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Reflections of a Master Mind

As an economist, Sen is reckoned as one of the great minds who has enriched the world of ideas and actions, augmented by his erudition in fields as diverse as Sanskrit grammar and literature, mathematics and philosophy

Amitabha Bhattacharya | KOLKATA |

While reading Amartya Sen’s Home in the World (Allen Lane, 2021), I remembered my brief encounter with him at the India International Centre, Delhi in the early nineties. A senior colleague of mine wondered, in the context of Sen’s idea of Indian pluralism, why the divisive issue of casteism, a unique feature of our society, remains unexplored.

A few days later, while Sen was enjoying his breakfast, I thought this was the opportunity to confront him with the question. He was cordial, didn’t mind my intrusion, looked for a few seconds out of the glass panes, and explained why the traditional caste system, an attempt to structure the society, did not qualify to be termed pluralistic in the sense he had defined it. An office is also hierarchically organised for a purpose – can it be called a pluralistic office? I was not sure if I understood him fully, but I was deeply moved by his willingness to listen, and engage with this question.

As an economist, Sen is reckoned as one of the great minds who has enriched the world of ideas and actions, augmented by his erudition in fields as diverse as Sanskrit grammar and literature, mathematics and philosophy. When he tells the story of how such ideas had taken root, of incidents triggering his imagination and of people whose company and friendship helped him refine such ideas, the personal and the impersonal, the past and the present fuse to create a masterly narrative.

Tracing the first thirty years of his life – through Dhaka, Mandalay, Santiniketan, Calcutta, Cambridge, other places in the West, and Delhi [where the book ends] – reflecting on the drama of this remarkable phase, he has avoided certain aspects that would have made the book more saleable. There are glowing references to his association with relatives, friends, teachers, students and colleagues, but none to romantic love, for example. This book is not soaked in emotions; it chronicles the adventure of ideas collected in tranquility, erring sometime on the side of grace.

In his continuous stream of interactions with people of all hues, two persons stand out, his maternal grandfather Kshiti Mohan Sen and his Cambridge professor Piero Sraffa. K.M. Sen’s well-known primer on Hinduism is actually the version translated by Sen, while in his twenties, from the Bengali original. Kshiti Mohan’s lifelong search to understand and bring to wide public attention the syncretic relationship between various religious communities influenced many including Rabindranath Tagore. The ideas of Sraffa, a close friend of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and of the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, deeply impressed Sen.

After his graduation from Presidency college, Sen applied only to the Trinity – ‘the possibility of working with (Maurice) Dobb, Sraffa and (Dennis) Robertson was altogether thrilling… In effect I decided, ‘Trinity or bust’.’ He completed his doctoral dissertation in one year on the choice of techniques, became a Prize Fellow there and many years later, the Master of Trinity College.

While Santiniketan school, Presidency and Trinity colleges, in a sense, shaped Sen, his personal observations of the Bengal Famine in 1943 and the communal killings later, contributed no less. His seminal work on the causes of famine and his steadfast fight against man-made divisiveness demonstrate how a perceptive and analytical mind can transform day-to-day experiences into profound lessons of life. Every page of this autobiography is illuminated by examples of such observation followed by discussion and arguments, leading to the revelation of truth.

He brings to our notice how decisive intervention by the media can make government see reason. About the catastrophic Bengal famine, The Statesman, Calcutta, under its editor Ian Stephens attacked severely the British policy regarding the famine. ‘The British Parliament had not discussed the man-made disaster before Stephens spoke. All that changed immediately after The Statesman’s reporting.’

The Buddha, Tagore, Panini and to some extent Gandhi, were among those impacting Sen’s thinking. He discusses Tagore’s disagreement with Gandhi’s comment that the devastating Bihar earthquake ‘was a divine chastisement sent by God for our sins’. Tagore was dismayed at this linking of ethical principles with a cosmic phenomenon. Sen pondered over this as also on Gandhi’s insistence on ‘charkha’, for instance, and was generally on Tagore’s side. Later in life, however, Sen wondered if they, including Tagore, had misunderstood Gandhi in certain respects.

He draws pen portraits of his friends and acquaintances, teachers and colleagues, gurus and chelas. Whether it is Kenneth Arrow whose ‘impossibility theorem’ in the context of social choice inspired much of Sen’s work, or Paul Samuelson or Joan Robinson or John Rawls, Nicholas Kaldor or Oscar Lange, Sen has covered their contribution while highlighting his own gains from such interfaces. About Samuelson, Sen notes ‘He remained entirely focussed on the truth that could emerge from the argument, rather than being concerned with winning the battle…’

Sen also alludes to his days at Jadavpur University where he led the founding of and headed the economics department (at the age of twenty-three), and at the Delhi School of Economics where he was chosen by V.K.R.V. Rao to be his young successor.

All through this work of love, as he moves from despair ,when diagnosed with cancer  at the age of nineteen, to satisfying achievements, he weaves stories and dialogues, laced with humour as if in an adda, and combines them with serious deliberations as on issues like ‘What to make of Marx’. His years with wife Nabaneeta have also been recounted with tenderness and respect.

Sen’s relentless espousal of causes like empowering the disadvantaged through enhancement of their capabilities, deepening democracy and freedom through discussion and persuasion, enhancing investment for universal coverage of basic health and education – well over the last fifty years – has altered global thinking in no small measure, leading to almost universal  acceptance now.

In the book D. School (Ed. Dharma Kumar and Dilip Mukherjee, OUP,1995), Prabhat Patnaik wrote ‘Students discussed whether Amartya Sen was better than Sukhamoy Chakravarty in the same way that people elsewhere discussed whether Madhubala was better than Meena Kumari..’, though he found the comparison unwholesome. Sen’s star-like profile has often eclipsed his renown for complex mathematical work, articulating serious philosophical concepts, and expanding the frontiers of economics as a discipline. Taken as a whole, his systematic body of work over a lifetime to create a world – just and equitous, inclusive and free – has made a difference that no Nobel Prize could capture. The memoir helps us understand this man and the influences that made him what he is.