Who's afraid of Amartya Sen?

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By Madhusree Mukerjee didn't want to take on the Nobel Laureate. But then, as Amit Roy discovers, she didn't want to take on Winston Churchill either. And she did
  • Published 27.02.11
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There is something very attractive about Madhusree Mukerjee, the woman who has had a bit of a spat with Amartya Sen over the reasons for the Bengal famine.

She has held up Winston Churchill as almost the sole villain in her book Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, while the Nobel Prize winner points to a wider range of factors, including imperial policy.

For a start, she has a lovely laugh and appears almost to be a character from a Satyajit Ray movie, especially when she talks with engaging honesty about her life in a pretty village outside Frankfurt.

Her husband, Stefan Schramm, a German, whom she met when she was a postdoctorate student at Caltech in America, teaches physics at Frankfurt University. She gets up at 6am to see off their son, Robi, 11, to school. Until he gets back, she has the whole day to herself to read, write and think since the former science journal editor and physicist does not have a 9-5 job.

“My son loves it here because he has spent the last seven years of his life here in Germany. But it is very lonely for me,” Mukerjee admits.

She sounds like Charulata.

She laughs again, a nice musical laughter. “I am not looking for affairs.”

Nor had she gone looking for a fight with Sen.

“I just hope Amartya Sen won’t be totally mad at me,” she remarks.

She reveals she did meet Sen in Calcutta this winter at an inauguration of a Rabindranath Tagore seminar. “I managed to fight through the crowd. We had a brief talk and we argued a bit and he ended up saying my book was very good. (But) our exchange in the The New York Review of Books was very sharp. I had thought I was raising some minor points that he would not take too hard.”

She adds: “I feel my differences with Sen are minor compared to the points of agreement.”

Nor had she set out initially to target Churchill though he was to become her main quarry.

Meanwhile, her book is proving such a success that her publishers Basic Books, which had already brought out a hardback edition (£18.99 in the UK), are bringing forward the paperback to early summer.

Though Churchill, as wartime leader, was voted the “greatest Briton of all time” in a BBC poll in 2002, British historians have not ignored the controversial aspects of his character. One was the green signal given by Churchill to the Royal Air Force to carry out saturation bombing of civilian areas of Germany, notably Dresden, when there appeared to be little military logic to the exercise.

Among British reviewers, Mukerjee has had only one “nasty review” from Arthur Herman, from the Churchill Centre, who observed dismissively that she was not a historian. On the other hand, former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings, a military historian, said the “book offers the fullest account I have read...I myself have argued that Churchill’s disdain for the interests of black and brown peoples besmirched his awesome wartime record.”

Mukerjee’s status as celebrity author has brought her a long way from where she began. She was born in 1961 in Dishergarh, a small mining town near Asansol on the Bengal-Bihar border. Her father worked for a mining company.

She moved at eight to Calcutta where she had much catching up to do at the Modern High School for Girls. She liked physics from an early age — “I was good at it, too”.

After graduating in physics from Jadavpur, she left at 21 for the US in 1982. She did a Masters at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Then, before moving to Caltech, she did her PhD in 1989 at Chicago, where she worked under the Japanese-born American physicist, Yoichiro Nambu, who would win a Nobel Prize in 2008.

“He was a genius, he had deep insights and I was just a student but there was this democratic tradition in physics that I grew up with,” Mukerjee recalls. “It’s not like because somebody is famous you have to be intimidated. You can stand up for your little piece of ground.”

After Caltech, Mukerjee found she could not get a job. Though she loved physics and still does, her heart was not in nuclear research. “When I left physics I underwent a real radical change. I ended up as an editor at Physics Today and went on to Scientific American. That’s where I learnt to be a journalist. I had a lot of confidence that I could handle almost any topic.”

She decided she and her husband could not pursue separate careers in the same town when she moved with a young child to Germany. With time on her hands, she began to explore the concept of poverty. “I thought if I understood the Bengal famine I would have some insight into poverty.”

Seven years of research and writing have gone into her book. “Originally Churchill was not in my mind at all. When he showed up in the picture as such a big person, I was forced to go after him because Churchill has very, very, fierce defenders. I have this really good journalist friend in the US and he said, ‘If you are hunting big game, you have to shoot to kill.’ ”

To Churchill, “there was no Britain without India. To him Britain would be an absolute shadow without that possession,” she concludes.

Mukerjee came to London twice to get her ammunition from the ministry of war transport papers from the Public Records Office at Kew in west London. “If I had been living in India I would not have been able to write this book.”

The loneliness of the long distance researcher has, paradoxically, given her the strength and time to pursue Churchill until the case against him was, in her opinion, beyond challenge. “This isolation has helped me become even more independent.”

At heart, she insists she remains a Bengali. “Yes, very much so. I go back, at least, once a year to India. My entire family is there. I find India fascinating, so much social churning, so much going on. Compared to that, my local environment is so barren. May be it would not be so barren if I was more comfortable in German.”

She misses America too. “Yes, I miss America, actually I do. I have friends here but nobody with whom I can talk about the things that interest me. My real friends are all on different continents which is a bit sad. Yes, life is lonely.”

Shades, again, of Charulata.