Title: The Country of First Boys and Other Essays
Author: Amartya Sen
Publisher: The Little Magazine and OUP
Price: Rs 550
Amartya Sen’s 13 essays and lectures written over a decade-and-a-half are, in the two editors’ words, fascinating as they are “like a time-lapse photograph shot over 15 years.” Economist, philosopher, thinker, Sanskrit scholar and activist, the tireless Sen wears many hats. He has been using his energy and enormous capacity for dipping into all the worlds that he knows so much about to pull it all together and argue for a much better India — one which is at ease with its mind-boggling diversities, which acknowledges its shortcomings, but is confident enough to battle for a just, equitable and harmonious system.
Most of the lectures have appeared in The Little Magazine (TLM) over the years and they bear witness to the range of concerns that Sen has been focussing on. They are effortless reads as he manages to write for every kind of reader, never insulting their intelligence, but gently goading them to stretch their mind and to expect the counter-intuitive. While discussing his panache for diversity, for instance, Sen makes a case for how both mathematics and Sanskrit represented an easy, diverse but “compatible interest.” What follows are glimpses into the mind of someone as charmed by Sanskrit as by mathematical analysis.
The essays, especially the well-known one he wrote for the inaugural issue of TLM on India’s numerous calendars, makes time the motif through which he examines diversities and how calendars and cultures influenced each other and continue to do so. Invoking the Tarikh-e-Ilahi, a now almost-forgotten invention of Akbar, which was an attempt at compositeness, Sen relates the Bengali San to it, too, and shows how elements of the Tarikh-e-Ilahi (and Hijri) survive in the San.
Exploring diversity in all possible senses has been only one of Sen’s abiding concerns. He has been speaking of the importance of education and health to be made accessible to all consistently, and not just for reasons of justice and fairness. He has been speaking of how it is a rational choice to be made by governments keen on meeting other economic goals. You can also find essays here that discuss the idea of democracy, in all its splendour and, often, contradictions.
Sen has also been among those who has been critical of what he has termed the “miniaturisation” of India. Often, he argues for a need to layer the wide spectrum and depth of philosophies and cultures. Instead, he notices a competition between visions of narrow-mindedness, struggling to make India turn on only one sectarian idea. He terms this urge to “smallness” not just “an ethical blunder but a political disaster” in the making.
For those familiar with the range of Sen’s work and for those who are not, this volume takes you through the range of his concerns in this millennium. On reading this, it would be impossible to classify or slot him as either/or just economist, philosopher, sociologist or historian. But then, the fact that identity need not be a matter of single confinement, has been one of Sen’s core beliefs. He speaks eloquently about how the character of Vasantasena, in Shudraka’s Mrichchhakatika, written in the fourth century, teaches one so much about the futility of trying to hold people down to one dimension. Vasantasena was “a great beauty, a rich courtesan, a dedicated lover, a social reformer, a political revolutionary and ultimately, a forgiving judge.”
Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who has written a foreword for the book, explores how Sen deploys a grammatical tool to precisely cope with the many layers his mind seems to occupy simultaneously. The em-dash (the longer dash between sentences, like the wider ‘M’ and not the narrower ‘N’), observes Gandhi, is a frequent feature in Sen’s work. This helps Sen and his readers both, to stay with the main idea, as well as navigate onto many more strains of it, in the same breath.
The book spans the Rig Veda, Madhavacharya, Tagore, Abul Fazal, Hiren Mukherjee, as well as the importance of thinking clearly about the here and now. It is a compelling and a joyous read for anyone interested in ideas — and the em-dash.