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.
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Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.
My posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.
New diets for cows and sheep could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, research funded by the Department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) shows.
Feeding the animals maize silage, naked oats and higher sugar grasses could reduce the amount of methane they produce, the study by Reading University and the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences showed.
Agriculture accounts for around nine per cent of all British greenhouse gas emissions. Most of this comes from sheep, cows and goats.
I can just about imagine a cow reading this and going, “Naked oats? Mmmm!” and setting off a pleased fart. Also, I would guess that Gujju cows have historically emitted less methane, since they’ve always like sugar in their grass. I wonder if news channel reporters could also be force-fed naked oats and sugar grass.
Yeah, I know this isn’t an astonishingly substantive post, but India Uncut has resumed, so how can I not do a cow post? ;)
(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.)
Aside: What a badly written news article. Just see the first two paras. Jeez…
My buddy Deepak Shenoy has a Yahoo! column up today that expresses a complaint I’ve had about many Indian sports journalists for a while now: they are innumerate, and draw conclusions on the basis of inadequate data. The example Deepak provides is the following fact, trumped “on Twitter, TV and ... the internet when Mahela Jayawardene scored his hundred” in the World Cup final, as if it had great statistical or predictive significance:
“No century-scorer has ever been on the losing side of a World Cup final.”
As Deepak points out, there have been only five World Cup finals before this in which a batsman scored a century. Just five. There is no way that is a sample size large enough to draw a meaningful conclusion from.
Cricket journalism is littered with such conclusions, though, using stats with unjustifiable authority. Consider the following widespread belief among cricket lovers:
South Africa are chokers.
I heard this a lot after they crashed out of this World Cup, but what’s the basis for this, really? Cricinfo’s Statsguru reveals that out of 27 ODI tournament finals, they have won 16. On the bigger stage, though, at the World Cup, they have lost at the knock-out stage five times.
Now, much as 0 out of 5 seems revealing, that’s still way too small a sample size to draw conclusions—especially when those five times stretch across generations. When we say South Africa are chokers, are we talking about Kepler Wessels’s squad in 1992, Hansie Cronje’s side in 1999, or Graeme Smith’s boys this year? Is there a new science of Sports Genetics that explains how such qualities can be passed on across generations?
Through the World Cup, reporters fed old narratives or built new ones on the basis of such nonsense data. For example, MS Dhoni got savaged for promoting Yusuf Pathan up the batting order, where it seems he was a proven failure—on the basis of 11 ODIs (out of a total of 51), in which he batted between 3 and 5. More importantly, Pathan batted at 3 or 4 in just two games in this World Cup, and failed in both—but two is not a remotely meaningful number.
In such cases, I’d always defer to the captain and team management’s judgement, who are closer to the action and the players, rather than the ranting of reporters who couldn’t tell the difference between an arm-ball and a doosra, but feel the need to criticize from their perch on high, using numbers with all the finesse of monkeys using calculators.
The judgments the media arrives at, you will note, are passed in hindsight, after the outcome is known. MS Dhoni got applause for leading us to the T20 World Cup, but would have been slammed for his decision to bring on Joginder Sharma for that last over in the final had Misbah-ul-Haq played one shot slightly differently. All our experts criticized him for picking Ashish Nehra over R Ashwin in the recent semi-final, and praised him afterwards for his prescience. Had Dhoni gotten a bad decision or an unplayable ball in the final, and India had lost, he would have been chastised for promoting himself up the order—but we won, so hey, it’s a masterstroke.
One of the lessons I’ve learnt as a poker player—and it applies generally to life as well—is that the quality of your decisions should not be judged by their outcomes. In the short term, too many variables determine the outcome of any action, beyond just the action itself. The quality of a player’s captaincy, for example, can only be judged over a long period of time—and even then, the other variables at play make that very difficult. For example, the question of whether Dhoni or Saurav Ganguly were greater captains than Tiger Pataudi or Sunil Gavaskar are difficult ones precisely because the latter two led lousy teams in difficult times, and they couldn’t possibly have gotten the results Dhoni and Ganguly (and also Dravid, for that matter) did. So our evaluation of their captaincy cannot be based on results alone, and there is a subjective element to it.
In my subjective opinion, Dhoni is the best captain we’ve ever had—but my basis for this opinion is not just his results, but the manner in which he goes about his job. He had the cojones to promote himself up the order in the final and take the responsibility upon himself in that ultra-high-pressure situation. Even if he’d been out for a duck, and India had lost, he’d still have my eternal respect for that.
If Poonam Pandey does manage to ‘perform’ for the Indian World Cup squad, imagine how pissed Praveen Kumar and Rohit Sharma will be.
The WTF statement of the day comes from Philip D’Souza of the Shiv Sena:
We’re going to protect the daughters of Goa, irrespective of caste, creed, colour and political affiliation.
That last bit is just magnificent. And what exactly is this gentleman from the Shiv Sena trying to protect the daughters of Goa from? Bipasha Basu. Insane.
Q. If D’Souza was in West Bengal, who would he be protecting?
Ans. The daughters of Guha.
Two bits of good news for long-suffering India Uncut readers:
1] Yahoo! Opinions, the section of columns at Yahoo! edited by me, has resumed operation.
2] India Uncut is also now going to wake up from slumber and become regular again. I know I’ve promised this before and gone right back to sleep, so this time it’s not too credible, but hell, give me a chance. For around four of the six-plus years this blog has been in existence, I wrote an average of five posts a day, so I certainly am capable of getting that momentum going.
But how can I write more posts if I don’t finish this one?
Nick Paumgarten’s fantastic profile of Shigeru Miyamoto in The New Yorker has this wonderful quote by Miyamoto about his childhood:
I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish. That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation. I wish that children nowadays could have similar experiences, but it’s not very easy.
I think Miyamoto’s lament holds true not just for kids but for all of us. We are desensitized and apathetic, and there is no sense of wonder in our lives anymore. How does one recapture it? I don’t think going back to nature and escaping from the urban grind is an answer in itself. Those of us who do that do it as an anaesthetic or a balm. There has to be something more.
When was the last time you noticed a fish?
Because of Pepsi’s new campaign, as seen below. Like, ewwww!
Update: Here’s more from the campaign. FSM help us!
A Wired story by Rich Schapiro begins thus:
At 2:28 pm on August 28, 2003, a middle-aged pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania. He had a short cane in his right hand and a strange bulge under the collar of his T-shirt. Wells, 46 and balding, passed the teller a note. “Gather employees with access codes to vault and work fast to fill bag with $250,000,” it said. “You have only 15 minutes.” Then he lifted his shirt to reveal a heavy, boxlike device dangling from his neck. According to the note, it was a bomb. The teller, who told Wells there was no way to get into the vault at that time, filled a bag with cash—$8,702—and handed it over. Wells walked out, sucking on a Dum Dum lollipop he grabbed from the counter, hopped into his car, and drove off. He didn’t get far. Some 15 minutes later, state troopers spotted Wells standing outside his Geo Metro in a nearby parking lot, surrounded him, and tossed him to the pavement, cuffing his hands behind his back.
Wells told the troopers that while out on a delivery he had been accosted by a group of black men who chained the bomb around his neck at gunpoint and forced him to rob the bank. “It’s gonna go off!” he told them in desperation. “I’m not lying.” The officers called the bomb squad and took positions behind their cars, guns drawn. TV camera crews arrived and began filming. For 25 minutes Wells remained seated on the pavement, his legs curled beneath him.
“Did you call my boss?” Wells asked a trooper at one point, apparently concerned that his employer would think he was shirking his duties. Suddenly, the device started to emit an accelerating beeping noise. Wells fidgeted. It looked like he was trying to scoot backward, to somehow escape the bomb strapped to his neck. Beep… Beep… Beep. Boom! The device detonated, blasting him violently onto his back and ripping a 5-inch gash in his chest. The pizza deliveryman took a few last gasps and died on the pavement.
This is just the beginning of a complex case where all the details haven’t yet been resolved. But what a story it is. Just the start, these first three paras, can be the basis for a gripping film or novel: a metaphysical thriller where the collar bomb could stand for much more than just a collar bomb. I wonder what some of Bollywood’s new directors would make of it.
Of course, in the film our pizza deliveryman wouldn’t die so soon, but would struggle against time and circumstance, as we all do. And that’s the story.
The Times of India investigates if “Aishwarya Rai (Jodhaa Akbar) has been replaced by younger Bollywood star Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) as the face of cosmetics firm L’Oréal”, and ends its report with these two priceless paragraphs:
Distinguished Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, suggested that instead of obsession with minor issues like “pitched battles of Aishwarya and Freida”, media should focus more on highlighting major issues facing humanity, world and India today.
Rajan Zed, who is President of Universal Society of Hinduism, stressed that instead of running after these mundane things, we should focus on realizing the Self. As ancient Hindu scripture Katha Upanishad points out that when wise realize the Self, they go beyond sorrow...When one realizes Self, there is nothing else to be known.
Stunning WTFness—and in case you need some background on this publicity hound and self-styled “distinguished Hindu statesman”, my friend Prem Panicker’s classic post from 2009 has more.
* * *
I’m racking my brains about what “realising the self” could mean, and I can’t think beyond masturbation. In my nihilistic worldview, there can be nothing more divine than a self-inflicted distinguished Hindu orgasm. The rest is illusion. No?
* * *
Meanwhile, bothered by thoughts of neither Aishwarya nor Freida, the irrepressible MF Husain has expressed his love for Anushka Sharma. Besides being gorgeous, she also acted really well in Band Baajaa Baaraat, so I’m going to cheer him on in his efforts to “paint her in myriad hues.” I wonder what Mr Zed would have to say about that.
The Zed link via email from Arjun Swarup.
The quote of the week comes from the man revealed to be the mysterious Isildur1, Viktor Blom, describing how he got into online poker:
I deposited $2,000 and within three weeks I had two million.
Ah, well, that’s the dream there, neatly encapsulated, isn’t it? It’s quite believable, actually, though there is no way Blom could have turned 2k into 2 million in that time if he practised disciplined bankroll management, so it’s quite clear that he played above the limits he should have, and got struck by the lucky side of variance. He’s experienced swings both ways since, but if the variance had worked against him at the start, who’s to say if Isildur1 would even exist?
That said, he’s obviously bloody good. And he’s just 20. Scary…
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In other poker news, here’s a charming post by one of my favourite players, Daniel Negreanu, on how he missed most of his 2010 poker goals.
His first goal for 2011 was get back on the all-time money-leader list, and he’s already achieved that with his second-place finish in the PCA Super High Roller tourney. Studness.
If Hartosh Singh Bal did not exist, one would have to invent him. A few months, he stirred up much righteous outrage across Indian literary circles with his attack on “navel-gazing contemporary Indian fiction”—see the comments there, much fun. On that occasion, I thought he had a point, but expressed it poorly, with all the wrong examples, and commenters duly took him apart.
Well, now he’s back with an attack on the Jaipur Literary Festival that seems to be attacking the establishment only because it seems a cool thing to do, and makes a whole bunch of silly arguments, such as a bizarrely personality-based one about William Dalrymple—I’d be surprised if he even convinced himself with that piece. The action has begun in the comments there—my friends Nilanjana, Devangshu and Sonia have already weighed in—and there will surely be much more in the days to come. Watch that space.
But why do I welcome Hartosh’s pieces when I don’t entirely agree with them? It’s because, like a true Bigg Boss watcher, I like the drama and the fighting that ensues. I also enjoy the terrible self-importance running through some of the comments, and that oh-so-serious tone as if the issue being discussed affects all our lives, and is hugely important, like global warming or Islamist terrorism or the ethics of wearing hoodies and sunglasses during poker tournaments. It’s not! No one gives a shit! It’s just books! Chill out, people!
So much fun.
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On the subject of book festivals, I’ve attended just a couple (Jaipur and Galle, though I wasn’t an invitee at the former), and had a whale of a time at both. For any reader, it’s an amazing experience to be able to spend three or four days listening to writers talking about their craft, and mingling with fellow enthusiasts. And the Jaipur fest, far from showcasing only foreign writers, as Bal implies, actually presents a terrific platform to Indian writers as well, including vernacular ones. At the very least, even if you’re skeptical about them, they do some good and no harm at all. So where’s the problem?
* * *
I won’t be going to Jaipur this year, though. My pilgrimages are poker tournaments, and there are three this weekend in Goa. My writing has suffered terribly because of this new addiction, but I’ll find a balance soon. Just as soon as I finish playing this hand.
What did you say, raise? Are you kidding me? That’s so rude. Ok, then, I’m all in.
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I mentioned Bigg Boss earlier in the post, and the thought now strikes me: Is Hartosh Singh Bal the Dolly Bindra of Indian literature? Now it all makes sense…
Huffington Post has a good feature up in which a few major contemporary writers are asked to name “the most important contemporary fiction writer” according to them. There are some interesting choices there, and I’m not surprised that the only one picked twice is Alice Munro. As I’ve blogged before, she’s my favourite living writer by a long way, even though reading anything by her makes me feel my own inadequacies as a writer so much more acutely. As Joni Mitchell once said, “Whereas Carver makes me think I can write short stories, Munro makes me think I can’t.”
Anyway, go check out the whole list: hopefully you’ll add a few items to your must-read list, as I did. Time to go buy me some Stanley Elkin…
(Link via Nilanjana Roy.)
… have been announced. It’s a solid line-up, and I’ll be looking forward to the talks by Antonio Damasio, David Brooks, Anthony Atala, Ed Boyden and especially Roger Ebert, who has reinvented himself so magnificently on Twitter. And ah, there’s also Salman Khan—not the Bollywood actor, but the entrepreneur who created the wonderful Khan Academy. It should be quite something.
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Aside: If the Bollywood Salman Khan was ever invited to TED to give a shirtless speech, what do you think he’d talk about?
A few years ago, I made to decision to never work in a company again. I struck out on my own, did much blogging and column-writing, wrote my first novel, and started playing poker seriously. And while I occasionally felt the inevitable loneliness that comes from working alone, from the writing life, I never regretted the decision or considered going back to a regular job. Being my own master was an awesome luxury, and the tradeoffs were worth it.
One of the factors in my decision was the nature of companies. The skills you need to succeed within a corporation are actually quite different from the ones that you need to excel at whatever you’ve been hired to do. William Deresiewicz expresses it perfectly in this wonderful essay on solitude and leadership:
That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.
You, reading this: I presume you have a job and work in a company somewhere. Do you agree with this?
* * *
Besides this, I found that I was much more productive while working on my own than in a company environment. Maybe it’s just me, but I found that in a normal office day, I might be at work for 10 hours, but within that period I’d only actually work for a total of maybe one. The rest of the time would go surfing, faffing, idling, day-dreaming, gossiping and other such ings. When I am by myself, on the other hand, I may idle all day, but when I work, I work. It may only be for an hour, but at least I don’t waste nine more in a pretense of work, in an elaborate charade that benefits no one.
Still, that’s just me, and I speak of my experience in television (in the last millennium) and journalism (in this one), and I’m sure there are other corporate environments which are more productive. But Deresiewicz’s observation about the greasy pole, I suspect, holds true for them all. That’s the nature of the beast.
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Salman Khan bagged the Best Actor Jury Award at an award function last night. Apparently the actor was expecting to win the Best Popular Actor Award which went to Shah Rukh Khan.
The actor was present backstage when the Jury Award and the Popular Awards were announced. Disappointed with the announcement, Salman refused to come on stage to receive his award.
This is hilarious at multiple levels, but leave that aside. I feel a bit sad for Salman, that such a petty thing should matter to a grown man. In award-infested Bollywood, who remembers who got which award for what film anyway? After the kind of career he’s had, it’s kind of poignant that Salman Khan needs validation this bad.
Having said that, I will now stop commenting on how 40-plus men can play characters so many years younger than them. If they behave like babies, then maybe they’re really just acting above their age.
(Pic source: bollywooddeewana.)
Here’s Russ Roberts on economics:
I have often said that economics, to the extent it is a science, is like biology rather than physics. Let me try to make that clearer. By biology, I do not mean the study of the human cell, which we have made a great deal of progress understanding though there is more to learn. I am thinking of biology in the sense of an ecosystem where competition and emergent order create a complex interaction of organisms and their environment. That sounds a lot like economics and of course it is. But we would never ask of biologists what the public and media ask of economists. We do not expect a biologist to forecast how many squirrels will be alive in ten years if we increase the number of trees in the United States by 20%. A biologist would laugh at you. But that is what people ask of economists all the time.
Beautifully put—and you can make the same comparison with medicine. I am just reading The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s magisterial history of cancer, and the similarities between medicine and economics in the last century are striking. You see hubris, false certainties, ideological fervour, and mistakes on a giant scale that cause the suffering of millions and are diagnosed only in retrospect. Both fields have grown by quantum leaps and achieved much: Just look at the radical increase in life expectancies and living standards in the last 100 years. But complexity still abounds, cancer still kills, economies still fail, and humility is always a good thing.
This post by Dan Zambonini offers an explanation for why the east of cities are usually poorer than the west:
The reason for this is that in much of the northern hemisphere, the prevailing winds are westerlies – blowing from west to east. The massive, unchecked pollution from these early industries would therefore drift eastward, making the air quality much lower in the east end of cities, lowering the desirability (and price) of the housing. Middle classes preferred the cleaner west ends.
This is certainly one possible factor for why rents in the Western suburbs of Bombay are so much higher than those in the East. (Compare Andheri West and Andheri East, or Bandra West and Bandra East.) But I’m sure there are other, specific local factors as well. What do you think those are?
(Link via Marginal Revolution.)
This has to be the quote of the day:
We are not rigid on the half pants.
Quick, without clicking through, guess the context!
There is something terribly poignant about a man trying to commit suicide by jumping off a ninth-floor window but being saved by an uncollected heap of garbage that lies below. His self esteem is obviously low, he feels discarded by the world, but, like the garbage that eventually saves him, not yet dispatched. So he jumps, and wakes up not in an afterlife like heaven or hell or suchlike, but in a hospital, all bandaged up, tubes entering and exiting his body like the world refusing to let go. It makes me wonder what is the greater tragedy for him: feeling the need to let go, or not being able to do so.
There’s the seed of a short story here, but I feel too lazy to write it. Such it goes.
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On another note, if someone asked me to guess where this happened, I’d think of garbage and I’d immediately rule out New York. Instead, my guess would be Andheri East.
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(Pic courtesy Reuters.)
From Shane Warne to PSR Anjaneyulu (allegedly), the sending of lewd SMSs is a common complaint against many high-profile men, especially those intoxicated by power. Now, here are two contradictory notions I am wrestling with:
1. Most women are turned off by lewd SMSs.
2. No rational man would indulge in an act again and again unless it paid off at least some of the time, thus compensating for the many times it didn’t.
I have never sent a lewd SMS in my life, and thus have a sample size of zero to attempt to resolve this from personal experience. So I wonder: Are lewd SMSes positive EV? Or, in non poker terms, do lewd SMSs work often enough to justify their downside?
My theory is that sending a lewd SMS in either like surfing porn—gratification from a distance, without the slightest chance of actual contact—or a form of release, and that a man doesn’t need to find takers for his lewd SMSes to keep sending them. It is also possible that a lewd SMS would work with women already interested in you. But then, any SMS would work with those women. If you send a lewd one, though, and the woman responds, you could mistake correlation for causation. Maybe that’s why…
The whole point of acronyms is that they make stuff easier to say or write. I was reminded of this the other day during an online conversation when a friend typed: ‘ROTFLAOM.’ ‘I mean, ROTFLMOA.’ ‘Wait, ROTFLMAO.’
At that point it struck me that many internet acronyms are popular not because of functionality and ease of use, but because of the coolness factor. You feel cool using them. That said, imagine using them in the real world. Like, you’re hanging out with friends at a cafe and you ask, ‘Hey, where’s Rajeev, wasn’t Rajeev supposed to be here?’ and Ramona pipes up, ‘Rajeev’s stuck in traffic in Mahim. I told him to come via the Worli Sea link, but he said that’s a symbol of unbridled capitalism, so he took the Mahim route instead, and he’s still stuck there.’ At which you point you laugh and say, ‘Dude, R.O.T.F.L.M.A.O!’
Now, that would be ROFL, at the very least, if not MAO too. No?
This is the second installment of Pocket Quads, my bi-monthly column on poker for Cardplayer India. It appears in the issue dated January-February 2011.
I must be the worst tourist ever: in the second half of 2010, I went to Goa half a dozen times and never saw a beach. I suspect there are many others like me, for whom Goa conjures up images not of the sun and the sand and the awesome food, but of full houses and quads and grown men banging tables as they’re delivered yet another bad beat. A decade from now, 2010 might well be remembered as the year Indian poker started coming of age. Goa is the epicentre of that.
This is especially so when it comes to tournament poker. High stakes cash games now abound in all the Indian metros, but if you want to play regular well-organised tournaments, there’s no place yet quite like Casino Royale. I’ve played multiple editions of the IPC, the IPS and the Aces Unlimited Tourneys there, reaching seven final tables out of about twice that number, and the turnout keeps growing at a staggering pace. The quality of play has gone up at the final tables—but so, I’m afraid to say, has the amount of donkamental play before that.
At the last IPC tourney I played, four of the first six hands dealt at my table saw all-in moves. Almost a fourth of the hands dealt in the first two levels saw someone moving all-in. (The only time I called one, my KK got busted by KTo.) The game can become a bit bingoish when the blinds go up too fast (though I’d contend there is much skill involved there as well), but it was sick to see such wild play so early in the tourney, when everyone at the table had between 50 to 100 big blinds. It also made me wonder what these rinse-and-repeat all-in pushers thought the game was all about. Perhaps they’d learnt their poker from Facebook, or even television, where selected hands shown from the last stages of tourneys feature a much higher percentage of shoves than you actually see in actual play.
To be successful in the long run in tournaments, though, it isn’t enough to be fearless enough to shove every time you think you’ve been dealt a good hand. Poker is about situations and the people you’re playing with, and the cards you’re dealt are just a small part of the puzzle. In a tournament, context is important. And to understand context, you need to keep in mind, always, during every single hand that you play, your M Ratio.
This is not complex mathematical jargon. The M Ratio is a number that is, quite simply, the figure you come up with when you divide your stack by the cost of a round. (The term was popularised by Dan Harrington in his series of great books on tournament poker; the CSI, or Chip Status Index, is an independent formulation by Lee Nelson and Blair Rodman that means the same thing.) For example, if you start a tourney with 5000 chips, and the blinds are 25 and 50, the cost of a round is 75 and your M is 5000/75, which is 66.6. If your stack is 10,000 and the blinds are 400 and 800, with antes of 100 on a nine handed table, the cost of a round is 2100, and you have an M of 4.8. These two situation require drastically different kinds of play, and while it is correct to go all-in with AQ with an M of 4.8, it would be moronic to do so with an M of 66.
Basically, the higher your M, the more play you have in the tournament. When your M is over 20, you can afford to play speculative hands, but it is pointless to commit too much to the pot without a seriously good holding: the risk-to-reward ratio just isn’t worth it. This is a good time to play suited connectors, suited gappers and small pairs—because you are deep-stacked, and so, presumably, are your opponents, you have the implied hands to play hands like those. When you hit a set or a straight, you are quite likely to bust a high pocket pair, as many players find it impossible to let AA or KK go on a 89T flop with two to a flush.
There are two approaches to playing with deep stacks in a tournament. The old-school, classical approach is to play really tight, wait for premium hands, and not try fancy moves. A newer, more aggressive approach, exemplified by the likes of Gus Hansen and Daniel Negreanu, is to play lots of hands very cheap, try to outplay more conventional opponents on the flop, and build your stack by using the power of your deep stack, instilling fear in your opponents, who are scared of taking too many risks early. The old-school player, if he starts with AsJs and sees a flop of 9TJ with two hearts and a player pushing all-in, will consider folding, given how wet the flop is. The aggro internet pro, if he has 67o with one heart on such a flop, puts his opponent on AJ, and senses fear, will gladly raise and reraise as a semi-bluff to get top pair to fold. Depending on where you come from, both the AJ fold and the 67o push make sense.
The aggressive players can go bust early, but they can also become chip leaders on the final table, because they know how to accumulate lots of chips without putting their entire stack at risk. The conventional players are less likely to go bust early, and if they loosen up as the blinds rise and their M goes down, they’ll do just fine. If you’re a beginning player, and are less likely to outplay other players after the flop, I recommend you stick to the conventional style: play tight when your M is high, and loosen up as your M comes down.
When your M reaches 15 and below, speculative hands lose value, and you’re better off playing more premium hands. For example, if you have 22,000 chips with blinds/antes of 400/800/100, you have an M of just over 10, and a standard raise to three times the big blind would be 2400. If you have, say, 89s, it doesn’t make sense to call a raise for more than a tenth of your stack. That hand would be good for a call if you had a M of, say 30, with high implied odds. The same logic applies to small pairs. You’ll hit a set once in eight hands, but your implied odds need to be far more than 8 to 1 because very often you won’t get paid off. (For example, if you have 33, the opponent has KK, and the flop comes A32, the A is a scare card for him.) As a rule of thumb, I play small pockets when I have implied odds of 15 to 1, or a really small M—but we’ll come to that.
When your M goes below 10, you’re in the danger zone. You have to play your premium hands strongly, use position without fear, and take a few risks to take your M higher. If you have an M of 6 and everyone folds to you on the button, for example, and you look down at A8o, you might want to shove here. Unless the small blind or the big blind are also either short-stacked or desperate, or really deep-stacked, they are unlikely to call: their chances of having a better ace or pockets are negligible, and the situation demands that you take the risk. Early in the tournament, it is unadvisable to play a marginal hand like A8o; but desperate times call for desperate measures.
By the time your M reaches 5, you have only two moves in your arsenal: all-in or fold. If your M gets any lower, your stack will be so small that you won’t have fold equity left: with an M of 2, you’re practically guaranteed a caller when you go all-in. So you have to make your moves right away. Any pocket pair or medium ace or two face cards could be good for a push here. One important principle to remember, though, is that you should always try to be first to the pot with whatever move you make, unless you have a truly premium holding: KJo is good to make a move with if you’re first to the pot, but you should probably fold it if two other people with similar stacks have gone all in before you.
Naturally, the M Ratio is a very basic concept, and there are hazaar situational complexities to consider during a journey through a tournament. You have to consider the other players at the table, your table image, your position during every hand, the stage the tournament is in (during the bubble, when most players are scared of not making the money, it pays to be aggressive and steal blinds and antes), and so on. But without keeping in mind your M Ratio, you will not know where you stand in the greater scheme of things, and are likely to miss making the optimal play. So do remember the key to success: Dial M for Poker.
And yeah, the next time you go all in preflop on my table in the first hand of the tournament with KTo, and make me fold AQs, I will rise from my chair and physically kick your ass. Be warned!
For a blogger who once took pride in writing five posts a day, my decline has been startling. For the last few months, I’ve basically gone into hibernation, popping up only to post my column for Yahoo!, Viewfinder, on IU—and that too, often weeks late. This is shocking and will not do. I protest. I am deeply pissed with myself.
So here’s my new year resolution for 2011, taken a few days in advance: I will get back to blogging, perhaps not a few posts a day, but certainly a few posts a week. I will also tweet. I will make up for my abandonment of you with a series of blazing, insightful posts that, in the manner of much that you read in the blogosphere, you will forget in the time it takes to finish a cup of coffee. What is life without these momentary pleasures?
On to more mundane matters: some of you may have noticed that the entire Yahoo! columns section has disappeared off their site. This is in no way a consequence, as one imaginative reader speculated, of my scathing attack on the Indian media in the last installment of Viewfinder. Instead, this has happened because the columns section is shifting publishing platforms in Yahoo!, and while we get the new one ready, the old one has gone offline for all kinds of complicated technical reasons. The section will resume in a few days, and the archives will be up again, so chill and go easy on the salt, it’s not good for your blood pressure.
In more immediate news, I feature as a talking head in the latest episode of the CNBC TV18 show, Storyboard, hosted by Anuradha SenGupta. The show deals with the emergence of “the empowered digital citizen” in India in 2010, and Santosh Desai, Sevanti Ninan (of The Hoot) and Neeraj Roy are the other guests. It will, no doubt, be online on their website soon, but if you’re old-fashioned like me and like to watch TV shows on TV, you can tune in to it at 8.30am and 2.30pm today (Saturday, Dec. 25) or 11.30am and 9.30pm tomorrow. I hate watching myself on TV, so I’ll probably give it a skip, but you’re welcome to point and laugh.
Phew. That’s more blogging than I’ve done in months. I’ll take a break now, but I’ll be back soon, right after a non-commercial break.
This is the 30th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 25.
Indian journalism stinks right now.
A few weeks ago, a plagiarism controversy broke over at India Today. Content theft is alarmingly common in Indian publications, but this was different because it involved the editor. Aroon Purie’s bylined editorial had lifted a few sentences, verbatim, off a piece written on Rajnikanth by Slate journalist Grady Hendrix. In Twitterverse and the Blogosphere, parallel universes that mainstream mediawallahs generally manage to ignore, poop hit the fan. Eventually, Purie came out with an explanation that was at once shameful and shameless: he was jet-lagged, he said, and someone else had written the piece for him. Hendrix duly ridiculed the explanation (scroll down to his comment here).-- it couldn’t have been very hard to mine it for humour.
There were three issues that Puriegate highlighted. One, Indian publications don’t give a damn about plagiarism, which is a sackable offence in any respectable publication in the West. Over the years, established writers like film critics Nikhat Kazmi of the Times of India and Gautaman Bhaskaran of the Hindu have been caught plagiarising, and they have continued in their jobs. (Kazmi was exposed by fellow Yahoo! columnist Jai Arjun Singh; Bhaskaran was outed here.) While those were the high-profile cases, numerous other mainstream media plagiarists have been exposed in the last few years, but none punished. In fact, an India Today journalist was accused of plagiarism not long ago, and the magazine turned a blind eye. All of this amounts to an admission by editors that they do not believe that their writers are good enough to produce quality content under pressure, and so it’s okay to steal. That makes it ironic that they so often take the moral high ground, ranting and raving about corruption in public life, while they harbour thieves themselves.
The second issue, a rather comical one, was that Purie doesn’t write his own editorials. This has been known for years—as many as three different friends of mine have ghost-written his edits in the past—and it’s absurd. Purie is the editor of a major national magazine, and he’s incapable of writing 800 words of coherent text? No wonder he condones plagiarism, as does the institution he has built. No wonder their standards are so shoddy, their prose so uniformly insipid, their journalism so mediocre. And while that last sentence is true of India Today and Purie, it is also true of practically every major Indian newspaper and magazine today—and Purie is probably no worse than most other editors. So there you go.
The third issue, the most serious one according to me, is how the media closed ranks to support Purie. So much so that a column Mitali Saran wrote for Business Standard highlighting just these issues was spiked by the paper. Saran’s column, Stet, had run in BS since 2006, and its distinctive authorial voice made it one of the most highly regarded columns in the country. Then she wrote this piece; BS refused to carry it; and she walked away. Consider what she had written: “When our [media] is confronted with its own scandals, you can hear the clang of a fraternity closing ranks, followed by the weird sound of thousands of furious back-scratchings, followed by the thunderous silence of stones not being thrown in glass houses.”
That thunderous silence can be heard this week as well. I haven’t gone through the transcripts of the Niira Radia tapes, and I don’t have an opinion on the controversy itself. But it clearly is a major issue that should be covered by all major newspapers and TV stations. And yet, as The Hoot and blogger Harini Calamur point out, the media has mostly ignored their story, as if it doesn’t matter. But if this story doesn’t matter, then the media doesn’t matter, because this strikes at the heart of what journalism is and should be about. The media isn’t willing to do this self-examination—for obvious reasons. So much, then, for the notion of our journalists being the watchdogs of society—these dogs guard the burglars who strip our houses bare. Such it goes.
This is the 29th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 18.
The world is so insane that it is a wonder satirists have a job. I read recently in Hindustan Times—yes, HT, not an Indian version of The Onion—that the makers of Golmaal 3 have been sued by The Indian Stammering Association “for mocking people who stammer.” Shreyas Talpade stammers in the film, and the other characters reportedly keep making fun of him. (I haven’t seen the film.) So this organisation of stammerers is upset about it, and they’re going to court. So far, an association of mute people hasn’t surfaced to join in the revelry—Tusshar Kapoor plays a mute character in the film, and ends up landing the heroine, which does not surprise me: which woman can resist a man who just shuts up and listens?
Seriously, are we a society of eight-year-olds? Even if the explicit intent of the film was to make fun of people who stammer—and it obviously wasn’t—so what? Such mockery always reflects badly on those doing the mocking, not on those being mocked. Why be so sensitive to criticism and mockery (or even abuse)? How insecure do we have to be to let mere words affect us so much?
A few months ago, a salesman from an finance company called me a couple of times to try and sell me an insurance package. I was irritable that day, and the second time I said something to the effect of “… and don’t f***in’ call me again!” before hanging up. 30 seconds later, the phone rings. It’s the same guy, demanding to know “Why you call me f***er? WHY YOU USE BAD LANGUAGE?” I lost it this time, and unleashed a string of pejoratives at the fellow. I hung up again, he called me again. Though I did not answer any more of his calls, he called me about 35 times in the next two days, and his number is still saved in my mobile phonebook as ‘Birla Sunlife Troll.’
Why did it matter so much to him that a random stranger called him X and Y? He screwed up his peace of mind, agitated over it for a couple of days, and it is likely that it affected his interactions with other people around him as well, besides endangering his job. It was irrational—but we are an emotional species more than a rational one, so it is understandable that one gets upset about it, even though being called a ‘bastard’ or a ‘bhainchod’ does not literally make one a bastard or a bhainchod—and hell, we don’t even know what ‘chootiya’ means. But while being upset at abuse or mockery is understandable, what is bizarre is that we expect the legal system, like a school teacher in a yard full of unruly schoolkids, to take over and punish the bad boys. What is even more bizarre is that our legal system actually has provisions for this.
I’ve written before about how certain provisions of the Indian Penal Code make it a crime to give offence in certain contexts, and how the Indian constitution does not provide adequate protection to free speech. All that is a shame, and an example of what’s wrong with our legal system. But there is also something wrong with us, that so many of us take offence so easily at something we could so easily ignore. It speaks of low self-esteem and diffidence, the very qualities that a stammering association should be trying to eradicate in its members. That makes this court case especially ironical, doesn’t it?
* * * *
My respect always goes up for people who show they can laugh at themselves. The sardar who tells sardar jokes, the fat guy who jokes about his paunch, the poker player who mocks his own poor plays, these are my kind of people. They are comfortable in their own skins, and they get that we are a bumbling, imperfect species doomed, biologically, to self-destruct—so some things are just not worth getting het up about. The biggest human failing is that we take ourselves too damn seriously. When we do that, the universe laughs at us.
This is the first installment of Pocket Quads, my bi-monthly column on poker for Cardplayer India. It appeared in the issue dated November-December 2010.
I played an interesting hand recently in a local cash game, blinds 50-100, stacks 15 to 30k. I was in the big blind when the player to my left, under the gun, a loose aggressive player, raised to 1500, just above the standard raise for this game. Everyone folded. I put him on JJ or TT, looked down at KQ, both clubs, and called. The flop was K72, with one club. I checked, expecting a continuation bet, planning to raise that. My opponent bet 2k, I check-raised to 7.5 with top pair. My opponent insta-shoved, putting me all-in. (I had 7k left.) He then revealed his cards. (The house rules for this particular game allow that when it’s heads-up.) He had AA. “You should fold,” he said. “I have you beat.” And indeed he did.
I revealed my cards, went into the tank, and thought for about five minutes. Then I called. I spiked a queen on the turn and won the pot. My opponent started steaming and called me insane. He told his bad-beat story the next day to all the players in our circle, and they all thought I was nuts. And yet, I maintain that, regardless of the outcome, I made absolutely the right play, that it was a no-brainer, and that the only embarrassing thing about that hand was how long I took to make what should have been an insta-call. Let me explain.
His all-in move took the pot to 25k, and I had 7k to call into that pot, getting odds of slightly more than 3.5 to one. I had five outs: two kings and three queens. That came to 20% over the next two cards. Plus, the backdoor flush draw gave me about 4% more. That comes to 24%, odds of just about 3 to 1. Even discounting the cards that help my opponent, I’m just about better than 3.5 to 1 to win the pot. (Cardplayer.com’s Odds Calculator puts it at 22.8%.) Therefore, the right decision is to call.
Ironically, had my opponent not shown me his aces, I would have folded. When he shoved, I put him on either AK or AA, and AK made my king outs redundant, thus mandating an easy fold. Counter-intuitively, AK was actually a better hand for him to hold than AA. Also, I made my opponent an offer before my last decision: return 5k to me, and I fold, and the pot is yours. Given that 5k was 20% of the 25k pot at the time, and his chances of losing were greater than that, he should have insta-accepted—but like most players I play with, he doesn’t do the numbers, and his aces looked good to him.
Indeed, this is the huge weakness of many of the players I play, and the reason many of them will lose money over time: they take poker hand-by-hand, and don’t understand that it is a long-run game. Here’s a basic truism of poker: In the short run, good decisions can lead to bad outcomes, and vice versa. But in the long run, good decisions will make you money, and bad decisions will wipe out your bankroll. A good player recognises this, and aims to just keep making good decisions, and not get disheartened by their immediate outcomes. As the Bhagawad Gita, that fine poker guide, says, keep doing the right thing, don’t worry about the fruits of your actions.
Now, let’s define a good decision in poker. Every time you put money in a pot when the odds of winning the hand are better than the odds the pot is offering you, that’s a good decision. It’s as simple as that. Obviously there are many subtleties here: poker is a psychological game, and you have to get your reads right to calculate your odds. Also, there are all kinds of plays one makes at the board, like bluffing when you sense weakness, that may not seem like they have much to do with maths—but they all do. If you’re last to act on the river, with a hand that’s missed its draw and cannot win, and you put your opponent on a similar missed draw, and think of bluffing out into a pot worth 10k, how much should you bluff? If you think your opponent will fold one in three times, then a bet of half the pot is break-even for you. If you think he will fold half the time, a bet of 9k is profitable. (Naturally, he may expect you think like this and reraise what he sees as a bluff while holding nothing himself, but even this should be based on his estimation of the probability of winning the hand.)
All poker decisions, at their heart, involve maths. The psychological aspects are a bonus, and separate the great players from the merely good. But you cannot be good in the first place without mastering the math. That is essential to winning in the long run.
And yet, in the local poker games that I play in, I see many players who ignore the science behind the game and try to coast from one good hand to another. They play for the thrill of gambling, for the dopamine rushes they get during big hands, for the false sense of achievement that showing down a good hand gives them. But every serious player knows that the game is a cold, hard grind, and winning it requires you to control your emotions, to observe and remember, and to do the hard work required to make as many correct decisions as possible, especially when those decisions involve folding a hand and missing out on action. (Learning how and when to fold is perhaps the most important part of a poker education.) It takes a heck of a lot of discipline—and perhaps the good sense not to insta-fold a pair of kings when the opponent goes all in and shows a pair of aces.
* * * *
Let me end this piece with another example of a hand in the same game that led my fellow players to look at me as if I was crazy. I had 78o in the small blind, and called a preflop raise. The flop came 99T rainbow. I bet my open-ended straight draw, one player flat-called. The turn was a king, I again made a bet 2/3 the size of the bet—a common-sized bet for me whether I have the nuts or pure air—and my opponent called again. The river was T, making the board read 99TKT, with no flush possible. I had missed my draw, and checked, suspecting that my opponent had also missed his draw, and we’d split the pot. My opponent bet 2.5 into a 7.5 pot. At this point of time, I was playing the board. And yet, I sensed weakness, and felt that my opponent had also missed his draw—he probably had 8J or the same hand as me, or maybe lower pockets. I had to put 2.5k into a 10k pot, but I was only playing for half of it: 5k. So if I got that split pot more than one in three times, it was a profitable call.
I called, and my opponent, who indeed had nothing, assumed that I surely must have a piece of the board to have called, and actually mucked his cards. I picked up the entire pot, and, to get the poor guy steaming, showed my hand. Mouths fell open across the table. How could I call with air? (Thinking of it later, it’s clear that raising was also a viable move, making a play for the full pot instead of half of it. But, given my read, even if I felt there was a 40% chance of my opponent having nothing, calling is also positive equity.) To my fellow players, this was just one more example of my unpredictable play. But while I do mix it up with regard to pre-flop play and betting patterns, in decisions like this, I’m immensely predictable: I play by the numbers, and I play for the long term. There is no other way to play winning poker.
Barack Obama’s visit to India has made him such a huge celebrity here that it’s a wonder he hasn’t yet been asked to appear on Bigg Boss. I can imagine the housemates being given a task: ‘The President is coming, prepare for the president’s visit.’ So they get all set to greet Obama: Veena Malik puts on her best make up and pouts in front of the mirror, Dolly Bindra personally supervises the making of special gaajar ka halwa with secret ingredients, Ashmit Patel and Hrishant Goswami trim their eyebrows again, Shweta Tiwari puts on a finely-tailored, figure-hugging anarkali churidar kurta, and choreographs a dance for herself, Manoj Tiwari composes and practises a Bhojpuri song written specially for the occasion, Mahabali Khali practises punching through walls to impress the president, Sara Khan decides that she will try and call Obama ‘Pops’ so as to cuddle up to him, and they all line up in the garden as the moment nears. The gates swing open. Pratibha Patil walks in.
Okay, this is unlikely to happen—as unlikely as our country is to ever throw up a politician quite like Obama. A few months ago I was invited for a television talk show to discuss “Who is India’s Obama?” I couldn’t participate because I was busy at the time, but I found the question ridiculous. For a political figure like Obama to rise in India would be as unusual as growing palm trees in a snowfield. India’s political system would never allow someone like Obama to rise, and would disincentivise entry in the first place.
Consider how Obama climbed the ladder in politics. He wasn’t from a privileged background or a political family: he worked as a community organiser in Chicago in the 1980s, and then graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review for a while. He worked as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School for a few years, and wrote an acclaimed memoir. Given that background, you’d have expected him to stay in academics and write more books, maybe even winning a Pulitizer along the way. (He’s a very fine writer.) But he saw a different calling for himself.
It might have been idealism that motivated him to join politics, but he also possessed the pragmatic street-smartness without which you can’t rise in that profession. He networked superbly in the local political scene and built a base for himself. (Interestingly, poker was a part of his tactical mix, as James McManus points out in this article in the New Yorker. For more on the role poker has played in American public life, I strongly recommend you read McManus’s magisterial history of poker in America, Cowboys Full.) But Obama’s rapid ascent in national politics was not a result of backroom wheeling-and-dealing, but of the power of ideas. He came on the national scene when America, tired of the Iraq war and the growing partisanship in politics, was ready for a change. Obama, a thinker of much nuance, was also a speaker of great clarity and eloquence, and galvanized a nation with his words alone. Despite being criticized for his lack of managerial experience, he also ran perhaps the greatest political campaign in American history.
Now, can you imagine a similar career graph for a politician in India today? America is the most meritocratic of all countries, and their politics is truly democratic, which is why they have an incumbent president whom pretty much no one outside his city had heard of just ten years ago. India, on the other hand, as I have written before, has a feudal political system, and none of our parties are internally democratic in the true sense of the term. All our promising young politicians are scions of political families who have been handed an inheritance. The time is past when someone like Obama could emerge on the scene from nowhere and rise to the very top in Indian politics through the force of his ideas. An Indian Obama would be a professor at a business school, a top manager in a multinational company, an acclaimed writer with a modest income—or he would simply have gone abroad, where the opportunities are far greater.
Obama’s visit hasn’t prompted any self-reflection in our political elite or our media, though. We gush over him, we get orgasms when he praises India or disses Pakistan, but we don’t think a little harder and realise that what Obama says about India not being an emerging nation any more is just sweet talk. We are still a backward, emerging nation, and this is amply reflected in the poverty of our political landscape, where Ashok Chavan and Suresh Kalmadi stand for the quintessential, typical Indian politician. Can India produce an Obama in this kind of system? No, we can’t.
* * * *
Needless to say, my admiration for Obama doesn’t necessarily translate to support for his policies. While it’s heartening to see a politician who doesn’t speak in platitudes and is capable of intellectual depth, Obama inherited an enormously difficult set of circumstances, and I find aspects of his approach to the economy somewhat dubious. (Indeed, when it comes to expanding the role of government in America, there isn’t much difference between GWB and BHO.) That said, even Lincoln and Roosevelt, it could be argued, were not confronted with two problems quite as complex as this economic crisis or as nebulous as the war on terror. But that’s a subject for another day.
* * * *
Speaking of young politicians, check out England. Their prime minister, David Cameron, is 44 years old. His deputy prime minsiter, Nick Clegg, is 43. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (their equivalent of a finance minister) is the 39-year-old George Osborne. The leader of the opposition (and of the Labour Party) is Ed Miliband, who turns 41 this December. In contrast, Indian politicians in their 50s are often described as “young and upcoming”. It’s crazy—but perhaps a dysfunctional system deserves senile or our-of-date leaders. Such it goes.
This is the 27th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 4.
It’s absolutely freaky, the shit that happens in the USA. A few days ago, my friend (and renowned former blogger) Manish Vij lodged the following complaint online about a traffic signal (reproduced with permission; I’ve changed road and city names):
“The traffic signal on [AB-CD] Rd. at [XY] Dr. needs to be adjusted for traffic at night. The last five nights, the signal for through traffic on [AB-CD] has been red for up to 2 minutes when I’ve hit the signal between 1 and 4 am. It’s especially odd because [XY] is a small street which T intersections into [AB-CD], and even during the day rarely has more than a handful of cars turning left onto [AB-CD].”
Within two hours—yes, two hours—he got the following reply in his email inbox:
The signalized intersection at [AB-CD] Rd. and [XY] Dr. is on a recall timing because of the recent construction of the new ramps some of the traffic detector loops have been cut. We have scheduled them to be replaced soon after the ramps at the intersection are all complete.
[Name here], P.E.
City of [AB] - Public Works”
In other words, he made a complaint to the local government, as a common citizen, without going through any contacts or other such loops, and actually got a reply the same day. That’s just crazy. Can you imagine that happening in, say, Mumbai? If a local traffic signal is malfunctioning, or neighbourhood garbage isn’t being cleared as regularly as it should, or the road outside my house is full of potholes, I wouldn’t have the slightest clue about where to go to complain. And if I did know where to go, I wouldn’t bother wasting my time for something that is merely a minor irritant for me, because I know that my government does not consider itself accountable to me. And there is not a damn thing I can do about it.
(On a tangent, if I did complain about potholed roads, I would be laughed out of whichever decrepit government building I lodged my complaint in. Everyone knows why Indian roads have potholes: so that they can be repaired, which means more commissions and kickbacks for everyone concerned. The government servants who look after our roads are incentivised, in a system where corruption is the norm, to build (or repair) roads badly so that they need to be repaired again soon. Rinse and repeat. For the common man, the roads are the point; for our government, the potholes are the point. The roads are merely the means to an end: the destination is the potholes.
Okay, end of bizarre parenthetical roads rant.)
What causes local governance to be so inept here when compared to the US? Well, firstly, it’s the incentives within our system of government. Our government is top-down and centralized. For example, it’s Sonia Gandhi in Delhi who will decide who becomes chief minister of Maharashtra, not local party workers driven by local concerns, and accountable directly to us. In an ideal system, government would be local at its core, like the Panchayati Raj kind of model, where we elect our local officials based on our immediate concerns, and their incentives are aligned towards servings us well—a sentiment that then travels upwards. But, as I wrote in an earlier column, ‘Politics and Inheritance’ there’s no inner-party democracy in India, and no local accountability (though tools like the RTI are a big step forward.) Our parties are effectively competing mafias. Consider the recent Adarsh Society scam, where a chief minister was found to have dubious dealings, and the party is still hunting around for a clean replacement. Well, here’s stating the obvious: There isn’t one. Politics in India is inherently dirty business, and you can’t rise to the top here without playing by the rules of that game.
The biggest cause for the state of governance in India, though, is our own attitudes. After I wrote in my last column that our governments believe they exist to rule the people, not serve them, my friend Vinay Suchede wrote in to elaborate: “Something that has irked me is the media itself uses phrases such as ‘Cong rule, BJP rule, Cong-ruled state, BJP-ruled state etc’. It promotes the notion that we are subjects and that we are ruled.” That’s a good observation, and illustrates that despite our managing to be rid of the British empire in 1947, we’re still not quite independent. We still have rulers, we still have royalty, and as long as we do, we will have potholes on our roads, garbage on our streets, and problematic traffic lights. And those are the least of our problems.
Growing up, I was a lucky kid. My father was an avid reader, and his collection of books numbered in the thousands. It wasn’t a surprise, then, with books all around me, that I became a keen reader as well. At an age when other children dream of being astronauts or movie stars or cricketers, I wanted to be a writer. And I wasn’t just reading Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys—at age ten, I discovered a book called The House of the Dead, thought the title indicated a thrilling read, and embarked on my first foray into serious literature. It happened to be written by a dude named Dostoevsky, and while it didn’t contain the ghost stories I expected, it got me hooked. Dostoevsky was my first favourite, and I admit that looking back on it, I find it a bit freaky that I read all the major Russian novelists at age ten, and all of Shakespeare as well. (I liked Titus Andronicus more than Macbeth, so it’s fair to say that my tastes weren’t all that refined.)
My reading habit ebbed and flowed over the years. From a weird-ass, serious geeky kid who read a lot, I turned into a rebellious teenager who wore torn jeans, listened to alternative rock and didn’t read all that much. But one thing didn’t change: the desire to be a writer. After college, I wandered into copywriting, then into writing for television, then journalism, then blogging, and then after years of procrastination that I blame on my half-Bengali genes, I finally wrote my first novel a couple of years back. None of this would have been possible if my dad hadn’t been such a collector of books, and if serendipity hadn’t started at home. Forget the fact that I am a writer: I’d be an entirely different person if I hadn’t been the kind of reader that I was. My life would have been diminished.
As it happens, I have become a bit of a book collector like my father was, and while he lived in large, spacious bungalows all his adult life, I have lived in relatively small apartments in Mumbai for much of mine, and the thousands of books I own have created a major storage issue. The bookshelves are overflowing; all the beds with storage space are filled with books; there are three cupboards filled with books; the tables and sofas in my living room overflow with them. So it’s a surprise that I held out for so long before buying my first Kindle.
One reason I didn’t buy the Kindle earlier is that I like the feel of books in my hand. (Not so much the much-touted smell of paper, because years of sinus issues have ravaged my sense of smell.) Also, I used to think that I wouldn’t like the Kindle because one can’t read off a computer screen for too long. However, on using a friend’s Kindle, I discovered that the E Ink technology that the Kindle uses replicates the look of print on paper almost exactly, and is easy on the eyes. (No backlit screens and all that.) Also, the marketplace, which was once a bit limited, has now expanded, and book prices are quite affordable: often cheaper than you’d get in a real bookshop, and when it’s not, the premium is worth it in terms of convenience and storage space. So I’ve gotten myself a Kindle 3, and I love the machine already: it’s lighter than a paperback, can contain thousands of books, and the look and feel is just wonderful.
But I’m not writing this column to evangelize the Kindle as a device. I’m writing, instead, because while browing the online store, I remembered my privileged childhood. I bought a handful of books on my first day with the machine, but the vast majority of the hundreds of books I downloaded in my first few hours with it were free. Every book published before 1924 is in the public domain, and therefore free to download. So there I was, reliving my childhood, downloading Dostoevsky and Turgenev and Dickens and Shakespeare and Mark Twain and even some of Agatha Christie and Wodehouse on my Kindle—for free. In half a day, I put together a collection of books that must have taken my father years of perseverance and saving up to compile. To me, that is a matter of great wonder.
For someone who doesn’t like children very much, and chose long ago not to have any himself, I will now have the audacity to give the parents reading this piece a word of advice: kindle your children. The biggest thing you can do for your kids is open up the world to them, and reading is a great way of doing that. One can’t force kids to read, of course, but merely having books around the house is often enough. (Most avid readers I know picked up the habit that way.) The Kindle—or any other ebook reader that you prefer—saves you a lot of trouble and makes it easy to put a world of books at your kids’ disposal. So here’s what I suggest: gift your kid a Kindle, load it up with a library of free classic books, and set up a one-click payment system through a debit card with a monthly budget so that your kids can buy a reasonable amount of books themselves, regularly, without your supervision. Give them the power—and set them free. There is a good chance that, 30 years later, they will thank you for it. And, thanks to the wonders of technology, it will take you far less effort than it took my dad.
One of the defining images of Indian politics of recent times came a few days ago in Mumbai when Aditya Thackeray stood on a stage at a Shiv Sena rally, drew a sword out of its sheath, and held it aloft. He had just been handed his inheritance—not the sword, but a political party. His grandfather Balasaheb Thackeray had just launched him in politics, and told the world that the Shiv Sena would now belong to him. (Not in so many words, of course: he asked SS supporters to ‘bless’ the young man.) And thus, a political party in the world’s largest democracy was handed over.
With a couple of exceptions, this is the fate of almost all Indian political parties. They are feudal and are run by dominant families like family-owned firms—which some might consider apt because the business of democracy is, after all, a business. The Congress is owned by the Gandhis: Rahul is almost uniformly considered to be a future prime minister, and most of their young leaders are themselves children of prominent politicians (there is no other way to get to the top on your own steam). But even here, there is a heirarchy, which is why there is no way Jyotiraditya Scindia or Sachin Pilot or Milind Deora is considered a future PM the way Rahul Gandhi is, because, like a kind of caste system, the heirarchy of families within the party percolates through generations.
Most regional parties are also like this. In Tamil Nadu, it is understood that after M Karunanidhi passes on, the DMK will pass on to one of his children. In Andhra Pradesh, Jagan Mohan Reddy reacted with shock and horror when the state Congress wasn’t handed over to him after the death of his dad, the former chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy. (It was like his dad died and suddenly some random stranger started living in his family home.) From Mulayam to Akhilesh, Narayan to Nitesh, Jaswant to Manvendra, Indian politics is one long family soap, with plenty of drama and predictable outcomes. (Indeed, think of the Congress as a saas-bahu saga, and there you have it, the last 45 years.)
I don’t have an issue with politicians’ children taking up their parent’s profession. Anyone should be free to enter politics, and the kids of a politician would have such an early and constant exposure to that world that their interest in it is quite natural. (Besides, power is intoxicating and addictive, a factor that would not feature in most other professions.) My issue, rather, is with the way our parties are structured: despite being players in a democracy, none of them are democratic themselves.
A political party should ideally be a democracy within a democracy. In the US, if you want to run for election as a Democrat or Republican, you first have to win primaries within the party. Even if you are from a royal family of politics, you need to get out in the political marketplace and convince the members of your party that you have what it takes. You need to be clear about where you’re coming from ideologically; you need to discuss policies in concrete terms; you are under public scrutiny, held accountable for your words. Even George W Bush and Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy weren’t handed their party on a platter: they had to go out and get the votes.
Well, over here, parties don’t have primaries, and are run by insiders in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. Rahul Gandhi or MK Azhagiri or Uddhav (or Aditya) Thackeray do not have to campaign for votes within their parties and win party primaries—they are anointed, not elected. By saying this, I am not knocking them, but the systems they have inherited. Politics should find its expression from the grassroots up, but instead we have top-down politics, with all our parties—and therefore every government—believing that it exists to rule the people, not to serve them. Political parties, for all practical purposes, are competing mafias, battling for the spoils of power and the right to take hafta in a particular neighbourhood. The Thackerays are not all that different from the Corleones.
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To his credit, Rahul Gandhi has made the right noises, spurning positions in government even as he speaks of introducing inner-party democracy in the Congress. His mother had also chosen to relinquish the prime minister’s seat, and for that, they have my respect, and the benefit of the doubt. But here’s the thing: despite his being such a prominent politician, a probable future PM, we know next to nothing about what Rahul believes in or stands for. What are his views on economic reform? What does he feel about greater fedaralism and smaller states and more local self-governance? What are his recipes to tackle the many ills that ail our society, from poverty to corruption to (the lack of) universal education? What does he think is the most likely practical solution to the Kashmir problem? In the US, he would have to spell all this out in some detail, in TV debates and otherwise. Here, barring a few bromides and soundbytes, he has offered little.
How odd it is that in this political marketplace, we, the consumers, know so little about the products and brands we have to choose from. To a large extent, the fault is ours. We need to be more demanding of the people who take and squander our taxes. But our daily lives have enough to occupy us, and apathy comes easy. Isn’t that so?