Thursday, January 19, 2006

A Book and Its Covers: Amartya Sen - 'The Argumentative Indian'

Four months on, and I'm still excavating my way through Dr. Sen's attractively wrapped oevre, and I think this is because of his overwhelming taste for paralipsis. Almost every statement demands that I turn the three or four sentences that contain it over and under and around and about, to dismantle an example of proslepsis, or inspect a novel application of apophasis, and then search the double and triple negatives and other figures of circumlocution, just to see if the presentation could have been accomplished by any other means. This creates a sort of resistance to the idea itself, so that by the time I've processed the meaning through the manner, my mind is all aglow with the effort, like the filament in an incandescent bulb, and I feel terribly clever, occasionally delighted, and sometimes irritated to have got the point at all - although all I'm doing is reading his speeches turned into essays. Far be it from me to say that it's taking me nearly as long to read it as it must have taken Dr. Sen to write it - yet, I constantly ask myself as I read, does this make me nearly as much The Argumentative Indian as Amartya Sen himself?

This slow-reading setup means that the book has been lying open with its spine unconscionably stretched at every point where I gave up the game for the time being, often upside down, since I am bad and don't use bookmarks or even those pesky subscription things that float out of The New Yorker. The jacket I have is the last one down on this page, designed by Anna Bauer for the First American Edition, with artwork by Kailash Raj. For all I know, the other covers were created by the same team. I like the one I have best, because it is detailed, layered and richly disposed to keep that meaningful Kangra painting look, so I'm here, and quite unfairly have the prettiest version to look at until it retires sideways into a shelf in another season...

Channeling Dr. Sen as best I can, I must concede that I would be guilty of nothing short of beastly ingratitude, were I to fail to show my genuine appreciation of his immensely dense, or, one might say, intensely compact, delivery of precious information about the wealth, and breadth, of cultural and historical data that was nothing if not lost to my generation of Indian arguers, while nevertheless being at the same time our true heritage and actual intellectual underpinnings and ours to claim as of right, in the process of such an education as could hardly have been more watered-down in this regard. And yes, this is the moment to whip the cover off ancient accomplishments worldwide that have been shrouded by five centuries of Western dominance. But does the book deliver what its covers (from top down, British, Indian, and American) promise?

jacket art by
Kailash Raj
courtesy of
Okay, so, Radha and Krishna-- engaged in heated discourse--before or after sex? Passion and polemics, love and loquciousness, a little eros with your debate-- why not? Looks like fun! This works out pretty well in terms of fulfilling its promise for the first part about hidden heritage, colonial spin, and the absorptive wonders of Desh, but then the excitement and poesy start to peter out at the Rabindranath v. Gandhi section....and don't come back for me until we're talking calendars.

Things I love:
-- a third model of secularism, combining religious neutrality with a uniform civil code.
-- Aryabhata being so far ahead of Copernicus.
-- grain surplus for school lunches.

-- how many calendars are still extant in Desh, much like the huge number of scripts in print.
-- the story of Jamsetji Tata, a capsule description and possibly a rich sampling that shows how obstructionist colonial governments and societies must have been everywhere --the one stingy with permits, and the other selective about capitalizing industrial projects
, never mind education, in occupied lands. With such a habit so long in place, and so thoroughly disguised as a virtue, no wonder the same approach became the adopted m.o. of succeeding governments, and no surprise that the general prohibition of entrepreneurial incentives was so swiftly reversed in application, at least in India, to serve as a means of protecting the newly reviving economy from foreign developers...

One Thing Missing from this assessment of Indian identity is the almost unversal and endlessly persistent Desi talent for producing and participating in hilarity.

Things I take issue with:
-- support for IE, which was
debunked long ago .
-- Linking Indus-Saraswvati Theory to and identifying it with Hindutva.
-- Interpretation of Khadi production as projected linchpin of an independent economy (see p. 100, A
merican ed.) Khadi making and wearing was clearly meant to be a nationwide stand against the satellite-fying of the Indian markets. I thought that was clear-- it worked anyway. Alas, sometimes there just isn't a more effective alternative to nationalism as a rallying point, and people don't necessarily rally for a bellicose purpose.
-- Pokhran II did not prod Pakistan into nuke-armed parity. Rather, it forced the generals of Islamabad to declare that they had been preparing all along, and were ready to go.
-- As women mostly know, housework doesn't present the main rival claim to women's time that might otherwise be spent profitably working outside the home. i.e., children, once birthed, need to be brought up, Taking care of this business is an active occupation, not a frivolous pastime, and someone has to do it -- many men never get this....

Lastly but not leastly, I must caution against an overly accepting, or, conversely, an atavistic response to pages 78 and 79, where Dr. Sen castigates Praveen Togadia vigorously and outright in the footnotes, but scolds James Mill a little more delicately in the main text.

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