Truly at Home in The World

Finished reading Amartya Sen’s Home in The World, that my parents had gifted me for my birthday this year. The first I heard of it was in an article by Edward Luce of The Financial Times that he shared on Twitter and I remember thinking, well, it’s been a long time since one saw or heard from Mr. Sen in the Indian media, considering he used to be a regular on NDTV some years ago. I also thought it is about time that he wrote a new book, but I didn’t expect it to be a memoir.

Home in the World which is inspired by The Home and The World by Rabindranath Tagore covers the first three decades of the author and economist’s life, from his childhood spent in Burma, Bangladesh (or what was East Bengal) and West Bengal, to his years studying at Santiniketan and then at Presidency College, Calcutta as well as his years at Cambridge, UK and teaching assignments in the US, at Jadavpur University as well as The Delhi School of Economics, Delhi. The book ends with his return to India to teach at D School, as it is commonly referred to.

The surprise for me was his early childhood in Burma. From 1936 to 1939, Amartya Sen – at the time a toddler – lived in Mandalay with his parents since his father had a three-year professorship at the Mandalay Agricultural College. He recalls happy times there, especially the travels within Burma, long boat rides down the Irrawaddy, the pagodas and palaces, and the home with spectacular views of the sun behind Maymyo hills. He also shares his thoughts on Aung San Su Kyi whom he had come to know well later in life, along with her husband Michael Aris, a scholar on Asia, and on all that has transpired with Burma’s experiment with democracy.

Boat rides and rivers seem to dominate Mr. Sen’s early life, since he was forever to-ing and fro-ing between Dhaka, Santiniketan and Calcutta. He gives us a very immediate and real sense of what growing up was like in the Bengal of the 1930s and 1940s. The constant shunting between these places early in life influenced his way of thinking as a middle-class individual. There are beautiful evocations of Bengal through descriptions of life on the banks of its rivers and of how life flowed through the waters of its many rivers that converge in what is now Bangladesh.

One gets a sense of Sen’s strong family ties, including a large extended family, brought together by lively discussions and exchange of ideas on everything that mattered. From day-to-day life and the price of fish, to the future of Bengal and, of course, India’s freedom movement as well as communal relations.

He also gives us a very good sense of what being educated at Santiniketan meant to someone like him. Rabindranath Tagore was known to Sen’s family – indeed, Tagore suggested the name Amartya to Sen’s mother, when he was born. But beyond the family friendship, there was a strong connection of values and ideals that united the Tagores with the Sens. One can see how Sen was inspired by Tagore and his nationalism that was never hemmed in by national or communal boundaries, but was instead, truly international.

In that sense, Home in The World, is really about all that influenced and shaped Amartya Sen’s world view, including his economics. There are long digressions on wide-ranging subjects from Bengal’s history, British rule, the freedom struggle and INC’s (Indian National Congress) role in it, Tagore’s idea of education as well as his differences with Gandhi on certain issues. All these make for great reading as they tell us how Sen’s own life, education and world view were being shaped, both by his own experience and what came to him through books and discussions with others.

What I like about Home in The World is that the entire book is written around a central core idea: including the world in one’s life, even when the immediate environment might be one of conflict and fragmentation. He writes in the preface itself about two views of the world: one, of divisions, and the other, of inclusion. To that extent, every story or incident’s narration, or even broader themes such as partitioning of Bengal, communal violence and tensions, Tagore’s teachings, freedom movement all tie in neatly with this core idea.

In chapters such as The Urbanity of Calcutta, College Street and What to Make of Marx, Sen shares with us much of what influenced his left-view thinking. The Bengal Famine, of course, made a profound impact on Sen, particularly in later years as an economist. In Presidency College, Calcutta, he would find the intellectually stimulating environment and the impetus he needed.

“The memory of the Bengal Famine of 1943, in which between 2 and 3 million people had died, and which I had observed as a child was still fresh in my mind when I arrived at Presidency College in 1951. I had been particularly struck by the thoroughly class-dependent character of the famine. Calcutta, despite its immensely rich intellectual and cultural life, provided constant reminders of the proximity of unbearable economic misery. Unsurprisingly, the student community of Presidency was very politically active. Though I was not enthusiastic enough to join any specific political party, the quality of sympathy and egalitarian commitment of the political left appealed to me greatly, as it did to most of my friends and fellow students.”

At the same time, Sen shares his scepticism of most left-wing politics in India and around the world, which when it manifests itself as an extreme ideology, makes little room for democratic processes. Not one to be put off by the politics around social and economic equity, Sen tells us of the great friendship that he developed with Sukhamoy Chakravorty, while reading Kenneth Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values. In a chapter titled An Early Battle, he also tells us of his encounter with oral carcinoma at a very young age, and how he was treated for it. Thanks to his insistence on having it properly detected as well as his own reading on the subject, he managed to have it operated upon in time.

If the first half of the book is about Amartya Sen’s childhood and growing up years in India, the second half is about his journey overseas and his maturing as an economist. One gets the sense that Sen was very clear right from the very beginning on what area of economics he wanted to concentrate on, and that his reading on the subject began at Presidency itself, before landing at Trinity College in Cambridge. At Cambridge he made new friends since there were quite a few South Asians there at the time. But he didn’t limit his social circle only to South Asians, drawn as he was to people from different parts of the world.

Amartya Sen at a discussion at the London School of Economics where he taught between 1971 and 1977, Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the What Economics chapter, Sen discusses his thought process on economic matters, most importantly on what his choice of subject for his PhD at Cambridge ought to be. He says he always wanted to work on welfare economics, which at the time was a new area of work. But when he mentioned this to Joan Robinson who at the time was working on her book, Accumulation of Capital, she remarked, “Don’t you know that this is a busted subject?” He makes no bones about the fact that he had quite a few arguments and disagreements with her, though he had great respect for her.

But other economists of Marxian persuasion who Sen made friends with at Cambridge, such as Maurice Dobbs and Piero Sraffa, also discouraged him from pursuing welfare economics for his doctorate. They told him to feel free to discuss his thoughts on the subject with them whenever he wished, but to choose a thesis subject that other people would be interested in, and on which they had some knowledge and expertise.

With Joan Robinson as his thesis supervisor, he snuck in the word capital into the title of his subject, reading as Choice of Capital-intensity in Development Planning. Sen gives us indications of early conflicts between the different schools of economic thought at Cambridge – the neo-classical school vs Marxian vs Keynesian. Though Joan Robinson belonged to the Keynesian school, Sen tells us that she believed that rapid economic growth ought to be prioritized over welfare spending, including on education and healthcare, whereas Sen was always of the view that government spending on healthcare and education ought to accompany economic growth. That economic growth need not be a precondition for better education and healthcare, but it is the latter that help to set the foundation for rapid and more equitable economic growth. He says that Joan Robinson’s view seems to be the prevalent view in India as well.

Amartya Sen with Somnath Chatterjee, Hamid Ansari and Manmohan Singh at the inaugural Hiren Mukherjee Parliamentary Lecture in New Delhi; Image: Wikimedia Commons

“On these issues, Joan Robinson took a position – which has actually become quite popular in India now – that in terms of priorities, what you have to concentrate on first is simply maximizing economic growth. Once you have grown and become rich, you can then turn to health care, education and all that other stuff. This approach is, I think, one of the more profound errors in developmental thinking, since the need for good health and good education is at its peak when the country is poor.”

Having completed his PhD well before the scheduled time but unable to present his thesis before three years of research according to Cambridge University rules, Sen enquired if he could spend the remaining two years in India. He says he was missing India and Calcutta, so he took leave of absence and came to India, where a teaching job was waiting for him. He received a letter from the Vice-Chancellor of Jadavpur University that was being set up at the time, asking him to lead the founding of an economics department there. Sen says he thought he was too young for that kind of job and didn’t want to take up an administrative assignment, but he decided to give it a shot anyway.

“I was unsuitably young for the job – just short of twenty-three – and had little desire to be suddenly catapulted into a restrictive, administrative position. But, along with the anxiety, the unlikely proposal tempted me to try my hand at setting up a department and its curriculum in the way I believed economics should be taught.

It was not an easy decision, but after some hesitation I agreed to take up the challenge. So I found myself in Calcutta, working hard in rainy August to create syllabuses for the courses to be taught as well as trying to recruit people who would join me in teaching at Jadavpur. Given the shortage of staff in the beginning, I remember having to give a great many lectures each week in different areas of economics.”

Sen also receives a visiting faculty teaching assignment from Warsaw University in 1958, again well before his PhD thesis had been submitted. He writes about his journey to Warsaw and the adventures on the way, along with his other holiday trips to Europe with friends and alone, in a chapter titled Where is Europe?

But it is only when Sen visits the US on visiting teaching assignments that he discovers freedom from the shackles of the various Cambridge schools of economics. He writes a great deal about Dobbs, Sraffa and Robertson at Cambridge and his interactions with them, including those beyond economics – philosophy, for instance, and politics. However, in the chapter, American Encounters, he writes of his visiting teaching assignments in the US, beginning at MIT and following that up with stints at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Harvard Universities.

As providence would have it, Sen and the poet, Nabaneeta Dev, who he met at Jadavpur University decide to get married and both make their way to the US, since Nabaneeta was also headed for a PhD at Indiana University. Sen writes of his meetings, discussions and debates and lectures with leading lights like Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow at MIT, Kenneth Arrow at Stanford and Harvard, whose Social Choice and Individual Values had so influenced him in his student days at Presidency and thereafter, as well as the philosopher, John Rawls, who Sen discusses in detail in his book, The Idea of Justice. There are several other economists at these universities who Sen had the opportunity to interact and work with, each opening his mind to new possibilities.

The American encounters led Sen to reconsider Cambridge. He does return to Cambridge in 1961, but with a renewed determination and vigour to pursue welfare economics and starts to develop his own courses. Sen writes about Kenneth Arrow’s impossibility theorem and after consulting James M Buchanan’s papers, he applies his own thinking on the subject since there was no one at Cambridge to discuss it with.

“Sometime after returning to Cambridge from America, I decided to look properly at Buchanan’s scepticism of Arrow’s framework and his dismissal of Arrow’s impossibility theorem. There was still no one in Cambridge to discuss this with, and I remembered one of Tagore’s invigorating songs from the days of India’s struggle for independence: ‘If no one responds to your call, you must go alone.’ Solitary progress was not impossible and after some work I concluded, tentatively, that Buchanan’s scepticism about social choice theory made a lot of sense – at least for certain types of social choice.”

Not that Sen was giving up on Cambridge. He returned yet again to his alma mater as Master of Trinity College in 1998, the same year he won the Nobel Prize for his work on welfare economics, particularly on famines and poverty. His description of the day of return to Trinity College would make a perfect ending to this piece.

“Much later – forty-five years after I had first passed through it – I would stand formally attired outside the firmly closed Great Gate. I had to knock three times on the small pedestrian gate at one side of the Great Gate. The Head Porter opened the small door and asked ‘Who are you, sir?’ To which I had to reply – as confidently as I could muster – ‘I am the new Master of the College.’ The Head Porter then asked, ‘Have you got the letters patent?’ (the letter from the Queen appointing me as Master of Trinity). I had to reply, ‘Yes, I have,’ and hand it to him. The Head Porter then banged the small door shut after telling me that all the Fellows had assembled in the Great Court to check the authenticity of the document. The letters patent were then, I understand, passed around for inspection by the Fellows, while I loitered outside the Great Gate. After the genuineness of the royal document had been established, the big door of the Great Gate was opened and the Vice Master came forward, took off his hat and said to me, ‘Welcome, Master.’ After being introduced to all the Fellows (many of whom I knew already, of course), I had to walk slowly to the chapel to be installed in a rather charming ceremony.”

Home and away, is how Professor Amartya Sen prefers to look back on his life. From Santiniketan, Bangladesh and India. From Calcutta, Presidency College and College Street. From the Great Gates of Trinity. 

The image of the Great Gates of Trinity College, Cambridge, in the featured image at the start of this post is by Brian on Wikimedia Commons                 

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