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"Ma, Good News, I've Won"

Shantiniketan indulges in a trip down memory lane

"Ma, Good News, I've Won"
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

HERE'S one story from the vaults, not so well known. Amartya Sen hated his music classes, a rite of passage in Shantiniketan, where he grew up and went to school. For purists at Rabindranath Tagore's leafy abode of music, dance, literature and the sciences, this might have been blasphemous. "I try very hard," he told his mother after another dismal lesson one day, "but I always end up reciting instead of singing." Never a Rabindrasangeet aficionado, Sen eventually ended up a jazz and western classical buff. Now his son, Kabir, plays with a roving jazz band from Connecticut.

 Here's another story, this one better known. In the predominantly Hindu neighbourhood of Wari in Dhaka where he spent part of his childhood, 12-year-old Sen was informed one day that Kader Mian, a Muslim mason he knew, had been killed in the communal pogrom. The family was spending a few years in Dhaka during that time, and Mian's death left a deep impression on the young boy. So much so that he mentioned the incident in his books. "Just the other day," says his mother, Amita Sen, "he called up from Cambridge saying that he'd forgotten the mason's name."

The two stories reveal the essence of Amartya Sen, the syncretism of occidental liberalism and oriental humanism, the jazz-loving international Indian trawling the downside of economics. Friends attribute this to his genes: growing up under the tutelage of his maternal grandfather and Tagore associate, Kshitimohan Sen, a noted Sanskrit scholar who taught at Visva Bharati, young Amartya had actually contemplated taking up Sanskrit. In high school, he wanted to become a mathematician and a physicist. The rest is history. "He had dazzling intellect, he was very organised and had neat handwriting," says his economics teacher, Dhires Bhattacharyya.

For Shantiniketan residents, the red-earth township of shady paved lanes, minimalist homes and friendly people, these qualities were very evident during Sen's growing-up years. (Born in Kshitimohan Sen's home in the thatched-cottage enclave of Gurupalli, young Amartya, christened by the bard himself, travelled with his parents to Myanmar and Dhaka for a few years before returning to Shantiniketan for his schooling.) Oldtimers remember him as an extroverted boy, an able organiser, and popular among friends. He was fiercely argumentative, but never bookish. "He loved his addas, and was once found debating with students under a tree when his examination bell had begun ringing," says his mother. Madan Gopal Ghosh, a classmate, says that nobody "quite ever knew when he studied".

 At Calcutta's Presidency College, where he studied economics, teachers and classmates remember him as one of the most promising students—and a tough debater. Historian Barun De remembers Sen writing an article Bijnapaner Arthaniti (the Economics Of Advertising), a subject much ahead of the times, in the college magazine in 1952. In what would later be dubbed as the clash of titans, Sen stood first during graduation, while the late Sukhamoy Chakraborty, another legendary economist, stood second. Later, Bhabatosh Dutta, their redoubtable teacher, was to comment: "It was a difficult choice to make. Sukhamoy's depth of knowledge was amazing, and Amartya's neat, concise sharply focused analyses impressed me no less."

 In later years, say his friends, his organising capacities came to the fore when he held important positions in the All India Students Federation, the student's wing of the undivided Communist party and the Delhi University Teachers Association. "I remember he was proud of his work in these unions," says Sunil Sengupta, a rural development economist at Visva Bharati, who worked with Sen.

What endeared Sen most to people, of course, was his disarming simplicity. In high school, friends remember him hiding printing blocks and material in panic after somebody gave him a mock warning that the police would come looking for him because he had published a magazine without getting it registered. When he superseded his teacher, Panchanan Chakraborty, to become the head of the department of economics at Calcutta's Jadavpur University at the age of 23, the youngest teacher in the country, there was a furore. But Sen's charm won people over.

Even today, during his visits to Shantiniketan every winter, Sen moves around in his 50-year-old Phillips bicycle, meeting old friends, stopping by during his morning jogs, queuing up at the post office, joining a noisy adda at fabled tea shack Kalor Dokan, and relishing a good Bengali meal with his favourite fish. "Amartya never makes you feel that he's somebody," says Sengupta. "He keeps an open house, and seldom refuses anyone."

Sen has also led an eventful, sometimes tragic personal life, marrying thrice—poetess Nabaneeta Dev with whom he has two daughters and remained married for 15 years, Eva Colorni, an Italian who bore him two children in their eight-year marriage before she died, and Emma Rothschild, a historian at Cambridge to whom he's married now. He has also fought against a bout of oral cancer during his student days at Cambridge. There was a time, says his mother, when doctors had given him five years to live. "But he's a strong, quiet survivor. The Nobel prize took a long time coming, but he would never show his impatience," says Amita Sen.

So he had called her up Shantiniketan at eight on Wednesday morning, enquiring routinely about her health, saying he was in New York and that everything was fine. When the phone rang again at three, she took the line desultorily, hand fan in her hand. "Ma, there's a good news I want to give you. I am getting the Nobel Prize," floated the voice from New York.

The morning after the big news, all hell is breaking loose at Pratichi, the quaintly spartan Sen home. Inside, the 87-year-old Amita ignores her harried attendants imploring her to take her medication— she is recovering from a heart condition. In her sunwashed verandah crammed with memories, a proud mother picks up the phone, and dials New York in a room full of people. "Can you put me through to Amartya Sen please, who got the Nobel Prize. I am his mother speaking." When a sleepy Sen comes on the line, there's a torrent of motherly advice: return to Cambridge carefully, eat properly, take rest. "They are coming in droves here, Amartya," she says. "India is proud of you, but Shantiniketan is agog with excitement." When the scholar comes visiting again this winter, Shantiniketan will fete its proudest son—after Tagore.

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