[Paleopsych] Guardian: (Sen) Beyond the call centre
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Wed Jul 27 20:39:28 UTC 2005
Beyond the call centre
Nobel laureate Amartya Sen offers a brilliant corrective to the myths
surrounding his homeland in The Argumentative Indian, says Soumya
The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and
by Amartya Sen
Allen Lane £25, pp409
This needs saying at the outset. In itself, it might seem like an
unremarkable fact, but it actually is not: Amartya Sen is a citizen of
India. While most of his countrymen who have been able to leave India
for a long time try their best to become citizens of the country they
might have gone to (Britain, America, Canada, Australia), Sen, a man
whom Cambridge and Harvard are said to have fought over for the
privilege of offering an appointment, resolutely retains his blue
Indian passport after half a century of towering intellectual
achievement across the world.
Every year, the 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize for economics returns
to Santiniketan, the tiny university town 100-odd miles from Calcutta.
In Santiniketan, the former Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, can
be seen on a bicycle, friendly and unassuming, chatting with the
locals and working for a trust he has set up with the money from his
Nobel Prize. One of the most influential public thinkers of our times
is strongly rooted in the country in which he grew up; he is deeply
engaged with its concerns.
There can, then, be few people better equipped than this Lamont
University Professor at Harvard to write about India and the Indian
identity, especially at a time when the stereotype of India as a land
of exoticism and mysticism is being supplanted with the stereotype of
India as the back office of the world.
In this superb collection of essays, Sen smashes quite a few
stereotypes and places the idea of India and Indianness in its
rightful, deserved context. Central to his notion of India, as the
title suggests, is the long tradition of argument and public debate,
of intellectual pluralism and generosity that informs India's history.
One of the book's many triumphs is its tone. Sen does not indulge in
triumphalism about his country's past; nor does he spare Western
influences (like James Mill's History of British India) that have
oversimplified and distorted the Indian reality.
While talking about Indian democracy, for instance, he cautions: 'It
is important to avoid the twin pitfalls of 1) taking democracy to be
just a gift of the Western world that India simply accepted when it
became independent, and 2) assuming that there is something unique in
Indian history that makes the country singularly suited to democracy.'
The truth is far more complex and somewhere between these two views.
Sen refutes the facile Western description of India as a 'mainly Hindu
country' with the same rigorous scholarship that he demolishes the
isolationist, circumscribed view of Hindutva held dear by the Hindu
right that ruled India between 1999 and 2004.
Illuminated with examples from the teachings and lives of emperors
such as Akbar and Ashoka, with illustrations from the epics, The
Ramayana and The Mahabharata, and a staggering range of other
references, he propounds a view of Hinduism as an inclusive philosophy
rather than an exclusionist, divisive religion. This view of Hinduism
is mature enough and magnanimous enough to accommodate dissenting
views and 'even profound scepticism'. This is a 'capacious view of a
broad and generous Hinduism, which contrasts sharply with the narrow
and bellicose versions that are currently on offer, led particularly
by parts of the Hindutva movement'.
Sen's tone is heartwarmingly celebratory in two essays, which talk
about two figures who are exemplars of the heterodoxy that reflects
the best of the Indian tradition.
One essay is a spirited tribute to Rabindranath Tagore, India's only
Nobel Laureate in literature. 'When poets die,' wrote Martin Amis in
his defence of Philip Larkin, 'there is usually a rush to judgment: a
revaluation, a retaliation - a reaction.'
In the case of Tagore (poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist,
playwright, educationist but chiefly known in the West as a poet), the
revisionism happened very much during his lifetime. The early
advocates of his work, among them Ezra Pound and WB Yeats, went from
championing him to deriding him and Tagore's reputation lapsed into
oblivion outside his own country before long. Sen dwells on the
untranslatability of Tagore's work but argues that that was only part
of the problem. Yeats and Pound and the others denounced Tagore
because they could not, after a while, fit him into the exotic,
spiritual Eastern pigeonhole in which they had put him. They wanted a
mystic, a sage, and they missed altogether the point of the liberal,
rationalist, humane thinker.
The second essay concerns the cinema of Satyajit Ray, one of India's
greatest film-makers. Ray, whose debut film, Pather Panchali (Song of
the Little Road), celebrates its golden jubilee this year and endures
still as an outstanding, poignant and relevant movie, was more than
merely a film-maker. He was an extraordinarily gifted writer, artist
and composer, seamlessly moving between the worlds of Western and
Indian classical music.
While his films have won many awards at festivals at Cannes, Venice
and Berlin, in no way did he ever make his films pander to a
preconceived notion of the Orient. His films are authentically Indian,
rooted in the province of their origin (Bengal) and indisputably
Sen argues that Ray achieved this synthesis by drawing on the
heterodox tradition of India; he was willing to learn from other
cultures and was able to blend that knowledge with what he had imbibed
from his own. 'In our heterogeneity and in our openness lies our
pride, not our disgrace. Satyajit Ray taught us this, and that lesson
is profoundly important for India. And for Asia, and for the world.'
This is a book that needed to have been written. The perception of
India in the West and, indeed, among Indians themselves has never been
more amorphous as it is now. The Argumentative Indian will provide a
new dimension and perspective to that perception. It would be no
surprise if it were to become as defining and as influential a work as
Edward Said's Orientalism.
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