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India's pluralist heritage and the making of Amartya Sen

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen's memoir of his early years provides lively insights into the evolution of his thoughts, concerns and intellectual engagements

Rabindranath Tagore has been a major inspiration in Amartya Sen’s life. (Mint)

Amartya Sen’s Home In The World is a memoir of ideas and thoughts, of the emergence of theories, of the discourses that have shaped many dominant concepts of 20th century economics. It is also a book about the history and philosophy of these ideas covering the first 30 years of Sen’s life—but seen through contemporary polity, both Indian and global. The first half of the book is also a historical account of immediate pre- and post-independence India, and of Bengal.

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An immensely readable book, Home In The World provides deep insights into the evolution of Sen’s thoughts, concerns and intellectual engagements—profoundly shaped by his early immersion in Indian philosophy through an unusual command over Sanskrit and a not so unusual interest in mathematics, coupled with first-hand experience of India’s partition and the Bengal famine.

A good part of the book is devoted to his schooling in Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan. One can’t help but think about the importance of a kind of schooling that allows for debates and discussions on diverse issues, encourages reading of original texts and insists on engagement both with what is near and far. It seems quite distant from the prevalent schooling practices in most parts of India, where obedience and conformity remain the two most desirable traits of the “good” student.

Sen’s own ability to discern and learn from every text, conversation and experience, without being dogmatic or wedded to any particular school of thought, obviously has its roots in his schooling at Santiniketan. The book clearly establishes the influence of Marx’s writings and engagements, and that of two well-known Marxist thinkers in Cambridge—Piero Sraffa and Maurice Dobb—on Sen, who has never been identified as a Marxist economist.

He owes his brilliant use of reason and logic in writings, with or without the use of mathematics, to his training at Presidency College in Kolkata, where, he writes, he learnt to “question” from teachers such as Bhabatosh Datta and Tapas Majumdar, and from friends such as Sukhamoy Chakravarty.

Tagore occupies nearly one-fifth of the book. Tagore, who died when Sen was barely eight, has been a major inspiration in Sen’s life—through his reading, his mother, who was Tagore’s student and compatriot, and his maternal grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen, who taught in Santiniketan and was a friend of Tagore’s. Sen delves mainly into two aspects of the poet: Tagore as a person and a thinker, and his relationship with the West.

The West initially lapped up Tagore, but more as a “mystic” from the East, not for his “many-sided” creativity and “careful reasoner” persona. Later, it dismissed him without paying enough attention to his ideas.

Sen talks about three of Tagore’s ideas that particularly influenced him. The first, which I found fascinating, is recognising that an unresolved question is not a defeat but a “beautiful” acknowledgement of our limited understanding of a vast world. The second is an emphasis on gathering knowledge freely from everywhere and using it with a reasoned scrutiny—something Sen has been a proponent of.

The third Tagore idea that attracted Sen was the need for breaking the divisive hostility between Hindus and Muslims that was building up in the 1930s. Sen returns to the theme of a shared Hindu-Muslim heritage and India’s pluralist traditions several times. To a lesser extent, the same is true for the theme of subaltern lives.  

Home In The World—A Memoir: By Amartya Sen, Allen Lane, 480 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>899.
Home In The World—A Memoir: By Amartya Sen, Allen Lane, 480 pages, 899.

One particular reference, about a collection of Kabir’s poems put together by Kshiti Mohan Sen, is worth mentioning. Kshiti Mohan went beyond printed versions, collecting a number of poems used by sants and folk singers in rural areas. While this was critiqued by some as inauthentic, it was defended by no less a scholar than Hazari Prasad Dwivedi.

Sen refers to this as an example of subaltern emphasis on living traditions over an elitist approach. He also cites interactions where his grandfather talked about the confluence of Hindu and Islamic traditions in Indian philosophy. Kshiti Mohan, who was around during Sen’s formative years, has perhaps been the singularly most important influence in shaping Sen’s perspectives and worldviews.

An important part of the book dwells on the contributions of colonial rule in India, with Sen arguing that it would be fallacious to compare the post-colonial state with its pre-colonial stage since one does not have the advantage of knowing what would have happened during those 200 years if India had not become a colony. India would not have remained static, and it is almost impossible to know where it would have gone. Looking at societies such as Japan and Thailand, one can surmise that whatever good happened could have perhaps happened better without colonial rule, while also avoiding the unforgivable ills that came with it.

Reading any book is always a personal experience. But this one proved to be a deeply personal journey for me. Early portions of the book brought back my own memories of ferocious rivers such as the Ganga, Gandak and Kosi, from the years I spent growing up in a small Bihar town located on the Bihar-Bengal border. Sen’s Tapasda of Presidency College—Prof. Tapas Majumdar—was my doctoral supervisor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. I too have had regular sessions with him over cups of tea and delicious savouries, served not by his mother in their Kolkata home but by his wife, Gauridi, in their Delhi home. He fondly and admiringly remembered Amartya and Sukhamoy as two of his “most exceptional” students. He was also grateful to Sen for drawing the Union government’s attention—in his meeting with the then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee—to the recommendations made by the Tapas Majumdar committee on the financial challenges of making the right to education a fundamental right.

Later, I went to London to work and would travel often to Cambridge and Oxford. This helped me to connect easily with Sen’s accounts of officious yet interesting British customs that, let me assure you, had remained unchanged in the five decades that separate his accounts from mine. In this vast and intellectually stimulating memoir, in fact, most readers would see something or the other that they would find personal to them. It is a tale of friendships across continents and of extended familial relationships, where various mamas and mashis, pishis and dadas enter and exit, without advance notice and much fanfare, as they do in our real lives.

An important part of the book dwells on the contributions of colonial rule in India, with Sen arguing that it would be fallacious to compare the post-colonial state with its pre-colonial stage

Numerous other individuals also come in, a majority of them well-known economists, historians, diplomats, civil servants and writers. It is indeed a Who’s Who and seeing them all together can be overwhelming. Yet, except in parts where it becomes a bit too overbearing, the accounts make for interesting reads. The wit and humour that is liberally present in some parts (including where Sen narrates the story of his early-age cancer and excessive radiation) will make you laugh.

The book is a non-linear account, organised around topics of interest. It follows the academic tradition of cross-referencing, complete with a name and subject index, making it an ideal reference for scholars delving into the ideas, individuals or periods of history that the book covers.

Although the book gives some insights into Sen’s unrelenting interest in the social choice theory, I am now waiting for another volume that will cover his later life (this book ends in 1963), when he expounded his fascinating ideas of freedoms and unfreedoms, and the capability approach for combining the goal of a more equal and just society while making no compromise with individual liberty, and with deep faith in the path of public persuasion.

Jyotsna Jha works as director of the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies in Bengaluru.

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