Striving on

A collection of essays by Amartya Sen is a reminder of the author’s relentless advocacy to eliminate injustice in society

Amartya Sen’s place in the intellectual world is immortalised by his iconic body of works on welfare economics, especially ‘development as freedom’, and his relentless public advocacy for eliminating ravages of injustice. The brilliant, unusual collection of 13 conversing, colluding, oracular essays brought out by the publishers of The Little Magazine (TLM) is more like time-lapse photographs shot over 15 years on the pages of TLM and presented in chronological order under the broad heads of culture, society and policy. Of the 13 essays published in TLM, What Difference Can Tagore Make and A Wish a Day for a Week appear for the first time in print.

Written in a new-age, ‘selfie mode’, these essays by Sen make you forget the distinction between sleeping and waking, and reach what Henri Bergson called an ‘awake-state’ in search for the perfect solution for personal and political salvation.

In other words, the essays in the book are more like an “intellectual journey through the past and present” of India to recover history’s forgotten prospective memory for understanding politics of the future.

The timbre, pitch and tone of a perpetually argumentative Amartya Sen in The Country of First Boys—referring to India’s national obsession with the first boys in the classroom, in society, and in the making of public policy—is a chilly reminder of India’s unconscious, wanton, violent ways of pampering those blessed with opportunity and success. It’s a treat to watch how elegantly Sen demystifies random distribution of both ‘moral luck’, as well as ‘epistemic luck’, with which some individuals may be blessed and others denied, perhaps deliberately.

In fact, the essays in the book are actually a surrealistic, revolving door of entrances and exits, with stumbling, slipping, falling detours in our struggle to end self-inflicted misery and inequity. As Sen stirs the vessel of normality—the so-called ‘goddess of bossy underlings’—the horrors of our Belle Époque life start tumbling out of secret holes in bodies and souls.

Just consider this mad rush for opening new IITs and IIMs without blinking an eyelid over lack of toilets in public schools in most parts of the country. Alas, courtesy Swachh Bharat, India has eventually awakened to take up brooms to clean the centuries-old accumulated filth of hierarchy and privileges in our public life. Let’s hope this uncanny return of the repressed slays more demons than expected.

If you are bugged by the hunger for data or enchanted by the game theoretic explanations of strategic decision under conditions of scarcity, you will be disappointed here. Instead, savour a highly entertaining allegorical tale, A Wish a Day for Week, first delivered at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2014. This fictional encounter of Amartya with the ‘Goddess of Medium Things (GMT)’ highlights the neglect of classical education in India, need for a secular right-wing political party, a more responsive media, decriminalising Section 377, banning selective abortion of female fetuses, etc.

Thus, read the essays in the book as “ragamalika of fragments borrowed from different ragas, set to varied talas and strung together in a pleasant yet skilled miscellany of modes and moods”, writes Gopalkrishna Gandhi in a lyrical foreword to the book. In a must-read essay, India Through Its Calendars, Sen will startle you with how different ways of seeing India—from purely Hinduism-centred views to intensely secular interpretations—are competing with each other for attention in the Kaliyuga calendar, the Buddha, Nirvana calendar, the Mahavira Nirvana, Vikram Samvat, Saka, Vedaanga Joytisha, Islamic Hijri, Parsee, the Bengali San and the Kollam, down to the Christian date systems and the exercises of Dr Meghnad Saha, the leader of ‘calendar reform’ in India.

Written in the spirit of an intellectual history of the ‘Ritorno a Nalanda’, the essay on Nalanda University is like an elaborate birth certificate of the world’s oldest university. However, it is also a testimony to the trials and travails in resurrecting an ancient system of knowledge in the service of the modern world. Much has already been said and reported in the print media on the unpleasant and avoidable controversies about the rebirth of Nalanda University. Political theorist and public commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s fiercely insightful and alluringly sceptical piece, Nalanda is a syndrome, in The Indian Express, has turned the spotlight on not only shortcomings in the revival of Nalanda University, but also on the deeper rot in higher education in India. Also, the debate unintentionally re-opened the festering wounds of our own complicity in perpetuating mediocrity, hypocrisy and nepotism in the academia.

As someone having the experience of being a member of a search committee for a vice-chancellor in a regional university, I can imagine how medieval and modern barbarians are united in vandalising universities.

It is an open secret in Indian academia that academicians rarely forgo their privileges and democratise their behaviour, though there are notable exceptions. Take the example of Prof MS Gore, pioneer of social work education, or Prof Yash Pal, the populariser of science education in India. Despite political interference and poor quality of research infrastructure, they seeded the plants of creativity and freedom in universities and made them talk to the sky. It’s really tragic to hear that Nalanda University in its new avatar can be accommodated in a single room with 13 students, 10 regular faculty members and one visiting professor!

Indeed, both friends and foes of Sen judging deeds or misdeeds of Nalanda need to read in the book the idea of upkarhatastakartavya, a novel punishment with benefaction that Vasantasena and Charudatta in Shudraka’s Mrichchhakatika exercised in their decision to free their would-be murderer. Or else, as Sen candidly confesses, that “epistemic mistake can also lead to ethical blunder, and possibly to a political disaster”.

In short, there is certainly an allegorical moral tone when Sen lucubrates “gambler’s lament in the Rig Veda” in a sort of biopic introduction to the book. He uses it as an example of the philosophical problem of the ‘weakness of will’, or what ancient Greeks called ‘akrasia’.

Though India has managed to avoid famines and achieved modest economic growth, chronic persistence of hunger and poverty and dysfunctional health centres and primary schools force us to take Sen’s prescriptions seriously, that injustice does not only stem from arbitrary luck or inherited inequity, but also from akratic or weak-willed public policies. True, empty are the words of that philosopher who does not expel the suffering of the soul. And we are not surprised that Buddha, the enlightened (or awakened) one, in his last words, said, “all conditioned things are subject to decay—strive on untiringly”, to emphasise salvation from suffering.

Thus, the fame of Amartya Sen rests more in striving than achieving mortal success in the ‘the phantom chase’ for first boys!

Ashwani Kumar is Professor of Development Studies & Chairperson of Center of Public Policy, Habitat & Human Development at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

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