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The Master of Trinity

The highlight of his study tour to the U.K., says VINOD CHOWDHURY, was his meeting with Professor Amartya Sen.


Amartya Kumar Sen with a tribal woman at a conference.

IT was in 1970-71, during my M.A. days at the Delhi School of Economics, that Prof. Amartya Kumar Sen lectured to me, with his proverbial clarity. It says something for his memory that when 13 student office-bearers of the Collegiate Commonwealth Group of Delhi University and I met him in his tastefully decorated drawing room of the Master's Lodge of Trinity College, Cambridge, over a high tea, from 4.30 p.m. to 5.30 p.m. on Thursday, October 25, 2001, he could still recall that I was an "exceptional" student of his. It certainly made my evening!

We had gone to the U.K. on a week-long study tour, which took us first to Marlborough House, the London Headquarters of the Commonwealth Secretariat, where the Secretary-General Mr. Dan McKinnon of New Zealand, told us that India was the fifth largest contributor for the 54-nation Commonwealth and five out of 50 diplomatic positions at Marlborough House were held by Indians, including that of Deputy Secretary-General, the incumbent being Mr. Kris Srinivasan. Mr. McKinnon wanted young people to be involved in the Commonwealth through the Commonwealth games to be held at Manchester from July 25 to August 4, 2002. This was an implicit invitation, which we accepted at once.

We were addressed also by Mr. Tony Humphries, Deputy Head of the Commonwealth Co-ordination Department of the British Foreign and Commonwealth office, and a very articulate Mr. Hardeep Puri, Deputy High Commissioner of India at the Court of St. James, who firmly ruled out any war between India and Pakistan, saying neither country could face up to the opprobrium of starting one. Mr. Vijay Rana of Hindi Radio of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) interviewed us, where only two students could speak proper Hindi — a disgraceful commentary on our current values, given that all the students were from Hindi-speaking North India.

On Wednesday, October 24, 2001, from 3 p.m. to 3.30 p.m., we saw a spectacular display of parliamentary skills by British Prime Minister Tony Blair in a jam-packed House of Commons as, during "Prime Minister's Question Time", he competently handled queries from the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Ian Duncan-Smith, on issues as diverse as the war in Afghanistan, rescheduling Pakistani debt, and British unemployment. The British Prime Minister is certainly a good speaker and it made for riveting entertainment to see him in action, making us feel that we were "four square for Tony Blair".

Professor Amartya Kumar Sen had an administrative crisis on his hands when he met us, but he was gracious as a host and unflappable as a conversationalist.

Asked to tell us what he was working on at present, he said Harvard University Press was set to print his Rationality, Freedom and Justice. He was doing work in both philosophy and economics, and not just "on the cusp" of philosophy and economics as suggested by Delhi University Vice-Chancellor, and economist Prof. Deepak Nayyar in a pre-departure meeting he had with our delegation.

Asked what were the requirements for admission to a top-notch institution like Trinity College, Cambridge, its Master listed three — an overall aggregate of 65 per cent, good but sealed recommendations from one's teachers ("sealed recommendations are not taken seriously"), and a good written paper ("not a recycled tutorial"). Certainly, participation in extra-curricular activities like debating <147,1,0>and sports also helps in providing evidence of better all-round development.

At this stage, Prof. Sen pointed out how ancient a college Trinity is. Its roots go back to the setting up of King's Hall in 1300 A.D. (the second oldest college in Cambridge) but Trinity itself was founded, "as the Mother of all colleges," said Prof. Sen tongue-in-cheek, by Henry VIII, in 1546 by 300 students. Among the prominent students of Trinity were Sir Isaac Newton, Byron, Dryden and Tennyson.

Prof. Sen stayed on the North campus of Delhi University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and he still displays an abiding interest. In the case of St. Stephen's College, where this writer invited him to talk to the College Economics Society on a winter afternoon three years ago on "Economics today" in a jam-packed hall, he remembered the legendary micro-economics teacher the late N. C. Ray, his successor Mr. K. ("Kalyan") Roy Choudhary, and the outspoken Dr. Sukhamoy Ganguli. But Prof. Sen was stumped when introduced to Anandana Kapar of Gargi College, asking: "Where is Gargi?" Told that it was on Khelgaon Marg, he did not quite comprehend the establishment of this new South Delhi college, though he took in his stride the introductions of one delegate each from Hans Raj College, Lady Shri Ram College, and Sri Venkateswara College (apart from nine delegates from St. Stephen's College).

Prof. Sen insisted on our having tea and cake (we could truly say we had our cakes and ate them too in his Queen Anne Drawing Room) and on showing us around.

He briefly reverted to his ongoing work on gender inequality in India (which was the theme of the Seventh Sunanda Bhandare Memorial Lecture in New Delhi on Diwali) and on the need to pass the constitution (93rd Amendment) Bill which aims at providing education to all — though he did concede that ensuring employment was much more problematic.

We left the living legend, the gentle colossus of the not-so-dismal science with much "value-added" — it was a true guru dakshina from a very gentle, parfait knight. Thank you, Prof. Amartya Sen, for making our study tour so star-studded and meaningful.

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