The Argumentative Indian – A Review

The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity by Amartya Sen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Published during the decade of rising communal violence, every essay in this book urges Indians to figure out an identity that is not rooted in their religion. Most Indians have a largely black and white attitude towards things: western influence, bad; culture and values, good; rationalisation, bad; faith, good. Almost every good hindu parent narrates selective stories from Mahabharata and Ramayana to their kids – the guys learn to listen to their elders from Rama and girls learn to never laugh out loud from Draupadi. What we all miss out on are the hidden stories about the fisherwoman, the eunuch and the doubtful husband, until we become too old to change ourselves. That’s the problem.

“If traditionalism were proper, the prophets would have merely followed their elders” – Akbar

When there are a bunch of extremists resisting technological innovations from the west, there are others making movies and writing books that depict India the way west wants to see us, as the mysterious land of snake charmers. Amartya Sen has made a strong argument by bringing out the thoughts and actions of the enlightened minds in India’s own history like Aryabhatta, Ashoka, Akbar, Rabindranath Tagore and more to prove Indians should not be defined by how the world sees them, nor should it close itself to the external world.

Sharing of ideas between countries, tolerance towards other religious beliefs, rational thinking and scientific discoveries are as much a part of Indian history as the west. And deeming them western is not just ignorance but a dangerous mistake.

I particularly liked the essay about Rabindranath Tagore, the man who wrote our national anthem, who stood strongly against patriotism and nationalism. It was quite interesting to find out how glaringly opposite ideologies Gandhi and Tagore, the spearheads of our freedom, had. While Gandhi was all about nationalism, Tagore believed in freedom of thought:

“Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origins. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine. Therefore it hurts me deeply when the cry of rejection rings loud against the west in my country with the clamour that the Western education can only injure us.”

The Tagore Sen describes did not see India’s culture as fragile and in need of protection from western influence and insisted that as important as history is, reasoning has to go beyond the past. This Tagore was not whom I read about in my history books.

The book is an easy read but since it’s a collection of sixteen essays written at various times, you’ll read about the same people and ideas and anecdotes again and again. Still his arguments are the need of the hour and I’d recommend it to every Indian uncomfortable with the religious or cultural identity she was born with.

“The same person can be of Indian origin, a Parsee, a French citizen, a US resident, a woman, a poet, a vegetarian, an anthropologist, a university professor, a Christian, a birdwatcher, an avid believer in extraterrestrial life and of the propensity of alien creatures to ride around the cosmos in multicoloured UFOs.” – Sen

And I couldn’t agree more.

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