If you laid all the economists in the world end to end, the old joke goes, you would never reach a conclusion. So it’s all the more remarkable that it is as a practitioner of the “dismal science” that Amartya Sen won the Nobel Prize in 1998. Sen is a man of conclusions; he is also brilliant at marshalling, with both extensive research and empirical evidence, the arguments that justify his conclusions. The Argumentative Indian — a collection of 16 essays, many reworked and expanded from lectures and previously published articles — is an intellectual tour de force from an economist who can lay equal claim to the designations of sociologist, historian, political analyst and moral philosopher. It is a magisterial work, except that the adjective is not one of which Sen would approve.
That is because Sen uses it, along with “exoticist” and “curatorial,” to describe the three perspectives from which the West has tended to view India (each of which he dissects and discredits with precision and finesse). He is particularly critical of the Western overemphasis on India’s religiosity at the expense of any recognition of the country’s equally impressive rationalist, scientific, mathematical and secular heritage, fields treated by Orientalists as “Western spheres of success.”