Home / Opinion / Views /  Amartya Sen’s ‘home’ is much too crowded to hold narrative appeal

Amartya Sen has packed a rapid-fire history of ideas along with a directory of friends and luminaries into a 310-page Penguin book called Home in the World: A Memoir. As a feat, it is awesome that he can do that and not leave the reader feeling a bit dazed—that it is like a directory of names, with small footnotes on why that person appeared in his life. But it is typical of Amartya—whom I have known as a friend since the 1950s, a fact that he affirms—as he is generous to others.

Does he get away with it? As an old friend and as someone who read the book in one big gulp on Kindle just the other day, my answer would be, ‘No! He did not get away with it.’

Yes, we have learnt about the influences on his intellectual development, right from childhood in Shantiniketan to his academic life at Harvard. Yes, we learnt about those who influenced him in the private domain—that is, in the family domain. But it all seemed too much like rapid firing. It seemed to me that it is packed with too many people. It may be democratic that he speaks about a landlady or a porter in college, and then within a minute he will be speaking about distinguished economists that he wanted to meet and managed to meet.

Home in the World: A Memoir By Amartya Sen, Allen Lane, 480 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>899
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Home in the World: A Memoir By Amartya Sen, Allen Lane, 480 pages, 899

Many of his friends will perhaps be thrilled to see themselves named in his memoir. Some have been named with interesting credit and some in trivial unbecoming ways.

So, the question that arose in my mind was—what made Amartya write his life story in this fashion? Is he trying to share aspects of his life which are of some significance to others—or meaningful to himself? It seems too much like a joining-up of a scrapbook, with a lot of intimacy in terms of naming those who he met or loved or were friends.

I, for one, missed what I thought would be the story of the history of ideas because I am a great admirer of his books, the early popular ones like The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, and The Idea of Justice, and so on. They were really like guides to me. I have learnt so much from his work and vocabulary.

By adding to our vocabulary, he has actually empowered many sections of society that were, let us say, oppressed. Or excluded. “Missing women" led to identification of the killing fields that the female foetus or new-born faced, sex selection at birth, or just before. I particularly liked his reference to Mahbub ul-Haq, the Bangladeshi economist who felt the need to develop indicators of human progress that were not entirely limited to the economic domain. Thus, Mahbub ul-Haq gave birth to the Human Development Report, whose indices were not per capita gross domestic product growth, but health, education and participation in politics, and empowerment. His admiration for Mahbub and then joining him in his efforts is one of the graceful experiences he describes.

Otherwise, much of the book is about how his ideas were chiselled by conversations. His conversation with economist Paul Samuelson (1915-2009), for example, gave him the desire to reflect, and, in some sense, recreate his own version of a Samuelson idea.

It is a big mind that we see taking a journey from childhood to now, the age of almost 88. A mind which, while it absorbs and recreates ideas, is also generous in acknowledging where that idea came from. That is a big mind, a generous one, and Amartya’s intellectual life reveals that generosity.

Yet, I could not digest this huge telephone-book type enumeration of people who he met, and who enabled him in his journey. Being somebody who deeply believes in social and economic justice, Amartya appears to have gone out of his way to mention individuals from various walks of life.

As an old friend, I cannot help asking what he thinking when he was writing that he met Manmohan Singh and that he was a good Prime Minister? Obviously, he was not showing off. As a world-famous person, a recipient of a Nobel award, he does not need to ‘show off’. Why bring that in? Might it not appear that he was certifying dear Manmohan?

There were many other Indian luminaries that Amartya met in India. For example, Azim Premji or Sudha Murthy, who celebrated his ethic and who have kept India shining.

Amartya appears to race along in this book without pause or reflection. His deeply democratic nature has led him to mention what seems like every person he knew, which in a way, while being nice for the person named, crowds the book and distracts one from its intellectual thread.

What did Amartya think he was recording his life for—what’s called the public space, public knowledge?

I am unable to answer this question after having read Home in the World. It has become a compendium, not a narration.

Devaki Jain is an honorary fellow of St. Anne’s College, Oxford

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