LAST year, shortly after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics, Amartya Sen returned to his native India for a visit. One December morning, just outside Calcutta, at Santiniketan, the school where Sen had studied as a child, he was made to climb a dais and sit on a makeshift throne. News reports say that he looked tired, but he found the energy to address the assembled crowd. He reminisced about his childhood, and spoke of the influence exerted on his work by the school's founder -- Rabindranath Tagore, who in 1913 became the first Asian Nobel laureate when he won the prize for literature, and who, as Sen's teacher, named him Amartya (Bengali for "immortal").
Tagore is the most famous in a distinguished school of Bengali thinkers who have left a lasting mark on the Indian social and intellectual landscape. Known as the Bengali bhadralok (or "gentlemen"), they include the filmmaker Satyajit Ray, the freedom fighter Aurobindo Ghose, the author Nirad Chaudhuri, and now, as the standard-bearer in the dying days of that tradition, Sen himself. From the nineteenth century onward bhadralok have been India's version of public intellectuals -- engaged with social life, battling against such evils as untouchability and suttee (the practice of widow-burning). They have been adamantly outward-looking, eager to absorb the best of competing traditions and methods. Tagore was proud to be an Indian, and he was in many ways a traditionalist; but he was not, as Sen wrote in an article for The New York Review of Books, "a prisoner of the past." His method was akin to what the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss called "bricolage" -- the drawing together of diverse traditions and ideas into a new reality. Sen called attention to this method that day at Santiniketan. Paraphrasing his teacher, he reminded the assembled crowd that in Tagore's view, "all that is best in the world is also ours."
In Development as Freedom,Sen, who discusses the virtues of the Buddhist "middle path," applies this view to the topic of economic development. It is a needed, if daunting, endeavor. Since development's emergence as the great hope of the postwar era, the debate over Third World poverty has been polarized.