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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

25 April, 2011

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

18 April, 2011

Cellphones, Brain Damage and Furious Copulation

Do cellphones cause brain damage? The evidence is far from conclusive, but Alex Tabarrok writes:

[T]he fact of the matter is that cell phones do cause brain damage. Cell phones cause brain (and body) damage when people use them while driving. Cell phones distract, whether we measure in the lab or on the road, and they distract enough to make cell phone use not all that different from driving under the influence of alcohol (at the illegal level). In marked contrast to the studies on cell phones and brain cancer the studies on cell phones and driving are broadly consistent and suggestive of a small but significant increase in death (your own and that of others). [Links in the original.]

Men are worse at multi-tasking than women, for evolutionary reasons, but it’s certainly true that anyone who speaks on the phone while driving is doing something profoundly stupid. But leave that aside, here’s a thought I have: if speaking on the phone impairs a driver’s facilities in the same way that alcohol does, then would it also be the case that it has the same effect on other activities? Is multi-tasking, thus, as potentially hazardous in the short term as alcohol?

To take just one random activity as an example, would a man having sex while talking on the phone perform as poorly as a very drunk man? This is certainly an experiment worth carrying out, and I encourage you to go for it. In the interests of science.

Posted at 9:35 AM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous | Science and Technology | Small thoughts

16 April, 2011

This Terrible Process

In a lovely little profile of James Taylor in the New Yorker, he is quoted as saying, about his wife Kim:

If I went online and tried to find the perfect mate—and I think that that is probably an excellent use of the internet—I couldn’t have done it better. That’s such a smart way to do it, by the way. I think that a couples therapist and a computer geek should form a company and shepherd people through it. For so long, there’s been this terrible process where we find a mate through our worst instincts and our reiteration of all our family mistakes. We always become one parent and marry the other one.

That sounds like a fabulous little insight to me, though I think that it is also true that some people do it the other way around, and find a mate who is nothing like their parents, so that they don’t end up like one of them. Who can say who is making the greater mistake?

*  *  *  *

I am reminded of Philip Larkin’s great poem, “This be the Verse”, and even though it has appeared on this blog before, I shall reproduce it again:

This be the Verse—Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Posted at 4:14 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | Small thoughts

Where Anna Hazare Gets It Wrong

This is the 31st installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, which resumes this week. It was published on April 14.

Today’s column begins with a fashion update: A ribbed, silk green gown from Vivienne Westwood’s spring/summer 2010 collection has been selected as Fashion Museum’s Dress of the Year. Androgyny has become the latest trend on the catwalks. In India, The Times of India, who should know, informs us that “yellows are in.” And oh, have you heard about Anna Hazare? He’s quite the flavour of the month.

Yes, that’s right, I’m an Anna Hazare cynic. I understand that like Yuvraj Singh, he’s in the zone right now. I get it that he stands for the battle against corruption, one of India’s gravest problems. But I’m amused that most people supporting him haven’t read and understood the draft of the Jan Lokpal Bill, which Hazare has been fighting for. I’m appalled that they don’t understand that this bill does nothing to fight the root causes of corruption, and may instead add to the problem. And yes, I’d be astounded if they care about this bill or the man two weeks from now, when the fashion would have changed, yellows would be out, and purples would be, like, so in.

That corruption is one of the biggest problems India faces is a banal truism. But where we go wrong in thinking about it is that we treat it like a disease, when it is really a symptom. Corruption arises from power. When people have power over our lives, they will misuse it: that is inherent in human nature. When 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”, there is a recipe for corruption right there. When every government servant you encounter while doing some routine work, from a driver to a peon, can delay you or derail you, corruption is inevitable.

Corruption is inevitable in India because the government has too much power. If a hotelier did not need 165 licenses—and there is no reason why he should need any—that would be 165 bribes less to pay. (I’m assuming one bribe per license, which is honestly quite optimistic.) If our mai-baap sarkars did not have control over so many elements of our lives, there would be less scope for chai-paani. In practically every area of our lives, there is government interference or oversight, either overt or covert. And, to repeat that old cliche one more time because it is both pithy and true, power corrupts. That’s just human nature.

So what is the solution to corruption then? Since the problem lies with power, you need to tackle that first. You need to, first of all, question the many ways in which the government controls our lives. Completely dismantling the license-and-inspector raj is one way to do. Scrapping every ministry that has no reason to exist, at both the central and state level, would be another. (We’d be left with just three or four of them.) Governments should exist to implement law and order, to protect our rights, and to provide basic services—nothing else. The more we move towards this ideal, the closer we come to rooting out corruption.

Obviously these specific goals are high-hanging fruit. Those in power will never willingly give up any piece of it. But an equal part of the problem is our default attitude that our government exists to rule us and not serve us. This must change. Equally, we seem to believe that the solution to bad government is more government. This is exactly the opposite of the truth, and broadly the mistake that Anna Hazare is making.

The Lokpal Bill does not tackle any of the root causes of corruption. Instead, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta puts it in his wonderful critique, the bill amounts to “an unparalleled concentration of power in one institution that will literally be able to summon any institution and command any kind of police, judicial and investigative power.” In other words, in a situation where the problem is power, we create an entity that has even more power and, what is more, has appointed officials instead of elected ones. As Shuddhabrata Sengupta writes, this is not “the deepening, but ... the profound erosion of democracy.”

I’m not as skeptical of Hazare as my friend Manu Joseph is—I think Gaurav Sabnis’s view is more balanced. I’m sure the man is well-intentioned, and has achieved much in the past. But he is fighting for the wrong thing here. You do not cure a diabetic man by feeding him sweets; equally, you cannot root our corruption by creating more centres of power.

I must admit, though, that Vivienne Westwood makes some funky dresses.

*  *  *  *

I’m always amused to see how a worthy cause acts like Red Bull to our chatteratti. From the meaningless, feel-good candlelight vigils after 26/11, to countless self-righteous online petitions about this and that, to support for Anna Hazare, the new middle-class icon. (Who woulda thunk?) Why, I even heard about a movement on Twitter that was trying to get everyone to fast for one day in solidarity with Hazare. One day! How far we have come: from “fast unto death” to “fast until midnight.” This is progress, India.

*  *  *  *

Speaking of androgyny being in fashion, it strikes me that most foreigners, when they hear his name, must think Anna Hazare is a woman. I would so love to see a desi Lady Gaga clone on MTV soon, calling herself Anna Hazare. She’d have to be really thin, of course, because not only is that fashionable, she’s been fasting. I have the title of her first single already “Would you like to be my lokpal, baybeh?” I can see her in my mind’s eye, and lemme tell you, it’s corrupting me.

Posted at 3:52 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics | Viewfinder

06 April, 2011

It’s Kind of Tragic…

... when life sucks, but you can’t afford to die:

As families across China begin today’s annual “Qing Ming”, or Tomb-sweeping, festival, there has been a growing chorus of complaint about the price of cemetery plots, some of which now exceed cost of luxury apartments in square foot terms.

[...]

“I cannot afford to buy a house while I’m alive and now cannot afford to buy a grave for when I’m dead,” commented one user on the portal dayoo.com hosting a discussion of the subject, while another added bitterly, “So now we cannot sleep peacefully even after we die?”

Yes, I know, we do it best here in India: it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

(Link via Marginal Revolution.)

Posted at 11:28 PM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous | News

Planning For 2015

Kumar Sangakkara, in a statement released to announce his stepping down from the Sri Lankan captaincy, has said:

I would like to announce that after careful consideration I have concluded that it is in the best long-term interests of the team that I step down now as national captain so that a new leader can be properly groomed for the 2015 World Cup in Australia. [...] I will be 37 by the next World Cup and I cannot therefore be sure of my place in the team. It is better that Sri Lanka is led now by a player who will be at the peak of their career during that tournament.

The thought seems noble, but I’m struck by two things here:

1] The implication that the World Cup is the biggest thing there is in cricket, the only aim of any cricketing nation, and takes precedence over all other cricketing goals.

2] The notion that it takes four full years to groom a captain. If Sangakkara was to give up the captaincy in, say, 2013, wouldn’t two years be enough? Why not? What’s the optimum time a new captain would need to build his team or himself become comfortable in the job?

I can understand that the poor chap must be fatigued: the captaincy of any international cricket side must be immensely draining. That would surely be a good enough reason to state for quitting—though this certainly seems more statesmanlike.

Posted at 11:05 PM by Amit Varma in Sport

Naked Oats and Gujju Cows

Reuters reports:

New diets for cows and sheep could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, research funded by the Department for environment, food and rural affairs (Defra) shows.

Feeding the animals maize silage, naked oats and higher sugar grasses could reduce the amount of methane they produce, the study by Reading University and the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences showed.

Agriculture accounts for around nine per cent of all British greenhouse gas emissions. Most of this comes from sheep, cows and goats.

I can just about imagine a cow reading this and going, “Naked oats? Mmmm!” and setting off a pleased fart. Also, I would guess that Gujju cows have historically emitted less methane, since they’ve always like sugar in their grass. I wonder if news channel reporters could also be force-fed naked oats and sugar grass.

Yeah, I know this isn’t an astonishingly substantive post, but India Uncut has resumed, so how can I not do a cow post? ;)

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

*

Aside: What a badly written news article. Just see the first two paras. Jeez…

Posted at 7:44 PM by Amit Varma in Old memes | Cows

Monkeys Using Calculators

My buddy Deepak Shenoy has a Yahoo! column up today that expresses a complaint I’ve had about many Indian sports journalists for a while now: they are innumerate, and draw conclusions on the basis of inadequate data. The example Deepak provides is the following fact, trumped “on Twitter, TV and ... the internet when Mahela Jayawardene scored his hundred” in the World Cup final, as if it had great statistical or predictive significance:

“No century-scorer has ever been on the losing side of a World Cup final.”

As Deepak points out, there have been only five World Cup finals before this in which a batsman scored a century. Just five. There is no way that is a sample size large enough to draw a meaningful conclusion from.

Cricket journalism is littered with such conclusions, though, using stats with unjustifiable authority. Consider the following widespread belief among cricket lovers:

South Africa are chokers.

I heard this a lot after they crashed out of this World Cup, but what’s the basis for this, really? Cricinfo’s Statsguru reveals that out of 27 ODI tournament finals, they have won 16. On the bigger stage, though, at the World Cup, they have lost at the knock-out stage five times.

Now, much as 0 out of 5 seems revealing, that’s still way too small a sample size to draw conclusions—especially when those five times stretch across generations. When we say South Africa are chokers, are we talking about Kepler Wessels’s squad in 1992, Hansie Cronje’s side in 1999, or Graeme Smith’s boys this year? Is there a new science of Sports Genetics that explains how such qualities can be passed on across generations?

Through the World Cup, reporters fed old narratives or built new ones on the basis of such nonsense data. For example, MS Dhoni got savaged for promoting Yusuf Pathan up the batting order, where it seems he was a proven failure—on the basis of 11 ODIs (out of a total of 51), in which he batted between 3 and 5. More importantly, Pathan batted at 3 or 4 in just two games in this World Cup, and failed in both—but two is not a remotely meaningful number.

In such cases, I’d always defer to the captain and team management’s judgement, who are closer to the action and the players, rather than the ranting of reporters who couldn’t tell the difference between an arm-ball and a doosra, but feel the need to criticize from their perch on high, using numbers with all the finesse of monkeys using calculators.

*

The judgments the media arrives at, you will note, are passed in hindsight, after the outcome is known. MS Dhoni got applause for leading us to the T20 World Cup, but would have been slammed for his decision to bring on Joginder Sharma for that last over in the final had Misbah-ul-Haq played one shot slightly differently. All our experts criticized him for picking Ashish Nehra over R Ashwin in the recent semi-final, and praised him afterwards for his prescience. Had Dhoni gotten a bad decision or an unplayable ball in the final, and India had lost, he would have been chastised for promoting himself up the order—but we won, so hey, it’s a masterstroke.

One of the lessons I’ve learnt as a poker player—and it applies generally to life as well—is that the quality of your decisions should not be judged by their outcomes. In the short term, too many variables determine the outcome of any action, beyond just the action itself. The quality of a player’s captaincy, for example, can only be judged over a long period of time—and even then, the other variables at play make that very difficult. For example, the question of whether Dhoni or Saurav Ganguly were greater captains than Tiger Pataudi or Sunil Gavaskar are difficult ones precisely because the latter two led lousy teams in difficult times, and they couldn’t possibly have gotten the results Dhoni and Ganguly (and also Dravid, for that matter) did. So our evaluation of their captaincy cannot be based on results alone, and there is a subjective element to it.

In my subjective opinion, Dhoni is the best captain we’ve ever had—but my basis for this opinion is not just his results, but the manner in which he goes about his job. He had the cojones to promote himself up the order in the final and take the responsibility upon himself in that ultra-high-pressure situation. Even if he’d been out for a duck, and India had lost, he’d still have my eternal respect for that.

Posted at 7:10 PM by Amit Varma in India | Journalism | Media | Sport

05 April, 2011

Euphemism of the Day

“Private therapeutic performance with a psychologist’s presence.”

If Poonam Pandey does manage to ‘perform’ for the Indian World Cup squad, imagine how pissed Praveen Kumar and Rohit Sharma will be.

Posted at 6:58 PM by Amit Varma in News | Sport | WTF

Protecting the Daughters of Goa

The WTF statement of the day comes from Philip D’Souza of the Shiv Sena:

We’re going to protect the daughters of Goa, irrespective of caste, creed, colour and political affiliation.

That last bit is just magnificent. And what exactly is this gentleman from the Shiv Sena trying to protect the daughters of Goa from? Bipasha Basu. Insane.

*

Q. If D’Souza was in West Bengal, who would he be protecting?

Ans. The daughters of Guha.

Posted at 6:18 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | India | News | WTF

A Return From Slumber

Two bits of good news for long-suffering India Uncut readers:

1] Yahoo! Opinions, the section of columns at Yahoo! edited by me, has resumed operation.

2] India Uncut is also now going to wake up from slumber and become regular again. I know I’ve promised this before and gone right back to sleep, so this time it’s not too credible, but hell, give me a chance. For around four of the six-plus years this blog has been in existence, I wrote an average of five posts a day, so I certainly am capable of getting that momentum going.

But how can I write more posts if I don’t finish this one?

Posted at 2:21 PM by Amit Varma in Personal

13 January, 2011

Miyamoto’s Fish

Nick Paumgarten’s fantastic profile of Shigeru Miyamoto in The New Yorker has this wonderful quote by Miyamoto about his childhood:

I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish. That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation. I wish that children nowadays could have similar experiences, but it’s not very easy.

I think Miyamoto’s lament holds true not just for kids but for all of us. We are desensitized and apathetic, and there is no sense of wonder in our lives anymore. How does one recapture it? I don’t think going back to nature and escaping from the urban grind is an answer in itself. Those of us who do that do it as an anaesthetic or a balm. There has to be something more.

When was the last time you noticed a fish?

Posted at 2:43 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | Personal | Science and Technology | Small thoughts

12 January, 2011

Why I’m Shifting to Coke

Because of Pepsi’s new campaign, as seen below. Like, ewwww!

image

Update: Here’s more from the campaign. FSM help us!

Posted at 3:26 PM by Amit Varma in Media | WTF

‘Did You Call My Boss?’

A Wired story by Rich Schapiro begins thus:

At 2:28 pm on August 28, 2003, a middle-aged pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania. He had a short cane in his right hand and a strange bulge under the collar of his T-shirt. Wells, 46 and balding, passed the teller a note. “Gather employees with access codes to vault and work fast to fill bag with $250,000,” it said. “You have only 15 minutes.” Then he lifted his shirt to reveal a heavy, boxlike device dangling from his neck. According to the note, it was a bomb. The teller, who told Wells there was no way to get into the vault at that time, filled a bag with cash—$8,702—and handed it over. Wells walked out, sucking on a Dum Dum lollipop he grabbed from the counter, hopped into his car, and drove off. He didn’t get far. Some 15 minutes later, state troopers spotted Wells standing outside his Geo Metro in a nearby parking lot, surrounded him, and tossed him to the pavement, cuffing his hands behind his back.

Wells told the troopers that while out on a delivery he had been accosted by a group of black men who chained the bomb around his neck at gunpoint and forced him to rob the bank. “It’s gonna go off!” he told them in desperation. “I’m not lying.” The officers called the bomb squad and took positions behind their cars, guns drawn. TV camera crews arrived and began filming. For 25 minutes Wells remained seated on the pavement, his legs curled beneath him.

“Did you call my boss?” Wells asked a trooper at one point, apparently concerned that his employer would think he was shirking his duties. Suddenly, the device started to emit an accelerating beeping noise. Wells fidgeted. It looked like he was trying to scoot backward, to somehow escape the bomb strapped to his neck. Beep… Beep… Beep. Boom! The device detonated, blasting him violently onto his back and ripping a 5-inch gash in his chest. The pizza deliveryman took a few last gasps and died on the pavement.

This is just the beginning of a complex case where all the details haven’t yet been resolved. But what a story it is. Just the start, these first three paras, can be the basis for a gripping film or novel: a metaphysical thriller where the collar bomb could stand for much more than just a collar bomb. I wonder what some of Bollywood’s new directors would make of it.

Of course, in the film our pizza deliveryman wouldn’t die so soon, but would struggle against time and circumstance, as we all do. And that’s the story.

Posted at 2:33 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | Miscellaneous

Aishwarya, Freida and Realising the Self

The Times of India investigates if “Aishwarya Rai (Jodhaa Akbar) has been replaced by younger Bollywood star Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) as the face of cosmetics firm L’Oréal”, and ends its report with these two priceless paragraphs:

Distinguished Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, suggested that instead of obsession with minor issues like “pitched battles of Aishwarya and Freida”, media should focus more on highlighting major issues facing humanity, world and India today.

Rajan Zed, who is President of Universal Society of Hinduism, stressed that instead of running after these mundane things, we should focus on realizing the Self. As ancient Hindu scripture Katha Upanishad points out that when wise realize the Self, they go beyond sorrow…When one realizes Self, there is nothing else to be known.

Stunning WTFness—and in case you need some background on this publicity hound and self-styled “distinguished Hindu statesman”, my friend Prem Panicker’s classic post from 2009 has more.

*  *  *

I’m racking my brains about what “realising the self” could mean, and I can’t think beyond masturbation. In my nihilistic worldview, there can be nothing more divine than a self-inflicted distinguished Hindu orgasm. The rest is illusion. No?

*  *  *

Meanwhile, bothered by thoughts of neither Aishwarya nor Freida, the irrepressible MF Husain has expressed his love for Anushka Sharma. Besides being gorgeous, she also acted really well in Band Baajaa Baaraat, so I’m going to cheer him on in his efforts to “paint her in myriad hues.” I wonder what Mr Zed would have to say about that.

The Zed link via email from Arjun Swarup.

Posted at 1:20 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | India | News | WTF

Isildur1’s First Two Million

The quote of the week comes from the man revealed to be the mysterious Isildur1, Viktor Blom, describing how he got into online poker:

I deposited $2,000 and within three weeks I had two million.

Ah, well, that’s the dream there, neatly encapsulated, isn’t it? It’s quite believable, actually, though there is no way Blom could have turned 2k into 2 million in that time if he practised disciplined bankroll management, so it’s quite clear that he played above the limits he should have, and got struck by the lucky side of variance. He’s experienced swings both ways since, but if the variance had worked against him at the start, who’s to say if Isildur1 would even exist?

That said, he’s obviously bloody good. And he’s just 20. Scary…

*  *  *

In other poker news, here’s a charming post by one of my favourite players, Daniel Negreanu, on how he missed most of his 2010 poker goals.

His first goal for 2011 was get back on the all-time money-leader list, and he’s already achieved that with his second-place finish in the PCA Super High Roller tourney. Studness.

Posted at 12:40 PM by Amit Varma in

The Indian Literary Bigg Boss

If Hartosh Singh Bal did not exist, one would have to invent him. A few months, he stirred up much righteous outrage across Indian literary circles with his attack on “navel-gazing contemporary Indian fiction”—see the comments there, much fun. On that occasion, I thought he had a point, but expressed it poorly, with all the wrong examples, and commenters duly took him apart.

Well, now he’s back with an attack on the Jaipur Literary Festival that seems to be attacking the establishment only because it seems a cool thing to do, and makes a whole bunch of silly arguments, such as a bizarrely personality-based one about William Dalrymple—I’d be surprised if he even convinced himself with that piece. The action has begun in the comments there—my friends Nilanjana, Devangshu and Sonia have already weighed in—and there will surely be much more in the days to come. Watch that space.

But why do I welcome Hartosh’s pieces when I don’t entirely agree with them? It’s because, like a true Bigg Boss watcher, I like the drama and the fighting that ensues. I also enjoy the terrible self-importance running through some of the comments, and that oh-so-serious tone as if the issue being discussed affects all our lives, and is hugely important, like global warming or Islamist terrorism or the ethics of wearing hoodies and sunglasses during poker tournaments. It’s not! No one gives a shit! It’s just books! Chill out, people!

So much fun.

*  *  *

On the subject of book festivals, I’ve attended just a couple (Jaipur and Galle, though I wasn’t an invitee at the former), and had a whale of a time at both. For any reader, it’s an amazing experience to be able to spend three or four days listening to writers talking about their craft, and mingling with fellow enthusiasts. And the Jaipur fest, far from showcasing only foreign writers, as Bal implies, actually presents a terrific platform to Indian writers as well, including vernacular ones. At the very least, even if you’re skeptical about them, they do some good and no harm at all. So where’s the problem?

*  *  *

I won’t be going to Jaipur this year, though. My pilgrimages are poker tournaments, and there are three this weekend in Goa. My writing has suffered terribly because of this new addiction, but I’ll find a balance soon. Just as soon as I finish playing this hand.

What did you say, raise? Are you kidding me? That’s so rude. Ok, then, I’m all in.

*  *  *

I mentioned Bigg Boss earlier in the post, and the thought now strikes me: Is Hartosh Singh Bal the Dolly Bindra of Indian literature? Now it all makes sense…

Posted at 12:04 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment

Munro and Co.

Huffington Post has a good feature up in which a few major contemporary writers are asked to name “the most important contemporary fiction writer” according to them. There are some interesting choices there, and I’m not surprised that the only one picked twice is Alice Munro. As I’ve blogged before, she’s my favourite living writer by a long way, even though reading anything by her makes me feel my own inadequacies as a writer so much more acutely. As Joni Mitchell once said, “Whereas Carver makes me think I can write short stories, Munro makes me think I can’t.”

Anyway, go check out the whole list: hopefully you’ll add a few items to your must-read list, as I did. Time to go buy me some Stanley Elkin…

(Link via Nilanjana Roy.)

Posted at 11:40 AM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment

The TED 2011 Speakers…

... have been announced. It’s a solid line-up, and I’ll be looking forward to the talks by Antonio Damasio, David Brooks, Anthony Atala, Ed Boyden and especially Roger Ebert, who has reinvented himself so magnificently on Twitter. And ah, there’s also Salman Khan—not the Bollywood actor, but the entrepreneur who created the wonderful Khan Academy. It should be quite something.

*  *  *

Aside: If the Bollywood Salman Khan was ever invited to TED to give a shirtless speech, what do you think he’d talk about?

Posted at 6:25 AM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | Miscellaneous | Science and Technology

08 January, 2011

The Greasy Pole

A few years ago, I made to decision to never work in a company again. I struck out on my own, did much blogging and column-writing, wrote my first novel, and started playing poker seriously. And while I occasionally felt the inevitable loneliness that comes from working alone, from the writing life, I never regretted the decision or considered going back to a regular job. Being my own master was an awesome luxury, and the tradeoffs were worth it.

One of the factors in my decision was the nature of companies. The skills you need to succeed within a corporation are actually quite different from the ones that you need to excel at whatever you’ve been hired to do. William Deresiewicz expresses it perfectly in this wonderful essay on solitude and leadership:

That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.

You, reading this: I presume you have a job and work in a company somewhere. Do you agree with this?

*  *  *

Besides this, I found that I was much more productive while working on my own than in a company environment. Maybe it’s just me, but I found that in a normal office day, I might be at work for 10 hours, but within that period I’d only actually work for a total of maybe one. The rest of the time would go surfing, faffing, idling, day-dreaming, gossiping and other such ings. When I am by myself, on the other hand, I may idle all day, but when I work, I work. It may only be for an hour, but at least I don’t waste nine more in a pretense of work, in an elaborate charade that benefits no one.

Still, that’s just me, and I speak of my experience in television (in the last millennium) and journalism (in this one), and I’m sure there are other corporate environments which are more productive. But Deresiewicz’s observation about the greasy pole, I suspect, holds true for them all. That’s the nature of the beast.

*  *  *

I discovered Deresiewicz’s essay via David Brooks’s Sydney Awards. There are many more gems there, check them out: 1, 2.

Posted at 7:03 AM by Amit Varma in Journalism | Media | Miscellaneous | Personal

Dabangg Cry-Baby

image

The Times of India reports:

Salman Khan bagged the Best Actor Jury Award at an award function last night. Apparently the actor was expecting to win the Best Popular Actor Award which went to Shah Rukh Khan.

[...]

The actor was present backstage when the Jury Award and the Popular Awards were announced. Disappointed with the announcement, Salman refused to come on stage to receive his award.

This is hilarious at multiple levels, but leave that aside. I feel a bit sad for Salman, that such a petty thing should matter to a grown man. In award-infested Bollywood, who remembers who got which award for what film anyway? After the kind of career he’s had, it’s kind of poignant that Salman Khan needs validation this bad.

Having said that, I will now stop commenting on how 40-plus men can play characters so many years younger than them. If they behave like babies, then maybe they’re really just acting above their age.

(Pic source: bollywooddeewana.)

Posted at 4:52 AM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | India | News | WTF

Squirrels, Trees and Economists

Here’s Russ Roberts on economics:

I have often said that economics, to the extent it is a science, is like biology rather than physics. Let me try to make that clearer. By biology, I do not mean the study of the human cell, which we have made a great deal of progress understanding though there is more to learn. I am thinking of biology in the sense of an ecosystem where competition and emergent order create a complex interaction of organisms and their environment. That sounds a lot like economics and of course it is. But we would never ask of biologists what the public and media ask of economists. We do not expect a biologist to forecast how many squirrels will be alive in ten years if we increase the number of trees in the United States by 20%. A biologist would laugh at you. But that is what people ask of economists all the time.

Beautifully put—and you can make the same comparison with medicine. I am just reading The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s magisterial history of cancer, and the similarities between medicine and economics in the last century are striking. You see hubris, false certainties, ideological fervour, and mistakes on a giant scale that cause the suffering of millions and are diagnosed only in retrospect. Both fields have grown by quantum leaps and achieved much: Just look at the radical increase in life expectancies and living standards in the last 100 years. But complexity still abounds, cancer still kills, economies still fail, and humility is always a good thing.

Posted at 4:26 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Science and Technology

07 January, 2011

Why is Andheri West So Much Better Than Andheri East?

This post by Dan Zambonini offers an explanation for why the east of cities are usually poorer than the west:

The reason for this is that in much of the northern hemisphere, the prevailing winds are westerlies – blowing from west to east. The massive, unchecked pollution from these early industries would therefore drift eastward, making the air quality much lower in the east end of cities, lowering the desirability (and price) of the housing. Middle classes preferred the cleaner west ends.

This is certainly one possible factor for why rents in the Western suburbs of Bombay are so much higher than those in the East. (Compare Andheri West and Andheri East, or Bandra West and Bandra East.) But I’m sure there are other, specific local factors as well. What do you think those are?

(Link via Marginal Revolution.)

Posted at 6:11 AM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

Chaddi Flexibility

This has to be the quote of the day:

We are not rigid on the half pants.

Quick, without clicking through, guess the context!

Posted at 5:58 AM by Amit Varma in India | News | Politics | WTF

06 January, 2011

Garbage In

image

There is something terribly poignant about a man trying to commit suicide by jumping off a ninth-floor window but being saved by an uncollected heap of garbage that lies below. His self esteem is obviously low, he feels discarded by the world, but, like the garbage that eventually saves him, not yet dispatched. So he jumps, and wakes up not in an afterlife like heaven or hell or suchlike, but in a hospital, all bandaged up, tubes entering and exiting his body like the world refusing to let go. It makes me wonder what is the greater tragedy for him: feeling the need to let go, or not being able to do so.

There’s the seed of a short story here, but I feel too lazy to write it. Such it goes.

*  *  *

On another note, if someone asked me to guess where this happened, I’d think of garbage and I’d immediately rule out New York. Instead, my guess would be Andheri East.

*  *  *

(Pic courtesy Reuters.)

Posted at 6:13 AM by Amit Varma in News | Small thoughts

The Mystery of the Lewd SMS

From Shane Warne to PSR Anjaneyulu (allegedly), the sending of lewd SMSs is a common complaint against many high-profile men, especially those intoxicated by power. Now, here are two contradictory notions I am wrestling with:

1. Most women are turned off by lewd SMSs.

2. No rational man would indulge in an act again and again unless it paid off at least some of the time, thus compensating for the many times it didn’t.

I have never sent a lewd SMS in my life, and thus have a sample size of zero to attempt to resolve this from personal experience. So I wonder: Are lewd SMSes positive EV? Or, in non poker terms, do lewd SMSs work often enough to justify their downside?

My theory is that sending a lewd SMS in either like surfing porn—gratification from a distance, without the slightest chance of actual contact—or a form of release, and that a man doesn’t need to find takers for his lewd SMSes to keep sending them. It is also possible that a lewd SMS would work with women already interested in you. But then, any SMS would work with those women. If you send a lewd one, though, and the woman responds, you could mistake correlation for causation. Maybe that’s why…

Posted at 5:51 AM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous | News | Small thoughts

ROTFLMAO

The whole point of acronyms is that they make stuff easier to say or write. I was reminded of this the other day during an online conversation when a friend typed: ‘ROTFLAOM.’ ‘I mean, ROTFLMOA.’ ‘Wait, ROTFLMAO.’

At that point it struck me that many internet acronyms are popular not because of functionality and ease of use, but because of the coolness factor. You feel cool using them. That said, imagine using them in the real world. Like, you’re hanging out with friends at a cafe and you ask, ‘Hey, where’s Rajeev, wasn’t Rajeev supposed to be here?’ and Ramona pipes up, ‘Rajeev’s stuck in traffic in Mahim. I told him to come via the Worli Sea link, but he said that’s a symbol of unbridled capitalism, so he took the Mahim route instead, and he’s still stuck there.’ At which you point you laugh and say, ‘Dude, R.O.T.F.L.M.A.O!’

Now, that would be ROFL, at the very least, if not MAO too. No?

Posted at 5:34 AM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

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