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An economist at home in many cultures

Nobel laureate Amartya Sen in 2017 in New Delhi. “Our ability to learn from each other must not be underestimated,” he writes in his memoir. (Raj K. Raj/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)
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“Where do you consider to be your home?” a BBC interviewer chatting with Amartya Sen before a 1998 recording asked the Nobel Prize-winning economist. It was just after Sen left Harvard to rejoin Trinity College at Cambridge University in Britain. “I feel very much at home here right now,” Sen gamely replied, explaining that his residence in Trinity College felt like home to him, as did his house near Harvard Square, as did India and, in particular, the little thatched house in Santiniketan where he was born. “So,” the interviewer concluded, “you have no concept of home!” “On the contrary,” Sen replied, “I have more than one welcoming home, but I don’t share your idea that a home has to be exclusive.”

This answer was not well received. “The BBC interviewer looked completely unconvinced,” Sen writes.

It’s no mystery why Sen, a real-world economist whose work has looked at questions of resource distribution — particularly as it affects society’s poorest members — chose this anecdote to open his memoir, “Home in the World”: It perfectly encapsulates his conviction that there is much to be gained by refusing to be defined or confined by borders, as well as his enduring faith that multiple cultures can and should constructively coexist, even within one person. It’s a theme that Sen, 88, returns to repeatedly in this warmhearted, clear-eyed account of the formative years of his life, a book that reaches from Myanmar to Berkeley and that is less about economic theories — or his own later achievements in the field — than about the contours of an early intellectual journey across multiple continents.

One clue as to where Sen first developed the idea that “home” might transcend geography can be found in the name of his family home in Dhaka — “Jagat Kutir,” or “the cottage of the world.” This idyllic house, with a garden full of mangoes and jackfruits and a “protruding champa tree that made the veranda upstairs so fragrant,” was where the Sen family lived before their lives were upended by partition in 1947. Amartya’s father, Ashutosh, taught chemistry at Dhaka University, and his mother, Amita, defied conservative social mores as a dancer in dramas staged by the poet Rabindranath Tagore, a close family friend. (Tagore’s influence on the Sen family was so great that he persuaded Amita to give her son the Sanskrit amalgamation Amartya — translated as “immortal” — for a name, an utterly original if “grandiose” choice instead of something more “boring.”)

Tagore’s influence would extend further. At age 7, Sen became a student at the progressive school the poet had founded in Santiniketan. There, classes were held outside, Indian texts and arts were prioritized as much as their Western counterparts, and freedom of thought was emphasized. Long after he left the school, Santiniketan’s broad-minded approach to inquiry and Tagore’s “willingness to accept that many questions may be unresolved even after our best efforts, and our answers may remain incomplete,” remained profoundly persuasive to Sen. “The domain of unfinished accounts would change over time, but not go away,” he writes, “and in this Rabindranath saw not a defeat, but a beautiful, if humble, recognition of our limited understanding of a vast world.”

This book is also a testament to just how far, in one life, one man might go into that vast world. This volume covers only the early years of Sen’s career, tapering off after his arrival in Delhi in 1963 — well before his most groundbreaking work — but even in those years, he managed to cross paths with figures such as novelist E.M. Forster, future Greek prime minister Andreas Papandreou, and cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan and her husband, economist Donald Harris, Vice President Harris’s parents.

Through it all, the imprint of his early days remained evident. After he was awarded the Nobel Prize, the Nobel Foundation asked Sen to provide two objects to be displayed in the Nobel Museum in Stockholm. Sen chose a copy of “Aryabhatiya,” a classical Sanskrit work on mathematics, and his first bicycle, an Atlas he regularly rode from 1945 to 1998 — first as a schoolboy and later as a researcher pedaling village to village to gather data on the impact of the Bengal famine on gender inequality. His message, once again, was clear: For all his studies and travels, the source of the rigor of his thinking and his methodology could be traced back to a few sturdy gifts from his upbringing.

It’s lofty stuff, but there is a lightness with which all of this is recounted. Sen’s writing style in “Home in the World” is even-keeled and gently humorous. He writes poetically of the psychological footprint that the region’s waterways have left on Bengali culture (“Bengal’s enthralment with the creative beauty of its normally quiet rivers is matched only by its fascination with the destructive splendour of the rivers in rage”), pokes fun at his ineptitude as a musician (“I remain very glad that it is possible to enjoy music without having to produce it oneself”) and confesses that his first impression of economics was that it was nothing more than “useless fun.”

“Good language is a product of discerning love,” he observes in a passage praising the sophistication of one of his mother’s favorite Bengali poets — and there is no shortage of good language in this book. But there is also a noticeable reticence when it comes to love that isn’t primarily academic or professional. This book has very little to say about Nabaneeta Dev Sen, the Bengali poet he married in 1960 and divorced in 1973, or Eva Colorni, to whom he was married from 1978 until her death in 1985, or Emma Rothschild, his wife since 1991. “I sometimes think that so much has been written in literature about love and so little about friendship that there is a real need to redress the difference,” Sen says by way of partial explanation. Still, many of the colleagues, teachers, students and friends who appear on these pages are treated with similar reserve: They’re “talented,” “brilliant,” “original.” Sen’s own children are simply “wonderful.”

That’s not to say he ignores the emotional ups and downs of his lived experience altogether. Sen’s fight with oral cancer, which he first diagnosed himself in 1952 using a few volumes from the Calcutta Medical College library, is told in moving detail. He doesn’t shy away from describing his early encounters with racism, either — the English landlady who asked Sen if his color would come off in the bath, for example.

But through it all, Sen’s focus is less on hardship than on generative possibility, particularly as it might be applied to difficult problems. Unlike Kshiti Mohan Sen, his religiously observant Hindu grandfather, Sen is a “godless social scientist,” but his grandfather’s scholarly readings of Sanskrit texts made a lasting impression on him. Despite the rise of intolerant, austere and divisive interpretations, “We must not ignore the receptive and pluralist features in the history of Indian religions,” he concludes. Applying his idea to his own experience, the economist puts it another way: “As we move around we cannot escape clues to broader and more integrative stories. Our ability to learn from each other must not be underestimated.”

Mythili G. Rao is an audio journalist and book critic in London.

Home in the World

A Memoir

By Amartya Sen

Liveright. 480 pp. $30

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