IN 2002, A YEAR AFTER AMARTYA SEN'S well-known essay on hunger, ‘Old Torments and New Blunders,’ was first published, I travelled through parts of northwest Madhya Pradesh and adjacent areas of Rajasthan, which are home to Sahariya tribals, to report on hunger-related deaths in the community. I learnt for myself the truth of Sen’s observation that a free media serves as a vital check on the government, but that it is much better at highlighting famine than undernourishment. A handful of starvation deaths were enough to ensure that the state machinery reacted speedily to prevent further casualties. But, over the years, I found that the persistent malnutrition in the Sahariya belt never made for a story that would interest editors and readers in Delhi.
The essays in The Country of First Boys, which include ‘Old Torments and New Blunders,’ are by far the most accessible introduction to the work of Sen the public intellectual, if not Sen the academic. They range across a number of topics—Indian calendar systems, education, media, hunger, justice and development—that have been of concern to this philosopher and economist over his six-decade career. Sen provides a concise description of what holds the pieces together, pointing out in the introduction that they “all share an interest in India seen in a non-sectarian perspective, and reflect a concern with equity and justice, in different areas of human life—social, political, economic, cultural and intellectual.”