Amartya Sen: The taste of true freedom

Amartya Sen still takes his coffee strong and dark. After lunch in the hall at Trinity College in Cambridge, where his portrait – informal, gown-less, but with a sort of halo around it – hangs beside that of the other former Masters, he prepares for our interview with a slug of espresso. At Trinity in the 1950s (the Bengali teenage prodigy had arrived aged 19 from Presidency College, Calcutta in 1953), he learned to appreciate the brew in its even fiercer ristretto form from the great Italian economist Piero Sraffa: the brilliant maverick friend of Gramsci and Wittgenstein, and a fellow of the college for more than four decades. It was Sraffa, he tells me, who later recommended Sen for a prize fellowship with the proposition that “he is the only one of this year’s candidates whom we might in the future regret not having chosen”.

For a revolutionary Italian thinker, that sounds like a very English understatement. Let’s correct it. Without hyperbole, no postwar intellectual of the first rank has done more good for more people – above all, many of the world’s poorest – than Amartya Sen. The first Asian to head an Oxbridge college, he served as Master of Trinity from 1998 – the year he won the Nobel Prize in economics – until 2004. He then returned to the professorship at Harvard he took up in 1986, but still spends stretches of the summer in Cambridge – where they have a house – with his wife, the historian Emma Rothschild.

Economist, philosopher, social theorist and peerless champion of the bond between development and democracy, Sen has across half a century of committed scholarship goaded governments, energised activists, and inspired research into the conditions that will liberate the poor not just to grow richer but, above all, to flourish in freedom and choose the life they value. He talks with affection about Morgan (EM) Forster, whom he met at King’s in sessions of the Apostles – the fabled “secret” society. Well, few passages from India have turned out so well (although Sen pays long visits every year and has never given up Indian citizenship). One example: the UN Human Development Index grew out of work by Sen and his Cambridge student friend, Mahbub ul Haq. Another: if the world has got rather better at famine prevention, then in large part we have Sen to thank.

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