Amartya Sen’s robust caveat to the authorities of Presidency University must resonate in the rarefied corridors of the institution. It would be no exaggeration to suggest that the authorities have been stumped, if not rebuffed, fair and square. With an almost exceptional degree of modesty, Sen has cautioned the authorities against going on overdrive to felicitate the two Nobel Laureates in Economics ~ Sen himself (1998) and Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee this year, both Presidency alumni.
With their feet on the ground, both economists are much too realistic to suffer an overdose of hagiography. Yet in trying to do “something special” to honour the two worthies, Presidency has decided to construct what they call a 3D wall with embossed images of Sen and Banerjee side by side. The core of Professor Sen’s argument, to which the Vice-Chancellor’s office is yet to respond, runs thus: “My pride in my college makes it necessary for me to point out that the social prominence of the Nobel should not be, in any way, at the cost of remembering Presidency’s brilliant intellectual history, going back to Henry Louis Derozio, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Swami Vivekananda, Prafulla Chandra Ray, Meghnad Saha, Satyendranath Bose, Prashanta Mahalanobis, Fazlul Haq, Humayun Kabir, Jyoti Basu, Satyajit Ray and a great many other luminaries.
They have had achievements that no social award ~ the Nobel included ~ can, in any, way dim. Any new celebratory event should be an occasion to remember the history that makes Presidency stand tall.” Pretty obvious must be the fineprint of Sen’s message ~ the galaxy of greats, forever the proud boast of Presidency, ought never to be overshadowed by the internationally acclaimed achievers of subsequent generations. Indeed, Banerjee at 58 is a generation younger than Sen. It is beside the point whether the Presidency authorities had debated the “special honour” at meetings between October 15 and 17, in the immediate aftermath of Banerjee’s award. The nub of the matter must be that Sen has made no secret of his possible embarrassment.
It bears recall that the astrophysicist, Meghnad Saha, had been nominated for the Nobel as many as seven times. Satyen Bose was nominated thrice. PC Mahalanobis founded the Indian Statistical Institute, the “only institution we ever created that was world-dominating”, as Abhijit Banerjee described it in Kolkata recently. We do not know his reaction to the proposed “Wall of Fame”. Yet we do know that Sen’s stout disapproval has caused a flutter in the roost, though two Nobel Laureates from the same department marks the pinnacle of academic glory; verily has it been described as the “rarest feat in the country”. Sen’s presentation must not detract from the profundity of the achievements. His response does call for reflection. It really does.