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Amartya Sen, a Memoir

7.9.21

Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


Amartya Sen

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Home in the World, Amartya Sen’s memoir of his years in the U.K, was published there July 8. Below, Gardiner professor of oceanic history and affairs Sugata Bose previews for North American readers a few highlights of the book, which covers the first 30 years of Sen’s life (the memoir will be published in the United States in January 2022). Sen, who is Lamont University Professor at Harvard, won the 1998 Nobel prize for his contributions to welfare economics. His 2000 Commencement address in defense of globalization can be read here

 

On a September evening in 1953 a nineteen-year-old Bengali student felt “a strange mixture of excitement and undefined anxiety” as he boarded the SS Strathnaver in Bombay to sail for England. He remembered Maxim Gorky’s memoir where the Russian writer described a sense of isolation as he left his family to join Moscow University. “The thrill of going to a new place—to Britain and to Cambridge—was mixed,” Amartya Sen writes, “with the sorrow of leaving the country to which I had such a strong sense of belonging.” He stood on the deck gazing at the shores of India in the setting sun.

Born in Santiniketan into a family whose ancestral homes were the Matto village of Manikganj and “Jagat Kutir” in the Wari neighborhood of Dhaka, Amartya’s earliest childhood memories, however, were of Burma. He was enchanted by the sunrise he could see beyond the Maymyo hills from his home in Mandalay. In the late 1930s his father took him to see the grave of Bahadur Shah Zafar. At the simple tomb with a corrugated iron cover the last Mughal emperor was described by the British colonial masters as the ex-king of Delhi.

Named by none other than Rabindranath, Amartya was nurtured by the cultural milieu of Santiniketan where his maternal grandparents – Kshitimohan Sen and Kiranbala – had the most profound influence on him. In a moving chapter titled “The Company of Grandparents” Amartya narrates his long dinnertime conversations with Kshitimohan on Sanskrit literature, Kabir’s poems, and religious agnosticism. It is not difficult to detect where Amartya imbibed his life-long commitment to the ideal of a Hindu-Muslim concordat. Witnessing the wrenching twin tragedies of famine and partition as a boy only strengthened his sense of social purpose. 

Amartya’a arrival in Presidency College on a rain-soaked July day in 1951 to study economics with mathematics marked a new phase in his intellectual journey. He learned the art of teaching from Bhabatosh Datta and the imperative of questioning from Tapas Majumdar. Borrowing a copy of Kenneth Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values from Dasgupta’s bookshop and discussing its impossibility theorem with his friend Sukhamay Chakravarty in the Coffee House marked the first step in what would eventually become his greatest intellectual contribution in the domain of social choice theory. Despite his political inclination towards the left and intellectual engagement with Marx, Amartya valued individual liberty. “I could never be a member of a political party,” he asserts, “that demanded conformity.”

On the ship to England a member of the Indian women’s hockey team asked Amartya, “What’s the use of education?” “I don’t know how to play hockey,” Amartya replied, “so I have to choose education.” The young woman offered to teach Amartya to play hockey. If she did that, Amartya argued she would be educating him. “Yes,” she agreed, “but it would be great fun—much more than the boring maths you were doing all afternoon on deck.”

At the very end of September 1953 Amartya Sen entered the hallowed gates of Trinity College, Cambridge, for the first time. “The Wren Library, which is on one side of Nevile’s Court,” he writes of his first impression, “was one of the finest buildings I had ever seen.” Reading Amartya’s account of his days as a student and then Fellow in Cambridge reminded me of a conversation I had while walking with him along the river Cam in the early 1980s. He was then Drummond Professor of Political Economy in Oxford and I had just been elected a Fellow of St. Catharine’s College. As we walked in the Cambridge backs just behind the Wren Library, I remember thinking how much Amartya-da seemed at home in that environment. In that beautiful setting we were discussing the 1930s Depression and the 1943 famine. After our walk we went to see Ian Stephens, the editor of The Statesman, who decided in October 1943 to defy the censorship of news on the famine. As a student Amartya had knocked on Stephens’ door at King’s College, Cambridge, encouraged to do so by the writer E.M. Forster.

In Nevile’s Court on his second morning in Cambridge Amartya met his director of studies, Piero Sraffa, the great Italian economist, and friend of Antonio Gramsci. He forged a life-long bond with Sraffa, who taught him to appreciate ristretto, the first flow of espresso coffee, and gave him the sage advice never to reduce theory to a slogan. Amartya etches wonderful portraits of his teachers Piero Sraffa, Maurice Dobb, an ecumenical Marxist economist, and Dennis Robertson, a Tory sympathizer. He also spells out his intellectual disagreements with the brilliant but dogmatic Joan Robinson.

Amartya Sen’s Home in the World is really three books in one. A sensitively written memoir of the first thirty years of his life, it is interspersed with sharp commentaries on history and politics as well as intellectual disquisitions on economic theory and philosophy. In one chapter he offers a critical assessment of British rule in India. In another we find the most insightful analysis of Piero Sraffa’s role in persuading Ludwig Wittgenstein to reject his early classic Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and move towards his exposition on the rules of language in Philosophical Investigations.

As a memoirist, Amartya is eloquent on friendship and reticent on love. Perhaps he does not recognize any hard boundary between them or, at any rate, believes that there can be no love without friendship. He writes with great warmth of feeling about his friends, both men and women, drawn from many different nationalities. He recalls the close mingling of Indian and Pakistani students in Cambridge and how he forged lifelong friendships with Rehman Sobhan and Mahbubul Haq.

This book gives just a glimpse of the new Cambridge on the other side of the Atlantic that became Amartya’s primary home later in life. His academic visits to MIT and Stanford in the early 1960s were refreshing for him away from the academic feuds in the old Cambridge between rival schools of economic thought. There had been an interregnum during his decade abroad when he returned to set up the economics department in Jadavpur University. By 1963 he was ready to respond to a call from a new school of economics in India’s capital. Fearing that intensifying nationalist rivalries may prevent him from seeing friends he had made in Cambridge, he chose the unusual route of returning via Lahore and Karachi to Delhi. His intellectual accomplishments since then have become the stuff of lore and history.

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