I often struggle with non-fiction, or worse, have a mental block against it at times (though this doesn’t extend to subjects that are of special interest to me - books on cricket or cinema/biographies of cricketers, directors or actors). So it was very strange to find myself so hooked by Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian that I spent most of Sunday reading it. (It was the most relaxed Sunday I’ve had in months, btw, and I tackled Sen in between finishing Terry Pratchett’s superb The Fifth Elephant and watching Amitabh and Zeenie Baby wrestle in Don on Set Max. Ah, bliss.)
I’m halfway through The Argumentative Indian and plan to get through the rest before the week is out. It’s written in precise, clear language and never ascends into the kind of top-heavy Academia that scares away readers (like me) who haven’t had experience tackling heavy theses or essays as students. But even so, I needed an entry point in terms of subject matter that would draw me into the book. That came very early on, when Sen treats the Bhagavad Gita not so much as a Gospel handed down by a divine being to a mortal one but as a record of two arguments, each of which have their merits. "Arjuna’s contrary arguments are not really vanquished, no matter what the ‘message’ of the Bhagavad Gita is meant to be," he writes. "These arguments remain thoroughly relevant in the contemporary world."
This struck a chord. It’s always been a sour point with me that the Gita, with its unequivocal "message", should form a crucial part of something as infinitely complex as the Mahabharata - a work that, perhaps more than any other in literature, allows for the presentation of contrarian positions and perspectives, and for moral ambiguity (it’s no coincidence that we have literary works that present the events of the Mahabharata as depicted through the eyes of individual characters: Draupadi, Duryodhana, Karna, Bheema, Ashwatthama...and now apparently a forthcoming one on the inconsequential Sahadeva). I was enthralled by the Mahabharata at a very young age, and even as a child resisted attempts (by orthodox grandparents and other elders) to paint it as a simple story about good vanquishing evil. And I was always bemused by the presence, in this profound human drama, of something as grand and preachy as the Gita. Consequently, Sen’s words that "the univocal ‘message of the Gita’ requires supplementation by the broader argumentative wisdom of the Mahabharata, of which the Gita is only one small part" made a lot of sense.
But of course, Sen’s presentation of the Mahabharata (and the Ramayana, and the Vedas) as being more complex and ambiguous than they are sometimes made out to be, is only one small part of this collection of illuminating essays, the central thesis of which is that India has had a long tradition of heterodoxy and pluralism, and that the reason for this is the country’s history of constructive argumentation and disputation. Sen discusses too many aspects of Indian history to recount here, but they include: the role played by emperors like Ashoka and Akbar in encouraging pluralistic discourse; the harm done by the encouragement of a myopic view of Hinduism by the Hindutva brigade; the fact that the primary condition (ie a tradition of public discussion) for democracy existed in India long before it came under British rule; and the dangers inherent in seeing India’s history in terms of an essentially ‘Hindu civilisation’, when history by its very nature disallows easy classification of people and cultures.
I’ve read only nine of the 16 essays so far but one of the most interesting is the one on Rabindranath Tagore, which suggests that the reason for the West’s declining interest in Tagore’s work is that, with his radical views, he eventually failed to fit the stereotype of the mystical poet from the east. Some excellent stuff here, especially about the contrasts in the thinking of Tagore and Gandhi, and the former’s criticism of patriotism (again, a subject that I’m particularly interested in).
There’s much more in The Argumentative Indian, and I strongly recommend you read it for yourself. Also, check these two related links: on Akhond of Swat, from Nilanjana’s weekly column for Business Standard, and on The Middle Stage, Chandrahas’s take on the book.
P.S. Attended Sen’s reading at IHC last evening. It wasn't too good. Most of what he read I’d come across in the book already, and the question-and-answer session was a joke, the questioners more or less equally divided between those who tried, pathetically, to be facetious ("Who would you say is more argumentative, the Indian man or the Indian woman?") and those whose questions were built on a misunderstanding of the word "argumentative" (I think there were a few people who had come for the reading with no prior idea of what the book was about, and had assumed it was critical of "Indians who argue"). All told, waste of time. Strengthens my resolve to stay at home with books and never meet anyone.