Life of my father, 1915-2012

From Facebook 20 May 2012:



Our endless topic of conversation remains my father’s death almost four months ago. He was a man like any other of virtues and vices. When he knew he was dying, we and his doctors did not; when we knew what he was dying of, he did not. I could not imagine a world in which he was not present and do not know how we coped. But what became clear in his last days, and indeed in his last months and his last years, is that his vices receded and vanished and his virtues came to the fore. That was through a conscious deliberate process he underwent in his last year or two of what I can only call philosophical reflection and self-examination, from a man who had never been remotely academic or philosophical or even fore-sighted. His final virtues were his deepest ones of courage and decency (feeling embarrassed at the difficulty he was causing me, and telling me so with his eyes as he could no longer speak), as well as magnanimity in forgiving me my infirmities. What a struggle it was for him to bring out his last coherent sentence some two weeks before he died in which he said “aami tomakey shorboda ashirbad kori”, or roughly, my blessings are always with you. It was really the last thing he said as clear as crystal.



I am reminded of what I happened to say in a 2001 review of a book


“T. S. Eliot in *Burnt Norton* seemed to speak of looking forward at life all the way to the point of death:

“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

…Except for the point, the still point,

There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

Leavis drew attention to the religious meaning assigned to these lines by the critic D. W. Harding:

“For the man convinced of spiritual values, life is a coherent pattern in which the ending has its due place, and, because it is part of a pattern, itself leads into the beginning.”’



The first Governor of Bengal after the 1912 reunification of Bengal and East Bengal was the Scottish Liberal politician Thomas-Gibson Carmichael, the first (and apparently last) Baron Carmichael. This is a photograph of a 1916 visit he paid to Surendranath Roy’s home at Behala, Surendranath then being the Deputy President of the Bengal Legislative Council and probably the most influential officially recognised political statesman in Bengal at the time.

Surendranath’s younger son, Manindranath, is the bespecaled and moustachioed young man in the middle holding the child. If the child is a two or three year old, it would be my father’s elder brother; if the date of the photograph is late in 1916 and the child is a one year old, it would be my father.

My father seated perhaps c. 1919, with his elder brother..


My grandfather, Manindranath Roy (1891-1958) was a quiet enigmatic literary figure and artistic benefactor in Calcutta; he wrote very well and had excellent taste and manners (though was of foolish judgement in money and friends). This photograph is from about 1922 at Allahabad where he used to take his family on annual holiday. The little boy to the left behind his mother would grow up to become my father.


Manindranath is dressed in fine post-Edwardian fashion; at the time, his father, Surendranath Rai, was at the peak of his political career as first Deputy President and then President of the new Bengal Legislative Council. Surendranath was an orthodox Brahmin and chose never to wear Western-style suits and neck-ties, and he was thoroughly averse to the idea of dining with Europeans. Manindranath was the first to wear Western clothes, as well as to dine in Calcutta’s Western restaurants. There was tension between father and son due to such matters.



His mother Nirmala, 1900-1976, was a famed beauty of Uttarpara. She was married at age 9 to her husband who was 18, but the story went her mother-in-law slept between the couple for four years as he was constantly teasing her and pulling her hair. Finally the mother-in-law must have departed and she gave birth to her first son at age 13 and to my father at age 15.


Manindranath might have bullied his wife into posing for the risque photo below; his orthodox father would have almost certainly disapproved and forbidden it had he known.



Manindranath again in a photo with his wife that his father would almost certainly have disallowed. In the days before radio, Bengali society had literature and the arts to keep itself company (besides politics). Writing and reading poetry was a common hobby. Three principal literary journals were Bharatvarsha, Probasi and Bichitra. The long-standing editor of Bharatvarsha was Jaladhar Sen, and it was he who had introduced Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya to Manindranath when Sarat had returned (in impecunious circumstances) to Bengal from Burma, probably with a request that Sarat be supported and sponsored. We made a literary find a few years ago: a notebook of Manindranath’s that he had titled Mandakini. It contains some 51 poems and poetic songs composed between 1914 and 1936, from when he was aged about 23 to when he was 45. He has been dead fifty years now and no one knew of the existence of these poems until today. Nor had he told anyone of the work (perhaps because some of the poems are especially candid; his affairs of the heart outside his marriage were said to be notorious). Between about 1933 and 1943 Manindranath found himself facing trials and tribulations of such gravity and magnitude (caused in part by his own foolish squandering of his inheritance from his father) that he may have wished to forget, ignore or even regret his creative period. Many of the poems are recorded as having been published in literary journals of the time, like Bharatbarsha and Bichitra, and some are recorded as having been sung or performed on the new radio service of the time, especially around 1931…



My father with his elder brother and younger sisters, with their grandfather Surendranath c. 1927, on the front-terrace of the house Surendranath had built c. 1926.




I was surprised when he told me a few years ago he and his brother and cousins all wore dhotis right through college days. The sofa-chair is part of a set we use every day today.



This is a 1928 photo of the male members of the Roy Family of Behala, south of Calcutta, along with the children. Adult women would have been behind an effective “purdah”. The bearded patriarch in the middle is my great grandfather, the Hon’ble Surendra Nath Roy (1860-1929) the eldest son of Rai Bahadur Umbik Churn Rai (1827-1902). *The Golden Book of India* published at the time of the Victoria Jubilee said Umbik was the twelfth descendant of one Raja Gajendra Narayan Rai, Rai-Raian, a finance official under the Great Mughal Jahangir. Surendra Nath’s second son, my grandfather, Manindranath, is seated second from the right in the second row with spectacles and moustache.  The bright lad fourth from the left in the last row would grow up to be my father.




College days and then his first jobs, first with the Indian Oxygen and Acetylene Company (he knew nothing at all about chemistry), and then with the Tata Steel Company.



There seem to be large oxygen cylinders in the background of the picture at the top. He once told me that one came crashing down from a higher floor once and missed him by inches. That would have been the end of him, and our stories would not have begun at all. The lower photograph may have been with Indian Oxygen or the Tatas, I cannot tell for sure…He is standing dressed in a dapper cream double-breasted suit with a flower in his lapel-button it would seem; it suggests from his suit that the photo was dated 1936 at the Tatas, as that is written at the back of a previous photo in the same suit.



Posing with a friend c. 1937 perhaps outside the new Central Legislative building in New Delhi, which would later become India’s Parliament.



He left Indian Oxygen after a year to join the Tatas in Jamshedpur for half a dozen or so years. My mother’s father and brothers were all factory-men with the Tatas. Their family was completely different from his, being large and immensely happy with much song and studies and food and music. Her father worked with him and took a deep liking to the handsome aristocratic young man from the city, and invited him home often where he found a warmth and family-love he had not known before.



My parents married on 11 May 1942 during the war, with the Japanese bombing Calcutta. Soon thereafter my father joined the Government of India for the first time in the war-time Ministry of Supply.



The 1940 Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League did not mention the word “Pakistan” but is considered its political blueprint. MA Jinnah’s political support lay among the Muslim elite in Muslim-minority areas of India — he needed a show of support from the Muslim-majority provinces of Punjab and Bengal too, and indeed Sikandar Hyat Khan and AK Fuzlul Huq came to draft and present the Lahore Resolution.

Fuzlul Huq was Prime Minister of undivided Bengal from 1937-1943. On 11 May 1942, he led the bridegroom’s procession when my father went to wed my mother. Here is Fuzlul Huq entering the car to do so, with my grandfather Manindranath Roy helping him into the car. My mother’s family were surprised; they were Bengali Brahmins from Jamshedpur and did not quite know what to make of all this. My mother, aged 16 at the time, remembers she was non-plussed to find Fuzlul Huq ‘s bulky frame seated for some reason between her and her new husband in the car on the return journey too!

Fuzlul Huq, having been a young colleague of Surendranath Roy in the Bengal Legislative Council, was a family friend and treated my grandfather, Manindranath Roy, with affection. (Manindranath was a Justice of the Peace, but unlike his father was not political.)

Fuzlul Huq would apparently make requests of my grandmother for delivered meals during political confabulations; my grandfather’s family had been forced to leave Behala as the family home had been requisitioned by the military to be a hospital during the war, and they lived instead in Ballygunge. My father recalls cycling from there with the requested food to the political confabulations in the middle of the wartime blackout (Japanese aeroplanes had apparently reached Calcutta on their bombing missions).

Here too is a note dated 9 August 1945 from Fuzlul Huq to my grandfather thanking him for food and sending his “best blessings” to my grandmother — a Muslim, one of the founders of Pakistan, sends his blessings to an orthodox Hindu Brahmin family and everyone remains completely cheerful and apolitical: such was normal Indian secularism in practice at the time. Partition between India and Pakistan and the ghastliness that accompanied it, and the hatred and bloodshed that has followed, were all quite beyond anyone’s imagination at the time.



My parents and their eldest child Suchandra (Buju), about 1945-1946 on their way to Karachi where he headed a Ministry of Supply office. The single biggest thing my father did in his life happened here: returning from Karachi in late August 1947 as one of the last Govt of India officers there, he reported back to Shyama Prosad Mookherjee in Delhi that he had seen masses of Hindu Sindhi families huddled and camping out on the main road near the port and in danger of massacre (all the Hindu women dressed in black burkhas in fear, my father’s clerk was one Lalwani who took him around and begged him to do something); Mookherjee told him to prepare a note for the morning which he did overnight dictating to a typist, Mookherjee was a member of the Nehru Cabinet and put the note up there the next morning, the Nehru Govt sent three frigates from Bombay to Karachi the next day along with merchant vessels for a safe evacuation of the refugees… there was no massacre of the Hindu Sindhis in Karachi…. LK Advani and others  might make a note…



Perhaps because of the Karachi event, the young officer’s name came to be known in the small political/official world of Delhi at the time of Independence. I do not know how else the Mountbattens themselves came to invite him on 13 January 1948 or Prime Minister Nehru himself on 20 June 1948 in the official farewell to the Mountbattens. My father’s sensibility was such that he never made use of this in his later career in the new Indian Foreign Service that he would join some years later; I would have done, though I like him was never a careerist.



My father in 1952, now with the Ministry of Commerce as “Deputy Chief Controller of Imports and Exports”… He was a contemporary of Raj Kapoor, and met him and Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand in the Bombay of the times… We used to joke that perhaps he should have gone into the movies some time..

From Facebook, 5 February 2012:

It is a month ago today that my father was admitted to hospital, for the first time in almost 40 years. A day or so later we learnt he was terminally ill, and it is almost two weeks now that he died, just as these last doctors said he would. For more than a month before that we had been bewildered about what could be wrong, and what we were told came as a surprise, a shock, not least at our own infirmity and failure. From then until now I have been trying to understand and explain what happened. I published a book some 22 years ago with “On the Scope of Reason” in its title. I claim as my philosophical master someone who spent his life reflecting on the scope of reason, in moral philosophy, in theology, in life — and he claimed as his philosophical master someone who spent his life reflecting on the nature of reason and mind and the unconscious mind in particular. Before I ever entered economics or philosophy I had some knowledge of natural science, biology and chemistry in particular. My father’s death and our failure to comprehend it has needed an explanation that draws upon all this. Slowly that has been taking shape. It was definitely a lapse of rationality, on my part, on his, on his doctors’, and perhaps others. The thickening of the bladder wall had been noticed some years ago but was not paid adequate attention to. Out of wishful thinking, out of Aristotle’s akrasia or weakness of the will, out of a wish to choose the path of least resistance. There are lessons there for life and medicine and economics and political economy too.

From 1957,  Montreal, a cartoon by Vazar of Mike Roy, Indian diplomat, going about his business, mostly promoting Indian exports to Canada, especially tea…. (Note the CD for Corps Diplomatique and the hat…)




Jaladhar Sen writes to Manindranath at Surendranath’s death, c. Nov-Dec 1929

In the days before radio, Bengali society had literature and the arts to keep itself company (besides politics). Writing and reading poetry was a common hobby.  Three principal literary journals were Bharatvarsha, Probasi and Bichitra. The long-standing editor of Bharatvarsha was Jaladhar Sen, and it was he who had introduced Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya to Manindranath when Sarat had returned (in impecunious circumstances) to Bengal from Burma, probably with a request that Sarat be supported and sponsored.

This was a letter received by Manindranath from Jaladhar Sen expressing condolences at the passing of his father, Surendranath, who died on November 11, 1929. (Surendranath likely died from his injury sustained along with Ardeshir Dalal from Bhagat Singh’s bomb on 8 April 1929.


“Brother Manindra,
I have just returned to Kolkata and cannot express how heart-rending is the news of your father’s demise. You know what a genuine well-wisher he had been for me. God alone knows how shocked I am to lose such a friend who stood by me though thick and thin. May you be strong at such an hour and may the departed noble soul be blessed.  An article by the late Surendranath had been printed already in ‘Bharatvarsha’ before he passed away. But that edition has not been published yet. It is going to be published next month. So please send me a photograph of him before that. I shall be visiting you soon.   Your well-wisher,  Jaladhar Sen.”  (Translation by KM.)

Sarat writes to Manindranath 1931

These three little documents give slight glimpses of the relationship between Saratchandra Chattopadhyaya and his friend Manindranath Roy.  In reverse chronological order, the first is a 1931 note from Sarat to Mani on a  domestic matter about the transport of a table (or perhaps a  writing-desk?) by rail; the second is a 1925 diary entry in English by Manindranath that speaks of travel to Shibpur and Sarat coming to breakfast, and then  of going with him to the “Ram Mohan Library” ;  the third is a 1919 letter to Manindranath from Sudhindranath Tagore (son of Rabindranath’s elder brother) which makes reference to the literary journal Bichitra and also asks of news of Sarat.

The 1931 note (translation by KM):

“Mani, I have asked Tulu to bring the table by train. If by this time the man Bipin has already taken it away that makes it more problematic. Unfortunately, this man intervened unasked and created all the trouble. If you can, please retrieve it from Bipin and deliver it at Howrah station. The rest will be done by Tulu.  Dada (Elder Brother) 23 Ashar 1339  P.S . If there is no chance of getting it back for whatever reason please let me know . I will ask carpenter to make another one as soon as possible.”

The 1919 letter (translation by KM):

“My dear,
Have received your letter. How can a great friend like you be forgotten! I can hardly say how happy we are to have met you.  But you know the difference between Hazaribagh and Kolkata. The hazards we face here are as stressful as those in the  brick-and-mortar jungle!  I have so many worries to attend to that I have had no scope  thus far to invite you to my place to enjoy your peaceful company. I do not have the necessary peace of mind yet. I shall obviously contact you as soon as I get a little bit settled. Please, never think otherwise even if I am silent for a while. I shall never forget you.

You are still a member of Bichitra but there has been no meeting for a long time. I have also got no such information. However, if there had been one or two it might have been missed due to postal irregularity. I have informed Bireswar about it.   I  hear you have joined Grace Brothers, is it so? How do you find things there?  I hope all is well at your end. Do you meet Saratbabu these days?    We are so so .  Yours, Sudhindranath Tagore”

Young Manindranath Roy’s poetry c 1914:1936

We have made a literary find today, October 6 2008,  of a notebook of Manindranath Roy’s  that he had titled Mandakini.  It contains some 51 poems and poetic songs composed between 1914 and 1936,  from when he was  aged about 23 to when he was 45.  He has been dead fifty years now and no one knew of the existence of these poems until today.   Nor had he told anyone of the work (perhaps because some of the poems are especially candid, and erotic too).  Between about 1933 and 1943  Manindranath had found himself facing trials and tribulations  of such gravity and magnitude (caused in part by his own foolish squandering of his inheritance from his father) that he may have wished to  forget, ignore or even regret his creative  period.

Many of the poems are recorded  as having been published in literary journals of the time, like Bharatbarsha and Bichitra, and some are recorded as having been sung or performed  on the new radio service of the time, especially around 1931.

Here is poem number 48 titled “Saratchandra” in honour of his friend, the novelist Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya.   Manindranath as a poet would have been certainly inspired  in his modernity by his association with Sarat  — while Sarat benefitted economically by the association and also may have found characters and plots for his novels (he apparently dedicated one at least to Manindranath’s wife, my grandmother).

When all of Mandakini is published in due course, it is not impossible Manindranath  will come to  be recognised  as among the finest modern   poets of his era in Bengal.

Subroto Roy, October 6 2008


The Bangla date translates as 16 September 1915 – ১ আশ্বিন ১৩২২ (1 Ashwin 1322) Thursday – বৃহস্পতিবার  (thanks to



Rabindranath’s daughter writes to her friend, my grandmother, 1930

11 March 2010
My paternal grandfather, Manindranath Roy, had been a friend and colleague of Nagen Ganguly, the son-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore.  This 1930 letter, perhaps from Puri judging by its contents (or could it be Vizag as there is a Mr Naidu as a “local man”?), was sent by Nagen’s wife, Meera Debi, to her friend, my grandmother.  It is being published here as it may throw a little light on Bengal’s social life at the time.  Though women wrote in Bengali amongst themselves, Bengali men educated in English seemed to invariably correspond in English.

“My Dear,  Today we reached here safe and sound. The journey was smooth. Monibabu had asked someone to receive us at the station but we did not need his help as my nephew came to receive us. People here seem to be veritable cut-throats.! If you have no acquaintance here there is every possibility of your being cheated. My nephew, Ajin, took a local man , Mr. Naidu with him. If this person had not bargained with the porters they would have created great chaos demanding …….Rs. just to get our luggage off the train. Mr. Naidu also fixed the fare with the coachman. In fact the servant , the gardener, everyone has this tendency to extort as much as possible. Our gardener has fixed us one helping hand but I don’t find him suitable. He will only bring water, buy daily necessities, and sweep the floors but he will not wash utensils  or clothes. He disobeyed me even when I asked him to hang the clothes for drying! Our own servant who has come with us can easily do the cooking along with sweeping and shopping. So, how practical will it be to have another help just for the washing!  Today we had lunch at my brother’s. Charubabu’s son-in-law came to look after our requirements as soon as we had come here. A great disadvantage of this house is that there is no shelf or rack to keep a single thing . There are only one table and a small table. Of these  one has to be kept in the bathroom for toiletries and the other will have crockery on it. There is no other almirah or cupboard to keep the crockery so that I can use this table for writing purposes. Anyway, I feel embarrassed to ask for anything because we are enjoying the house free of cost. I asked for only one thing but in vain. It was for a dressing table. It never entered my mind to  bring a mirror as I had thought it was someone’s home. Naturally none of the three of us had thought it necessary. Nevertheless, I really like this house. It is on the sea beach. It merely lacks a few small necessities. I am feeling very drowsy because I have taken a bath in the sea after arriving here. I hope you are all hale and hearty. That day I got really scared while coming back from your home.  My regards to all of you.  Yours, Meera” .

From Facebook 8 May 2012

Rabindranath Tagore was a great man, a year younger than my great grandfather. My father when a boy paid his respects to him many a time. My grandfather worked with Tagore’s son-in-law and their wives were friends. A letter from the daughter to my grandmother is at my blog (translated very kindly by KM).   Tagore, as a creative genius and literary spirit, would have been appalled by all the worship he has been subjected to in recent decades. A holiday for his 150th birthday? He would have I am sure preferred to see new genius thrive, not his work endlessly repeated, made a hash of, bowdlerized….

What I (also) find odd is no one realises that no Muslim can go about worshipping Tagore or Vivekananda etc statues and photos with garlands and namastes etc. And in this I am wholly Muslim.

A Philosophical Conversation between Prof. Sen & Dr Roy

A Philosophical Conversation between Professor Sen & Dr Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman, “8th Day”, May 14 2006



ROY: …The philosophers Renford Bambrough and John Wisdom would have been with you at Cambridge….

SEN: Wisdom I knew better; he was at my College; but you know my philosophy was not an important thing at the time. Among the philosophers there, it was C. D. Broad with whom I chatted more. But Wisdom I knew, and he mainly tried to encourage me to ride horses with him, which I didn’t.

ROY: You went to Cambridge in …

SEN: I went to Cambridge in 1953.

ROY: So Wittgenstein had just died…

SEN: Wittgenstein had died.

ROY: Only just in 1952 (sic).

SEN: But I knew a lot about the conversations between Wittgenstein and Sraffa because Sraffa was alive; I did a paper on that by the way.

ROY: Well that’s what I was going to ask, there is no trace of your work on Wittgenstein and the Wittgensteinians.

SEN: I don’t know why. My paper was published in the Journal of Economic Literature a couple of years ago. Now mind you it’s not a conclusion, just an interpretation, what was the role of Gramsci in the works of Sraffa and Wittgenstein, what is it that Sraffa actually did in intermediating between them.

ROY: In your book Identity and Violence, I was curious to find you call yourself a “dabbler” in Philosophy yet at the same time you are an eminent Professor of Philosophy at Harvard for decades. The question that arose was, were you being modest, and if so, truly or falsely?

SEN (laughs): I think if you make a statement which you suspect might have been made out of modesty and then I said it was because of modesty I think I would have eliminated the motivation for the statement as you identify it. I am not going to answer the question as to what I think.

ROY: But surely you are not a “dabbler” in Philosophy?

SEN: I am interested in Philosophy is what I meant, and whether I am a dabbler or whether I’ve succeeded in making some contribution is for others to judge. But not for me to judge.

ROY: Okay.

SEN: As for me, the right description is that I am a dabbler in Philosophy. But then that diagnostic is… mine, and I won’t go to war with others if someone disputes that. But it’s not for me to dispute it.

ROY: Would you, for example in reference to our discussion about Wittgenstein, say that you have contributed to Philosophy in and of itself regardless of Economics?

SEN: Most of my work on Philosophy has got nothing to do with Economics. It is primarily on Ethics, to some extent on Epistemology. And these are not “economic” subjects. I have never written on the “Philosophy of Economics” at all.

ROY: How about Ontology? I mean the question “What there is” would be…..

SEN: I am less concerned with Ontology or with Metaphysics than some people are. I respect the subject but I have not been involved.

ROY: You have not been involved?

SEN: Well, I have read a lot but I haven’t worked on it. I have worked on Ethics and Political Philosophy and I have worked on Epistemology and I have worked a little bit on Mathematical Logic. Those are the three main areas in which I have worked.

ROY: Why I say that is because, if the three main philosophical questions are summarised as “What is there?” (or “Who am I?”), “What is true?”, “What should I do?”, then the question “Who am I?” is very much a part of your concern with identity and a universal question generally, while “Is this true?” is relevant to Epistemology and “What should I do?” is obviously Ethics. Morton White summarised philosophy in those three questions. It seems to me you have in this book had to look at…

SEN: At all three of them.

ROY: Well, some Ontology at least.

SEN: But you know I agree with your diagnostic that the second question “What I regard myself to be, is that true?”, is a question of Epistemology, because that’s the context in which “Is it true?” comes in. The second is primarily an epistemological question. The third is, as you said, primarily an ethical question, though I do believe that the dichotomy between Epistemology and Ethics is hard to make. On that subject I would agree with Hilary Putnam’s last book, namely when he speaks of “the collapse of the fact-value dichotomy” which is sometimes misunderstood and described as the collapse of the fact-value distinction, which is not what Hilary Putnam is denying, he’s arguing that the dichotomy is very hard to sustain, because the linkages are so strong, that pursuit of one is always taking you into the other. But the first question you are taking to be an ontological question, “Who am I?”, and at one level you can treat it as that, but there is a less profound aspect of “Who am I?”, namely what would be the right way of describing me, to myself and to others, and that has a deep relationship with the second question. If the separation or dichotomy between the second and third raises some philosophical questions of significance, the dichotomy between the first and second would too. So “Who am I?” can be interpreted at a profound ontological level but it could also be interpreted at a level which is primarily fairly straightforward Epistemology. And it is at that level that I am taking that question to be. Namely: Am I a member of many different groups? Do I see myself as members of many different groups? If I do not see myself as members of many different groups, am I making a mistake in not seeing that I belong to many different groups? Is it the case that implicitly I often pursue things which are dependant on my seeing myself as being members of other groups than those which I explicitly acknowledge? These are the central issues of the “Who am I?” question in this book.

ROY: Well you haven’t used the word “identity” here but when you speak in your book of people having a choice of different identities, you are plainly not referring to multiple identities in the sense of the psychologist; are you not merely saying that everyone has different aspects or dimensions to his or her life, and is required to play different roles at different times in different contexts? Or is there something beyond that statement in your notion of “choice of identities”?

SEN: What I mean by “multiple identities” is, at one level, the most trivial, common but, at another level, most profoundly important recognition that we belong to many different groups: I’m an Indian citizen, I’m a British or American resident, I’m a Bengali, the poetry I like is Bengali poetry, I’m a man, I’m an economist, I belong to all these groups. Nothing complicated about that, and the multiple identity issues of the psychologist that you’re referring to indicate a certain level of complexity of humanity, and sometimes even of pathology perhaps, but that’s not what I am concerned with here, it’s just a common fact that there are many different groups to which any person belongs. And it’s on that extraordinarily simple fact that I am trying to construct a fairly strong, fairly extensive set of reasonings, because that forces us to see the importance of our own choice, our own decisions in deciding on how should I see myself, how would it be correct to see myself given the problems I am facing today, and given the priorities that I will have to examine.

ROY: But if we don’t use the word “groups” just for a minute, then we are not too far wrong to just say that everyone has different aspects or dimensions to their lives, so one dimension could be nationality, one dimension sexuality, one dimension one’s intellectual upbringing, then any person, any character in a novel would have different dimensions….

SEN: The difficulty with that, Subroto, is that in the same aspect we may have more than one…

ROY: Dimension?

SEN: Well dimension tries to capture in a Cartesian space a rather more complex reality, and you know I don’t think this is a metric space we are looking at, so dimensionality is not a natural thought in this context. One thing I am very worried about is when something which is very simple appears to people as being either profoundly right or profoundly mistaken. I’ll try to claim that it is right and it is not very profound but that it is not very profound does not mean people don’t miss it and end up making mistakes. In terms of the aspects of my life which concern my enjoying poetry, there may be many different groups to which I belong, one of them is that I can appreciate Bengali poetry in a way that I will not be able to appreciate poetry in some language which I speak only very little, like Italian poetry for example. But on the other hand, in addition to that, in the same aspect of my appreciating poetry, there may be the fact that I am not as steeped into historical romance which also figures in poetry or patriotic poetry and these are all again classifications which puts me in some group, in the company of some and not in the company of others, and therefore an aspect does not quite capture with the precision the group classification that I was referring to does capture.

ROY: Well, groups we can quarrel about perhaps because groups may not be well- defined…

SEN: Don’t go away Subroto but that does not make any difference, because many groups are not well-defined but they are still extremely important…

ROY: Of course there are overlapping groups…

SEN: Not only overlapping, but you know that is a different subject on the role of ambiguity, that is a very central issue in Epistemology, and the fact of the matter is that there are many things for which there are ambiguities about border which are nevertheless extremely important as part of our identity. Where India begins and China ends or where China begins and India ends may not be clear, but the distinction between being an Indian and being Chinese is very important, so I think that this border dispute gets much greater attention in the social sciences than it actually deserves.

ROY: Well, one of the most profoundly difficult and yet universally common dilemmas in the modern world has to do with women having to choose between identities outside and inside the home. Does your theory of identity apply to that problem, and if so, how?

SEN: I think the choice is never between identities, the choice is the importance that you attach to different identities all of which may be real. The fact of the matter is that a woman may be a member of a family, a woman is also a member of a gender, namely being a woman, a woman may also have commitment to her profession, may have commitment to a politics…

ROY: Does your theory help her in any way, specifically?

SEN: The theory is not a do-it-yourself method of constructing an identity. It is an attempt to clarify what are the questions that anyone who is thinking about identity has to sort out. It is the identification of questions with which the book is concerned, and as such, insofar as the woman is concerned… indeed the language that you use Subroto, that what you have to choose between identities, I would then say that what I am trying to argue is that’s not the right issue, because all these would remain identities of mine but the relative importance that I attach to the different identities is the subject in which I have to make a choice, and that’s the role of the theory…

ROY: They are all different aspects of the same woman.

SEN: Yes indeed. If not explicitly then implicitly, but that is part of the recognition that we need, it is not a question that by giving importance to one of those compared with the others you’re denying the other identities. To say that something is more important than another in the present context is not a denial that the other is also an identity. So I think the issue of relative importance has to be distinguished from the existence or non-existence of these different identities.

ROY: Well, you’ve wished to say much about Muslims in this book….

SEN: That’s not entirely right. I would say that I do say something about the Muslims in this book….

ROY: … yet one gets the impression that you have not read The Quran. Is that an accurate impression?

SEN: No, it’s not.

ROY: You have read The Quran?

SEN: Yes.

ROY: In English, presumably?

SEN: In Bengali to be exact. Not in Arabic, you probably have read it in Arabic.

ROY (laughs): No, just in English. Is it possible to understand a Muslim’s beliefs until and unless one sees the world from his/her perspective? I had to read The Quran to see if I could understand — attempt to understand — the point of view of Muslims. Does one need to read The Quran in order to see their perspective?

SEN: Well it depends on how much expertise you want to acquire. That is, if you have to understand what the Quranic beliefs are, to which Muslims as a group – believing Muslims, who identify themselves as believing and practising Muslims – as opposed to Muslims by ancestry and therefore Muslims in a denominational sense, yes indeed, if you want to pursue what practising and believing Muslims practise and believe then you would have to read The Quran. But a lot of people would identify themselves as Muslim who do not follow these practises or for that matter beliefs, but who would still identify themselves as Muslims because in the sense of a community they belong to that. I mean even Mohammad Ali Jinnah did not follow many of the standard Muslim practises, that did not make him a non-Muslim because a “Muslim” can be defined in more than one way. One is to define somebody who is a believing and practising Muslim, the other is somebody who sees himself as a Muslim and belongs to that community, and in the context of the world in which he lives that identity has some importance which it clearly had in the case of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

ROY: Well, Muslims like Jews and Christians believe the Universe had a deliberate Creation; Hindus and Buddhists may not quite agree with that. Muslims will further believe that the Creator spoke once and only once definitively through one man, namely Muhammad in the 7th Century in Arabia. Would you not agree that no person can deny that and still be a Muslim?

SEN: I think you’re getting it wrong Subroto. It said Muhammad was the last prophet, it does not deny that there existed earlier prophets. Therefore it’s not the case as you said that God spoke alone and uniquely and only once.

ROY: Definitively?

SEN: No, no, Muslims believe that it was definitely spoken at each stage — as a follow up, like Christians misunderstood what message the prophet called Jesus was carrying and they deified Jesus, there was a need for turning a page, that’s the understanding; it’s not the case that’s what Muslims believe, that is not the Quranic view at all, that God spoke only once to Muhammad, that’s not the Quranic belief

ROY: True, true enough..

SEN: But you said that Subroto!

ROY: What I meant was “definitively”, the word “definitively” meaning that…
SEN: Definitively they would say that at each stage there was a memory, and the memory and the understanding got corrupted over time and that’s why they were also so wild about idolatry for example

ROY: Well the Ahmadiyas, for example, are considered non-believers by many Muslims because they claim that there …

SEN: That also brings out the point I was making, that Ahmadiyas see themselves as Muslim….

ROY: Indeed.

SEN: …and in terms of one of the definitions of Muslim that I am giving you, namely as a person who sees himself as a Muslim, or herself as a Muslim, and regards that identity to be important is a Muslim according to that definition; another one would apply a test which is what many of the more strict Sunnis and Shias do, namely, that whether they accept Muhammad as the last prophet, and insofar as Ahmadiyas don’t accept that, then they would say then you are not Muslim…

ROY: Well they do actually…

SEN: Well they do, but in terms…I think what I am telling you is that in terms of the Shia-Sunni orthodox critique they say that in effect they don’t accept that, that is the charge against them, but those who believe that would say that on that ground Ahmadiyas are not Muslim. So I think there is a distinction in the different ways that Muslims can be characterised….