Home in the World: A Memoir
(ALLEN LANE, 480 PP, £25)
Tablet bookshop price £22.50 • Tel 020 7799 4064
“Teeth-breaking”, said Amartya Sen’s uncle Shidhu when apprised of his new nephew’s given name. “I will call him Ranjit,” he added, before going on to suggest that the then 72-year-old Rabindranath Tagore (who, having counselled Sen’s mother that it was “boring to stick to well-used names”, had minted the Amartya moniker) had “turned completely barmy in old age”. Well, Sen is deep into old age himself now, but nobody could call him crackers. Approaching his eighty-eighth birthday, he carries on counselling in the same cool, calm, commonsensical tones that have made him that rarest of things – a world-famous economist and philosopher.
Not that it’s always been an easy journey. Amartya, one learns from Sen’s captivating memoir of his early life, Home In the World, means immortal in Sanskrit. As things turned out, it was touch and go whether Sen would get past his second decade. In 1951 he was diagnosed with oral cancer. Correction. Having been told by a doctor at Calcutta’s Carmichael Hospital that “there was nothing of any consequence” to be seen in his mouth, and that he might “do some gargling with Dettol”, the 18-year-old Sen diagnosed himself as having a squamous cell carcinoma. Eventually, a biopsy proved him right.