Harking back : Amartya Sen and his memories of a beautiful Lahore

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, JUne 14, 2015

It is once in a lifetime experience meeting Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, and when the conversation is a prolonged one and focused on Lahore and the ‘wonderful time’ spent walking through Shalimar Gardens with his best friends, what better subject would a pen pusher like me wish for.

This is a topic best suited for a column like ‘Harking Back’. To be honest this was my second meeting with the great man, with the first being him rushing towards Corpus Christi College in Cambridge. Cosy in a huge blue woollen overcoat. I stood there in amazement looking at him. ‘Could this be true? Can this be one of the greatest economists of our age?’ He caught my amazement, stopped and held out his small feeble hand. “What an honour” is what I probably said which he brushed aside and immediately asked: “What are you doing in Cambridge?” “Sir, I am researching the history of ancient Punjab”. His hurry to leave ended with this. “What a great idea, this portion of our collective history has been totally ignored, more so in Pakistan for you know why, and now, increasingly, in India for you know why”. In one sentence he had captured the entire political and social biases of our sub-continent. Then he immediately asked: “Are you being funded by anyone?” “No Sir, nobody in Pakistan is interested in their past, so I am managing on my own”. He looked at me in amazement: “You guys from Lahore never cease to amaze me”.

He was in a hurry to attend a University of Cambridge meeting, so we departed promising to meet again. But then few meet the great man more than once. I left cherishing the exchange, for it was something I could always tell my grandchildren, let alone my two daughters who never cease to be amazed by my escapades. But then a few months later I was at Cambridge again for another great man, Sir Chris Bayly, the great ‘People’s Historian’ had died. He had been through the first three chapters of my research and was very happy at the outcome. To be honest it was Sir Chris who encouraged me to take up this research project. I made it a point to attend the reception after his funeral, and there sitting in one corner was Dr. Amartya Sen deep in conversation with the former British High Commissioner to Pakistan, Sir Nicholas Barrington.

On seeing me Sir Nicholas welcomed me with a friendly: “Hello Majid, how are you? Let me introduce you to the great Amartya Sen”. Dr Sen smiled and immediately said: “That handsome man is from Lahore and is working on a history of ancient Punjab”. The former diplomat knight was surprised. I blushed. Amazingly even at this age I can manage a surprise or two. “Come sit next to me and let me tell you about my love for the great city of Lahore. Do you know that some of my dearest friends at Cambridge during my student days came from Lahore”. This was the break Sir Nicholas Barrington was looking for. He works away tirelessly at promoting British-Pakistan relations.

Dr. Amartya Sen was the roommate during his university days of Arif Iftikhar, son of the great Mian Iftikharuddin, and class-fellow of Shireen Qadir, the daughter of a former chief justice Manzoor Qadir. “As I moved about in their company, most Indians thought I was from East Pakistan, and to be honest I was born in Dacca and hence they were not wrong. But then I was an Indian and my friends were Pakistanis”. He had misty eyes and went on to describe Arif Iftikhar. “Arif was the finest debater I have ever heard, and so was Shireen. They were so good that they had taken Cambridge by storm. You chaps from Government College produce such great debaters. Arif could convince anyone about anything (he chuckles), and Shireen was his match. You just could not leave them alone in a room without a loud debate breaking out”. He had fond memories of his class-fellows.

There was a pause in the conversation when a Master of Trinity Hall College came to pay his respects to Dr. Sen. In the brief lull I asked: “Have you ever been to Lahore?” “Oh definitely, many times. It is my favourite city. Both Arif and Shireen were the perfect hosts and used to debate whose turn it was to spoil me by amazing Lahori food, and take me to the city’s amazing sights. It is one of the sub-continent’s prized cities. How can I ever forget Shalimar Gardens, and if given half a chance I will go there again”. Sir Nicholas shot me a glance for he had read my piece in ‘Dawn’ about the state of the garden as it is today.

Forever the diplomat, he said: “Who better than Majid to take you there and show you the old walled city”. “I will be honoured if Dr. Sen agrees; we need sensible people to visit Lahore”. He immediately burst out in a laugh. “I have a feeling you were also a debater”. “Yes Sir, but in our days the only prize was a clean towel”, I added. “Oh my god, I love these Lahori chaps. They always have the best replies stored away”. He was obviously enjoying the chat.

We moved on to the quality of leadership in India and Pakistan. This was territory Sir Nicholas could dilate on much, so he started. “I know the Sharifs well, and they are good for Pakistan. Have you ever met them Majid?” What better way could this foxy diplomat find than to put me in a spot. “I know them both. One was my elder brother’s school and college class-fellow, and a very dear friend, and the younger Sharif was with me in Government College. I know them well enough”.

Dr Amartya Sen guessed my discomfort and moved on to a higher philosophical level. “The tragedy is that both India and Pakistan have so much going for them. Yet their governance makes them slip stupidly. There is just no excuse for bad governance. The sub-continent collectively owns more wheat, rice, cotton and numerous other critical raw materials than any of the super powers, some even put together. It were these raw materials on which the West grew rich. Now that we own our own raw materials, we can both grow at a furious pace. Now it is the turn of the sub-continent. History dictates this. That is why excellent governance is what is needed by both, not to be misled by crazy ideas of past grandeur”. The Nobel laureate was in his element.

Barely had we got entangled in serious discussion over what was possible in the sub-continent that a sober gentleman started a speech about Sir Chris Bayly. Dr. Amartya Sen quietly said to me: “Great man Chris, he changed the way history will be written. I hope your research opens up new vista”. I thanked him as he left, promising to meet again at the annual Garden Party of the Ancient India and Iran Trust, for he takes a great interest on the way history and economic analysis unfolds the world over.

The beauty of great men like Dr. Sen is that they are able to simplify complex human problems, and analyse the economic history of a people. His work on the famines of the sub-continent is what earned him his Nobel Prize. But then when you talk to him, and meet him, you realise that such men are much bigger than the prizes bestowed on them. I hope he makes it again to Lahore. He must see the changes, all of them, the good, the bad and the ugly.



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