[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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