Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Argumentative Bengali

I was reading ‘Argumentative Indian’ by Noble Laureate Amartya Sen. It’s a good book and brings new perspectives to Indian history. I really like his theories and interpretations of our history- that we are tolerant, that we are able to imbibe democracy and promote diversity because we have this ‘argumentative’ streak in us.

I have only one problem though – that Amartya Sen is Bengali. In my experience, a Bengali looks at every thing from a ‘Bengali Prism’. To him/her everything gets distorted to give a Bengali twist. They believe that the God is Bengali.

In this book, he quotes and refers to Rabindranath Tagore profusely, almost every other page – to the point of causing nausea to the reader. Whom would you quote when talking about tolerance, working for gender equality, bringing lower caste into manifold, preaching peace, etc? One has many examples in the contemporary Indian history- notable being Mahatma Gandhi. But for Amartya Sen it’s only Rabindranath Tagore and no one else. We all agree that Tagore was a great poet and author of notable works, a strong proponent of peace, and visionary who conveyed it through his words. On the other hand, Mahatma Gandhi was an activist, the person who actually put in action many of the principles and ideals that Rabindranath Tagore preached. When Sen wanted to give examples on how India tolerated different religions and castes, and how our culture embraced new ideas and thoughts, he went back to Tagore. There are innumerable examples from our Indian Freedom Struggle, but to Amartya Sen, the world starts and ends with Tagore.

He might as well have named the book “Argumentative Bengali” because all the examples he quotes are Bengalis as if there is no other Indian who could set an example for him. Ghosh, and other Bengali authors feature incessantly in his book as if the whole Indian history was constructed, influenced and delivered by Bengalis. How about I compile an Indian history where the only characters and examples are that of a Tamil King and Tamil Author and no one else?

My annoyance peaked when I saw a quote from another Bengali writer to illustrate why the nuclear bomb is bad. While talking of ill-effects of atom bomb, I would expect one to describe Hiroshima/Nagasaki or Chernobyl or may be radiation effects on Bikini Islands, but definitely not Arundhati Roy’s poetic description where rivers dry up, and how sun dances on earth. I have one message to all Bengali writers- “Come on, get out of your self-delusional world!” Times have changed. Great men and women come from different parts of India these days. Abdul Kalam, Sachin Tendulkar, Vishwanathan Anand and Narayana Murthy are not Bengali.

Apart from being a delusional Bengali, Amartya Sen is also a very ‘academic’ writer, which makes it worse. He repeats himself throughout the book. The same examples are quoted in more than one place. It is full of references within the same book like – As I described in the Chapter 1, Section 4, this will be discussed in Chapter 7, Paragraph 2, etc, as if it were some IEEE transaction or an academic publication. He doesn’t have many facts to corroborate his story either. His conclusion that Sanskrit has influenced Chinese languages is supported with one and only one example which is repeated again and again- that the word 'Mandarin' in Chinese is actually ‘Mantri’ in Sanskrit. Quoting one example to construct a theory does not make sense. One has to talk about more examples involving influence of syntax, grammar, and semantics, to say that these two languages have a relationship.

In summary, he makes an excellent point in the first chapter and describes all the examples in there. Rest of the book contains the same message repeated in many roundabout ways without giving any new insights. According to me, one could read just the first chapter and get the whole story in entirety. You may not want to read further unless you are a Bengali. :)


  1. Hey man, Sen might be a delusional Bengali. But there is no point taking pot shots at all the Bengalis. You might be drawing your conclusion from a very small sample as well. BTW, your list of great Indians makes an amusing reading :D.

  2. The main problem is that your knowledge about Tagore is like a drop of water in a sea.

  3. I am sorry but why are you whining against bengalis, do you feel left out?

  4. Your argument about Sen that he talks only about Bengalies is childish. Its like a tamilian talks more about tamilians. i am working in a tamil firm, where most employees are tamlians. they used to talk about the merits of being tamilians. they will see hindi movies only if there is an A.R.Rehman's name..... all tamilians may not be the same. They complain that me being a mallu will always talk with mallu's only

    This nature of accusation is there all around India...

    You are very critical.

  5. Anonymous, Arijit, Anonmyous, anish:

    I am critical of many things- including Indians, Upper caste Hindus, Rest of the World, Narmada Bachao Andolan, etc, and Bengalis in this case. [Please have a look at other topics that I wrote]

    But please note that I am critical of them in certain contexts only. It doesn't mean I am against all Indains, all upper caste Hindus, all NBA activists, etc.

    Many Indians take things very personally though it is applied to groups. They feel insulted at every criticism or ridicule of a group. That's what you guys are doing here. You can always take it with a pinch of salt and be amused with it.

    I am aware of Tamilians sticking to Tamilians, but I didn't get an opportunity to write about them- may be, one day I will. That doesn't mean I am not critical of them or others.

    Just because Tamilians do it doesn't mean others (including Sen) should do it. Is it a good enough excuse to be so rabidly regionalistic just because few others are?

  6. I think Arundhathi Roy is not a Bengali but a Malayali (daughter of Mary Roy). Anyways, I too somewhat agree with what you have said, that Bengali's think they are too intellectual. But same with Tamils and Malayalis, and better dont speak of North Indian arrogance.
    Also, Gandhi's thoughts are more contemporary than Tagore, Tagore was a mystic deeply interested in Eastern Mysticism( and hence a major branch of our History)

  7. I have only one problem though – that Amartya Sen is Bengali. In my experience, a Bengali looks at every thing from a ‘Bengali Prism’. To him/her everything gets distorted to give a Bengali twist. They believe that the God is Bengali. - This is a pure racist comment :).

  8. Diganta:
    Yeah, I concede it was a prejudiced remark (I wouldn't go that far to call it a racist remark).

    But I don't think I would like to take it back. I have written what I have observed.

  9. I was greatly enjoying your pro-reservation posts, and then I come across this... I must say, this is extremely disappointing coming from someone who writes such excellent posts. Not only is it full of pointless anti-Bengali vitriol, it also makes very little sense, argument wise.

    a. Sen is 'academic' in his style precisely because he *is* an academic. The Nobel makes his books sell - so they are publicised and published by big publishing houses in the manner of 'regular' books. But it is an academic work and written in an academic style - why on earth should he change it? He would not have survived in academia this long had he written in the manner of, say, Pavan K. Verma writing about the great Indian middle-class.

    b. Arundhati Roy is not Bengali. She's from Kerala, last I heard.

    c. Tagore is a great poet, and one of the greatest thinkers to ever have come out of India. This is not to claim that there aren't any other great authors from other regions. But Sen is familiar with Tagore, and therefore he quotes Tagore. Where, exactly, does regionalism come in this? Why should you - a Tamilian, writing a history of India - *not* quote from Tamil authors who you are familiar with? Would you rather Sen indulged in tokenism? Or worse, *ignorant* tokenism, like Bollywood does? Again, that might work in a popular Bollywood movie where you have random 'Bengali' stereotypes and 'Tamil' stereotypes, in order to come across as truly 'Indian' - not in an academic work. One becomes 'Indian' only when one acknowledges their regional heritage - your Tamilness makes you Indian; my Bengaliness makes *me* Indian. We must make a distinction between 'rabid regionalism' and being aware of where you come from.

    But that said, I agree with the point on Chinese and Sanskrit. It required deeper analysis on Sen's behalf. I wish your entire post had more such critical points rather than the anti-Bengali rhetoric it is full of.

  10. Bengalis believe God is Bengali.

    Really? I thought they were mostly godless Communists. ;)
    (just kidding)


  11. Amartya Sen is a Nobel laureate. I am not Bengali but from the North and we have a lot of jokes abut Bengalis, but the book is really a fine book--perhaps you did not understand it well. There is a lot I do not agree with, but it is a fine work nevertheless and deserves credit for that. So what if he quotes Tagore a lot? Tagore deserves to be quoted a lot. You have to give a book credit where it is due. And perhaps you should include more specific examples of how the book is narrow in scope than say it quotes Bengalis a lot.

  12. Well,I guess you have totally lost it dude. I understand you feeling that the hottest places in hell are reserved for people who take neutral stances during periods of moral crises, but taking a biased as well as prejudiced stand, primarily based on observations which are very narrow and ordinary,might as well take you deeper in the dreaded hot-furnace.

  13. So you are one of them who thinks only Gandhi and Nehru brought freedom to India. And purely on the basis of that "Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose" is a forgotten hero today. And Tagore had lot of ideas which Gandhi adopted. Read more about Indian history then only you'll know. Good luck.

  14. b.l:

    So you are one of them who thinks only Gandhi and Nehru brought freedom to India.

    I am one of those who thinks that India would have got its freedom anyway, no matter what, after WWII, given the state of the world.

    I think Gandhi brought the movement closer to the people of the land, by making it more inclusive, like women, and Muslims, and paving way for liberation of untouchables and downtrodden.

    His movement did not use hatred and violence as the tools for forming this nation.

    I am one of those Indians who think that the way shown by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose would have been disastrous for India - it was based on violence, hating your enemy, and including more sinister forces (like Japan and Germany) to take over India once British left.

  15. How about I compile an Indian history where the only characters and examples are that of a Tamil King and Tamil Author and no one else?

    Ye -> video dekho aur mauja karo.

    Arre Babu Moshai: Kaahe ladai karte ho yaar. Pyar se mil jul ke raho na. Dunia buddh, mangal aur chaand pe pahunch gai aur tum abhi bhi bengali, tamil, telugu ke peeche pade ho. Chhaddo yaaran, o chill oye! Mauja karon, jo man mein aata hai karo, bas ladai na karo :). Bade bade ped utthane hain, kelle thhode na hoga.

  16. I read this book several months ago and enjoyed certain parts of it, while certain sections especially the ones about ancient culture and tradition were pretty boring.
    There is an overdose of Tagore in his book but due to my limited knowledge about Tagore (having read about him only in textbooks) I found the information pretty interesting, though focusing on a single linguistic group while talking about the whole of India maybe stretching it too far.
    But he had several valid points in his book especially the ones about class struggle in India and gender inequality and our rich argumentative tradition which questions everything.
    Its funny that people keep referring to Tamil people all the time. Are we that chauvinistic?

  17. I fail to understand your stance in analysing either book or the author. Much like the analogy you have used in one of your comments - "Just because Tamilians do it doesn't mean others should do it", I'd like to say that just because you feel that Amartya Sen "looks at every thing from a Bengali Prism", does not mean that you gotta look at things from an "Anti Bengali prism". Chill! And trust me when you even compare Tagore with Gandhi, your limited knowledge of history becomes adament. Is it selective retention? Then why blame Amartya Sen for quoting Tagore? Our memory operates on this 'selective' mode anyway.

  18. Shaon:

    I fail to understand your stance in analysing either book or the author.

    Well, I am sorry that you fail to understand the reason why I wrote this piece of blog.

    I had read the book, and felt like commenting on it. That's all. I clearly write that he brings fresh perspective but that his first chapter is good enough.

    Yes, I found the author's incessant references to other Bengalis a bit amusing and I wanted to ridicule it.

    You can go ahead and ridicule Telangana people and their idiosyncrasies. I wouldn't mind.

    does not mean that you gotta look at things from an "Anti Bengali prism".

    True! But I don't think I was being 'anti-bengali'. But yes, I was mocking their idiosyncrasies.

    And trust me when you even compare Tagore with Gandhi, your limited knowledge of history becomes adament.

    I have never professed anywhere that my knowledge (of history) is unlimited.

    Then why blame Amartya Sen for quoting Tagore?

    Didn't blame Amartya Sen. Just felt like criticizing his work - not the gist, but just the manner in which it was presented.

  19. I see no harm in Sen quoting Tagore in his book. The author under your scanner is a Nobel Laureate, and the one he is quoting was both a Nobel Laureate and the man who gave India her national anthem. I'm curious though as to why a review of the book appears to be more of a personal vendetta against Sen in particular and the Bengalis in general. If you are accusing Sen of regionalism, let me show you how you've done the same: you conveniently chose to ignore the fact the the people you are writing about are internationally acclaimed academics of immense repute, but highlighted the fact that they hail from a common state. Talk about double standards!! :)

  20. Man you really are... i do'nt want to use harsh language..
    But instead of trying to take the comments as critics and be open, you are arguing on meaningless and dumbest blog i have ever come accross.
    Very well shows your ignorance.
    I have great tamil friends, they rock and i'm happy they are not loosers like you.Grow up.
    And to Swati,

    yours is the best comment, cheers to a awsome person like you :)

    Blogger, she reads your blogs appreciates, and a genuiene critic.

    Grow up narrow minded ignorant human. thats all i can say.
    May god help ignorant people like you.

  21. For my personal liking, I would have appreciated more if Dr. Sen explored more on India (especially South) before writing a book of this stature and reach. Here are some specific examples:

    While mentioning Tansen, a glaring neglect is the work of Venkatamakhi, whose analytical conclusions of the melodic system of music is unparalleled. Venkatamakhi's inferences on the melodic system of music are as original as Arayabhatta's.

    If Kalidasa's poetry is dazzling, what about the works of Tyagaraja and Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Tyagaraja's kritis are poetry, religion, philosophy and everything else. To his own bewilderment, the ardent devotee of Rama, Tyagaraja wonders: "For the stable mind, where is the need for mantras and tantaras? " in his masterpiece "Manasu Swadheenamaina mari mantrmu tantramulela...".

    It is safe to say that Kalidasa and Panini would have been astonished to see Diskhitar's grip on Sankrit, let alone the music of his monumental compositions. Diskshitar even went one step ahead and successfully composed in Western scales, laying the foundation of fusion music 300 years before AR Rahman.

    If Kalidasa's poetry is dazzing, what about Adi Sankara's Soundarya Lahiri?

    While quoting Tagore 100 times (which Tagore deserves), he could have quoted Subramanya Bharati atleast once. SB was no mean poet. His lucid poetry conveying powerful ideas to laymen are unmatched till date.

    While quoting Satyajit Ray and Sashi Tharoor 50 times, he could have quoted R.K. Narayan once. I personally think RKN's short stories can convey any philosophy and any amount of 'Indianness' in a6 page story.

  22. While there were several references to anti upper caste movements, atheism etc, its rather naive to ignore the Dravidian movement in TN which is both anti upper caste and atheist, that too in a vividly extreme manner not prevelent (now and in history) anywhere in India.

    The interesting paradox(or lets say fallacy) is that even though the Dravidian movement is politically very successful, majority of TN population is staunchly casteist Hindu. Several upper caste voters in this population still prefer Dravidian parties to BJP and other nationalist parties.

    The above fact deserves lots and lots of arguments and atleast one mention in a book of this import.

  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

  24. Here are some more thoughts:

    1. What if Pak produced the missile and the bomb before India? This possibility was never discussed. If the above was to happen, I'd rather be on Kalam's side.

    2. It has to be noted that Galileo, Columbus et al, had to pursue their science and adventures by going agaist the Church. Whereas in India, religion and science always complemented and florished together. I dont remember this line of thinking in India (where religion did not prevent scientific growth) being mentioned in the book. Please pardon me if I overlooked it.

    3. I totally agree with Dr. Sen's analysis of the distortionist attitude of the BJP and the Hindutva movement. I condemn it too. On the other hand, many Hindu groups feeling insecure because of forced conversions (that too when Christianity and Christian thoughts are dwindling in the West) is a social factor in India's relious fabric, needs to be discussed. Can religious security be the actual issue with the Hindutva movement but they manifest it wrongly? This deserves discussion.

    4. Hypothetically, if it becomes proof enough that Ramayana and Mahabharata actually occured (with proper evidence and not like those fabricated by BJP), how would the western world react? More importantly, what would be Indian population's attitude on its history and identity. This is a rather romantic topic :)

    I will have more. Lets argue about everything and everywhere and live to our tradition ... lol..

  25. Yes by the way GOD is a long as you cant prove it to be otherwise.

    Bongs are just as human as any other human and just as flawed as the guy next to him. Our biggest flaw however is that we are either "tense" or in the "past tense". And we wear glasses(most of us) so there is a strong possibility that we have a tinted vision - and we are poor loosers, we are extremists(in our heads, we dont believe in moving our butt for silly causes....we think!).

    There isnt much one can do about it - but there is not much anyone could have done in case it was any other race....

  26. Jai GottimukkalaJune 25, 2010 11:35 AM

    Comments are wonderful blogging tools, aren't they? An isolated comment sets off interest in a three year old post:)

    I did not read the book but understand Sen argues that Indian culture has a natural check & balance viz. the Indian argumentative nature. If he only quotes Bengali scholars in support of this, his theory collapses. But this is a big if as the confusion about Arundhati Roy shows

    On a hilarious note, 2/25 commenters called Sujai Tamil. I guess this was 2006:)

    I plan to read through the reservations posts. Sujai, be warned, this can result in several long comments.

  27. Nicely written article. It’s refreshing to see someone thinking differently.
    You have assumed that Arundhati Roy is Bengali. Yes, her father is Bengali and was a tea planter in Meghalaya. But was there any Bengali influence in her life for which you can brand her as a Bengali?
    Arundhati Roy’s mother, Mary Roy, was a Keralite Syrian Christian and a women's rights activist. Ms Ray spent her childhood in Aymanam, Kerala and had her schooling at Kottayam, Kerala and Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. She studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.
    Right from her school days Ms Ray had been influenced mostly by thoughts from Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
    So, may I humbly suggest that you do some research before passing some sweeping remarks?
    And, please tell me one thing frankly. Have you, ever, been bruised badly by an argumentative Bengali?

  28. Two things, I heard about Calcutta and Bengali's. God dropped shit and called it Calcutta! (said one book on Calcutta) Bengali's are the most self-centered people in the world. After reading the comments, I am convinced about the later. I need to go to Calcutta to figure out the other part.

    Education is the ability to listen to anything without losing your confidence or temper. Looks like our bengali friends cannot agree even to one aspect of an argument. Now, I am convinced Bengali's are argumentative.

    The 2 people I respect very much are Bengali - Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda.

    Insecurity is not a sign of strength - you need to able to laugh at yourself. That is why I like Rajnikanth - he is bald, he is dark and not exactly cute. He does not attempt to hide it. I may not like his movies - but as a person I admire his humility and his innner strength.

    The thread of comments has one hidden intention. Beat the crap out of anybody who says anything negative about Bengalis. That is not acceptable. It looks more like Taliban strategy.


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