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My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.


To buy it online from the US, click here.


I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.


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Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Essays and Op-Eds

The Matunga Racket

A version of this piece was published today as the eighth installment of my column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Last week I had begun my piece on victimless crimes by asking you to imagine a dystopia where sex is banned. Smugly, I had referred to it as a mere thought experiment. I apologize for that: for millions of Indians, it isn’t a thought experiment, it’s reality. They’re gay.

I’m sure you all know about Section 377, the archaic law in the Indian Penal Code that bans “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. While it seems to deal just with anal sex, the way the law has been used effectively makes homosexuality illegal in India. Still, until recently I assumed that this law would be used only occasionally, and that too for non-consensual sex, and that gay people had more reason to worry about social attitudes than the legal system.

Well, I was wrong. I met a couple of friends over the weekend who told me about how Section 377 is used as a tool of extortion. Note, I said “is used”, not “has been used” or “can be used”. There are systematic rackets run throughout the country to extort money from gay people scared of having a case filed against them under Section 377. These rackets are run by the police. One example of this is what activists refer to as The Matunga Racket.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 05 April, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


Cricket and The Mad Dog Show

This piece has been published in the April 2007 issue of Cricinfo Magazine. It was written the day before India’s loss to Sri Lanka.

Imagine a man, dressed respectfully, and a scruffy dog he owns. The man catches the dog and sets its tail on fire. And then, as the dog runs around frenetically, the man says smugly: “Look – mad dog.” He even sells tickets. He calls it: “The Mad Dog Show.”

Indian cricket is The Mad Dog Show. Indian fans are like that burning doggie. The media is the respectable gentleman. Every time I see footage of mobs burning the effigy of a cricketer, and the voice-over of an anchor droning sanctimoniously in the background, I am appalled by the hypocrisy. “That is a beast you feed,” I feel like screaming. For all their talk about crazed subcontinental fans, the crazed subcontinental media is no different.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 03 April, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Sport


Don’t punish victimless crimes

This is the seventh installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Imagine a dystopia where a mad dictator comes to power and decides to ban sex and dating. Sex is ruining the moral fabric of our nation, he decides. Men and women must not be allowed to get together. What will happen?

Here is what I imagine: One, immense copulation will still take place behind closed doors, and as no one engaged in consensual sex will complain, the state will have to spend considerable resources and do invasive policing to make sure people don’t break the law. Two, the underworld will get involved in enabling encounters between the sexes, as those won’t be legal any more, and couples will no more be able to shoot the breeze at a Barista. Three, there will be more rapes, as repressed men denied normal outlets will resort to force.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Thinking it Through


General Musharraf’s incentives

This is the sixth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

In our new age of terror, General Pervez Musharraf is both Gabbar Singh and Veeru. In the global War on Terror that began after 9/11, he is a frontline ally of the US, the man given the task of finishing off the Taliban and catching Osama bin Laden. He is also the pivotal figure in the local conflict between India and Pakistan, talking peace to the international community but taking a harder line with his domestic constituency.

Much of the talk about Musharraf that I see around me arises either from wishful thinking or from false preconceptions. Without passing any judgement on his performance, it would help to consider the incentives that drive him. If Musharraf is to look after his interests, as any rational person would, how should he behave?

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Posted by Amit Varma on 22 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Politics | Thinking it Through


A beast called government

This is the fifth installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

There is nothing in the world as dangerous as blind faith. No, no, this is not yet another rant against organised religion: there is enough damnation already scheduled upon me. There is another beast that benefits from blind faith quite as much as religion, and that causes as much harm from our lack of questioning: a beast called government.

Don’t get me wrong, we need government. We need it to take care of law and order, of defense, and for a handful of other things. (I don’t have a very large hand.) But the governments we have, not just in India but virtually everywhere, are vast, monstrous behemoths that are many multiples of the size they need to be. The cost of this, of course, is borne by us: we pay far more tax than we should need to in order to keep government going, and to justify its size the government clamps down on private enterprise and individual freedoms.

Part of our blind faith in government comes from the way we view it. Governments are not supercomputers programmed to work tirelessly for the public interest, nor are they benevolent, supernatural beings constantly striving to give us what we require. On the contrary, governments are collections of people, individuals like you and me, motivated by self-interest. The actions of government are the actions of these men and women, and the best way to understand how they are likely to behave—and therefore, how governments are likely to behave—is to consider their incentives.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 March, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Television and cricket

This piece of mine has been published in the March 9, 2007 issue of Time Out Mumbai as “Field Days.”

Television was the best thing that happened to Indian cricket, and then the worst.

Once upon a time television pushed cricket into the modern age in India. As India opened up to the world a decade-and-a-half ago, in more ways than one, kids in small towns throughout the country tuned into satellite television and saw a brave new world. Instead of homegrown DD commentators uttering banalities in two languages, they saw the best cricket broadcasters in the world educating them on the game: From the likes of Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Geoff Boycott and Martin Crowe, they learned to appreciate the nuances of the sport. They picked up the values that would help them thrive in international cricket: once, pot-bellied Indian cricketers would saunter between wickets and refuse to dive while fielding because, apparently, Indian grounds were hard. Look at any Indian cricketer below the age of 25, and you shall see the good that television has done.

But television also made itself a slave to the monster it created. In a celebrity-obsessed era, viewers craved the familiar, and broadcasters stopped taking chances: at a certain point in time, it became default policy to hire ex-cricketers as commentators. Sometimes ex-cricketers provide the insight only a player can. But most ex-cricketers who have turned to commentary in the last few years have been hired for star value. They know it, and don’t work as hard at preparing for a game as they should, and it shows. Cliches abound, as they work on auto-pilot. It is no coincidence that India’s only world-class commentator is the only non-player who’s made a place for himself in the commentary box: Harsha Bhogle. It is unlikely that too many others will get a chance.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport


Your maid funds Unani

This is the latest installment of my column for Mint, Thinking It Through. It is an elaboration of my concerns behind my ongoing series, Where Your Taxes Go, and I’d like to thank all the readers and bloggers who have sent me links for that. Keep them coming, and keep expressing your outrage on your own blogs as well.

These are good times for Unani. In his latest budget, the honourable P Chidambaram allocated Rs. 563.88 crores for the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. I kid you not, I am not making this up for your satirical amusement. That departments exists. And you work your ass off, and make sacrifices, so that it can be funded. You and your maidservant.

On my blog, I have a section called “Where Your Taxes Go,” where I document strange instances of how our taxes are put to use. There is much there that is trivial and amusing—a moustache allowance for a havaldar in Lucknow, compensation for a bank employee mistakenly declared dead, salary for an 11-year-old teacher, relocation of monkeys from New Delhi to MP (only Rs. 25 lakhs). There is also much there that underscores the irresponsibility of our politicians—toilet refurbishment allowances for Jharkhand legislators, parliament hold-ups that cost 20k a minute, the 90 lakh free TVs that the DMK promised in Tamil Nadu to get elected there. Most of us are so used to government wastage that we shrug this off. “Pata hai yaar,” we say together in a gruff chorus of a billion nonchalant voices. “So what is new? Gorment is like this only.”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 08 March, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Taxes | Thinking it Through


Do we really love cricket?

A version of my story below was published today in Mint.

Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it?

The historian Ram Guha once compared cricket in India to football in Brazil. It is easy to disagree with that, but hard to figure out which hairs to split. On one hand, cricket in India is surely followed more fervently, with temples made for some cricketers, with an obsessive passion that Brazilians, for all their lust for football, surely can’t match. People have even speculated, not entirely flippantly, on the economic impact cricket has on India because so many people stop working when a cricket match is on.

On the other hand, football matches between minor club teams in Brazil can attract tens of thousands of spectators, while Ranji Trophy games in India generally draw so few people that you could fit them all in a bus. Much of the following of the game in India revolves around celebrities, with few fans concerned about the nuances of the game.

Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it? Do Indians really love cricket? It is futile to generalise about an entire country – each individual has his own relationship with the game – but certain patterns of love and longing for cricket run through the country. And outside it.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 03 March, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport


Don’t think in categories

This piece is the third installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through.

As a blogger, I often get phone calls from journalists who have been instructed to write a story on blogging. Generally, all they know about it is that it is some new kind of buzzword, and they have often not read any blogs. Their questions invariably include the phrase “blogging community.”

Oh how they generalise. “What does the blogging community feel about the new KBC?” they ask, or “What do bloggers write about?” I try to be polite and say that I can only speak for myself, but I won’t deny that the image of hanging a journalist upside down just above a vat of boiling oil gives me great glee at such times.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 22 February, 2007 in Blogging | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Reason vs Rationalisation

A shorter version of this piece was published today as the second installment of my column, Thinking it Through, in Mint. I also posted this on the old India Uncut.

Often when I argue with friends, or on the internet, I am dismayed by how intransigent some people are. No matter how many facts I throw before them, or how solid my reasoning is, I simply cannot convince them of my point of view. No doubt they feel the same about me. “He refuses to listen to reason,” they think, even as I bemoan how unreasonable they are.

This is not a phenomenon peculiar to me: we live in deeply polarised times, and around half the world believes that the other half ignores reason altogether. Well, it is my belief that we overestimate reason to begin with. The Scottish Philosopher David Hume once described reason as “the slave of the passions,” and I believe that much of the time when we feel we are being reasonable, we are actually rationalising conclusions we have already arrived at, positions that we already hold.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Thinking it Through


Where’s the Freedom Party

My weekly column for Mint, Thinking It Through, kicked off on February 8, 2007. It will appear every Thursday. This is the first installment, also posted on the old India Uncut.

It’s frustrating being a libertarian in India. Libertarians, broadly, believe that every person should be have the freedom to do whatever they want with their person or property as long as they do not infringe on the similar freedoms of others. Surely this would seem a good way for people to live: respecting each other’s individuality, and not trying to dictate anyone else’s behaviour.

Naturally, libertarians believe in both social and economic freedoms. They believe that what two consenting adults do inside closed doors should not be the state’s business. Equally, they believe the state should not interefere when two consenting parties trade with each other, for what is this but an extension of that personal freedom. And yet, despite having gained political freedom 60 years ago, personal and economic freedoms are routinely denied in India. Even worse, there is no political party in the country that speaks up for freedom in all its forms.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Thinking it Through


Bollywood hails the free market

A version of my piece below was published on January 19, 2007 in the Wall Street Journal as “Bollywood’s New Capitalist Hero.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut. It isn’t meant to be a review of “Guru”, towards which I have mixed feelings, but a comment on one aspect of it.

Who would ever have thought that one of the villains of a Bollywood film could be import duty? “Guru”, the latest Bollywood blockbuster by the respected director Mani Ratnam, is that rare film—perhaps Bollywood’s first—in which free markets are lauded as a force for good. Aliens emerging from the Taj Mahal would be less surprising.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | WSJ Pieces


Why India needs school vouchers

This piece of mine was published on January 15, 2007 as an Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia. (Subscriber link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

On India’s Republic Day, January 26, the New Delhi-based Centre for Civil Society will launch a campaign for school choice. It’s an apt day for the event. While India’s constitution guarantees universal and free education, the government has utterly failed that mission. It’s time to encourage the private sector to step in.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


Fighting against censorship

A version of this piece by me was published on October 3, 2006 in the Wall Street Journal as “India’s Censorship Craze.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut.

American pop icon Paris Hilton corrupts Indian minds. That, at least, is the fear held by mandarins of Indian culture. So they’ve barred television channels in India from airing Ms. Hilton’s new music video, “Stars Are Blind,” in yet another example of the censorship fever sweeping the country.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


Empowerment, not slavery

A version of this piece by me was first published on November 8, 2005 in the Wall Street Journal as “Self-Delusion.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog.

Organized slavery ended decades ago, but to go by the criticism of some leftist commentators in India, one would imagine that it is alive and flourishing in the world’s largest democracy.

Recently it has become especially fashionable to hit out at call centers, or business processing outsourcing (BPO) units as they are officially known. A study published by an institute that comes under India’s Labor Ministry compared conditions in Indian BPO outfits with those of “Roman slave ships.” Chetan Bhagat, the author of a new book set in one such unit, “One Night @ The Call Center,” recently claimed that call centers are “corroding a generation.” It is common, almost clichéd, to hear call-center workers referred to as “cyber-coolies.”

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | WSJ Pieces


The kidnapping of India

A version of my piece below was first published onOctober 5, 2005, in the Asian Wall Street Journal (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog

Imagine this scenario: someone kidnaps a child and, for decades, maims and exploits him. Then, in a sudden revelation, we learn that the kidnapper was once under the pay of a branch of the mafia that is now defunct. There is instant outrage, and everyone condemns the crime. “How could you have taken money from the mafia?” they ask.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces


Good intentions, bad ideas

A version of my piece below was first published on September 15, 2005 in the Asian Wall Street Journal (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut and the Indian Economy Blog.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions—and nobody knows that better than India’s poor. There can be no better intention than removing poverty but, for more than half a century, a well-intentioned and bloated state has only perpetuated it with misguided policies and regulations. And New Delhi still hasn’t learned from these mistakes. The Indian government is soon to embark on perhaps the grandest waste of taxpayers’ money yet: the Rural Employment Guarantee Bill.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | WSJ Pieces


When it pours

A shorter version of my piece below was published on August 5, 2005, in the Asian Wall Street Journal. It was also posted on India Uncut.

One moment you are connected to the world in a global hub of the worldwide village; the next, the lights go off, the phone networks cease to function, and the water rises outside, creeping up on cars and first-floor apartments like an insidious idea. What does it take to shut down South Asia’s financial capital, Bombay? A few hours of rain, that’s all.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | WSJ Pieces


Beautiful scatty minds

The piece below by me was published in the issue of Tehelka dated 30/07/05, in a slightly shorter form. It was also posted on India Uncut.

A couple of years ago, a tabloid in one of India’s metros called in a consultant to help them make the newspaper more reader-friendly. “Keep stories short,” he advised. Shorter stories, snappy paragraphs, simple sentences; suck the reader in and spit him out before he gets bored. This is the age of the short-attention span, and we see it all around us.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds


The myth of India’s liberalization

The piece below by me was published on June 16, 2005 as an Op-Ed in the Asian Wall Street Journal, titled “India’s Far From Free Markets” (subscription link). It was also posted on India Uncut.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is due to visit Washington in a few weeks, and editorialists and commentators have already started writing about the emerging economic power of India. New Delhi’s decision to start liberalizing its economy in 1991 is touted as a seminal event in India’s history, the moment when it threw off the shackles of Fabian socialism and embraced free markets. It is the stuff of myth—and to a large extent, it is exactly that.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | WSJ Pieces


The dialect of a cricket writer

This article of mine was first published on April 17, 2005 in the Indian Express as “Windbag and the willow”. This was also posted on Indian Uncut, and was shaped by the blogging I did on it all through March 2005.

THE next time you watch a cricket match, listen to the phrases that pop into your head with every piece of action. Have you heard these words before? I don’t know about you, but I am assailed by familiar phrases and sentences when I watch cricket, and I recoil each time one pops into my head. I am a cricket journalist, and it is my job to describe every game of cricket that I write about in a fresh manner, to give the reader a clear picture of what happened. And yet, that is so difficult.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Sport


Blogs—The New Journalism

The piece below by me appeared on January 19, 2005 in the Indian Express as “The world according to me”. That headline wasn’t mine, though. I’d also posted it on India Uncut.

Towards the end of December, just after the tsunami struck, I told a journalist friend of mine that I was planning to travel through coastal Tamil Nadu to report on the aftermath of the disaster. “Ah, excellent,” he said, “Which publication you going to write for?”

“I’m not going to write for any publication,” I replied. “I’m going to blog.” He looked at me incredulously.

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Posted by Amit Varma on 15 February, 2007 in Blogging | Essays and Op-Eds | Personal


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