He has challenged the utilitarian roots of economics and redefined development policy, but how does he feel about India?by Meghnad Desai / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Rabindranath Tagore was the first Indian to win the Nobel prize for literature, in 1913. The adulation which followed in his native Bengal distressed him; he sensed that “the people honour the honour in me and not myself.” His fellow Bengali, the economist Amartya Sen, might have echoed those words when he too was mobbed by thousands on his return home in 1998 with Bengal’s second Nobel prize.
Tagore was a global figure in the first quarter of the 20th century but is hardly known today. It was he who conferred the title Mahatma (Great soul) on Gandhi. And as a family friend it was also he who chose Sen’s unusual first name. Amartya means someone who is impossible to kill. Sen was born in Santiniketan (the home of peace), a university in the forest founded by Tagore. Amartya’s maternal grandfather, Kshiti Mohan Sen, author of a classic work on Hinduism, worked there, and his daughter had gone back to Santiniketan for her confinement.
Santiniketan was a modern version of the ashrams where ancient rishis in olden times imparted knowledge. But it was the humanist Tagore who made it likely that Sen would be a citizen not of Bengal nor even India, but of the world. British colonialism was in its last retreat by the time Sen was born in 1933. It had its defects, none so blatant as the Great Famine in Bengal in 1943, which took 2m lives. Yet what endured in Sen’s life was not just the memory of the famine, but the sound educational system of St Gregory’s School of Dhaka and then the prestigious Presidency College, Calcutta. Here was the best of an English education provided by those clever colonials themselves. You hear echoes of it in the hauteur of Nirad Chaudhuri (the most anglophile Bengali ever).
Calcutta, Bombay and Madras acquired modern universities in the mid-19th century. In these port cities, creations of the East India Company, a mixture of Indian commerce and western education flourished. Bengal led India in the 19th century. It acquired municipalities, libraries and reform movements. It produced the clerks and higher civil servants who held the empire together. It also produced the doctors, lawyers and engineers who became the pioneers of the nationalist movement. Its writers and poets-Tagore was chief among them-articulated their aspirations.
But by the 1940s, Bengal was in decline. The 1943 famine was followed by Hindu/Muslim…