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Review by Devaki Jain of Amartya Sen’s Home in the world - A memoir

Saturday 7 August 2021, by Devaki Jain



by Devaki Jain

Home in the World: A Memoir

by Amartya Sen

Imprint; Allen Lane

Penguin Random House

July, 2021

480 pages

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1846144868

ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1846144868

available via Amazon

In Home in the World, Amartya Sen, a dear friend and contemporary, has achieved the impossible. We are with him in Shantiniketan savouring its unique ambience. Tagore is there, and encourages our brave Amartya to improve his competence in Sanskrit. At another time he is cycling from Shantiniketan to old farm sheds and warehouses, in neighbouring villages, transporting the machine to weigh boys and girls up to the age of five, to collect data related to the Bengal famine of 1943. We then follow the young Amartya at the age of 19, travelling by ship to the UK, filled with wonderment at what he sees around him,- the endless ocean. Then the great leap forward as he explores, read debates and re defines the various elements that make up economics — ethics, politics, statistics. Aristotle to Wittgenstein and Gautama, the Buddha. It is this quality in Amartya, forever curious, forever interested, amazed, intrigued by the phenomena that he observes or reads about. Moving from ancient texts to the most contemporary , - engaging with some of the phenomena that captivates him. He then pursues an explanation and an exposition of these for the rest of his life.

Injustice that operates between men and women in all the dimensions of life, especially amongst the less privileged, bothers him.. Addressing the woman issue,-gender issue as it is called now - has been a recurring strum in Amartya’s work over the decades. While he does not spend much time on this issue in ’Home in the World’, he provided many concepts and ideas which many of us took forward in our work. We tried to redress the inequality between men and women- a pervasive phenomenon worldwide. In one of the first essays he wrote on women, called “Indian Women: Wellbeing and Survival”, in The Economic Journal to my great joy, he has a foot note where he acknowledges Pranab Bardhan and me for pointing out this issue or phenomenon.

While he has pointed out many times and in many places, this hidden inequality within gender, he has also given some wonderful messages and propositions around this area which I, for one, have used again and again and I quote " Women should be seen not as patients whose interests have to be looked after but as agents who can do effective things, both individually and jointly.We also have to go beyond their roles, specifically as consumers or as people with needs, and consider more broadly, their general role as agents of change who can, given the opportunity, think, assess, evaluate, resolve, inspire, agitate, and through these means, reshape the world”.

He dramatised the phenomenon of the killing of female new borns called in other places, sex selective abortion and post birth killing. Another great social scientist, the late Dr. Ashok Mitra who was at one time Registrar General of the Census of India,brought to our attention innovative ways in which couples killed the new born girl baby. Innovative to avoid being seen as sinners/ murderers or being prosecuted. For example, a technique which he said was very common in Gujarat was called DoodhPeeti. He said newborns, if they were female, were drowned in a pot of milk and the killers cleansed themselves by proposing that the child died while drinking the milk- abominable. So these challenges and cruelties that women in India experienced were a great preoccupation for Amartya in his quest for enabling through knowledge the building of a humane and just society.

I cannot but help relating an anecdote, describe an experience which I witnessed. In “Home in the World”, Amartya has written about his arrival for the first time, at the Delhi School of Economics, and his happiness and surprise to see how bright the students were. He has also written that he started to work on Welfare Economics. This news that we have a brilliant economist from Cambridge who was also interested in welfare, society, injustice spread around. Thus Durgabai Deshmukh who was leading the cause for more funds for social welfare, and finding that her husband who was Finance Minister, C.D. Deshmukh, was not obliging, accosted me one day and said "What is wrong with economics? Spending on social welfare is not considered productive”. She continued “I believe there is a new economist at the Delhi School who talks about social welfare, I want to meet him." So I arranged the meeting. Many years later, Amartya told me how much he had enjoyed meeting her, apart from the idlis she fed to him. Amartya wrote a paper, a pamphlet for her, justifying the expenditure. . It is such moments and conversations that led to the acceptance of Human Development as an economic issue. Amartya has spent some time in his book, mentioning his friendship with Mahbub ul Haq the economist from Pakistan with whom he developed the human development report, an annual publication of the United Nations and we know the rest of the story.

Justice is a virtue that Amartya embraces, and in his excellent book ‘The Idea of Justice’, he explores this element across disciplines and peoples. So the integration or homogenising of various disciplines, breaking their rigid boundaries, is one of the great contributions of Amartya Sen. His detailed description of the scholars he met and engaged with in Cambridge, guides us to the birth of his ideas, and indeed Amartya has flooded the social sciences with ideas and vocabularies — leading to the linking of the social sciences. Philosophy, History, Sociology, Mathematics are threads into which economics is woven. A beautiful mind, which can draw the threads of various sources of knowledge into a weave, as we see in his description of his conversations with a range of scholars whom he meets, especially in, Cambridge UK. Maurice Dobb, James Mirlees, Dennis Robertson and Piero Sraffa, to mention a few.

Shabash Amartya, many of us, your old friends know much about your life’s journey, what you have brought into this volume is the intellectual discourse, the triggers that moved you to concepts, theories, thoughts, essays lectures, books .. Well done dear friend

(Author: Devaki Jain, economist, Hon Fellow St Annes College, Oxford)

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