Book Review- “The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture, and Identity” by Amartya Sen

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Author–                         Amartya Sen

Category/ Genre–      Nonfiction/ Essays/ Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity

Awards/ Recognitions–   Nobel Prize in Economics(1998)

First published–             2005

 

Author Biography

Amartya Kumar Sen, the Indian Economist, 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, was born in Santiniketan on the campus of Rabindranath Tagore‘s Viswa Bharati(both a school and college). Originally his family is from Dhaka( now the capital of Bangladesh). His father was a Chemistry professor at Dhaka University, his maternal grandfather taught Sanskrit and ancient and medieval Indian culture in Viswa Bharati University, where his mother was a student.

Before choosing to study and research in Economics, he flirted with Sanskrit, Mathematics, and Physics for a while. Much of his childhood years were spent in Dhaka and later his educational attitudes were formed in Santiniketan. The schooling in Shantiniketan, according to Sen, was progressive, co-ed, and emphasized in fostering curiosity and thinking over competitive excellence and grades. The school curriculum included India’s cultural, analytical, and scientific heritage along with Wester, Eastern, South East Asian, West Asian, and African cultures. Later he would write to his friend that it was this kind of diverse exposure that helped him identify himself with the cultural diversities of the world.

Tagore’s “idea of India” was against the culturally separatist view “against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others.” He resisted the Hindu- Muslim communal identity from the very beginning. Sen saw his teenage years marking a great divide in diversity, a belligerent and divisive communal hatred sweeping through India. The communal violence that engulfed the 40′ s India left a deep mark on young Sen’s mind. He gives an example of a Muslim laborer knifed to death by Hindu mobs, only for the reason of the religion he followed. The unfreedom of poverty that forced the man to seek work in a hostile area, thereby endangering all his other freedoms thus having had to pay with his life devastated young Sen.

Another event that influenced his thinking greatly was The Bengal Famine of 1943. He was struck by its class-dependent nature. Only those at the lowest rung of the ladder were affected. The political convictions that he had subscribed to as a student in Calcutta college and his ideas of constructive political opposition happened to be in tandem with the political liberal ideas of the post-Enlightenment Europe and the tolerance and diversity in Indian culture.   As KingAshoka had put it in the third century B.C.: “For he who does reverence to his own sect while disparaging the sects of others wholly from attachment to his own, with intent to enhance the splendor of his own sect, in reality by such conduct inflicts the severest injury on his own sect.” According to Sen, it was a serious mistake to see tolerance just as a Western liberal idea.

Sen’s research encompassed welfare economics, economic inequality, and poverty, famines as the manifestation of poverty, democratic social choice, cited by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in awarding him the Nobel. Kenneth Arrow‘s path-breaking study of social choices in his work ‘Social Choice and Individual Values‘ influenced him and his friend. Later, in Cambridge Trinity College, the political-economic debates about Keynesian theory among the neo-Classical Keynes skeptics supporting capital theory and neo-Keynesians against the capital proved to be a victorious battleground for Sen in developing his research.  The genial co-existence and tolerance of the supporters of different theorists were notable in Cambridge.

He did PhD in research and study in Philosophy in Calcutta later and went to work as a professor of Economics in the Delhi School of Economics until 1971. His ideas of the social choice theory were developed here in-depth. In his 1970 book,’ Collective Choice and Social Welfare’, he has tried to explain the social choice theory. He moved to London in 1971, while he had been suffering from serious health problems as a result of earlier radiation treatment to his oral cancer. He developed bone necrosis of hard palate for which plastic surgery was required.

In Oxford, he expanded his research from the theoretical social choice to applied and practical sides of inequality, unemployment, personal liberty, basic rights, and poverty. He worked on gender inequality, causation and prevention of famines, hunger and deprivation, and development. Notable was his studies on the nature of individual advantage in terms of the substantive freedoms that different persons respectively enjoy, in the form of the capability to achieve valuable things.

He moved with his two children to Harvard in the late 1980s after the death of his second wife from cancer. Up to 1991, he was much involved in analyzing the overall implications of the perspective on welfare economics and political philosophy. He is currently the Thomas W. Lamont University Professor and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also a senior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, where he previously served as Master from the years 1998 to 2004. He is the first Asian and the first Indian academic to head an Oxbridge college.

Sen heralded the area of Qualitative Economics as opposed to the for-profit Quantitative Economics based on mathematical calculations and taking their cue from Wall Street. He introduced the humane element in Political Economics thus spearheading the branch of Welfare Economics. “The Human Development Index” used to rank countries based on human development was his contribution along with the Pakistani Economist Mahbub ul Haq. Amartya Sen’s books have been translated into more than thirty languages. He is a trustee of Economists for Peace and Security. In 2006, Time magazine listed him under “60 years of Asian Heroes” and in 2010 included him in their “100 most influential people in the world ”

 

Analysis

The work is a collection of 16 essays on identity, culture, and Indian history. The first four essays explain the principle theme of the book- India’s long argumentative tradition. The focus is on the long history of argumentative tradition in India, its contemporary relevance, and the neglect in cultural discussions. Sen drives home the point that Indian heterodoxy and dialogue give rise to many convictions and viewpoints.

In the preface, the author contrasts the politically charged ‘ Hindutva’ movement,  – a narrow Hindu view of Indian civilization that separates it into pre and post-Muslim conquest periods invoking holy Vedas and the Hindu epic Ramayana in justifying their actions like a mosque demolition, with the integrationists who view these as unwelcome intrusions into secular society and question the partisan, factional nature of invoking Hindu Classics time and again.

The author in addition to stressing the import of the epics on Indian literary and philosophical texts, folk traditions, and dialectics, points to their role in Indian culture. He gives examples of the fourteenth-century Bengali translations of the Hindu epics, Mahabharata and Ramayana by the Muslim Pathan rulers of Bengal out of pure love of Indian culture. Similarly, he contends, The Upanishads, the philosophical part of the Vedas was first translated into Persian by the Moghul prince, Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of the Emperor Shahjahan and Mumtaz Mahal, in the seventeenth century.

The epistemological nature of the Vedas paving way for the argumentative and dialectical tradition in Indian culture is stressed. The author writes that such a tradition is in full view in Ramayana itself, where Rama is considered a fallible human and an epic war hero and not divine by the pundit Javali who explains in detail that ” there is no afterworld nor any religious practices for attaining that and the injunctions about the worship of gods, sacrifice, gifts, and penance have been laid out in the Shastras( scriptures) by clever people to rule over other people”. According to Tagore, the epics should be taken for what it is- a marvelous parable and cultural heritage than a document of supernatural veracity.

Sen contends that skepticism, dialectics, debates, violence, and wars had been a part of Indian history since the beginning and it would be counterproductive to signify the latter over the former in social and political discourse. Similarly, the long tradition of heterodoxy in Indian thoughts and beliefs, and the co-existence of different religions which were debated are writ large on annals of history not to be ignored into a single orthodox legacy of Hinduism, which is a much later term according to the author. There were Buddhists, Jains, Agnostics, and Atheists in the mainstream that debated with each other and with Hinduism followers. He observes that the dominant religion in India was Buddhism for almost a thousand years, and the Chinese in the First Millenium CE referred to India as a Buddhist kingdom.

He provides two examples, that of the Buddist emperor of India, Ashoka, who in third century BC outlined the principles of tolerance, rich heterodoxy, and rules of debates, dialectics, and disputes. Similarly, the principles of tolerance and separating religion from the state were cemented by a Muslim Indian emperor, Akbar, in 1590 s, at a time when The Inquisition was in full swing in Europe.

The essays assert the contemporary relevance of dialectics and heterodoxy n a democracy, public reasoning, secularism, resisting inequities, removing poverty, and in the pursuit of justice. He disagrees with the notion of elitism in arguments, that it is a realm accessible to the literate and affluent in contrast to the common men and points to the way this leads to cynicism and impassivity. He reminds us that the critical voice has always been the right of the repressed and oppressed and an opportunity to be utilized and not a necessary skill. Even though, the documentation of arguments tends to be biased in the route of articulations of the powerful and well educated, many interesting accounts of debates in the past involve disadvantaged groups.

He contends that the nature and strength of the argumentative tradition in India are greatly ignored on the premise that the country is a land of religions, uncritical faith, and unquestioned practices. The practice by some theorists in suppressing India’s intellectual heritage by highlighting the faith-based unreasoning culture of the East does injustice to the argumentative tradition of India in the past by simply contrasting the East-West culture in a fixed and preconceived manner through the prism of religion. A great deal of our past and present is intentionally or unintentionally getting effaced by this practice. The names of the great Aryabhatta, the Mathematician, and Kautilya, the political economist are evoked by Sen during the discussion.

There are four parts, each consisting of 4 essays. The first two essays deal with pluralism and dialogic tradition in the support of democracy, secularism, the pursuit of art and science, and social dialectics in seeking social justice. Essay 3 is about the significance of understanding heterodoxy as against the parochial religionistic approach through the lens of Hinduism. Essay 4 is about the ways to understand Indian identity.

Part 2 is about the role of communication in understanding and development of cultures. Essays 5 and 6 deals with the insights on communication from the works of Tagore and the Indian film director Satyajit Ray. The 7th essay is about the impact of imagined India in Western perceptions on the Indian mind during the colonial and post-colonial periods.  Essay 8 is about the intellectual, religious, and trade relations that China and India had for a thousand years from the early part of the first millennium.

Part 3 has four essays that deal with deprivation and security after the development of nuclear weapons. The last four essays are about the import of reasoning in identity, secularism, multiculturalism, and the calendrical variations that allowed to fix the principal meridian for India at Ujjain(the basis for Indian Standard Time five and a half hours ahead of GMT).

Review

As one of the most influential public thinkers and intellectuals of our times, a Nobel laureate, the very first quality that is seen mentioned about him, anywhere his name or the critical reviews of his works appear, is his humility and humaneness. He is still an Indian citizen, he has not given up the Indian passport despite having been living and teaching abroad since the 1950s. He is a man whom Cambridge and Harvard are said to have fought to offer an appointment. He returns to Santiniketan every year working for a trust he had set up there with the Nobel prize money. A true patriot, he is unassuming and has an unparalleled knowledge in Indian History, Philosophy, Economics, and Culture.

In the book, the author tries to upend the stereotype of India from its exotic, mythical place to a rightful one. He is careful not to overemphasize the past triumphs at the same time criticizing the Western oversimplification of the realities like James Mill‘s History of British India. Sen warns not to oversimplify the notion of democratic India as a Western gift to a country suited to democracy by virtue of its rich history and culture. He disputes the ideas of Hindutva propagated by the Hindu nationalists and refutes the Western idea of India as a Hindu nation.

With the help of a vast array of references, he invokes rulers and emperors like Ashoka and Akbar, dissects the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata to delineate the facts of inclusivity and accommodation to dissent and skepticism in the broad and magnanimous Hinduism and criticizes the notion of bellicosity, divisiveness, and exclusionist sentiments and agendas of the Hindutva movement.

The part where the only Indian literature Nobel laureate in India is being discussed, he is unambiguous in criticizing and vindicating the poet, novelist, short story writer, essayist, and playwright. Though versatile, Tagore was mainly known for his poetry in the West. The Western judgementalism and revisionism of Eastern writers are being thrown to light through his own prism. Tagore was the recipient of both these while alive. Ezra Pound and WB Yeats were champions of his works earlier, but they pilloried him later on thus making his works oblivious to the world outside India. Sen adds his own vindication for this while he mentions the untranslatability of Tagore’s works. At the same moment, he criticizes the Western literary world in trying to categorize the great author into an Eastern, mystical, exotic, sage-like niche while they missed noticing a liberal, rational, humane thinker.

Invoking the filmmaker Satyajit Rai, Sen draws the conclusion that his triumph in the midst of world movies is drawn from a heterogenic approach, not remaining inside the bounds of what one normally expects as an overdose of Orientalism from an Asian filmmaker, and eclectic experimentation by learning and blending from other cultures.

The relevance of the book in contemporary India cannot be overstated. A well of knowledge and wisdom, the author has, with meticulous research, driven home the basic understanding of ideas like pluralism, heterogeneity, heterodoxy, secularism, and inclusivity by digging into history, identity, religious identity, and culture, while underpinning the significance of dialectics and debates in sustaining these and defenestrating preconceived and prejudiced Western notions of all these with respect to India- ancient and modern.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review and analysis-“Notes Of A Native Son” by James Baldwin

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Author–                         James Baldwin

Category/ Genre–      Nonfiction/ Essays/ LiteraryCriticism/ Personal Essay

People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead, turns himself into a monster.”

James Baldwin

Introduction

Speaking of James Baldwin, a few things that immediately cross my mind are his novel ‘Giovanni’s Room‘,  the 1941 oil on canvas painting ‘Dark Rapture‘ by the American Modernist painter Beauford Delaney of Baldwin seated as nude, his trenchant quotes and the incisive anatomization of race and identity through his spell-binding essays.

I had read ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ years back, as a young reader, and had been fixed since of the impression that I had gleaned of him as an author confessional of his sexual identity, candid and forthrightly in exploring homosexuality at a time when the very term made for moral bankruptcy and anti-Christian bearing. Then, amidst the passing years, I happened to read his quotes, essays, and most notably the critical reviews of authors about his works, Giovanni’s Room one among them. I realized its dimensions and shades that I had missed as a young reader. The reviews reminded me of the depth of his observation and experiences of the social dynamics, something crucial for a novelist and essayist, that I had failed to take note of all those years back.

Likewise, my interest in paintings and the painters and my love of painting brought me to read the articles about American modernist painter Beauford Delaney and his works. I was literally stunned to learn about his oil painting ‘Dark Rapture‘ of a seated male nude. Stunned, since, one- I had never known him painting nudes, two- that the painting was of his protege James Baldwin, three- the regality of the figure emanating confidence, and four- the dynamics of colors, red, blue, green, pink and yellow that swirl in such a manner that we are able to distinguish the figure in an entity, still inseparable from the surroundings that flow and merge with the figure. (((A slight detour…..For those interested in paintings and art, a fair and perfect foil could be found in John Singer Sargent‘s male nude study of his African- American muse Thomas E McKeller, a bellhop and elevator-attender and believed to have had intimately associated with Sargent. Sargents muse seems stressed, evidently posing as an object/ subject for the painter, while Delaney’s protege seems to confidently pose gleaming in the rainbow colors. Sargent is said to have had never openly admitted his relationship with his muse and he was casually racist as evidenced by his letters. Their intimacy could well be just a matter of conjecture, we don’t know for sure. His black male nudes are still a subject of racial tension owing to the manner in which he had represented them. Delaney was a mentor and father figure to Baldwin and the creative point where their artistic and intellectual talents intersected in mutually beneficial ways. It seems their relationship was platonic, from the available records))))

Personally, I love Baldwin’s essays. He was a playwright, poet, social critic, and activist too. His works dissect the complex racial, class, and sexual identities and questions the entrenched inequalities in society and the psychological trauma of the bleakness of societal acceptance that an individual has to bear by dint of these. He was an active participant in the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement (1950’s and 60’s), an outspoken proponent of gay and lesbian rights. Born in Harlem, NewYork, he was the son of a minister and became a preacher at the age of 14 ( References to the Black Church are scattered in his writings). He moved to Southern France in 1948, where he wrote ‘Giovanni’s Room‘, the protagonist, an American white homosexual who struggles with his sexual identity and other characters predominantly white as opposed to his other works featuring blacks. He had to contend with the ire of the Black Community due to the exploration of gay themes in his works. He died from stomach cancer in 1987 in France and was buried in Hartsdale, near NewYork.

Review

The book is a collection of ten essays that had appeared previously in different periodicals.

Through them, he searches his identity as a homosexual American black and a writer, explores his experiences, criticizes the works such as protest novels and movies, discusses the socio-cultural milieu of Harlem, the strained relationship with his father, his own contradictory views that clashed with himself, the origins of racial prejudice through the mirror of his self, the definition of being a ‘native son’, and his experiences living in Europe.

The ten essays belong to different genres of literary criticism, social analysis, and personal memoir. His works are ever relevant notably at present when we read daily in the news about the institutional racism and atrocities that the black Americans encounter, movements like Black Lives Matter at the forefront of fighting these ills, putting forward the uneasy question, why after all these decades of the postbellum era the racial prejudice is hard to be wiped off completely.

In the first part of the book are three critical essays. Baldwin stresses the point that artists should better represent their work through their own personal experiences than trying to champion a social cause generally, such that the subject could be dealt with honestly and with integrity. Here, he is not telling all artists to produce autobiographical works or memoirs solely, but exhorting to mint the work through the machine of personal experience, so that the final result would be more beautiful, candid and genuine. He criticizes ‘Native Son‘(1940) a novel written by the American author Richard Wright in which Wright attributes the crimes of the youth Bigger Thomas, a black man in poor southern Chicago to the systemic degradation and ills of the society. Similarly,  the anti-slavery novel by the American author Harriet Beecher StoweUncle Tom’s Cabinhas also been criticized. The author was a white American abolitionist. But, I, for one, think that though personal experience counts, even authors without much of that in a specific area or subject could make a whole world of difference through their works highlighting social ills.  ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabinis famed to have laid the groundwork of the Civil War and helped to change the attitudes of at least some of the whites towards the blacks. Though white, she was ardently abolitionist.

Baldwin is incisive about the characterization and plot of the 1954 American musical film, Carmen Jonesproduced and directed by the Austrian -born theater and film director Otto Preminger. The screenplay was based on the stage musical by the same name. The plot compares and seeks the parallels of an amoral gypsy and an amoral black woman. The fact that there are no white characters, the seemingly parodic speech of the black characters, and the absurd set designs are criticized by Baldwin as nothing but condescending. He brushes off the notion in the film that the opera has something to do with the present-day life of African Americans, As per him, the translation is false, the film lacks artistic credibility and concerns much less with African Americans than the other Americans. ( The film is available in YouTube, but I am not interested in musical operatic films and so it was difficult for me to get to his ideas and criticisms about the film)

The second part has three essays about Harlem ghetto, sociopolitical issues, and African American musicians. The last part is personal and concerns with identity, the fraught relationship with his authoritarian father, his experience living in Europe, and the race issues in Europe and America. Here, I am only expounding on the personal essay that deals with Baldwin and his relationship to father.

Worth mentioning is the manner of unflinching honesty with which he writes about his relationship with his father. Though he does not explicitly relate his father’s cruelty, anger, and alienation to the oppression and inner turmoil that haunted the black Americans, it is clear that such a relationship does exist. Baldwin lives under the constant shadow of paranoia about the inheritance of paranoid delusions from his father. Thus he makes a point that even though different disposition-wise and experience-wise, trauma is transferred through generations.

The paranoia is significant in that it creates a self-destructive cycle spoiling the relationship to the society, slashing even the altruistic and munificent arms of help from the outer world. Baldwin’s creativity was recognized first by his white teacher who encouraged him to write, but the act ironically distancing him from her and snatching the opportunity to get ahead due to the ingrained mistrust that his father had towards all the whites. We cannot blame his father here.

Another important point that he projects is about how racist societies force people to suppress their emotions. As an example, he writes about the white waiter, who though sympathetic to him could not express it due to the perceived embarrassment of serving a black diner. Similarly, so as to survive the blacks would need to suppress their rage. It is not just the alienation from society that is worrisome, but that from oneself which creates a conflict within the individual. At the same time, he feels the emotional turmoil and murderous rage that overwhelms his and other’s safety, conflicting with the guilt that he feels towards a white friend.

In his beautiful statement,’ Harlem is waiting‘, he conveys many meanings like waiting for a climactic event, for the war to end, or for racial equality since the moment of their abduction from the heart of Africa. Baldwin is brutally honest in his interpretation of hatred towards his father. As a wise sage, he understands that hatred is self-destructive, though as a common man he nurtures it since he could avoid the pain of losing his father thus preventing the establishment of a genial relationship with him.

He refuses to see his father’s body after he passed away, he could not find suitable clothes and interprets the preacher as dishonest, all alienating him from the process of mourning. Still, he experiences a sudden connection when he hears the song and identifies it as the only moment of connection that he had with his father. He realizes the freedom to be enjoyed by his father’s newborn baby, something he was denied and sees a ray of hope through a part of his father that is still alive.

He empathizes with the Harlem rioters, all the while denouncing it as only an exit of rage and a self-destructive process by attacking businesses thereby wounding the blacks and not the white oppressors. Overall, he characterizes hatred and anger as negative forces, that would only be helpful if it motivates one to oppose injustice.

Though the essay could be generally interpreted as bleak by some who are not big fans of essays, it has so many eye-opening moments of truth that stir the reader to think about the implications that the racial and other inequalities and prejudices impart to the minds of the victims.

Incidentally, while I was reading this book, I happened to watch a video of a black man gunned down by two white men, a father and a son, with a shotgun. As I read the news report from the NYT, I was shocked to learn about how the men were set free first, the institutional inertia and apathy when black lives were concerned, favoritism and cronyism in law enforcement, the manipulation of the storyline making the black man seem a menacing burglar to vindicate a criminal act carried out in broad daylight, policies promoting ingrained xenophobia and nativism and the uttermost abyss into which humans could fall while placing human life and dignity in a hierarchical system. All these, while a two minute video played the act beyond the wildest of doubts possible.

We live in the 21-st century,  we are far more ahead from the old eugenic theories and practices, we exhort that we are an educated lot, that we are at the zenith of the evolutionary process,  wonder when will we evolve into human beings!

Book review ‘ Jerusalem The Biography’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

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“Like a snowy mountain glittering in the sun”

–  Flavius Josephus, the Romano-Jewish scholar, and historian.

                            A casual observer could be forgiven for being drawn into the dragnet of bias when it comes to broaching and expounding on the subject matter of Israeli- Palestinian quagmire. Responsible journalism and authorship, though ostensibly non-partisan and unprejudiced is by no means so as the evidence suggests. That leaves us with very few options for digging deeper into the marshlands of history and collating the layers beneath to prepare the ground of conceivability in our conscience.

                            The beliefs of historical determinism and fatalism, more often than not, rear their ugly head in almost every causal analysis of the conflict in spite of the contrarian disposition of the rational mind. Not even a page of this book could be flipped by without contemplating retrospectively of a more lucid outcome, had the powers that be shown a speck of farsightedness or a morsel of horse sense about a region that in itself had been tangled in the cobweb of politics, religion, ethnicity and pincered between the grasp of bloodthirsty warlords and religiously evangelical zealots. The infamous Sykes-Picot agreement which unabashedly apportioned the Middle East map among British and French stemmed from the ‘ divide and rule’ dogma followed by the empire, the repercussions of which echoes to the present day, albeit in the form of protracted quasi-occupation in Afghanistan or Iraq before, by the West. Lessons will never be learned it seems, after imbibing Jerusalem’s travails.

                      Though the book offers a prolonged read and is steeped in history, titles and chronology Montefiore has done justice to his subject by dissecting Jerusalem right from the roots, eruditely, not in the least exhibiting any sort of pedantry or pomposity. Palpability of the spirit of Jerusalem and perspicuity of the ghosts of the past sauntering through the narrow alleys of Old Jerusalem is a haunting experience that lingers on. From the Maccabees to the present day rulers, the list of conquerors and occupiers seem never-ending, yet the provenance of the three monotheistic Abrahamic religions, the seat of religious secularism, the cynosure of the world presents herself as a desolate sweetheart whom the lovers have forsaken.

                       The weightiness of the issue and the two-state solution on the cards endows a special significance to the book now than ever before. Montefiore’s pedigree and his ancestor’s role in carving up a Jewish state and propounding Zionism have been distinctly documented. I just loved the myriad footnotes which by themselves could be collated into a compendium of sorts. The sheer magnitude of research that has been put through by the author is unbelievable.

                     A magnificent tour de force, scholarly penned, bluntly chronicled, holistically viewed and meticulously researched. An absolutely enlightening tome.

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