About Amit Varma

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. These days, he makes his living playing poker as he works on his second novel.



My Friend Sancho

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.




Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner




The India Uncut Blog

08 February, 2012

Ban Nudity! Ban Nightlife!

Our right-wing lunatics are so funny sometimes that it’s hard to hate them. Balbir Punj has a bizarre (but typical, so maybe not so bizarre) rant up on the New Indian Express about how Western values are ruining our country. His arguments are so priceless that you have the read the whole thing, I can’t just excerpt for WTFness. Among other things, he thinks that ‘nudity’ and ‘nightlife’ are “Western aberrations”, and rants against same-sex unions on the grounds that they only take place for ‘pleasure’, which, in his opinion, is a bad thing. Punj has it exactly the wrong way around: the rising divorce rates he rails against are, in my opinion, something to celebrate, and the decline of family values is a damn good thing.

Ooh, I can imagine Punj choking on his coffee if he reads this. But wait, coffee must surely also be a Western aberration, no?

Posted at 1:52 PM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF

City News

Having resumed blogging, it was natural for me to head over to the ToI site for the potential double WTFness of 1. what’s happening and 2. what the ToI is reporting. Not much gratification there, though their ‘city’ section did provide some food for thought. Here are the four headlines on that section:

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I actually clicked on one of them. Apparently Ayesha Takia complained on Twitter about Kingfisher Airlines, and Siddharth Mallya responded: “Not too sure who she is, an actor of some sorts?? [sic]” Well, I’m not sure who Siddharth Mallya is. Someone or the other’s son and boyfriend? Is there anything else he’s famous for?

Posted at 12:47 PM by Amit Varma in Journalism | Media | News | WTF

The Ill-Effects of a Rave Party in Udupi

The Hindustan Times reports that two Karnataka ministers were caught watching pornographic videos “when the house was in session.” The camera crew of a TV channel apparently “filmed cooperation minister Lakshmana V Savadi watching porn clips on his cellphone and women and child development minister CC Patil peeping in during a discussion in the House.” Savadi’s explanation:

I was watching the video clip of how a woman was raped by four people to know about the incident and prepare for a discussion on the ill-effects of a rave party in Udupi recently. I do not have the cheap mentality to see pornographic visuals.

I’m gratified that our ministers do so much research for their work. What, however, is a ‘cooperation minister’? Ah well.

Posted at 12:39 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | WTF

28 October, 2011

I’m All In: Confessions of a Poker Obsessive

This personal essay by me appears in the winter edition of Forbes Life India.

I feel the ground sway under my feet as I get up. I gather my chips and walk unsteadily to the cashier’s cage. I’ve been playing poker for 40 hours now, and I’m up by the amount I used to earn in a month in my last job. But it’s been a swingy session, and I was down by a lot at one point till I fought back, and I was up by more than I am now till I lost a couple of hands. I’ve faced euphoria and devastation within 40 seconds of each other in the same hand, when I flopped the nuts—the best possible hand—on the flop, and my opponent, after going all-in on the turn, out-nutted me on the river. I’ve been on a high fueled by four Red Bulls and the excitement of winning, and now the ground is shaking and I wonder if I am about to faint and finally be punished for this brutal lifestyle. Then I realize, with some relief, why the earth is moving so gently under my feet: we are on a boat, after all—a floating casino in Goa, solidly anchored but still on water. I do not know what time it is, or what day, or whether I have missed my flight back to Mumbai. What I do know is that this session is over, I need sleep, and once I have rested I’ll be back for more.

I am a poker obsessive. This is a problem because it is difficult to state whether it is a problem or not. If someone is obsessed with tennis or chess or cricket, it becomes apparent soon enough whether they’re any good at it, and whether they have a future in it, because there are clear metrics to measure performance. If someone is obsessed with roulette or teen patti, it is equally clear that they are addicted to gambling, which can only be harmful in the long run. But poker exists in a twilight zone: it is both a game of skill, and a gamble. You could play it as a card game involving chance, and do it for the dopamine rushes that keeps addicts addicted; or you could study it as a science, bringing probability, game theory and psychology to bear on each carefully weighed decision. In the long run, a mathematical approach makes you money: If you keep getting your money in when the odds favour you, you will end up profitable. But in the short run, luck plays a huge role in the game. (The management of luck is the key skill in the game.) And in this short run, the wild gambler, the compulsive addict, can win huge amounts, while the skillful player can lose, and lose, and lose, despite constantly making the correct decisions, till he is emotionally imbalanced enough to actually start playing badly. Because this is a game that fosters self-delusion, that universal (and necessary) quality in human beings, it is impossible for me to say whether I am here as a gambling addict or as a serious sportsman. I know that I have both in me, and they battle every second that I am on the table.

I was drawn to poker, I suppose, for the same reasons that I was drawn to chess or scrabble: the intellectual challenge that it presented, and the competitive instinct that it fueled. I started playing the game three years ago, on the world’s biggest poker site, Pokerstars. Because of the difficulty in depositing money onto the site through Indian credit cards, which are barred by the RBI from depositing money on gambling sites, I used to play freeroll tournaments, that required no entry fee and had small guaranteed prizes. It was a good way to learn the basics of the game, and I followed it up by reading all the great instructional books in poker literature: the Sklanskys, the Harringtons, the Millers, the Brunsons, the Gordons. But this was all theoretical stuff, and I was itching to play live poker, with real people, who would give off tells when they bluffed me so I could make hero calls, like they do on television. None of my friends played poker, but early last year, I managed to get myself into The Sunday Game, a weekend gathering of poker enthusiasts in a suburban hotel in Mumbai. They’d book a room, organise a tournament, maybe two, with a Rs 3000 or 5000 buy-in, with 10% going to the rake to pay for the room, and the rest forming a prizepool for the top three or four players. Sometimes they’d play a cash game afterwards with a buy-in of Rs 1000. Looking back at the time, I realise that I was ridiculously bad: but playing with better players helped me, as did the fact that, being an obsessive with a steep learning curve, I worked hard on my game and got better really fast.

I still needed validation, though, and I got some when I went to Goa in June 2010 for the India Poker Championship, an event in which there were three tournaments held over the weekend at Casino Royale, a floating casino. Playing ABC poker, sticking to basics, I reached the final table of the main tournament, and got a modest payout for coming fifth. What was more thrilling, though, was how my cash-game sessions ended up. On the last day, I made a hero call against two all-in players on the turn, with one card to come, and won a pot worth Rs 1.5 lakhs. At the time, it seemed enormous to me, and I went home from that trip with a tidy profit.

Believing that mastery of the game was inevitable, I sought out cash games to play in Mumbai, and found one in a flat in Lokhandwala where I spent probably 100 of the next 120 nights. The apartment belonged to a player I shall refer to as Hunter, a savvy model and entrepreneur who conducted a home game every night, charging 2% of each pot as rake, and providing food and non-alcoholic drinks on the house. The first time I went there, the game had a modest Rs 5000 buy-in, with blinds of Rs 25 and 50. There was a raised platform on one side of the room, on which Hunter put a mattress, and we sat on that and by its side and played our game. Within three months, the blinds had increased to Rs 100 and 200, and the standard buy-in was Rs 20,000. Earlier, winning or losing 20 grand in a day was noteworthy: now, there could be three lakhs on the table at any given point, and you could win or lose a lakh in a day.

Naturally, Hunter had the platform demolished, and a new table and swank new chairs were purchased for us. My routine for about six months was this: wake up in the evening, pass time impatiently, and head off to Hunter’s place in time for the game to begin at 8 or 9 pm. The game would then go on till around 8 in the morning. I’d have a Red Bull while playing, and there would be chips and biscuits and fruits and other snacks. We could also order from any restaurant in the area, and ordering dal khichdi from Rhythm restuarant at 1am was, I recall, a common occurrence. At one point, Hunter decided that his players deserved healthier food. So a cook was hired for us, and though he was appallingly bad, at least we got home-cooked food in the middle of the night.

It was here that I discovered that the most important part of the game is the mental part: not in terms of calculating equity against opponent’s ranges and all that, which is of course essential, but in keeping your mental equilibrium through the inevitable swings of a poker session. I was given to steaming if someone gave me a bad beat after playing badly himself, and by allowing myself to feel angry or frustrated, I’d play worse than normal. I’d get bored and lose discipline and play more hands than I should, or passively chase draws even when the odds weren’t right for it. I’d lose more money playing badly than I won when I was playing well. The essential attribute of a poker player is that he must not be results-oriented, for good play is rewarded only in the long run, but must instead always focus on doing the right thing, making the correct play, regardless of its immediate consequence. (A la what Krishna said in the Bhagwad Gita.) It took time for me to cultivate that detachment in myself. (Having my iPod and Kindle with me helped conquer impatience.) Luckily, through that whole process, I remained a profitable player.

I also grew close to some of the other poker obsessives I played with. There is a strange dissonance at play here: on one hand, I wanted nothing more than to take the money of these people I played with, and I knew they wanted to empty my pockets as well; on the other, some of them became close friends, far more so than colleagues in an office would. Perhaps that is not quite so surprising: this was not an ordinary workplace where we met every day, but an emotionally fraught battlefield, such an unusual one that none of our non-poker playing friends could ever understand what it was truly like.

I also spent a while playing at a nearby club where some informal poker tables ran, and between these two places, met a wider cross-section of people than I would in any conventional job. Any writer would cherish meeting so many unusual characters: S, the government contractor who did not understand the game, was a true addict, and would mechanically push chips to the middle, pot after pot, every night, until his sources of funding, a probable by-product of Nehruvian socialism, dried up and he disappeared; P, the Delhi businessman who reportedly dropped around 75 lakhs over six months, and had to take a large loan from M, a player-cum-moneylender, who lent money at exorbitant rates (M was barred from Hunter’s game, though, which was relatively clean); B, the 20-year-old whose parents thought he was away nights because he worked in a call center, and who is now a full-time bookie; R, a reckless young gambler who called himself the Tom Dwan of Lokhandwala, and got into debts that he paid off by selling seats to a college where his father was a trustee; and others such as a couple of Bollywood actors and a cricketer who was as fearless on the poker table as on the field. (I say this in a good way.) They were fascinating people by themselves, but even more so in the context of this dramatic game, where emotional upheaval is routine.

The swings had a huge impact on us. On a day when I won a lot, I’d walk out with a lilt to my step, on top of the world, filled with self esteem and confidence, and women on the street would turn to look at me. When I lost, I’d be deflated and depressed, asking myself metaphysical questions not just about the point of this pursuit but of any pursuit. Eventually we got used to these fluctuations, as we needed to in order to stay sane. Our approach to money changed as well. Quite often, we’d have breakfast at the nearby Lokhandwala MacDonald’s; but equally often, a couple of us would head to the Juhu Marriott for the excellent breakfast buffet there. Earlier, in my middle-class way, I’d consider a Marriott breakfast an occasional extravagance. But now, when we were winning or losing over 30k in a day, we felt entitled to it. It cost, after all, no more than six big blinds. Or three straddles. Half a c-bet. Looking at the world through this prism made everything seem cheaper—though while at the tables, we never thought of the chips in terms of their real value, or we’d have been paralysed into inaction. (‘I can buy two iPads with the money I’m about to bet. OMG!’)

All this while, I kept going to Goa regularly. Last year, there was at least one tournament series every month; this year, one can easily spend four weekends there playing tournies continuously. I ended 2010 well, reaching seven final tables out of 14 tournaments played, including a second-place finish. But as I spent the first half of 2010 running bad in tournaments, I would put down both my good streak and my bad one to variance: these were short-term results, and the sample size was so small that it would be foolish to read too much into them. My focus remained cash games—until May this year.

By May, I’d overcome a downswing in the first part of the year—January was my only losing month—and had arrived at a healthy daily rate of profitability. But my game had stagnated, and I felt I needed to up it a notch. I decided to give up the potential earnings of the live games I played, and instead focus in a direction where immediate payouts weren’t likely: online poker.

Online poker is far tougher than live poker. The world’s best players play online, multi-tabling furiously, using complex tools that analyse their opponents’ historical betting patterns and raising frequencies. It is an evolved, highly technical battlefield, and most local players I played with had, like me, been small net losers online—despite a good streak here or there. Unlike many of them, I did not want to rationalise this away by cribbing that online poker was rigged. I wanted to conquer the beast.

Around the middle of this year, I joined a team put together by Adi Agarwal, a 26-year-old from Kolkata who has won more than US$ 3 million online in the last four years. (This is a matter of public record, by the way: there are websites that compile online results across all major sites, and everyone’s results, provided you know their username, are publicly available.) He had also finished in the top 100 of the main event of the World Series of Poker, the de facto world championship. (He declares his poker income and pays his taxes, for what it’s worth.) Adi wanted to stake us to play online and local tournaments with his money: in return, he’d get 50% of all winnings. Most importantly, he would go through our hand histories and actively coach us, taking care of leaks in our games. This was a win-win arrangement: it was risk-free in terms of investment for me, and a top player would share his insights on the game with me—almost akin to a tennis rookie being coached for free by an elite pro. And if his team played well, Adi would also stand to make more money than he could just playing on his own. (Such staking arrangements are very common, and most top players, to reduce variance, are part of such staking stables.)

For the last three months, thus, I’ve been playing at home. I’ve invested in a giant screen for my desktop, on which I can tile 20 tables at the same time. At 9pm, I start my online grind. At peak frequency, around midnight, I’m playing around 12 tables. By the time the night winds up, at around 8 in the morning, I’ve played over 30 tournaments. There is a five-minute break every hour, in which I have to pee/make coffee/get Red Bull from the fridge/make my ham-and-salami sandwich and so on. I also have the team on Skype, and we discuss poker, and how we could have played certain hands differently, and so on.

There is a method to this madness. Luck, or variance, plays a big role in poker in the short run, and the best way to counter this is to bring the long run closer by playing a lot. Online, you play many more hands per hour than you do live, and you can play multiple tables at the same time. The volume of play you put it, thus, could make a night of online poker equal to two months of live poker. If you play correctly, you are much more likely to be profitable—and the fields in online tournaments are so large that the occasional huge payout is likely for a good player. Just a month ago, I was chip leader in the biggest weekly tournament, the Sunday Million, with 25 people left. The first prize was over US$ 200,000; I ended up 18th for a fraction of that. An online grinder can make a healthy living stringing together smaller wins; but when the big one comes, it can be life-changing.

I still play live tournaments in Goa, though, and have won two in the last month. Hunter’s game in Mumbai has shut down for a host of reasons, one of them being a comical raid by the Anti-Terrorist Squad—a surreal story for another day. As many as four of the other regulars from that game have turned pro, and two of them regularly play high-stakes games in Goa, and speak of winning or losing five lakhs in a session as they used to speak of 50k swings six months earlier. The poker boom has only just started in India, and despite pending legal issues, hinging around poker’s acceptance as a game of skill, poker seems almost certain to become one of the country’s most popular sports.

And what about the way poker has consumed my life? I write a blog named India Uncut, which at its peak, when I wrote five posts a day, got 10,000 pageviews a day and had 17,000 RSS feed subscribers. Recently, I went two months without a post. My first novel, My Friend Sancho, was well received and sold well, but I just haven’t made enough progress on another one. (Among other projects, I’m planning a crime novel featuring a poker-playing detective who uses the cognitive tools he’s refined through playing the game to solve cases in the real world. A good way to bring my passions together, you think?)

When I gave up the corporate life to be a full-time writer, I had decided that I would only have one yardstick to judge my life: Do I wake up every morning looking forward to a day at work? And hell, I certainly do begin every day just waiting to being dealt in. I even played through an entire session in a dream one day, figuring out ranges and calculating equity in hand after hand after hand. And while I’ve given myself a deadline to start writing seriously again, until then, I will give myself up to this obsession. My chips are in the middle—I’m all in.

*  *  *  *

And here’s a box that accompanied the piece:

There is an old saying that poker is the easiest game to learn and the hardest to master. Luckily, there are plenty of resources online you could use for either purpose. There are many sites where you could learn the basics of the game, but for a pithy explanation of the rules of the game, you could just start with Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_hold_%27em

The best site to play online is Pokerstars, at http://www.pokerstars.com. It’s the world’s biggest poker platform, is reliable and trustworthy, and while it doesn’t accept deposits from Indian credit cards, there are other deposit options that could help you get around that.

The best poker forums are on http://www.twoplustwo.com, and I highly recommend them. You could also check out http://www.cardplayer.com, the online face of the poker magazine. A good site to follow live coverage of events and news is http://www.pokernews.com. And to get the latest dope on Indian poker, there’s http://www.Pokerguru.in. (Disclosure: I’m part of their pro team.)

Finally, here are some great poker books. To understand the fundamentals of poker, there is no better place to start than ‘The Theory of Poker’ by David Sklansky. To improve your live cash-game skills, check out ‘No Limit Hold ‘em: Theory and Practice’ by Sklansky and Ed Miller. To understand the basics of tournament play, read the highly influential ‘Harrington on Hold ‘Em’ series by Dan Harrington. Some online players find its concepts outdated, and two recent books that are closer to the cutting edge when it comes to online tournament play are ‘The Raiser’s Edge’ by Bertrand ‘Elky’ Grospellier and others, and ‘Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker’ by Jonathan Little. To get an insight into the thinking behind high-stakes online cash games, check out the cult classic ‘Let There Be Range’ by Cole South and Tri Nguyen. And finally, to master the mental aspect of poker, read ‘The Elements of Poker’ by Tommy Angelo.

Good luck at the tables!

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Posted at 9:29 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Poker | Sport

28 September, 2011

‘No Touching, Only Seeing, Okay?’

I’m amazed that India hasn’t yet woken up to the fact that Himesh Reshammiya is the new Govinda. I mean, check out the awesome video below of ‘Umrao Jaan’, a song from his forthcoming film Damadamm. It’s WTF, yes, but it is brilliant in its WTFness, which is quite deliberate and over-the-top, much as Govinda was at his best. There are just so many kickass moments in this. I especially love the end…

(Link via Mudra Mehta.)

Posted at 12:26 AM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | India | WTF

29 August, 2011

Vishwa Bandhu Gupta and Cloud Computing

If you thought Ponytail’s speech the other day was funny, wait till you see this: Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, former IT officer, explaining, among other things, why cloud computing is a problem:

I love how clueless the interviewer looks. On second viewing, his reactions are the funniest part of the video. Insanely good.

(Link via Arun Simha.)

Posted at 12:55 PM by Amit Varma in India | WTF

27 August, 2011

The Sadness of Dogs

The New York Times reports:

A video of a dog apparently mourning the death of his owner at a funeral has gone viral, prompting an outpouring from viewers around the world.

The footage was captured by a woman whose cousin Jon Tumilson, a member of a Navy Seal team, was killed in Afghanistan when his Chinook helicopter was hit by enemy fire on Aug. 6. A funeral service was held for Mr. Tumilson in Rockford, Iowa, last week and attended by 1,500 people.

But also in attendance was Mr. Tumilson’s loyal Labrador retriever, Hawkeye. The dog wandered over to his owner’s flag-draped casket and lay beside it throughout the service. [Link in original.]

Humans have ways of coming to terms with death. We rationalise, divert our minds to other things, and find different ways to move on. But a dog can’t do many of these things. So how does it cope?

From later in the piece:

“There are famous stories of dogs returning to a grave site every day for five years, and you can’t account for that by saying he can smell the body there,” she said. “In fact, dogs return to the grave sites of their companion dogs and animals that they grow up with.”

It must be hell.

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Here’s the video:

Posted at 11:31 AM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous | Small thoughts

‘That is Not a Lump, Mr Beck, It is a Blessing’

Huffington Post reports:

Glenn Beck called Hurricane Irene a “blessing” on his Friday radio show, saying it would teach people to be prepared for disasters.

By that logic, it would be a blessing if Beck gets cancer—it will teach him to be prepared for cancer.

Of course, I wish cancer on no one. But that’s where Beck’s logic leads us. What a clown.

(Link via Arzan Sam Wadia.)

Posted at 10:43 AM by Amit Varma in News | WTF

Arindam Chaudhuri (and 200 Million Murders)

This is truly an August month in the history of Indian WTFness. Check out this insane speech by Arindam Chaudhuri in support of Anna Hazare:

An excerpt:

Humaare desh mein kuchh do so million log hai jo chaalis saal ke umad se pehle mar jaate hai, aur isi liye hum jaise log sattar-assi saal jeete hai. Hum sattar-assi saal isliye jeete hai kyunki hum apne desh ke kuchh do so million logo ko chaalis saal se pehle maar daalte hai.

(There are some two hundred million people in our country who die before the age of 40, and this is why people like us live to the age of 70-80. People like us live to the age of 70-80 because we murder some two hundred million people of our country before the age of 40.)

I mean, this is beyond priceless. It’s also beyond parody, for that matter—when life itself serves up such absurdities, what’s a satirist to do? Just watch in awe, that’s what.

*  *  *  *

And check out the shot in the middle when the camera zooms in towards Anna’s impassive face. I can almost hear the guy thinking, ‘Who’s that clown with the oiled ponytail? I haven’t eaten for so many days, and I have to put up with this shit? Bring me some poha and let’s call it off already.’

That would be an an excellent idea.

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If you haven’t already read it, make sure you go through Siddhartha Deb’s wonderful feature on Chaudhuri, ‘Gatsby in New Delhi’ (pdf link). Chaudhuri’s already gone to court over it, as you might expect from his past shenanigans.  Such it goes.

Posted at 9:14 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | WTF

‘Meet Once Lover, Who Are Ditched By Each Other’

In times of strife, it is heartening to know that such help exists:

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(Via Joy Bhattacharjya on Facebook.)

Posted at 9:06 AM by Amit Varma in India | WTF

24 August, 2011

Wheelbarrow

I was quite moved by these two paragraphs:

Rye Barcott was a student at the University of North Carolina who spent a summer sharing a 10-by-10 shack in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya. One night he awoke with diarrhea and stumbled to the public outhouse. He slid onto the cement floor and vomited as his bare body hit puddles of human waste.

He left his soiled pants outside the hut, but when he went to find them later they were gone. He was directed to another hut where a stick-thin girl, with missing clumps of hair, had the pants, scrubbed and folded, in her lap. Barcott said softly, “I’m grateful,” and asked her why she had cleaned them. “Because I can,” she replied. A week later, she died of AIDS and her body was taken in a wheelbarrow to a communal grave.

Posted at 11:23 AM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

20 August, 2011

Anna’s Song

There’s been much written about Anna Hazare over the last few months, but no one says it quite as succinctly as my friend Peter Griffin. I quote:

1. I’m anti-corruption.

2. I’m anti-Anna Hazare.

3. Hazare is a sanctimonious right-wing tyrant so cloaked in his own virtue that he believes he is above the law.

4. The law is frequently an ass.

5. Nevertheless, the law is frequently our only hope.

6. Better the elected asses than the dictatorial unelected.

7. The government is playing into Hazare’s hands with its idiocy.

8. Yes, these views can be held simultaneously.

Here are some of the pieces I’ve written that deal directly or indirectly with Anna Hazare:

Where Anna Hazare Gets It Wrong
The Rorschach Effect in Indian Politics
India’s Second Freedom Struggle

And some good pieces by others on the subject:

FAQ: Why Anna Hazare is wrong and Lok Pal a bad idea—Nitin Pai
Of the few, by the few—Pratap Bhanu Mehta
The dangers of a movement—Ranjit Hoskote
The Making of an Authority: Anna Hazare in Ralegan Siddhi—Mukul Sharma
Spare Us the Gandhian Halo—Hartosh Singh Bal
The Anna Hazare Show—Manu Joseph
Time to Step Back—Pratap Bhanu Mehta

And also, here’s an interesting piece on Hazare’s media strategy.

All this is not to say, of course, that our government hasn’t behaved entirely ridiculously in all this. They’re also clowns. Such it goes.

Update: Also read this excellent piece by Gautam Patel: Rupees, Annas And Vice.

(Via Arun Simha.)

Posted at 9:10 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics

13 August, 2011

Lady Gaga vs Anna Hazare

Guess who wins.

Posted at 6:48 AM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | News

Old Mullahs, New Mullahs

In a poignant piece in the Guardian, Moni Mohsin writes:

This is not the Pakistan I grew up in. When I was a child, mullahs were figures of fun. Notorious for their greed, they were the butt of jokes. Now they are powerful figures running vast madrasas that churn out hate-filled, brainwashed terrorists. Backed by the army, and with massive street power, these new mullahs hold the government to ransom.

Quite honestly all religious figures, regardless of the religion they claim to represent, should be “figures of fun”. They are at best self-delusional clowns; at worst, charlatans. There are no exceptions to this, because of the nature of religion itself.

That said, some of Pakistan’s mullahs are clearly more vile than the saffron-clad jokers and fasting yogis who make the news here. You gotta feel sorry for Moni Mohsin: her home has become a land where “Kalashnikovs are as ubiquitous as fridges.” We are so much better off.

(Link via Nila.)

Posted at 6:35 AM by Amit Varma in Politics

04 August, 2011

Dead Rats and Incense Sticks

So here’s the story: 15 dead rats land up in the drains of St George’s Hospital in Mumbai. A massive stink ensues (literally), and the hospital staff can’t figure out where the smell is coming from. So:

The hospital’s staff tried different methods - burning incense sticks, spraying room refreshers - to ‘clear the air’, but to little avail.

And this is exactly the way in which the Indian government deals with our country’s poverty. Every single government measure to tackle poverty is equivalent to incense sticks and room fresheners—it smells good for a while, and then the stink is back. The rats remain.

And yeah, if you read this blog regularly, you know what I think the root cause is: the lack of economic freedom. If only Rajaji, Patel and Prasad had their way 60 years ago instead of Nehru...

Posted at 5:17 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | India | News | Politics | Small thoughts

Potted Irregularities

The quote of the day comes from Sheila Dikshit:

All due procedures were followed in awarding the contracts. No irregularities were committed in purchasing of potted plants.

In that denial lies the truth about Indian politics. No?

Posted at 5:12 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | WTF

28 July, 2011

Cows vs Jawans

The Times of India reports:

Animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi has come in the way of our soldiers getting trendy and comfortable leather sports shoes. She says thousands of cows will have to be slaughtered to make sneakers for 1.1 million jawans. But the Army believes that Maneka’s objection is a ploy to “derail the process of procurement”.

Some weeks ago, the central government announced the decision to award contracts for eight lakh pairs of high-quality sneakers replacing the no-frills brown canvas PT shoes that jawans use. [...]

Maneka told TOI that defence minister A K Antony had confirmed in writing that the contract was being cancelled. “It is illegal to use cow leather. Army should be the beacon of law in this country. About four lakh cows could be slaughtered to make eight lakh pairs,” she said.

Our soldiers put themselves in harm’s way to look after our country, and I’d really like them to have the best shoes possible. From what I can make out from this article, it seems to be a choice between leather shoes that are “tough and ideal for the difficult terrains soldiers operate in,” and “old brown canvas PT shoes.” Which would you rather have our soldiers wear?

This does not mean that I do not care about cows. I care about cows very deeply. But I also love beef, from which we can draw the conclusion that I care about cows in the abstract and not in the concrete. My compassion is contingent on convenience, but at least I’m open about this hypocrisy.

Anyway, watch this funky video featuring my favourite kind of cows: the animated ones. I like the whole spider effect—imagine tiny SpiderCows crawling all over the walls of your living room. Life would be so exciting then, even for the lactose intolerant.

(YouTube link via @sanjeevnaik. Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 114.)

Posted at 3:49 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Old memes | Cows | Politics | Small thoughts

25 July, 2011

Mr Kalmadi Needs To Pee

DNA reports:

Suresh Kalmadi, lodged in Tihar jail for over two months in connection with the multi-crore Commonweath Games scam, is suffering from dementia, a disease related to memory loss, impaired reasoning and personality changes and this may have a bearing on his ongoing trial.

The 66-year-old MP from Pune was recently taken to Lok Narayan Jai Prakash Hospital where an MRI scan was conducted on him. The tests show that he was suffering from dementia which gradually affects cognitive functions of the person affected by it, Deputy Inspector General of Tihar RN Sharma said.

[...]

Noted lawyer KTS Tulsi said the first thing is that it needs to be established as to how long the undertrial has been suffering from dementia.

“Now if it(dementia) had settled at the time of offence, it may have a bearing on his culpability. As per the law, a demented person suffers from a global memory loss. If there is a memory loss at the time of the commissioning of the offence, it is not possible to have a fraudulent intention,” Tulsi contended.

If Kalmadi’s lawyers do end up taking this line, imagine how crushing the evidence against him must be. Hell, given how old our politicians tend to be, they could all claim dementia or senility or even death if they’re implicated in such criminal cases. (‘Your honour, I was dead at the time of my alleged encounter with Ukranian prostitutes. Even in the MMS produced as evidence, you cannot see me moving. Look carefully.’)

Kalmadi should wake up one morning in Tihar, ask to go to the loo, and be refused. ‘Let me out. I need to pee, he says. ‘I can’t remember the last time I needed to pee this bad.’

‘We can’t let you out. Use your water bottle,’ says the guard. ‘The warden’s got dementia, and he can’t remember where he put the key to your cell. He he he.’

Posted at 11:29 PM by Amit Varma in Dialogue | India | News | Politics | WTF

22 July, 2011

Mutton Samosas and the Soul

CNN reports the WTF news story of the day:

A small tray of vegetable samosas costs $35 at the Mughal Express restaurant. But one particular tray, sold to strict Hindu vegetarians, might end up costing the Edison, New Jersey, restaurant a whole lot more.

The Hindu customers said the restaurant served them meat samosas, harming them emotionally and spirituality. A state appellate court ruled Wednesday that they can sue for the cost of travel to India to purify their souls.

I can imagine the court granting damages because the diners were misled into thinking that their samosas were veg. But how would you calculate these damages? Can damage to the soul be quantified? Does a court have any business acknowledging that souls exist? Ludicrous.

*  *  *

And what is to be done now about my sudden and inexplicable craving for mutton samosas? Who should I sue for the pain this is causing me? And my soul? Eh?

(Link via Sanjeev Naik.)

Posted at 6:28 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | WTF

Room Service

The Times of India reports:

There is a storm brewing in the students’ dorm at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Students on this high-profile campus were surprised when authorities stopped cleaning their rooms and did not allow them to have food delivered.

The students’ activity council (SAC) at IIM-A fumed at the move apparently aimed at teaching the future CEOs the realities of life.

For an IIM student, I’d have thought “the realities of life” include room service. My guess is that the authorities who made this rule are just jealous. Back in the day, they never had it so good. It’s like Erapalli Prasanna feeling bad when he looks at the swank car that Harbhajan Singh drives. Such it goes.

Posted at 12:12 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Small thoughts

What Summers Has To Say

Via Felix Salmon, here’s an excellent interview of Larry Summers.

Key quotes you may find interesting:

We don’t really have a problem that there aren’t enough television sets in our society.  We really don’t.  I mean we did once.  I mean it used to be that some people had television sets and some people don’t.  We don’t have that problem anymore in America.

and

When somebody writes the human history of Americans, the fact that 25 years from now we will have done most of the following:  cure Alzheimer’s, apply stem cells to prevent diabetes, develop approaches that enable most of us to be the weight we want to be, rather than the weight we are, and find a solution for dementia, the fact that 25 years from now we will have done not all of those things, but we will have done most of those things, I think that looms enormously large.

and

If you look at the price earnings ratio for technology companies relative to the price earnings ratios for all industrial companies, you take that ratio, PE technology divided by PE industrial, you can plot that ratio over the last 40 years, and it is at the lowest point that it’s ever been.

So if you look at the large tech sector, it’s very, very hard to see a bubble. [...] What is true is that the Internet, the last time there was an Internet bubble, was 120 million people dialing up.

The Internet today is two billion people and two billion mobile devices, with wireless connectivity at a far more rapid pace.  Today, the businesses have cash flow, which they didn’t ten years ago.  So I think it’s a little facile to assume that just because the numbers are big, that it’s obviously a bubble.

There’s a section in which Summers talks about the different styles of the two presidents he’s worked for, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Most interesting.

*  *  *

And yeah, I’m encouraged by his prediction that 25 years from now, I’ll be the weight I want to be. An exercise regime, in these circumstances, seems short-sighted.

Posted at 11:42 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Miscellaneous | Politics | Science and Technology

21 July, 2011

The Gandhiji Font

Via Digital Inspiration, I discover that some designers have created a font called the Gandhiji font, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s round glasses. Here’s what it looks like:

image

Ironically for something inspired by a man known for his non-violence, I find this to be a violent font. It’s intrusive and actively disturbs me as a reader. Can you imagine reading a paragraph in this font, leave alone a book?

I’d rather see a font inspired by Dolly Parton, actually. That would also be hard to read, but at least it might be somewhat more soothing.

Posted at 9:56 AM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

Political Tweeters

The quote of the day comes from a David Brooks piece on the Republican Party:

Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann produce tweets, not laws.

This is true. But isn’t this what all constituencies want from all politicians everywhere? Sound bytes to keep the self deception going?

Posted at 9:50 AM by Amit Varma in Politics | Small thoughts

20 July, 2011

Slash the Comma

Via Peter Griffin, I came across this interesting article on punctuation, and I take my hat off to Google Adwords. The article dealt, among other things, with unnecessary commas, and the ad just besides it, served up by Google, was a Make My Trip ad that advertised fares on three sectors as being Rs. ‘1,983’, ‘1,705’ and ‘3,271’ respectively. (Here’s a screenshot.) One can argue about serial commas endlessly, but there seems no question that these commas are truly unnecessary—and ugly. Do these aesthetic considerations matter to you as well?

*  *  *

Aside: After I wrote My Friend Sancho, my editor and I spent an hour in argument about whether we need a comma when a character says “Yes sir.” I felt it would be an ugly intrusion and served no functional purpose; she felt it was required. I eventually gave in, saving my energy for bigger battles that never came. (She’s an extraordinarily good editor, and I mostly agreed with her.) But we laugh about that argument today, over such a trivial thing. I mean, what’s the big deal about a comma, right?

*  *  *

We will not discuss Thurber and Ross here.

Posted at 9:19 AM by Amit Varma in

The Procrastination Problem

And so blogging resumes on India Uncut with an ironic act: a link to an essay by James Surowiecki, ‘Later’, which deals with procrastination. As I’ve been meaning to restart regular blogging for quite a while now, that link seems apt—and yes, I’ve finished reading the essay.

Surowiecki quotes an economist who describes procrastination as “a basic human impulse,” which provides me with a little (only a little) comfort. I procrastinate in every area of my life, not just blogging. My Gmail inbox probably has as many starred emails as unstarred ones, testimony of how many people must be angry with me because I haven’t replied. My tax returns are delayed, my hair is long and manic because I’m always getting a haircut tomorrow, my Kindle is full of books I intend to read, or have started reading, but never gotten down to finishing. And there, in the background, is the question of when I get down to writing my next book. But there are more mundane matters to sort out first—and such it goes.

So anyway, a man’s gotta get down to doing essential things at some point or the other, and this blog is one of them. Starting today, therefore, expect regular blogging and tweeting. Seriously. This time, I mean it.

As for that haircut…

Posted at 8:17 AM by Amit Varma in Personal

30 June, 2011

The Prime Minister’s Speech

This is the 38th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India.

Under attack from civil society activists, the media and some of his own party members, voicing the need for him to be more communicative over critical issues facing the nation, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is planning to speak out and answer his critics, possibly this week.IANS

Amid the image of a government under siege, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is set to break his silence. He will meet a group of senior editors of regional and national dailies on Wednesday and put forth his views.Indian Express

Good morning, gentlemen.

We all know why we are gathered here. My government has been much criticized recently, and there seems no end to corruption scandals. I wish to address these issues firmly, once and for all. In another 60 seconds, my humble servants will walk into this room bearing trunks full of currency notes. You will receive them, and none of your media outlets will write about corruption again. He he he, just kidding. The expression on your faces was priceless. Thank god for CCTV and YouTube.

I know you’re surprised to find me joking like this—it doesn’t quite go with my public image. But you guys are from the media, you know just what image is, don’t you? It’s the story you tell, and the story that you have told about me is that I am a simple, hard-working man of strong convictions and unwavering principles who just happened to wander into politics. I kind of like that story—but is it really true? Would I be a politician if it was?

Politics, at its heart, plays to the basest of all desires. As human beings, we are programmed to lust for power. That is in our genes. And there is no greater power than political power. Politics is a battleground of those who want power the most and those who want the most power. You do not rise accidentally in this battleground. If you do not feel that lust, and plan and connive and fight like an animal, you have no chance of survival here. And I have survived 20 years.

I did that with a keen eye towards my self-interest. Self-interest drives all of us—even when we do noble things, we do them because they enhance our self image. I was delighted to become finance minister of India in 1991 not because it gave me a chance to serve my country, but because of what it did for my self esteem. Finance minister of India! I thought of all my classmates and relatives as I got that job—of the awe and admiration and jealousy they would feel at my achievement. Think about it for yourselves, isn’t that what we strive for every day: to show that we are better than the next guy; and to use a creative euphemism of my own, that our portfolio is bigger than their portfolio? He he he.

I am given a lot of credit for India’s liberalisation in 1991. Look, it’s not like we wanted to liberalise. We did not want anything, in fact, but to keep the wheels of government turning. A good government is one that does nothing but grow. A good minister is one who enjoys the spoils of power, and makes sure that everyone who backed him gets their money’s worth. We did not care about freeing the economy. The only convictions we had regarded our own state of welfare.

But then we had a balance of payments crisis, and had to rush to the IMF for help. That set of events forced reforms upon us—once things were back to normal, the reforms eased, and the business of government continued as usual. Sure, liberalisation helped the sectors that we freed up the most, and much economic progress took place. But that progress is of no meaning to us per se. The two things politicians and political parties in India care about are these: One, how to get whichever votebank you are cultivating to vote for you; and two, how to keep your patrons happy—the industrialists and interest groups who fill your coffers and enable you to run for elections. The benefits of free markets are nebulous, and hard to grab credit for; direct handouts and bribes to the voters work better—like NREGA, for example, a policy debated less than it should be because it’s such a mouthful as an acronym, he he he.

All our acts as politicians are done according to our political calculus, and not any inner convictions or suchlike. In India, appealing to the baser instincts of our voters works the best. We learn in our history books that the British followed the policy of ‘divide and rule’ in India; with all our vote banks and identity politics, we don’t do any different.

Your newspapers and TV channels often refer to the party in power as the ‘ruling party’. That is hardly an appropriate term for a democracy. The truth is, surreptitiously, under the shadow of noble rhetoric, we have indeed become your rulers, your internal colonisers, your Britishers in brown skin.

As this is an informal speech, and I don’t have to worry about a teleprompter operator in a safari suit getting confused, let me go on a tangent for a moment about a pet peeve of mine. Even though we are Britishers in brown skin, consider how we maintain the illusion of being one with the people: by wearing kurta-pajama! In the North, you will notice, all politicians wear kurta-pajama, and in the South those Tamilian chaps wear their lungis and suchlike. And what a show it is! You think I like wearing kurta-pajama? All day I feel like it’s time to go to bed, and no doubt this is one reason so little work gets done. And peeing involves so much work that I find that my daily water intake has gone down since I joined politics. Ah well, at the very least it is amusing to see these young MBA politicians having to renounce their Armani suits and Calvin Klein jeans when they join politics here. I told Rahul the other day, ‘You can take over from me as PM, it’s your family seat after all, but you will never know the joys of a zipper.’ He he he.

But back to corruption. As one of my party colleagues remarked the other day, after finishing off a few bottles of the finest imported single malt, duty free, “If God didn’t intend countries to be looted, he would not have created them.” What is happening in India today is not new, it has happened since the founding of this nation. Corruption arises from excessive government power and discretion, and India’s founders, by creating such a top-heavy system of government, designed the country to be looted. Corruption is a natural feature of this system, not a bug. The 2G Scam and the Commonwealth Games have become fashionable subjects today, but think about it, when has India not been corrupt? Indeed, some would argue that the very point of government and politics is corruption. Why seek power if not for its spoils?

Of course, we are a democracy, and you the people get to decide who loots you, and which illusion you choose to believe in. But the bottomline is that this is the system, you know this is the system, and you don’t protest against the system itself, you take it for granted. So once you have voted us in, we loot you with your implied consent. I love the irony of that. Suckers!

But I agree with you that we need change. My government has received too much bad press, and this cannot continue. This is, to me, first and foremost, a public relations problem. I’m mulling over the prospect of setting up a committee to look into this, but in the long run, I think we might need something more concrete. I think I’ll just set up a Ministry of Public Relations for this purpose. And hey, while I’m on that subject, there are many more ministries I dream of creating, which will put us more in control of people’s lives, with more avenues for us to exploit them. Ministry of Manners, Ministry of Dreams, Ministry of Sexual Relations. (Imagine the nature of the bribes that will have to be given to obtain a license to copulate!) My favourite is the Ministry of Protest, which will be the ministry in charge of giving permission for all protests against the government. If you have a complaint against us, you have to apply to the ministry for permission. If you want to complain regularly—say, if you’re a newspaper—you need to apply for a license. Otherwise you can’t complain, he he he.

Does this seem draconian to you? Is it any more draconian, gentlemen, than all the ministries and licenses that now exist? Think about it—I give you permission.

All these new ministries will be paid for, of course, by your taxes. Ah, taxes! It is my dream that one day, taxes in India will be for more than 100% of income. Imagine how rich this country will be then! We will spend so much money on public welfare that enough of it will trickle down to some of the beneficiaries to actually benefit them. How funky is that? As for the rest of it… he he he.

Anyway, I have said all that I wanted to, not that any of this is a mystery to you. I mean, you all know that we are creatures of self-interest, and that the ‘public good’ is just a crafty rhetorical tool. I will prove this to you—consider that your reporting this speech is in the public interest. But is it in yours? Ah now, think about it, we are partners in crime in this merry game of power and money, and while you are happy to expose the random minister stupid enough to get caught with his fingers in the jam bottle, will you do anything to threaten the entire edifice—or your position within it? I thought as much. Let’s maintain this delusion, my friends: in just a moment, I shall count down from five, and then I will snap my fingers, and you will have forgotten that I ever said the words I just uttered. I will then begin a new speech—the one that you will report. Let’s try it: Five… four… three… two… one… SNAP!

Good morning, gentlemen.


*  *  *  *

Disclaimer: Needless to say, the above speech is fictional and a work of satire, and bears no resemblance to actual events.

Posted at 10:19 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder

29 June, 2011

India’s Second Freedom Struggle

This is the 37th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on June 23.

It was both ironic and poignant when, a few days ago, Anna Hazare remarked that his crusade for the Lokpal Bill was akin to a second freedom struggle for India. Hazare is fighting against the right things in the wrong way: as I wrote a few weeks ago, corruption arises from an excess of government power; creating an alternate center of power, as the Lokpal Bill attempts to do, which is neither accountable nor democratically elected, solves nothing. That said, Hazare’s rhetoric, borrowed from the likes of C Rajagopalachari from decades past, was correct: India does need a second freedom struggle.

Every nation is a work in progress, but India is more so because our independence was a job half finished. In 1947, we gained freedom from the British—but not from oppression. As the country heaved a long sigh of relief at gaining political independence, a new set of brown sahibs took over from the white ones. The great hope of this new democracy was that it would lead to a government that would serve us—but we found ourselves with one that continued to rule us, with laws either directly retained from the British, or even more oppressive than those that existed before. We were colonized by our own people, and eventually enslaved by ways of thinking that saw a mai-baap government as the solution to all our problems—even when it was often the source of them.

There is no Mahatma Gandhi to lead this second freedom struggle, and most Indians, complacent with how things are, would not even think it is required. But if it was to take place, what would its aims be? What would it fight to change? The goal of that first freedom struggle was to free ourselves of a colonial power; the aim of this notional second freedom struggle should be to drastically reform the system that denies us freedom in so many areas of our lives. From the classical liberal/libertarian perspective, here are a few things I’d love a second freedom struggle to strive to achieve.

One: Limit the power of government

As things stand, we are ruled by a government as oppressive as the British were. Ideally, the function of governments should be to protect our rights and provide basic services. But our government is a bloated behemoth whose tentacles, like a modern-day Cthulhu, extend into every area of our lives. This is hardly surprising: those in power are always looking for ways to extend their power, and government, if adequate safeguards are not in place, just grows and grows and grows. This is exactly what has happened in India—our government functions like an officially sanctioned mafia, controlling our lives and curtailing our freedom. It’s all a bit of a scam.

Two: Unleash Private Enterprise. Remove the License and Permit Raj

The liberalisation India carried out in 1991 was a half-hearted one, forced upon us by a balance of payments crisis and not out a genuine desire for change. The reforms halted once the crisis eased, and the License and Permit Raj largely remains in place. It has stopped us, in the past, from being the manufacturing superpower we should naturally have been, given the abundance of cheap labour in this country. It continues to act as a huge shackle on private industry: I’ve pointed out earlier the abominable fact that you need 165 licenses to open a hotel in India, including ““a special licence for the vegetable weighing scale in the kitchen and one for each of the bathroom scales put in guest rooms.” Every businessman in India has to go through surreal hurdles to go about his work, and given that businesses exists to fulfil the needs of the people, for how else can they make profits, it is doubly criminal of an inept government to stand in the way of private enterprise. In the areas where it has been allowed to operate, look at the impact private enterprise has had: consider how many years it took to get a telephone from the state-owned MTNL in the 1980s, and how quickly you can get one today. We are a resourceful people, and every problem of India can be solved by private citizens—if they’re allowed that freedom.

Three: Reform the Indian Penal Code

The IPC is an abomination created by the British in the 19th century to make it easier for them to rule us, and to impose their Victorian morality on us. That it still exists is a disgrace. It contains ridiculous laws like Section 295 (a), which makes it a crime to “outrage religious feelings or any class” and Section 153 (a), which criminalizes any act “which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility”: both of these have been used to clamp down on free speech in the country. So has Section 124 (a), which aims to punish anyone who “brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government established by law,” and could be applied to this column, as these laws are open to interpretation and discretion. Section 377, which effectively criminalised homosexuality, has thankfully been overthrown in a court of law, but other archaic laws remain on the books, including some that punish victimless crimes. Many of these threaten our freedom directly.

Four: Ensure Free Speech in India

The IPC alone cannot be blamed for the absence of free speech in India. Our constitution itself does not protect it, and while Article 19 (1) (a) pays lip service to it, Article 19 (2) introduces caveats to it under the guise of “public order” and “decency and morality”. Practically anything one says could be a threat to public order, depending on how it is interpreted, which makes it easy for those in power to clamp down on those without. If we don’t even have freedom of expression, how can we call ourselves a truly free country?

Five: Respect Taxpayer’s Money

I run a series on my blog called “Where Your Taxes Go”, chronicling the various absurd ways in which our tax money is spent by government. These including paying the salaries of 22,800 fake employees of the Delhi Municipality, a Rs 42 crore mansion for Mayawati on “a sprawling 1,00,000 sq foot area”, a school for monkeys, the sponsorship of second honeymoons for people who delay having children, and, most recently, on a newspaper advertisement where the chief minister of Karnataka challenges his predecessor to do ‘God promise’ on certain allegations he made. (Yes, you can’t make this stuff up.) Governments need taxes to exist, but if you strip our government down to its necessary functions, you might find that we will pay a miniscule percentage of what we actually pay now.

It’s ironic that Mahatma Gandhi’s famous Dandi March was held in protest against an unfair tax; most taxes today are far more draconian. Sit down sometime and calculate what percentage of your income goes into taxes: if you pay 33%—chances are you end up paying more, if you include indirect taxation—it means that until the end of April every year, you are effectively earning for the government. This is freedom?

Six: Treat the Right to Property as Sacred

In 1978, the 44th amendment removed the right to property from our list of fundamental rights. Even had this not happened, the poor of India are habituated to having their property snatched from them: eminent domain has long been used by corrupt governments in a crony capitalism system to line their own pockets. One of our biggest problems is that even after so many decades of independence, clear land titles do not exist in many parts of the country. (My fellow columnist, Mohit Satyanand, wrote about this a few weeks ago, as did Devangshu Datta in an old piece.) This makes it ridiculously easy for a ruling government to infringe on the rights of its poor people—and it stands as a huge impediment to economic growth.

Seven: Reform Schooling

The state of education in this country makes for black comedy: the government pours more and more money into education, and after decades of this, the results remain dismal. There are various complex reasons for this government dysfunction, but a huge one is that the private sector is hugely constrained from entering this area. As I wrote in this old piece, even desperately poor people have shown a preference for those low-cost private schools that do manage to exist, despite governmental hurdles, than inefficient government ones. It is ironic and tragic that while private enterprise is allowed to flourish in trivial areas of our lives, like the production of shampoos and potato chips, it is constrained from competing with the government in this most crucial field. I am not recommending that the government stop spending money on education: just allow private enterprise to flourish as well. Consider the cost and quality of air travel in India when we only had Indian Airlines at our service—and look at what it has become today. Isn’t education far more crucial to our progress as a nation?

Eight: Reform Agriculture

We romanticize the farmer, and we want to keep him poor. It is shocking that 60% of our countrymen work in the agricultural sector: the equivalent figure for most developed countries is in single digits. There are various reasons for this, one of many being that farmers are not allowed to sell agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. This prevents an escape route for many farmers, and also hampers industrial growth in many parts of the country, which would automatically provide alternative avenues of employment. More industrialisation would lead to more urbanisation and greater economic growth, but we hamper this process right at the start. It is a vicious circle that traps poor farmers in poverty. As Manmohan Singh once said, “our salvation lies in getting people to move out of agriculture.” He is right, which is ironic, given that he is our prime minister and is doing exactly nothing in terms of reforming that sector. Words come so easy.

I can think of many other worthy aims, such as making government more local and less centrally directed, so that it is more responsive and accountable, and reforming our legal system. I’m sure you can add to this list. But at one level, India’s second freedom struggle remains a pipe dream. We are a nation colonized by the religion of government, and we display a lazy reverence for it. We look for specific quick fixes to problems, instead of recognising that many of them emanate from structural issues with our system of government—and from how we think about it. What is worse is that we largely do not even think of ourselves as unfree—so who needs a freedom movement then? Do we? What do you think?

*  *  *  *

Also read: this similar wishlist from another time.

* * * *

My thanks to Shruti Rajagopalan, Parth Shah, Arun Simha, Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan, Salil Tripathi, Deepak Shenoy and Gautam John for providing inputs to this piece.

Posted at 5:57 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Viewfinder

The Tiger, the Painter and the Celebrity Machine

This is the 36th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on June 16.

One of the great delights of Indian newspapers is that they often report seriously news that is insanely, rotfl-ly funny. Take the following news headline: ‘Dhoni Keeps Promise, Adopts a Tiger’. On reading this story, you find that India’s cricket captain, MS Dhoni, has adopted a tiger called Agsthya in the Mysore Zoo. Javagal Srinath persuaded him to do so, and Dhoni isn’t the only early adopter: Zaheer Khan has adopted a leopard, Anil Kumble has adopted a giraffe and Virat Kohli has adopted a rabbit. (Incredibly, I’m making up only the bit about Kohli.) The tiger is 9 years old, so any questions about whether it will be nursed by his wife are out of place here. In any case, young Sakshi Dhoni would no doubt not want her Masaba saris to be peed on by a baby tiger, and I’m safely assuming that young Agsthya Dhoni will remain a resident of Mysore Zoo.

As you would guess, this reminds me of MF Husain. The celebrated painter died last week, and the media has been full of tributes to him. (My friend, the prolific Salil Tripathi, wrote four of them: 1, 2, 3, 4. My fellow Yahoo! columnist Girish Shahane also wrote one.) Husain is one of the most recognisable and familiar figures in this country: almost everybody surely knows his name. He was an uber-celebrity, which is ironic for two reasons. One: He was hounded out of the country by goons who believe that goddesses should not be painted naked. (Ludicrously, they believe in goddesses. WTF?) Two: Most of the people to whom he was such a recognisable figure, who would have burst crackers and felt mega-proud if a nobel prize for painting were instituted and given to him, wouldn’t be able to tell you what made him great. They wouldn’t have an opinion on what was notable about his art, and why his paintings are more or less compelling than those by Raza, Souza or Salman Khan. They’d know that he likes to be barefoot because Bombay Times (and Lucknow Times and Kota Times and suchlike) would have mentioned it a few hundred times, and they’d know he liked painting horses and developed crushes on Bollywood actresses from time to time. But that’s it. To them, he’s a celebrity because he’s a celebrity.

It’s a sign of the widespread shallowness of human beings that being celebrated and being a celebrity are two different things. People become celebrities by achieving something, or by being someone’s wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/alleged shag. But once they make it to page 3 a few times, the original reason for their celebrity becomes redundant, and they become ‘famous for being famous’. First they get their 15 minutes of fame for XYZ; then they get a lifetime of fame for being famous for that original 15 minutes, and XYZ no longer matters. Husain the quirky public figure displaces Husain the painter. When he dies, we pretend to be celebrating his work, but we’re really just celebrating his celebrity, which is as much our doing as his. Then we move on to Dhoni’s tiger and Kohli’s rabbit. (I can’t get Kohli’s rabbit out of my mind.)

Why are we so shallow and obsessed with the superficial? One reason, undeniably, is that we are all voyeurs. I watch Bigg Boss religiously when it’s on, and spend as much time on Bombay Times as The Times of India. (This is because ToI is boringly awful and BT is glamorously awful, and I prefer pretty pictures.) Which of us doesn’t clamour for gossip on who is sleeping with who, and who had a wardrobe malfunction resulting in a near nip-slip (as if everybody doesn’t have two nips), or which designer flicked a design from which fellow designer (as if they both haven’t flicked from an old issue of Vogue)? We crave wealth and beauty, and are obsessed by the rich and the beautiful: that is in our genes.

Another possible reason is an evolutionary one, cited by Johann Hari in an old essay on the subject. It is possible, he writes, that “we are hard-wired to seek out Big Men (or Women) and copy them,” an instinct that evolved for our survival and has led to the flourishing of the tabloid media. We are drawn towards success and achievement and beauty; celebrity seems a validation of all these things; so we are drawn towards celebrity, ultimately for its own sake.

This is not necessarily harmful, unless we become stalkers or are stalked by them. But this celebrity thing can be taken too far—consider the temples built for this cricketer or that film star, and the near-religious adulation heaped upon them. This is especially dangerous when they enter politics, extending the halo of their celebrity into a field where you actually need to be competent, and merely being photogenic or charming or controversial or famous isn’t enough. The south has had its share of filmstar-turned-chief ministers, who gather cults, not followings. Their power makes them celebrities, their celebrity gives them more power, and the perpetual motion machine keeps running. This cannot be healthy.

We also make the mistake of assuming that because we are familiar with the public image of a celeb, we are familar with the celeb himself. If a particular cricketer is known for being humble and unassuming, it doesn’t actually mean that he is really that way. His public persona is being mistaken for his personality, which may or may not coincide, and if they do, that is bound to go to his head, so how the hell can he stay humble? Celebrity is tough.

Another mistake we make is assuming that being a celebrity extends your competence in fields other than what you are originally known for. The frequently naive views of celebs are given more importance than they deserve, often in subjects they know nothing about. (For example, Dhoni’s giving a lakh to Mysore Zoo does nothing for animal rights. It is a cosmetic gesture, though I have no doubt it is a well-meaning one, and he’s an awesome cricketer, so Agsthya is now my favourite tiger.) Sometimes, of course, they are sensible, but I am always surprised when that is the case. In general, celebs’ views on politics or economics are staggeringly banal or stupefyingly silly. But then, just as we get the leaders we deserve, perhaps we also get the celebs we deserve.

*  *  *  *

Going back to the news item on Dhoni, I notice his quote about the tiger being our ‘national animal’. WTF is a national animal? Is the concept itself not absurd, like a national bird or national sport or national colour or a national brand of underwear? It’s like an insecure nation reassuring itself with a signalling device. Why isn’t the donkey our national animal? There are more donkeys than tigers in India, surely? Is it because donkeys are vegetarian?

Dhoni should have thought about this and adopted a donkey in protest.

Posted at 5:39 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Journalism | Media | Sport | Viewfinder

27 May, 2011

To Hell With Family Values

This is the 35th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on May 26.

As news items go, this one is both absurd and sad: the authorities in Bhakti Park, a 90-acre-complex in Wadala consisting of 24 buildings, have banned its residents from going to the terrace. The reason for this is two separate incidents, in different parts of the city, of housewifes pushing their kids off the building, and then jumping themselves. By cutting off access to the terrace, these authorities presume, they can prevent such copycat suicides.

I’d assume that if someone wanted to pop themselves, they could easily find other ways of doing so, like jumping off their own balcony. But leave aside methodology: while these recent incidents are tragic and poignant, and unusual in that they involved the murder of children, they are not an anomaly. Almost every day, you can open the newspapers and read about some housewife somewhere killing herself. (It is so commonplace that I wonder if it should be even considered ‘news’.) A week ago, in fact, my fellow Yahoo! columnist Deepak Shenoy pointed me to a rather telling statistic: going by data for 2009 (pdf link)—there’s no reason it should be any different today—around 20% of the people committing suicide in India were housewives.  Indeed, many more housewives commit suicide every year in India than farmers, despite all the hoo-ha around the latter.

For all this, I blame ‘family values’.

We Indians tend to pride ourselves on our family values. The typical middle-class Indian is brought up with the default programming that they’ll get married in their early-to-mid 20s, have kids within a few years of marriage, and have steady settled careers in conventional professions. This default programming is horrible for women. Many of these women who killed themselves no doubt grew up daydreaming about the domestic bliss that lay ahead of them. They did not try—or were subtly discouraged from trying—to turn themselves into proud independent women who did not depend on others for subsistence, and whose self-esteem did not need validation from a man and his family. They duly got married, some of them had kids, and when the marriage went bad, when the man turned out to be an ass, they could not find a way out. Even if they could have supported themselves, what about the social stigma of a broken marriage? And so, in dispair, they walked up to the terrace.

A few years ago, I’d written a piece titled ‘We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates.’ I continue to get more hate mail for that piece than any other I’ve written, but I couldn’t stand by it more strongly. As I wrote then, rising divorce rates are “the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.” If divorce was easy and socially acceptable, and if every father in the country brought up his daughter to be independent, we’d have far fewer housewives committing suicide. Indeed, we’d have far fewer men taking their wives for granted and treating them like shit. Marriage would not, then, be the prison it is for so many women.

*  *  *  *

I know many couples, married and otherwise, who have decided not to have any children—much as I have. It exasperates us all a little to be questioned about this. Being a parent transforms your life, and limits the options open to you in terms of career and lifestyle—especially for women. The question ‘Why?’ to my mind should really be asked to those making this huge choice, rather than to those who choose not to have kids. Not having kids should be the default.

Of course, this will never be the case as natural selection has programmed us to be procreating machines, and too many of my friends go oooh, how cuuuute when they see a noisy, messy baby I would be glad to deposit inside a mixie. But that’s okay. We’ve all got a right to make our choices—just don’t look at me as if I’m nuts when I tell you I don’t want to be a father.

Indeed, speaking of producing kids, you could say that I enjoy the journey but never want to get to the destination. Natural selection, go screw yourself!

Also read: Philip Larkin’s great poem, ‘This be the Verse’.

*  *  *  *

I’d also love to see the day when marriage is no longer so sacrosanct in India. If two people are in love, what is it between them that a piece of paper can change? Either they’re committed to each other, in which case who needs it registered in a government office, or they’re not quite that committed, in which case why trap yourself? And why marry someone without living with them first to see if it works? Would you buy a car without test-driving it, or a pair of headphones without checking out the sound first? Isn’t selecting a spouse a far more important decision?

The only plausible reason to get married is if you want to have kids and being married makes it easier for them in a society like India’s. Otherwise, as an expression of love, it seems a bit overblown to me. Is it insecurity, and a need to assuage it, that drives some of us to marriage? Is that a good reason?

My arguments aren’t prescriptive, of course. You have to do what works for you. Just think about it first, is all I’m saying.

*  *  *  *

A final thought on that database of suicides that I linked to earlier in the piece. If you go through it carefully, many interesting narratives come up. One of them is this: despite more than 60% of our population being involved in the agricultural sector, only about 14% of people committing suicide are farmers. That would indicate that, despite the rhetoric of the likes of P Sainath and Pankaj Mishra, there is less average misery among farmers than among non-farmers. So however many anecdotes they may come up with about farmers driven to kill themselves by unscrupulous moneylenders, the fact remains that the plural of anecdotes is not data. And the data tells quite a different story.

But that’s a subject for another column on another day, so I’ll let it pass for now.

Posted at 1:58 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Viewfinder

The Game of Skill

This is the 34th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on May 12.

I’ve been in Goa for the last ten days or so, grinding out poker tournaments and cash games. There are a bunch of other regulars following a similar routine in a busy month for poker, and all of them would be a bit befuddled by the title of economist Steven Levitt’s newest paper: ‘The Role of Skill Versus Luck in Poker: Evidence From the World Series of Poker’. To us, the answer is self-evident, as obvious as a question about whether skill really helps in playing cricket or whether Roger Federer’s achievements are a fluke. Nevertheless, in somewhat harrowed times for poker players, Levitt’s excellent paper, written with Thomas Miles, is hugely welcome.

As of April 15 this year, which the pokerverse refers to as Black Friday, US players were effectively barred from playing online poker at three online sites, including the two biggest in the world, Pokerstars and Full Tilt. This completed a series of actions that began in 2006, when the senate majority leader, Bill Frist, was scrambling furiously to get online poker banned in America. Since a bill to this effect was unlikely to pass on its own merits, he tacked on the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) onto legislation about protecting the ports of the country, and got it through at the fag end of a session before the senate went on recess. The bill didn’t ban online gambling per se, but prohibited the use of US banks and credit cards for depositing money into those sites.

While that hurt online gaming, Americans continued to play poker at sites like Pokerstars and Full Tilt, as the sites presumably used a variety of methods to get around the issue of accepting and giving payments. They were indicted on Black Friday, though, as the legality of some of these methods came into question, and American players have been barred from playing at these sites. This has hugely affected the livelihood of many online grinders, who played poker for a living. Besides that, it is also an infringement on the rights and freedoms of Americans from their own government, which is depressing, considering that in other aspects, like freedom of speech, America sets an example to the rest of the world.

This will get sorted out. Sooner or later it will be legally settled, once and for all, that poker is a game of skill and not luck. The UIGEA will cease to apply to it, and the debate will be moot. Levitt and Miles’s new paper might well play an important part in that. It’s something most Americans understand anyway: poker is a quintessential American game, and it can even be argued that its history would be different without it. Richard Nixon funded his first political campaign through his poker winnings, and Barack Obama, according to David Remnick in The Bridge, used poker sessions with local bigwigs as a networking opportunity during his formative political years in Chicago. (By all accounts, he is tight-aggressive: cautious when it comes to entering a hand but, as his recent play in Abbottabad shows, not afraid of putting all his chips in the middle if he feels the situation demanded it.)

Given the legal status of gambling in India, a US ruling about poker being a game of skill would also help the game grow in India. At the moment, poker tournaments and cash games are legal only in the offshore casinos in Goa. An underground scene thrives in every city—and that’s understating it—but it’s all a bit precarious. Once it is as legal as, say, Bridge, I predict a poker explosion in India that will make it, within five years, the second most popular sport in India, after cricket. You’ll have the whole gamut of entertainment options: televised tournaments, high stakes cash games with hole cameras, poker celebrities as instantly recognisable as Gautam Gambhir. All stoked by the illusion that we all get the same cards, and any of us could be up there in the spotlight. It will happen; remember that you read it here first.

*  *  *  *

I’ve written in the past about why poker is a game of skill, so rather than go over old territory, let me direct you to some old Viewfinder columns on this subject:

The Beautiful Game of Poker
Throw a Lucky Man into the Sea
Poker and the Human Brain

You can also check out my bi-monthly column for Cardplayer India, Pocket Quads.

*  *  *  *

At one level, the argument about whether poker is a game of skill or not should be irrelevent in a legal sense, because it is my contention that even games of chance should not be banned. There are two reasons for this: One, as I’ve argued before, practically everything we do in our lives, from investing in the stock market, selecting a job or choosing a spouse is a gamble of some sort, in the sense that we make an estimate of the odds of our investment leading to a good return, and act accordingly. In many of these matters, we are sometimes too optimistic—but that’s life.

The second reason is more fundamental. What I do with my time and money is my business alone, as long as I do not infringe on anyone’s rights. This right of mine, over my life and my property, is something that the government is supposed to protect. For it to actually curtail and infringe these rights defeats the purpose of government itself. Governments exist to serve us, not the other way around. And yet, we the rulers allow ourselves to become the ruled. On a matter or principle, thus, all laws against gambling are wrong.

That said, from a poker player’s perspective, proving that it is a game of skill is lower-hanging fruit. Let’s get there first.

*  *  *  *

Since we’re talking poker, I’ll end by telling you about a sick call I made the other day. I’m at the button in a five-handed game, with the blinds at 100-200, and stacks ranging from 30k to 100k. It’s five in the morning, and the game has become very loose and aggressive. Everyone limps to me, and I look down at red pocket 8s. I raise to 1000, and everyone calls. The small blind, who has been very frisky and seems to be tilting, announces “check in dark.”

The flop is Ac2sAc. (Two aces, two clubs.) I’m ready to give up the hand if someone bets, as one of the callers could easily have an ace, but the action checks to me, and I choose not to build the pot by betting: I check. Before the turn opens, the frisky small blind announces, “Bet in dark. Four thousand.” (Into a pot of five.) The turn is the king of clubs; there are now three clubs on the board. I’m ready to fold if someone calls or raises him, but the action folds to me. My read is that he does not have an ace, which he is trying to represent, because from what I know of him, he wouldn’t play it like this. I call.

The river is the ten of clubs. There are four clubs on the board, and also two aces, one king and one ten. Any of them beat me. Frisky boy bets 16 thousand into a pot of 13. You’d think this is where I fold, but wait, not so fast. I tank, and think through what he might have. His range, in my view, is very polarised. Either he has the nuts or he has nothing. I can’t see him betting a random club here because he has showdown value. Ditto a king or a ten. He wouldn’t bet trips here because there’s a flush on the board. He wouldn’t bet a flush because there’s a repeat ace on the board, my preflop raising range has many hands with an ace in it, I did call his turn bet, and I’m capable of slowplaying a full house. In my estimate, either he has some sort of full house, and is overbetting the pot to get value from a flush, in case I have one, or he has nothing.

I talk to him. He talks back, smiles sheepishly. The physical tells I’m getting are of weakness, so I call. He mucks his hand, and I take down the pot with two red eights on a board with four clubs, two aces and two other overcards. I don’t show emotion much at a poker table, but I’m overjoyed at my analysis and my reads turning out to be right, and I punch the air. “Come to Papa,” I exclaim. Poker is a game of luck, you say? My ass it is.

Posted at 1:52 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | Sport | Viewfinder

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