Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Argumentative Indian

I have been reading Amartya Sen’s “The Argumentative Indian” for quite sometime now. While Amartya Sen is a renowned Economist and a Noble Laureate, he is not much of a historian and this book stands testimony to that.

The comments on the back of the book claim a lot about this being the best account of Indian history that must be read by every Indian. I beg to disagree. I strongly feel that Dr.Sen should focus on Economics and leave history to historians.

The book is supposed to be a collection of essays on Indian culture, History and Identity. However there is a lot of repetition in all the essays and what stands stark clear is Dr.Sen’s limited knowledge of Indian History. All the essays revolve around one or all of the below points though the titles are different:
The Bhagavad Gita as an argument between Krishna and Arjuna in the Mahabharatha
Javali’s argument with Rama quoted in Ramayana
Akbar’s forming Din Illahi as a combination of religions
Dr.Sen’s strong views against the BJP

There is a lot more to Indian History than just this. It so happens that I have read Jawaharlal Nehru’s “The Discovery of India” which is also a book on Indian culture, History and Identity. My view is that Nehru’s knowledge of Indian history was much more broader and his thoughts and views on India and the passion he had for his motherland are brought out much better in his book.

I am not sure if you have read it but “The Discovery of India” is definitely the best account of Indian History from one of her greatest citizens. As one reads the book , one can picturise Nehru sitting in Ahmednagar fort thinking about India, with pride while narrating her glorious past, with pity while narrating her then state (prior to Independence) and with determination and hope about her future. One can empathise with a great leader who was far ahead of his generation, whose thoughts are pertinent today. Nehru takes you through Indian history like a friend. If you have not read Nehru’s book it is high time you read it.

Coming back to “The Argumentative Indian”, the book gives you limited views of Indian History and its argumentative tradition from an Economist who studied in Oxford. Let me leave you by telling two good things about the book. The first thing is the book gives you some insight into Rabindranath Tagore’s life and how his thoughts differed from those of Mahatma Gandhi, thanks to Dr.Sen’s days in “The Shatiniketan” early on in his life. I haven’t read much about Tagore so far and I found the essay on Tagore to be good.

The other thing I liked in Sen’s book was a reference to this interesting quote from Ram Mohun Roy which I had never come across before.
“Just consider how terrible the day of your death will be.
Others will go on speaking, and you will not be able to argue back.”

Anyone out there, who has read one or both of these books, what do you think? I will be more than happy to take the argument further :-)