Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian

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.

18 comments:

  1. Great review Jai, and definitely whetted my apetite for the book. By the way, linguistic analysis does assign the Bhagavad-Gita a latter date than the Mahabharata, so it was a tack-on text, rather than an integral part of the epic.

    Don't despair of silly questions, even those who were disputing Sen's depiction of Indians as argumentative were doing it from a fine argumentative tradition :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Did you watch him interviewed by Karan Thapar? I thought that a few good points were made.

    ReplyDelete
  3. After a number of seminars I have realised most people ask questions purely in order to put their stupendous cleverness on display. Fifteen seconds when everyone will gawp at their brilliance, or so they think. Which is why most questions in academic or semi-academic do's exemplify colossal undiluted stupidity and even worse assholishness, pardon the francaise. A reluctance to listen, and a stubborn failure to understand. That's what passes for and even worse is excused as "the reading of the thesis." Fuck-all post-modernese for idiocy.

    ReplyDelete
  4. In my youth, which is long past, in the glorious west, we had a simple way of cutting down on stupid questions when guest lecturers visited.

    It was a 15-word-rule-if you couldn't frame the question within 15 words,
    either, it was too complex to be asked at a public forum
    or
    you were disrespecting everyone present by demanding their attention while you framed sloppy questions.

    It works like a charm especially if you appoint a cheerleader squad to count down every word as the interrogator speaks, and chant "Out!! Out!!" if they overstep the limit.

    :)

    DD

    (I will be truly impressed if somebody identifies the quote with which I started this comment)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thalassa: thanks. It is pretty entertaining when someone stands up and says in belligerent tone "How can you say we Indians are argumentative!!"

    Hemangini: nope, missed that. But can hear the two tinny voices in my head now! Should've been fun.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "Many are my names in many countries. Mithrandir to the Elves, Tharkûn to the Dwarves; Olórin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten, in the South Incánus, in the North Gandalf; to the East I go not."
    Hey Anonymous, we in the less glorious East got a little book-learning too y'know. Jabberwock, please forgive use of your blogspace for retaliatory rant.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Brill Felix - I like cats too!
    DD

    ReplyDelete
  8. Brill Felix - I like cats too!
    DD

    ReplyDelete
  9. Brill Felix - I like cats too!
    DD

    ReplyDelete
  10. I read _TAI_ last month and quite enjoyed it myself. I had been looking forward to the book and was completely hooked once I read that couplet by Roy about the tragedy of death. :)

    Good stuff. :)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Jaane_Bhi_Do_Yaaron1:38 PM, December 28, 2005

    Excuse me, i'm a bit late. I thought Jai was a sensible young man - that's why i visited the site. Find his columns in Business Standard (the only newspaper i find worth reading) interesting. Find it a bit weird that Jai has such a shine for Amartya Sen of all the people. I thought Amartya Sen belonged to the "Arundhati Roy" brand of people - electricity is bad, dams are bad, metro trains are bad, privatisation is bad, let's go back to lantern days etc. etc. For my taste (which includes both social and economic liberalism), Amartya is too conservative/rigid on economic matters which is opposite to the liberalism he advocates on social issues.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I loved this book, especially that essay on Tagore. His interview that he did for NPR was actually pretty interesting, and the questions were...well fun to listen to.

    ReplyDelete
  13. But don't you think the 'argument' in The Argumentative Indian is rather too facile and rests on only a few citations? If the central thesis of the book was to prove that the tradition of dialectics existed in India big time, then, I guess, Sen should have analysed more texts with more depth.

    His next book I like more. Its seeds are in The Argumentative Indian, in the corollary that 'arguments' have been used by various groups/individuals to form their unique and distinct identies.

    I remembered Crash, the movie, when I read Identity and Violence (hope I got the name right). Anybody remembers that particular line in the movie (or was it a lead in text?) which has a statement on how we "crash in to each other" in order to be ourselves? The process of identity formation is inherently violent...

    Now that is literature and epistemology rolled into one!

    ReplyDelete
  14. I wrote about Identity and Choice here, incidentally.

    ReplyDelete
  15. the book gets you thinking right from the start... one of the things you think about is the inter religious relations in india... that's why i picked that topic for a college project and now i need some help please... can you tell me, what in your opinion is the effect of terrorism on inter religious relations in india??? please!!!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Hi Jai,
    I started reading this book recently and got gelled to it as you did.. There is a book reading tonight by the author at Tanglin club and I registered myself for the talk..

    Will let you know how it went in Singapore.. :)

    ReplyDelete
  17. The Bhagavad Gita is not for the materially intelligent but spiritually unintelligent people like Amartya Sen. He will have to take some more births before he becomes able to understand Bhagavad Gita. He wants the Bhagavad Gita to be supplemented. Anyway it was not possible for Arjuna to read that as the Mahabharata was written after the war was over. For people like Amartya Sen there is the Mahabharata to read. Leave Bhagavad gita alone. It is beyond your xcomprehension, Mr. Sen.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I know this is a very old post, and I am sure that you have already come across this rather old conversation, but here it is just in case you missed it - http://www.opendemocracy.net/
    arts-Literature/pen2_3520.jsp

    the Q&A session at the end still sucks.

    ReplyDelete