In his essay, Development as a Capability Expansion, Amartya Sen had noted:

 A country can be very rich in conventional economic terms (i.e., in terms of the value of commodities produced per capita) and still be very poor in the achieved quality of human fife.

Therefore, following this line of thought, Sen further added:

If life is seen as a set of “doings and beings” that are valuable, the exercise of assessing the quality of life takes the form of evaluating these functionings and the capability to function. This valuational exercise cannot be done by focusing simply on commodities or incomes that help those doings and beings, as in commodity-based accounting of the quality of life (involving a confusion of means and ends).

Amartya Sen and Sugata Bse in Kolkata Literary Meet

Amartya Sen and Sugata Bse in Kolkata Literary Meet

So, picking up from there, The Country of First Boys by Amartya Sen is a collection of essays which speak about the quality of life, and especially, the declining quality of life based on sex-ratio. It can be, in a way, traced back linguistically, where the Ardha Magadhi speakers, from which the Bengali, Oriya, Assamese and other languages have evolved, found itself to be in a better position than the other strands. Similarly, that can be seen today, although, of course, it is debatable. Here, a comparison with a neighbouring country like Bangladesh shows that their ability to maintain the sex ratio as well as add value of the populace to improve the people’s quality of life is definitely something to be mentioned.

Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen

In The Country of First Boys, Sen also speaks of the lack of scholars of Sanskrit language, and the manner in which different aspects of The Vedas is being manipulated and misinterpreted. People who speak of Vedic mathematics perhaps have never really read them, but instead, consider works of Aryabhatta or Varahamihira, who contributed greatly to mathematics, especially after the influence of the Greeks. Through Greek mathematical values, the mathematics of India, from the 3rd or 4th century AD onwards flourished greatly, and was transmitted to the Middle East, and subsequently, to Europe.

Sugata Bose speaks as Amartya Sen listens

Sugata Bose speaks as Amartya Sen listens

This constant exchange of information was possible due to the fact that many Middle-Eastern scholars knew Sanskrit very well, and could translate and interpret the works of these mathematicians, in order to create their own discourse. A great example is Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī from whom the word ‘Algorithm’ came to existence, and the text he had written was partly the reason why the word ‘Algebra’ emerged – the original book was called Al-jabr wal-muqubala.

As I always believe, the right questions lead to the right answers, and Sugata Bose rightly pointed out that the focus was on the handful of ‘most successful’ people, the ‘first boys’, the male form more significantly emphasizing on the rather hegemonic hand, who, according to Sen, were the ones who were the ‘good boys’, who never went out of line, and told the teacher if someone rebelled. They were the ones who set the tone, and that made it all the more difficult for the rest to break out of that barrier and improve their quality of life – because that would break the order of things.

Amartya Sen Nobel Laureate

Amartya Sen Nobel Laureate

After the talk, the session was thrown open to the audience, where questions were raised about the slow cultural degeneration over time, due to the lower number of scholarly students choosing arts as their subject of study, or the ones who do, fall prey to the ‘format’, or dictat, and therefore, are also depressed because they are not able to be as creative as they could have been. Furthermore, there was also the question of optimism about education in India – Sen declared that he had not really felt optimistic so far, but there’s always space in the future to change his opinion.

For more such riveting sessions, check out Kolkata Literary Meet site, or search with hashtags #TataSteelKalam or #KolLitMeet.

Disclaimer: Poorna Banerjee is blogging in association with Kolkata Literary Meet, 2016.

Written by Poorna Banerjee

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