Lessons from an Overstern drain-inspector’s report

Interrogating Western Imaginations

On our Republic day-2016-Part 11

“The Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery, and vocabulary that have given it a reality and presence in and for the West.”

Edward Said

On the occasion of Indian Republic day- we did close-reading of Amartya Sen’s book-The Argumentative Indian and tried to discuss some themes related to diaspora in the Libya of today, with threat of IS, and three non-functioning governments.

In contrast to Edward Said’s theme of uniformity and consistency, Amartya Sen argues that unless one chooses to focus on the evolution of a specific conceptual tradition , ‘internal consistency’ is precisely the thing that is terribly hard to find in the variety of western conceptions of India. In this essay, Amartya Sen tells of three distinct categories, by which attempts to understand and interpret Indian traditions is made

The Argumentative Indian Amartya Sen

Exoticist-  Wondrous aspects , where the focus is on what is different, strange, as Hegel puts it ‘has existed for millennia in the imagination of the Europeans’.

Magisterial- Relates to exercise of Imperial power and sees India as a subject territory from the point of view of British governors. This outlook assimilates a sense of superiority and guardianship needed to deal with a country that James Mill defined as ‘that great scene of British Action’.

Curatorial– It includes attempts at noting, classifying and exhibiting diverse aspects of Indian culture. Unlike exoticist- it does not look only for the strange, though different-exhibit value is a must. Unlike  magisterial approach, it is not weighed down by the ruler’s priorities.


At the outset, Amartya Sen dissects a Methodological history, whereby knowledge gives power in some form or another. He says that an epistemic methodology that sees the pursuit of knowledge as entirely congruent with the search for power is a great deal more cunning that wise. It can needlessly undermine the value of knowledge in satisfying curiosity and interest; it significantly weakens one of the profound characteristics of human beings.


In the essay-Sen tells of the Curatorial writers like Iranian born AlBeruni –who wrote Tarikh al-hind (History of India in the early 11th century to works of William Jones who established the Royal Asiatic Society in around 1784. In Magisterial works- James Mill’s 1817 book- The History of British India which played a major role in introducing British governors to India. Mill disputed and dismissed practically every clam ever made on behalf of Indian culture and its intellectual traditions, concluding that it was totally primitive and crude.


In a series of long conversations on India and China conducted by Harold Isaacs in 1958 with 181 Americans- academics, professionals in mass media, government officials, missionaries and church officials, and officials of foundations, voluntary social service groups, and political organizations- Isaacs foud that the two most widely read literary sources on India were Rudyard Kipling and Katherine Mayo, the author of the extremely derogatory Mother India. Of these, Kipling’s writings would be more readily recognized as having somehtin gof the ‘magisterial approach’ to them. Lloyd Rudolph describes Mayo’s Mother India thus:

First published in 1927, Mother India was written in the context of official and unofficial British efforts to generate support in America for British rule in India. It added contemporary and lurid detail to the image of Hindu India as irredeemably and hopelessly impoverished, degraded, depraved, and corrupt. Mayo’s Mother India echoed not only the views of men like Alexander Duff, Charles Grant, and John Stuart Mill but also those of Theodore Roosevelt, who glorified in bearing the white man’s burden in Asia and celebrated the accomplishments of imperialism.

LL 2 Portrait_Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi, while describing Mayo’s book as a ‘drain inspector’s report’, had added that every Indian should read it and seemed to imply, as Ashis Nandy notes, that it is possible ‘to put her criticism to internal use’ (as an over-stern drain inspector’s report certainly can be). Gandhi himself was severely attacked in the book, but, given his campaign against caste and untouchability, he might have actually welcomed even her exaggerations because of its usefully lurid portrayal of caste inequities. But while Gandhi may have been right to value external criticism as a way of inducing people to be self-critical, the impact of the ‘magisterial approach’ certainly gives American perceptions of India a very clear slant

(From –Amartya Sen’s essay-Indian traditions and the western Imaginations)

 Reading group Discussion questions

  • Discuss the thematic differences between Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and Amartya Sen’s approach to Western imagination.

  Hint: Which has ‘internal consistency’, and which is heterogeneous

  • What three distinct categories, does Sen write about – by which attempts to understand and interpret Indian traditions is made
  • Why did Gandhi-ji recommend Katherine Mayo’s Mother India to his followers, though it was highly critical of India and particularly attacked Gandhi severely

Hint– Ashis Nandy notes, that it is possible ‘to put her criticism to internal use’ as an over-stern drain inspector’s report certainly can be

(Note- This is the second discussion we had in our Reading group regarding Western imaginations. In coming discussions we will discuss the thread of voicing of the subaltern , through readings of Amitav Ghosh’s – In an Antique Land and Circle of Reason…

Other suggested readings- which tell of our Reading Group’s efforts to map “Everyday history” can be read by clicking the links below)


2013 Sep Waiting at Adana


2013 May Exploring Kabir to Safir



2 thoughts on “Lessons from an Overstern drain-inspector’s report”

  1. Glad that you liked the article. Looking forward to your answers- to the Reading Group questions…
    1- Difference between Edward Said’s approach with that of Amartya Sen on a thematic level
    2- What 3 categories does Amartya Sen write about-when he talks of writings about India
    3- Why did Gandhi-ji recommend the reading of Katherine Mayo’s “Mother India” which was highly critical of India and particularly attacked Gandhi

    happy reading, happy reflecting


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s