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Mahima Khanna: ‘I was the unexpected underdog’

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Mahima Khanna never expected to be the third Indian to win Cambridge University’s Stevenson Prize in Economics. “My heart wanted the prize, but I didn’t let it rule my life,” she says.

Mahima, a BSc (Hons) graduate of St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, won a Commonwealth Scholarship to study an M Phil at the University of Cambridge. She is the third Indian to win the prize after Amartya Sen and Sir Partha Dasgupta.

Kolkata to Cambridge

Mahima’s journey was not smooth. Both her parents are doctors and they had expected their daughter to be one too. Mahima even passed JEE in medicine. It was her grandfather and role model, Swarn Kumar Kumra who sat down with her and asked if her heart was in Medicine. It was not.

“I wanted to do something with Maths and Logic so we brainstormed and zeroed in on economics,” she admits. “Xavier’s laid the foundations of my knowledge.”

Mahima went on to top her class. She considers herself lucky to have gone to Cambridge.  But that brought its own challenges. “I was one of the youngest in a class with people who had worked in the World Bank. I was the unexpected underdog in the class,” she reveals.

WTO simulation vs exam finals

The 23-year-old believed she should concentrate on studies for the right span of time. A week before her MPhil finals, Mahima was in Switzerland representing India at a WTO simulation.

“I felt that the opportunity to be at the WTO headquarters and the interaction with minds from the world was more valuable than preparing for an exam,” she explains. “I wasn’t bothered about the exam results. I guess that’s one of the reasons I did well.”

She topped her class in M Phil. Mahima knew she would do well, as she had done something beyond expectation for her dissertation on trade liberalization and informality in India. “The kind of work I did has never been done for India. I got results in an area that eminent trade economists such as Melitz and Krugman are working on,” she says.

Mahima is currently working for a firm in Mumbai but eventually wants to work in government or World Bank,  but in India.

On meeting Prince Charles

She believes strongly about working in India and recollects an incident with Prince Charles at a Commonwealth Scholars Meet. “We had a lengthy chat when I represented India. We spoke on India, women in India and also on visa rules in the UK for non EU citizens.”

The Prince asked Mahima about her take on visa rules. “I said that it was good as it allows us to go back and serve our nation, though we would like to give something to the land which gives us the knowledge, but we can’t as we are not allowed to!” she says with a smile.

For now, Mahima is content. The Stevenson Prize is a tribute to her grandparents. “I am fortunate to have my grandfather and my grandmother, who is no more, did a lot for me. She would have been so proud today if only she was here.”