Thoughts on Amartya Sen’s ‘The Argumentative Indian’, part of my autobiography
The book is monumental in its effort, terrific in its approach, stupendous in its research, awesome in its content, complicated in its treatment, severely complex in its exposition, forceful in its argument. After going through its pages, I realized I could appreciate someone’s work without fully understanding it.
To my mind, however, it lacks three things:
1. Sen’s perspective on the argumentative tradition excludes (ignores?) the Southern Indian
2. More importantly, more fundamentally, the content and its presentation lack simplicity and
directness. The book is so scholarly that I get only a general drift of the ‘argument’ though I
must say I do possess a fairly good mastery of the English language and can fairly follow a
The demands the book makes on me are beyond my reach. Sen’s lexis, syntax and content are
so heavily pregnant they require constant verbal and mental gymnastics, which is tiring (and
can become a tiresome exercise with time). The implications arising from the smooth blend of
his thoughts with those of others’, which occurs at almost every statement, slip through my
fingers at every step I take. Probably, he was so taken up with the ‘issues’ that it may not have
occurred to him that readers like me, who are not as enlightened, may want to read the book,
understand its essence with and enjoy it through all the attendant paraphernalia.
The quotes, which are one too many I’m afraid, mystify rather than simplify or clarify. Of
course, the choice of how Sen wishes to express himself is solely his; he could’ve been
himself but, he could’ve spoken as Sen, but. Yet he has chosen to engage himself in the webs
of multitude of scholars and thinkers and has thus become a willing prisoner and consequently
becomes delightfully incomprehensible. The ‘educated’ me feels glaringly helpless,
inadequate and ‘un-read’. The reading is more a three hundred-and-odd-page struggle than an
enjoyment, the statements and assertions being far too abstract.
So, the implications (understand and enjoy) inherent in Bibek Debroy’s wish—‘every Indian
should read this book’ (printed at the back cover of the Penguin 2005 edition)—which must
also be Sen’s (why would he otherwise have the content printed)—may not be realised in its
3. Most importantly, most fundamentally, the book leans and draws heavily on the heavy-
weights. Theories and concepts abound but visibly absent are the key roles of the translator—
the common man reflecting these through spontaneity; of course history is replete with
instances that reveal ready responses to calls—cultural, social and political. Is it because the
common man doesn’t traverse the realm of ‘ideas’ (only through which Sen has planned his
These observations of mine may not be, I suspect, a lone cry in the wilderness. Or for that matter they can be mine alone.