- From his memories of Rabindranath Tagore, who named him Amartya, Sen’s memoir includes his reflections on historical forces that are shaping India today.
An autobiography, by its very nature, can never be the complete story of a person. Mahatma Gandhi was in his early 50s when his autobiography titled “My Experiments with Truth” came out. Jawaharlal Nehru published his autobiography a decade before he became the first Prime Minister of India.
I thought Amartya Sen’s autobiography “Home in the World: A Memoir” (Penguin) would cover his life till 2021 when it was written. I realized that he was still a young academic returning from England and the U.S. when the book ended. I hope he is busy writing the second volume of his autobiography.
This does not diminish the value of the book which gives a peep into the years before India got Independence when he had an idyllic life, first in Dhaka, then in Myanmar and, finally, in Santiniketan and Kolkata before migrating to the UK and the U.S.
Sen could not have chosen a better title, which he borrowed from Rabindranath Tagore’s book, “The Home and the World.” He has a claim on Tagore’s legacy, for it was Tagore, the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize, who christened him Amartya which means the one who vanquishes death or the deathless.
He is exuberant when he describes his life at Santiniketan, where his parents sent him for studies because neither Dhaka nor Kolkata was safe in the aftermath of the Second World War. He had for company his maternal grandfather Kshiti Mohan Sen (K.M. Sen), whose book on Hinduism, translated into English by his grandson, should be read by one and all, especially by those who think that Hinduism is a religion like one of the Semitic ones and not a way of life.
K.M. Sen was a close friend of Tagore and they played a major role in the setting up and nurturing of Visva Bharati. He did pioneering research on Bauls, the mystic minstrels of Bengal. He wrote about them, their philosophy and their way of life which I read with great delight, particularly after I met a group of Bauls singing in the Darjeeling-bound train I took to reach Santiniketan.
Sen had a walking encyclopedia on Sanskrit, Hindu-Muslim relations and the world at large in his grandfather as he grew up in Santiniketan. His grandmother was no less a formidable person. She taught him the values of compassion and fair play in everything that he did. He enjoyed talking to her in the kitchen as she prepared food for the family.
She allowed Sen to give a measure of rice to anyone who was dying of hunger during the great famine that rocked Bengal during the War years. The most touching was the story of a mother who was crying while eating food that she should have shared with her child. Alas, hunger makes people beastly.
Sen’s father, who taught at Dhaka University, had a posting in Burma. It was one of the most enjoyable periods of his life. He describes in vivid detail his life in the Buddhist country which was at that time known as the world’s largest producer of rice. Later in life, he became a fan of Aung San Suu Kyi. Fortunately, not a blind fan.
He does not hide the fact that she fell in his estimation. Sen’s explanation for what the country did to the Rohingyas is as revelatory as it is disturbing. The military junta had been describing the Rohingyas as Bangladeshi illegal immigrants and an epitome of all that was evil. In doing so, they were conditioning the minds of the Myanmarese that they need to be eliminated.
So when the opportunity came, the Buddhists were found to be as ruthless as the foot soldiers of Hitler in killing and driving out the Rohingyas from Myanmar. In other words, ordinary Myanmarese became willing executioners of the military junta.
Much the same has been happening in India. A sinister campaign was unleashed that Bangladeshis were swarming the Northeast and Assam would soon become a Muslim-majority state. Union ministers began threatening that the illegal migrants would be dumped in the Bay of Bengal.
What the military junta successfully tried out in Myanmar is being attempted in India as can be gauged from what happened in Jahangirpuri early this week. Sen is at his best when he explains what forces ordinary people to turn against ordinary people on religious grounds.
He had a bitter experience in the run-up to the Partition. One day, a Muslim acquaintance reached Sen’s house in Dhaka with severe wounds. His wife had warned him against going to a Hindu area but his need to earn some money to feed his children forced him to ignore her warning.
The result was a stabbing. He died virtually in Sen’s hands. That prompts him to argue that in communal disturbances, it is the poor who suffer. The clever leaders merely instigate the cadres who are foolish enough to fall into their trap and take up arms against fellow citizens.
As I write this review a day after Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation on the 400th birth anniversary of Guru Tegh Bahadur, in which the focus was on Aurangzeb. It was the Moghul ruler who allegedly ordered the execution of the ninth guru from the Red Fort from where Modi addressed the nation.
It is not difficult to know why Modi thought it necessary to capture the occasion. If anyone thinks it is because of his love for the Sikh gurus, he is sadly mistaken. In the lexicon of Guru Tegh Bahadur, there were no words like hatred and vengeance. He saw everyone, Sikh, Hindu or Muslim, as equal before God. Equality was as dear to him as piety.
Sen is certainly not an admirer of Aurangzeb but he is not a hater of the Emperor, either. One of the first things the Modi government did was to rename Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi after former President Abdul Kalam following his death. Was the Emperor worthy of all the hatred?
Sen approaches the subject with clarity and certainty. He demolishes the theory that Aurangzeb was a Hindu hater by pointing out that he “had a large number of Hindus in his court and among his close circle”. This is in sharp contrast to the narrative popularized by the Hindutva brigade that he forcibly converted Hindus and those who resisted were put to the sword.
Sen traces the roots of the Partition to V.D. Savarkar who argued, long before Mohammed Ali Jinnah articulated his two-nation theory, that Hindus and Muslims constituted two nations and they could never be together. In other words, Savarkar and Jinnah are two sides of the same coin.
He mentions particularly M.S. Golwalkar, one of the founders of the RSS, for his idiosyncratic views on nationhood. Yet, it is a mystery that the Sangh Parivar demonizes Jinnah and eulogizes Savarkar.
Sen has an elephantine memory and he makes use of it to introduce his friends and relatives who include so many nephews and nieces and their children and grandchildren. What’s more, he dwells upon the arguments he had with them with such details that one is tempted to believe that he was his own James Boswell.
In fact, quite a few chapters are devoted to describing the economic and philosophical theories of his colleagues in the various institutions he studied or taught. Whether it is the game theory or welfare economics or Stalinism, he has a view of his own, chiseled, over the years through arguments, debates and discussions with some of the greatest minds of the 20th century. He also writes about the various intellectual pursuits and challenges he had at Cambridge or Jadavpur University or Presidency College. One difficulty Sen has is in calling a spade a spade. He never fights shy of promoting his colleagues, including students. And he has a way of doing it.
I was for a year the director of Pratichi (India) Trust he set up with his Nobel Prize money. I was attending a meeting of teachers at Santiniketan. The deliberations were all in Bengali and I could not make out what was being discussed. When it was the turn of Sen to speak, he mentioned my name and told the audience that I should be complimented for the stoicism with which I endured the barrage in Bengali.
During the coffee break, many of the teachers came forward to have a little chat with me in English so that I did not feel like a Hilsa out of water. Sen narrates a similar experience he and fellow students at Santiniketan had when General Chiang Kai-shek visited Santiniketan to give a talk on the Allied war efforts. “His oration to us, lasting about half an hour and delivered to us in Mandarin, was made completely impenetrable by the senseless decision of the Santiniketan authorities not to provide any translation.”
Sen has a great sense of humor. Nabaneeta Sen, whom he married after a courtship at Jadavpur University, was well known in Bengali literary circles. One day, Sen had to tolerate a poet who had come home to read out his poems to her.
Out of politeness, he told the visiting poet that he had no understanding of poems. He pounced on his statement and said that he would be delighted to know how a person who did not know poetry understood his poems and started reciting them.
Sen has one problem. He is always critical of the British and thinks that without them India would have been in a better position, like the Japanese. In doing so, he overlooks many facts. On the Bengal famine, he says that democracy and the free Press would not allow another famine to occur. He argues that no famine occurred after Independence.
I find it strange that he does not mention the Green Revolution which revolutionized the production of food grains. I was born in the year he graduated but I have myself witnessed riotous situations in Kerala when rice was simply not available in the market. In the late 1970s, I visited Rewa in Madhya Pradesh to find out whether some tribals had died of starvation. I wrote that they might not have died of starvation but they certainly died of malnutrition.
Sen names some of his relatives who were jailed for their involvement in the freedom struggle or communism. He and his mother used to visit them regularly in the jail. Now, let him try to meet, say, Siddique Kappan, a journalist jailed in UP, or a popular MLA in UP, Azam Khan, who has been in jail for nearly two years and then he will know the difference between jails during the British time and the jails in Modi’s time.
He would quote Pali and Sanskrit texts to argue that some sort of democracy existed in ancient India. He would also praise the rulers of Kerala for the emphasis laid on women’s education but he would forget that there were people who could not cover their breasts or who could not walk on the roads. They were not just untouchables but unseeable.
Of course, Sen would quote a line from, say, Chandogya Upanishad to say that everyone, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, were all children of God. It was not for no reason that Dr. B.R. Ambedkar did not want the British to leave India as immediately as Gandhi wanted them to pack off.
He finds it amusing that the leaders of the First War of Independence, also called the Sepoy Mutiny, wanted Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was no better than a humble poet, to be India’s Emperor. Why did they choose him? Because there was no sense of nationalism in India at that time.
Sen should have read the proclamation they made that Sati would be reintroduced, the lower castes would not be treated as equals, etc. Yes, the British came to do business and to earn profit. He forgets the role of missionaries, who did pioneering work to educate Indians and who set up India’s first agriculture university and the first newspapers in any Indian language. His own Bengali was not treated as equal to Sanskrit until the missionaries promoted the vernacular languages.
He traces British success to the treachery in the Battle of Plassey little realizing that if every single Bengali had thrown one stone each at the British, they all would have been killed. When the Portuguese conquered Goa, ruled by Muslims, how many Portuguese were there? Less than 50. How did they occupy Goa with such a limited force if they had not received the support of the majority Hindu community?
Yes, there was no nationalism and no nation. It was the setting up of the universities in Kolkata, Chennai and Mumbai that ultimately instilled a sense of nationalism among the educated people. To blame the British for all India’s ills does not redound to the credit of a great thinker like Sen. He says the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata attracts the largest crowd. The only time I went there, a mela-like situation prevailed there.
It is now a few years since Modi built a war memorial in New Delhi, very close to India Gate, which has been deprived of all its importance. Few people visit Modi’s memorial, while India Gate attracts thousands of people.
Yes, the British made harsh laws and they implemented them with greater harshness but they did not discriminate on the basis of religion or caste. Is that the case now? All this does not detract from the usefulness of his book which should be read by all who believe in debates and dialogues.
A.J. Philip is an Indian journalist and columnist. Over his long career, he has held several senior positions in The Tribune, the Indian Express and the Hindustan Times.