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. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.



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

18 January, 2016

The Hub of Crime

Mid Day has a headline today that says: ‘Andheri station is the hub of crime on Western Railway.’

If you read the article, though, you might come to the conclusion that it’s not the hub of crime, but the hub of rent-seeking.

Posted at 2:52 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | India | News

Rising Divorce Rates are a Feature, Not a Bug

The Times of India has an intriguing headline up today: ‘Marriages last the longest in north India, Maharashtra; least in NE.’

At first glance, you might think that is good news for North India. It is not. In my view, it shows how socially backward the North still is.

A few years ago, I’d written a column called We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates In it, I’d expressed the opinion that divorce rates were “the single best statistical indicator we have of the empowerment of women.” If I may quote myself:

Rising divorce rates tell us one thing for sure: that more and more women are finding the means, and the independence, to walk out of bad marriages and live life on their own terms. If we judge ourselves as a society on the state of our women – and surely that must be a parameter – then this is good news.

So the ToI report seems to indicate that women are more empowered in the North-East than and North India. I’d love to see if data backs this up. What statistical indicators can stand as a proxy for women’s welfare? Do they show a geographical correlation with divorce rates? These are good questions to ask, though I don’t think ToI will do a follow-up report on this anytime soon.

Posted at 2:32 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Freedom | India | News

08 January, 2016

Tolstoy’s Chicken and the Expanding Circle

This is the 24th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I’m a devout carnivore, but a decade-and-a-half ago, I turned vegetarian for a year. My reasons were moral, and best illustrated by a story about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In his later years Tolstoy was a vegetarian, and one day he invited his aunt home for dinner. She said she’d come but insisted, ‘I must have chicken!’ Tolstoy paused at this condition, but then agreed to provide the bird. The lady duly came home, gup-shup happened, and then when they moved to the dining table, she found a live chicken on her chair, and a carving knife alongside.

‘We knew you wanted chicken,’ Tolstoy said, ‘but none of us would kill it.’

The story, as I know it, ends there—but I can’t imagine Tolstoy’s aunt ate Tolstoy’s chicken. She must have been rather exasperated, and Tolstoy was indeed a bit of a spiritual crackpot towards the end of his life. But the story of the chicken resonates with me. It demonstrates our denial when it comes to food. In our mind, there is a screen between the meat that we eat and the animals that are killed for that meat. We taste the flavour and enjoy the texture, but we behave as if the butchery never happened. We pretend that the chicken on the plate and the chicken on the chair are different creatures. But of course they are not. Tolstoy’s flapping, squawking chicken is Varma’s Chicken a la Kiev—and so, many years ago, I gave up meat.

Even if I later explained my subsequent regression by talking about recurring headaches and how my body was too used to meat to give it up, deep down I know that’s just a rationalisation. I didn’t have the strength of character to carry through on my resolve. I dreamed of luscious, succulent kababs, and ignored the screaming of the lambs.

The guilt and dissonance I still occasionally feel may soon be moot, though. Some fine scientists, much to be praised for their noble endeavours to better humankind, have recently found a way to grow meat in the labaratory, without a sentient creature being involved. Within a couple of decades, I predict, you will be able to eat a medium-rare steak that is, in every way, the same as any you would get today, except for the fact that no animal will be harmed in its making. The organ it will come from would have been manufactured a la carte, and would never have been part of a living creature. Tolstoy’s aunt’s grilled chicken leg would have nothing to do with Tolstoy’s actual chicken.

On that note, at the turn of this new year, let me tell you about a concept propounded by a gentleman named WEH Lecky way back in the 19th century: The Expanding Circle. Lecky posited that there is a circle of beings who qualify for our moral consideration as equals, and that this circle has tended to expand through human history. In prehistoric times, we might have regarded just our family or our tribe as being part of that circle, and everyone else would have been ‘the other’. Other tribes, then other nations, other races, and so on. But through time, that circle expanded. It began to include other communities and races, and eventually included all of humanity itself. It is this expanding circle that led to the end of slavery, to women being allowed to vote, to the great immigrant nations across the world, like the US of A. And this circle is still expanding.

The philosopher Peter Singer, in fact, argues that one day animals will be within this circle. He believes that one day we will be as aghast at meat-eating as we are today when we look back at slavery or women not being allowed to vote and so on. For a person in the 23rd century, looking back at the 21st, it will seem as astonishing that we once killed animals for food as it does to us that the great apostle of liberty, Thomas Jefferson, once kept slaves.

At this point, it is worth considering why the expanding circle expands. To my mind, and I say this with sadness, the reasons are instrumental. The circle expands because incentives change. The two main factors driving this are Trade and Technology.

Economics teaches us that every human being can provide value to this world (comparative advantage) and that voluntary trade always leaves both parties better off, leading to a positive-sum game. If ‘The Other’ is working hard to improve our lives, and it is in our interest to improve theirs, for that is how we profit, then the circle is bound to expand to include them. Immigration is great not just because of moral reasons, but because it helps societies and economies flourish. The larger our circles are, in whatever sense, the better we do.

Technology also plays its part. Until recently, half of humanity – the female half – was deeply constrained because that’s just how the comparative advantage game played itself out. Housework and raising large families took so much time that it made economic sense for family units to specialise, and for women to stay at home and for men to go out and be bread-earners. This got codified in social norms, and thus women got forced into subsidiary roles. That changed in the 20th century. Firstly, household technology freed up huge chunks of women’s time. Secondly, birth control gave them, well, more control over their bodies. There is much to be said for good intentions, but women’s empowerment really happened because of technology, and so hurray for technology.

And hurray for technology one more time, because if our circle expands to include animals, it will do so not because of the benevolence of meat eaters around the world, but because growing meat may no longer require the killing of animals. And here, consider the consequences of all animal products being manufactured without animals being involved. The incentives around rearing farm animals will change entirely. And so one day, cows and pigs and chickens and goats may go extinct not because we ate them, but because we stopped. The irony is delicious.

Posted at 1:00 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Personal

04 January, 2016

The Halo of the Last Candle

The Monday Poem:

ADAGE
by Billy Collins

When it’s late at night and branches
are banging against the windows,
you might think that love is just a matter

of leaping out of the frying pan of yourself
into the fire of someone else,
but it’s a little more complicated than that.

It’s more like trading the two birds
who might be hiding in that bush
for the one you are not holding in your hand.

A wise man once said that love
was like forcing a horse to drink
but then everyone stopped thinking of him as wise.

Let us be clear about something.
Love is not as simple as getting up
on the wrong side of the bed wearing the emperor’s clothes.

No, it’s more like the way the pen
feels after it has defeated the sword.
It’s a little like the penny saved or the nine dropped stitches.

You look at me through the halo of the last candle
and tell me love is an ill wind
that has no turning, a road that blows no good,

but I am here to remind you,
as our shadows tremble on the walls,
that love is the early bird who is better late than never.

Posted at 10:50 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

21 December, 2015

The Mountain That Remains

The Monday Poem:

IMAGINARY NUMBER
by Vijay Seshadri

The mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
is not big and is not small.
Big and small are

comparative categories, and to what
could the mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
be compared?

Consciousness observes and is appeased.
The soul scrambles across the screes.
The soul,

like the square root of minus 1,
is an impossibility that has its uses.

Posted at 10:32 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

14 December, 2015

This Word Has Relatives

The Monday Poem:

STARTING A POEM
by Robert Bly

You’re alone. Then there’s a knock
On the door. It’s a word. You
Bring it in. Things go
OK for a while. But this word

Has relatives. Soon
They turn up. None of them work.
They sleep on the floor, and they steal
Your tennis shoes.

You started it; you weren’t
Content to leave things alone.
Now the den is a mess, and the
Remote is gone.

That’s what being married
Is like! You never receive your
Wife only, but the
Madness of her family.

Now see what’s happened?
Where is your car? You won’t
Be able to find
The keys for a week.

*  *  *

This poem is from the collection ‘Talking Into the Ear of a Donkey’.

Posted at 6:50 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

11 December, 2015

Looking Beyond Left and Right

This is the 23rd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One of the things that most exasperates me about Indian political discourse these days is that we often speak in terms of ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’. This is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, this is not how politicians themselves actually speak (unless they’re humouring the English-speaking media). Voters in India vote for a myriad of reasons, mostly local, and they don’t frame issues in terms of left or right. Therefore, neither do politicians when they speak to their constituencies, or when they strategise among each other. There is, thus, a disconnect between politics and political discourse. Many political commentators, unable or unwilling to engage with the complexities of the political economy, insist on imposing simplistic narratives.

But this would not matter if a left-right prism was useful in evaluating the desirability of policies, or provided a compass to gauge the moral or instrumental value of the actions of politicians. But it does not, which brings me to my second reason, which is not a local one. Across the world, framing issues in terms of left or right misses the central principle at stake in any modern society: that of individual rights, and of freedom. I view the world through a classical liberal (or libertarian, if you will) prism, and my liberalism boils down to a respect for individual freedom. On moral grounds alone, if we come from first principles, we should respect individual freedom above all else. From a consequentialist perspective, also, we should defend freedom, for economic freedom leads to material prosperity, and personal freedoms, such as freedom of speech, enrich our culture.

As a true liberal, I see no difference between economic and social freedoms. As I am fond of saying, once we accept that two consenting adults may do whatever they want with each other provided they infringe the rights of no one else, it should not matter whether they are fucking in a bedroom or trading in a marketplace. Interfering with either is wrong. And here’s the thing: parties on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum support infringements on individual freedom all the time.

Parties on the right tend to want to impose their cultural values on others, and are suspicious of those they view as ‘outsiders’. They don’t care much for free speech or other personal freedoms. Parties on the left tend to oppose economic freedom. They do so stating noble reasons, but all infringements of economic freedom amount to a redistribution of wealth from poor consumers to a rich interest group, so they’re either hypocrites or delusional. They also tend to favour big government, which means more taxation, and therefore more coercion.

If you believe, as I do, that coercion is wrong, then it won’t make a difference whether you look left or right, you’ll see coercion everywhere. A classical liberal opposes both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, both Prakash Karat and Mohan Bhagwat. (I would give credit to those guys for at least stating their positions clearly, though. Politicians down the ostensible middle, slaves to special interests as they mostly are, tend to be equally coercive and far more hypocritical.) Looking at the political marketplace, you will find that the options available to you aren’t all that different from each other. And why should they be? Even when they cater to different segments of the population, they’re still reacting to the same inevitably corrupting incentives at work in the political economy.

Here’s the funny thing about India in particular. We have conveniently classified the BJP as a right-wing party and the Congress as a left-wing party—but they’re both practically the same party. In terms of economics, both are left-wing, and oppose economic freedom. It might surprise you to hear me say this about the BJP, but forget their campaign rhetoric and consider their actual policies: Modi I is basically UPA III. Modi has the same top-down way of looking at the economy as any Congress leader before him, and he’s trigger-happy when it comes to imposing new taxes and cesses.

Equally, on social issues, the Congress was as right-wing as the BJP allegedly is. They have a stellar record when it comes to banning books, and it was a Congress government that effectively banned The Satanic Verses. Censorship flourished under their watch, as did attempts at social engineering, which weren’t restricted to the Emergency: odious policies on sterilisation still exist, decades after the emergency was called off. Even in terms of attacking other communities, the Congress set the standards: more people died in the 1984 riots than in the 2002 riots. My friend, the political commentator Nitin Pai, once coined a term that describes this jostling between the parties perfectly: ‘Competitive Intolerance’. This is quite the kind of competition that makes the poor ol’ free-marketer in me cringe!

To sum it up, India’s political parties tend to be left-wing on economics and right-wing on social issues. In other words, they oppose freedom in every sphere. I would be no more disheartened by this than India’s freedom fighters were in the first half on the last century, when they gazed up at the monolithic British empire. They gritted their teeth, and hurled themselves into the battle for our political freedom. Likewise, we must keep fighting till we win these other freedoms, and emerge as a free country at last. Not a left country, or a right country, but a free country.

Posted at 2:03 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

10 December, 2015

Chutiya vs Dhakkan

So at a party last evening, I quoted Hanlon’s Razor to somebody:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

‘Say it in Hindi, say it in Hindi,’ my hosts implored. ‘Tu angrezi mein bahut bak-bak karta hai!

So this is what I came up with:

Tum yeh na samjho ki woh chutiya hai. Woh sirf dhakkan hai!

I have to now admit that it sounds much better in Hindi.

Posted at 1:28 PM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

09 December, 2015

Honk, Mr Gadkari

NDTV reports:

A road near Delhi notorious for hours’ long traffic jams has finally found the right victim. After stewing in a two-hour jam last night, Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has ordered a solution within 24 hours.

“We are studying the traffic of Delhi and the report will come to me in 15 days. We will identify the black spots of Delhi and also inform the Delhi government. We will jointly solve this traffic jam problem,” Mr Gadkari told reporters today.

I have two observations to make here. One, you will note that Gadkari has ‘ordered a solution within 24 hours,’ and to make it happen, has commissioned a report that will be ready ‘in 15 days.’ This is delicious. If Kafka made this up, you’d wag your finger at him and say, ‘Now now Franz, you’ve gone too far this time.’

The other observation must have struck you as well. So Gadkari, who is the road transport minister, realises there is a traffic problem only when he is personally stuck in traffic? Is that what it takes for a minister to truly realise the problems a country faces. Will Arun Jaitley start worrying about rising prices only when he himself is unable to afford onions? Will Birender Singh, the minister for drinking water and sanitation, wake up to the urgency of the problem in India when he himself gets jaundice? Otherwise it’s academic, stuff that written in files, push ‘em around, keep pushing, push harder?

You could argue that this question is moot in the case of our education minister, who is herself uneducated. I suppose that’s a good start.

Posted at 1:06 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | WTF

08 December, 2015

Mr Hollande Meets His Match

Narendra Modi and Anil Kapoor walk into a bar. The president of France is sitting there, nursing a drink with Barack Obama, who decides to introduce them.

‘Hello, Mr Modi,’ Obama says, ‘meet my friend, Mr Hollande.’

‘Hello, Mr Obama,’ says Modi. ‘Meet my friend, Mr India.’

*

By and by, I think the French President’s name might have caused this little mix-up.

Posted at 4:32 PM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

Have an Omelette

Does it make any sense for a government to apologize for wrongs committed decades, even centuries, earlier? Don Boudreaux thinks not:

Imagine if we conducted our personal affairs as governments conduct their affairs: even the most atrocious and grievous wrongs that we commit would be apologized for, not by those of us who commit the offenses, but only by our grandchildren or great-grandchildren – people who had no hand at all in the commission of the now-formally-apologized-for wrong.  Who would take such apologies seriously?  “Great-great-grandchildren of armed robber apologizes for their ancestors’ wrongful acts.”  How meaningless can an apology be?

I like that way of thinking, actually. Let’s continue down that road of what would happen if you conducted your personal affairs as governments conduct theirs. Say you forcibly took 30% of the earnings of every person in your housing society, offering in return your notional protection. You set down norms of behaviour, including who can visit them and if they themselves are allowed to leave the premises. Maybe you don’t allow them to drink alcohol; or eat beef; or speak their mind freely. You regulate what they may or may not buy from the market, and you get a piece of whatever they purchase. If they buy 12 eggs, two come to you. Have an omelette.

I could go on forever, but here’s the thing: If you actually behaved the way a government does, you’d be treated as a thug by society, and locked up by the government, which would consider you competition, and would naturally like to have a monopoly on that kind of behaviour. Ah, but you now protest, I am stretching it too far. All of us signed a social contract. And it is legitimate for the government to behave in this way.

Well, I didn’t sign any contract. And why is it legitimate?

Posted at 4:06 PM by Amit Varma in India | Politics | Small thoughts

Taken at the Flood

This is class:

Sex workers from Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district dipped into their savings and survived on just one meal a day to collect Rs 1 lakh as a donation towards relief work in rain-ravaged Chennai. [...]

Of the around 3,000 sex workers in the district in western Maharashtra, almost 2,000 contributed to the relief fund, Snehalaya founder Girish Kulkarni said.

“These women were restless when they came to know of the deluge in Chennai. They decided that they should do something to help residents there… We are in touch with Delhi-based NGO Goonj for ensuring further relief to the people of Chennai,” he added.

And this is crass:

There is something terribly unfair about this world. That is fine, the dice drops where it does, this is how it is. But if you, reading, this, are a believer, tell me this: where the fuck is your god?

Posted at 2:53 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Small thoughts

07 December, 2015

The Damp Forbidden Musk

The Monday Poem:

EVOLUTION
By Eliza Griswold

Was it dissatisfaction or hope
that beckoned some of the monkeys
down from the trees and onto the damp
forbidden musk of the forest floor?

Which one tested his thumbs
against the twig
and awkwardly dug a grub
from the soil?

What did the tribe above think
as it leaned on the slender branches
watching the others
frustrated, embarrassed,
but pinching grubs
with leathery fingers
into their mouths?

The moral is movement
is awkward. The lesson is fumble.

Posted at 8:34 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

04 December, 2015

How to Keep Wild Boars at Bay

The Times of India reports:

In a funny and bizarre turn of events, farmers in Uttarakhand are using Honey Singh’s music to scare away wild boars.

And guess what? It’s actually working! As per a report, farmers have now started playing Honey Singh’s songs on loudspeakers and not just boars even other wild animals have stopped coming to the field. [...]

Not only this, farmers have said that they often play bhajans and other Punjabi songs in high volumes and it has the same effect on wild animals as Honey Singh’s music.

That last line gives it away. It’s not Honey Singh’s music in particular that the wild boars are objecting to, but loud music in general. Boars, being more cultured than humans in at least this one aspect, like their peace and quiet.

A further data point to buttress my case: I have never come across a wild boar during a rock concert, or during Ganpati in Mumbai.

Now, if only it was as easy to drive away wild bores.

Posted at 11:01 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | WTF

03 December, 2015

Arvind Kejriwal vs Santa and Banta

First Post has a headline right now that says: “Kejriwal speaks out against ‘Santa-Banta’, supports plea to ban jokes on Sikh community.”

Kejriwal is doing this, no doubt, because AAP intends to stand for elections in Punjab, and he’s taking what he hopes will be a popular line there. This illustrates what I’ve said all along about the man: he only cares about power, not principle, and will take whatever populist line gets him votes. His opposition to FDI in retail was one example of how he’s against economic freedom. (Such opposition amounts to redistributing wealth from poor consumers to a specific rich interest group, as I pointed out here.) And now we find that he doesn’t believe in free speech either. He’ll do whatever it takes to get votes.

In this, he is no different from any other politician. But he projects himself as being different, which is why pointing out this aspect of his character is important. The politician Kejriwal reminds me of most is the vile Indira Gandhi. And as I wrote recently, Narendra Modi also reminds me of Indira in some ways. Talk about picking a bipartisan role model!

Posted at 4:47 PM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Politics

01 December, 2015

Where Your Taxes Go: 48

Towards advertising in The Organiser, the RSS magazine.

As India Explained remarked, Achhe Din.

Really, all that a change in government means is that a different set of thugs gets to loot you.

(For more on how our government loots us, click here.)

Posted at 10:49 AM by Amit Varma in India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics

30 November, 2015

Delicate Cages

The Monday Poem:

TAKING THE HANDS
by Robert Bly

Taking the hands of someone you love,
You see they are delicate cages . . .
Tiny birds are singing
In the secluded prairies
And in the deep valleys of the hand.

Posted at 7:35 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

Uber and Governance

Anant Rangaswami tweets:

I love Uber, as much for what it is as what it represents. But here’s the thing: Uber functions because its marketplace is competitive. When it comes to most of the services the government provides, though, the government has a monopoly. The greatest incentive for any organisation to function well comes from competition, and the need to excel in order to survive. In areas that the government has a monopoly, I predict, it will fail—as indeed ours has for 68 years. You cannot change the level of service until you change the incentives.

Posted at 7:02 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Freedom | India

The Real Issue Regarding The National Anthem

There’s an interesting video that seems to have gone viral on social media showing a bunch of hooligans in a film theatre haranguing (and eventually ejecting) a couple who did not stand when the national anthem was played. Some people on Twitter appear to think that this is an issue of patriotism. Well, no it isn’t. It’s an issue of individual freedom and coercion.

In some jurisdictions in the country, it is compulsory to stand when the national anthem is played. This compulsion by the government is something I object to. People should be free to stand if they feel like; and to not stand if they don’t want to. Your patriotism should not be measured by your empty allegiance to a mere symbol; and in fact, it should be nobody’s business whether you are patriotic or not.

Also, when you watch the video linked to above, consider that the people being unpatriotic are not the ones who didn’t stand for the anthem, but the ones insisting that they should have. The idea of India that I subscribe to is one in which India being a free country means that all its citizens are free from the kind of coercion and goondagardi that we see in that video. The mob in that video pretending to be patriotic—they are traitors in my eyes. Whether they stood for the anthem or not.

In fact, it is a travesty that the theatre management did not intervene on behalf of the two ticket-paying patrons who were forced out of that hall. As for those hooligans, they should have been arrested for creating such a disturbance on someone else’s property.

*

By and by, I was a panelist on We The People, Barkha Dutt’s show, at the start of 2008 in which the topic for discussion was exactly this: national symbols, and whether there should be any holy cows. Towards the end of the show, Barkha asked each of her panelists for a response on whether India should have holy cows. My response, about 47:50 into the show:

The only kind of holy cow I believe in is one from which you get a divine steak.

My co-panelist Smriti Irani met me backstage after the show and told me that I’d better be careful about making such jokes about an animal that is the object of reverence for Hindus. I think she was educating me about the dangers of blaspheming publicly, and as such, her post as education minister in a BJP government seems quite apt.

Posted at 1:17 PM by Amit Varma in Freedom | India | Politics

Carlsen 1, Fischer 0

In an excellent feature on Magnus Carlsen in the Telegraph, Nigel Farndale writes:

He [Carlsen] has always been interested in the history of chess and has had the chance to play both Karpov and Kasparov, two legends of the game. But if he could play anyone in history who would it be? ‘I think the top ones would be Fischer and Capablanca, maybe Mikhail Tal, but I think I would beat Tal pretty easily. Fischer would be more difficult, but I think I could beat him too.’

Carlsen isn’t being arrogant, just honest. And here’s the thing: he’s unquestionably right. Chess is actually that one sport where the best player of the current generation is likely to be the best ever in objective terms. That is because the body of knowledge expands enormously with every generation, as do the tools of analysis (and therefore preparation). If Fischer at his 1972 peak met the Carlsen of today, he would be bound to lose. Indeed, I believe he would lose to some other top players as well, such as Caruana and Nakamura, simply because they’d be much better prepped. Of course, if Fischer was born in the same year as Carlsen, it could be a different story. But that’s a counterfactual, and all we have to go by is the games they actually played. So Carlsen is right.

I think when he doesn’t speak of Kasparov, he’s just being respectful. Kasparov coached him at one point, and bumps into Carlsen now and then as a grandee in the chess circuit, and Carslen would want to avoid awkwardness. But I have no doubt he believes he can beat Kasparov as well.

*

We will find out in March which of eight contenders takes on Carlsen for the World Championship later next year. Whoever it is, Carlsen will be favourite to win. But he does, according to me, have one weakness: his tendency, in poker terms, to go on tilt. Here’s an old piece I wrote about it, though Anand sadly could not capitalise.

*

And ah, Farndale also writes in his piece:

For someone who exhibits phenomenal powers of concentration at the chessboard – he is capable of calculating ‘lines’ that are 30 to 40 moves ahead – Magnus Carlsen is easily bored.

I hate to quibble, but Farndale is wrong here. No human can actually calculate 30 to 40 moves ahead accurately. In fact, as a famous study once demonstrated, experts actually calculate the same number of moves ahead as novices do—but they calculate the right ones. This is not a glib remark: grandmasters have a far wider understanding of recurring patterns on the chess board and motifs than lesser players do, and this knowledge is implicit, their responses to it instinctive. So a top GM would not even consider some lines a lesser IM might, and an IM would instantly see things on the board that would escape me completely. But we’d all see the same number of moves ahead!

Posted at 10:59 AM by Amit Varma in Sport

26 November, 2015

On Winning the Bastiat Prize for Journalism

I was fortunate a few days ago to win the Bastiat Prize for Journalism for the second time. The prize is given annually to a writer whose work serves to “explain, promote and defend the principles of the free society.” I had also won it in 2007, and became the first person to win it twice.

Here’s the speech I delivered on receiving the award:

These are the pieces I won the award for:

The Kim Kardashian Liberals
The Great Redistribution
An Economic Message From God

Posted at 11:53 AM by Amit Varma in Freedom | Media | Personal

The Asuras Have Taken Over

As today is apparently Constitution Day, here’s a thought from the great BR Ambedkar, who is considered the chief architect of our constitution:

We built a temple for a God to come in and reside, but before the God could be installed, if the devil had taken possession of it, what else could we do except destroy the temple? We do not intend that it should be occupied by the Asuras. We intended it to be occupied by the Devas. That is the reason why I said I would rather like to burn it.

These words were spoken in parliament in 1953, if I remember correctly.

I’m surprised that so many smart people I know express reverence for our constitution. Our constitution is deeply flawed: it does not protect freedom of speech or the right to property, and is a sprawling, unwieldy cut-paste job that has constantly been amended over the decades to suit the nefarious purposes of politicians. Ambedkar himself felt this way in 1953—things have only gotten worse since then.

Do watch this great lecture by Shruti Rajagopalan to get a sense of the journey our constitution has travelled.

Posted at 11:50 AM by Amit Varma in India | Politics

25 November, 2015

All Your Base

Munna Kumar Sharma, the national secretary of the Hindu Mahasabha, has said about Aamir Khan:

If not move to Pakistan, he should indulge in ‘ghar wapsi’ to free himself from the crimes of ‘love jihad’ that he has committed.

I love that sentence, for the way in which it combines three Hindutva tropes into one sentiment. There is genius there—or should I say, Hindu Mahagenius?

Posted at 12:46 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics

24 November, 2015

It Strikes Me That…

... an essay about a selfie is itself a selfie of sorts. I wonder here, what would be more narcissistic for the author: to be aware of this, or to be oblivious?

Posted at 5:13 PM by Amit Varma in Small thoughts

The Image of the Country

So how has the government reacted to Aamir Khan’s recent comments about the growing intolerance in India? Rediff reports:

The government on Tuesday termed as “misplaced” superstar Aamir Khan’s comments on growing intolerance, saying such statements only bring disrepute to the country as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“His comments on intolerance is completely misplaced. Comments like this only bring the image of country and the Prime Minister Modi down,” Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju told reporters on the sidelines of a function in New Delhi when asked to comment on Aamir Khan’s statement on Monday at an award function in the national capital.

The Modi government’s obsession with optics is now getting beyond parody. These guys are more concerned with image than substance. This is understandable during a campaign, but they won the damn election and are actually governing now. Why so insecure?

Meanwhile, bhakts on Twitter have made it quite clear that Aamir’s claims of intolerance won’t be tolerated. What fun.

Posted at 2:43 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics

Sex With The Doors Open

Surely by now you have read all about Anil Thakraney’s interview of Pahlaj Nihalani, the chief of the censor board:

Speaking of Spectre, surely Bond would kiss beautiful women he encounters, he isn’t going to say Namaste to them.

So why didn’t people object to the earlier Bond films? There was not a single kiss shown in Skyfall. That time no one thought of the sanskaari thing? We have passed the kiss! We only asked them to reduce the duration by 20 seconds.

I don’t get this logic. A kiss is a kiss. Ten seconds or one minute.

(Gets angry). This means you want to do sex in your house with your door open. And show to people the way you are doing sex.

Nihalani is a buffoon, but that is not the point. Nor is it the point whether the censor board has been more ‘liberal’ under the previous government or under this one. The point simply is that the censor board should not exist at all. The existence of the board is a violation of free speech. Period. Protesting against or making fun of Nihalani is besides the point. Even if the most cultured and intelligent and pro-free-speech people on the planet headed the censor board, they would be as deserving of my contempt as Nihalani is.

Forget the man; examine the principle.

*

And oh, by and by, wtf is ‘do sex’?

*

Update: In an otherwise excellent column, Mitali Saran writes: ‘It is time to have an adult at the head of the CBFC.’

No it isn’t. It’s time to do away with the CBFC. Individuals aren’t the problem; systems are.

Posted at 12:17 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | India | News | WTF

The Sleeping Man Festival

This is surely the headline of the day:

Rat climbs on sleeping man, takes selfie!

I have friends who would argue that is Narendra Modi and India.

Posted at 12:11 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics

23 November, 2015

What If I Hadn’t Phoned?

The Monday Poem:

MARRIAGE
by Lawrence Raab

Years later they find themselves talking
about chances, moments when their lives
might have swerved off
for the smallest reason.
What if
I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?
What if you’d been out,
as you were when I tried three times
the night before?
Then she tells him a secret.
She’d been there all evening, and she knew
he was the one calling, which was why
she hadn’t answered.
Because she felt-
because she was certain-her life would change
if she picked up the phone, said hello,
said, I was just thinking
of you.
I was afraid,
she tells him. And in the morning
I also knew it was you, but I just
answered the phone
the way anyone
answers a phone when it starts to ring,
not thinking you have a choice.

Posted at 9:44 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

18 November, 2015

Plop

The Times of India reports:

The Haryana government took Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swacch Bharat campaign to a new height on Tuesday by deciding to recruit only those people for select jobs who don’t defecate in the open.

Advertisements issued by the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) Kurukshetra in prominent dailies on Tuesday said for the post of block coordinators, preference will be given to candidates “not defecating in the open”.

I can totally imagine this scene:

A young man walks in to interview for the post. The first question he is asked: ‘Do you defecate in the open, young man?’

‘No sir,’ he says.

Then he climbs up on the desk, lowers his trouser and underpants, squats, and PLOP, out it comes. Then he climbs back down.

‘Young man,’ says the interviewer, ‘congratulations. The job is yours!’

Posted at 3:47 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | WTF

16 November, 2015

Six Cheerful Couplets on Death

The Monday Poem:

SIX CHEERFUL COUPLETS ON DEATH
by Michael Blumenthal

Most things won’t happen, Larkin said,
But this one will: We will be dead.

The saddest thing, in each context,
Is knowing that we could be next.

Some take the bus, some take the train,
Some die in sleep, the rest in pain

But of one thing we can be sure:
All die imperfect, each impure

Some wishing that they had been better,
Others worse, but no one deader.

Shoes left, like Buddhists, at the door:
Those won’t be needed anymore.

Posted at 9:09 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | The Monday Poem

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