The Argumentative Indian

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This needs saying at the outset. In itself, it might seem like an unremarkable fact, but it actually is not: Amartya Sen is a citizen of India. While most of his countrymen who have been able to leave India for a long time try their best to become citizens of the country they might have gone to (Britain, America, Canada, Australia), Sen, a man whom Cambridge and Harvard are said to have fought over for the privilege of offering an appointment, resolutely retains his blue Indian passport after half a century of towering intellectual achievement across the world.

Every year, the 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize for economics returns to Santiniketan, the tiny university town 100-odd miles from Calcutta. In Santiniketan, the former Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, can be seen on a bicycle, friendly and unassuming, chatting with the locals and working for a trust he has set up with the money from his Nobel Prize. One of the most influential public thinkers of our times is strongly rooted in the country in which he grew up; he is deeply engaged with its concerns.

There can, then, be few people better equipped than this Lamont University Professor at Harvard 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 supplanted with the stereotype of India as the back office of the world.

In this superb collection of essays, Sen smashes quite a few stereotypes and places the idea of India and Indianness in its rightful, deserved context. Central to his notion of India, as the title suggests, is the long tradition of argument and public debate, of intellectual pluralism and generosity that informs India's history.

One of the book's many triumphs is its tone. Sen does not indulge in triumphalism about his country's past; nor does he spare Western influences (like James Mill's History of British India) that have oversimplified and distorted the Indian reality.

While talking...
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