Three Longs & Three Shorts

Review of Amartya Sen’s “Home in the World”

Those of us who grew up in India in the 1980s and 90s used be stunned by the quality of students that the schools of Kolkata would produce in that era. Our peers from Kolkata would read not just Tagore but also Kant & Shakespeare, not just Newton but also Einstein & Fermi. They would solve differential equations in half the time it would take us and then they would go off to watch the latest Amitabh Bachchan movie. Whilst Kolkata’s schools have seen a steady decline over the past 30 years, Amartya Sen’s beautifully written biography “Home in the World” (the title of the book is an allusion to Satyajit Ray’s 1984 hit movie “Ghare Baire” which based on an equally famous novel from Tagore) is a reminder of why a high quality education system which produces deep thinkers can have a profound impact on the world.
Even if you don’t believe in Sen’s politics, here are three reasons why reading this book is a good use of time. Firstly, the book reminds us of how Sen’s formative experiences in Bengal helped him develop the theory that it is not for lack of food that the poor starve (for which he would be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998). Srinivasan Ramani writes in The Hindu, “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.”
Abhrajyoti Chakraborty in The Guardian develops this point – about personal experience shaping Sen’s economics & philosophy that people must have choice rather than being deprived of choice – further: “The empire loomed early in Sen’s life, though he was born and schooled in Santiniketan, the idyllic campus set up by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in rural Bengal. There were the uncles locked up under “preventive detention” (a law still used in India to imprison dissenters without trial). There was the Bengal famine of 1943, which Sen witnessed when he was 10 years old; and the partition that forced his parents to leave their ancestral house in Dhaka. Sen’s account of his childhood is more attuned to the ideas he imbibed and the times he lived through. The inner life is eschewed for the world outside. A remark on female classmates will trigger Sen to reflect on gender inequality in India,”
The second reason for reading the book is to understand the practical impact of what on the surface appear to be abstract ideas regarding economics & society. Quoting Abhrajyoti Chakraborty: “To read Sen is to steer clear of contemporary economists’ obsession with balance sheets and trade deals and GDP. (“If trade gets people together,” he asserts at one point, “then so does the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment.”)… The rise and fall of prices in Calcutta’s fish markets can make little Sen reconsider conventional theories of demand and supply. His mother’s afternoon chitchat about Bengali Muslims being deprived of land ownership can lead him to a new understanding of class differences and sectarian discontent.”
And the third reason for reading the book is to understand how a great mind can apply himself for well over 10,000 hours to reach insights that are beyond the rest of us who don’t have the capacity for sustained hard work over half a century: “The word “precocious” doesn’t begin to describe the future Nobel laureate’s schooldays. This is a boy who picks up Sanskrit before English, thanks to his maternal grandfather. When taken to meet his incarcerated uncles, he probes them on the difference between socialists and communists. During his treatment for cancer, he reads Coriolanus in the radiation room….Battle lines were drawn as well among the economists at Cambridge. Sen found it difficult to choose between conservative professors who espoused the principles of mainstream economics and the slightly leftwing “neo-Keynesians,” who were in theory sceptical of capitalism, but curiously cold to issues Sen considered important: inequality, exploitation, poverty. At the university’s socialist club, he was surprised to discover that many British Marxists didn’t seem to have quite read Marx’s work. His attempts to work on welfare economics were rebuffed, but the precocious boy in him cleared up a space by finishing his doctoral thesis two years ahead of schedule and travelling back to India to teach and pursue his actual research interests. By his mid-20s, he was married to the writer Nabaneeta Dev, and lecturing at MIT and Stanford.”
For those of us who want to live in India and be a part of its future, reading Amartya Sen is akin to reading a roadmap of how to find oneself in this vast country.