Encountering the world: Amartya Sen at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1958 © Photo courtesy of Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen: the optimistic Indian

One of the world’s most renowned economists has led an enviable life of companionable conversation and high ideals
July 19, 2021

You can hardly imagine a more heavenly start in life. Amartya Sen’s first name means “immortal” in Sanskrit, and it was devised for him by the poet Rabindranath Tagore when he was born in 1933; he was also brought up at Tagore’s school in Santiniketan in west Bengal. The school was founded to unite the world in peaceful harmony. It was run by Amartya’s grandfather to the poet’s recipe: outdoor lessons, no beatings, co-educational, lots of freedom, suffused with a love of Bengali literature but hostile to nationalism—a sort of Summerhill on the Ganges. Rather to the scandal of her family, Amartya’s mother Amita danced in Tagore’s verse dramas when they were performed in Calcutta. She also learned judo.

Throughout a life that has spanned philosophy, development and “social choice theory,” which won him the economics Nobel, Sen has remained under Tagore’s spell. In this memoir, he mourns only that the poet was so misunderstood in the west, no less by his admirers like WB Yeats than by critics like Bertrand Russell. Both saw him as a cloudy eastern mystic, which completely missed Tagore’s emphasis on reason and freedom—as well as his belief in science and technology. He had no truck with divine intervention, and was furious when Gandhi claimed that the Bihar earthquake of 1934 was a chastisement sent from God. For Tagore, spinning with Gandhi’s beloved charkha did not elevate the mind; it was simply repetitive drudgery.

The Hinduism that was taught at Santiniketan was of the Lokayata school, dating back to the 6th century BC. It was entirely atheistic, materialistic and atomistic too—not unlike the Presocratics in Greece at much the same time. How strange that these two ancient schools of philosophy should, in parallel, have got the universe more or less right first time. Amartya’s happy schooldays never for a moment tempted him to believe in an intelligent creator. All his life, he has been a follower of Tagore’s this-worldly approach to life and art:

Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads!
Whom do you worship in this lonely dark corner of a temple with doors all shut?

Open your eyes and see your God is not before you!
He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the path-maker is breaking stones.
He is with them in sun and in shower, and his garment is covered with dust. 

Sometimes Tagore would visit Amartya’s grandparents before dawn to greet the day with poetry and conversation. Sen tells us that he too has always been addicted to adda—the idle chatter for which Calcutta is famous. He is the most conversable of sages, comparable only to Isaiah Berlin in his love of talk and friendship. 

At times, Sen’s life reads like an endless punting party on the Cam where you may bump into Morgan Forster or Bertie Russell at the next bend in the river. He seems to accumulate glittering posts effortlessly, at Cambridge (where he swans into the Apostles), Harvard, MIT, Delhi, Berkeley, his career culminating in the mastership of Trinity College, Cambridge. All the friends of his youth blossom into eminence, sometimes at one generation removed: he recalls US vice-president Kamala Harris as the baby daughter of a pair of friends, wailing through a conversation with her parents when she was only a few days old.

What shines through this strangely hypnotic memoir is Sen’s unquenchable determination to think the best of everybody. His global academy is rather like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” He befriends economists of every school; they are all brilliant, the Marxists like Maurice Dobb and Piero Sraffa, the conservatives like Dennis Robertson and Thatcher’s favourite Peter Bauer, the neo-Keynesians like Joan Robinson and Nicky Kaldor. In Sen’s Cambridge, there are no frumps or grumps or drunks, no curmudgeons or backbiters. Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Oxford might seem to be peopled by a different race.

The same goes for his chosen subject. Forget the “dismal science”—for Sen, economics is “human and fun.” As he goes deeper, he says, “the conviction that economics was a greater subject than it first appears also emerged firmly in my mind.” But this could be made true only if, as Sen and his closest collaborators did (he is a keen joint writer of books), you set out to reinsert the lives of ordinary people back into economics. He takes as his inspiration the reflection of the great AC Pigou, who was still alive and living in Cambridge when Sen got there: “it is not wonder, but rather the social enthusiasm which revolts from the sordidness of mean streets and the joylessness of withered lives, that is the beginning of economic science.”

To extract the juice from these great economists, you had, as Sen puts it, “to examine how they could be made to talk to each other.” It was not enough to accept Paul Samuelson’s view that Marx’s labour theory of value was hopelessly flawed. Yes, of course there are factors other than wages that contribute to production, but Marx’s theory does accurately describe how goods and services are wrung from the sweat of workers’ brows. As Dobb continued to assert, throughout his friendship with Sen, “the labour theory is a factual description of a socio-economic relationship.” A partial insight maybe, but still a precious one.

Sen goes easy on Marx, soft-pedalling his brutality, dogmatism and lust for violent revolution, preferring to highlight his genuine revulsion against the slavery and suffering of unbridled capitalism. In keeping with the spirit of Anthony Powell’s remark that every great novel has something wrong with it, Sen’s point is that, with any great theorist, if you are to fish out the best bits you have to make allowances and disregard labels.

You also have to encounter the world before you know what’s worth fishing out. First by accident of the time and place he was born, and then by lifelong curiosity, Sen has seen human calamity at first hand. Much of his most acclaimed work was first provoked by his own experience. As a 10-year-old boy, he saw the victims of the 1943 Bengal Famine limp through Santiniketan on their way to Calcutta, where they thought, wrongly, that they would be decently fed. The Sen family took in one starving youth named Joggeshwar, who went on to work for them for nearly 70 years.

The facts were plain to see at the time. The British were right in claiming that there was no overall shortage of food in Bengal; but because the war boom was sucking out much of what was being produced through exports, food prices were soaring far beyond the reach of the poor. By August 1943, the cost of rice was five times what it had been at the start of 1942. There was no proper famine relief. Worse still, the news of the terrible death toll was suppressed both in Calcutta and London. Only in October 1943 did the editor of the Calcutta Statesman, Ian Stephens, break the silence with several scorching editorials. Within weeks, official famine relief was started, but already more than a million had died. Churchill was certainly complicit in denying food supplies to the starving peasants in favour of supporting the war effort, but the failure was systematic. In fact, Sen claims, “famines are easy to prevent,” given democracy and public discussion, as he demonstrated in his 1981 book Poverty and Famines. There has been no mass starvation in India since independence in 1947. 

He points also to the appalling contrast between the success of food rationing in Britain—where standards of nutrition and life expectancy actually improved during the war—and India, where nothing was done. To this day, India devotes an astonishingly small proportion of her growing wealth to schools and health and welfare. On coming to England in the early 1950s, Sen was deeply impressed by the founding of the National Health Service during a period of severe austerity. And he remains grateful for the treatment he received in Cambridge for his recurring mouth cancer. 

These lessons inform his work on inequality, brought together in Inequality Reexamined (1992), where he constantly asks the question: “equality of what?” Even those who profess themselves anti-egalitarians believe in equality of something—equal access to justice or to the market, for example. A decent society attempts to reconcile different sorts of demands for equality—of voting rights, of income, of wealth, of access to healthcare and education—with other demands that may well clash with them: equality of liberty or opportunity, for example. Sen recognises that these goods may now and then be incompatible but still be goods, and that we have to compromise between them as best we can.

“A decent society attempts to reconcile different sorts of demands that may well clash with each other”

What Sen also witnessed as a child were Hindu-Muslim riots. A Muslim day labourer, Kader Mia, who had suffered multiple stab wounds from Hindu thugs, staggered through the gates of the Sen house in Dhaka pleading for water. He more or less died in the arms of the 11-year-old Amartya. This experience has haunted him all his life, and has led him to speculate on how gentle smiling peoples, such as those he saw in Burma when his father had a temporary post in Mandalay, could be whipped up to commit bloody massacres. Aung San Suu Kyi—formerly a close friend—most unusually for this memoir gets it in the neck, for her failure to help the Rohingya Muslims. This is what makes Home in the World such an unusual memoir: Sen’s willingness to be distracted from sunny early childhood memories of Mandalay—he was there between the ages of three and six—to embark on an unsparing polemic against someone he had so greatly admired.

Kader Mia’s ghastly death throbs through the whole of 2006’s Identity and Violence. Why, Sen agonises, cannot people understand that we all have multiple identities? Why can’t people be more like Tagore, who insisted that “I come from a confluence of three cultures, Hindu, Mohammedan and British”? In particular, Sen argues, it is a mistake to try to appeal to “moderate” religious leaders in any faith tradition. We should emphasise rather the civic and cultural ties that bind us all, and leave the mullahs and pandits to their own devices.

It is noteworthy that after Bangladesh became a separate independent nation in 1972, the communal tensions subsided as rapidly as they had been inflamed. A common immersion in Bengali culture—from music to football teams—acted as the solvent. Sen’s work building up common understandings and cross-cultural institutions all over the world has been admirable. He repeatedly reminds us of the ancient traditions of tolerance and dialogue that in India were given voice centuries ago by the Mughal emperor Akbar, and long before that by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka, not to mention the Buddha himself.

The trouble is that Sen’s own indifference to the claims of monotheism blinds him to its fierce attractions. He does not seem to see that “thou shalt have no other gods before me” is not a harmless ground-rule but an intoxicating slogan—and potentially a call to arms. As with nationalism, it is the exclusiveness of the devotion that intensifies the pleasure of belonging. To multiply one’s identities is to dilute them—or that’s how it seems to some.

Compare the poetry of Tagore with that of his near-contemporary Muhammad Iqbal, who also studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, and which is still a powerful inspiration both in Iran and Pakistan. Iqbal will have nothing to do with inter-faith dialogue, or even dialogue within the Islamic world. He denounces “the impious seed of heresy, by Akbar nourished” and applauds the harsh intolerance of his successor Aurangzeb. Every Muslim, Iqbal asserts, had a duty to assimilate into the culture of Islam, “to create a uniform mental outlook, a peculiar way of looking at the world.” Since the universal caliphate had been reduced to a ghost, this Islamic solidarity could be realised only within an Islamic state; hence the need to invent Pakistan.

The terrifying exuberance of Iqbal’s vision of a hardened, purified Islam expressed in a state of its own is not hard to grasp. Can this vision be simply left to its own devices, in the hope that it will wither away under the pressures of modernity? Or doesn’t it rather require an answer, perhaps a public disputation of the sort that Akbar fostered, to establish whether or not this is a true version of the faith? It cannot be said that our tolerant engagement with Saudi Arabia, in which we simply avert our eyes from religiously rationalised practices we abhor, has worked out brilliantly to date; nor has modernity made much of a dent in the enduring appeal of a self-styled “return to fundamentals” in that country.

Amartya Sen’s exemplary life is a lesson in engagement with the world in which he is so at home; he is a real advertisement for someone who is happy being “a citizen of nowhere,” or everywhere. Can we, though, afford to leave religion as the single exception to that engagement? 

Home in the World: A Memoir by Amartya Sen (Allen Lane, £25)