The 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.’. This book The Argumentative Indian would certainly fall into the last category. This is probably the best book I have read in recent times. 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 learned 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, learned, researched and carried their learnings back home. The 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 a 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.

The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

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 of The Argumentative Indian, 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 The Argumentative Indian, you can see strong opinions that Dr. Sen has. Like he is a strong admirer of Ashoka and Akbar, former for promoting Buddhism. And the latter 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 Bengali 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…

The Argumentative Indian is 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.

Buy this book – The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian Culture, History and Identity by Amartya Sen at Amazon India.

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  1. Dusty, like your blog…

    Jedi, No this is the first book of his that I have read, though have already bought his next one.

  2. oh ok. read his older ones. u can see his worldview changing. its a nice 3pv. though most of it might be rather technical..

  3. Hi, while searching with the key as Din-e-elahi, I found your review on Amartya Sen. It’s really nice to go through it. It’s a well written review. Congrats for that.
    Well, I would like to obtain more details about the Akbar’s Din-E-Elahi. I searched a lot and couldn’t find much about the principles, ideas etc. So, it will be great if you can help me. Let me know your ideas.

  4. Hi Anuradha,

    I perfectly agree with your comment. This book is so delightful to read, even for me (I come from Morocco) who knows almost nothing about india. I am right now trying to translate it into French to digest it fully and completely.


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