Author Amartya Sen, India’s octogenarian Nobel laureate in economics, takes his readers on a joyful journey through a portion of his long, productive life, with diversions along the way to refresh their general knowledge. For example, his memory as a boy of a steamer ride on the way from Dhaka in what was then Indian Bengal expands into a poetic treatise on the rivers of Bengal. “Bengal’s enthrallment with the creative beauty of its normally quiet rivers is matched only by its fascination with the destructive splendor of the rivers in rage….”, Sen writes. His fascination with Gautama Buddha (as a schoolboy, he declared himself a Buddhist but his school refused to register him as such) and his study of Sanskrit leads to a discussion of ancient Indian classics, in which he finds to his satisfaction evidence of support, not for the nationalistic Hindutva he despises but for the atheism he has embraced for much of his life.
A three-year stay in what then was Burma, where his Ph.D. father taught from 1936 to 1939, when he was a child, becomes a peg for an analysis of the life of Aung San Sun Kyi and her husband, Michael Aris. “If there is a puzzle about Suu Kyi,” Sen writes sadly, “there is a greater enigma that is even harder to understand….that the Burmese, whose kindness impressed me so much as a young boy, seems to have turned brutally hostile to the Rohingyas….I accept…that Suu Kyi and the national political leadership cannot be freed from responsibility for the social disaster that the Rohingyas…continue to face.”
On the other hand, Sen’s highly critical admiration for Karl Marx (he wonders justifiably why Marx’s work and influence are not more sufficiently taught) expands into a brief summary of the German’s life. The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein died in 1951 before Sen ever left India. Wittgenstein taught from 1929 to 1947 at Britain’s Cambridge University, where Sen arrived as an undergraduate in 1953. With that slim connection and the fact that Sen’s mentor at Cambridge, the Italian economist Piero Sraffa, was a close associate of the Austrian, Sen treats his readers to a dissection of Wittgenstein’s work.
Along the way, Sen provides sage comments on the life and works of Rabindranath Tagore, the great Indian poet and Nobel laureate, who died in 1941 when Sen was seven years old. “I wondered why the likable bearded man I knew as a family friend….was so important for the world,” Sen writes of being told at school of the great man’s death. Sen later attended the progressive school at Santiniketan in Bengal that Tagore founded with the collaboration of Sen’s maternal grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen. Sen, the whose given name was a suggestion from Tagore, thrived from 1941 to 1951 in an intellectual atmosphere that dispensed with grades and exams and allowed students to follow their own paths. “My dedicated pursuit of Tagore’s thought…began just after his death,” writes Sen. “….his overarching emphasis on freedom and reasoning made me think seriously about these issues….”
Throughout this memoir, Sen repeats how learning and intellectual exchange brought him so much pleasure. He often judges friendship on the quality of conversation he establishes with an acquaintance. He grew up in a fiercely intellectual, well-connected Hindu family atmosphere that seemed to carry him from one happy engagement to the next. He was even able to find a positive note after being diagnosed at age 18 with a squamous cell cancerous lump in his mouth. A poor, door-to-door hawker’s cries beneath his window woke him the day after his diagnosis. “His vocal presence and his fight to survive encouraged me,” Sen recalls. “There was also something comforting about another day starting — with brilliant sunshine.”
A heavy dose of radium at a Calcutta cancer hospital saved him. He went on to regard life in such positive terms that he once visited tacky, overcrowded Karachi and proclaimed it “magically, bewitching Karachi.”
Friendship is important throughout this memoir. From time to time, Sen reels off the names of friends he encountered at various schools in India and elsewhere. Oddly, for someone who proclaims friendship with all, few of the names are Muslim. He does devote generous space separately to Muslim friends. They include Rehman Sobhan, an economist who played a key role in bringing independence to Bangladesh, and his late wife, Salma; Arif Iftekhar, Pakistan’s late leftwing multi-millionaire; and Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq, Sen’s classmate at Cambridge and author of the UNs human development index. All are connected in some way to Pakistan. No Indian Muslims are given such space.
Sen is remarkably diffident about his own achievements. A reader never learns of his firsts in scholastic achievement. In mentioning Mahbub ul Haq’s creation for the United Nations of a Human Development Index and annual report, he refrains from discussing his own considerable contribution to them. He writes with great pride of being master of Trinity College, from which he was graduated at Cambridge, without mentioning he was the first Asian to hold such a prestigious position at an Oxbridge college. He was named master in 1998, the same year he was awarded the Nobel prize for economics, an achievement he never quite gets around to mentioning in the book (although he speaks of giving his bicycle to the Nobel museum).
The reader learns a great deal about Cambridge Marxist economist Maurice Dobb (“a hero of mine….,” writes Sen), American economists and Nobel laureates Kenneth Arrow and Paul Samuelson, the Italian Sraffa and others, but not as much about Sen. For example, Sen writes of his conversations with Sraffa about liberty (noting that Marx had a “strong interest” in liberty, but the “communist movement…has always been far less sympathetic to individual liberty”). He notes that what insights arose out of the conversations he wrote in a paper published in 1970 in an academic journal. He said the paper “has probably been read more than any other paper I have written” — but he says nothing about the content.
He did manage to overcome modesty to relate the episode in which, as a fresh graduate in 1959, Sen confronted the towering intellect of Isaiah Berlin whom he did not know, sending him a critique that the philosopher not only accepted but, in an article, paired Sen with Baruch Spinoza. Sen and Berlin later became friends.
Sen has too little to say about his engagement with India once he leaves his homeland in 1953 to study in Great Britain.
“The India that I came to know from my early studies had several distressing features….in particular the powerful hold that the caste system had over the country…., he writes.
After his undergraduate studies, he returned to India once to start an economics department at a new university, another time to teach a couple of years at Delhi School of Economics, a time that receives a few pages at the end of his memoir. He does mention his work on the 1943 Bengal family which he experienced as a youngster.
“The nightmare of the Bengal famine,” Sen writes, “began to generate a determination in me to do what I could to prevent famines from occurring ever again….in the 1970s, I started analyzing famines in the hope of finding a solution that would facilitate at least a partial prevention.”
Otherwise, the work in greater substance that led to his Nobel prize, his views on India (notable is the absence of any reference to Narendra Modi), his personal life (briefly mentioned are his first marriage and divorce, and the death of his second wife), his two decades of teaching at Harvard University (with a third wife) and other achievements must await a second volume. This volume is entertaining and joyful but far from the whole story, this remarkable life deserves.