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The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity Paperback – September 5, 2006
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“This is a book that needed to have been written. . . . It would be no surprise if it were to become as defining and influential a work as Edward Said's Orientalism.” ―Soumya Bhattacharya, The Observer (London)
“The product of a great and playful mind at the peak of its power, The Argumentative Indian is the most stimulating and enjoyable book about the idea and identity of India to be written for years.” ―William Dalrymple, The New York Review of Books
“An intellectual tour de force from an economist who can lay equal claim to the designations of sociologist, historian, political analyst, and moral philosopher . . . Breathtaking in its range and scholarly eclecticism.” ―Shashi Tharoor, The Washington Post Book World
“Masterfully tying Indian concerns to broader social and philosophical questions, Sen addresses the many aspects of Indian identity.” ―Library Journal
About the Author
Amartya Sen was born in 1933 and grew up in Santiniketan and in Dhaka (now the capital of Bangladesh). As a student in India and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, he "seriously flirted, in turn, with Sanskrit, mathematics and physics before settling for the eccentric charms of economics," as he has written. Now Lamont University Professor at Harvard, he was Master of Trinity College from 1998 to 2004, and has taught at many other universities in Britain, the United States, and India. When Professor Sen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998, he was the first Asian to be so honored.
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Letting alone his writing, Sen’s views in The Argumentative Indian are quite refreshing. Rather than focusing on India’s religious properties, Sen discusses the lesser-seen traits of the country, such as its large calendar system and the relationship between itself and China. Sen even delves into topics that many try to avoid when speaking of any country, let alone India, like his chapter “India and the Bomb”. When Sen does occasionally cross over the topic of religion, he does agree that it is an important aspect of India but it is not the key. Sen also mentions that it is because of the emphasis on India’s religious qualities that the West is having a difficult time understanding the reality of India, saying in both chapters six and seven that “false-exoticism” and mysticism stem from the mistaken focus. With Sen’s adverse view in The Argumentative Indian, the average reader is finally able to get both sides of India’s story and a well-rounded view/knowledge of the entirety of the situation. Sen does attempt to not let his views take over and tries to play devil’s advocate for many of the arguments, but there are many moments throughout the novel where it can be seen that his bias has taken over.
Sen is renowned for his work in economics and this can easily be understood when looking through The Argumentative Indian. There are numerous occasions that Sen’s knowledge of his specialized subject shine through - facts and eloquent statements run rampant when let loose. However, they are quite frequently released at the wrong times. A perfect example of such is found within chapter sixteen of the novel; though it is titled “The Indian Identity”, at the very least a quarter of the chapter focuses on the effects India’s economy has on globality, constantly reiterating, “the big contribution that a global economy can undoubtedly make to the prosperity of the world”. It is moments like these - where Sen’s interests overcome the chapter’s focus - that have the reader thinking they are reading an opinion piece or an economics report rather than an analysis of India as a whole. Sen’s unique views help him greatly in numerous regards, but they also come back to bite him. Similar sentiment can be said as well when reviewing Sen’s use of information in his novel.
When reading The Argumentative Indian, it sometimes feels as if one is reading a history book when they are faced with the details Sen includes. Not only is the reader enlightened about historical events but figures as well, both past and present. From the famous Indian movie-maker Satyajit Ray to the great emperor Akbar, the relationship between China and India in the 7th century to India’s making of the atomic bomb, information abounds. Sen’s enthusiasm for giving gifts of information to the readers awards them with great knowledge that will be needed and used whenever discussing India. However, Sen’s generosity with information comes with a price - there is such a thing as giving too much.
Though Sen’s enthusiasm with bestowing knowledge to the reader is noted and appreciated, he does go overboard on more than one occasion. Sometimes Sen would be so enthusiastic of his teachings that he would become superfluous to the point where I found myself skipping pages at a time so as not to reread what had been discussed (and continued to be) for the past five pages. I found that even after skipping the pages and coming back to the text, I still had a perfect understanding of what was going on. Not only was I trying to avoid constant and duplicate reiterations, but sometimes entire pages would consist only of facts; not only is this daunting, but it can be tedious as well and therefore disconnect the reader from the text. The information Sen provides in The Argumentative Indian was useful at some points, but then useless at the next.
But what starts off as a potential classic, loses all cohesion as Sen starts throwing in revised essays and lectures, some dating back from as 10 years ago. A good read becomes a textbook, dreary, pedantic, and even tedious. A disjointed effort, but worth a look nontheless. Check it out at the library, or wait a few years for the price of a used copy to come down just a bit more.
I enjoyed this type of treatment (a collection of writings), because articles that appeared later in the book helped reinforce earlier discussion without being overly repetitive.
Interesting factoid- one artifact of India's diversity is that all 17 languages are found on Rupee paper currency.