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Title: The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity
Author: Amartya Sen
Genre: Non-Fiction
Page Count: 391
Publisher: Penguin




Basic Plotline Premise: In a collection of sixteen essays, Amartya Sen discusses (as the title suggests) various aspects of Indian history, culture, and identity, focusing most broadly and generally on Indian intellectual traditions and how the diversity of them has played a part in India's past and present across many different axes such as development, politics, religion, and social justice.

The Positives: The strongest point of this book is it's theory and premise. Sen does an extraordinary job of dispelling notions that India and Indianness can ever be neatly circumscribed.

Overall, the first section was the best, focusing on the diversity of India's intellectual, religious and philosophical traditions in ways that a lot of scholars - particularly Western ones - often miss. For instance, Sen goes into some detail about the long history of India's agnostic and atheistic traditions, something that gets slighted when people (as he states repeatedly) want to paint India as being a Hindu country as though that's all it has or ever will be, as though it doesn't house the third largest population of Muslims in the world, along with a long standing communities of Jews that have been there since the fall of Jerusalem, and Christians who have also been there for centuries.

This book is fiercely and unapologetically intellectual. I appreciated that aspect of it, even when it forced a slower pace from me to let the ideas truly sink in. Sen has a richness of theory in this book that deserves very careful contemplation. Particularly such approaches as an intertwined morality and practicality in "India and the Bomb" or the detailed deconstruction of Western approaches to India.

Sen does his best work when he uses his thesis to examine very specific points. "India and the Bomb" is a prime example. The repetitiveness is minimal when the theory is best shown, not told. Simply pointing to the facts of India's history of nuclear armament and relations with Pakistan proves his point better than any rhetoric. As he brilliantly points out, arming first and testing first not only gave Pakistan the ready excuse to launch their own program, but it did a lot to neutralize India's military advantage because of larger numbers. Now, Pakistan doesn't need to match India for numbers of troops. They just need to build one big bomb and lob it across the border and they've got the same destructive capabilities of their much larger neighbor. Therefore, it is not just a moral question, but a practical one that must be answered when it comes to nuclear power.

Another success is "Tagore and his India", which I think is most personable of the essays and it's clear that Sen is talking, if not from the heart, then from not just the intellectual parts of his mind.

Not a perfect book by any stretch of the imagination, and it definitely is not light reading, but it is worth the effort you put into reading, understanding, and synthesizing the ideas within. For all its flaws, Sen succeeds in laying out the depth and breadth of India's past and present intellectual wealth and showing not only it's past victories but areas where such a tradition is badly needed.

The Negatives: Sen is an very educated man, and it shows. The book's language often becomes inaccessible without a dictionary nearby. Repetition is also a problem, and once laced through out. Occasional, Sen makes the same point five different ways without saying anything new, just rehashing. He also does a lot of justifying of his own topic rather than getting on with it. Though, given the kind of reactions he faces both from Western sources and those inside India, I suppose one can forgive him wanting to state his case as strongly as possible.

I would never recommend this for beginners to Indian history. There is no India 101 done here. This isn't so much a fault of the author's, as something that might be a negative to a reader who hasn't yet been exposed to or had access to resources and materials about general Indian history. A reader is better served having at least a basic working knowledge of Indian history (both ancient and modern).

Of course, even with that knowledge the book could still throw you. The least successful of the essays, "India Through Its Calendars", falls short of adding anything worthwhile to the book. The entire essay could be summed up with: "India's got a lot of calendars, and you can tell about the many different cultures and histories of India from studying them", which is a nice statement but unless you're going to write an entire book in which you carefully lay out a framework through explaining how calendars work as a concept and what the variations are and why they're important (for instance, lunar versus solar), it seems a little pointless to write that essay.

The last essay, for instance, has about a page's worth of substantive material. The rest is justification and reptition and a summation of what the entire book was about. The real point was, "The Indian identity cannot be neatly circumscribed on any one axis because identity is partly choice and partly discovery and is very complicated and intersectional and so we need to respect that when we talk about an Indian identity or take actions." Which is pretty much the premise of the entire book. So unless you've just skimmed to the back, it isn't anything you haven't read a hundred times already.

Occasionally, the book's topics overreach and have to work on a shallower, generalized level. For instance, gender and class are two topics taken on. Given the size of India's population and the length of its history, just one of those topics could be its own multi-volume series of doorstopping tomes. Therefore Sen ends up saying very nice things, but nothing particularly insightful or helpful.

The gender essay, especially, bothered me. Sen lays out statistic after statistic, putting down hard numbers to compare the rates of missing women or neglect of female children or survival differences between boys and girls to the point where it got excessive for me as a reader.

These things may well slow a reader, or frustrate them at times, but I do think it is worth pushing through the occasional traffic jam of words and ideas to get to the ultimate destination.


CoC/Race Score: 8.5/10. I'm not sure how to score this, because racial identity and the title "Person of Color" can become a lot less helpful outside of Western, white-dominated nations and I don't know enough about how Sen identifies racially and how that plays out in various settings to give this an accurate score. I don't give it the full ten, because Sen does not deal a lot with race (he speaks more about religious and caste identities) - but at the same time he is confronting and wrestling (very well, I think) with notions that the West has of India and being very powerfully critical of the various modes of thinking the West has held about India, due in large part to racial notions held by Europeans and U.S.ians.

Gender Score: 6/10. Sen doesn't precisely get it wrong, but it feels like he says a lot of nice, bland things about women without asking any particularly tough questions or even specifying which women. His class essay makes it clear that he's aware that there are a lot of different spheres to occupy - so how does that intersect with "improving women's lives" and which women is he even talking about? At points, it feels like he talks about women as theoretical beings and statistical points rather than living human beings.

GLBT Score: 0/10. I can't grant a good faith zero, even though he's working on a very high, general level. A very powerful chance for examination was missed here, and Sen doesn't even really acknowledge that there's more than just men, women, and children. Indeed, an exploration of gender identities beyond the binary in India would have fit nicely in this book, as would a discussion of the diversity history of sexual identities and philosophies in India.

Ablism Score: 0/10. There isn't really any talk of disability in particular. I don't give this a full "good faith pass", because in discussions of public health and medical care, there is certainly not only room but good reason to talk about disability, and perhaps to talk about how theories of disability (ie - what is a disability, how should or how do people respond to it, where does this intersect with the economics and politics of India, etc) may operate in India and the kinds of diverse notions re: disability may be present there.
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