Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
My first book, My Friend Sancho, was published in May 2009, and went on to become the biggest selling debut novel released that year in India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and had earlier been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.
If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho
Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.
My posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.
There are few things as satisfying as being macho on social media, and this is quite the season for it. After the terrorist attack in Uri, every Righteous Internet Patriot (RIP) wants our government to teach Pakistan a lesson by going to war. I have two things to say about this: One, it is the worst of all available solutions; Two, it is the best possible stance to take. Let us unravel that.
War is a solution that would be worse than the problem. Let’s look at this conflict using the metric of human lives. A rational aim of any solution would be to minimise the loss of Indian lives. What is the cost we currently bear through Pakistan-sponsored terrorism?
In a reply to an RTI petition this July, the government of India stated that 707 Indian lives have been lost to terrorism since 2005. Over 11 years, that comes to 64 deaths a year. If the status quo is maintained, with the usual empty diplomatic posturings, this figure should not rise too drastically. But what if, in an exasperated search for closure, we go to war?
A modern war with modern weaponry could cost us tens of thousands of lives, and maybe millions if it turns nuclear. (This does not take into account downstream effects on survivors, the economy, the environment and so on, all of which would blight the future.) Whatever the precise number, the cost of war would be orders of magnitude worse than even the long-term cost of the status quo. For any rational person, therefore, war is off the table.
This creates an obvious problem. If the rational course for India is to avoid war no matter what happens, then Pakistan can keep escalating with impunity. They could kill hundreds of Indians a year, or even thousands, confident in the belief that because we are rational, because we can do the math, we will be restrained. So what are we to do?
The field of game theory contains an insight to this dynamic. The game most relevant to two nuclear powers is called Chicken. Here’s an illustration: two cars are racing towards each other, and a crash is imminent. (Mutually Assured Destruction.) The driver who loses his nerve and swerves first loses the game. Now, every rational driver will swerve before he crashes into the other guy. So a surefire way to win the game is to convince the other guy that you are irrational, prepared to die, and will not concede. (One way of doing this is by breaking the steering wheel and throwing it away.) Your opponent, if he is rational, must swerve.
Pakistan has played this game brilliantly with a so-far rational India. Their venal generals and mad mullahs, the world believes, are capable of going nuclear at any provocation. India’s rationality and restraint is applauded in diplomatic circles—but we’re being pwned in the geopolitical sphere by Pakistan.
One way out is for India to portray itself as equally irrational, and show a willingness to go nuclear—even if we actually remain rational and intend to avoid war. Richard Nixon did this during the Cold War in 1969, when he ordered the US army to full war-readiness, and sent 18 B-52s loaded with thermonuclear weapons towards the Soviet border, where they flew around in pretty oval patterns for three days. The Soviets, who weren’t exactly ballerinas themselves, were spooked. Nixon called this ‘the Madman Theory’.
Recent Indian prime ministers would have had a tough time portraying themselves as mad men. (Imagine Manmohan Singh letting off an evil laugh.) But Narendra Modi seemed to be suited for the role – until he became PM. Ironically, the rhetorical belligerance that Modi articulated towards Pakistan while on the campaign trail has been replaced by a subdued, reasonable demeanour on the world stage.
Modi cares deeply about how the world views him, and wants to be seen as a mature statesman. Sadly, he has succeeded. This is reassuring to those of us who fear excessive military adventurism—I live in Mumbai and would be bummed if Pakistan nuked my beloved city—but is counter-productive when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. If Pakistan’s generals saw Modi and his minions as unhinged reactionaries driven by bigotry, Islamophobia and a virulent nationalism, they might back off. But regardless of how he is regarded in JNU, his image on the global stage is exemplary. On all his foreign visits, he comes across as an avuncular dove, a personable connoisseur of the photo-op.
Our conflict with Pakistan will not be ended by diplomacy. China supports Pakistan, America needs Pakistan for Afghanistan reasons, and all diplomatic manouvering on this subject is just theatre. To get Pakistan to stop poking us, we have to play the game. Modi has so far been a master of optics – and playing Chicken with Pakistan is his greatest challenge yet.
I am a biryani inspector,
A friend of the district collector.
Please pass me your rice.
Mmm! This is so nice!
How I love being a beef detector!
A friend of mine by the name of Jai
Texted me from Doha. He wrote, “Hey,
I’ve been trying to call
But can’t get through at all.
I keep hearing, ‘Aap Qatar mein hai.’”
Poor Paris Hilton started to cry.
Kim Kardashian explained with a sigh,
“We are the sex tape queens.
We are the mean machines.
Who the hell is this Sandeep Kumar guy?”
A minister who was farsighted
Said, “Men must not get too excited.
I would like to ban skirts,
Jail any girl that flirts,
Ban all women,” he said, delighted.
In theory, a devout politician is a good thing. A politician who believes in God seems to accept the existence of an entity more powerful than himself, and that should be a reassuring thought to Indian voters. We have plenty of devout politicians here, and while the ones in the ruling party are most vocal about it, opposition politicians aren’t far behind. Take Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, for example.
When he was sworn in as chief minister at the Ramlila Maidan, Kejriwal repeatedly thanked God for his newfound status. “I thank the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru,” he breathlessly proclaimed, trying to cover all bases. And in case the concerned gods missed it, he later said, “This victory is not because of us. It is a miracle, and I thank Bhagwan, Ishwar and Allah.” (At this point, I can imagine Bhagwan turning to Allah and saying, “Dude, any idea what he’s talking about? I thought I was Ishwar!” And Allah replies, “Dunno, man. I’m just a party worker.”)
Kejriwal’s stated piety isn’t restricted to the major religions. He recently came out in support of the Jain monk Tarun Sagar after the musician Vishal Dadlani made fun of him. Kejriwal tweeted: “Tarun Sagar ji Maharaj is a very revered saint, not just for Jains but everyone. Those showing disrespect is unfortunate and should stop.” (The last sentence is stunningly convoluted, and we all know what Orwell said about clarity in speech correlating with clarity in thinking.)
Now, Kejriwal was reportedly an atheist before he came to politics, and it is natural to suspect that this new-found piety is part of the populism he’s embraced. But let that pass. In this column I will argue that there is one religion that he truly, deeply, madly does believe in, and it is the most dangerous religion of all. It is the religion of government.
Contrary to popular belief, the majority religion in India is not Hinduism but the religion of government. We have been brought up believing that if there is any problem in this world, government can solve it. If there is a social ill, ban it. If prices are too high, pass a law demanding that they be kept low. If there aren’t enough jobs out there, create jobs by legislation so that people can earn an honest living. And so on.
I call this, with apologies to Richard Dawkins, the God Delusion of Government. Devotees of this particular religion believe, like devotees of any other, that reality is subject to the whims and fancies of their God. To change the state of the world, God needs to merely decree it, or government needs to pass a law, and boom, reality changes. Water turns to amrut, copper to gold.
This kind of God delusion isn’t restricted to India. A recent example of a country ruined by it is Venezuela, which has been ravaged by the socialist policies of Hugo Chavez. Venezuela was lucky to be oil-rich, but unlucky to have Chavez as a leader, who tried social engineering on a vast scale. One of his pet schemes: price controls on all essential commodities. (If something should be cheaper, let’s make a law mandating it.) This led, as econ 101 would predict, to shortages, so much so that Venezuela’s queues became legendary. The current government, perturbed that these queues were embarrassing the country, hit upon an innovative solution. It banned queues.
I’m not kidding. They really banned queues, and when I read that news, I thought of Kejriwal, because that’s exactly what he would do.
Kejriwal thrives on finding the simplest possible solution to every problem through the Godlike intervention of government. He has no grasp on reality, though, and no understanding of how such interventions typically play out. Most tellingly, like Chavez and other socialists, he simply doesn’t understand how the price system works.
Left to themselves, prices are determined by supply and demand. If the demand for a product or service outstrips supply, the price goes up. This rising price acts as a signal to potential suppliers, and they are incentivised to fill the gap. Similarly, if demand goes down, the price goes down, and suppliers start moving their efforts to where they would be more valued. We can only make a living by fulfilling the needs of others, and the price system gives us the information and the incentives to do this most efficiently. But for this, it has to be left to itself. If these signals are distorted, the system falls apart.
Now, Uber’s surge pricing is a fantastic mechanism to speed up the process of price discovery. But Kejriwal decided that people were being fleeced by high prices, and decided to ban surge pricing. The ban didn’t last long, because there was an immediate shortage of cabs, just as econ 101 would predict.
What happens when you put a price cap on something is that it becomes first-come-first-serve, and after the first lucky bunch get it, it doesn’t matter how urgent your need is, it’s not available at all. More crucially, the rising price that would act as both information and incentive now no longer does so, and other suppliers don’t rush to fit the shortfall.
While that experiment didn’t last long, Kejriwal moved from price ceiling to price floor. He announced an increase in the minimum wage in Delhi, to Rs 14k a month. Now, this sounds most compassionate, but is a government diktat enough? If it was, why not, say, make the minimum wage in Delhi Rs 10 lakhs a month? Wouldn’t Delhi instantly become the richest city in the world?
The answer is obvious. Such a law would merely put everyone whose work was worth less than 10 lakhs out of a job, and most businesses would shut down. Similarly, if the minimum wage set is Rs 14k, it effectively renders everyone whose labour is worth less than that unemployable by decree. Businesses are forced to discriminate against anyone they’d pay 13k a month or less, and it is the poorest of the poor who would bear the brunt of this. The law would hurt those it purported to help. (Being the country of jugaad, all workers below the minimum wage level will simply be shifted to the informal sector, and government inspectors will get a higher hafta than before. But it is no defence of a bad law to say that peeps will find a way to work around it.)
For anyone who isn’t economically illiterate, these effects are predictable. A price cap (or ceiling) inflates demand relative to supply, and a shortage in supply is inevitable. A price floor inevitably decreases demand and leads to excess supply—or, in this case, more unemployment.
The laws of economics, such as that of prices, and supply and demand, are as immutable as those of physics. So why are such interventions so popular then? A key reason is that the laws of physics can be tested and proved in controlled environments, but you can’t do that with the laws of economics. Data is noisy, other variables abound, and all sides can point to ‘evidence’ with spurious correlations. So those who believe in such simplistic interventions continue with them, because it makes them feel (and seem) compassionate.
Kejriwal has a record of taking the high moral ground with self-righteous positions, and strikes a chord with common people by identifying many problems correctly. But his suggested solutions usually make the problems worse, as in the case of his anti-corruption crusade, or the different price controls he has championed. A good question to ask here is, Does he actually believe that such interventions work, or does he not give a damn about that, only wanting to take a position that gets him most votes from the economically illiterate masses? In other words, is he a devout fool or a devout scoundrel? Hanlon’s Razor states, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” In Kejriwal’s case, I’m not so sure. But he’s devout all right, so God help us.
* * *
Usain Bolt was sprinting like a gale
When he was passed by Mrs Patel.
The crowd was entertained.
Mrs Patel explained,
‘Haven’t you heard? Zara has a sale!’
Once there was a minister of sport
Who loved using his pretty passport.
He went on pilgrimage
To the Olympic village.
What a superb holiday resort!
There was a young girl who was told
Girls should be demure, never bold.
She gave a sharp retort
On the badminton court,
And almost won Olympic gold.
Once there was a Haryanvi lass
Who would never let a problem pass.
She’d fling it to the ground,
Expertly pin it down
Because desi girls can kick ass.
One day God came to me, full of grief.
‘I’m distraught,’ she said, ‘I need relief.
Whatever I decree,
No one listens to me,
And now I’m losing my self-belief.’
There was a girl who loved to buy shoes,
Whether from Kolhapur or Toulouse.
She bought very many,
But never wore any
Because she wasn’t able to choose.
This is the 29th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line. Note for foreign readers: Isabgol is a legendary health supplement used to treat constipation.
It was 11pm at the end of a long day. A weary Donald Trump undressed in his hotel room. He had a habit of looking at the ceiling whenever he undressed, so that he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of his hands. He had such tiny hands! To see his hands take off his designer shirt (he had the best shirt!) and his manly trousers (he had seen a lot of trousers, and let me tell you, these trousers were really good!) made him sad. It made him want to cry, and because real men don’t cry, that then made him really angry. It started with the hands, though.
He flopped down on the bed. He was naked now, and had one more reason to not look down. He was worried. This was his fifth consecutive day without satisfactory bowel movement. He was full of shit. This made him irritable. In the last three days, he had a) lashed out at the mother of a soldier killed in combat, b) thrown a baby out of an election rally, and c) picked up a kitten at a townhall meeting and thrown it at a grandmother who was having a heart attack. The grandmother had immediately recovered, but the kitten had a heart attack, and the media was now saying vicious things about him, being really mean to him, very unfair. What was he supposed to do, throw the grandmother at the kitten?
He really needed to shit.
Just then, he saw something move at the end of the bed. He looked across, making sure not to get his tiny hands in the way. There was a little boy there. A little green boy. Trump couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He rubbed his eyes, which took a long time because of his really tiny hands. But the boy was still there. Was he imagining the boy? Should he speak to him? What if someone sees him speaking to an imaginary green boy? The New York Times would go crazy. Why were they so nasty with him?
‘Who are you?’ he finally asked.
‘My name is Isabgol,’ the boy said. ‘Gosh, you have such small hands.’
‘No I don’t, I have really big hands,’ said Trump. ‘I’ve seen a lot of hands, and let me tell you, my hands are the biggest. They’re huge!’ He covered his hands and something else with the bedsheet. ‘What are you doing here? What do you want?’
‘I have been sent to this planet with one mission,’ said Isabgol. ‘And that is to get rid of excess shit. There is too much shit in the world. And so, here I am.’
Trump stared at Isabgol in astonishment. It was true that the last five days had been hard because of the absence of motions. Could he really be the leader of the free world when he was thus constrained?
‘How do you do that? And wait, before you do any of that, are you an immigrant? Are you a Muslim? Are you a Muslim from Mexico? Because, you know, I’m building this wall…’
Isabgol sighed. ‘I was warned about this. So much shit. Listen, first, not only am I not from America, I’m not even from Earth. I come from a faraway planet called Bengal. And second, when I speak of clearing up shit, I’m speaking metaphorically. I couldn’t care less about your bowel movements. No, I’m going to spin my magic on you, and when I’m done, there’ll be no more shit in your head. Oh no, babumoshai, you’ll actually be a good, decent human being then. You’ll be respectful to your opponents. You’ll start treating women as real people. Why, you’ll even learn to like your hands.’
Trump jumped up and backed away. ‘Don’t come near me,’ he squealed. He had been terrified many times in his life—fear is all you see behind every bully’s mask—but this was something else. A little green kid was going to make him a good person?
Isabgol advanced, repulsed by the task but excited by the challenge. Trump shrank away. Isabgol moved forward. Trump withdrew. Isabgol was almost there. Trump was in a foetal position. And then, Trump felt something right next to his tiny, miniscule, almost invisible hands. It was a glass of water. His last line of defence!
With all the strength he could muster from his alleged hands, for one couldn’t quite see them, Trump threw the water at Isabgol. Water, water everywhere. Isabgol was covered in the water. He looked at Trump with a glimmer in his eyes. Trump shivered. He knew that he had made a grave mistake.
Isabgol began to expand.
At the press conference the next day, everyone was rubbing their eyes except Trump.
‘Hillary is such a fine lady,’ he said. ‘I remember, she came to one of my weddings. Many people come to my weddings. But she was the best. Just perfect.’
‘What about Obama?’ a brave cub reporter asked.
‘He is a great American,’ said Trump. ‘I may disagree with him on some issues, though I wouldn’t know which because I’m not well-informed enough to have meaningful opinions, but he is a decent man. And Michelle is such a charming lady. I tell Ivanka, when you grow up, I want you to be like that. You hear me? Just like Michelle!’
Meanwhile, backstage, two of Trump’s campaign managers looked at each in bewilderment.
‘What happened to the boss?’ one of them said. ‘He’s so full of shit today.’
It’s been a long time since I wrote something substantive on sport, so here are two recent essays I’ve written that scratched my itch. The first, published in The Cricket Monthly, is a 4000-word longread titled ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Poker’. It basically talks about the importance of probabilistic thinking, not just in poker and cricket but also in life in general. In what is a cricket magazine, I get in thoughts on poker, probability, football, the free-will-vs-determinism debate and even the Bhagawad Gita. An excerpt:
One way to think about probability is to imagine parallel universes. You flip an evenly weighted coin, and instantly the world splits into 1000 parallel worlds, and the coin falls heads in 500 of them and tails in the other 500. You flip again and these universes are split into units of 250, each showing sequences of HH, HT, TH and TT. You keep flipping.
This is true for everything that happens. Every single thing that happens in this world (or may happen) has a probability attached to it. These probabilities change at every instant, affected by all other events to some degree or the other. So imagine, in every single moment, for every single event, the parallel universes multiplying. You can increase or decrease the number of hypothetical parallel universes depending on how granular you wish to make the thought experiment, but there are basically infinite parallel universes, each of them containing unique outcomes. And the world that you are in right now is just one of trillions of trillions of freakin’ gazillions. Imagine the level of randomness, then, of this world being what it is.
My other essay, ‘The Tamilian Gentleman Who Took On The World’, was part of ESPN.in’s series of The Top 20 Moments in Indian Sport. Vishy Anand winning the undisputed chess world championship in 2007 was ranked No. 4 by ESPN, though I would place it at the top. Being a chess lover, I’m obviously biased, but I’d hope that after reading my piece, which is about the context of Anand’s remarkable achievement, you will agree with me!
Pappu woke to slaps from his mama.
He explained why he caused such drama.
‘Parliament is a bore
I was tired. What’s more,
I was already in my pajama.’
Once mosquitoes as big as a bus
Attacked me with a great deal of fuss.
They chased me around,
And now I have found
They’re playing Pokemon Go with us.
Once the Congress seemed rather smug.
‘Gandhi’ was their designer drug.
Do they now realise
That the Gandhi franchise
Is not a feature but a bug?
A wise man said, ‘An eye for an eye
Makes the whole world blind.’ Those who decry
This circle of violence
Must speak through the silence.
We’ll fall too far if we don’t aim high.
There was a man with a giant belly
Who sat all day glued to his telly.
Then he died. He was gone,
But the belly lived on.
Now it throws great parties in New Delhi.
There was a man with a giant head
Who told us where the future led.
His brain was so loaded,
One day it exploded
And now he’s confined to his bed.
Swarajya plays the gender card on behalf of Smriti Irani:
The jokes on Smriti being handed textiles ministry, misunderstanding it for a ministry of ‘texting’, or the beti being given a sewing machine instead of education, have come from even the most feminist of women, all with unbridled glee at seeing a woman fail.
The cherry-picking of a women to be slammed in a manner that is degrading and humiliating of the person, and not their work, must rankle anyone.
Indeed, I had reacted to Irani’s transfer with this limerick, which I presume is the joke being referred to above. I’ve been a critic of Irani for a long time, and the reason for that is not her gender, but her “ignorance and arrogance”, as Ram Guha put it so aptly. The cabinet reshuffle indicates that even Narendra Modi agrees with Ram Guha and me on this matter, and it might well be a first that the three of us are lined up on the same side of an issue.
The Swarajya piece also indulges in a bit of Whataboutery, implying that men don’t get criticized in this manner. Speaking for myself, I’ve lampooned Rahul ‘Pappu’ Gandhi (Recent examples: 1,2) and Modi (1, 2, 3) far more than I’ve criticized Irani. To the best of my knowledge, they are not women at this point in time. But even if I wasn’t an equal opportunity satirist, the Whataboutery would have been uncalled for.
This is not to say that there hasn’t been some disgusting sexism directed at Irani, or that we aren’t a country of sexists. Those are true, but to imply that the very act of criticizing Irani is sexist simply because she is a woman is absurd. All political discourse will end if we take that line: You won’t be able to criticize any woman because someone will call it sexist, or any Muslim because you’ll be labelled Islamophobic, or any government minister because you’ll be called anti-national. There is no end of cards to play.
In an essay I wrote a few weeks ago, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics’, I described how so much political discourse ends up as attacks on the person making the argument instead of the argument itself. I outlined three ways in which that happens. Swarajya’s article is a perfect illustration of that, as it covers all three of those. So you lampooned Irani? Well, that reveals three things about you. One, you’re a hypocrite, because you didn’t lampoon Kapil Sibal earlier. Two, you’re sexist, and your intention is to demean women. Three, you’re part of the ‘liberal brigade’.
It is almost as if this piece was written to illustrate my point, so thank you for that, Swarajya!
Smriti Irani spent quite a while
Sending messages on her mobile
Putting callers on hold
Until she was told
Her job wasn’t texting, but textile.
A neta who loves currency notes
Told me what his line of work denotes.
‘It is kind of funny.
We steal people’s money
And use some of it to buy their votes.’
Donald Trump was full of indignation.
He wanted to undo immigration.
God granted his prayer,
Made the US all bare,
And once more a Red Indian nation.
A man said to me on the Virar Fast,
‘We’re a nation with a glorious past.
In both science and art,
Our ancients were smart.
Oh, by the way, what is your caste?’
Once I had a patriotic guest
Who told me, ‘Indians are the best.
Yes, inflation is dicey,
Tomatoes are pricey,
But our PM has a 56-inch chest!’
I woke up in the morning with a sense of dread.
There was a righteous voice inside my head
Saying, ‘Get up and play!
It’s World Yoga Day!’
So I yawned and did some asanas in bed.
Once there was a man named Modi
Who fell in love with a Bengali boudi.
He had such a huge crush
That he would copiously blush
At the very thought of sitting in her godi.
There was a man named Barack Obama
Who one day misplaced his pajama,
So he said, “All righty,
I’ll just sleep in a nightie.
Hey Michelle, tonight I’m the hot mamma!”
An army of ladies stormed the RBI Gate
To meet Raghu, and set the record straight.
They said, ‘If you gotta go,
Then you oughta know
That you will never, ever lower our interest rate.’
‘Mommy, Mommy, throw me a party,’
Said Pappu the Prince, all hale and hearty.
Mommy said, ‘Fine.
The Congress was mine.
Now it’s yours, my cute little smarty!’
How do we choose our sporting heroes? I believe they are born in three ways. One, at a primal level, we pick them on the basis of tribalism. We support someone because they are doing well for the club or country we support, and that is reason enough. Two, we like them for their specific skills in a game that we love. The elegance of a Federer, the technical finesse of a Dravid, and so on. Three, we like them for reasons that go beyond the sport. Maybe their story evokes something personal in us. Maybe we are drawn to them because we are a species that understands the world through stories, and there is something universal about their journey that goes beyond the sport.
Muhammad Ali, who died a few days ago, transcended boxing. His life was so deeply intertwined with American history in the 1960s and ‘70s that to immerse yourself in the story of the man would be to understand the history of the nation. His journey encapsulated the essential conflicts of his times to such a degree that his sporting achievements almost didn’t matter.
Ali was born Cassius Clay, named after a 19th century abolitionist who defied the dominant narratives of his times. So did Ali. He did this, first, with regard to the way he boxed. Heavyweight boxers were supposed to be men of heft and power, but Ali subverted expectations by being a big man who danced around the ring with balletic grace, who could turn a brawl into an artistic display. His model was the welterweight (and later middleweight) Sugar Ray Robinson, a much smaller man. Boxing pundits didn’t take the young Clay seriously. The iconic sports writer AJ Liebling described him after his Olympic Gold win in Rome 1960 as ‘attractive but not probative’, and later dissed him as ‘Mr Swellhead Bigmouth Poet’. He was such an underdog in his first World Championship match against Sonny Liston in 1964 that his team found out which hospital had the best emergency room and mapped out the quickest route there from the venue. They thought Liston might kill him.
But the narratives that really mattered had nothing to do with boxing style, and he subverted them too. Boxing was a gladiatorial sport in America in the 50s and 60s, run by the mob, and many top boxers, usually black, like Liston, were virtually owned by the mob. Audiences needed palatable, simple narratives as packaging for the sport: Liston vs Patterson, for example, was sold as a fight between ‘Bad Negro’ and ‘Good Negro’, with one man (Liston) an uncivilised brute, feeding into racist fears of the archetypal black savage, and the other (Patterson) a sophisticated ‘liberal’s liberal’, as the novelist James Baldwin called him. (Both portraits were unfair.) But Ali would not allow others to shape his story.
Soon after his shock win over Liston in 1964, Ali further shocked America by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Many resisted this, and as if to remind him of who he really was, kept calling him by his ‘slave name’ of Cassius Clay. But Ali fought back. In 1967, he got into the ring against Ernie Terrell, a black heavyweight who refused to address him by his chosen name, and kept taunting him as he jabbed him repeatedly, ‘What’s my name, Uncle Tom? What’s my name?’
His bravest act, with which he lifted himself above his sport, was refusing to be drafted. Conscription is a form of slavery, and Ali refused to be a slave again. He was stripped of his title, and lost almost four years and tens of millions of notional dollars for his act, but he would not waver or compromise. In the magisterial biography ‘King of the World’, David Remnick quotes Gerald Early, a literature professor, describing what Ali’s action meant to him as a teenager: ‘When he refused, I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honour as a black boy had been defended, my honour as a human being.’
Ali came back into the sport and won the heavyweight title again, and achieved much glory in boxing. Not all of his story is uplifting. He often went overboard with hate-filled rhetoric, especially in his early days with the Nation of Islam, and his disrespect of his opponents, and his trash talk, often crossed the line. This is particularly so with Joe Frazier, who had helped Ali get his boxing license back after his suspension was over, but then became roadkill on Ali’s journey. In the words of the writer William Nack, Ali ‘humiliated and enraged and ultimately isolated Frazier, casting him as a shuffling and mumbling Uncle Tom, an ugly and ignorant errand boy for white America.’ He called him ‘an ugly gorilla’ among other things, building a mythology around himself that was as false as the racist narratives he had earlier rebelled against. (He justified it as good marketing for the fight, but Frazier carried the scars forever. Nack memorably wrote later that Ali had been ‘living rent-free for Frazier’s head for more than 25 years.’)
As much as Ali transcended the sport, he was also a creature of the sport, and the sport is essentially barbaric: one man beating another man, ideally causing brain damage (for the knockout is the ideal end to all fights), a negative-sum game where in the end both men lose. The accumulated blows that Ali took were a likely cause of his Parkinson’s, and as his legend grew over the decades, the man himself faded.
But the ways in which boxing diminished him—and before that he diminished himself—should not affect his legacy. All human beings are frail and weak and flawed in countless public and private ways—but very few people rise above themselves, and their sport, and their times, to the extent that Ali did. He meant so much to so many. As Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote in a recent tribute: ‘I may be 7’2”, but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.’
More than the shadow, though, it was the light.
Some people called the PM a thug.
Mr Modi replied with a shrug,
‘I’m not sophisticated,
It is true that I am hated,
But hey, I really like to hug!’
Here’s a classic illustration of unintended consequences: Parsis are being cremated now, instead of being fed to vultures, because of an anti-inflammatory drug given to cattle in the 1990s.
And somewhere a butterfly flaps its wings.
Hillary let off a joyous scream
She said, ‘This is such a dream.
That fellow Trump
Who I’m gonna thump
Behaves like he is on my team.’
There was a man named Subramanian Swamy
Who was known to be kind of barmy.
PM Modi put him right.
He said, ‘I know you like to fight,
So why don’t you join the bloody army?’
Subbu Swamy filed a case against God.
Subbu Swamy accused God of fraud.
Much thunder was heard.
God said, ‘How absurd!
Such chutzpah I really must applaud.’
I have four quick comments to make on the Tanmay Bhat controversy. (The first two are trivial but need to be repeated, I think.)
One: Our laws are still screwed up. The repeal of 66(a) of the IT Act was rightly celebrated as a win for freedom, but there are already laws in the IPC, like 295(a) and 153(a), which can also be used to strike out against Free Speech. (Here’s an ancient piece of mine on the subject: Don’t Insult Pasta.) The last I heard, people were planning to file a case against Bhat using those laws. I hope they don’t. And those laws should really not exist. As long as he is not directly inciting violence, Bhat should have the right to say whatever he wants, however offensive, however obnoxious.
Two: By the same token, others have a right to react to his comedy in whatever way they please, as long as they’re not trying to force him to shut up. So someone who says his comedy is disgusting is not attacking Bhat’s right to free speech unless he follows up by filing a case or trying to get him banned or whatever. And we can react to their reactions in the same way, and so on recursively. That’s what social media is for, isn’t it?
Three: The quality of Tanmay’s humour is less important to me than the context of it. Standup comedy in India is relatively young. (We have a great, centuries old tradition of humour, actually, but not this specific form, so don’t hit me with history and tradition, please.) And we are too quick to get offended. So it’s important to keep pushing the envelope, to keep stretching those boundaries. Nothing should be sacred. No holy cows.
Now, because our standup ecosystem is nascent, all the stuff that floats to the top won’t be of the highest quality. But that doesn’t matter. I didn’t enjoy all the humour in the AIB Roast, but boy, am I glad they did it. These guys are putting themselves out there, unlike many of us armchair observers. That is admirable in itself. And while doing it, they’re also taking giant steps forward for Indian standup comedy. (In these early days, all steps are giant steps.) That, in itself, deserves applause.
Four: Sit back and think for a moment about the nature of comedy itself. When Bhat says that Mangeshkar’s face looks like it has been kept in water for eight days, or he invokes the bitterness of a notional Sachin Tendulkar, is he really talking about just them? I don’t know Bhat personally, but I’m pretty sure he is under no illusion about his own good looks, or his mortality, or his importance to this world. Very few comedians are. If anything, comedians are people who’ve realised the essential tragic nature of the world, and certain fundamental truths about the human condition, such as a) our mortality, b) the huge role of dumb luck in our lives and c) the self-delusions which we need to survive, and with which we convince ourselves of our own importance. (I’m sure Bhat doesn’t think about it in these precise terms, but you get the drift.) Once you figure this out, the only appropriate reaction is laughter.
So when Bhat subverts the notion of Sachin and Lata as hallowed figures who cannot be made fun of, he is really just telling us to laugh at ourselves. ‘Look at us, we’re so funny and pathetic. Hahaha.’ I think he does it really well—that Mangeshkar ‘face in water’ joke is observational genius—but even if you don’t, it should not matter. More power to him regardless.
I just hope, after all this, he doesn’t end up apologizing.
Every Sunday, two of my limericks appear on the edit page of the Sunday Times of India. Here’s today’s installment.
Once there was an airport named Gandhi
Where all flights were grounded in an aandhi.
So with a laugh and a cough,
The airport flew off,
Now all the pilots are sitting drinking brandy.
Once there was an internet troll
Who was pushed into a toilet bowl
By his dad, who decreed,
‘Having seen your twitter feed,
I hereby perform delayed birth control.’
Sita Sings the Blues: The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told
Dev.D doesn't flinch from depicting the individual’s downward spiral
9 across: Van Morrison classic from Moondance (7)
6 down: Order beginning with ‘A’ (12)