Book Review

Book Review: Amartya Sen’s memoir 'Home in the World' is a discussion of memories and ideas

Print edition : December 17, 2021

Amartya Sen in April 2014 after casting his vote in the Lok Sabha election, in Birbhum district of West Bengal. Photo: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Amartya Sen’s memoir is not a chronological story of his life; it discusses ideas and emphasises the importance of public reasoning in decision-making. He is also an irrepressible storyteller, and the book is full of interesting stories told with insight and empathy.

I read this book practically non-stop. The author needs no introduction, to the reading public in India or elsewhere. Though it is called “A Memoir”, more space is taken up for discussing ideas from the Buddha, through Jesus, and coming to modern times, from David Hume to Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, and Wittgenstein and many more, than in telling us about the author’s life as such. The style is pellucid. The book is dedicated to the author’s wife, Emma Rothschild.

In the preface itself, we get a taste of Sen’s penchant for teasing his interlocutors and readers. The Iranian mathematician Al-Biruni, who spent many years in India and wrote Tarikh al-Hind, is quoted to say that Indian intellectuals’ “most unusual gift is their ability to talk eloquently about subjects about which they know absolutely nothing”. Sen continues, “Would I be proud of that gift if I had it? I don’t know, but perhaps I should begin by talking about things I do know. This memoir is a small attempt to do just that, or at least to talk about things I have experienced, whether or not I actually know them” (emphasis added).

Sen was profoundly influenced by Rabindranath Tagore, who died in 1941 when the author was eight. It was Tagore who gave him the name Amartya. Sen studied for 10 years at Santiniketan before joining Presidency College in Calcutta (now Kolkata). The irrepressible storyteller that Sen is, he gives a fairly detailed account of how Presidency College started as Hindu College in 1817. Similarly, there is a fascinating account of the origins of Cambridge University, where he pursued his B.A., M.A., and PhD degrees. His parents were not rich, and in 1953 he sailed to England as the family could not afford the airfare charged by the British airlines.

The book, divided into five parts, is not chronologically ordered. But, it is the richer for disregarding chronology. The first part has chapter headings such as “The Rivers of Bengal”, “School Without Walls” and “The Presence of the Past”.

Also read: Triumph of humanist reason

The earliest memory the author has is of being awakened by the loud hoot of a ship. The family was sailing from Calcutta to Rangoon because Amartya Sen's father had taken up a three-year assignment as a visiting teacher in Mandalay. Journeys along waterways were in any case very much a part of the family's life. They often used the steamer to travel from Calcutta to Dhaka, where the family house was called Jagat Kutir (Cottage of the World), reflecting Sen’s grandfather’s “scepticism of nationalism”. Sen was fortunate to spend time with his grandparents. He learnt Sanskrit, which introduced him to the atheistic and agnostic literature of the Lokayata and Charvaka schools. The Buddha figured out that it was more important to focus attention on one’s behaviour than to get entangled with existential questions including that of God. Sen tried to get himself registered as a Buddhist at Santiniketan, but the school refused.

Bengal famine

The Bengal famine with its grim toll of 2 million or more was noticed by the sensitive child that Sen was. In the spring of 1943, Sen and his friends fought with two bullies who were cruelly teasing a man who looked weak and helpless. The bullies ran away and it was found that the man had not eaten for days.

Later, Sen wrote on the Bengal famine and developed his theory of entitlement. Famine does not mean that there is not enough food available. If a large number of people cannot afford to buy food, there will be famine. If the country is a functioning democracy, the media will speak out and the government will be compelled to act to prevent famine.

In the case of the Bengal famine, the imperial government in Delhi ordered the media not to carry news of the raging famine. The Statesman obeyed for a while until its editor, Ian Stephens, rebelled in October 1943. Once The Statesman started reporting, the United Kingdom papers took note of the famine and the Viceroy was compelled to act responsibly. Many years later, Sen while at Cambridge, met Stephens, who was very proud of what he had done.

Also read: Nobel Prize for a great economist

Sen points out the importance of public reasoning in pursuit of better decision- making. He demolishes the notion that such public reasoning appeared for the first time in post-Enlightenment Europe by drawing attention to ancient Athens and to the huge Buddhist Council meetings in India at the time of Ashoka.

The reader might note with concern what is happening to public reasoning in today’s India, even as she feels grateful to Sen for his remarkable contribution in this regard.

On Marx

One of the most fascinating characteristics of this book is Sen’s ability to discuss lucidly complicated matters. The 15-page long chapter “What to Make of Marx” is easily one of the most reasoned critical appraisals of Marx that this reviewer has come across. Sen is no economist of the conventional type. He has a moral conscience that ignites his reason. About Marx’s “labour theory of value”, Sen quotes with approval points made by Maurice Dobb who taught Sen in Cambridge. While the theory of Marx might be only an approximation, and that too the first approximation that has been replaced by better ones, it does bring out the exploitation of the worker by the capitalist. It should be seen primarily as a “descriptive theory, delineating the role of human work in the making of goods and services”.

Sen has met and conversed on philosophy, economics, politics, history and much else with an impressively large number of top minds in our age. For example, his conversations with Piero Strafa, an Italian thinker who was close to Antonio Gramsci, are of much interest to any student of philosophy. Strafa spent hours with Ludwig Wittgenstein who in his Tractatus Logico Philosophicus had proposed a “picture theory of meaning”. Later, when Strafa pointed out the flaw in the theory, Wittgenstein started looking at language from an anthropological view and came up with the theory known as “ordinary language philosophy”. One wonders whether any textbook on philosophy will tell us about the influence of Strafa on Wittgenstein.

Also read: ‘Making people’s lives better’

Sen has led an exceptionally rich life, but his ability to empathise with fellow human beings who find themselves in desperate situations is admirable. As a teacher and public intellectual, he inspires us to be good Samaritans. Sen quoted Adam Smith to his students:

“There is not a negro from the coast of Africa who does not, in this respect, possess a degree of magnanimity which the soul of his sordid master is too often scarce capable of conceiving.”

Sen continues, “When I read aloud that passage from Smith in a lecture at the Delhi School of Economics, I remember the relief-and indeed the thrill- that could be detected in the class.”

On Partition

There is a fairly detailed account of the partition of India and of Bengal. Jinnah’s role is discussed and Sen seems to agree with Pakistani scholar Ayesha Jalal that “Jinnah himself was not really very keen on a clear-cut partition. He wanted a conditionally split country, a Hindu-majority India and a Muslim-majority Pakistan, with shared foreign policy and defence—very far from what actually emerged.”

Sen says that the two-nation theory was “first proclaimed not by Jinnah but by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar in his presidential address to the Hindu Mahasabha in 1937.” As a matter of fact, Lala Lajpath Rai in 1925 had proposed partition and he was uncannily right in predicting the boundaries of the future Dominions.

Jinnah’s aide Khalique Al Saman had met Secretary of State Zetland before the Second World War broke out in 1939. Zetland had signalled support for partition and Jinnah knew of this support when the League meeting in Lahore demanded partition in March 1940. Essentially, keeping in mind the Cold War, Britain wanted a military foothold in the subcontinent and Jinnah agreed to it. Jinnah was far from a traditional Muslim, but he made use of religion in pursuit of his personal ambition.

Ishtiaq Ahmed has disproved Ayesha Jalal’s thesis convincingly in his recently published book Jinnah: His Successes, Failures and Role in History ("Understanding Partition", Frontline, June 18, 2021).

Sen is Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard. Is there such a chair in India? We seem to live in age where we know more and more of the less and less, as Alvin Toffler put it in his book The Future Shock published in 1970. It is heart-warming to come across an amazing polymath like Sen.

The book is superbly edited. The index is in two parts, subject-wise and name-wise. This adds value to the book.

Finally, it will be worthwhile to read a book by Sen on: where India is going.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian is Distinguished Fellow at Symbiosis University. His book The Arab Spring That Was and Wasn’t is about to be published.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor