Argumentative Indians: Amartya Sen and Salman Rushdie in conversation

20May06

What do you get when you listen to one of the great writers, and an intellectual thinker of the present times in conversation with each other? The 75 minute audio of Salman Rushdie and Amartya Sen in argument is filled with everything from tiny bits of Sen's latest book to historical anecdotes to a variety of interesting intellectual humor.

Rushdie sets the ball rolling in his typical intimidatingly funny style,

Feeling extremely quarrelsome up here, we'll try and pretend we really dislike each other.

The fundamentals of the entire conversation revolve around Sen's latest book Identity and Violence, where Sen talks of the theory of a 'Singular Identity' leading to a reductiveness in a human capability in understanding ideas within the boundaries of a given context, saying it leads to "miniaturization of human beings". Identities are plural, as a person dons multiple identities at the same time. Sen calls himself to be at the same time an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or Great Britain resident, an economist, a dabbler in philosophy, an author, a Sanskritist, a feminist, among his long list. But he's quick to point that understanding of pluralism has nothing to do with Western ideas and mostly draws his views from Eastern history and ideologies.

The discussion proceeds on their mutual ideas about the self's conceiving of itself having a lot to do with its roots. Migrants lose on that question of where their identity lies. More so, vindicating the Alien-Land phenomenon that I wrote about in a review of a short story.

Sen argues History and background are not the only way to see ourselves. But he tends to be rather vague in his articulation of how the concept of a singular affiliation despite a pluralistic identity would actually work beyond the pages of his book out in the real world. Rushdie is quick to counter, rather hilariously,

In the immortal words of Popeye the sailor man, I am what I am and that's what I am. Seems to me that Popeye had not read Freud, otherwise he would know that we are much more fractured than that.

Sen brings in the history perspective when he begins talking about identity tolerance enunciated by the Moghul Emperors, Akbar in particular, who was known to have encouraged translation of a number of Sanskrit epics. But what Sen fails to explain is why the pedestal built around Islamic tolerance under Akbar collapsed after his period.

From this point on, the conversation treads onto a rather abrasive topic of Islamic terrorism stemming from the fundamentalist identities of a Muslim. Talks move to a residency in Old Delhi where Hindus and Muslims are living together. One day they live together, next day they murder each other and the next day they live together again. But despite their mutual assertions on the importance of a singular Islamic affiliation, what remains a truth is that, a Pakistani Muslim is not the same as an Egyptian Muslim and is not the same as a Muslim captain of the English cricket team.

They take a little digression between their oscillations about Islamic extremism and Western parochialism and the lack of understanding the nature of history, when Sen denotes a point about Calcutta and calls Rushdie a Bombay-wallah, their mutual wit comes to the fore again, when Rushdie mutters in,

I understand that between these cities there is an entirely healthy mutual contempt.

And amid a round of laughter from the audience, Sen responds,

…we used to talk about Bombay being called Mumbai and how ridiculous it was. But you know, it's not a bad effort for someone trying to say "Bombay" through his denture.

Back to the point, the way we behave with employers is not the same we do with our lovers. One could be an aggressive employer but a timid husband. But Sen's advocacy of a free choice in acquiring and searching for an identity is a contradiction in itself as Rushdie points, Only a privileged group is able to make that. It is hard to believe that as human being we are all about to make choices.

Though at times an overdose of identity politics and violence, the luridness of ideas and the lucidity of their expressions with intermittent brims of humor makes it an interesting piece of conversation to listen.

But nevertheless, despite all the tediously literary insistence on a singular affiliation in a pluralistic society, the world is not defined by the one guy who said 'no', it is defined by the million who said 'yes'. That is the blatant reality!

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