Oral history interview with Amartya Sen

Sen, Amartya

Manjapra, Kris


  • Interviewed in Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America by Kris Manjapra
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This is a Bengali intellectual history, oral history interview recorded on February 1st 2010, with Professor Amartya Sen in Cambridge Massachusetts tower building, Professor Sen thank you so much for our time
Thank you
Thank you, it's an honor to have this time with you. I wanted to begin this interview the way that we've begun all the interviews so far which is to ask for your place of birth and your date of birth and then we will go from there, just say...
My place of birth is Santiniketan and the date of birth is 3rd of November 1933. Long time ago [laughs].
And what kind of a family did you grow up in uh culturally?...
well, it was a very academically oriented family in many ways, not that most people were academic but the academic influence was very strong. My father was a Professor of Chemistry who taught in Dhaka University in Bangladesh. My family is from Dhaka.
Where in Dhaka is your family from? Do you know the street?
Well the original villages which every Bengali would describe where is your home? The answer to that is Manikganj but Manikganj I went only a few times in my life on holidays because the family had moved to Dhaka City long time ago. We had a very lovely house in the old Dhaka in a place called Wari."W-A-R-I" and which is in a sense where I grew up because even though I was born in Santiniketan where my maternal grandfather was teaching and my mother came, I think, about a couple of months before I was born, from Dhaka to Santiniketan and then a couple of months after I was born I went back to Dhaka and grew up there for the first 3 years there.
So it was an academic family in the sense that my father was teaching Chemistry and my maternal grandfather was teaching Sanskrit. My paternal grandfather died shortly after I was born but he was a judge but he had also given lectures in the law.
What was his name?
Sharada Prasad Sen and he was a... he was a kind of... considered to be quite a well respected judge. Most of the family were very discontented with the British rule but my paternal grandfather, I think, was not and in the way that the British would throw little crumbs of honor to people.
I think he was called -- he actually got one of the larger honors available to native Indians and everybody: Diwan Bahadur which was meant to be one step higher than Rai Bahadur, really the kind of sops that were being distributed to keep the natives quiet but he -- I don't think he had a great rebellious spirit. My uncles did both my maternal side and the paternal side
Were they important? Would you say that your political thinking as you were growing up in your youth derived from contact with them? Or was it your own reading?
Well I think the uncles were quite -- uncles and aunts were quite important because they were all rather radical. The varied between Socialist Party, Congress Party and the Communist Party. So they were all 3 well represented within the cousinhood of the family and I was as a young boy, I heard a lot of the arguments between them, which were absolutely fascinating and so I had introduction to political debating very young.
Was there a particular uncle or aunt or a group of them that we could give the names for who really most influenced you whether they were the Congress or the Communist or the...
Well I would separate out probably 4 of them in particular. There was the immediate uncle of mine in the sense of the brother of my mother and his name was, he was known as Kankar Sen , K-A-N-K-A-R though he had a proper name which is quite complicated Kshmandra, K-S-H-M-A-N-D-R-A Mohan M-O-H-A-N Sen S-E-N. Now he was Congress and but belonged to the part of the Congress party which was known at that time as the Congress Socialist Party, it's almost a separate party
It had recently been founded I suppose in these years.
Yes, under Jayaprakash Narayan, a big figure who I met through my uncle also but he had flirted with the left earlier but didn't stay there. I think he was put off by the communist lack of interest in democracy. Then among the Communist Party representative Satyen Sen S-A-T-Y-E-N S-E-N. Like everyone in Bengal, he was known by some nickname and my uncle was called Kankar, he was called Lankar L-A-N-K-A-R and that was his name so Lankar Mama as we called him because we don't distinguish between the cousin of mother and the brother of mother. So he was quite close to the family. He was in the Communist Party, stayed on, very dedicated. In fact after the Partition, he was very critical of people who moved from East Pakistan to India because he thought it was our duty stay on there and construct a secular egalitarian society. So he stayed on.
And he was there, he was quite an influence on the Left movement in Bangladesh, in fact, when it became Bangladesh. I mean earlier he was writing strong prose but constantly being threatened with imprisonment, but when the 1971 operations came in the with the what they call the liberation of Bangladesh it was thought that just the day the 2 days before there was the holocaust really in Dhaka on the 25th of March when huge number of intellectuals were killed. There was targeted killing and some of my close friends nearly got killed. I mean one or two of them did get killed, but among my very close friends Rehman Sobhan, Anisur Rahman, Nurul Islam they were all very much threatened by what was going on and they would have been killed if they didn't leave but they all left but they left after the event.
On the other hand, my communist uncle in the sense of cousin of my mother; he was somehow the... I mean, as it often happens in organized parties ... have more contact with the police so 3 days before the 25th of March that is 22nd of March, the party moved him out of East Pakistan and escorted him into India on the ground that as a Hindu communist intellectual he would absolutely among the first to be shot. But he escaped and he was very reluctant. He was given 3 hours to pack and leave but then you know his influence stayed on in Bangladesh. There's actually even in London I go regularly to Satyen Sen Academy of Music and Culture where there is Bengali music and Bengali dancing performed by young Muslim women quite standard this is a part of Tower Hamlets that don't get written that they also exist and I have gone to meetings with not a single person wearing hijab not to mention niqab but I am completely liberated but come from the other left wing part of the Bangladeshi heritage which of course was being buried by the British by calling everybody just by religion namely "British Muslim," doesn't matter whether they are British Bengali or not.
British Muslim became the only identity under Tony Blair's priority of religion policy. But anyway so that was another part and then there were 2 paternal cousins of my father who were also quite left not unsympathetic to the Communist Party but on the whole also quite skeptical of both the bureaucracy and lack of democracy among the communists, and they oddly enough went into business and produced a very flourishing business called East India Pharmaceutical Company and so while they went on having left wing views they were extremely successful businessmen as well.
And they started that in what years?
They started.. you see they had an originally a firm in Dhaka called Dhaka Ayurvedic Pharmacy which produced all ayurvedic medicine but when they came... they moved... they didn't move either immediately after Partition. They moved only about 2 or 3 years after Partition because they wanted to stay on Dhaka. They couldn't. The Dhaka Ayurvedic Pharmacy died. There was a kind of division within the family also but this particular time, they started this new modern pharmaceutical company. It's not as big as Dr. Reddy's or any of those, Cipla not like that, but it's quite big and I had a fifth one who was also a cousin of my mother who actually went into Cipla, in fact, he was a Chemist and he had quite a lot of good offers to Swiss pharmaceutical companies, but he didn't want them.
He was patriotic and wanted to start in Bombay in and again joined Hamid in the enterprise of making success of Indian business enterprises. He wasn't communist because he didn't - he believed in private enterprise very strongly. So there was this variety of views that came my way. I found them absolutely fascinating from the age of 9 or 10, I was chatting politics.
When, so you spent part of your childhood in Dhaka, when did you - did you move back to Santiniketan?
No, what happened at the age of 3, I went off to Burma
To Burma?
Yeah, because my father who was a Professor of Chemistry got leave for 3 years to go to the Agricultural College in Mandalay and he was a Professor there, Visiting Professor, but he was also for a while became Principal of it too, but we lived in Mandalay. We had a lovely house in Mandalay on the Maymyo side of the town had quite a lovely view of the Maymyo hills and the light coming on in the evening there. So all my earliest memories are that of Mandalay, Burma and I really enjoyed that time and in a sense had a kind of internationalization very early and it seemed likable people everywhere.
And then from there you moved...
And then at the age of 6 I went back to Dhaka
To Dhaka
And then I was there for about a year and a half studying there in a school in Dhaka called Saint Gregory School which is a kind of a Christian foundation, an American Christian foundation which had quite a successful school there but then the war came and the Japanese were in Burma, the India National Army under Subhas Chandra Bose was leading the fight onto Imphal leading into India and the Japanese it was believed might be bombing Calcutta and Dhaka.
In the event, actually they did bomb Calcutta but did do what they had promised and people often forget that; their propaganda was that they were not going to bomb civilian population, they would bomb only military installations and the 5 bombing that took place in December of '42 which is I remember as a child because I happened to be in Kolkata, Calcutta at that time
You were there in Kolkata, there
Yeah, and it was in the Khidirpur Docks, they were not in any of the population area. So at least that much the Japanese did keep really under the influence of their deal with Subhas Chandra Bose and INA. Whatever it was, the Japanese were extended far beyond what they could sustain. So that was it, that was the turning point, December '42 but in a way the turning point the Japanese overreach in the war. So they started withdrawing but my father had meanwhile decided that Dhaka would be unsafe so I was dispatched to Santiniketan which is 170 kilometers from Kolkata and as he rightly thought that no Japanese bomber in his right mind will like to bomb Santiniketan so there I was but then the Japanese ...what?
You were 10 then , going on to 10
when you first came to .. and the second time
Just before 10, 9, yeah April '42 and I came there and I will become 10 in November '43so I was 10 -- I was just 9 at that time but I absolutely loved, adored the School, Santiniketan School so when my father said now what you want to do now because now that we -- the Japanese seem withdrawn and there is no danger for me to come back and live with him, I loved living with my grandparents and I loved Santiniketan and like the School, I like the fact that the schools were held outside building.
I like going around without wearing shoes which I loved absolutely and I said I am not going if I could stay on with my grandparents which is what I did. So then I grew up from then onwards '42 till '51 I stayed on in Santiniketan and studied there.
And in Santiniketan the, what all -- how did the influence of Tagore who had just passed away or of let's say village organization of political aspect of things, how did these and your own intellectual propensities serving some of these different influences how did they come to affect you in the course of these 10 years that you spent there?
Well you know one didn't have to go to Santiniketan to imbibe Tagore [Rabindranath Tagore] because he was there everywhere in Bengal that's what the people read. If anything, my love affair with Tagore was bit stronger earlier, and a bit stronger later than when in the days in Santiniketan because the fussing with Tagore was so great then that the sense of rebellion that one had constantly just Rabindranath [Rabindranath Tagore] his music, his poetry, his prose... I found it a bit stifling. I liked the ideas very much and as it happened now that I look back at the age of 76, there's no question that Rabindranath was one of the biggest influence in my life but there was something rather claustrophobic in being captured in a little village where Tagore was so much of a Guru...
I never called he was often called as Gurudeb in Guru you know that's an English word and Gurudeb respectfully in describing Guru. I never called Rabindranath Gurudeb. I found the whole idea of Guru unacceptable and I thought that he should too but he was ... he hadn't actually. Rothenstein [Sir William Rothenstein] the artist who did some lovely pictures of Tagore on stage in one of his memoirs says that "quite striking that ...one of the most striking things in the world is the is vanity of the saint" and I think he was referring to Rabindranath. There was an element of that, I think, passional. At least he was not averse to it and yet it would be completely wrong to concentrate on that.
It's just that seemed a... that rebellious thought was strong with me when I was absolutely seen to be beleaguered in a situation where I couldn't move out of Tagore to the world as it were... which is very much against his own thinking, in fact he was very keen on reading everything and making, like this lovely sentence I like quoting, "anything that we enjoy instantly becomes ours no matter where it had its origin. So Shakespeare is [unclear], Goethe is [unclear], Mozart is [unclear]," and I think that I thought was terrific but while that was the theory the practice was too Tagore oriented at that time but anyway his ...one good thing was that I read pretty much everything he had written
Were you also getting involved in the literary wave of Jibanananda, well even Buddhadeb Basu [Buddhadeb Bose]?
Yeah I knew Buddhadeb well and liked his writing very much. I liked him personally.
You knew him personally?
very well, yeah very well for a variety of reasons. First of all because his...In many different ways ...I first of all my when I was in College in Presidency College Buddhadeb's daughter Meenakshi, Meenakhi we say in Bengali, Meenakshi as you would say in writing in English or in Sanskrit. She was a classmate of mine so I knew her and through her knew the parents but then later when I was for a short while teaching in Jadavpur University he was also teaching in Jadavpur University; Budhadeb Basu. So I knew him, and my former wife Nabaneeta [Nabaneeta Dev Sen], she was a student of Buddhadeb and very close friend so I knew them all so in a family way. So ...and I have actually always liked Buddhadeb's writing a lot, I thought he was very brilliant both in... particularly I am thinking of his essays and novels and fiction rather than poetry, but I enjoy that very much.
Jibanananda I knew certain amount and I respected him, I didn't personally come to know him so much and didn't have any particular relationship with him. I had a lot of interest in many other poets and writers... Bishnu De for example and I knew him a certain amount too and enjoyed conversation with him. It was a part of my internal outlook in life that made me interested in literature and I was very fortunate in knowing some of the people involved in that. But my own work of course wasn't in that direction so it was mainly a extra interest, my personal interest rather than my work interest.
When you came to Presidency College from what I have learned so far it seems there was an interesting let's say group of young students who all were interested in either new methodologies or new vistas for the study of the social sciences or the humanities: Alok Ranjan Dasgupta, Sukanta Sukhamoy Chakravarty, yourself, others who would in some ways all studied at he same time in Presidency College and all made a mark
Well Alok I knew from Santiniketan
From Santiniketan yeah,
In fact Alok and I had started a magazine called Sphulinga, meaning Spark. That was when we were must have been 12 or something. It ran for about 3 or 4 months. It's a magazine of poetry and prose. I think there were 3 of us Alok Ranjan Dasgupta, Madhusudan Kundu and myself. We started of 3 and I remember we had then gathered together 8 rupees which is not a lot of money at all today and went to see the head of the printing press at Santiniketan whether we could get it done and with 8 rupees and he said no you couldn't get it done but we will help you to produce it and he did and they came out. I think a number of copies of that still exist. Alok Ranjan was already into literary thought as well as writing poetry himself then of course he spent so much of his time abroad I lost touch with him and in the period when I was in the Presidency College didn't see him much I knew him only when I was in Santiniketan.
Sukhamoy I didn't know before him very well, I knew just about 6 months before I went to almost a year before I went to in the Presidency College he was a brilliant young student from Calcutta who visited Santiniketan a number of times and I met him. And I was absolutely bowled over by his intellect and his originality and by his humanity and we became very close friends of course and he was one of the influences in making me rethink whether I want to continue doing Physics which is what I had started in Santiniketan in what used to be called Intermediate Science now they have absorbed into the school but in those days that was meant to be in early college at the age of you know
I was doing that at the age of 14 not yet 15 when I was doing this alleged college thing this Intermediate Science but that was then involved in Maths and Physics, there was Maths interest continued because in Economics I was still remained interested in Maths though the type of Math had changed a bit and in the case of the move from Physics to Economics I think conversation with Sukhamoy would be a very big factor in that and my interest in politics was another very big factor so taking everything into account and also the one economist I knew well namely AK Dasgupta ... Amiya Dasgupta who was a close family friend of my parents and I chatted with him and he was also encouraging me to do Economics which is what I did.
So when you came to Presidency College you came...
As an economist
As an economist
In economics. Having done none, but I thought the subject was interesting and I liked it.
And did you find mentors at Presidency more from the teachers or really was it the conversations that you were having with your fellow students at the coffee house?
Well all of them, I think fellow students were fantastic. Sukhamoy himself was, Partha Gupta who was a historian was a very close friend. Half of them dead, all of them are dead, I'm afraid honestly. Mrinal Datta Chaudhuri was a close friend of mine in Santiniketan who was doing Statistics at Presidency College. We moved together he was doing Stats and I was doing Economics. He continued to be a close friend at Presidency College. Then there was Barun De, historian who was a close friend.
He and Mrinal happily are alive still for me; so it allowed me to reminisce which I did in Santiniketan last December when I saw Barun who was visiting. Mrinal, is now in Pune so now I only talk to him on the telephone. [unclear] was a very close friend and Shiv Krishna Kar who was a close friend, both in Santiniketan and Amit Mitra all of them moved down to Engineering so they did not come to Presidency College by the time I came to Calcutta. I had a new circle of friends then no longer in the Santiniketan circles. Mrinal was the one point person in common but then I found the influence of my fellow students perhaps the most important of them all. But we had some remarkably good teachers in Economics particularly Bhabhatosh Datta who was ... there was another Bhabhatosh Datta who was a literary figure, this is an economist and he was probably the most spectacularly lucid expositor in economics I have ever run into in my life.
I mean his lectures were absolute model of clarity even when the ideas were very complex. On the other hand he was not a daring person. He was more keen on exposition rather than breaking fresh grounds and there I must say Tapas Majumdar who was a very young teacher then was a model of someone who was encouraging you to question, rethink not just exposition but also questioning and critique was very strong. Dhiresh Bhattacharya who taught Indian Economics was very good model of thinking about empirical problems in an analytical way. So I was very lucky with my teachers there and then there was also totally the powerful presence of Sushobhan Sarkar, historian.
Did you go to the circle there? Sushobhan Sarkar
I went not very regularly but I often went and I knew his daughter Shipra and his son Sumit reasonably well and I went to Sushobhan Sarkar number of times and later came to know him again when he too like Buddhadeb Basu [Buddhadeb Bose] was in Jadavpur, he was Professor of History and Buddhadeb was Professor of Comparative Literature so I came to know Sushobhan well at that time.
Did you live in, where did you live when you were attending Presidency?
I stayed in the YMCA hostel
YMCA, do you remember the address of that?
Yes, in Machuabazar, yeah
Machuabazar, opposite the -- I mean this is very bustling part of the town and not a particularly neat part of the town see you could spend 10 to 15 minutes walk I would say... 10 minutes if you are really racing which I was doing most of the times 15 minutes if you are walking leisurely
Why did you decide not to stay in Hindu Hostel, why did it come to be that you were not in Hindu Eden Hostel [Eden Hindu Hostel]?
Well first of all I didn't like the name. Secondly I wanted a little independence of my own. I didn't like the idea of being completely surrounded by people I saw all the time in College to be also my neighbors and staying. And the Hindu Hostel was a Hindu hostel you know and I think the idea itself was just not acceptable to me.[laughs] So instead I went to a Christian hostel, namely YMCA, but that by the way saved my life because you see I had cancer when I was young when I was 18, I think, and I had cancer in my mouth and my doctors went on this was an oral cancer on the palate, let's say my doctor connects with the GP man thought there was no didn't think much of that won't be able to do anything but this my next door neighbor who was a third-year medical student who I asked him to look at that and he said "this could be squamous cell carcinoma of a certain kind that you have."
So I said "what do you know about these?" and he said "I don't know much about this I am only a third-year student." So I said "can you get me some books?" He did and I diagnosed myself of having squamous cell carcinoma and then I went to see some doctor members of the family that I knew and they were not interested in it either. So then I persuaded one of them to take me to Chittaranjan Cancer Hospital to have a biopsy done. He went on saying that you won't find anything but we did find something and it turned out to be cancer, squamous cell carcinoma, exactly the third year medical student next door had then told me. So that in a sense did save my life. Because then I should never had a medical student next to me at Hindu Hostel.
So coming back to the intellectual life your some touching up on your theme of intellectual formation at Presidency, it was possibly also a kind of bridge to the world the kind of conversations that were going on in economics and philosophy internationally that influenced you who were the major people that you were reading people that, I have heard of Tinbergen [Jan Tinbergen] and Arrow [Kenneth Arrow] and you know were these some of the major -- Russell [Bertrand Russell] or who else was kind of?
Well I was much more interested in reading widely on Philosophy than in Economics but then one of the problems was my interest in Philosophy developed from my very early days when I did Sanskrit which was in my School was one of my two favorite subjects in Santiniketan were Maths and Sanskrit and since my grandfather was a Sanskritist I have excellent training in Sanskrit I mean and not entirely deserted me even now happily and I uh... so I was somewhat lacking in company as far as Sanskrit philosophical writings are concerned in Presidency College. They did not seem to be very interested in it. The interest was much more in Sanskrit religious literature and it did seem to subsume philosophy out of it...
didn't seem to recognize that the thoughts and epistemology and ethics may have emerged in documents like all documents were given some kind of religious name were not religious thoughts they were thoughts in epistemology and ethics that distinction worried me and it was for me an absolute breath of fresh air to run into Bimal Matilal much later in Oxford where because he had the same thoughts. I didn't know him then he was a few years junior to me but again he knew my views on it. Then he came and studied with Daniel Ingalls at Harvard, and then he was in England and then he became Professor at Oxford, the Spalding Professor in Oxford [Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics] which Radhakrishnan had held before and he pursued this line, his book Perception which if you haven't read it Kris I would suggest you look at it.
It's a brilliant book. So for me it was an enormous help when I ran into him again but that wasn't true and I mean I didn't find that part of my interest was not well served in Presidency College. My interest in Western Philosophy was not well served in the teaching apparatus because it didn't philosophy thought pretty indifferently I would say in India is too by and large with exception but at that time it was not like in economics it was I think the economics teaching in Presidency College wasn't truly excellent and in many ways more advanced than the corresponding one going on in Cambridge not so productive, not so creative one on the other hand as exposition goes the latest thing was enormously well appreciated but Philosophy was not the case mainly mostly my reading... Sukhamoy was a person I talked with in Philosophy a great deal because he was very well read and with Partha to some extent, Partha Gupta was to some extent, so there was that.
As far as Economics is concerned, yes, Arrow I encountered in Presidency College that's an interest that stayed through my life. I read the pathbreaking book Social Choice and Individual Values published in '51 in very early '52. It was Sukhamoy who drew my attention to the book and I was taken over by it completely. On the other hand like everybody else then there was this general thought that as an Indian economist you have to concentrate on poverty; not for you the luxury of the analytical universe of Social Choice Theory. That's a completely wrong idea because ultimately Social Choice Theory has a great deal of relevance for development too, but I didn't see it and even though I had encouragement from my friends not so much my teachers, but to some extent my teachers too.
I think Tapas Majumdar was very interested in Social Choice Theory, but when I went to Cambridge -- you know I did a basically 2 year BA Degree and then I went to Cambridge and then I went to do another BA again in 2 years. But when I was studying that my interest in Social Choice was... had to take a back seat because they were not concerned about that kind of issue at all. It was only later that I could return to that. I discussed some of these in my bio in my Nobel bio, have you ever seen...
I have seen that yeah, but the to ask a crude question as we conclude the if one divides the let's say the philosophical and the economic thought or let's say thought on social questions in the 1950's one might say there was certainly kind of American world or maybe an Anglo-Saxon world if one likes, there was a Russian or Soviet world, there was a German world that had maybe come to be seen with some suspicion I mean the, the National Economic School, the Historical School of Economics that had come to maybe
List [Friedrich List] and so on
List and his descendants, were you situating yourself between...
No I wasn't. I found nothing of great interest in the German School. I thought that the thoughts were elementary and fragile. I have to say that my... I mean, it's not just American, I mean, John Hicks was a big presence in any kind of economic thinking. I would say if we look at the 20th century the 3 giant figure of 20th century economics are Paul Samuelson, Ken Arrow and John Hicks. So I was very interested in Hicks... loved the systematic pursuit in his Value and Capital.
I loved Samuelson's Foundations [Foundations of Economic Analysis], which is the mathematical book, mathematical economic book which I oddly enough read in Calcutta but by the time I came to Cambridge which is meant to be more advanced I was told not to go into Foundations but look into Samuelson's Introduction [Economics: An Introductory Analysis] instead which I found a bit of a damper really because I mean it's a lovely textbook but I felt that I was then beyond that stage I think but I found Samuelson's writing and what was happening in the American economic thinking to be very exciting so I was quite read in Anglo-American thinking on economics as well as in philosophy
Pragmatism... did you engage directly with American Pragmatism in these early years
Well I like John Dewey a lot.
Were you reading him here at this point in time?
I read him only in Kolkata
In Kolkata really? OK
yeah, and then my interest in John Dewey was revived again when I came to Harvard when Hilary Putnam reintroduced me to some of the concern and also I was involved with the Columbia Philosophy Department and with people like Isaac Levi took a lot of interest in parts of John Dewey's thinking, which I hadn't recognized how relevant they were to my own thinking at that point at that to me, but John Dewey was present in Calcutta but not in Cambridge. Cambridge it was mainly doing Russell [Bertrand Russell], one very useful thing I did in Cambridge was that I did a... I did study mathematical logic quite carefully which ultimately would be the main tool I use in Social Choice Theory.
Who was the major - you touched on...
There was no big I mean mainly reading books. I was mainly reading Quine [Willard Van Orman Quine] and Patrick Suppes and there was a person who taught courses there called Smiley [Timothy Smiley] he gave you know I think he was not I mean he was more an expositor than a path-breaker but he gave excellent lectures which I really absolutely enjoyed and in fact I took his course and there were only some sense on and we didn't quite proceed all the way through to Kurt Godel well because that was not covered in the class but then I worked on it and I got absolutely fascinated by Godel's theorem [incompleteness theorem].
But my interests were quite clear I mean this is not Anglo-American but in the sense that Godel is not Anglo-American and nor was the other philosophical thoughts that influenced me like Pascal [Blaise Pascal] and [unclear] and so on. On the other hand they were not what is now come to me called continental philosophy in the form of Heidegger [Martin Heidegger]for example. I couldn't get involved with Heidegger even though I disagreed with his logical positivism right from the beginning I found him very great fun to read. I disagreed a lot with Russell too but I found A History of Western Philosophy a lovely way of getting started then go on from there to read particular thing.
Did you have any engagement with Wittgenstein [Ludwig Wittgenstein]?
Wittgenstein had just died before I went there. I don't have any direct engagement with Wittgenstein but he was very present in Trinity, in the cloisters Trinity particularly in Sraffa [Piero Sraffa] and I was very involved with Wittgenstein's ideas through Sraffa who was my direct teacher, my director of studies. He was the first economist in Trinity I met the day after I arrived, 2 days after I arrived in Cambridge in '53 and I remember telling him in the first meeting saying that I would like to talk with you about Wittgenstein and he said "no I want to talk about what you are going to study now, you tell me what courses you want to take."
And I said "ok but someday." He said "yeah someday but today we are going to take" -- he got the class list out - "so which lecture you are proposing to go to?" I said Ok,
Practical approach
Practical approach, but I did have a lot of Wittgenstein through him and through C.D. Broad who was also in Trinity College in Cambridge so that was wonderful for me.
Can I ask you one last question?
Yes, sure
The one thing that you have written very clearly about is for me a very important thought is the idea of one individual can have multiple identities or at least multiple affective bonds that go in different directions and I wonder reading your writings it's clear that you at least for my perspective are always were struggling with problems and open to moving in new directions moving from Marxism or Marxist
I was never a Marxist.
Never Ok, this is the question, how did you negotiate let's say the Bengali Marxist context, Calcutta-based Marxist context with the other vistas that you also were involved in? I know
well, Marxist to me well then one would have to be completely blind not to see the dazzling originality of Marx's ideas and his continuing relevance in our thought. But the gap between that and being a Marxist is gigantic.
Being a Marxist is like being religious and religion never had an appeal to me. Even when I was very interested in religious texts in Sanskrit I was looking for the ethical and epistemic, epistemological content of it so I think I never had such a not such a from a strong Marxist tradition, in my life in Calcutta. My life would have been poorer because it's through them that I came to know it but on the other hand did I become a Marxist? No. I think many of these things I found quite unacceptable but particularly the thing that bothered me then bothered me in my intermediate years and bothered me even today looking back is a complete lack of interest of Marx in political organization. He was a great political theorist but the end of the idea is to think about the dictatorship of the proletariat.
You can't think of a balmier idea than that, what does it mean? Who are the proletariat? How are they represented? How are their influence felt? These things haven't survived but what have survived are Marx's great vision about the importance of class division. No one made us understand what the nature of class was -- is in the way that Marx did. No one made us understand how science and scientific understanding could be combined with political thinking in a way that Marx did. No one could emphasize the issue of identity that you were just now raising also in this way that we have the fact that we have a variety of identities is quite an important part of Marxian thinking Take a document like The German Ideology. I mean there are variety of influences and variety of complexities that you have a national identity you have a religious identity you have a philosophical identity you have a political activism and so on...
And contribution
and he was concerned with that issue and if you take a complicated document of Marx not Communist Manifesto which is the most simplistic thought imaginable and that is what it says. It is a manifesto, not a book. Its not an academic contribution. If you looks at something like The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, you don't have a two class society you have 50 or 60 classes and the identities vary depending on the context of the economic and political problems that we are discussing.
All these are part of that heritage of that broad Marxist, Marx-related thinking but that doesn't require you to accept that you could get a socialist economy going without thinking about the political organization. What would be the role of political parties? How would this dictatorship of the proletariat -- absolutely not going to get to anywhere whatsoever. So I never became a Marxist and remained skeptical of their lack of interest in democracy as things were happening already when I was in Presidency College, Calcutta there were those who were anti-Marxist which I was never was of course because I was so influenced by Marx, I was sympathetic.
Well they were discussing the purges which had already occurred and one had to be blind not to recognize that there is a real problem and some of my very left wing friends made me -- which I was too, I was left wing too but in a different way -- made me read I think John Gunther it is Inside Russia[Inside Russia Today] somewhere where he sawBukharin [Nikolai Bukharin] and others being brought to trial and he told the American reading public that he didn't think that they were tortured because they looked so healthy. I thought that the naivety of that was just unbelievable.
I thought that since I knew Bukharin's ideas and thought he was a very interesting thinker in a sense my differences at Presidency College and later in fact but from that position to his being a saboteur trying to bring the Soviet Union down seemed an unbelievable story and how the left, the communist left accepted it I found it very difficult, but to make that point doesn't make you unsympathetic to the cause of the communists if you forget their political delusion but look at their egalitarian economic commitment. I found a lot that was hugely important in that, and there was also of course the presence of Subhas Chandra Bose who was influence in the thinking of everyone in Bengal in many ways, and he posed a problem because in some ways his -- he was radical. He was to the left in Congress in fact there is no question.
He didn't have the commitment that Gandhiji had on non violence which I thought was a mistake. On the other hand I could see why he should then and then of course when he ended up in Germany meaning emerging what was Germany was like and then Japan and that raise deep questions about him. On the other hand we know that he ended up -- because basically he didn't have any other option, he was about to be arrested -- so Subhas Chandra Bose remained an important issue a very important person, and some of the points he made about the importance of Marxism and Soviet Union as well as the distractions were quite relevant. People don't read them these days but they are very relevant thought at that period and so they were present in my mind but to the communists Subhas Chandra Bose was completely unacceptable.
Later the communist government renamed the airport under Subhas Chandra Bose: Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Airport but that wasn't the position then. So there was this comment but since I always enjoyed argument I liked chatting with Bose followers as well as communists and tried to see where there were differences are. So I think in a sense I had best of both worlds getting the richness of Marx's own ideas and Marxist literature some of the work were really quite extraordinary, Marxist creative work like Bertolt Brecht for example clearly Marxist and yet you know enormously original.
Never got so much out of Lukacs [Georg Lukacs] I have to say and the British Marxists there's a lot of them like Maurice Cornforth and so on, couldn't get much -- Sartre [Jean-Paul Sartre] yes quite a bit but only a part of the existential movement with which I had some sympathy but that's a better one because I could get the richness of that thought without being a Guru worshiper in the form of being a Marxist which for me was a liberation also to be able to say that I am not a Marxist, but I know something about Marx and I can tell you a thing or two about Marx. I was in a good position I was in. Many people thought it was an opportunistic position which I didn't think because intellectual freedom is so important to call it opportunism, it would be a huge mistake and since there wasn't a single political thinker that could be applied to Tagore too with whom I entirely agreed.
There was no call for me to become any "ist" of any kind. I could learn from Tagore, I could learn from Marx, I could learn from Brecht, I could learn from Sartre, I could learn from Russell, I could learn from Godel, I could learn from Quine at the same time and remain who I am and similarly in the list of economics I had that the freedom and that there wasn't a tension ...no tension in my mind and that reflected perfectly happy to be me rather than a follower of some dead guy, somewhere in the world.
Thank you so much sir for your time
Thank you
I appreciate that