Friends and Circles

I found that I often hung around with a group of recently arrived foreign students who arranged regular get-togethers, none of them particularly quiet.

Professor Amartya Sen ( File Photo)

Where is ‘home’? For Professor Amartya Sen home has been many places – Dhaka in modern Bangladesh where he grew up, the village of Santiniketan where he was raised by his grandparents as much as by his parents, Calcutta where he first studied economics and was active in student movements, and Trinity College, Cambridge, to which he came aged nineteen.

Nobel Laureate Sen brilliantly recreates the atmosphere in each of these. Central to his formation was the intellectually liberating school in Santiniketan founded by Rabindranath Tagore (who gave him his name Amartya) and enticing conversations in the famous Coffee House on College Street in Calcutta. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, he engaged with many of the leading figures of the day. This is a book of ideas – especially Marx, Keynes and Arrow – as much as of people and places. Following excerpts adapted from Professor Amartya Sen’s most recent book; Home In The World – A Memoir

The first – and for a while the only – investment I made in Cambridge was to buy a bicycle. Walking to Trinity and to the centre of the University from Priory Road took a long time. I also needed to get around to different parts of the town – to visit other colleges, to attend lectures, to reach libraries, to meet my friends and to go to political, social and cultural gatherings. Unfortunately my budget did not allow me to buy a bicycle with gears. I bought a simple, gearless bike second hand – and consoled myself that going up Castle Hill on my way back to my digs in Priory Road on this antiquated machine would give me just the exercise I needed.

I met Mahbub ul Haq from Pakistan even before I had managed to get a bicycle – he was at King’s, a short walk from Trinity, and we met while I was on my way to the first Cambridge lecture I ever attended. The term had just started and I was hurrying along King’s Parade to hear Joan Robinson, the famous economist whose book The Economics of Imperfect Competition (1933) I had read with much admiration in Calcutta, and whose lecture I was anxious to hear. It was a fine autumn morning, and Mahbub, elegantly (indeed nattily) attired, was walking rapidly down King’s Parade on his way to Joan Robinson’s lecture, like me.

We were both a little late (Joan Robinson was, in fact, even later) and we began to talk while keeping our pace. It is my good fortune that the conversation which began somewhat breathlessly during that encounter in October 1953 continued through our lives, right up to Mahbub’s sudden and tragic death in 1998. Outside the classrooms, when we walked together on the Backs next to the river Cam, or chatted in his room or mine, we grumbled about mainstream economics. Why did it take so little interest in the lives of human beings? Mahbub and I were not only fond of each other (and, later on, I would come to know well his spirited wife Bani, or Khadija – a Bengali from East Pakistan) but shared many intellectual interests. Mahbub’s pioneering work in launching the Human Development Reports in 1990 reflected his passion – a thoroughly well-reasoned passion – to broaden the coverage of economics.

Lal Jayawardena from Sri Lanka was at King’s too. Lal and I would also form a lifelong friendship, combining affection with a shared commitment to try to extend the reach of economic thinking. Many years later Lal would give shape to that commitment as the founding director of the research institute of the United Nations University in Helsinki, established in 1985. For a while, I worked with him there, but even before that I helped him to choose an appropriate name for his institution. We settled on the World Institute for Development Economics Research, which gets nicely recognized by its acronym, WIDER – a good description of what Lal wanted from economics and the social sciences. When I look back at some of the global initiatives in which I have been involved, I realize how fortunate I was to meet as fellow undergraduates the people who would eventually establish and lead them – Mahbub and Lal in particular.

Yet another reason to frequent King’s in my first few weeks was to talk with Michael Bruno from Israel, then doing mathematics, but who would move to economics soon afterwards. His Jewish family had left Germany in 1933, when he was one year old, just in time to avoid the massive butchery that would follow. Bruno was an excellent economist, and among other roles served as a remarkably successful Governor of the Central Bank of Israel. As President of the International Economic Association, when he had to arrange the Association’s World Congress, he courageously – and successfully – located it in the Arab state of Tunisia, rejecting a number of alternative proposals from Europe and America. Given his democratic and left-leaning politics, we agreed on many issues in the world, but disagreed on what was likely to happen to the Arab residents of Palestine.Michael was very committed to peace and tolerance but he was, alas, much too optimistic about the Israel–Palestine situation. With my experience of the terrible Hindu–Muslim bloodshed of the 1940s, I was very aware how easy it is to generate hostility and violence by fanning the flames of division in artificially generated identity confrontations. When Michael and I argued about Palestine in the 1950s, I hoped that his optimism would be vindicated. It gives me no pleasure to find that my pessimism has been proved right.

Despite acquainting myself with many students outside Trinity, my main circle in my first year was inside the College. My college friends included some very engaging mathematicians, particularly David Epstein from South Africa and Allan Hayes. There were also historians – one of whom, Simon Digby, became a major scholar of Islamic studies, much admired in India and Pakistan. (His grandfather William Digby had famously denounced British rule for creating poverty in India.) And I was very lucky to meet, more or less immediately, Ian Hacking, who later had a major influence on philosophy. I have been able to draw on our friendship throughout my life.

I found that I often hung around with a group of recently arrived foreign students who arranged regular get-togethers, none of them particularly quiet. There was Salve Salvesen from Norway, Jose Romero from the Philippines, Hisahiko Okazaki from Japan (known to us as Chako) and a number of others in that very lively group. They were not, to say the least, tremendously involved in their studies (with the possible exception of Chako), which suited me fine, and we spent many hours chatting away in large and small groups. We were occasionally joined by Anand Panyarachun from Thailand, an extremely talented thinker, who had been in Trinity for a year already when we neophytes arrived.

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