apart. Aroon is in the mandatory white tie and coat tails rented from Hans Allde, which has been catering to this requirement over the years. I chose the national costume option and was, therefore, in my dark navy blue bandhgala. Abhijit also opted for a national dress of kurta, a zari-bordered dhoti, and a jacket. There was a fear that the dhoti might not be long enough to be worn the Bengali style. So, I was on call, to help him tie it the South Indian way, but that was not required. Esther also opted for the national costume, choosing an elegant saree in peacock shades of blue and green, a magenta blouse, gold necklace and bindi.
The function started on the dot, choreographed to perfection over the years. After the members of the Royal family had arrived, the orchestra played Otto Lindblad’s Kungssången, the Swedish royal anthem, and March in D Major by Mozart, as the Laureates were escorted to their seats, the 97-year old John Goodenough, Chemistry Laureate, in his wheelchair. The proceedings began with a short speech by Prof Carl-Henrik Heldin, Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation. Thereafter, the prizes were awarded in the order of Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and Economics, after short speeches by a member each from the Royal Swedish Science Academy, who was also a member of the respective Prize Committees. The Peace Award was given earlier in the day in Oslo. All speeches are printed and distributed as a booklet. After receiving the Prize, each recipient bowed thrice, to the King, to the members of the Academy seated behind, and finally to the audience to all round applause. The award function was interspersed with short pieces of music mostly by Scandinavian composers Helena Munktell, Jean Sibelius, and Jari Eskola, and also by Charles Gounod and Edward Elgar, French and English composers. There was one by Johan Helmich Roman, the 18th century composer, considered to be the father of Swedish music, and the only one apart from Mozart, among the evening’s composers, who was not a contemporary of Alfred Nobel. The programme concluded with the Swedish national anthem.
A piece by Hugo Alfvén, also a Swedish composer of late 19th and early 20th century, was played as the guests left the auditorium.
After the Award ceremony, everyone headed for the Nobel Banquet in the Blue Hall of the Stockholm City Hall in different buses. The Blue Hall is an atrium, closed at the top. The number of guests are large, but the arrangements were so smooth that I was seated in about two minutes. After verifying my identity, as at the Awards function, I was given a small book which showed the seating plan. Names were listed alphabetically, and I found mine just below Goodenough, John B., the Physics Laureate, and just above Gopinath, Gita. The table number was 2, and the seat number 25 out of 30, 15 on each side. There were also tables of 10, 20, and 24, while the biggest was the one for 88, in the middle of the Hall extending from the Grand Stairway coming down from a higher level, where the Royalty, Laureates, and other guests were seated. A small strip with the Nobel logo in gold, my name and my seat number 2:25, was placed across one of the wine glasses. Seated opposite was Rukmini Banerji of Pratham. Aroon was seated next to her. On my right was a Danish Professor seated opposite her husband. On my left was Karin, now in her third career, as an artist. On her left was Professor Olle Kämpe of the Karolinska Institute, and a member of the Nobel Committee which selects the winner for the Prize in Medicine. Professor Kämpe welcomed me warmly to the table. A lot of care had obviously gone into planning the seating, though the guests were around 1300.
The entire banquet is also a well-planned and highly orchestrated event, from the layout of the table to the entry and exit of the bearers. Almost all guests were seated without much delay or confusion. At the appointed hour, against the blow of trumpets and background music, the guests of honour entered in procession through an upper entrance. The guests were in pairs, and they ceremonially walked slowly along the length of the Hall, before descending down the Grand Stairway, heralded by a flagbearer also in coattails, and two young girls in long white gowns like the other lady guests, with a wide band of yellow and blue, representing the colours of the Swedish flag, hanging down across their body.
His Majesty’s toast is proposed by Professor Carl-Henrik Heldin, Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation. Thereafter, a toast to the memory of Alfred Nobel is proposed by His Majesty the King, and the banquet begins. The liveried bearers came and went in lines carrying plates, and filling glasses, at the beginning and end of each course. Entertainment is provided by artistes of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra, in the Swedish ballad tradition, the soloists singing in between from across the balustrade on the right or from the bay window on the left. The performance was in four Acts, each representing a season. The piece is titled Jorden vi ärvde (The Earth We Inherited) on the theme of an eternal cycle of life and death shaped by the transitions between seasons, and the shifting moods of night and day. We inherit nature and then we pass it on to future generations. An apt theme in a year when a young Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, had made waves with her fiery speech at the UN.
The Nobel Banquet booklet lists in detail the names of the performers. It also lists the designers for lighting, sound, set, and floral arrangements, apart from the organist, trumpeters, toastmaster, and dance orchestra. It also notes that the flowers were graciously provided by Italy since 1905. Each of the three courses were paired with a wine. The first course was Kalix Vendace Roe with Cucumber, pickle-poached kohlrabi, creamy dill and a horseradish sauce. The vegetarian in me initially overlooked the word “roe” (fish eggs) and dug my teeth into the saffron coloured mass of what resembled kesari, a South Indian sweet. But, I consoled myself later due to my occasional indulgence in chicken eggs. The main course of Duck Stuffed with Black Chanterelles was avoided, and a replacement provided but still with trails of roast duck jus. The bearer whispered into my ear that I had not requested for a vegetarian option, but I could not recall when that option was asked for. The dessert was all raspberry, with raspberry mousse, dehydrated chocolate mousse, raspberry kissel and raspberry sorbet.
The last items were Grönstedts Cognac and Facile Punsch, a Swedish liqueur. By then, the balcony above was lined by students, from Swedish universities and colleges, bearing the standards of their unions, who paid homage to the Laureates. This was followed by speeches by the Laureates, one from each discipline. The banquet concluded as the guests of honour rose from the table and left in procession. By then it was past 11 pm. The banquet had extended over about four hours, providing enough time for chatter and merriment.
Dancing was to follow in the Golden Hall, ending with a midnight snack at 00:15 hrs. This was to be followed by the Students’ Night Cap, an unofficial after party at the Stockholm University organised by the Student Association of Stockholm, with food, drinks, music, and dancing going on till around 4.00 am. Abhijit and Esther headed for all these. My old friend Shawn, a student of Abhijit, now at the Harvard Business School, and his wife Petia from the IMF, said that they will attend these and go straight to the airport from there. The music might have included these lines from ABBA, the best known Swedish group:
Friday night and the lights are low
Looking out for a place to go
Where they play the right music
Getting in the swing
You come to look for a king
Anybody could be that guy
Night is young and the music’s high
With a bit of rock music
Everything is fine
You’re in the mood for a dance
Aroon and I, however, decide to prudently slip away to the Grand, and catch some sleep before vacating the hotel soon after breakfast.
Wednesday, 11th December. The Day After. After I had breakfast with Aroon and we had bid goodbye, Abhijit called me down later to join him and others at their breakfast table.
Esther and Abhijit were obviously tired, but that was their first day waking up as Nobel Laureates!
As I left Abhijit, I thought about what was more in store for the Laureates. That afternoon they were to visit the Nobel Foundation to meet with the Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation, and finally receive the Nobel Prize Medal and the Nobel Diploma. These were perhaps taken back after the Nobel Award Ceremony, for fear of being lost at the banquet, the dance, or the after party. This was to be followed by a seminar at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs hosted by the Minister for International Development Cooperation. At 17:55 was a pre-dinner audience with the Royal Family. This was to be followed by reception, and banquet hosted by Their Majesties the King and the Queen at the Royal Palace. It was all expected to end at 23:30 hours.
Thursday, 12 December. At 8.30 am, by when I would have already reached India, there was to be a two hour Official School Visit to Tibble Gymnasium Taby, a senior high school, where a lecture was to be given followed by Q&A with the students. At 11:00 was a lecture and seminar at the Stockholm School of Economics, followed by luncheon. In the afternoon, at 15:15 was a seminar at Save the Children Sweden, which included a conversation between Professor Abhijit and Ambassador Maria Leissner. From 17:00 to 18:00 was the concluding reception of the Nobel Week at the Nobel Foundation. But wait, there is also a dinner at the Economic Club at 19:00 hours at Täcka Udden.
Friday, 13 December. This is the departure day. Esther and Abhijit, the kids and their au pair, leave Grand Hôtel. But, wait again, there is yet another visit, to the Uppsala University before boarding the flight. The Laureates give a lecture and attend a luncheon at the Uppsala Castle, before leaving for the airport.
THE NOBEL WEEK is perhaps the best known celebration of knowledge and its advancement. Ever since its institution, there has been no other recognition that has captured the imagination of people across the world, as the Nobel Prize has. Years later, there could be criticisms of eligible persons being overlooked, prizes being given to wrong persons or out of turn, given very late, too early, and so on. This is unavoidable. As for Laureates and their relatives and friends, the Nobel Week is a great time to come together and join in the celebration. Each event was curated, spaced and sequenced to clockwork precision. That must be what kept the Laureates from getting tired from the sheer number and pace of events. For me, getting to attend an event like this was once in a lifetime chance. It was also a rare opportunity to catch up with the families of Esther and Abhijit, some of whom I had not met for long.
To digress, there are a few others who I would have loved to see here. For instance, Dipak Banerjee, Abhijit’s father, and of course, Sasha, Abhijit’s first son, both of whom are no more. I know personally how fond he was of his dad, and how much he doted on Sasha. Abhijit and Sasha were both staying with me in Rabindra Nagar, New Delhi, when news of my mother passing away came at 10.30 pm. Abhijit ensured that my friends in Delhi were alerted and turned up in no time, and my tickets were booked. He packed my bags and ensured that I got enough sleep before seeing me off at 4 am to catch the first flight back home.
Who knows whether there would be a coming together like this again? I am counting on J-PAL getting a Peace Nobel in about ten years. But, that should be a J-PAL event.