Nobel Journeys: Amartya Sen

The following is an excerpt from Nobel Journeys, a story collection that chronicles the extraordinary lives of Nobel Prize Laureates from the past and present, from all over the world, and from every Nobel Prize category. All 10 stories focus on important moments of discovery in the Laureates’ lives that helped them choose their unique pathways to success. And every tale reinforces the notion that education is an essential ingredient to a bright future.

Nobel Journeys is the first of many joint initiatives from the Nobel Prize Museum and EF Education First, two global organizations dedicated to bringing learning to life for students. Download a free copy of the full book and accompanying lesson plan for your classroom, and show your students that great ideas can come from anyone, at any time.

In 1998, Amartya Sen was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel for his innovative theories in welfare economics. Sen has lectured on the socio-political dynamics of poverty and famine at the world’s most prestigious universities – including Cambridge and Oxford in the UK, and Harvard, Stanford, and Cornell in the USA. Poverty has always been a topic close to Sen’s heart. When he was a young boy, his homeland of Bangladesh endured a devastating famine that took the lives of three million poverty-stricken people, and incited deadly race riots between the Hindu and Islamic communities. A man Sen knew was even attacked and killed – just outside his home – and it changed the course of his own life forever. Sen made it his mission to prove that equality and social justice were essential to a healthy economy.

One afternoon in the late 1930s, Amartya Sen was playing in the garden of his family home in Dhaka. He had been warned by his parents not to leave the front gates. There was still rioting between the Hindus and Muslim in the city over whether the region should become part of an independent Muslim state called Pakistan – Urdu for “Land of the Pure.” Suddenly Amartya heard screaming in the streets. A moment later, Kader Mia, a Muslim daily laborer, staggered through the front gate. He was bleeding profusely from a knife wound in the back. Amartya’s father Ashutosh rushed out of his study. Kader gasped that he had been doing some work in a neighboring Hindu house – for a tiny reward – and had been knifed in the street afterward by impoverished Hindu thugs. Kader’s wife had warned him not to venture into a Hindu neighborhood, but he hadn’t seen a choice. His family had nothing to eat. Ashutosh rushed Kader to the hospital, but he did not return home with good news for Amartya. Kader had died.


Amartya was devastated. How could a poor, hard-working, and honest man like Kader be killed for trying to feed his family? Such a violent act had to be about more than a difference in religious beliefs. Amartya could only conclude that extreme poverty must somehow cause decent people to act in terrible ways.

A few years later, Amartya would discover how right he was about this.

He had by then moved to Santiniketan to attend a children’s school established by Rabindranath Tagore at Visva-Bharati University. (Amartya was actually born there, on the campus, while his mother Amita was visiting her father – a professor of Sanskrit and ancient Indian culture. Tagore himself had given Amartya his name, which means “immortal” in Bengali.) Amartya was a bright 10-year-old, and he flourished as a student in the school’s progressive, coeducational environment. Tagore’s emphasis was on fostering curiosity rather than competitive excellence, so any kind of interest in grades or exams was severely discouraged. Tagore’s belief in cultural diversity resulted in a global curriculum that included ideas from India, the West, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

By 1943, however, World War II was in full swing – and all these diverse regions of the world were now in mortal combat. Japan’s occupation of Burma tightened the availability of imported rice, and Bengal was suddenly thrown into extreme famine.

The school made sure Amartya and his schoolmates had enough to eat. But they could only stand by as the poor and working-class people all around them died of starvation. Amartya watched in horror as hunger brought out the very worst kind of racial violence in his fellow Bengalis. And he couldn’t help but think of poor Kader Mia. Amartya would later write: “People’s identities as Indians, as Asians, or as members of the human race, seemed to give way – quite suddenly – to sectarian identification with Hindu, Muslim or Sikh communities. The carnage that followed had much to do with unreasoned herd behavior by which people ‘discovered’ their new belligerent identities and failed to take note of the diversity that makes Indian culture so powerfully mixed.”

Amartya realized, even then, that the famine was class-based. None of the middle-class families of his schoolmates had experienced the slightest problem getting food. It only afflicted the classes lower on the economic ladder – which was the majority of Bengal’s population. Amartya grew convinced that this staggering loss of life was utterly unnecessary. And he decided that, one day, he would find a way to ensure that such a famine would never happen again.

Amartya immediately began running an evening school for illiterate children in the neighboring villages. He understood that education was a ticket out of poverty. But Amartya also decided to change what he wanted to be when he grew up. He originally thought he would become a Sanskrit scholar, like his grandfather, or a mathematician, or physicist. After the famine, though, he found himself more and more attracted to the study of economics.

Meanwhile, India gained its independence from Britain in 1947. But a unified India did not emerge. The subcontinent was divided along religious lines. India would be Hindu. Bengal would become part of Muslim Pakistan. As a result, the sectarian violence continued.

In 1951, Amartya enrolled in the Economics Department at Presidency College of the University of Calcutta. In his first year, though, he battled an additional foe besides poverty – a more personal one – when he developed cancer of the mouth. He juggled radiation treatments at Calcutta Hospital with his studies. It was a tough year. But Amartya was always thankful his family could afford quality medical care.

As soon as Amartya’s doctors declared him cured, he threw himself back into his studies, as well as campus life. Many of the students he met believed that communism might be the answer to poverty. Though Amartya himself was attracted to communism’s commitment to equality for the masses, his schooling with Tagore made him deeply skeptical about a political system that didn’t also welcome a diversity of viewpoints. Instead, he committed himself to studying economic models that might work within capitalism but also foster social justice and the ability to succeed regardless of race, color, creed, or class.

Throughout his university studies, Amartya was ever mindful of his own good fortune. The city of Calcutta, though immensely rich in cultural, artistic, and intellectual achievements, provided many constant reminders of the unbearable economic misery suffered by most of the region’s population.

Amartya’s pursuit of graduate work in economics would eventually take him to Cambridge University in England. From there he would have a brilliant academic career at universities all over the world. But he always maintained Bangladeshi citizenship. He tried never to be away from home for more than six months at a time. And his commitment to finding ways of making the world a better place for Bangladeshis – and everyone else – has never wavered.

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