Review of Amartya Sen’s Memoir “HOME IN THE WORLD”,Penguin Random House,2021
Amartya Sen is rightly regarded as the iconic liberal democrat of our time,combining as he does a deep-seated commitment to fundamental civil rights with an unwavering passion for social justice,advocated with serene rationality unfailingly courteous to people holding different views.The only condition he lays down is that such views must be argued with reason and without concession to any special interest.
Those who expect any insight into intimate life will be disappointed,for the account is mainly of a mind growing through encounters with original ideas and seminal minds,but with an unclouded independent conscience,thus hewing out his own path but keeping within hearing of other seekers of truth.
Yes,truth.For this is what matters to him in these times of postmodernist haziness.This also apparently shields him from confusions and ambivalences befalling less gifted people.But at no no point does the account come across as immodest or in the least dubious.Besides his life unfolds against a background of epochal historical events like India’s freedom movement,the Great Bengal Famine of 1943,the savagery of partition,the devastating impact of World War II and the horrors and hopes of regeneration it generated,and the triumph and tragedy of socialism.The world has tumbled on through them,shocked and chastened by setbacks,and has been observed by a participant with fresh curiosity, unflagging energy and a sense of values drawn both from background and experience. The mellowness may be the gift of age but it is certainly a mark of ripeness of mind.A cascading succession of major scientific advances and technological break-throughs.All those events inevitable brought the world together and the process was brought to a culmination in globalization.
But since it was overseen and managed by high finance and MNCs,it brought more developed countries with greater accumulation of capital to the front stage relegating weaker,less developed nations to the shadows.The dreamt of ONE WORLD,harking back to FD Roosevelt’s Vice-President Wendel Wilkie’s happy auguries,has turned into a nightmare for many countries and many sections of the world’s population.It also threw a harsh light on the discontents and miseries of globalization. The alarm had been sounded as early as 1998 by Mahbubul Haque’s HUMAN DEVELOPMENT REPORT of that year.Alleviation of world hunger and poverty also came into academic focus,as palliatives rather than cure.
It is in these years that Amartya Sen has posited and argued in favour of a notion of multiple identity.He has held that fixation on single identity breeds intolerance and violence in stead of tolerance and accommodation. Further, it puts people into straitjackets impeding freedom of thought and action.He has argued for this position with consistent passion.
The problem is that the socio-economic and political circumstances of the world do not allow such freedom to the vast majority of the people.The Blacks in America and the Dalits in India have been historically pinioned into identities that are rigid and unshakeable.Diversity is not equivalent to equality.At best this is a project that,given the alignment of forces today,can only be a distant project for many.The only practical policy for our bleak times appears to be acceptance of difference and striving for unity,perhaps for such a goal. Besides,as the theme of this grand sonata,to use a rather clumsy musical analogy,it requires a space where exercise of reason is possible.
Sen argues that reason based on argumentation is not the monopoly of the West,and ancient Indian intellectual tradition also amply supports its usefulness. He points out that in the six great schools of Indian philosophy,not to speak of Buddhism,it was the rule to for an exponent to give an accurate account of the rival way of thinking before demolishing it with the arms of logic and rigorous argumentation.
True enough,as Debi Prasad Chattopadhyay showed in his studies in ancient Indian thought,those specimens of dialectics displayed extraordinary acuity and flashes of brilliance.But the final outcome could be quite disconcerting even for a person like Sen’s generous outlook.The PURVA MIMANSA school for example settled for the infallibility of the Vedas,a conclusion closer to revelation than reason.The great astronomer finds it prudent to concede the validity of the religious myth of demons swallowing the sun while proposing the correct astronomical reason.The missing component is of course development of methods of modern science,a product of the West.
Long before the consolidation of Islamic power,as the scientist-scholar Al Biruni,by no means an enemy of Indian culture, perceived in the tenth century, Indian science and learning already heaped together real gems of intellect and observation with rank superstition and fabulous rubbish.That does not rule out the universality of modern science,though there are still some people around who prefer native intuition.
This adherence to scientific reason goes along with an affirmation of the autonomy of the individual,which again is the tacit assumption of the social and political thought of the West.Among Indian traditions it is actually Buddhism that comes closest to Sen’s cherished ideas and values.It denies the ultimate fixity of the self(ANATTA) while urging the practical ego:”BE YOU YOUR OWN LIGHT”( ATTA DEEPO BHABA).Interestingly Sen had put Buddhism as his religion in the admission form to college,only to be dissuaded by the authorities that that was no option.
The emphasis on reason and on its basis in individual reasoning would appear to put in the shadows the powerful class interests and prejudices,which I think somewhat affects even his incisive seminal studies of calamities of hunger and famine.For instance while dealing with the great Bengal Famine of 1943 he argues that the colonial British policy of stocking up food in Calcutta at a time of rising prices,and wages in the city also rising thanks to the war-time demand but stagnating in the countryside in the agrarian economy,the rural poor were badly hit by high prices of foodstuff and were forced to pour into the city in hordes. Three million died,many in the streets of Calcutta. The paradox was that though hoarding and speculation stalked the market,there was ample foodstuff even for the village folks,who simply lacked the purchasing power.
The argument appears to discount the sheer ingrained callousness of colonial rule,which certainly could not have been unaware of this horrid outcome.His shining humanism leads to a technisization of a vile political crime as he rules out the possibility that the colonial rulers could have been driven by monstrous interest rather than a bedimmed reason.His own startling account of the news black-out about the grim famine actually unveils the calculated cruelty of the rulers.
The instrument that according to him gifts individual reason with its social potency,both in philosophy and practical economy, is ‘public discussion’.This is what redeems reason from brutish interest.But if we look at the public discussions in Britain in the 19th century on the condition of the poor,a crying scandal of the times,we are struck by the gulf that separated those who believed that the poor deserved their fate owing to their lack of thrift and willingness to work and those who argued that society had to answer for it.
This kind of blind spot,if a rank amateur like me may be allowed the temerity for such a remark,has little to do with his intellectual originality and brilliance which are sufficiently recognised by his colleagues in a discipline marked today by hair-raising technical difficulty.His impassioned reasoning for freedom from hunger,universal education and health-care,put across with force and remarkable clarity,has rightly won the admiration of the world.But one has got to speak one’s mind with due humililty even before such a towering achievement.
Sen gives a rather sketchy and sanitized glimpse of his personal life and prefers to dwell on challenges and delights of intellectual life.His itinerary and unshaken faith in reason and humanity win him friends across the world.This ability to make and keep friends is an endearing quality of his personality, though the unpredictable yet overpowering thrill and risk of love have been kept out of the public gaze.That is a choice one must respect.
The passion of reason is leavened by a warm generosity that recognizes and admires originality and quality in all the eminent people,mostly economists and some thinkers,he comes across.The account is remarkably without rancour and balanced by irony and wit.It is rather disconcerting to find that illustrious scholars could sometimes be so mean and personal in their turf fights.
Kenneth Arrow,Paul Samuelson,Oskar Lange,Isaiah Berlin, the reclusive and immensely learned and highly original Piero Srafa, Gramsci’s friend,Rawls,Hobsbawm and so on sound like a roll of honour of the seminal minds of our time,and Sen’s language sparkles in his account of his encounters with them.He also easily avoids the typical pitfall of the writer of memoirs,unconscious emphasis of his or her own role.One comes across with relish the glimpses of Srafa’s learning,dour good sense and profound insight and learns that he had some influence in Wittgenstein’s turn from a metaphysically logical to an anthropocene idea of language and reason.
Sen’s intellect and learning had won the admiration of people at the opposite pole to his outlook.Isaiah Berlin the unyielding advocate of a negative concept of liberty(roughly liberty from rather than liberty for),shows uncharacteristic courtesy in acknowledging Sen’s critique of his position while not budging an inch from it.The dour Sraffa became a close friend.The imperious and generous Joan Robinson remained a friend.
What strikes this writer as a somewhat disappointing and inexplicable gap is lack of an extended discussion of Marxism.True,he does not have the typical liberal’s visceral antipathy to Marxism,esp. of the likes of Hayek so lionized in the nineteen fifties and defends the Marxian idea of value.But the general paradigmatic ideas like mode of production and dialectics of class are passed over in science.Nor does he care to bring his great powers of mind to examine the catastrophic decline of the Soviet system which at one time seemed nearly invincible.
British socialism in his lifetime had also been a vibrant current,with the likes of Raymond Williams and E.P.Thompson with his enthralling monumental work,THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS,find any mention.British socialism combined ordinary British decency with a passionate interest in social justice.It also makes one see that it is not intellectual rigour alone but a rarely acknowledged moral choice that sways people to various forms of socialism including Marxism. In the last phase of his life J.S.Mill,the quintessential liberal,also veered towards socialism and in his unpublished chapters on socialism pleads for its acceptance with striking lucidity and eloquence.It inspired tumultuous social movements like the CND in the fifties of twentieth century and the waves of protests against the Vietnam war. I had personally witnessed a procession in London where thirty to fifty thousand British common people took part shedding their staid habits.None of this is mentioned even in passing. One can only wonder at Sen’s reticence.
The book jacket holds a photograph of Amartya Sen in his teens,looking bright and inquisitive,along with his siblings,looking out of a window at the world outside The journey that has taken him so far began in Shantiniketan,then aglow with the influence of Tagore who too yearned and worked for a meeting of the world’s cultures,of science and the arts, for nurturing a broad unclouded human civilization, and the warm relationship with his maternal grandfather,the extraordinary scholar,thinker and liberal who strenuously sought and found love and wisdom in all strands of Hinduism and all the great religions of the world.Amartya Sen’s serene composure, enquiring mind and unceasing search for justice in all its dimensions have the elements of greatness.And the prose in which the itinerary is presented in crisp,nuanced and rich.A feast of the intellect for all who care for it.
Hiren Gohain is a political commentator