Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen
Francis Bacon said ‘some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.’, and this book would certainly fall in the last category. This is probably the best book I have read in recent times, and you can not help but admire the vastness of knowledge and the completeness of vision that Dr. Sen displays, though you may or may not agree with what he says. It is a collection of 16 essays, divided into four categories and with 4 chapters each, covering the heterodoxy, culture, politics and identity of India and Indians.
Though the whole book is digestible, I particularly liked the chapter on Western Imagination of India, where he talks about three types of imaginations that the westerners have of India, and all of them are so different from each other and so polar that none of them is the true perception. His chapter on India and China talks about the cultural, scholastic and trade exchanges that happened between the two civilizations over the ages. He talks about what India and China learnt from each other then, and what they need to learn from each other now, makes an interesting reading, to see how few things have not changed over the eons and how some things have become contrary to what they were in earlier eras. Nalanda, probably the oldest university has been well described, where scholars from around the world came, learnt, researched and carried their learnings backs home. Chapter on ‘Class’ looks at the multi-dimensional approach to class divisions in Indian society and he highlights how the uni-dimensional data can be an wrong representation of true divisions that exist in our society. I really like the chapter on calendars, before reading this I had never thought of calendars having so much history, science and politics hidden in them.
In multiple chapters he refers to the age old literature of Kalidas, to Ramayana and Mahabharata, to the travelogues of the age old Chinese travelers to India, to Tagore and to contemporary writers like Shashi Tharoor. His references to Kalidas’s Meghadoot and Tagore’s Geetanjali actually made me take a break from the book and read the poems (though not completely). In one of the chapters he compares the love-hate / competitive relationship between Tagore and Gandhi. How their goal was same but the visions were so different. How Gandhi’s focus was nationalism even at the cost of progress, while Tagore believed in a global soul, and believed in internationalism rather than nationalism. His inclination towards Tagore is clearly visible, probably because of the early years that he has spent in Shantiniketan.
In the initial chapters you tend to see a lot of repetitiveness in the content, but as you go ahead, you get to see the context of it, but towards the end you again find the initial chapters almost repeating themselves. Throughout the book, you can sees strong opinions that Dr Sen has, like he is strong admirer of Ashoka and Akbar, former for promoting Buddhism and the later for an attempt for creating a new religion called Din-e-elahi, which was supposed to be a culmination of good things from all religions. He has a natural bias for Bengalo intellectuals which shows when he compares Gandhi and Tagore and when he quotes references from other Bengalis, including his family members. He is very strongly anti-BJP, and he uses a 360 degree approach to prove that whatever they are doing is wrong. But like almost all intellectuals he also fails to explain one argument and that is ’Why are only Hindu organizations are considered bad in India, and all other minority organizations are just fine, though they may be responsible for equal no. of incidents in the country?’ But then I think I am just argumenting like the Indian described by Dr. Sen…
A book that I would strongly recommend to anyone who has any kind of interest or inclination in India, I am already looking forward to reading his next book.