Book Reviews

The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity by
Amartya Sen

Penguin Books (UK) and Farrar, Straus and Giroux (USA)

Economists, even those who are winners of the Nobel Prize, are rarely writers of dazzling prose. Amartya Sen is an exception, and he proves it in his collection of irresistible essays.

Argumentative these pieces are indeed, and a lively discussion will take place between Sen and his reader. Whether he examines Indian cinema, poetry, or its history of calendars, Sen links his subjects to themes with worldwide resonance. An essay on the Ramayana and the Mahabarata takes aim at the need for public discussion to foster true democracy. An examination of the art of Satyajit Ray’s films leads to a look at the dangers of cultural elitism and the diversity that is lumped into the term "Asian values." His unsparing discussions of social class and gender inequalities in India are guaranteed to make readers look at their own nations and squirm.

Sen gives voice to concerns that are often ignored in our new century, most notably when he writes about nuclear arsenals with their "imagined radiance of perceived power" and the overwhelming importance of "an effective and rapid disarmament." Using the Cuban missile crisis as an example, Sen delicately points out "risks have been taken … by people with impeccable credentials on sanity and lucidity," and reminds us of Robert Oppenheimer’s quotation of Krishna, "I am become death, the destroyer of worlds," after the explosion of the first atom bomb.

Frequently described as a globalist, Sen will probably ruffle a few feathers with his historical view of that much-maligned concept. Quoting Voltaire’s assessment of India’s gifts to the West, "our numbers, our backgammon, our chess, our first principles of geometry, and the fables which have become our own," Sen argues that the flow of "ideas, people, goods, and technology" across the globe is what has enabled nations to progress and "has shaped the history of the world." It may be argued that MacDonalds benefits the globe far less than did the invention of zero, but argument is precisely what this gentleman hopes to encourage.

Although many of his topics are no laughing matter, Sen’s humor is frequently employed to fine effect. When writing about gender inequality, he points out that a report issued by a committee that was appointed by the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization classified household work as "sedentary activity." "It was hard not to think," Sen remarks, "that the lack of experience on the part of the patrician members of that august committee might have had a role in the remarkable diagnosis that household work was sedentary."

With his well-furnished mind, well-honed wit, and well-informed knowledge of history, Amartya Sen has given his readers a highly opinionated and entertaining look at his country (and the world) that will entertain, infuriate, and provoke discussion. Several cups of coffee taken with one of his essays in the morning are guaranteed to jumpstart any mind and keep it racing for the rest of the day.

Reviewed by Janet Brown