From Influences to Friendships and Intellectual Concerns, Amartya Sen's Memoir Is Rich in Detail

In the 'Home in the World', the clarity of Sen’s thought and the lucidity of his prose are delightful and entertaining.

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It is entirely apposite that the title of Amartya Sen’s memoir Home in the World echoes the title of one of Rabindranath Tagore’s more famous novels, The Home and the World (Ghare Baire). Not only was the name Amartya given by Rabindranath, but Sen’s life was closely associated with Santiniketan from his earliest days. Sen was born in Santiniketan, in his mother’s parental home, but much of his childhood was spent in Dhaka and in Mandalay (where his father was a professor of chemistry). His earliest memories go back to his journey to what was then called Burma and his days there. He visited Santiniketan when he was a child but began to go to school there when he was about eight years old. Before that, he went to St Gregory’s in Dhaka where he was by no means an outstanding student. Sen makes a very significant observation in this context. He writes, “I became what would count as a good student only when no one cared whether I was a good student or not.” He began to blossom in Tagore’s school, which he describes as “School without Walls”: “I absolutely loved,” Sen remembers, “not having to perform well.”

Amartya Sen
Home in the World: A Memoir
Allen Lane (July 2021)

Sen writes fondly about his teachers in Santiniketan, especially his mathematics teacher Jagabandhuda who encouraged him to think independently about mathematical problems, and about Gosainji (Nityananda Binod Goswami) who was a much-loved figure among students in Santiniketan. While Sen cherishes the unique education – education in the true sense of the word of opening up the mind – he received in Santiniketan, the most formative intellectual influence came from his maternal grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen. The latter is now an almost forgotten figure, even though his book Hinduism – a little gem of a book – continues to remain in print from Penguin. Sen writes on his maternal grandfather in the spirit of a homage. What he writes about Kshiti Mohan also tells us about the evolving relationship between a grandfather and a favourite grandson.

Kshiti Mohan was profoundly learned in Sanskrit and Pali; he was also proficient in Hindi and Gujarati and of course in Bengali. He was an authority on the bhakti poets, especially Kabir and Dadu and the philosophy underlying their poetry and their songs. It was his erudition that made Tagore bring him to Santiniketan where he worked as one of Tagore’s closest associates. As a schoolboy in Santiniketan, Sen lived with his grandparents and had many conversations with them. His growing relationship with Kshiti Mohan, often marked by the latter’s “gentle humour”, is best illustrated by one incident. When the young Amartya informed his grandfather, a pious man, about his growing indifference to and scepticism regarding religion, Kshiti Mohan told him, “…you have placed yourself, I can see, in the atheistic – the Lokayata – part of the Hindu spectrum.” He followed this up by giving his grandson a long list of references to atheistic and agnostic treatises in ancient Sanskrit. This incident reveals not only the relationship between grandfather and grandson but also Kshiti Mohan as an outstanding teacher. Amartya Sen’s outlook on life and the world of ideas was formed by such catholicity.

While a student in Santiniketan, Sen wanted to pursue mathematics and Sanskrit in college but his meeting with Sukhamoy Chakravarty and the immediate friendship between the two of them altered Sen’s plans. He decided, almost at Chakravarty’s request, to study economics at Presidency College. He and Chakravarty embarked on an intellectual companionship together – a journey that would end only with Chakravarty’s untimely death in 1990. Calcutta, Presidency College and the College Street Coffee House opened up new vistas for Sen – intellectual debates and discussions, a growing circle of friends, immersion in the world of ideas, especially the ideas of Marx. Sen recollects those days with an obvious sense of enjoyment. But during his undergraduate days in Presidency, something else happened to Sen: his battle with oral cancer.

Sen noticed a lump on his hard palate, the size of a split pea. Since doctors were prone to dismissing it, Sen decided to read up on cancer and came up with the diagnosis that he was suffering from squamous cell carcinoma. This diagnosis was confirmed by a biopsy. He had to undergo seven days of high intensity radiation under very primitive and gruesome conditions. The treatment was relatively painless but the aftermath was terrible. Sen recounts this episode with an almost stoic detachment. When the family received the biopsy report, there was intense emotional distress verging on despair. On going to bed Sen, had a profound insight into his own situation: he was an agent (since he had made the diagnosis) and the victim of his own agency since he was also the patient. This was a unique, if problematic, predicament. His sense of agency – sheer human will – prevailed and triumphed. The emperor of maladies failed, and has failed, to subjugate the prowess of Amartya Sen.

From Presidency, Sen moved to Trinity College, Cambridge and continued his study of economics. He had been an outstanding student at Presidency but it was by the river Cam that Sen began to come into his own, intellectually. Maurice Dobb, Piero Sraffa, Joan Robinson and Dennis Robertson were the four teachers/mentors in Cambridge who nurtured the originality of Sen. At Trinity, he was as outstanding a student as he had been at Presidency. With characteristic modesty, Sen does not mention his examination results. In Calcutta, he had stood first in the first class in economics; and at Cambridge in his tripos in economics, he received (this I have been told by some of Sen’s closest friends) what in Cambridge is called a “starred first”. After his BA degree, Sen began his career as a research student and within one year, June 1956, he had in his view “a set of chapters that looked as they could form a dissertation”. Sraffa agreed with Sen’s assessment of the chapters or what Sen calls his “putative thesis”. If this is remarkable, what happened next was even more remarkable, if not unprecedented at least in the Indian academic world. Just as Sen was about to fly back to India to do empirical research to apply to his theory, he received a letter from the vice chancellor of Jadavpur University (which had just started) inviting him to head and establish the economics department at the university. Sen was then a little short of 23.

After some initial and entirely understandable hesitation, Sen decided to take on the challenge. He set up the syllabus, did the first round of recruitment of faculty and bore a very heavy teaching load (in one particular week, he gave 28 full length lectures!). It was during this phase in Calcutta that Sen made a new friendship. This was with Ranajit Guha, who was then teaching at Jadavpur. The affinity between the two was immediate. Sen found Guha to be innovative and original in his ideas and approach to history. Guha then lived in a small flat on Panditya Road in south Calcutta where many left-leaning intellectuals gathered for political debates and intellectual interaction. Guha’s flat became one of Sen’s haunts. Looking back on those addas, Sen considers them to have been important for him: “I feel that as academic discussions go, it would be hard to match those in the small unassuming apartment in Panditya Road in the mid-1950s.”

While teaching at Jadavpur, Sen met Nabaneeta Dev in 1956, became engaged to her in 1959 and they were married in 1960. They had two daughters, Antara and Nandana. When they met and married, Nabaneeta was “a successful young poet, and would later become one of the most well-known creative writers in Bengali literature.” She became one of the best known and respected professors at Jadavpur University.

Teaching at Jadavpur and the addas in Calcutta, both of which Sen thoroughly enjoyed, turned out to be an interlude since Sen returned to Trinity as a Prize Fellow in the spring of 1958. He was a Prize Fellow for four years and was free to pursue his own intellectual and academic interests. It was this period that saw the deepening of Sen’s relationship with Sraffa, Dobb, Robinson and Robertson. Of particular importance for Sen was the daily walks he had with Sraffa – the conversations during these long walks covered economics, philosophy and Sraffa’s relationship with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Antonio Gramsci. Cambridge in the early 1960s was a very lively place for discussions on economic theory. Through these interactions, Sen came to form friendships with a number of economists who made major contributions in their chosen fields. Sen also travelled across the pond to teach at MIT, Harvard and Stanford. In the US, his encounters with Kenneth Arrow, Paul Samuelson and John Rawls were especially significant and intellectually formative.

Sen returned to India to take up a professorship at the Delhi School of Economics and it is at the D-School around 1963 that Sen brings down the curtain on his remembrance of things past. There is one comment that Sen makes regarding his teaching days at D-School that is telling. He writes, “It is hard to describe how joyful it is when the performance of your students draws global attention – no matter what you yourself are doing.” Only a dedicated teacher could write such a sentence. Amartya Sen’s heart is in his teaching, which he sees as being integral to his scholarship.

Amartya Sen in 2010. Photo: GODL-India/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Through the preceding paragraphs, I have tried to present a chronological outline of Sen’s life (up to 1963) and of some of the formative influences and friendships. To reduce his memoirs to just this would be to diminish its significance and denude it of its richness. Within the chronological contours at the appropriate places, Sen reflects on some of his principal intellectual concerns. There are excursions in this book on aspects of Tagore’s ideas which have always engaged Sen, on the nature of ancient Indian culture, on some of the ideas of Adam Smith, on some aspects of Marx’s thought – especially its more problematic areas, on the nature of British rule in India, the anguished relationship of Sraffa and Wittgenstein, social choice theory, the Bengal famine of 1943, the idea of Bangladesh and so on. On many of these, Sen has written more extensively in his essays and books. But there are two themes on which Sen reflects in this book that merit attention. One is an illuminating chapter on the rivers of Bengal and the other is on the Buddha and his teachings.

As a child in Dhaka, Sen with his parents travelled on boats across rivers that are so much of the landscape of deltaic Bengal – the Padma, the Meghna and the Dhaleshwari. These journeys stoked Sen’s curiosity about the rivers, the lives around them, the fish and the enthralling landscape. Even as a boy, he began to study maps and discovered that the Brahmaputra and the Ganges originate at the same point – Manas Sarovar – and then take different routes to meet and merge north-west of Dhaka. As a student in Santiniketan and Presidency, Sen came to know the rivers of West Bengal, some of them with beautiful names like Mayurakshi, Ajoy, Rupnarayan, Ichamati and of course the Bhagirathi (commonly known as the Hooghly). As a student, he became aware of the importance of rivers and the economy of the hinterland which Tagore had noted in his essays and poems; when Sen read Adam Smith, these links acquired greater salience.

From such observations, to be expected from a brilliant student of economics, Sen, in his memoirs, moves to how the rivers have fascinated some of the major literary figures of Bengal, not just Tagore. This fascination has a long and distinguished lineage. Sen was thrilled to read in the text known as Charyapadcirca 10th to 12th century CE, and perhaps the earliest set of identifiable Bengali writing – a reference to the Padma and to pirates on it. He read the Manashamangal Kavya (c. late 15th century) which narrates the story of the merchant Chand and is set almost entirely on the Bhagirathi. The fascination continued and Sen draws attention to the 1945 novel Nadi O Nari (literally “Rivers and Women” but translated into English as “Men and Rivers”) by Humayun Kabir which tells the story of landless families whose life and livelihood are rendered precarious by a shifting river. The families were Muslim but their struggle cut across religious divisions: “We are men of the river. We are peasants. We build our homes on sand and the water washes them away. We build again and again, and we till the earth and bring the golden harvest out of the waste land.”

Sen underlines the shared nature of the predicament and the struggle which were particularly relevant in 1945 when Bengal was being ripped apart by religious separatism incited by narrow-minded politicians and British policy-makers. The river was “indifferent,” Sen notes poignantly, “to religion-based separateness both in creation and in destruction.”

Sen first encountered the thoughts of the Buddha when he was about ten or eleven years old from a book given to him by his grandfather. Recollecting that first exposure, Sen writes, “I was completely bowled over by the clarity of reasoning Buddha used and his accessibility to anyone who could reason.” Over the years, his appreciation and attachment to the Buddha grew. Sen brings out four aspects of the ideas of the Buddha to explain his attraction. First, the Buddha focused on reason to reject or accept a given position; he made no appeal to unargued beliefs. All his ethical conclusions – equality of all human beings, kindness towards living beings, replacement of hatred by universal love – were based on reasoning. Second, the Buddha was human and he shared the same anxieties as all human beings – death, disease and disability. Third, the Buddha was making a radical departure by not asking, “Is there a God?” but by posing the question, “How should we behave?” irrespective of whether there was a God or not. The Buddha emphasised good behaviour and good action. And, finally, the Buddha made the rather important point that doing good should not be transactional. One should engage in good actions because it was ethical to do so. Many of Sen’s ideas came to be anchored on these ideas.

Many of Sen’s ideas came to be anchored on the Buddha’s ideas. Photo: Nikhilb239/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

When I was a first-year undergraduate at Presidency College, one of my mentors, Barun De (a close friend of Sen from their Presidency College days) told me, “Read the text but also read the notes/footnotes with attention.” I have always followed this advice and on turning to the notes of Sen’s book, I discovered two nuggets. One relates to Ranajit Guha’s, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of the Permanent Settlement, a book that Sen admires. The book was published in 1963 by Mouton & Co. Sen informs us, “Since secure airmail for precious packages used to be quite expensive (in relation to an Indian teacher’s salary), I was given the pleasant job of carrying the final manuscript to Europe in my brief case, to send it to the publishers…” This fact is unknown to most people even to those who are close to Guha. The other makes one shake one’s head in sheer disbelief. Sen writes that he has been trying in vain to persuade Trinity College to spend a little money to undertake translations of Sraffa’s papers, which are in Italian. Trinity has refused to provide this small subvention even though Sraffa left behind $1 million to the college. None of the reviewers of Sen’s book in the western media have taken note of this niggardliness on the part of one of the richest of the Oxbridge colleges.

Reading Sen’s memoirs, the word that kept going around in my mind is Agonistes which, as Milton knew, is a richly evocative and ambiguous word. At one level, it means wrestler and struggler. Sen has wrestled with cancer; he has grappled and struggled with some of the most important and complex ideas of our times: social choice, liberty, growth, justice democracy, secularism; he has demonstrated through his own intellectual journey not only how to argue but what to argue about. Agonistes, however, has another more subtle connotation. It also means one who deceives while entertaining. This connotation is not derogatory. The clarity of Sen’s thought and the lucidity of his prose are delightful and entertaining but the lightness of his touch can often be deceptive because it sometimes conceals the depth and range of Sen’s erudition, the intensity and the passion of his commitment to certain values and ideas and his relentless quest to bring together the home and the world. Amartya Sen’s home is in the world of letters and learning.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is chancellor and professor of history at Ashoka University.