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‘Home in the World: A Memoir’ review: An economist and a humanist

We know Amartya Sen as the winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 besides being a philosopher who has focused his work on the idea of justice.

Sen’s memoir, Home in the World is a partial autobiography that ends in 1963 with his return to Delhi following nearly a decade living abroad — mostly in Cambridge, the United Kingdom — to pursue postgraduate, doctoral research and teaching.

Values of diversity

Sen’s work on the capabilities approach to human welfare and his emphasis on public health care and education being key to development has been all the more important today as India (and the world) recovers slowly from its most severe public health crisis in decades. India is also going through a phase where democratic institution-building, dissent and constitutional values of pluralism and diversity are under threat. Reading Sen’s journey in the firming up of his cherished values should encourage those who want to re-dedicate themselves to the democratic and welfare projects in present-day India.

In the telling of the first 30 years of his life, which is abound with the people he grew up around, events that shaped his Weltanschauung and later his professional pursuits, Sen brings out the full journey of the flowering of the academic intellectual we know.

Born in 1933, Amartya Sen’s early years marked a tumultuous period for not just his native India — and whose citizenship he still retains despite living for large periods outside the country — but also the world in general. The poet and fellow Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore gave him his name, and he spent much of his early educational years in Tagore’s Santiniketan that exposed him to unconventional schooling methods but also shaped his humane, probing and eclectic nature.

Sen writes evocatively about several of his relatives but many lines are devoted to his maternal grandfather Kshiti Mohan Sen, a Sanskrit scholar and teacher at Santiniketan who was well versed in the scriptures and classical religious writings but was also a liberal non-conformist who asserted that the liberality flowed from reading the scriptures themselves. Kshiti Mohan’s influence also kindled Sen’s own atheistic worldview that he drew from the Lokayata tradition of ancient Hindu philosophy.

Welfare economics

The famine in Bengal in 1943 marks a seminal moment in Sen’s early years. The unfolding of a man-made disaster where lakhs of people died due to hunger due to the skyrocketing of food prices in the World War II period and Sen’s exposure to the fragility of life in his home province convinces him to probe questions about how to tackle hunger, poverty and inequality and sows the seeds of his interest in “welfare economics”. This, combined with the cultural worldview that he honed at Santiniketan allowed him to construct a progressive outlook that went beyond the narrow sequestration of identities or ideologies. This facet is brought out in his explanation of the Partition of the country (and Bengal) whose consequence is his family’s leaving Dhaka for good.

Sen’s life-long work as an economist and philosopher drew substantially from different strands of political, cultural and social movements occurring around him. Even as he develops a political understanding that appreciates the Marxist current and its sympathy for the downtrodden, helped also from interactions with relatives who include a Congress socialist and a communist revolutionary, he firmly rejects authoritarianism and questions leftist fellow travellers who refused to see the degeneration of communism in Soviet Union into Stalinist repression.

His foray into collegiate studies in economics and mathematics were much in line with his early proclivities in school but his choice of academic studies also developed from his student activism and intellectual discussions in addas in the coffee house corner of College Street in Calcutta in particular. While his concerns for equity and social commiseration brought him closer to the Left as a student, his firm convictions about democracy and the pluralism inherent in its procedural frameworks made it difficult for him to identify entirely with left wing activism that sought to scoff at liberalism, dissent and political opposition.

His later foray into social choice theory is also kindled after reading Kenneth Arrow’s impossibility theorem during his college days. Arrow argued that only a dictatorial social choice mechanism can yield social decisions when “certain elementary requirements of apparently reasonable procedures have to be satisfied”. Sen was determined to scrutinise these procedures to negate the idea that it will not permit a non-dictatorial social choice.

While he could not immediately embark upon social choice theory, his choice of academic work and the institution to pursue it — Cambridge, drew from his perceived closeness of thinking with economists such as Pierro Sraffa and Maurice Dobb. Both Sraffa and Dobb had persuasions close to the left but were not limited to a sectarian outlook as Sen later describes in his chapters on his learning experiences at Cambridge. Here too in his learning from economic debates, he decries silos-based thinking and reinforcement.

Even as he fondly remembers his various acquaintances in Cambridge and beyond- many of whom went on to become institution builders, national leaders and academic thinkers — he interspers these encounters with commentaries about the establishment of welfare democracy and the endeavours for cooperation among nations and people in war-torn Europe.

Charming humility

There is a charming humility that pervades the book — even in the telling of the difficult period when he had to undergo treatment for oral cancer or in his achievements — a prestigious Prize Fellowship, early lectureship and a doctoral degree that make them almost seem easy to accomplish but which certainly are not.

It is easy to see the influence of Tagore’s Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) in choosing the title of the book. After all, Amartya Sen is at home in a diverse, plural world traversing from Santiniketan to Calcutta to Cambridge and to Delhi, constantly enriching his views through persuasion, reasoning and understanding across time and geographical boundaries.

Home in the World: A Memoir; Amartya Sen, Allen Lane/ PRH, ₹899.

srinivasan.vr@thehindu.co.in


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