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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

27 August, 2011

Arindam Chaudhuri (and 200 Million Murders)

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

An excerpt:

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

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

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

*  *  *  *

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

That would be an an excellent idea.

*  *  *  *

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

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

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

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

image

(Via Joy Bhattacharjya on Facebook.)

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

24 August, 2011

Wheelbarrow

I was quite moved by these two paragraphs:

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

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

Posted at 11:23 AM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

20 August, 2011

Anna’s Song

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

1. I’m anti-corruption.

2. I’m anti-Anna Hazare.

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

4. The law is frequently an ass.

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

6. Better the elected asses than the dictatorial unelected.

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

8. Yes, these views can be held simultaneously.

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

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

And some good pieces by others on the subject:

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

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

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

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

(Via Arun Simha.)

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

13 August, 2011

Lady Gaga vs Anna Hazare

Guess who wins.

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

Old Mullahs, New Mullahs

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

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

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

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

(Link via Nila.)

Posted at 6:35 AM by Amit Varma in Politics

04 August, 2011

Dead Rats and Incense Sticks

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

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

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

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

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

Potted Irregularities

The quote of the day comes from Sheila Dikshit:

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

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

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

28 July, 2011

Cows vs Jawans

The Times of India reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 July, 2011

Mr Kalmadi Needs To Pee

DNA reports:

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

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

22 July, 2011

Mutton Samosas and the Soul

CNN reports the WTF news story of the day:

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

(Link via Sanjeev Naik.)

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

Room Service

The Times of India reports:

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

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

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

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

What Summers Has To Say

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

Key quotes you may find interesting:

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

and

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

and

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

21 July, 2011

The Gandhiji Font

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

image

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

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

Posted at 9:56 AM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

Political Tweeters

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

Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann produce tweets, not laws.

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

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

20 July, 2011

Slash the Comma

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

*  *  *

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

*  *  *

We will not discuss Thurber and Ross here.

Posted at 9:19 AM by Amit Varma in

The Procrastination Problem

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

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

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

As for that haircut…

Posted at 8:17 AM by Amit Varma in Personal

30 June, 2011

The Prime Minister’s Speech

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

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

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

Good morning, gentlemen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good morning, gentlemen.


*  *  *  *

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

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

29 June, 2011

India’s Second Freedom Struggle

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

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

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

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

One: Limit the power of government

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

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

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

Three: Reform the Indian Penal Code

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

Four: Ensure Free Speech in India

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

Five: Respect Taxpayer’s Money

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

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

Six: Treat the Right to Property as Sacred

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

Seven: Reform Schooling

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

Eight: Reform Agriculture

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

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

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Also read: this similar wishlist from another time.

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

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

The Tiger, the Painter and the Celebrity Machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

27 May, 2011

To Hell With Family Values

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

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

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

For all this, I blame ‘family values’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Game of Skill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29 April, 2011

Keynes vs Hayek

This video is pure genius, one of the best things I’ve ever seen on YouTube:

You can read the lyrics here.

I’ve watched it in utter delight about five times now, and each time I notice wonderful new details. Like Say and Mises being in Hayek’s corner during the boxing match, and Malthus in Keynes’s. It’s a brilliant production, and Russ Roberts (of Cafe Hayek) and John Papola deserve much credit.

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Trivia: The security guard in that video is Mike Munger, the libertarian economist.

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The embedded video above is a sequel to this one, by the way. I prefer part 2, as it happens.


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And yes, regular readers of this blog would know whose side I’m on. Much of my worldview is shaped by Hayek, who is one of my intellectual heroes.

Posted at 6:23 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | Economics

Does Sturgeon’s Law Apply To Human Beings?

Sturgeon’s Law states that “ninety percent of everything is crud”. This is certainly true in many fields, and I myself have invoked it in the context of blogging, but today I’m wondering, is this true also of human beings? Are 90% of us stupid? Like, really stupid? Consider this news story by Reuters in Istanbul:

Turkish police donned white coats and stethoscopes to disguise themselves as doctors, then knocked on people’s doors to see how easily they would fall for a confidence scam.

The undercover police officers told residents of the southeastern city of Gaziantep they were screening for high blood pressure and handed out pills, according to Turkish media.

They were alarmed when residents at 86 out of 100 households visited on Tuesday swallowed the pills immediately.

Apparently this was the actual modus operandi of a gang that got people to pop sedatives and then robbed them. But this isn’t all.

Officers in Adana in southern Turkey last week called at houses, announcing through the intercom: “I am a burglar, please open the door.”

Police said they were stunned at the number of people who opened the door, the Radikal daily newspaper reported.

Brings a certain Godrej commercial to mind, doesn’t it? But to get back to the question of general intelligence levels, just take a look sometime at comments left in any random Rediff article or YouTube video, and a depressing picture emerges. It’s the reverse of the Lake Wobegon Effect: Everyone appears stupider than average—which is, of course, not possible.

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In case you need a bigger pen1s or a million dollars deposited in your account by a buddy of mine in Nigeria, please leave your email in the feedback section of my site. Thank you.

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

The Godman’s Blessing and the Sportsman’s Curse

This is the 33rd installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on April 28.

Exhibit A is an international sportsman at the very peak of his career. Exhibit B is a middle-class man who’s been dealt a series of cruel blows, and is beginning to feel that life is not worth living. The sportsman attracts multi-million-dollar endorsements and makes it to the cover of several magazines, including the one he most covets, Sports Illustrated. The middle-class man considers slashing his wrists, but has too many responsibilities to give up so easily. So he makes a journey to an acclaimed godman, whose blessings alone have been known to turn lives around. Sure enough, things take a turn for the better. Meanwhile, the sportsman’s career starts going downhill.

What do these two stories have in common? Plenty. They are, in a statistical sense, the same story. Let me explain.

The sportsman is a victim of The Sports Illustrated Jinx. This is an urban legend based on the observation that a disproportionate number of individuals and teams who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated subsequently experience a downswing in their careers. Appearing on the cover of that prestigious magazine, it would seem, jinxes you.

There is a simple explanation for the apparent jinx, though. Sportspeople’s careers go through peaks and troughs, with periods of immense success followed by periods of baffling failure. After each peak or trough, there is regression to the mean. They are most likely to be featured on the cover of SI when they are at their peak. A downswing after that is natural. (For someone like Michael Jordan, who was on the cover 49 times, the mean might itself be extraordinary enough for such a regression to make no apparent difference.) And when their performance dips to their normal levels, we mistake correlation for causation, and attribute it to their appearing on the SI cover. But it isn’t a jinx at all.

The godman’s blessing is a similar phenomenon, viewed from the other side. People tend to turn to God and godmen when they are at their lowest ebb. Let’s say the godman blesses them, or gives them vibhuti, or suchlike. Then their lives regress to the mean, their run of bad luck ends, and whoa, they’re devotees for life. Indeed, since they were inclined to be believers to begin with, they are likely to attribute any swing in fortunes to God or the godman, and ignore further downswings as part of their general bad luck. (This is the confirmation bias kicking in.) Or even, if they’re really thick, to karma.

Thus, the belief of many people in godmen and new age gurus is based on false foundations. If they understood the role of luck in our lives, and the randomness of the universe, they would be less inclined to look to divine forces (or charlatans claiming divinity) for answers to their problems. A godman’s blessing should never be more than a source of amusement to you—and if he gives you sacred ash, remember to wash your hands before your next meal.

*  *  *  *

That said, I am not mocking belief. The fundamental truth about human beings is that of our mortality. One day we will die, and that’s it. This is a difficult truth to come to terms with, for it carries at its heart

a message about our utter insignificance, and natural selection has programmed us to regard ourselves fairly highly. (For obvious reasons—otherwise why would we enthusiastically procreate instead of generally moping around?)

For this reason, we tend to seek comfort over truth. Religion and superstition and spirituality give us comfort. Given how harsh life can be, I’m not going to stand around passing judgment over religious people. I understand why they believe—even if what they believe in is mostly utterly ludicrous.

*  *  *  *

And yes, I’m somewhat baffled by the the number of devout followers the late Sathya Sai Baba seemed to have had. It’s one thing to believe in God, and quite another to believe in a man who called himself divine, and would prove this not with miracles of any value, but through cheap conjurer’s tricks that any average stage magician could have pulled off. (There are many YouTube videos about them; check out this one.) There have also been hazaar unsavoury controversies around the man; read Vir Sanghvi’s take on him, as well as

Vishal Arora’s superb feature for Caravan. And yet, presidents and prime ministers have gone to take his blessings, and top sportsmen broke down at his funeral. All this, I suspect, illustrated their frailty more than his divinity. But we are all frail, and deal with it in different ways, so who am I to judge?

*  *  *  *

Also read: An old personal essay by me,

“What’s Consolation For an Atheist?”

Posted at 4:37 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Astrology etc | Sport | Viewfinder

25 April, 2011

Media Time and Real Time

In an excellent short essay, my friend and fellow Yahoo! columnist Girish Shahane writes:

The crises of 2011 have underlined how media time stretches real time. The duration of an event in the public mind is a function of the total length of all broadcasts about that event. The relentless focus of cameras and commentators can make rapidly evolving circumstances appear to move at a glacial pace. Consider this: it took nearly half a year after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, for the first bombs to rain down on Iraqi troops. Kuwait was overrun on August 2, 1990, and the American-led response, Operation Desert Storm, commenced only on January 17, 1991. Few people accused President George Bush of reacting too slowly, but then the twenty-four hour news cycle was in its infancy, and real time matched media time fairly closely.

When the US itself was targetted on September 11, 2001, its response was, naturally, quicker. The assault on the Taliban regime commenced 27 days after the World Trade Centres were destroyed. The reaction to the current Libyan crisis unfolded at much the same pace. The first major protests in Tripoli took place in mid-February, and Operation Freedom Falcon began on 19 March. In that time, both the Arab League and the United Nations, organisations not celebrated for decisiveness or alacrity, passed resolutions authorising military intervention. I cannot think of any purely internal disturbance or civil strife that has elicited a concerted international armed response in a comparable span of time. Yet, President Obama was censured for ‘dithering’ and ‘dilly-dallying’ by critics on the Left, Right and Centre (Sarah Palin, John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, Eliot Spitzer and Christopher Hitchens among them). By the end of March, pundits were mourning the failure of air strikes to dislodge Colonel Gaddafi, and either urging stronger action or questioning the entire operation. In real time, they came across like petulant children in the backseat of a car asking, five minutes after leaving home, “Are we there yet?”

Read the full thing. I also loved this sentence:

It might seem the Indian government acted quickly to defuse the Anna Hazare threat, but that was only because the solution involved appointing a committee.

You can check out other recent Yahoo! columns here. One that evoked much controversy recently was Aadisht Khanna’s masterful “The Homeopathic Basis of Astrology.” Much joy.

Posted at 7:06 PM by Amit Varma in Journalism | Media

The Rorschach Effect in Indian Politics

This is the 32nd installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India. It was published on April 21.

Consider this man: He runs a village in rural Maharashtra as if it is his personal fiefdom, like an authoritarian feudal lord. He is a fan of Shivaji, and admires him for once chopping off the hands of a man who committed a crime. In that vein, he passes an order that anyone found drinking alcohol will be tied to a pole in front of the village temple and publicly flogged. Several men undergo this, one of whom, a vice sarpanch of the village, says: “I was drinking. I was ... tied to the pole and flogged two-three times. It is normal. [He] will try to make you understand once or twice and thereafter, he will beat you badly.” He believes in “rigid implementation” of family planning, including forced vasectomies. Male labourers in his village are paid Rs 50 a day, while female labourers get just Rs 30. He supports Narendra Modi, and is politically active, routinely resorting to a form of blackmail known as threatening to fast unto death until his demands are met. He believes that corrupt people should be hanged—literally hanged to death. He is Anna Hazare.

In the last month or so, the 71-year-old Hazare has become a middle-class hero and a “youth icon” in India. This is baffling, given the biographical details in the above paragraph. (I got them from Hartosh Singh Bal’s article for Open magazine and Mukul Sharma’s piece in Kafila.) Hazare is popularly described as Gandhian, but, as Bal points out, if the forced vasectomies are anything to go by, he brings Sanjay Gandhi to mind more than Mahatma Gandhi. Sure, he is fighting against corruption, but both his method (of blackmail via the hunger fast) and his remedy (creating an alternative center of power and discretion instead of tackling the root causes of corruption) are dubious. Then why has middle-class India turned him into such a hero?

I believe it is because we are lazy. It is true that we are disgusted by corruption. We are sick of reading about the telecom scandal, the Radia tapes, the Commonwealth games. More than that, corruption has become a virus that plagues our everyday lives, and we’re appalled by it. But we’re too damn lazy to go out and vote and actually participate in our democracy. We’re apathetic, and believe, perhaps correctly, that our feeble middle-class vote won’t make a difference. And yet, we want to express our disgust at the way things are, take the moral high ground, and feel like we really are doing something, because hey, that helps our self esteem. Then along comes this venerable activist who wears khadi, lives a spartan life, speaks out against corruption in high places, and goes on a hunger strike to influence the implentation of a bill that aims to tackle corruption. Naturally, we make him the repository of our hopes and our values, speak out in his defence at parties and cafes while hanging out with friends, and even light candles in his support. And there, our job as citizens is done.

The intellectual laziness here is obvious. We make him our hero though we know little else about him, and when his weird history comes to light, we rationalise it away. We ignore the fact that the Lokpal Bill, which he is fighting for, does nothing to tackle the root causes of corruption, and might actually be a step in the wrong direction. We treat attacks on our new hero—if the behaviour of some of his defenders on TV is anything to go by—as personal attacks on us. We start dealing in absolutes, as if anyone against Hazare must, by default, be a supporter of corruption and the status quo.

The Anna Hazare phenomenon is what one could term the Rorschach Effect in Politics. A couple of years ago, Barack Obama wisely pointed out, “I am like a Rorschach test.” During his presidential campaign, his supporters saw in him whatever they wanted to: an anti-Bush, a liberal messiah, a pragmatic and non-partisan moderate, and suchlike, some of it without any evidence, some of it contradictory. (Similarly, his opponents projected their fears or fantasies onto him.) Needless to say, when he did come to power, he disappointed many who had voted for him, because hey, he couldn’t possibly live up to being everything to everybody. (For example, lefty pacifists were disappointed that he stepped up the war in Afghanistan, even though that’s exactly what he said he’d do while campaigning.) He was a blank slate no more.

Hazare is a similar beneficiary of the Rorschach Effect. Although he has been an activist for decades, he’s exploded into the national consciousness in just the last few weeks. And a politically powerless middle class has projected its hopes, its self-righteousness and its sense of moral superiority onto him. But Hazare is no Mahatma Gandhi, and I think disillusionment, both with the man and the Lokpal Bill, is bound to set in sooner or later. Unless indifference and apathy precede it.

*  *  *  *

Another of Rorschach’s children is Rahul Gandhi. He’s been hailed as a youth icon and the face of new India, and Page 3 celebs routinely describe him as one of their favourite politicians. But apart from the fact that he’s good looking and belongs to the Nehru-Gandhi family, we know very little about him. What are the values that he stands for? What are his views on economic freedom and the license raj? What are his views on freedom of speech? (If he supports it, is he then in favour of repealing the ban on Satanic Verses?) What does he feel about reservations? (He has spoken out against the caste system, and reservations do, after all, perpetuate discrimination on the basis of caste.) He has spoken out for inner-party democracy, which India needs so badly, but is he doing anything to drive the Congress towards a system where party leaders are elected from below, not anointed from above? Does he hope to be prime minister one day? If so, why? What kind of a person is he, really?

Gandhi is as blank a slate as you can get, in the sense that he won’t address any of these issues, and most of the public pronouncements we hear from him are platitudes that express good intention, which is meaningless. If that is a deliberate political strategy, it is masterful. Whether it will work, in this age of identity politics when votebanks are fragmented and all politics is local, is uncertain. But I guarantee you one thing: he’ll have middle-class support.

*  *  *  *

My column today is meant to address the nature of middle-class support for Anna Hazare, not the folly of it,  but if you’re interested in checking out some of the arguments against it, do read these pieces by me, Mohit Satyanand, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Salil Tripathi. A common response to these has been: At least Hazare is doing something; what solution do you offer?

My response to that is that firstly, as the pieces above argue, the solution he is offering could actually make the problem worse, and are a step in the wrong direction. That is reason enough to oppose it without needing to propose an alternative. Secondly, the alternative is obvious: if we are to tackle the root cause of corruption, then we should campaign against excess government power and discretion, starting with any particular domain that grabs our fancy. That said, I don’t think I’ll see Anna Hazare go on hunger strike anytime soon protesting against the license-and-permit raj or all the redundant rent-seeking ministries in government. And while I will continue writing about these issues, as I have for years in the only form of protest most writers are capable of, I will not be going on a hunger strike anytime soon. Why risk acidity?

Posted at 6:17 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | News | Politics | Viewfinder

22 April, 2011

‘Attempts to Save the Baba’

Here’s a Sai Baba update, from the state revenue minister of Andhra Pradesh:

The condition of the Baba has deteriorated. Most of his organs have suffered severe damage and stopped functioning. Doctors attending on him are making attempts to save the Baba. Let us pray.

Er, to whom?

Posted at 6:32 PM by Amit Varma in India | News | WTF

Try, Try Again

The Insight of the Day comes from Farah Khan, who reveals that:

The key to becoming pregnant is to be determined.

I think many men would agree with me that in this context, the journey might just be more fun than the destination.

Posted at 6:26 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | News | WTF

21 April, 2011

The Times of Hindu

Check out this letter to the employees of the Hindu from their editor, N Ravi. Most of the letter is a whine about how N Ram is trying to sack him—internal politics of little interest to outsiders. But this bit is astonishing:

In the recent period, editorial integrity has been severely compromised and news coverage linked directly to advertising in a way that is little different from paid news.  A meaningless distinction has been sought to be made between walls and lines, and the walls between editorial and advertising are sought to be replaced by “lines” between them. Very recently, those of us who were not privy to the deal making learnt to our shock that a major interview with A. Raja in defence of the telecom licensing policy published on May 22, 2010—that was referred to by the Prime Minister in his press conference—involved a direct quid pro quo in the form of a full page, colour advertisement from the Telecom Ministry that was specially and hurriedly cleared by the Minister personally for publication on the same day in The Hindu. The contrast between such a deed and pious editorial declarations including the campaign against paid news cannot be starker.

Indeed, much as we criticize the Slimes of India for selling editorial content, at least they’re upfront about it. The Hindu, as much of the left tends to be, is self-righteous and holier-than-thou in the abstract, but unprincipled and unscrupulous in the concrete. Also, when it comes to the language they use, ToI is sloppy, sometimes comically so, but the Hindu is often turgid and pretentious, as Ravi’s letter demonstrates. There is this popular belief, practically a meme, that the ToI is shit and the Hindu is a paper of high standards. I think both newspapers are a disgrace to journalism—and when it comes to editorial integrity, neither can take the moral high ground.

Just imagine, if Ravi wasn’t such a whiner, we’d probably never know about this Raja quid pro quo.

Posted at 12:04 PM by Amit Varma in India | Journalism | Media | News

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