The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen

India’s only surviving Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen is a man of many parts. The great Indian litterateur and nationalist Rabindranath Tagore once wrote of Gandhi, ‘Great as he is as a politician, as an organizer, as a leader of men, as a moral reformer, he is greater than all these as a man, because none of these aspects and activities limit his humanity. They are rather inspired and sustained by it’. To a large extent Sen’s personality can be encapsulated in that statement. He is no politician or moral reformer though but an economist and social reformer of the first order. Sen’s agenda has always been much higher than that of an armchair economics messiah evangelizing market mantras or conjuring up capitalist abracadabra. Instead what he does is focus his energies on creating practical solutions to alleviate poverty and suffering in the planet he inhabits. His seminal works like ‘Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation’ ‘Rationality and Freedom’, ‘Commodities and Capabilities’ and ‘Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’, people in the know contend, bring forth the magnanimity of this vision, the epic span of his world-view.

Amartya Sen was born in 1933 in Santiniketan, the University town identified with Tagore. The latter was a close friend of Sen’s maternal grandfather who taught Sanskrit there. So Tagore it was who named the baby Amartya meaning immortal – a rare instance of one Nobel Laureate naming another, that too in a country where number of this prize’s winners can be counted on the fingers of one’s hand. He was schooled in Viswa Bharati, Presidency College, Delhi School of Economics and Trinity College, Cambridge. He taught Economics at Kolkota, Delhi, Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. He is currently Lamont University Professor at Harvard. He received the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998 and the Bharat Ratna the next year. He has had no less than 53 honorary degrees conferred on him. Sen’s first wife Nabneeta Deb is a Bangla poet and Professor of Humanities at MIT. Their daughters are Antara (who edits The Little Magazine and writes a column in The Week) and Nandana (and actress and film maker based in NY). After parting with Nabneeta, Sen married an Italian called Eva Colorni who died of cancer in ’85 and with whom he had sired two children, Indrani (a journalist in NY) and Kabir (who teaches music in Boston). His present wife is the economic historian Emma Rothschild who is a Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge and an expert on Adam Smith.

As a child Sen was witness to the Great Bengal Famine of 1942 and that has had a huge impact on his later career and thinking. His fight against poverty with analysis than activism earned him the sobriquet of ‘Mother Teresa of Economics’. Sen is a scholar who is held in equally high regard by theoretical, empirical and policy economists as well as by philosophers and political theorists. One can add ‘cultural enthusiasts’ to that fans’ list, thanks to a book he wrote last year titled ‘The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History , Culture and Identity’.

The Guardian newspaper of London writes that there can be few people better equipped than Sen 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 replaced by the stereotype of India as the back office of the world. Sen sure breaks those stereotypes and he does it resoundingly. In his expounding of the Indian socio-economic-cultural paradigms, he comes through as a cross between Shashi Tharoor and Gurcharan Das. One characteristic he shares with those writers is a scorn for the twisted logic of religious fundamentalists that make them give their own preferred flavor to history and geography. The collection of sixteen essays in this book includes two on the pillars of Bengali and Indian renaissance, Tagore and Satyajit Ray. This is only natural. The book takes it name from the first essay, where the author closely examines India’s rich heritage of heterodoxy and argumentative traditions of public discourse. Sen argues that India’s genius stems from stems from its diversity, from the way that its different orthodoxies have always been challenged. Indians have always had a habit of asking difficult questions. They also like to speak, often at length. India’s ancient epics are the longest poems ever composed, while an Indian delivered the longest speech at the UN. Sen has a subtle point when he says: In India during the 16th century, Mughal emperor Akbar was declaring that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him’ at a time when most of Europe was burning under the Inquisition. In Press conferences across Delhi’s intellectual circles, Sen is the only person who addresses our PM as ‘Manmohan’. The warm association between the two economists goes back to almost half a century.sen

The Argumentative Indian is undoubtedly a laudable achievement. It is an elegant product of one of the most distinguished minds of our time.

(Feb 06)

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