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The Argumentative Indian: Writings On Indian History, Culture and Identity by by Amartya Sen

Posted By Nandan Datta On April 10, 2007 @ 8:48 am In History,India,Non-Fiction Reviews | 13 Comments

The Argumentative Indian: Writings On Indian History, Culture and Identity
by Amartya Sen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 409 pp.
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Ideation and Identity: A reader’s reflections on The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian is a book by Amartya Sen. Sen, now Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, was formerly Master of Trinity College and affiliated with many other universities in Britain, United States and India. The detailed vitae at Sen’s Harvard website lists the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics (which he won, unshared, in 1998) in its strict chronological place among seemingly countless other professional elections and awards.

The Argumentative Indian is a discussion on the genesis and direction of the Indian identity, in the context of a global intercourse of ideas, ancient and recent. Sen speaks in a language refreshingly appealing to readers uninitiated in formal economic theory; a feat often beyond many others of Sen’s erudition and eminence.

The book is a collection of sixteen essays (the author often refers to them as “papers”, the original versions of many were presented at conferences and lectures), thematically arranged in the sections Voice and Heterodoxy, Culture and Communication, Politics and Protest, and Reason and Identity, four under each heading. The book takes its name from the first essay, where the author closely examines India’s rich heritage of heterodoxy and argumentative traditions of public discourse. Sen’s book is also an argumentative book. He considers conflicting views with patience, and presents his perspective with a carefully woven network of cross references and supporting material. The Argumentative Indian, though a sufficiently provocative title, in a way narrows perceptions of the book (for those who will only hear its name). The book delves deeper and wider beyond the argumentative traits of the Indian.

The Argumentative Indian addresses several levels in its topicality. On one hand, it offers a great opportunity to understand the often confusing socio-political entity called India; especially in light of the recent interest in an upbeat Indian economy and its implications for the global market. (An interest, which must be accepted, is often instigated by trends of out-sourcing and its concomitant situations.) On the other hand Sen’s discussions have a lasting relevance in a world which is increasingly finding itself at the cross-roads of ideologies, often with tragically violent symptoms. (Sen examines the thesis of Samuel Huntington’s much mentioned book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order in several places in The Argumentative Indian and offers his reflections on the issue, not necessarily aligning with Huntington’s.)

A sadly glutinous perception of India’s past in the so called “Western” sensibility abounds with notions of vague religiosity, of sure-shot formulations of sexual ecstasy (I have met western tourists in India asking around for the nearest Kamasutra academy.), and of a steady supply of gurus, adequately ocher-clad and bearded, promising nirvana from the quagmires of modern existence. With copious references, Sen delineates a vibrant tradition of the pursuit of ideas across the spiritual, practical and scientific domains, and rues the blinkered view of India as,

… a serious neglect, particularly for a country in which some of the decisive steps in algebra, geometry and astronomy were taken, where the decimal system emerged, where classical philosophy dealt extensively with epistemology and logic along with secular ethics, where people invented games like chess, pioneered sex education and initiated systematic political economy and formal linguistics. (Secularism and its Discontents, p. 316).

But more importantly, Sen unequivocally confronts some of the “seclusionist” ideas that have been professed with disquieting zeal within India in the recent past, mainly by the backers of a certain political outlook that seeks to color the Indian identity in one religious denomination, to the extent of disowning any intellectual heritage that appear contrary. Not only does he categorically list and dismantle the major “discontents” that have been said to be brewing in the secular polity, he also points to the instances of gross academic impropriety that have been detected in efforts seeking to establish a version of history wholly felicitous to that particular politico-religious view.(India : Large and Small, pp. 62-69)

Throughout the book, Sen attempts and largely attains the elusive balance between the insider and outsider view on his subjects. (In spite of currently teaching at Harvard, and frequent and extensive traveling, Sen manages to maintain close contact with India and the Indian subcontinent, visiting and lecturing often. Incidentally, Sen remains an Indian citizen, a fact mentioned notably early in the biographical note at his Harvard website.) In the Preface, the demands of such neutrality are underscored,

As an involved Indian citizen, who is very concerned with Indian culture, history and politics – and also with general life in India – it is hard for me to refer to Indians as ‘they’ rather than ‘we’. So, ‘we’ it has been, not the distant ‘they’ (p. xvii).

Sen writes in a direct diction. His prose flows with easy linearity, belying the strong logical framework that supports underneath. The sense travels to the reader, sure and fast, and strangely striking.

Some Indians are rich; most are not. Some are very well educated; others are illiterate. Some lead easy lives of luxury; others toil hard for little reward. Some are politically powerful; others can not influence anything. Some have great opportunities for advancement in life; others lack them altogether. Some are treated with respect by the police; others are treated like dirt. These are different kinds of inequality,… (Class In India, pp. 210-211).

At times though, in the cross fire of weighty ideas, the reader does yearn a slight lightness, a humor with which Sen has written elsewhere, most notably in his autobiographical essay, published at the official Nobel Prize website. Sen offers some welcome interludes in this book. While examining the delicate and charged issue of whether Indian Muslims are sufficiently loyal to India – the litmus test considered to be public exhibitions of support to India in Indo-Pak cricket matches (cricket generates fanatical interest in millions of fans in the subcontinent) – we came across one of many cross references. Turning the pages to the Notes section, expecting citation of some redoubtable document, the reader comes across :

Whether or not Indian Muslims do this (cheer for the Pakistani team) in any significant numbers, I ought to confess that this non-Muslim author has often done just that, either when a Pakistani team plays as well as it frequently does, or when a Pakistani win would make the test series … more interesting. (p. 389)

On another occasion, capping the heavy discussions of the essay The Argumentative Indian, Sen writes,

I end on a positive (if somewhat light-hearted) note, by recollecting a nineteenth-century Bengali poem by Ram Mohun Roy which bears on the subject matter of this essay. Roy explains what is really dreadful about death: Just consider how terrible the day of your death will be./Others will go on speaking, and you will not be able to argue back. We are told, in line with our loquacious culture, that the real hardship of death consists of the frustrating – very frustrating – – inability to argue. (pp. 32-33)

Incidentally, this unexpected quotation offers a scope of affirming the pluralism Sen seeks to establishes in Indian traditions. A hymn sometimes sung in gatherings of the Brahmo Samaj — a liberal religious movement pioneered by Roy (Roy was a visionary social reformer and the earliest ideator of a modern Indian polity.) – has the couplet:

(In my spiritual quest,) I care not about the rigors of legality
Examination and cross-examination can only lead to vacuity;

(Original Bengali song by Rajanikanta Sen, lines adapted in English by the author of this essay.)

A posture, it may noted, rather different from Roy’s protestations at being robbed of the powers of arguing, even in death !

The writings in the Culture and Communication section stand somewhat apart in their explorations. Tagore and His India (pp. 89-120) is a deeply perceptive account of Rabindranath Tagore’s (1861-1941) life, works and the relevance of his world-view. Sen’s early education in the school founded by Tagore at Santiniketan, endows him with a rare perspective on Tagore’s ideals and vision. The essay also explores, with much sensitivity and candor, Tagore’s relationship with another iconic figure of modern India, Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), which was marked by their contrasting personalities and notable divergences of opinion, and abounding respect for one other. The essay China and India (pp. 161-192) is an exciting journey into the congress of two of the world’s oldest civilizations, and a comparison of some of the countries’ societal parameters of the recent times.

In a book such as The Argumentative Indian the reader expects something more than just incisive analysis, and pertinent conclusions; there is a quest for some ideas, that by their breadth and cogency (irrespective of the arguments bolstered or brought down), leaves the reader charmed, and possessed for much time after the book is finished. Sen rewards the reader with several such: the three ways India has been looked at by foreigners — exoticist, magisterial, and curatorial approaches (Indian Traditions and the Western Imagination, pp. 139-160), the notion of what Sen calls “friendly fire”, the phenomenon where

…the very institutions that were created to overcome disparities and barriers have tended to act as reactionary influences in reinforcing inequity. (Class in India, pp. 204-219),

the reflections on the how the identity of an individual is essentially a function of her choices, rather than the discovery of an immutable attribute (The Indian Identity, pp. 334-356); to mention only a few.

As stated earlier, the essays cite very many sources, which can be pointers to further study for interested readers. In Our Culture, Their Culture, Sen (while discussing Oscar winning Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s films) writes,

…the Ray films have neither cops nor robbers, well illustrated, for example, by Ray’s Mahanagari (The Great City), set in Calcutta, with many distressing events among joyous moments, leading to a deep tragedy, but with no villains on whom responsibility can be immediately pinned. (p. 128).

Ray’s film is titled Mahanagar. Mahanagari and Mahanagar are the feminine and masculine connotations respectively, of the same word – meaning “a great city” in Bengali; there may have been reasons why Ray chose to name the movie with the masculine variant. I am not sure “a deep tragedy” is apparent in the film’s denouement, in fact there is suggestion that the husband and wife are restored to mutual trust and affection, ironically when both of them find themselves without a job.

The Argumentative Indian is not an easy book. It calls for sustained cerebral commitment from the reader, challenging many extant notions with arguments grounded in realities of the world, old and new. The book’s power – and beauty – struck me at an odd place. I was reading the essay India: Large and Small (pp. 45-72) seated near the entrance of our local Super-Walmart (an oft occurring happy arrangement, that allows my wife to pick up our supplies without me getting into her hair !). As the mosaic of 21 century America floated past me, a potpourri of class, culture and communities, the heterogeneity of civilizations that Sen so brilliantly establishes in the book, suddenly awakened. It was a living idea; free from the scaffoldings of academic theory or philosophic ruminations.

Amartya Sen has written many books. (Thirty seven, before The Argumentative Indian; with another — Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny — forthcoming.) May he write many more to share the vistas of a lifetime’s research and inquiry with the lay readership. The world, in its current connectedness, and ensuing friction, needs voices such as Sen’s.


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