[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]
In the course of a long academic career spanning over six decades, three continents and a dazzling array of institutions, Amartya Sen has established a formidable reputation as well as a sizeable fan-following. Over the years, he has also become a darling of the global left, schmoozing his way through fashionable salons and trendy lovefests involving the politically correct great and the good. In his own native India, however, he has received a mixed reception, especially after the decisive rejection by the Indian electorate of the dirigiste socialist policies, which held the country in a vice-like grip for nearly half a century following independence from British rule and which he broadly supported. The new ruling dispensation in Delhi headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, unlike the discredited – and rapidly disintegrating – Congress party, little time for Sen and his acolytes – a lack of warmth which is, unsurprisingly, mutual.
But even his detractors will find it difficult to deny Sen’s brilliance (although they will point to an acidic remark that another prominent academic, Jagdish Bhagwati of Colombia University, is reported to have made: ‘India’s curse is its brilliant economists’ – see, e.g., Shashi Tharoor, Nehru: The Invention of India (New Delhi: Penguin, 2003 p. 244). That brilliance – and a remarkable facility with words – shines through this highly-readable book which describes the first 30 years of his life, including birth and initial schooling in Dacca, then a part of British India; a childhood spent in the idyllic environs of Santiniketan, the avant garde school set up by Rabindranath Tagore who went on to become one of India’s leading poets; early university education in Presidency College, Calcutta, with all the multicultural splendours of that city and endless opportunities for debate and discussion (‘the conversations in the coffee house absorbed nearly as much of my time as class hours’ – p. 199); a painful brush with cancer and the debilitating effects of high-dose radiotherapy as a teenager; passage to England and admission to Trinity College, Cambridge, for an undergraduate degree, followed quickly by the completion of doctoral work in record time; a short stint as an academic in the then newly established Jadavpur University in Calcutta; a return to Cambridge and to some lecturing in his old college; marriage and a sabbatical year in the United States with his young wife; and another spell of teaching at the Delhi School of Economics. The book comes to a somewhat abrupt end with nary an indication of whether it is likely to be followed by another volume or volumes which would cover the remaining two thirds of the author’s long life.
The 400-odd pages are packed with anecdotes, musings on people and events, analysis of historical occurrences and trends, descriptions of post-war Cambridge, displays of great acuity of thought, and frequent name-dropping (the last, it must be added, accomplished with a subtlety and sophistication not usually found in books from the Indian subcontinent). Strikingly also, for a person who did not absorb English until quite late in his boyhood, Sen’s prose is marked by a mastery of language which is as delightful as the humour, often self-deprecatory, which pervades the entire book. ‘The language of the Raj’, he notes wryly, ‘somehow passed me by – at least for many years’. (p. 93)
Sen is an ardent advocate for Sanskrit – which became his second language after Bengali – but such is his instinctive and visceral hostility to the Bharatiya Janata Party and its supporters (who have been pushing for a revival of Sanskrit) that he is unable to resist some gratuitous point-scoring at their cost. ‘These Sanskrit champions’, he sneers, ‘typically tend to see it as the great language of Hindu scriptures. Of course, it is that, but Sanskrit is so much – so very much – more as well’. (p. 94) So what, many would ask, does that make the BJP-wallahs’ espousal of Sanskrit any less defensible than his own? Elsewhere, slightly more plausibly, he takes another swipe at the Modi government while discussing censorship of printed material:
Under the Raj, there were restrictions on what could be published and propagated (even some of Rabindranath Tagore’s books were banned).These days the government of India has no such need, but alas – for altogether different reasons of authoritarian domestic politics – the restrictions are sometimes no less intrusive than during colonial rule. (pp. 167-8)
The book has some interesting reflections on the pros and cons of British rule in India at macro level which merit attention. Although Sen falls, predictably, on the side of those who believe that India’s gains from the Raj were less substantial than its losses, he looks at the issue in a more nuanced and less polemical way than, say, his fellow-Indian Shashi Tharoor (who has almost made a cottage industry of his anti-British salvos). A salient question that finds thoughtful discussion in the current book is: had Britain not colonised India, who would have been the most likely successors to the Mughal invaders who had preceded them? In terms of an overall assessment of the Raj, Sen veers towards adopting Tagore’s argument that a distinction needs to be made between ‘the role of Britain and that of British imperialism’ in India (p. 169). He quotes Tagore’s indictment that ‘what was truly best in their own civilization, the upholding of dignity of human relationship, has no place in the British administration of this country’ (p. 169).
Perhaps more fascinating are Sen’s cogitations on Buddhism – a religion to which he was attracted from a young age and which he tried, unsuccessfully, to embrace formally (there is an amusing story in the book about how he asked his school authorities in Santiniketan to register him as a Buddhist, only for his request to be dismissed brusquely as a prank. He maintains, incidentally, that he is an atheist). What particularly attracted him to Buddhism was, he says, its approach to ethics, which ‘differed substantially from the morality of the “social contract” … that had become such a dominant feature of post-Hobbesian and post-Rousseauvian thinking in Western ethics’ (p. 96). Sen also appears to be taken in by the Buddha’s more straightforward route to ‘doing the right thing’ and contrasts it with Jesus’s ‘irreducibly epistemological’ reasoning in that area (p. 97).
Venkat Iyer is the Editor of the Round Table Journal.
Home in the world: a memoir, by Amartya Sen, London, Allen Lane, 2021.
Policymaker’s journal, by Kaushik Basu, New Delhi, Simon & Schuster, 2021.
An economist at home and abroad, by Shankar Acharya, New Delhi, HarperCollins.