“Welcome him and argue him to the ground,” challenges Bombay boy Homi Bhabha, the bearded, greying professor who runs the Humanities Centre at Harvard University. The subject obviously is Sen's latest book, The Argumentative Indian.
Dr Amartya Sen, seated demurely to his right on a small table looked on. They were both on a small stage at the Arthur M Sackler Musuem auditorium in Boston two nights ago. “I think its going to be a remarkable evening,” says the scholarly Bhabha. To which Sen responds, “Well that depends, remarks can be of many kinds.”
Sen has a classic, dry sense of humour. On this cold night, as he faces a packed hall overflowing into the aisles, he is in full form. “I am too contaminated by my book to discuss it. What made me do it ?” He goes on to explain, finding occasion to take a potshot at India’s education system. Actually I’ve always been fascinated by the culture of the sub-continent. I wanted to study Sanksrit and Maths. But the schools determined that you can’t do both so I settled on Math.” Since then, says Sen, he’s been wanting to return to `Sanskrit’.
If it were not Sen, you would think he rambles, his voice rising to a thunder, suddenly dropping to a near whisper, causing some transmission losses. He drifts, darts, races, often playfully, across subjects, themes, cultures, historical periods, time and space and can shift from a serious, sober note to humour without warning. And yet, every line is worth examination and study, often deeper introspection and thought. Here go some glimpses.
Are Indians Over Influenced By The British Legacy ?
“I think the importance of the British was exaggerated by the anti-imperialists and post-colonialists. There is a tendency to concentrate on just 200 years, which is too short a period in the history of India.”
Interestingly, listening to some Harvard Business School (not Indian) students’ views on India’s IT success the next day, the contrast was noteworthy. Many felt that the British legacy of language is one of the key reasons for India’s success. Others even felt that British legacy and systems were instrumental in giving India an edge, possibly a reference to the legal system. Most of them had never been to India.
Back at the Sackler Musuem, the topic is democracy. The question is: Do we owe it to the British too ? Sen says over a 100 countries emanated by the empire that was Great Britain. “And yet, instinctively, I think its been far more successful in India,” he says. He also links this obviously to the argumentative Indian.
Sen feels the argumentative tradition is not unique to India. The tradition of debates exists all over the world, he says. He refers to the Bhagwad Gita and the debate between Arjuna and Krishna. "Finally, Krishna pulled the wool over Arjuna's eyes and convinced him that it was duty to fight the war. But the debate and argument was part of the process," says Sen. "The final point is often rejected but the debate is in place."
Hindutva Not Looking For Relevance
Sen continues to rally against the BJP's Hindutva. Hindutva was not looking for relevance, they were looking for power, he says quite firmly. “They are ignorant of Sanskrit,” he says in another context. He quotes an example to illustrate the role of the Mughals in vitalizing Indian culture. The Upanishads were translated by Shah Jahan’s eldest son, who learnt Sanskrit, into Persian. This was how the Upanishads were introduced to the Europeans since they knew Persian.
In a similar context, he recalls a Delhi-based Indian fortnightly calling him a westernized Indian or words to that effect after he won the Nobel prize. “I called up the editor who in turn claimed it was not him but his deputy editor who wrote that. “I said, please tell him to come to my hotel and we will discuss this. But on one condition. We will only speak in Sanskrit.”
Later, to a question on the contrast between the liberalizing economy and the occasional bouts of xenophobia and parochialism seen in India, Sen says, “It pains my heart to give credit to the BJP for anything, but if anything, they maintained a strong focus on the market economy.”
Sen spends considerable time on what must be another pet subject: Multiple identities. "Each of us has multiple identities, from being an Indian, to a Harvard professor to a lover of Bengali poetry," he says. Bhabha and he start off on a lively debate on the subject as well, the former asking why the love of Bengali poetry constituted another identity. It was time for another story.
"What If Your Grandfather Was A Murderer ?"
When the Fascists were recruiting in Italy in the early 20s, one Fascist recruiter asked a young man and potential recruit why he was not keen to join the Fascists. “That’s because my father, grandfather and great grandfather were Socialists,” said the young man. Asked the Fascist recruiter, “Are you saying than, that if your father, grandfather and great grandfather were murderers, you would be a murderer too.” Well no, said the young man, “In that case, I would join the Fascist Party.”
A young man from the front row asks a winding, complex question on the clash of inner identities, the sort which run through your mind when seated alone in a dark, closed room. Sen’s response, “I would suggest you first get out of the dark room or look for the light switch.”
The Arthur M Sackler Musuem
Notes: The Harvard University Art Musem’s Sackler Museum houses collections of ancient, Islamic, Asian, and later Indian art. For what its worth, I discover that Homi Bhabha and I hail from the same college, Elphinstone in Bombay. Bhabha went on to Oxford. In my time, working just after college was more fashionable.