The great advantage is that Prof. Sen writes lucidly about a stupendous range of topics and ideas that a general reader can relate to
I can’t remember when I last enjoyed a memoir so much while learning from it in equal measure. No review that I have seen so far has done justice to the recently published Home in the World: A Memoir, by Amartya Sen. I thought I would use this column to talk about what our young could learn from reading this book. The great advantage is that Prof. Sen writes lucidly about a stupendous range of topics and ideas that a general reader can relate to. For example, the learned discussions about different economic theories have been narrated in such a way that even the unscholarly can grasp the essentials without much difficulty.
So, what are the learnings from this brilliantly written memoir? We learn about the brutal contrast between the way the British ruled their own country and the way they ruled ours. How ironical it appears that the savagely exploited India was called the “jewel in the crown” of the British empire, where the sun did not ever set. We also learn that Calcutta was an already thriving area “of established urban living” and consequently it was Job Charnock’s deliberate choice for being the centre of English trade and commerce. It was not at all “chance-directed”, as Rudyard Kipling suggested in his famous poem. Prof. Sen cites the richness of Bengal, proximity to the sea and downriver trade as the reasons for Charnock’s choice. Thus, the history of Calcutta (or Kolkata, as it is called now) can be traced well before the advent of Job Charnock. Incidentally, the author’s relationship with the city of Kolkata and its people makes those who have ties with the city fall in love with it all over again. The reader is reminded that a city can be loved for a variety of reasons.
A valuable lesson to learn from this book -- especially in view of the growing intolerance that we observe in contemporary India -- is the need to respect different views. The author strongly condemns blind support for only one school of thought.
We are made to realise that blinkered thinking is the reason for senseless polarisation and vice versa. Prof. Sen’s description of Joan Robinson’s unyielding attitude towards new theories of economics illustrates this principle powerfully. “She was a better speaker than a listener” is such a loaded comment! Indeed, listening is something that people seem to have forgotten these days.
It’s true that the past is always present and that is why a misrepresentation of the past is so harmful. This memoir shows how important it is to be ready to look at new evidence and to re-investigate established ideas and past events. For instance, the author shows that the acceptance of different religions was “the firmly declared policy of the Mughals beginning with Akbar”, contradicting many of today’s pronouncements. After reading this book many readers have learned that the Bengali calendar is an example of “multi-cultural integration” -- the handiwork of Emperor Akbar himself. Other examples of set ways of thinking are the way we overlook the defence of individual freedom by Karl Marx as opposed to the authoritarian practices of the Communist regimes that we unfairly associate with him.
Giving us food for thought is the startling revelation that undernourishment actually dropped in Britain during the food shortages in the Second World War. This was on account of rationing and price control.
The multi-dimensional character of the individual has always been a central idea in Prof. Sen’s thinking. An appreciation of this truth would not only prevent destructive misunderstanding but also stem the formation of faulty ideas and policies. For instance, theories cannot be based on a worker’s link with labour alone: a worker has several identities like all other people. The overarching need for basic education, healthcare and nutrition are stressed repeatedly in the book, along with how neglect of these negatively affect the productivity of a nation. No country can prosper without attention to these vital factors. Hopefully, a central learning that young readers will take away from this book is the need for genuine compassion for the poor and hungry.
It is extremely important for the young to understand that just voting does not make a democracy. Discussion, argument and persuasion are all essential marks of a vigorous democracy. But even in these assertions Prof. Sen demonstrates gentleness and elegance as well as an almost childlike sense of humour while pressing a point. We learn that it is possible to argue effectively without being aggressive or nasty; it is possible to love one’s country without being aggressively nationalistic and that it is possible to be patriotic without having to hate others. Prof. Sen’s exemplary generosity of spirit shows the reader the importance of acknowledging various individuals’ contributions to scholarship or to society in general, irrespective of their ideology or faith. Friends and friendship find a heart-warmingly significant place in this memoir while the mention of innumerable thinkers, teachers, historians, philosophers, poets and economists of diverse kinds in his memoir indicates the author’s phenomenal breadth of mind. There are lessons to be learned from Prof. Sen’s love of Sanskrit and ancient texts, from his deep interest in Mathematics and from his valiant and informed battle with cancer at a young age. But what is most endearing is his expression of gratitude to ordinary people such as his landlady, his doctors of old and his favourite bookseller on Kolkata’s College Street.
Apart from gaining hours of pure pleasure from the pages of Home in the World, the mindful reader is sure to learn some valuable lessons of life.