And when I got interested in gender inequality, I studied the weights of boys and girls over their childhood. Very often, it would happen that the girls and boys were born the same weight, but by the time they were five, the boys had — in weight for age —overtaken the girls. It’s not so much that the girls were not fed well — there might have been some of that. But mainly, the hospital care and medical treatment available were rather less for girls than for boys. In order to find this out, I had to look at each family and also weigh the children to see how they were doing in terms of weight for age. These were in villages, which were often not near my town; I had to bicycle there.
GAZETTE: You were quite young during a time of tremendous political upheaval and change in India’s history. Violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims broke out before the British withdrew from India in 1947. What do you recall of that time?
SEN: The British didn’t do much to stop the Hindu-Muslim riots. In fact, some people took the view that the British were actually encouraging these riots because that made them indispensable in India. So there were a lot of critics who saw the divide-and-rule policy as being the imperial policy.
GAZETTE: The violence erupted quite suddenly?
SEN: It did. There was very little Hindu/Muslim conflict until about the age 7 or 8 in my life. And then suddenly, it appeared from nowhere, but dramatically, strongly. It took over one’s life almost fully. You couldn’t go outside your home for [fear] of being assaulted. On one occasion, I must have been about 10 or 11, I was playing in the garden when I saw somebody had come in through the outside gates of our compound, a very stricken man who had been clearly knifed in the back, and he was bleeding profusely. He came to the house asking for help and some water. I went running around, getting water, getting my dad to take him to the hospital, which he did, of course. Unfortunately, they couldn’t save him. He still did die. He was knifed by some Hindu thugs. He was a Muslim laborer, therefore, a prey for Hindu thugs, just as the Hindu laborers were prey for Muslim thugs.
I did talk with him a bit while he was getting weaker and weaker. He said with great sadness it was because the children had no food at home that he had to go out to get a little income — so he could buy some food for the children. For that, he lost his life.
While the assailants and victims came from different religions, Hindu or Muslim, the victims were all from the same class, or nearly all. They were poor laborers. Because they didn’t have any shelter at home, it was very easy to break into their homes, very easy to find them on the street, like this person who came to our house for help. Similarly, there would have been Hindu laborers being assaulted by Muslim murderers all over the city. It came suddenly around 1943, 1944, and after 10 years or so, it was gone. India was divided.
GAZETTE: Did that experience help shape your later career choices?
SEN: Yes, of course, it did. I was particularly involved in violence and premature death. In this case, it came from murder and criminal violence. In some other cases, it came from famines and people dying of starvation or from illnesses associated with famine. So I was concerned with this rather morbid aspect of human life. And then later on in my life, I did some work on that.
GAZETTE: Was economics an early interest?
SEN: I did not have much interest in economics when I was young. It developed much later. Academically, I was interested in math and Sanskrit and physics.
GAZETTE: What was the appeal for you?
SEN: I was reasonably good at math, and I liked doing it, so that was the main reason for doing math. I also liked abstract reasoning. So, along with my interest in reading math from India, where my knowledge of Sanskrit was a great help, I was interested in the early Greek mathematics also as to how, axiomatically, they pursued it.
I was interested in Sanskrit. I liked the language and still do, but I also enjoyed the fact that with my Sanskrit, I could both read great poetry, great novels, great plays in particular, but also great scientific and mathematical writings which were, in ancient India, in Sanskrit.
When the Nobel committee after you get your prize asks you to give two mementos or two objects connected with your work, I chose two. One was a bicycle, which was an obvious choice. And the other was a Sanskrit book of mathematics from the fifth century by Aryabhata. Both I had a lot of use for.
GAZETTE: You were 23 when you got your first position teaching college-level economics in 1956. How did you become interested in teaching?
SEN: I was very interested in teaching from the time when I was a student. I used to run a night school. We set up a night school for the tribal children. There were a lot of local tribal people who had no schools at all around their homes. So some friends and me started these night schools. There were three or four of us who were interested in that, and we used to go there from about the time of sunset — when we could work with lanterns. And on the weekends, on Sundays in particular, we did day classes. I taught math, mostly. And there were others who taught English and Bengali.
GAZETTE: You come from a highly educated and privileged family. How did you first become fascinated with the economic conditions and choices of the poor?
SEN: I was always interested in the economics of the poor people. I was interested in the lives of people who were very short of income and prosperity — how do they cope? Mainly, as I ran the night schools, the people I was mixing with were students from the tribal villages in the neighborhood. They were very poor. And we very often talked about how they earned their income or how their parents earned their income, and how do they manage, how do they plan their future, and all that. So I got interested in that. And I didn’t think I would have much money to invest, and I didn’t. But I did think I might have a great deal of interest in the politics of poor people. So that played a big part in my getting involved with that kind of economics.
GAZETTE: Your interest in politics started while you were a college student in Calcutta?
SEN: No, I think earlier. In Shantiniketan it started. The family was quite political because nearly everyone was interested in getting rid of the British Empire. My father’s cousins, my mother’s brother and cousins, they were all getting arrested under what the British called “preventive detention.” That doesn’t mean they’re charged with any crime, and the government didn’t have to establish that they have committed any crime. But it’s a preventive detention that unless you detain them, they could cause crime. That was the idea. So I think among my parents’ cousins, I had about seven or eight people who were periodically in and out of “preventive detention.”
GAZETTE: What were they worried about your relatives doing?
SEN: Basically, because they were writing essays saying why the British ought to go. I remember from the time when I was between seven and eight [that] I went with my grandfather and grandmother, who were trying to plead with this Indian, but British, civil service officer, asking, “Why have you kept my son in prison?” To which this officer said, “Because he writes anti-imperial essays and op-eds in newspapers and magazines, and we have to make him stop doing it.” So my grandmother said, “But he has never committed any violence.” And this officer said, “No, and indeed, that is not the reason why he is in prison. But as soon as he stops writing anti-British raj essays, we would be happy for him to come out.” I was very impressed by this conversation [laughs], but I didn’t fully understand what else was going on.
GAZETTE: After you graduated from Presidency College in two years, you went to Trinity College at the University of Cambridge in 1953. Tell me about that decision.