Friday, July 26, 2013

Sen's Arrow: A Calcutta Story

I'm in London now with the kids, enjoying a one-week holiday with family and friends before we return to New York. London is as lovely as ever, I'm immersed in a wonderful book that I should have read years ago, it's a world away from India, and I suppose I'm done with Calcutta; for a while, anyway. But as anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in Calcutta knows, one is never done with Calcutta.

That last sentence will mean different things to different people. If you're not from India, it might spark a mild curiosity about Calcutta. If, instead, you are from Calcutta, that would probably signal a prelude to an extended paean to the city, that mad, idiosyncratic seat of learning, theater and the arts (in particular the Art of Extended Conversation, or the Adda)  of which little remains, except perhaps the very last of these items. Finally, if you are from India but not from Calcutta, which is to say (with some pardonable inaccuracy), if you are not a Bong, that sentence is usually a danger sign: watch out, another ex-Calcuttan is yet again poised to nostalgically wax about the waning of his once-glorious city.

No, I'll pass on all of that for now --- though one day you might need to indulge me, for if ever there was a Lost City, Calcutta is one. 

What I am thinking about, on this mild, well-behaved London morning is the essential, passionate extremism of the city. Calcutta is vehement in its idolizations (Dada), political reactions (Didi), veneration (Kobiguru), protests (Bangla bandhs) and foodiness (see, e.g., previous posts). 

And Calcutta loves a great artist: her Rays (not me!), her Jibananandas, her Shambhus and her Sukantas. But apart from all of the above, and especially from the slightly econo-centric --- and admittedly slightly envious --- point of view of an economist, Calcutta reserves some of her greatest love for Amartya Sen. (Who is in the news as we speak, thanks to a nasty and politically ill-advised tweet.)

It isn't hard to see why. Sen epitomizes intellectual Calcutta: his roots in Santiniketan and Presidency College, his extraordinary breadth of learning, his deep insights into economics and philosophy, his tremendous gift of the gab (no gab, no Calcutta love, guys) and his ascendancy to the highest Bengali pinnacle of intellectual achievement. Nope, you have it wrong, my friends, it wasn't what you think it was; it was this.

Just after that I remember being introduced to someone at a gathering: "This is Debraj Ray, a professor of economics ... Amartya Sen has actually thanked him in his book!"

Which is not to say that there wasn't room for yet more adulation and cheer when Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Sometime in December of 1998, Sen was felicitated at a gargantuan ceremony held inside a giant indoor sports stadium. It featured the entire then-Government of West Bengal, headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), an audience of more than ten thousand inside the stadium, countless thousands outside, and millions more (like me) watching the proceedings live on television. A facade of Calcutta's Town Hall had been erected inside the Stadium, a nod and a connection to Tagore's reception in Calcutta, many decades ago, on a similar occasion.  It was something else, man.

And now came for me the climax of the evening. The Finance Minister of West Bengal, Ashim Das Gupta, rose to address the assembled masses. He was an economist, too (a student of Robert Solow unless I'm mistaken), and he was fired up. I wish I could recount here for you not just the speech in Bengali, but also the very sound of it, the booming echo of the microphone fading into the far distance...

FRIENDS!...(friends, ..ends..)

the cadences of the Indian politician's speech...

WE ARE ... ALL ... GATHERED ... HERE TODAY (day...ay...)

and the accompanying roar of the audience, a somewhat muted version of what it sounded like when Tendulkar walked out at number 4 to bat.

At any rate, the Finance Minister was all fired up as I said, and warmed thoroughly to his task. He was, he said, going to explain what Sen had won the Prize for, and to do that, he thundered:

I MUST ... TALK ABOUT ... THE THEOREM OF KENNETH J. ARROW! (row...o...)

(Some months later, when I told Arrow this story, he could not quite believe it. I don't think his research had ever received this much publicity in one go.)

PROFESSOR ARROW TAUGHT US ...THAT A ... JUST SOCIETY ... MAY BE IMPOSSIBLE! 

Upon which he proceeded to enumerate the axioms of the Arrow impossiblility theorem:

RULE ONE! NO MAN ... SHALL BE ... A DICTATOR! (tor..or...)

Remember, this was the Communist Party in power. The audience was on its feet. Tumultuous applause issued from within the stadium, and outside, where megaphones had been installed.

Or perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but that is what remembering means. It was great! And it went on in this extraordinary fashion, entirely fit for a scene out of Fellini's Amarcord, so much so that a bartender at Calcutta airport asked me the next day (on hearing I was an economist), "arrey dada, what exactly is this 'independence of irrelevant alternatives'...?" 

Oh, Calcutta.


I remember all this especially because this time around, I heard Sen deliver the Dipak Banerjee Memorial Lecture at Presidency University. I had given the same lecture --- in the memory of my great teacher --- a few years ago, to a polite, interested audience of professors and students; maybe 50 of them. This time Sen was speaking in the Derozio auditorium, and there were thousands in the audience. The press was there, and so were Innumerable students and professors. There were well-wishers, groupies, and the simply curious. There were people of all descriptions, and best of all there were the mashimas and pishimas of intellectual Calcutta, all there to listen to one of the great figures of our age. And he spoke, but what about? Well, mostly, the continuity of the lexicographic ordering --- a subject on which Professor Banerjee had written many years ago ---  but it did not prevent Sen from spinning his magic, and the audience sat and listened quietly, enraptured all over again.