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Friday, April 1, 2011

The Amartya Sen you didn't know

Amartya Sen
“I Prefer To Fight Today’s Battles”

There are many argumentative Indians, but very few who can hold your attention in quite the way Amartya Sen can—if you catch him, as Outlook did last week, at his expansive best. He dazzles you by moving fluidly between welfare economics and history, philosophy and international politics, the laws of Manu and Article 377, the pronouncements of Gautama Buddha and the policies of Manmohan Singh. In provocative arguments linked closely to the theme of his magisterial new book, The Idea of Justice, he asks you to consider whether Krishna was right to make Arjuna fight a war that left “women weeping for their lost men and funeral pyres burning in unison” and if non-violent Gandhi should have been on “Krishna’s side”; and then, crossing centuries with his characteristic agility, whether the Indian Left should worry about American imperialism “rather than the consequence of living in the kind of world we live in”.

n a trait rare in Indian public intellectuals, Sen laughs often and makes you laugh with him, regaling you with anecdotes that are never malicious, but infused, rather, with gentle delight in the ironies of human existence. Given the grand sweep of his arguments, his attention to detail can be almost disconcerting. When we entered his suite at Delhi’s Taj Mahal Hotel to interview him, he greeted us with a laughing complaint: “So I am told I have been attacked in Outlook.” The ‘attack’, it turned out, was a stray reference in our gossip column on books, Bibliofile, to Sen’s “turgid” prose style. An admirer had e-mailed it to Sen, who had clearly stored it for future reference! (The same gossip item also mentioned a comment on Sen by his former wife, Nabaneeta Dev, published recently in a British newspaper; she was quoted as saying that when she was wooed by him in the mid-’50s “she felt like a dwarf who was being approached by the Moon”. When we quizzed him about it, Sen responded with aplomb: “She is a very generous person, she may have said it out of generosity rather than belief.”)

Outlook’s ‘attack’ on him notwithstanding, the Nobel laureate was remarkably generous with both his time and his reflections in an interview that stretched to over an hour; sharing, among other things, his opinions on such leading figures of the Indian political scene as Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. Not everyone will agree with his positions, for instance, on dynastic politics, on which he takes a carefully neutral stance; or on the Left, of which he is clearly a trenchant critic these days; but as always, his words leave you with much to think about.
source: outlookindia

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