Review: The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

The Argumentative Indian

This review comes at a time when Dr. Amartya Sen's comments on Narendra Modi - chief minister of Gujarat state of India - have caused a furore in political parties like Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Dr. Sen had said that Modi would not be his choice for Prime Ministerial candidate because of the former's communal actions in 2002 and that his image is not such which generates enough confidence amongst the minority (principally the Muslims of India). Modi has taken refuge in the verdict of the court which still hasn't prosecuted him. Well, it may be said that hiding behind the Indian judicial system is the refuge of the scoundrel. Modi's PR team has been doing a very good job in spreading lies and rumours about the over-the-top efficient governance. One of them has been that Gujarat is a power surplus state and it sells power to other power-deficient states (which it actually does). Power-surplus but how? More needs to be unearthed before this is taken at face value. Electricity is generated either for single-phase instruments or three-phase instruments. Agricultural equipments need more power than the ones used in households. In the rural and agricultural areas of Gujarat, three-phase is made available only for a duration of 6-8 hours while the remaining hours are covered by single-phase. So, the 'extra' electricity generated and not used in those 6-8 hours is then sold to other states. There have been many protests by farmers and cultivators and even attacks on the electricity sub-stations in the past regarding this but have rarely been discussed in the media. This is again not to say that single-phase electricity is available round the clock in the rural areas - 'Load shedding' is a common term and practiced generously during summer time in the rural and sometimes even in the urban areas.

I had first read about this book when I was pursuing my graduation. The title had aroused my curiosity as to how could Amartya Sen, who was already well known in India by then for his Nobel Prize in Economics (some BJP-fascinated writers have even claimed that Dr. Sen has not won a Nobel but just another prize given along with other Nobel prizes), write a book - a complete book! - on argumentative Indian culture? Those were the days when my outlook was limited and vision not so lofty. I finally managed to satiate my curiosity and could very well understand how one could write a book on the said topic.

First things first. The chapters are essays which have been written by the author over a period of a decade or so. The presence of the brackets "()" almost on every page is so irritating that at one point of time I stopped reading and started counting how many times they figured in the last few pages I had read. I personally just don't like them (once in a while is fine, but not when they are plastered on every page!). Did you notice how the brackets broke the flow of the statement? They are equivalent not to the smooth curvy bumpers but to the ugly disoriented potholes. They destabilize your mental rhythms and emanate a pungent smell - strong enough for one to mouth an expletive or two.

Penguin Books - please don't do this anymore!

There are four sections: Voice and Heterodoxy; Culture and Communication; Politics and Protest; Reason and Identity. He starts with how Hindu nationalism has been usurped as a vindictive approach by politicians in garnering votes and dividing and sub-dividing the nation. He adds how women have always played an important and leading role in the Indian society - from Sarojini Naidu to Sonia Gandhi. Then he gives examples of women from the Vedas and ancient literature. All of this, however, wasn't very convincing to prove that Indian women had a good share. While writing on the Cārvāka system he mentions a line which caught my eye - "'[from these material elements] alone, when transformed into the body, intelligence, is produced, just as the inebriating power is developed from the mixing of certain ingredients; and when these are destroyed, intelligence at once perishes also". Does this mean that people (the atheists) back then were aware to a certain extent of evolution? They probably were cognizant of how life 'materialised' out of the elements of earth. The author writes, "the particular point of the focus on heterodoxy and loquaciousness is not so much to elevate the role of tradition in the development of India, but to seek a fuller reading of Indian traditions" and "seeing Indian traditions as overwhelmingly religious, or deeply anti-scientific, or exclusively hierarchical, or fundamentally unsceptical involves significant oversimplification of India's past and present". The first essay ends Ram Mohun Roy's poem which stresses on the "hardship of death" as the "inability to argue".

The rest of the book has writings on religion, politics, education, economics, language, poverty and science to name a few. Overall, the essays are clear, persuasive and enjoyable. An acceptable amount of overlap is present in the essays as they have been written independently of each other over a long period of time. He is definitely disappointed that Nehru's vision of India hasn't been realised, even after more than half a century of Independence, in three important categories: practice of democracy; removal of social inequality and backwardness; achievement of economic progress and equity. On the first goal, more or less we surely have progressed with a good pace despite of setbacks like Indira Gandhi's imposition of Emergency in 1975 (to this list should be added actions by the Congress-led UPA government like becoming an overtly cautious watchdog on the social media; Shiv Sena's deplorable actions against two young girls from Palghar when Bal Thackeray died). One, however, may not agree with all of his views: the lure of a seat in the Security Council doesn't hold for him.

Dr. Sen appears to be too impressed and awed by Rabindranath Tagore (Stupendranath Bregorr for GB Shaw). Tagore undoubtedly was an accomplished writer, poet and philosopher but when Dr. Sen praises him for his paintings it became a little difficult for me to digest. Recently I had visited National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Mumbai for an exhibition of Tagore's paintings. Tagore used to paint but was never trained in it. His paintings, honestly, weren't something to be in awe of or to be mesmerised by - some of them were thoughtful, but none, if I remember correctly, majestic. Again, this is not to say that Tagore as a painter didn't possess any skills - only that his skills as a painter is not something one would want to praise him for when his other skills are in abundance. Also, Dr. Sen is aptly right when he writes that Tagore had suddenly become so famous and sought after in the West not so much for his writing (he did win the Nobel Prize in Literature for Gitanjali) but more so for his mystical looks and sagely appearance and the exotic image the westerners had of India and Hinduism. An account of when Tagore met Einstein left me wondering and disappointed by Tagore's, religious and otherwise, views. Tagore said, "... the world is a human world"! Only human? "Truth is realized through man". Again, only by us?

Each section is important in itself, however, I felt the three best chapters were: Indian Traditions and Western Imagination (for delving deeper into how the West has predominantly viewed India as an exotic region with bearded sadhus and meditating swamis); China and India (for exploring the ancient ties that existed and enhanced with the spread of Buddhism); Women and Men (for the excellent analysis of the existing situation - in terms of women's inequality consisting of various factors: survival, natality, facilities, ownership, benefits and violence). The book starts with the importance of debates and arguments in a culture and gives examples of the same in the Indian context, but the rest is not linked to the 'core theme', if it can be said so because the book derives its name from it. It was amusing to read Sunil Khilnani's words of praise on the back cover: Dr. Sen's views on the concept of India as a unified region in terms of culture, religion and practices differ markedly from him. It was also intriguing as to why Mahatma Gandhi has been addressed as both 'Gandhiji' and 'Gandhi' - in a few paragraphs the two terms appearing in immediate sentences.

To conclude I would say that the essays are highly readable and make a good acquaintance for anyone interested in learning more about Indian history, culture and life. Though, and it is apparent in some essays, Dr. Sen has been little too harsh on the Hindutva-themed political parties. His criticism of Indira Gandhi for Emergency is non-existent and praises the electorate for over-throwing her in the subsequent elections. His pro-Congress stance is apparent and opposition to communal agendas clearly visible. Nevertheless, a book worth buying and keeping in one's bookshelf and referring to from time to time to broaden one's perspective of looking at the world around us.


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