In his book Of Counsel, Arvind Subramanian, ex-Chief Economic Advisor, recounts an apocryphal story about George Stigler, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, who used to say, “Milton [Friedman] down the corridor is trying to change the world, I am just trying to understand it.”
Amartya Sen’s Home In The World: A Memoir takes you through Sen’s journey in course of developing his understanding of the world, before he goes on to try and change it. It covers the first thirty years of his life (1933-1963), taking you through his early years in Dhaka, Burma, Santiniketan, Presidency College, Trinity College, and Cambridge University, subsequent teaching opportunities at Jadavpur University, MIT, and Stanford, and ends in Delhi, just as he is joining the Delhi School of Economics.
It might seem like a whirlwind to have achieved so much by the age of thirty. But Sen comes across as an unstoppable force with an extraordinary life. He self-diagnosed his cancer when he was 18, which several doctors had overlooked. Then, having completed his PhD thesis at 23, he had to wait two more years before he could submit it. So he came back to Kolkata, and was invited to set up Jadavpur University’s Economics department, a feat that was also challenged by many academics at this time.
As much as Sen finds a home in the world, the world also finds a home in his memoir. It walks you through Sen’s intellectual foundations, shaped through major events in his life and also the world happenings around him, such as the aftermath of World War II, his time in Santiniketan, and India’s gaining independence, alongside an engineered and divisive Partition.
Sen is, unsurprisingly, seen as being extremely perceptive in this period, well ahead of his chronological years. A lot of his experiences as a child had an indelible impact on his thinking process, and he often ties them to larger questions. Growing up in Santiniketan, where Rabindranath Tagore founded a non-conventional school and, later, university, deeply rooted in Sen the idea of freedom and enabling people to grow the capability to achieve things.
The famine in Bengal when he was growing up, as well as the engineered differences between Hindus and Muslims, had a powerful impact on his thinking about democratic governance, identities and welfare economics. A lot of this preciousness may seem to have come with the benefit of hindsight, but there is enough evidence of what is happening at the moment around the world to prove his perspicacity. All of this showed in Sen’s later academic work, in period which this volume does not cover.
The curiosity and constant questioning of events are delightful. He says as much about books and theories as he does about the people he met and his conversations with them. Kaushik Basu, in his memoir Policymaker’s Journal, says that he hasn’t met a better conversationalist than Sen, who might even surpass Isaiah Berlin, who, it has been said, should get a knighthood for “services to conversation”.
You get a glimpse of why Basu might say this. The breadth of interests represented by people Sen counts as part of his close circles, and recalls having lively conversations with, is breathtaking. These people include not just academics, but friends and family, often cutting across ages.
People and places
However, the book focuses on these people’s ideas and thoughts rather than their emotional or personal experiences, and this includes Sen. Rarely does he talk about his feelings or his interpersonal relationships. Sen writes that friendships are written about much less than love, and there is a need to “redress the balance”. This could be why he solely focuses on his friends, even though that also is often about their worldview.
You also get a sense of the early influences in Sen’s life – his grandfather and scholar Kshitimohan Sen, various economists, and teachers. However, the greatest influence turns out to be that of Rabindranath Tagore. The values of not maximising freedom, of not boxing people in monolithic identities, all seem to run as a common thread across the book.
Places also feature prominently, one of the closest to Sen being the Indian Coffee House in Kolkata, opposite Presidency College. The conversations there played a significant role in shaping his thoughts, he writes. Sen also gives you a ringside view of various debates between economists from the left and the right during the period. The book is lighthearted as well. Sen takes a joke well, and exudes a cheerful attitude.
Towards the end, there is a lesson that Sen has to offer which is critical in today’s time. He writes that the Bengal famine, which killed between 2 million and 3 million people, was sustained because of the suppression of media by the Raj, which stopped any reporting on it. Action was only taken when reports came out much later. The free press can be critical in controlling epidemics too.
When a BBC interviewer told Sen that he has no concept of home, he responded, “...I don’t share your idea that a home has to be exclusive.” With such a predisposition towards anti-sectarianism, he has often found himself at odds against the present central government. However, that could be said to be a hallmark of an intellectual. After all, as Basu points out, in a hundred years from now, we might well consider Sen as prominent as Rousseau or Voltaire.
Home In The World shows you the underpinnings of how an intellectual giant was shaped. Yet the journey is incomplete, and one hopes the rest of the story is on the cards.
Umang Poddar is an editorial head at Lawctopus, and a lawyer. He can be found here on Twitter.
Home in the World: A Memoir, Amartya Sen, Allen Lane.
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