Amartya Sen: The uncommon reader8 min read . Updated: 27 Jul 2013, 11:19 AM IST
The Nobel laureate on his favourite writers, major friendships and influences
The Nobel laureate on his favourite writers, major friendships and influences
Rabindranath Tagore gave him his name. His maternal grandfather, Kshitimohan Sen, was a pioneering scholar of Sanskrit. And he spent his formative years in Tagore’s Santiniketan in West Bengal, in an ambience soaked with literary and cultural resonances.
In this interview, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen speaks about the books he grew up with, how he came to economics, and his abiding love for the plays of George Bernard Shaw, among other things. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about your early life in Santiniketan.
One side of it was quite Sanskritic, immersed in the teachings of Tagore, but it was also very cosmopolitan. My mother, Amita Sen, who grew up in Santiniketan, learned judo, which would have been very unusual in the 1920s. She also appeared on stage in dance-dramas, like Tagore’s Natir Puja, and played the lead in a number of performances in Santiniketan and Kolkata. She won recognition for her part, and I may be right in thinking that my father, who was teaching chemistry in Dhaka, first knew about her through her reputation as a dancer.
I also made some important friends there. For instance, the only English friend I knew when I went to England in 1953 was Leonard Elmhirst, who had lived in Santiniketan and started the Dartington Hall School (in the UK, inspired by Tagore’s vision).
What kind of books were you reading then?
I can’t say I was an enormously systematic chooser of books to read. I read what came my way, which obviously included a lot of standard reading like Shakespeare.
Between the age of 3 and 6, I lived in Mandalay (Myanmar). Then I spent almost two years at St Gregory’s School in Dhaka before coming to Santiniketan. Previous to that, my reading was classics-oriented. I was told I ought to know my Shakespeare. I ought to know some poets, who I grew to like at the time, such as William Wordsworth.
I had some less conventional tastes in poetry as well, such as Andrew Marvell, who, I don’t think, many people in Kolkata and Santiniketan were reading then. Everyone liked Lord Byron; so did I. I liked Dryden a lot. As it turned out later, he was my colleague at Trinity College Cambridge, UK. For many years, as Master of the college, I had to entertain people after dinner for drinks under the shadow of Dryden, which is one of my favourite portraits in the college.
What was it about Dryden that fascinated you?
It was the turn in his thought that I found particularly appealing—like that phrase about the man who whistled for want of a thought. That line stuck because I thought I saw them all around me, men who were whistling mainly because they didn’t have a thought. I liked Dryden’s ability to make a serious point in a light way.
Tell us about the writers you met in Cambridge.
I came to know E.M. Forster well, simply because I was one of the Cambridge Apostles (an intellectual secret society at Cambridge). Morgan (as Forster was known) was the main literary figure then.
You could be elected as an Apostle for some years, but then, as you moved on, you became an “Angel". As an Angel, you could come to the meetings but it would have raised eyebrows if you came too often. But Morgan was an exception, because, in my time, we were meeting in his rooms at King’s (College). He used to say it was not proper for him to be there all the time so he sometimes went to the chapel to listen to the Evensong.
The other person I met, and became close friends with, was Eric Hobsbawm. Many years later, in 1962, I did a long European tour with Eric, and my then wife, Nabaneeta (Dev Sen). We drove from Cambridge through Holland, Belgium, Germany and Austria. Both Eric and I were giving lectures at a Summer Seminar in a place called Alpbach. So we spent about five weeks travelling, and chatted every evening.
He was a big influence on me. He was a Marxist. I was influenced by Marx, but never a Marxist. Then there was Piero Sraffa, who was a bit like me, never a Marxist but interested in Marx. Later, I wrote a paper on Sraffa, (Ludwig) Wittgenstein and (Antonio) Gramsci.
What about the Marxists in Kolkata?
Actually, I got to know about Sraffa through highbrow Marxists in Calcutta. And I can’t think of anyone higher brow than my friend, economist Sukhamoy Chakravarty, who was directly responsible for my moving from physics to economics.
How did that happen?
Sukhamoy came to Santiniketan in what must have been 1950. I was in intermediate science at that point, enjoying physics and mathematics. Sukhamoy, who was studying at Presidency College (Kolkata), came with two other friends of his. A common friend of ours, Subrata Roy, who was a year higher at Presidency, asked me to show them around. So I became a guide to Sukhamoy and his friends.
Of the many things he and I talked about were artist Mukul Dey’s paintings. Sukhamoy was highbrow enough to know about Dey and form an opinion about him. We also talked about what he thought of Rabindranath as a painter.
In 1951 when I decided to apply to Presidency with the thought of studying physics, he suggested I consider economics. So, in the summer of 1951, after my I.Sc. examinations were over, I read some books on economics, by John Hicks for instance, and a bit of Adam Smith. It gradually became clear to me that I wanted to study economics. So I changed my application, and dropped a line to Sukhamoy telling him of my decision. He was very pleased to hear it.
Tell us about your years at Presidency.
The day I arrived at Presidency, it was raining. It was 1953, and as I was going up that famous staircase from where Subhash Bose was supposed to have chucked the principal down, I encountered Sukhamoy. He offered to show me around, took me to Coffee House, and I felt quickly at ease in the company of people I hugely admired.
I don’t know anyone else with Sukhamoy’s command over knowledge across the world, on any subject, combined with discipline and intellect. This, actually, cultivated a laziness in me. I could either go to library if I was looking for some information, or ask simply Sukhamoy—and he would give me an organized systematic account of it.
Tapas Majumdar was another great influence, and Bhabatosh Datta was a model teacher in terms of lucidity. The big thing about Tapas da was his encouraging me to take apart any problem. Bhabatosh babu, though a great teacher, was very respectful of received theory. Since I was not so respectful, I’d say to Tapas da, “I don’t seem to follow the argument, or there must be something I am not getting." And he would say, “Yes, either that, or there might be a theoretical mistake." That was quite something to say at that time.
You have written about Tagore, had a public exchange of letters with Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe, and been interested in literature all along.
Literature was very much a part of my life. George Bernard Shaw is one writer I could claim to have read everything of. I don’t think his politics was very profound, it was rather naïve, but I still long to see a new Shaw play. I spent a lot of time reading complicated plays like Man and Superman.
Was it Shaw’s drama of ideas that attracted you?
Yes. He’s quite different from Shakespeare, who conveys a thought of universal nature. Though King Lear is my favourite, I am also interested in minor plays like Coriolanus. I was fascinated by a character like Coriolanus who had an admirable efficiency as well as an ability to take on the world with a lack of modesty and disregard for how other people perceived him. I thought I knew some people like that.
But I think plays like Othello are too simple. I once wrote a doggerel based on it to tease my literary friends. But some of them took it to be a serious contribution.
Do you read any fiction these days?
I read late in the night, when I am usually too exhausted to start a new book, and almost always go for non-fiction unless my wife recommends something. I can’t call myself a serious fiction reader any longer, which I used to be before.
Leo Tolstoy is another writer I have read pretty much everything of. I love his short stories, especially How Much Land Does A Man Need? I enjoy the irony of O. Henry’s stories. For instance, the one about the man who wants to get arrested because winter is coming and the warmth of the prison would be good. But he finds it difficult to get arrested, so he decides to reform himself. Then he is arrested for loitering in the park. It is extraordinarily funny but also profoundly tragic.
Are there any favourite musical pieces and films you keep going back to?
I like Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan. Also Mozart, whose Magic Flute is probably my favourite. I don’t think of myself as a serious music appreciator, but I usually listen to some music when I write.
As for films, Satyajit Ray has been a great anchor in my life. The Apu Trilogy was very appealing to me. Since I grew up in Santiniketan, I knew a lot of the world he was depicting in the films, except for Apur Sansar. I was also greatly moved by Devi. I was concerned by the way young women were treated, but in this case, the woman was not being treated with unkindness, but with super kindness, which ultimately resulted in tragedy.