Amartya Sen, a memoir | Harvard Review
Home to the world, Amartya Sen’s memoir of her years in the UK, was published there on July 8. Below, Professor Gardiner of Ocean History and Affairs Sugata Bose gives North American readers a preview of some highlights from the book, which covers the first 30 years of Sen’s life (the dissertation will be published at United States in January 2022). Sen, who is a professor at Lamont University at Harvard, won the 1998 Nobel Prize for his contributions to the welfare economy. His 2000 opening speech in defense of globalization can be read here.
One evening in September 1953 nineteen-year-old Bengali student felt “a strange mixture of excitement and undefined anxiety” as he boarded the SS Strathnaver in Bombay to embark for England. He remembered the memoirs of Maxim Gorky where the Russian writer described a feeling of isolation as he left his family to join Moscow University. “The thrill of going to a new place – in Britain and Cambridge – was mixed,” writes Amartya Sen, “with the grief of leaving the country to which I had such a strong sense of belonging.” He stood on the deck, gazing at the shores of India at sunset.
Born in Santiniketan into a family whose ancestral homes were Matto village in Manikganj and “Jagat Kutir” in Wari district of Dhaka, Amartya’s earliest childhood memories were however from Burma. He was enchanted by the sunrise he could see over the Maymyo Hills from his home in Mandalay. In the late 1930s, his father took him to see the tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar. At the simple tomb with a corrugated iron cover, the last Mughal emperor was described by British colonial masters as the ex-king of Delhi.
Named by none other than Rabindranath, Amartya was nurtured by the cultural milieu of Santiniketan where his maternal grandparents – Kshitimohan Sen and Kiranbala – had the most profound influence on him. In a moving chapter titled “The Company of Grandparents”, Amartya recounts his long dinner-time conversations with Kshitimohan on Sanskrit literature, Kabir’s poems and religious agnosticism. It is not difficult to detect where Amartya drew his lifelong commitment to the ideal of a Hindu-Muslim concordat. Witnessing the heartbreaking twin tragedies of famine and partition as a boy only strengthened his sense of social purpose.
Amartya’a’s arrival as President of the College on a rainy day in July 1951 to study economics with mathematics marked a new phase in his intellectual journey. He learned the art of teaching from Bhabatosh Datta and the imperative of questioning from Tapas Majumdar. Borrow a copy of Kenneth Arrow Social choice and individual values from Dasgupta’s Bookstore and discussing his Impossibility Theorem with his friend Sukhamay Chakravarty at the Coffee House marked the first step in what would become his greatest intellectual contribution to the field of social choice theory. Despite his political penchant for the left and his intellectual engagement with Marx, Amartya valued individual freedom. “I could never be a member of a political party,” he said, “which demanded compliance.”
On the ship to England, a member of the Indian women’s hockey team asked Amartya, “What good is education? “I don’t know how to play hockey,” replied Amartya, “so I have to choose education.” The young woman offered to teach Amartya to play hockey. If she did that, Amartya argued that she would educate him. “Yes,” she agreed, “but that would be a lot of fun – way more than the boring math you were doing all afternoon on the bridge. “
At the very end of September 1953, Amartya Sen entered the sacred doors of Trinity College, Cambridge for the first time. “The Wren Library, which is on one side of Nevile’s Court,” he writes of his first impression, “was one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. Reading Amartya’s account of his years as a student and then a Cambridge scholar reminded me of a conversation I had while walking with him along the River Cam in the early 1980s. He was then a teacher. Drummond of Political Economy in Oxford and I had just been elected a Fellow of St. Catharine’s College. As we walked behind Cambridge’s back just behind the Wren Library, I remember thinking how comfortable Amartya-da seemed in this environment. In this beautiful setting, we were discussing the depression of the 1930s and the famine of 1943. After our walk, we went to see Ian Stephens, the editor of Statesman, who decides in October 1943 to defy the censorship of information on the famine. While a student, Amartya knocked on Stephens’ door at King’s College Cambridge, encouraged to do so by writer EM Forster.
At Nevile’s Court, on her second morning in Cambridge, Amartya met her director of studies, Piero Sraffa, the great Italian economist and friend of Antonio Gramsci. He forged a long-standing bond with Sraffa, who taught him to appreciate ristretto, the first espresso coffee, and gave him the wise advice never to reduce theory to a slogan. Amartya carves beautiful portraits of his teachers Piero Sraffa, Maurice Dobb, an ecumenical Marxist economist, and Dennis Robertson, a conservative sympathizer. He also exposes his intellectual disagreements with the brilliant but dogmatic Joan Robinson.
Amartya Sen Home to the world is really three books in one. A sensitively written thesis of the first thirty years of his life, it is interspersed with sharp commentaries on history and politics as well as intellectual dissertations on economic theory and philosophy. In one chapter, he offers a critical assessment of British rule in India. In another, we find the most insightful analysis of Piero Sraffa’s role to persuade Ludwig Wittgenstein to reject his first classic. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and move on to his presentation on the rules of language in Philosophical inquiries.
As a memorialist, Amartya is eloquent on friendship and reluctant on love. Maybe he doesn’t recognize any hard boundaries between them or, in any case, believes that there can be no love without friendship. He writes with great warmth of feeling about his friends, men and women, from many different nationalities. He recalls the close mix of Indian and Pakistani students at Cambridge and how he forged long-standing friendships with Rehman Sobhan and Mahbubul Haq.
This book just gives an overview of the new Cambridge across the Atlantic which became Amartya’s main home later in life. His academic visits to MIT and Stanford in the early 1960s were refreshing for him, away from the academic feuds in old Cambridge between rival schools of economic thought. There had been an interregnum during his decade abroad when he returned to establish the Department of Economics at the University of Jadavpur. In 1963, he was ready to answer a call from a new school of economics in the Indian capital. Fearing that the intensification of nationalist rivalries would prevent him from seeing friends he had made in Cambridge, he chose the unusual route of return via Lahore and Karachi to Delhi. His intellectual achievements since then have become the subject of tradition and history.