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At home with Professor Amartya Sen

Trinity student Sara Saloo reflects on Professor Amartya Sen’s memoir, Home in the World. The former Master of Trinity and Nobel Laureate is speaking at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 12 October. 

Sara Saloo studies History & Politics

The title of Amartya Sen’s memoir is a nod to the novel, The Home and the World, written by renowned poet Rabindranath Tagore, who had a marked influence on Sen’s upbringing. Tagore’s novel explores the separation of the home and the world, often taken to represent the clash between Western and non-Western spheres. Professor Sen adopts an interesting twist; he is home in the world, having lived in and interacted with many different walks of life.

The sheer breadth of topics which he spans in his memoir may be read as a test of what we mean by identity. He travels seamlessly across academic disciplines – delving into history, economics, philosophy, medicine, and more – woven together by a rough chronology of his life from Santiniketan to Harvard, and everywhere in between. When reflecting on his experience of the communal violence during Partition, he argues for the concept of ‘identity’ to be viewed as complex and multifaceted, rather than through hard and fast labels.

Professor Sen makes a skillful case for this through an account of the various influences over the trajectory of his life. Starting with his childhood in Bengal, the benefits of his unconventional early education, his thoughts on religion and Buddhism, and the horrors of famine, the reader then travels with him to England and Trinity. Here he met lifelong friends and mentors, served as President of the Cambridge Majlis society, and received NHS treatment for throat cancer. Later, he developed his thinking in American universities, including at Harvard where he is now Thomas W Lamont University Professor, and Professor of Economics and Philosophy.

Portrait of Professor Sen by Annabel Cullen. Photo: Trinity College

His account of his life is by no means linear. The reader may find themselves dwelling upon the politics of modern Myanmar in one moment, and the founding of the world’s oldest university in the next, without ever taking notice of the jumps between. The skill with which Professor Sen guides us through the maze of his thought, linking them to phases of his life, allows him to build the picture of his life as a puzzle – no greater weight is attributed to one piece of his personal or academic identity than other, all of them being crucial to the development of the final ‘product’ today. He does not fit into one box – Indian, Trinitarian, British, American, economist, philosopher, husband, father – but all of them.

The complexity of Professor Sen’s journey serves as a brilliant reminder of the interconnectedness of academic disciplines, and of the world. I am tempted to steal his appraisal of Tagore’s novel (and his memoir’s namesake), calling it “a beautiful, if humble, recognition of our limited understanding of a vast world.”

He chooses to conclude this expansive memoir with a hopeful message for instinctive sympathy between people across boundaries such as race and country. We are encouraged to remind ourselves of the beauty and interconnectedness of the world and those who inhabit it, and of the limitations of confining ourselves to singular labels.

 

Professor Amartya Sen will be in conversation with MP Jesse Norman on Tuesday 12 October, 6pm, in a live-streamed Zoom event at the West Road Concert Hall. You can book in-person and online tickets at Cambridge Literary Festival. There is a 20% discount for Trinity members – register online and use the code SENTRINITY21 at the checkout.

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