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Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Forget rubbing shoulders, it isn't often that you even get to hear a Nobel Laureate. And when that Laureate happens to be Amartya Sen, you are more than ready to drop everything to listen in. He's spent a lifetime fighting poverty with analysis rather than activism. He has highlighted the many contradictions of our systems. He's talked at length about poverty, about famine and highlighted how thousands could starve even when a country is producing enough food.

His Nobel Prize is proof enough of his razor sharp brain, which is on display when he stops his reading of 'The Argumentative Indian.' It's not that I have anything against reading but there's a certain type that does it better than the rest. And Professor Sen is a more engaging mind when the floor is opened up for argument. The crowd perks up, those who'd been flipping pages of the book till then stop fidgeting and are all set for question time. The hands go up though there's only time to squeeze in three. That's because he's spent close to 30 minutes reading. Organisers, take note, Q and A matters.

It's evident in this case. In those three answers, Professor Sen covers India-China relations, India's history, issues of identity, where he feels he belongs, the importance of dialogue in a democracy. As he moves effortlessly from religion to culture to education to the history of the Indian ancient texts, he unravels so many worlds for the spell-bound audience. Almost everyone wants more yet as it often does, time runs out. In those moments, however fleeting, his versatility and expertise has touched the students, the professionals, the academics, the accountants and even the hardened scribes in attendance.

I'd been forewarned about his engagements and was hoping to make do with the shots of his talk. But a glass of red wine dashed my best laid plans. When I told him about it, he was apologetic and promised to give me a few moments of his time before he rushed off for his next engagement. I was expecting him to forget all about it, after all lesser mortals do. He didn't. Before rushing off for his dinner meeting, he gave me exactly five minutes of his time and it was all that mattered as he spoke on identity and what makes one feel at home in one part of the world and not the other:
Britishness is a very important thing for the British to have, just as I'm very keen on Indians to have Indianness. I've lived in Britain, I vote in Britain as a citizen of the Commonwealth. I also live and work in America but I don't get that feeling of belonging in America, even though Uncle Sam took 400,000 Dollars of my Nobel money because I'm a taxpayer. I don't have a sense of Americanness, because I don't vote. But I don't think there is anything peculiar about accepting the concept of multiple identities because if we accept our identities are plural, we can be like those little Russian dolls, all packed up one into another, being different and same simultaneously.

On how critical the tradition of argument is for a democracy and for democratic systems to work:
I think it is very central because to express different points of view, to discuss them, analyse them and argue about them, in the absence of all of these you can't even vote intelligently. The centrality of argument is recognised in each culture though the Indian culture, in particular has been very lucky in empathising that for a very long time. In some respects it's a much broader level of argument that we see today. In some other respects, its not that broad a level of argument. I think the nature of dialogue changes with the times and I'm not at all surprised about that.

On the media and the key role it can play in sustaining certain issues:
I think the media can bring attention to issues which would otherwise not have got the kind of attention they deserve. I think the media is very important. Now, what is the optimum number of newspapers or news channels, that I don't know. One has to think of the ability of media to do its work in a hard fact finding way. They need to present truths to the world in a rigorous manner and engage the world in an interesting way.

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