Review: India In The Age of Ideas by Sanjeev Sanyal

Written over a decade and more, the 66 short pieces in this volume take the reader through history and culture, urban design, and economics
Independence Day celebrations at a college in Guwahati, Assam.(NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Independence Day celebrations at a college in Guwahati, Assam.(NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Updated on May 15, 2019 01:28 PM IST
Copy Link
Hindustan Times | BySudhirendar Sharma
318pp, ₹699; Westland
318pp, ₹699; Westland

Ideas are fleeting. Many believe that unless ideas root and grow, they wither and lose relevance. Yet, they are rarely in short supply. Everybody has ideas. They erupt in fertile minds without any regard for time and place. But unless ideas are allowed to mature, they do not catch much attention. If this is what ideas may mean then why should newspaper columns compiled as a book of ideas catch any attention? In his foreword to India in the Age of Ideas, economist Bibek Debroy sets aside this dilemma by arguing that other than pandering to the writer’s ego the idea of packing ‘ideas’ in a book may remain somewhat questionable.

Written over a decade and more, the 66 short pieces in this volume take the reader through history and culture, urban design, and economics. Several pieces are set in the past and are therefore dated; the more recent ones reflect contemporary concerns. While the author claims to have addressed diverse issues from an interdisciplinary perspective using a Complex Adaptive System lens, the narrative is a linear response to evolving situations. It could not have been different as the basic premise is rooted in providing a quick response to current challenges.

Many of the issues raised are simple and relatable. Who would not agree that Indian history must be rewritten by properly revisiting the primary evidence? Isn’t the issue of the legitimacy of the ruling elite at the core of the current crises in democratic governance? Can the country afford to discount the new middle class as a harbinger of cultural transformation? These and others issues need a nuanced understanding rather than a quick fix. Given his academic and administrative background, however, solutionism remains core concern for Sanjeev Sanyal.

Author Sanjeev Sanyal (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Sanjeev Sanyal (Courtesy the publisher)

India in the Age of Ideas misses out on assessing the complexities of interactions between human psychology, cultural norms, and social behaviour in addressing contemporary social, economic, cultural, and political challenges with which society is currently grappling. While the author holds up a mirror to historical contradictions, cognitive dissonances, and governance deficit, the question of how the collusion course between them is to be resolved has remained largely unaddressed.

Though there is a limit to which meanings can be layered into newspaper columns, many pieces included in the book are engaging. In an easy-to-read style, Sanyal shares some of his concerns. While agreeing with the author on the need for relocating Independence Day celebrations across different parts of the country, this reviewer suggests that similar attention be paid to other events of national importance. Similarly, there is merit in the author’s laying emphasis on debates based on evidence than on ideologies and personalities.

Watch: In conversation with Sanjeev Sanyal, economist and historian

However, by avoiding updating these articles, Sanyal has weakened his own arguments at several places. The author’s assertion that quick response to a situation is more important than a meticulous plan seems preposterous. And for a book of ideas, the inclusion of such unsubstantiated ideas is surely not a good idea. There are also a few repetitions and contradictions that have gone unnoticed.

Given that India in the Age of Ideas is a compilation of old articles, it seems over-priced. This genre of book publishing has value provided the information is updated and the arguments substantiated into a coherent narrative.

Sudhirendar Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and academic.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Close Story
SHARE
Story Saved
×
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Tuesday, January 25, 2022