June 5, 2021 7:53:01 pm
From growing up in a small university town with his grandparents while Japanese forces attempted to invade eastern India during World War 2, to winning the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences — Amartya Sen’s life until now, has been nothing short of extraordinary.
In an interview with The Harvard Gazette, the economist looked back at the last nine decades and what drove him to study the underlying mechanisms of poverty and gender inequity. Sen traces his progressive outlook back to his upbringing in Shantiniketan.
“I liked the university town atmosphere. I loved the fact that my school was progressive. It was a coeducational school with an almost equal number of boys and girls,” he told The Harvard Gazette.
Recalling his love for bicycling, he said that it was his sole means of transport for several of his long research trips. One such trip in particular stood out. “I studied the Bengal famine of 1943, in which about 3 million people died. It was clear to me it wasn’t caused by the food supply having fallen compared with earlier. It hadn’t,” he said.
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His interest in gender inequality started with a study of the weight of girls and boys in their childhood. He found that while girls and boys were often born the same weight, boys went on to overtake girls as they grew older. He concluded that while girls and boys were probably fed the same amount, the drop in weight of young girls was likely due to a lack of medical care.
When asked what it was like growing up in colonial India when violent clashes were breaking out between Hindus and Muslims, Sen recalled an incident from when he was about 10 or 11 years old: “I was playing in the garden when I saw somebody had come in through the outside gates of our compound, a very stricken man who had been clearly knifed in the back, and he was bleeding profusely.” Sen and his father took the injured man to the hospital, where he succumbed to injuries.
“He was a Muslim laborer, therefore, a prey for Hindu thugs, just as the Hindu laborers were prey for Muslim thugs,” Sen told The Harvard Gazette. The scarring incident later shaped several of his career choices, as much of his research focused on “violence and premature death”.
In a 2014 interview with The Indian Express, the Nobel Laureate spoke extensively about his article on the missing women of India, published in 1990. “The missing women was mainly a question of life and death. That article was based on 1980s’ data but it came out in 1990 in New York Review and the British Medical Journal. That was mainly because of the higher mortality of women than men, girls than boys,” he said. “But, in fact girls should have lower mortality. Has that discrimination stayed the same now? No, it’s gone down quite a bit.”
Speaking about the impact of Calcutta on his intellectual life, Sen recalled his days at Presidency College. “The college, the coffee house, the hostel and the neighbourhood were very fascinating to me. I was coming from Shantiniketan, and Calcutta, the urban town, had a sense of mystique for us.”
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