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.
The Monday Poem:
by Lawrence Raab
Years later they find themselves talking
about chances, moments when their lives
might have swerved off
for the smallest reason.
I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?
What if you’d been out,
as you were when I tried three times
the night before?
Then she tells him a secret.
She’d been there all evening, and she knew
he was the one calling, which was why
she hadn’t answered.
Because she felt-
because she was certain-her life would change
if she picked up the phone, said hello,
said, I was just thinking
I was afraid,
she tells him. And in the morning
I also knew it was you, but I just
answered the phone
the way anyone
answers a phone when it starts to ring,
not thinking you have a choice.
The Haryana government took Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swacch Bharat campaign to a new height on Tuesday by deciding to recruit only those people for select jobs who don’t defecate in the open.
Advertisements issued by the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) Kurukshetra in prominent dailies on Tuesday said for the post of block coordinators, preference will be given to candidates “not defecating in the open”.
I can totally imagine this scene:
A young man walks in to interview for the post. The first question he is asked: ‘Do you defecate in the open, young man?’
‘No sir,’ he says.
Then he climbs up on the desk, lowers his trouser and underpants, squats, and PLOP, out it comes. Then he climbs back down.
‘Young man,’ says the interviewer, ‘congratulations. The job is yours!’
The Monday Poem:
SIX CHEERFUL COUPLETS ON DEATH
by Michael Blumenthal
Most things won’t happen, Larkin said,
But this one will: We will be dead.
The saddest thing, in each context,
Is knowing that we could be next.
Some take the bus, some take the train,
Some die in sleep, the rest in pain
But of one thing we can be sure:
All die imperfect, each impure
Some wishing that they had been better,
Others worse, but no one deader.
Shoes left, like Buddhists, at the door:
Those won’t be needed anymore.
I’m travelling at the moment and haven’t been following the news too closely, so I’m hesitant to comment on the Bihar elections. One thing I can say for sure, though: all simple narratives are wrong. Elections are complex phenomena, and a mix of personal, local and national reasons—in that order—make people vote the way they do in state elections. Any one-line explanation of the elections will always be wrong.
One thing that seems clear to me actually renders the future unclear: the BJP will now consciously veer in one of two opposite directions. They will either sideline the communal elements in the party and continue pushing for ‘development’; or they will go all out appealing to religious nationalism (and caste-based politicking when relevant). I think the time when they could do both credibly is behind us now.
If they go the religious nationalism route, they can be assured of their core vote-share of maybe around 15% that will be loyal to them. Where do they get the rest from? In 2014, people were just fed up and wanted to be rid of the UPA, and the BJP’s development rhetoric was attractive. But this government hasn’t delivered and isn’t doing anything to deliver on the kind of economic growth that lifts all boats, as it were. It is safe to say that many who voted for them on the ‘development’ or ‘change’ planks are disappointed. Many of the votes they lost in Bihar are probably on that account. Plus, of course, the opposition consolidated, as they will continue to do so. Even if the BJP hold that national 31% of the voteshare they got in 2014, they will lose seats next time around because wherever a mahagatbandhan is possible, one will emerge. The paradigm is BJP vs the rest now, not Congress vs the rest.
So here’s the upshot: the only way BJP will be a dominant party in future Indian politics is if it delivers on development and sidelines the nutjobs. But its gains in that case are nebulous and hard to pin down in numbers. Ditching development, increasing communal polarisation and mobilising those core voters, on the other hand, guarantees it a stable base, but has an upper limit. By itself, it is not enough to keep the BJP in power—unless the nutjob constituency grows, a prospect that terrifies me.
I suspect that the BJP will stay in its historical comfort zone. They might talk development but will walk identity politics, as they did in Bihar. Every failure will push them further into that comfort zone. They will growl and periodically lash out from a foetal position.
This is definitely a simplistic analysis. (All topical political analysis is.) I hope I am wrong.
The Monday Poem:
LONG DISTANCE II
by Tony Harrison
Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.
You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.
He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.
I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.
Dibakar Banerjee may have made a bit of a fool of himself by returning an award that wasn’t his to return, but he’s absolutely right that Anupam Kher “has every right to be unhappy.” Kher, the hypocrite who once headed the censor board of India, is not when he says:
Nobody has the right to call India intolerant.
I can’t imagine where his concepts of rights arises from. Everybody has the right to call India anything they damn well please—and he has the right to disagree, as Banerjee pointed out. It is incredibly ironic that his riposte to those complaining about rising intolerance in India actually proves their point. The elite and supposedly cultured Anupam Kher is Exhibit A.
From a fine essay on Vladmir’s Nabokov’s love for Véra Evseevna Slonim :
He could not write a word without hearing it in her pronunciation.
He also called her “his kittykin, his poochums, his mousikins, goosikins, monkeykins, sparrowling, kidlet [...] his skunky, his bird of paradise, his mothling, kitty-cat, roosterkin, mousie, tigercubkin.” He eventually married her; they were together for half a century.
The amazing Maria Popova of Brain Pickings also wrote a great post on this once.
First, Arun Jaitley says that Narendra Modi is a victim of intolerance.
Then, Swarajya magazine writes that India’s ‘educated class’ is fascist.
And today, the BJP accuses Nitish Kumar of ‘vote bank politics’ in Bihar.
There is a term for all this.
(For more on how our government loots us, click here.)
Mid Day carries the following headline:
Tantrik promises to make it rain money, leaves 60-yr-old penniless.
This is Indian politics. Exactly this.
A BJP worker in Shivamogga has warned the Karnataka chief minister S Siddaramaiah of consequences if he dares to eat beef.
Let him eat beef at Gopi Circle in Shivamogga. If he does so, he will be beheaded. We won’t think twice about that. By making such a statement, the Congress leader has hurt the sentiments of Hindus. We have all grown up drinking cow’s milk.
This is standard-issue macho bigotry. I’m not surprised at the talk. I was more taken, actually, by this marvellous piece of logic of a BJP spokerperson from that area:
If he eats beef, then Congress workers will eat dog, fox and so on to appease him and get the posts of chairmen of boards and corporations.
Wow. Should we call this Noah’s Slippery Slope?
I was dining yesterday with some friends at the excellent Bombay Canteen, and I remarked at one point: ‘This kheema bheja ghotala is sub-par today. Too much kheema, not enough bheja.’
And Peter Griffin responded, ‘That’s the state of our political discourse today.’
Such it goes.
For a couple of years, every Monday I’ve been posting a poem on Facebook, with the intent of demonstrating that good poetry is something that can speak to everyone, and need not be abstruse, self-indulgent writing that only a chosen few can engage with. Starting this week, I’m shifting this tradition to India Uncut. Here’s the Monday Poem for today:
THE OLD WOMAN
by Arun Kolatkar
An old woman grabs
hold of your sleeve
and tags along.
She wants a ﬁfty paise coin.
She says she will take you
to the horseshoe shrine.
You’ve seen it already.
She hobbles along anyway
and tightens her grip on your shirt.
She won’t let you go.
You know how old women are.
They stick to you like a burr.
You turn around and face her
with an air of ﬁnality.
You want to end the farce.
When you hear her say,
‘What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?’
You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.
And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.
And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls
with a plateglass clatter
around the shatter proof crone
who stands alone.
And you are reduced
to so much small change
in her hand.
This poem was from Kolatkar’s 1976 masterpiece, Jejuri. The entire book is brilliant, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
In a column that begins by asking why Indians don’t dominate cricket, Aakar Patel writes:
[W]e are the Shahid Kapur of cricket though we think we are Shah Rukh Khan.
This is a clever line, and a provocative one, and Aakar loves to provoke. Even his provocative pieces, though, usually contain some insight. In this one, there is none, and the best answer he can offer to the question he asks is one of culture. (“Perhaps [the answer] lies in the idea of ambition and excellence.”) This is vague; it’s also incorrect. I don’t think one can generalise about Indians that we lack ambition or don’t try hard enough to excel, and even if that were true, there would be enough outliers in such a large population for excellence to emerge anyway.
Let me take a shot at an answer. The clue to where our cricket is lacking lies in the composition of our all-time cricket XI. Try and draw one up. You will find yourself conflicted about batting spots (Merchant or Sehwag to open with SMG; Viswanath or Laxman or Kohli at No. 5) and spinning slots (Prasanna or Harbhajan; Chandra or Kumble), but the bewilderment that comes when you consider the fast bowling slots will be of a different kind: not of who you keep out among some excellent options, but who you pick among some mediocre players. Kapil Dev walks in; who partners him. Whoever you pick—Srinath, Zaheer, maybe Amar Singh in desperation and misplaced nostalgia—would not be a contender for the all-time fourth XI of any other major side. Indeed, no other side would have such a huge problem in any department while picking their all-time XI. (Try West Indies, just for fun.)
This is India’s key weakness. To win abroad, we need to take 20 wickets, and we rarely have the fast bowlers to do it. But why don’t we produce enough fast bowlers? Consider what batting and spin bowling require, and what you need for fast bowling. The former two both come down to skill: strength and endurance don’t matter; physical attributes are irrelevant. Fast bowlers, on the other hand, need to have fast-twitch muscles. This is genetic; you either have them or you don’t; and Indians tend not to have them.
This is why we can’t be world beaters in sports that require either strength or endurance. (Even in hockey, we declined when astroturf became ubiquitous and speed became important, and the dribbling game wasn’t enough.) I do have hope for cricket, though, because fast bowling isn’t everything, and we were the No 1 side in Test cricket for a brief while. To use Aakar’s analogy, I don’t think we’re the Shahid Kapoor of cricket: we’re more like Akshay Kumar, or like Govinda in the 90s.
And oh, I don’t hold that nature is everything and nurture doesn’t matter. Culture is important, and is is true that we are not a country with an outdoor sports culture, the kind Australia has. I’m just not sure which way the causation runs.
Also read: My old piece, ‘Will Cricket Decline in India?’
And a piece by my friend Girish Shahane, ‘Why India Sucks at Football.’
Reading Ram Guha’s excellent piece on Mahatma Gandhi’s attitude towards sport, I was struck by this sentence about Nelson Mandela:
Once, when a friend came to visit him in Robben Island, Mandela asked: “Is Don Bradman still alive?”
I found that incredibly poignant. It gave me a greater sense of Mandela’s sacrifice than a hundred essays could.
Quote of the day:
Experience has shown that you can often do just fine being on the wrong side of history if you are on the right side of a pipeline.
—Garry Kasparov, Winter is Coming.
Rediff carries an interview with a BMC corporator, Parminder Bhamra, who is moving a proposal to “make gaumutra (cow urine) compulsory to clean hospitals in Mumbai.”
What is the reason you are moving this proposal to use cow urine in hospitals?
I feel not only hospitals, but gaumutra must be used everywhere. Diseases like cancer can be cured by gaumutra, so why not use it? You see, gaumutra kills all bacteria.
Do you want phenyl to be replaced with gaumutra?
I am saying we should respect sentiments.
What does your proposal in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation say?
While phenyl is made of chemicals, this (gaumutra) is Ayurvedic, so it must be used.
You must note one thing here: this guy is from the Congress party, not from the BJP or a lunatic fringe outfit.
Will Congress corporators support you?
One hundred percent. Do you know the Congress party symbol was once the Cow and Calf? Other parties have captured our symbol. Originally it was our symbol.
Has the BJP then hijacked the cow from your party?
The BJP’s job is to hijack other people’s ideas. They don’t have their own brains. They only take other people’s ideas and move ahead. They have taken all the ideas of the Congress and some of the Janata Dal and moved ahead.
So you see, there isn’t just a party or a cultural organisation or a handful of fringe groups which believe in this whacko stuff. No, there is a significant constituency out there which thinks like this, and it is perceived to be so large that other political parties are also catering to it now. But is that perception correct? Is there any data on what people believe in this country? Does this man’s support for gaumutra really help his electoral prospects? Who’s got the numbers on all this?
One thing I can tell you for sure is that gaumutra isn’t ever going to cure cancer. Not the literal one; and not the cancer in our society either.
So Anupam Kher gets booed at a literary event and calls the audience a “paid audience.” He follows it up by saying that “people have an agenda and cannot handle a chaiwala becoming a PM.”
This is the precise problem with our discourse. Anytime people disagree with you or oppose you, you attack them instead of their argument or their viewpoint. So they are a “paid audience” or they “have an agenda” or they are “ISI/CIA agents” or they are “sickulars” or “bhakts” or “libtards” or aaptards”. And they say, “your father too,” and we all get caught in an endless cycle of abuse and snark, egged on by the echo chambers we build around us. Messy.
As for Kher, he lost his credibility the day he accepted the chairmanship of the censor board all these years ago. If you’re against free expression, you’re against art. Shame on him.
Scroll has a piece up about how CST was bathed in blue light a couple of days ago and looked ‘hideous’. Well, I was driving past the Ambani Hospital in Andheri a couple of days ago and it was bathed in pink light. I asked my friend with me why that was so. ‘Breast awareness,” she replied.
She misspoke, of course. Indians don’t need breast awareness.
The Modi government, under fire for rising intolerance and violence related to eating beef, has allegedly disallowed permission for the airing of a documentary on beef-eating practices made by students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
The film titled “Caste on the Menu Card”, about the beef eating practices in Maharashtra, was to be screened on Saturday at the Jeevika Asia Livelihood Documentary Festival 2015, in Delhi. However, the makers of the movie say that they were informed by the organisers that they would need a censor certificate.
Firstly, you should note that this is not a protest by some ‘fringe elements’ within the RSS fold, but a decision by the government. So that whole approach of saying ‘Hey, we’re focusing on development, these are fringe elements, nothing to do with us’ won’t work here.
Secondly, you should also note that it was a Congress government that first introduced censorship in India, and over the years have been quite happy to ban books, films, plays and even music albums. So the fault really lies with us. We’ve been tolerating these assaults on free speech for way too long.
It’s never too late to start being intolerant of intolerance.
Oh, and here’s the trailer of the film in question. I don’t know if watching the full film will make me angry, but it is guaranteed to make me hungry.
An article by TK Devasia in Scroll refers to the Communist Party of India (Marxist) as “the largest business house” in Kerala. We are told:
If the land in possession of the party and its feeder organizations is taken into consideration, the CPI(M) is the single largest owner of land in the land-scarce state. Former Union Finance Minister P Chidamabaram estimated the asset of the CPI(M) in Kerala at Rs 4000 crores a few years ago. He had accused the working class party of driving away investors and using the opportunity to accumulate assets in the state.
The party that views capitalists as class enemies justifies the investments, saying that the workers had created them in order to strengthen the party’s fight against capitalists and monopolies.
The workers, indeed! Look, I don’t want to single out the CPI(M): every political party in this country is in the business of turning power into money, and then using the money to hold on to or gain more power. But it’s especially ironic in the case of the communists. Maybe they should change that parenthetical ‘M’ into ‘Money’ instead of ‘Marxist’?
As the posts below (and above, as time goes by) would show, I’ve started blogging again. By that I mean, blogging blogging. Between 2004 and 2009, I wrote more than 8000 posts on India Uncut, at around five posts a day, and the readership was good—I got about 20k-pageviews-a-day when I tailed off. There were diminishing returns and all that, and I got into other things, and I subsequently used IU just for posting links to my columns.
Now that I’m back to writing full-time—even though I’m writing a book and not taking on too much media work—it makes sense to resume blogging—especially as I love the short format of the blog post so much. It’s perfectly suited to the pithy thought that packs in more than an ephemeral, shallow tweet could do, and yet should not be forced into a longer piece when that could be stretching it. The Age of the Blog is over, of course, and much of what blogs provided to people has been made redundant by Twitter and Facebook, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never get the kind of readership I used to have. Still, if only to indulge myself, I’m at it again.
I have good news and I have bad news.
Good news: China has ended its one-child policy.
Bad news: Instead, China will now have a two-child policy.
This is surreal. Just when you thought, ‘Okay, maybe China gets it,’ you find that China doesn’t get it at all. If a one-child policy was bad, a two-child policy is also bad, because the thinking behind it is wrong. Firstly, contrary to what we taught in school, population is not something you need to control. People are a resource, not a problem. Putting an upper limit on people is literally like putting an upper limit on prosperity. We live in a positive-sum world, and on balance, every person brings more value to the world than they consume.
For more on this, read my essay, ‘The Evil of Family Planning’.
Secondly, the state doesn’t own the people that it decides what it should ‘allow’ them to do. But hey, am I so naive as to lecture China on individual rights? I have a better shot at provoking World Peace by singing bhajans at Wagah.
Abhinav Singh has a good post up about how the Government of Maharashtra is proposing to regulate Uber. As you’d expect, there are vested interests behind this: the existing taxi industry, which feels threatened by the new operators, as indeed they should, because the new operators are proving more value to consumers. So they go to the government.
As I’d written here, all interventions in the free market amount to a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Any regulations here will end up as exactly that. The value that consumers would have gained from the unhindered operation of Uber and Ola will be redistributed away to the older taxi operators. You really don’t need to ask what’s in this for the government, do you?
If this makes you angry, do go sign Uber’s petition. I’m usually skeptical of online petitions and candlelight vigils and so on, but this is a petition directly from one of the affected parties, and there is a non-zero probability that it will make a difference.
An earlier piece on Uber: The Price is Right.
It took the judiciary 24 years to declare that an air conditioner makes a room cool and does not turn it into a cold storage.
Read the full story. I don’t know what to be more outraged at: that our legal system took 24 years to rule that an AC does not turn a room into a cold storage unit; or at the kind of absurd rent seeking and/or extortion that goes on in this country. Both are actually so commonplace that I should save my outrage for something better, such as the unusual October humidity in Mumbai. I spend most of my day in a cold-storage unit, but still…
The Economist begins a piece on Alzheimer’s disease with these two sentences:
Like cancers and heart disease, Alzheimer’s is a sickness of the wealthy.That is because it is a sickness of the old.
Reflect on that a bit, and consider the irony of how bad news can be good news. The proliferation of these diseases stands testament to much our species has advanced. That is awesome—but only till it’s my turn.
Arun Shourie says that the current government is “Congress plus a cow.” The BJP responds by saying that Shourie is no longer a member of the BJP because apparently his membership expired and he forgot to renew it.
That’s the best you can come up with, BJP?
Aside: I think if Rahul Gandhi joined the BJP, the average IQ in the party might actually go up. Narendra Modi has an HR problem, not a media problem.
Viswanathan Anand just drew his round one game against Anish Giri at the Bilbao Masters despite having an overwhelmingly superior position. Why couldn’t he win it? Here’s what Giri had to say:
I think the problem for my opponent was that his position was too good. He could afford to make absolutely any move, and he abused this fact.
I read that quote, and I immediately thought of the BJP and their comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha.
Maharashtra Rural Development minister Pankaja Munde today opined that media should not give “excessive” coverage to crime against women as it instills “energy” and “pleasure” among people with a criminal mindset to try “something new.”
Hmm. I have three things to say:
One: Munde is saying that she wants the media to only report good news because bad news, as per her reasoning here, perpetuates bad actions. This is a convenient position to take when her government is in power. Will she hold the same view when she is in the opposition? I hope someone asks her when that time does come.
Two: I wonder what is the source of her reasoning. What is the proof that the coverage of crimes inspires people to actually commit crimes? What is the study, where is the data? And if there is none, is her wisdom gleaned from years of observation? Who does she hang out with? From a sociological point of view, this is all most fascinating.
Three: There are news outlets that still use the word ‘opined.’ This, to me, is the real scandal in this report.
On the face of it, this is a great idea:
A number of the machines have been installed in the city of Grenoble already and are distributing original stories to anyone who wants one for free.
Each story is printed on paper similar to a receipt and people can choose if they want a story that will take one, three or five minutes to read.
Why do I think it’s a great idea? Because it’s a new way of looking at literature, and of pushing it to people with short attention spans. Why do I nevertheless have reservations? Two reasons. One, since these stories are free, there’ll be quality-control issues. Two, they’re printed on paper, which misses the point, because they could just as easily be delivered on an app to the phone of the intended reader, which would be more convenient for that person.
In the long run, no one will read physical books. As I’ve argued before, a book is just the words an author writes, and the rest is packaging. Those of us who are attached to physical books are just attached to a particular form of packaging we are used to, and because we associate it with the joy of reading. That will end in a couple of generations. And there’s nothing sad about that. What matters is that people read, and not the device they use to do that reading.
You might well ask me at this point what I think of Juggernaut, Chiki Sarkar’s new phone-publishing venture. Well, I think it’s brave and visionary—but I worry that it might be ahead of its time. There is that old saw about how those who look into the future often overestimate the short term and underestimate the long term. I think that might be happening here. Juggernaut’s vision is fundamentally correct, but their pockets have to be deep enough, and their investors patient enough, for them to last long enough to actually succeed as a company.
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)