Amartya Sen’s memoir is a universal journey of the self and society, a lyrical celebration of blurring fictional boundaries of home and the world as experienced by the author
By Ashwani Kumar
Arguably one of the most celebrated public intellectuals of our times, Amartya Sen’s memoir Home in the World is an unusual collection of tales, making sense of what Nadine Gordimer calls ‘our existential confusion’ in the increasing cacophonies of radical forms of fears, prejudices and viruses at home and the world. We are aware that writing an autobiography is not a favoured genre in the literary world. It has suffered from what Sigmund Freud famously referred to as ‘mendacity’ or literary exhibitionism. Therefore, going beyond the standard literary trope of confessional memoirs like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions or Mahatma Gandhi’s Experiments with Truth, Sen’s Home in the World must be credited with reimagining the art of writing a memoir as deeply personal and a universal journey of the self and society.
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Admittedly, Sen’s memoir is a bit odd as it stops in 1963 when he was only 33 years old, busy developing his famous capability theory. So it is a work in progress. I don’t know about a sequel to Home in the World, but I am excited about it. Thus, Sen’s memoir is neither a flashbulb snapshot of personal memories nor an interior monologue of re-experiencing the past. Indeed, it is about what Sen calls writing smriticharan (the grazing of one’s own memory). But it is not memory alone. Sen’s memoir is also a politically forceful and historically fascinating tale of “how human knowledge expands through friendship”, in the words of Sen. If you are curious, just sample the chapter Friends and Circles to figure out how informal conversations in college dormitories, and cafes can result in lifelong friendship beyond borders. Reminiscing about Mahbub ul Haq (originator of Human Development Index), Sen writes about meeting him while walking rapidly down King’s Parade in Cambridge to attend Joan Robinson’s lecture, and the informal conversation between them, which began ‘somewhat breathlessly’, culminated into advancing the frontiers of economics. In other words, Sen’s memoir is actually an epic journey of a beautiful mind trudging across generations and geographies of normative economics to make the world a more humane and inclusive civilisation.
Perhaps, most importantly, Home in the World is a lyrical celebration of blurring fictional boundaries of home and the world. You may find it strange but Sen is at home everywhere—Santiniketan, Cambridge-Massachusetts, or Trinity College-Cambridge. You may consider it culinary fantasy or a scene from Brechtian absurd theatre, but Sen enjoys his favourite tagliolini con vongole or Szechuan duck, and, of course, ilish maach with equal relish and joy in any part of the world. Being in the world for Sen has not meant he has become ‘unhomely’ (unheimlich) at home or abroad. Sen is still an Indian citizen, and his passport full of visas. And predictably, he remains strongly rooted in Bengal, or more precisely ‘Calcutta’, and its “dizzying contrasts of sight, and sound and milieu”, in the words of celebrated filmmaker Satyajit Ray.
Like Rabindranath Tagore and Adam Smith, Sen’s uncompromising rejection of so-called genetic, racial, ethnic or religious differences between people makes his memoir an exceptional experience of the alchemical power of human goodness. With illuminating and poignant memories of the Bengal famine of 1943, which he witnessed when he was only 10 years old, inflaming of communal relations between Hindus and Muslims in the years before independence and enchanting childhood experiences, Sen’s memoir of his early life is not only inspirational for millennials in academia, it also offers a roadmap for political and spiritual renewal of the universities as “school without walls”.
Using a uniquely Buddhist narrative technique of meditative travelogue, Sen turns badi—his Jagat Kutir (the cottage of the world) in old Dhaka—into the world “where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”, in the haunting words of Tagore. In this performative act of writing the world, Sen transforms private and public, past and present, the psyche, and the social into an uncanny spatial and ethical intimacy with beings and species of all kinds. It is here agape meets the elefthería (freedom) in a mirror of memories, flashing sunbeams tantalisingly on the frolicking river dolphins (shushuk) in the captivating rivers of Bengal. No wonder, child Amartya enjoyed watching desi dolphins from a distance but “he was also anxious not to get too close, fearing that they might confuse his toes with some unknown fish”!
Written in Sen’s trademark lyrical prose, the exquisitely curated 26 chapters starting with his rhythmic layering of childhood memories in Dhaka, Mandalay, the company of grandparents, Tagore’s world of arguments, College Street in Calcutta, an early battle with cancer, journey to the gates of Trinity, American encounters and D-School are like musical numbers, dropped in to conjure a cross-disciplinary harvest festival putting ideas of excellence and equity back into the flow of history. In short, once you start flipping through the pages of the kaleidoscopic memoir, it acquires the quality of a shape-shifting opera with interludes and sequences performed by a band of leading economists and philosophers of the world. Students of economics and social philosophy will find Sen’s journey from addas of Presidency College to his argumentative encounters with Denis Robertson, Maurice Dobb, Piero Sraffa at Trinity-Cambridge simply alluring. I am sure young scholars will be envious of Sen’s luck in grabbing a chance opportunity to conduct a teaching class for Paul Samuelson at MIT that led Sen to eventually reconceptualise welfare economics. Some chapters in the memoir like What Economics? are more like Foucauldian exposition of genealogical and disciplinary histories of the fiercely-waged political and ideological debates between the so-called ‘neoclassical’ economists like Dennis Robertson, Harry Johnson, and Peter Bauer and those described as ‘neo-Keynesians’, like Joan Robinson, Nicholas Kaldor, Richard Kahn and others at Cambridge.
Given the stifling bureaucratic culture in Indian academia, I confess after reading his memoir, doctoral students on our campuses must be wondering how Sen would have finished his PhD in one year at the age of 23 in Cambridge, and then set up an economics department and serve as the head of the new department at Jadavpur University in 1956. Such was the environment of excellence and autonomy of Indian universities in the early days of the republic. For students of history, Sen’s accidental homecoming to Jadavpur University offers memorable tales about the vibrant beginnings of alternative histories of modern India. It is here Sen got exposed to the genius of Ranjit Guha, the pioneer of subaltern studies and his friends Tapan Raychaudhuri, Jacques Sassoon, Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri, Paramesh, Chaya Ray, Rani Raychaudhuri and others.
In the end, I tell you about the catheretic effects of reading a memoir like Home in the World. So when you begin reading the book you must be prepared for being transported into a ‘different hemisphere’ as George Orwell writes of his enticing journey from Mandalay to Maymyo, a scenic hill town permanently etched into the memories of child Amartya. That’s why he remembers so vividly the sighting of a large leopard sitting on the side of road downhill; its eyeballs shining in the headlights of the car his father was driving between Mandalay and Maymyo on the night journey. Not surprisingly, after having finished reading the memoir, I felt as if my soul had been suddenly filled with ethereal voices of ‘flyin fishes’ from ‘near and far’. True, home is everywhere, and the world is like an irresistible “monsoon kiss that rains so incessantly like flowers from a gulmohur tree”. Thus, read this enchanting memoir as pilgrims chant prayers on the road to the abode of peace, poetry and philosophy!
Ashwani Kumar is a poet, author and professor of Development Studies at TISS, Mumbai
Home in the World: A Memoir
Penguin Random House
Rs 899, Pp 480