Reflections of a master’s mind

Reading Amartya Sen’s Home in the World (Allen Lane, 2021), I remembered my brief meeting with him at the India International Center in Delhi in the early 1990s. One of my senior colleagues wondered, in context of Sen’s idea of ​​Indian pluralism, why the question of the division of casteism, a unique feature of our society, remains unexplored. A few days later, as Sen was having breakfast, I thought it was an opportunity to confront him with the question. He was cordial, didn’t care about my intrusion, looked out the window for a few seconds and explained why the traditional caste system, an attempt to structure society, could not be called pluralistic in the sense he had defined. this. An office is also organized hierarchically for a purpose – can it be called a pluralistic office? I wasn’t sure I fully understood him, but I was deeply touched by his willingness to listen and answer this question.
As an economist, Sen is considered one of the great minds who enriched the world of ideas and actions, augmented by his erudition in fields as diverse as Sanskrit grammar and literature, mathematics and philosophy. When he recounts how such ideas took root, incidents that sparked his imagination, and people whose company and friendship helped him refine those ideas, the personal and the impersonal, the past and the present merge to create a masterful narrative.
Tracing the first thirty years of his life – across Dhaka, Mandalay, Santiniketan, Calcutta, Cambridge, other places in the West and Delhi [where the book ends] – reflecting on the drama of this remarkable phase, he avoided certain aspects that would have made the book more salable. There are glowing references to her association with parents, friends, teachers, students, and colleagues, but none to romantic love, for example. This book is not steeped in emotion; he tells the story of ideas gathered in tranquility, sometimes wandering on the side of grace.
In his continuous flow of interactions with people of all colors, two people stand out, his maternal grandfather Kshiti Mohan Sen and his Cambridge teacher Piero Sraffa. KM Sen’s well-known introduction to Hinduism is actually Sen’s translated version of the original Bengali when he was in his twenties. Kshiti Mohan’s ongoing search to understand and bring to the attention of the general public the syncretic relationship between various religious communities has influenced many people, including Rabindranath Tagore. The ideas of Sraffa, a close friend of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci, deeply impressed Sen.
After graduating from presidential college, Sen only applied to Trinidad – “the opportunity to work with (Maurice) Dobb, Sraffa and (Dennis) Robertson was quite exciting… He finished his one-year doctoral thesis on the choice of techniques, became a Prize Fellow and many years later the Masters of Trinity College.
While the Santiniketan School, the Presidency and Trinity Colleges, in a sense, shaped Sen, his personal observations of the Bengal Famine in 1943 and the community killings later have contributed no less. His foundational work on the causes of famine and his relentless fight against man-made divisions demonstrate how an insightful and analytical mind can turn everyday experiences into deep life lessons. Each page of this autobiography is informed by examples of such observations followed by discussion and argument, leading to the revelation of the truth.
He points out to us how decisive media intervention can make the government listen to reason. On the catastrophic Bengal famine, The Statesman, Calcutta, under the direction of its editor Ian Stephens, severely attacked British famine policy. “The British Parliament had not discussed the man-made disaster before Stephens spoke. All of that changed immediately after The Statesman reported.
The Buddha, Tagore, Panini, and to some extent Gandhi, were among those who influenced Sen’s thinking. He discusses Tagore’s disagreement with Gandhi’s comment that the devastating earthquake in Bihar “was a divine retribution sent by God for our sins.” Tagore was appalled by this connection of ethical principles with a cosmic phenomenon. Sen reflected on this as well as Gandhi’s insistence on “charkha”, for example, and was generally on Tagore’s side. Later in life, however, Sen wondered if they, including Tagore, had misunderstood Gandhi in any respect.
He draws pen portraits of his friends and acquaintances, teachers and colleagues, gurus and chelas. Whether it’s Kenneth Arrow whose ‘impossibility theorem’ in the context of social choice has inspired much of Sen’s work, or Paul Samuelson or Joan Robinson or John Rawls, Nicholas Kaldor or Oscar Lange, Sen has covered their contribution. while highlighting its own gains from such interfaces. Regarding Samuelson, Sen notes “He remained fully focused on the truth that might emerge from the argument, rather than worrying about winning the battle…”
Sen also alludes to his days at the University of Jadavpur where he headed the foundation and headed the economics department (at the age of twenty-three), and at the Delhi School of Economics where he was chosen. by VKRV Rao to be his young successor.
Throughout this labor of love, as he goes from desperation, when diagnosed with tongue cancer at the age of nineteen, to satisfying achievements, he weaves stories and dialogues, interwoven with humor as in an adda, and combines them with serious deliberation as on questions such as “What to do with Marx”. His years with his wife Nabaneeta have also been told with tenderness and respect.
Sen’s relentless adherence to causes such as empowering disadvantaged people through capacity building, deepening democracy and freedom through discussion and persuasion, increasing investments for universal coverage Basic health care and education – well over the past fifty years – has altered world thinking to a large extent, leading to almost universal acceptance now.
In the book D. School (Ed. Dharma Kumar and Dilip Mukherjee, OUP, 1995), Prabhat Patnaik wrote: “The students discussed whether Amartya Sen was better than Sukhamoy Chakravarty in the same way as Sukhamoy Chakravarty was. others said if Madhubala was better than Meena Kumari. . ‘, although he found the comparison unhealthy. Sen’s star profile has often overshadowed his fame for his complex mathematical work, articulating serious philosophical concepts and expanding the boundaries of economics as a discipline. Taken as a whole, his systematic work throughout his life to create a world – just and equitable, inclusive and free – made a difference that no Nobel Prize winner could grasp. The thesis helps us understand this man and the influences that made him what he is.

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