It took 20 minutes to maneuver Amartya Sen. from his Harvard home to a restaurant at the Charles Hotel two minutes away. At 87, Sen’s mind remains as strong as when he won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1998. But his body is painfully fragile.
In 2018, Sen underwent 90 days of radiation therapy to treat prostate cancer. He had a mouth cancer as a student in Calcutta in the early 1950s. His Indian doctors gave him a seven-chance chance of surviving more than five years. I confused them all.
Like the dental agony of Vladimir Nabokov, the memory of Sen, Home in the world, published in the UK next week, is marked with the physical illness of Sen’s life. In more ways than one, his life has been a triumph of mind over matter.
Dressed in a tweedy shirt and a bright yellow Harvard raincoat, Sen’s inimitable appearance is complemented by what looks like a Lenin hood, minus the red star. It’s a rainy summer day in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s Amartya Sen,” I heard more than one person remark as we walked through the hotel foyer.
Sen has had one knee replaced but is also not strong enough to replace the other, which means he is still unbalanced and suffers cramps from poor circulation. Only his sunny cerebral behavior seems to be without scarring. “I haven’t lost any of my teeth,” Sen tells me with a wry smile.
It’s hard to know where to start with Sen’s life – the epitome of the globe’s intellectual-trotting scholar. It has established a new way of thinking about development – as much a rights-based political effort as an economic one.
Home in the world, who began in colonial India, which gained independence at the age of 14, stopped in 1963. This is before his major work on the economy of famine, the theory of social choice, capacity approach – Sen has been an inspiration behind the UN human race gender development report and a career at the helm of Western and Indian academia.
The first non-white head of a Cambridge college when he became a master of the Trinity in 1998, he taught at Harvard, Oxford, Delhi, the London School of Economics, with brief spells to too many others to mention. He was also the first head of the Nalanda University of India, the dying Buddhist institution (arguably the world’s first university), which was founded by Emperor Ashoka in the third century BC and brought back into existence in 2014. .
Little of this happened before 1963. Yet, minus one or two romantic dramas, his memories foreshadowed everything that was to follow. Sen, who has been married three times and has two children from each of his first two marriages, tells me it might be rude to write a second one that will touch his life. He has been married since 1991 to Emma Rothschild, the distinguished historian who now has a chair at Harvard. It seems that a volume should suffice. “I’m so happy to finally get this book out of my hands,” Sen says.
His odyssey is by no means complete. Think about writing monographs on various topics of pets. These include the future of higher education, which would include scathing criticism of Harvard’s administrative shortcomings. The leaders of the university, which Sen maliciously resembles the autocratic British Raj, spend more time with donors than scholars. “They’re too far away from the academy they supervise,” he says. “As a Trinity teacher, I had lunch with all the students.”
Given Sen’s close familiarity with America, he is surprisingly reluctant to speculate on the origins of Western populism, even if he rates America’s vision as less bad than that of India. “Joe Biden has shown a lot of willingness to take on the world in the first two weeks,” he says. “Then it seemed to weaken a bit.” Sen is particularly exhilarated by Biden’s unwillingness to further investigate Donald Trump’s alleged abuses of power.
Another issue is the importance of gender equity. The early days of Sen’s book cover his education at Shantiniketan, an ashram-like refuge in West Bengal founded in the 19th century by the father of Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali poet and Nobel Laureate in Literature, who gave to Without his first name, which means “immortal” in Sanskrit. Sen’s grandfather was a close friend of Tagore’s.
The school – which was largely unaffected by the 1943 Bengal famine that killed more than 2 million people and inspired the study cited by Sen’s Nobel laureate on how hunger is caused by inequality of income rather than food shortages – it was remarkably progressive. Children and males were treated equally.
It was at Shantiniketan that Sen decided that he was an atheist, which, he wants to emphasize, is a noble and accepted thread of thought in the Hindu tradition. However, if someone puts a gun to their head and the strength to choose, they will take Buddhism (“Buddha’s philosophy, which was secular – not religion”).
Sen resigned from Nalanda in 2015 after Hindu nationalist BJP leader Narendra Modi took office and blocked money at a university suspected of being anti-Hindu. The Modi government denied Nalanda’s permission to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday, even though the philosopher-prince gave the world a belief that it was for Indian quintessence.
A few years ago, Sen was to appear on the BBC Hard Talk the programmer and noted that he was described on the teleprompter as a “Hindu scholar.” “I said,‘ Are you going to take this, or am I going to leave? “They kicked him out.”
The title of Sen’s book is taken from a Tagore novel, The Home and the World, which deals with the complexities of India’s struggle against Western domination which has also been immortalized in the Satyajit Ray film of the same name. To Sen, the title evokes the secular, intellectually curious and tolerant climate in which he was raised. Sen remembers visitors to the ashram: Eleanor Roosevelt, Chiang Kai-shek and, of course, Mohandas Gandhi, who was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist.
The Sen fears of today’s Indian leaders are trying to stamp out their opening tradition. The BJP is rewriting history to overcome the secular legacy of the early Moghuls, such as Akbar, who had as many Hindus in court as Muslims, and, of course, Ashoka, who preached tolerance for all beliefs.
“India has a long history of pluralism that is now under threat,” the senator said. “The court of Akbar prospered in the late 16th century when they burned heretics in the Campo di Fiore in Rome.” Sen attributes part of the blame to VS Naipaul, the last Nobel laureate Trinidadian Indian, who described the history of the Indian Muslim dynasties as a dark night of devastating oppression of the temple. “What Naipaul wrote was absolute nonsense,” the Senator says. “A complex story has been simplified by a very determined group of people.”
Sen’s history as a cosmopolitan in the world has not diminished his sense of Indianness. Although he has lived abroad since 1971, he only has one Indian passport. Prior to the pandemic, he would visit Shantiniketan up to five times a year, where he owns a home (helped by a lifelong right to free first-class travel on Air India – a massive advantage that follows his Nobel Prize).
In recent years, a heated debate has erupted over the legacy of British imperialism. Sen’s view is that India has taken a lot from Britain – “the powerful journalistic tradition”, “parliamentary debate” and “Shakespeare’s English”. But such advantages came in spite of the British empire, “which, at best, gave India very little value,” rather than because of it. “You have to separate the two,” the senator says. “The empire has denied India its freedoms.”
When Sen arrived in Cambridge in 1953, his landlady, Mrs Hangary, was worried that her brown skin would stain the bathtub. By the end of her tenure, she had become a militant for racial equality. “It went from racist to jihadi for equality,” Sen says laughing. “I adore Mrs. Hangary.”
Nearly half a century later, Sen became a college teacher who gave birth to Isaac Newton, Lords Byron and Tennyson, John Dryden, Bertrand Russell, Jawaharlal Nehru and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Tony Blair called on Sen personally to convince him to take the job. At the college meeting to decide the next teacher, the presidency said, “Sen is the only person this year that we can one day consequence of not being elected.” Sen, laughing, adds: “It was considered a plaything. It was a masterclass in English underestimation. ”
The walls of his living room, to which, at icy speed, we have been returning for so long, show a life of the mind. There are portraits of John Rawls, the Harvard political philosopher, who was perhaps the most influential liberal theorist of the late 20th century, and of Willard Van Orman Quine, the linguistic philosopher, each of whom were close friends (both paintings). by Rawls’ wife, Margaret).
There is a Halo light that Sen uses to illuminate himself for Zoom. And there is a painting of Nalanda University by a Chinese artist. Somewhere in the house I imagine there must have been part of the ancient bicycle that Sen used to cross West Bengal when he was in search of famine.
Looking around, it seems to me that Sen is more than an economist, a moral philosopher or even an academic. He is a lifelong militant, through studies and activism, through friendships and sometimes enemies, for a nobler idea of home – and therefore of the world.
In this era of identity politics, this Bengali scholar refuses to be defined by etiquette. “Home and the world are the same thing for me,” he says. “It’s always been.” Our color, our religion, our gender, our nationality – these are simple facets of our complex selves.
Noticing that I was late for my flight, I urged Sen not to show me at the door. It would take too long to get there. “It’s a clever observation,” he replied as he greeted him with what appeared to be a philosophical rest.
Home in the world: A Memory by Amartya Sen, Allen Lane, RRP £ 25, 480 pages
Edward light is the U.S. national editor of FT
Join our group of books online on Facebook at FT Books Café