Browse Archives

By Category

By Date


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.


If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho


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: Excerpts

There Will Come Soft Rains

After reading my last post, Aishwarya shot me an email pointing me to this lovely little poem by Sara Teasdale:

There Will Come Soft Rains
by Sara Teasdale

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

Among other things, this inspired a short story by Ray Bradbury.

*

Putting my editing hat on, aren’t those last two lines superfluous?

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 March, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


The Exploding Donkey

In his brilliant book, The Forever War, Dexter Filkins informs us that DBIED can stand for either Dog-Borne Improvised Explosive Device or Donkey-Borne Improvised Explosive Device. In a passage that I feel provides a perfect metaphor for the War on Terror, he writes:

In the fall of 2005 some marines discovered a donkey walking around Ramadi [in Iraq] with a suicide belt on. They didn’t want to kill it, of course, but every time they tried to get close enough to remove the suicide belt, the donkey scampered away. They they tried using a robot, one of those bomb-disposal things, which tried to waddle up to the donkey and defuse the payload, but the robot, too, kept scaring the donkey away. Finally the marines shot the donkey. It exploded.

And so it goes…

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 February, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Small thoughts


Waving to Nobody

The wonderful excerpt below from “Trail Fever” by Michael Lewis illustrates beautifully the nature of politics and public life. In it, Lewis recounts his experience of travelling with then-vice president Dan Quayle during the election campaign of 1992:

It wasn’t so much what Quayle had said that hooked me. It was what he had done—what the conventions of the campaign trail required him to do. Every few hours of every day, to take a tiny example, the vice president’s campaign plane, Air Force Two, came to rest on the tarmac of a military base on the outskirts of some medium-sized city, and Quayle appeared in the open door. He waved. It was not a natural gesture of greeting but a painfully enthusiastic window-washing motion. Like everyone else in America I had watched politicians do this on the evening news a thousand times. But I had always assumed there must be someone down below to wave at. Not so! Every few hours our vice president stood there at the top of the steps of Air Force Two waving to… nobody; waving, in fact, to a field in the middle distance over the heads of the cameramen, so that the people back home in their living rooms remained comfortably assured that a crowd had turned up to celebrate his arrival.

It is my case that most politics consists of waving to nobody. Someday, as the waving is going on, I’d love to see the cameras turn around and show the empty field. But nah, that won’t happen.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 February, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Politics | Small thoughts


Censors and Psychotics

Here’s David Cronenberg, in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, talking about censorship:

When I had to deal with the Toronto Censor Board over The Brood, the experience was so unexpectedly personal and intimate, it really shocked me; pain, anguish, the sense of humiliation, degradation, violation. Now I do have a conditioned reflex! I can only explain the feeling by analogy. You send your beautiful kid to school and he comes back with one hand missing. Just a bandaged stump. You phone the school and they say that they really thought, all things considered, the child would be more socially acceptable without that hand, which was a rather naughty hand. Everyone was better off with it removed. It was for everyone’s good. That’s exactly how it felt to me.

Censors tend to do what only psychotics do: they confuse reality with illusion. People worry about the effects on children of two thousand acts of murder on TV every half hour. You have to point out that they have seen a representation of murder. They have not seen murder. It’s the real stumbling-block.

Charles Manson found a message in a Beatles song that told him what he must do and why he must kill. Suppressing everything one might think of as potentially dangerous, explosive or provocative would not prevent a true psychotic from finding something that will trigger his own particular psychosis. For those of us who are normal, and who understand the difference between reality and fantasy, play, illusion—as most children most readily do—there is enough distance and balance. It’s innate.

Besides the consequentialist argument, there’s the small matter of censorship being morally wrong. But leave that aside. In times like these, when images of sex and violence are practically ubiquitous, censorship fails even in its own aims. Indeed, in another couple of decades, it will be as impotent as it is redundant. Censor boards will still continue to exist, of course, like the telegram-wallahs who ring the bell every Diwali to ask for bakshish. Such it goes.

*

And really, all actors or filmmakers or artists of any kind who have ever been part of a censor board should be ashamed of themselves. Check out the disgraceful Sharmila Tagore, head of India’s censor board, talking about how she believes that “censorship must go. But I firmly believe the time hasn’t come yet for India.” Such condescension.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 December, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom | India


‘Like a Poppy-Head on the Shaft’

If you’re in the mood for action-packed, pulpy writing, I offer you the following extract from The Iliad by Homer:

But the Argives rose in grief to avenge that boast—skilled Peneleos most of all. He charged Acamas—Acamas could not stand the attack, he ran—and Peneleos stabbed at Ilioneus instead, a son of the Herdsman Phorbas rich in flocks, Hermes’ favourite Trojan: Hermes gave him wealth but Ilioneus’s mother gave him just one son… the one Peneleos lanced out beneath the brows, down to the eyes’ roots and scooped an eyeball out—the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword, hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all. But the big spear’s point still stuck in the eye socket—hoisting the head high like a poppy-head on the shaft he flourished it in the eyes of all the Trojans…

This is from the Robert Fagles translation. Homer, I submit, was the Eli Roth of his time—just as William Shakespeare was the David Dhawan of his time. Classic-schmlassic, it’s just fun to read these guys!

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Small thoughts


‘The Most Unutterable Scoundrels’

I love this quote:

I am the most courteous man in the world. I pride myself on never once having been rude, in this land full of the most unutterable scoundrels, who will come and sit down next to you and tell you their woes and even declaim their poetry to you.

—Heinrich Heine, Reisebilder

For those lacking the patience for such courtesies, I have the following advice: Tell your tormentor to go start a blog. The internet is the finest refuge for unutterable scoundrels.

Is it not?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Small thoughts


‘Copulate, Multiply Like Rats’

There’s an old saying that journalism is history’s first draft, so for all you journalists reading this, I offer these words by Milan Kundera:

... this is the most obvious thing in the world: man is separated from the past (even from the past only a few seconds old) by two forces that go instantly to work and cooperate: the force of forgetting (which erases) and the force of memory (which transforms).

It is the most obvious thing, but it is hard to accept, for when one thinks it all the way through, what becomes of all the testimonies that historiography relies on? What becomes of our certainties about the past, and what becomes of History itself, to which we refer every day in good faith, naively, spontaneously? Beyond the slender margin of the incontestable (there is no doubt that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo), stretches an infinite realm: the realm of the approximate, the invented, the deformed, the simplistic, the exaggerated, the misconstrued, an infinite realm of nontruths that copulate, multiply like rats, and become immortal.

Spot on—and this is why I think one of the most important qualities of a historian or a serious journalist is humility: know that the truth is always more complex than it seems, cast aside all preconceived notions, and then do the best you can.

The above excerpt, by the way, is from The Curtain.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 July, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Journalism | Media | Small thoughts


‘My Mother’s Fault’

My friend Salil Tripathi was in Bombay this week to promote his marvellous new book, “Offence: The Hindu Case.” This is part of a series that examines the growing intolerance around us in the name of religion: Kamila Shamsie looks at the Muslim case, Brian Klug at Judaism and Irena Maryniak at Christianity. Regular readers of IU will know that this is a subject close to my heart: I’ve unleashed countless rants on how giving offence is treated as a crime in India, and of the consequences of that for free speech. Salil’s book lays out the case for free speech wonderfully well, and if the subject interests you, I recommend you buy it. (You can pre-order it here or here, and it will also be on the stands soon.)

But this post isn’t just a plug: one of my favourite parts of the book is a poem Salil wrote for his mother, Harsha Tripathi, dedicating the book to her. I was quite moved by it, and with Salil’s permission, I’m reproducing it here:

My Mother’s Fault
by Salil Tripathi

You marched with other seven-year-old girls,
Singing songs of freedom at dawn in rural Gujarat,
Believing that would shame the British and they would leave India.

Five years later, they did.

You smiled,
When you first saw Maqbool Fida Husain’s nude sketches of Hindu goddesses,
And laughed,
When I told you that some people wanted to burn his art.

‘Have those people seen any of our ancient sculptures? Those are far naughtier,’
You said.

Your voice broke,
On December 6, 1992,
As you called me at my office in Singapore,
When they destroyed the Babri Masjid.

‘We have just killed Gandhi again,’ you said.

We had.

Aavu te karaay koi divas (Can anyone do such a thing any time?)
You asked, aghast,
Staring at the television,
As Hindu mobs went, house-to-house,
Looking for Muslims to kill,
After a train compartment in Godhra burned,
Killing 58 Hindus in February 2002.

You were right, each time.

After reading what I’ve been writing over the years,
Some folks have complained that I just don’t get it.

I live abroad: what do I know of India?

But I knew you; that was enough.

And that’s why I turned out this way.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 July, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom | India


Reaching Out, Gathering In, Relinquishing

From Due Considerations, here’s John Updike on my favourite game:

Poker is eminently human. Its strategy and parameters are based not merely on cards but on personalities, the tics and habits revealed over years of acquaintance. In my group, the Bad Loser growls and slams down his hand. The Bluffer blithely raises and, when called, fans out his cards in good-natured surrender, announcing, “I’ve got shit.” The Bottom Feeder taciturnly sticks around, hoping to sneak away with a piece of a cheap pot. Mr By-the-Book, glancing down into a winner, raises and telegraphs his hand and everybody folds, except for the Long Sufferer, who says, “Well, it’s only money,” and yields up another dollar with a sigh.

Always being in character is a bad ploy. Never making a mistake is a mistake. A failed bluff may pay off a few hands down the road, when you really have the goods, and everyone, remembering the failed bluff, stays against you. Poker, like statecraft, tends to steer by the last miscalculation, trying to avoid it this time. Which can also be a mistake. Our group has given up, by and large, on poker faces; we know each other too well—how we fold, why we stay. We’ve given up, too, on insisting that a player call his card correctly; we’re getting senile, and let the cards speak. It’s a comfortable group. Many the Wednesday evening, escaping from a domestic or professional crisis, I settled at the table as if my noisy buddies would protect me from life itself. In my one poker story, the hero has just been told he is fatally ill, and decides to go to poker anyway, and takes comfort by looking around and realizing that we are all dying—reaching out, gathering in, relinquishing. It was a story based on real life, though I didn’t die; I was simply scared that I would some day.

RIP, John Updike. Also, in an internet poker player’s parlance: gg.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 January, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Sport


Inhale

In “Million Dollar Baby: Stories from the Corner”, FX Toole writes about the magic of boxing as seen from the eyes of a trainer and cut man:

And there’s the magic that breaks your heart. You’ve got a kid with a bloody nose. If it’s broken, forget it, it’s going to keep bleeding. But just a bloody nose you can usually stop. So you wipe the boy’s face clean, shove a swab soggy with adrenaline into the nostril that’s bleeding. You work the swab around, and you close the other nostril with your thumb. You tell the boy to inhale, so the adrenaline will flood the broken tissue and constrict the vein and widen the blow hole. But the boy doesn’t inhale. You say, “Inhale!” Nothing. You say it again, “Goddamn it!” Time is running out, and then you see the boy looking at you like you’ve been speaking Gaelic or Hebrew. So then you understand, and you say, “Breathe in!”

He breathes in through the adrenaline while you put pressure above his upper lip. The adrenaline gets to the tear, and the blood stops coming, and he’s ready to fight again. Blood is pumping in your neck because you almost didn’t stop the blood. But part of you has traveled to the place where the boy lives, to the place where no one uses words like inhale. That’s magic, too, but it’s the kind that hurts you, the kind that makes you better for hurting.

Superb book—and I picked it up for just Rs 75 at the ongoing Landmark sale. That felt like magic as well.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 September, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


Stanley

Via Amitava Kumar, I recently discovered the work of the poet Lorraine Mariner. Here’s a poem I love:

Stanley
by Lorraine Mariner

Yesterday evening I finished
with my imaginary boyfriend.
He knew what I was going to say
before I said it which was top of my list
of reasons why we should end it.

My other reasons were as follows:
he always does exactly what I tell him;
nothing in our relationship has ever surprised me;
he has no second name.

He took it very well
all things considered.
He told me I was to think of him
as a friend and if I ever need him
I know where he is.

For more, check out “Bye For Now.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 August, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | IU Faves


The Paper Clip

Raymond Chandler writes:

A long time ago, when I was writing for the pulps I put into a story a line like ‘he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water’. They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.

This excerpt is from “The Raymond Chandler Papers”, a marvellous collection of Chandler’s letters and some nonfiction, edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane. It is full of such gems.

Chandler’s insight hurts me when I think of popular English fiction in India. There’s isn’t one writer in that space who can write about that paper clip. I think our readers deserve better.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 August, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Personal


Hot Water Bath

All you philistines bored by the study of history, read this and reconsider:

Bernier relates one of the adventures of this princess, as “they are not amours like ours, but attended with events dreadful and tragical.” It appears that she received one of her lovers into her apartments, and that, as Shah Jahan was about to enter, she had nowhere to conceal him except in one of the large hot-water caldrons made to bathe in. The emperor feigned to see nothing, but after a long visit sternly commanded a fire to be built beneath the bath, and did not leave till the man was dead.

Now you know why I’m a huge fan of emperors. This excerpt is from Edward S Holden’s “The Mogul Emperors of Hindustan”. My thanks to Devangshu for pointing me to the passage in question.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 August, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


Frisbee

I found this beautiful piece in Richard Lederer’s “A Man of My Words”:

Writing is…
by Richard Lederer

For me, writing is like throwing a Frisbee.

You can play Frisbee catch with yourself, but it’s repetitious and not much fun. Better it is to fling to others, to extend yourself across a distance.

At first, your tossing is awkward and strengthless. But, with time and practice and maturity, you learn to set your body and brain and heart at the proper angles, to grasp with just the right force, and not to choke the missile. You discover how to flick the release so that all things loose and wobbly snap together at just the right moment. You learn to reach out your follow-through hand to the receiver to ensure the straightness and justice of the flight.

And on the just-right days, when the sky is blue and the air pulses with perfect stillness, all points of the Frisbee spin together within their bonded circle—and the object glides on its own whirling, a whirling invisible and inaudible to all others but you.

Like playing Frisbee, writing is a re-creation-al joy. For me, a lot of the fun is knowing that readers out there—you among them—are sharing what I have made. I marvel that, as you pass your eyes over these words, you experience ideas and emotions similar to what I was thinking and feeling when, in another place and another time, I struck the symbols on my keyboard.

Like a whirling, gliding Frisbee, my work extends me beyond the frail confines of my body. Thank you for catching me.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 July, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


A Night Owl’s Lament

Balzac may have worked through the night, “fueled by innumerable cups of black coffee,” but night owls are frowned upon at large. As Anne Fadiman wrote in “At Large and At Small”:

The owl’s reputation may be beyond salvation. Who gets up early? Farmers, bakers, doctors. Who stays up late? Muggers, streetwalkers, cat burglars. It’s assumed that if you’re sneaking around after midnight, you must have something to hide. Night is the time of goblins, ghouls, vampires, zombies, witches, warlocks, demons, wraiths, fiends, banshees, poltergeists, werefolk, bogeymen, and things that go bump. (It is also the time of fairies and angels, but, like many comforting things, they are all too easily crowded out of the imagination. The nightmare trumps the pleasant dream.) Night, like winter, is a metaphor for death: one does not say “the dead of morning” or “the dead of spring.” In a strange and tenebrous book called “Night” (which every lark should be forced to read, preferably by moonlight), the British cynic A Alvarez (an owl) points out, glumly, that Christ is known as the Light of the World and Satan as the Prince of Darkness. With such a powerful pro-lark tradition arrayed against us, must we owls be forever condemned to the infernal regions—which, despite their inextinguishable flames, are always described as dark?

I was reminded of Fadiman’s essay when I read Deepa Ranganathan’s piece in Slate, “Can a Night Owl Become a Morning Person?” In my case, the answer would be a resolute no. If I need to be awake at seven in the morning, I stay up, for that is easier than waking up at that undemonly hour, and I find that my best work, such as it pitifully is, is done at night. Like now, when it’s almost 2 am.

So what am I doing writing this post? Bye.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 June, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Personal


Puppy Dog and Tail

In “Fiddlers”, the last of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, Detective Andy Parker tells Detective Ollie Weeks a story about a little puppy dog walking across the railroad tracks:

“He is a little white puppy dog, and this train comes along, and the wheels run over his tail, and he loses the end of his tail. And he’s very said about this. So he puts his head down on the tracks and he begins crying his heart out, and not paying any attention. And just then another train comes along, and runs him over again, cutting off his head this time. You know the moral of that story, Ollie?”

“No, what’s the moral?”

“Never lose your head over a piece of tail.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 June, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


Grains of Wheat

Check out this beautiful passage from Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, a novel set in early-18th-century Peru:

The Abbess was one of those persons who have allowed their lives to be gnawed away because they have fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization. She hurled herself against the obstinacy of her time in her desire to attach a little dignity to women. At midnight when she had finished adding up the accounts of the house she would fall into insane visions of an age when women could be organized to protect women, women travelling, women as servants, women when they are old or ill, the women she had discovered in the mines of Potosi, or in the workrooms of cloth merchants, the girls she had collected out of doorways on rainy nights. But always the next morning she had to face the fact that the women in Peru, even her nuns, went through life with two notions: one, that all the misfortunes that might befall them were merely due to the fact that they were not sufficiently attractive to bind some man to their maintenance; and, two, that all the misery in the world was worth his caress. She had never known any country but the environs of Lima, and she assumed that its corruption was the normal state of mankind. Looking back from our century we can see the whole folly of her hope. Twenty such women would have failed to make any impression on that age. Yet she continued diligently in her task. She resembled the swallow in the fable who once every thousand years transferred a grain of wheat, in the hope of rearing a mountain to reach the moon. Such persons are raised up in every age; they obstinately insist on transporting their grains of wheat and they derive a certain exhilaration from the sneers of bystanders. ‘How queerly they dress!’ we cry. ‘How queerly they dress!’

I wonder if, in 2308 AD, this is how they’ll speak of today’s libertarians. How queerly we dress!

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 April, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom | Small thoughts


Twelve Crabs

I love this bit from ZZ Packer’s interview of Edward P Jones:

ZZP: Do you find that people treat you differently after your having won the Pulitzer?

EPJ: People ask if I’m happy about this and that, especially when they talk about the money. I am happy, but there’s no car in the world I want—I don’t want a car—there are places I want to go, but I’m not hungry to do world travel. There’s no fancy house that I want.

I got some crabs the other day, twelve crabs, and that’s a feast. That’s wonderful. That makes me happy.

I was in graduate school, and I was rooming at this place the first year and we all shared the same bathroom. After I moved I wrote to this one friend of mine, “Finally I got a bathroom all to myself.” He said I’d probably always be happy because there were small things that made me happy.

I remember when that basketball player Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose. Now, he’s from Maryland, he should have gone right down to the crab-house, bought twelve crabs and an orange soda, and that would have fulfilled him. Why didn’t he do that?

This is from “The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers”, which is full of many such gems.

To get a taste of Jones’s work, try his masterful short story, “Old Boys, Old Girls”. I’ve read few stories where time is handled so well, and it’s full of great bits of writing—one that struck me as exceptional was the paragraph about the protagonist’s sister driving him home.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 April, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | IU Faves


Abu Ghraib

Lewis Alsamari describes it well:

The notoriety of Abu Ghraib was enough to chill the fervor of even the most revolutionary citizens. It was said that thousands of men and women were crammed into tiny cells and that abuse, torture, and executions were daily occurrences. The regime tested chemicals and biological weapons on the inmates, and some prisoners were given nothing but scraps of shredded plastic to eat. Chunks of flesh were torn from the bodies of some prisoners and then force-fed to others. Gruesome tortures involving power tools and hungry dogs were routine, and thousands of people who entered the doors of that fearsome place were never heard from again. It was known that mass graves existed around the country, and it was known in general terms where they were situated; but of course nobody dared to hunt out the final resting places of those poor men and women who had become victims of the enthusiastic guards at Abu Ghraib, for fear of becoming one of their number.

The four AIDS-stricken women were dealt with in a fashion brutal even by the standards of the prison. Stripped of their clothes, they were placed, alive and screaming, into an incinerator so that they and their “vile disease” could be utterly destroyed. In this way Saddam “delivered” our country from the horrific infections of the West and from the inequities of the “evil Zionist state.”

This is part of an excerpt taken from Alsamari’s book, “Escape From Saddam.” It underscores something that many of us seem to have forgotten in our idealogical zeal: Iraq under Saddam was a hellish land. Yes, the Americans bungled their invasion, and with their arrogance created more enemies than the friends they expected. (I foolishly supported the invasion at the time.) But I’m not sure they made Iraq any worse off.

(Link via email from Shrek.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 April, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Politics


The End Of Circular Journeys

The archival quote of the day comes from Gore Vidal talking about “young writers today” in a Paris Review interview from 1974:

They appear to rely on improvisation to get them to the end of journeys that tend to be circular.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


“The Way He Liked Chicken”

Here are the first lines of “The Passion” by Jeanette Winterson:

It was Napolean who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock. What a kitchen that was, with birds in every state of undress; some still cold and slung over hooks, some turning slowly on the spit, but most in wasted piles because the emperor was busy.

Odd to be so governed by an appetite.

It was my first commission. I started as a neck wringer and before long I was the one who carried the platter through inches of mud to his tent. He liked me because I am short. I flatter myself. He did not dislike me. He liked no one except Josephine and he liked her the way he liked chicken.

It’s hard to put down a book that begins like this.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 April, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


Vulgarity

This excerpt is from “African Psycho” by Alain Mabanckou:

Yes, I love vulgarity. I claim it loud and clear. I love it because only it says what we are, without the hideous masks we wear by nature, which turn us into mean beings, hypocrites, ceaselessly running after decency, a quality I couldn’t care less about. I’m not the type who can control himself when someone comes after me in my territory. I’m not asking anything of anybody. All I want is peace and quiet in my native corner. Those inclined to judge me vulgar will be shown not to have understood a thing about my personality. Fundamentally, does this bother me? I have learned not to take people’s opinions into account anymore…

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 March, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


Bound For Life

This is a wonderful excerpt from “The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides:

Like everyone else, we went to Alice O’Connor’s coming-out party to forget about the Lisbon girls. The black bartenders in red vests served us alcohol without asking for ID, and in turn, around 3 am, we said nothing when we saw them loading leftover cases of whiskey into the trunk of a sagging Cadillac. Inside, we got to know girls who had never considered taking their own lives. We fed them drinks, danced with them until they became unsteady, and led them out to the screened-in veranda. They lost their high heels on the way, kissed us in the humid darkness, and then slipped away to throw up demurely in the outside bushes. Some of us held their heads as they vomited, then let them rinse their mouths with beer, after which we got back to kissing again. The girls were monstrous in their formal dresses, each built around a wire cage. Pounds of hair were secured atop their heads. Drunk, and kissing us, or passing out in chairs, they were bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived—bound, in other words, for life.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 March, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


Black, African American, Nigger

Yesterday I read Sudhir Venkatesh’s “Gang Leader for a Day,” in which he describes his years as an embedded sociologist in the Black Kings, a Chicago gang. In the excerpt below, he describes his first meeting with the ganglord JT:

He took the questionnaire from my hand, barely glanced at it, then handed it back. Everything he did, every move he made, was deliberate and forceful.

I read him the same question that I had read the others. He didn’t laugh, but he smiled. How does it feel to be black and poor?

“I’m not black,” he answered, looking around at the others knowingly.

“Well, then, how does it feel to be African American and poor?” I tried to sound apologetic, worried that I had offended him.

“I’m not African-American either. I’m a nigger.”

Now I didn’t know what to say. I certainly didn’t feel comfortable asking him how it felt to be a nigger. He took back my questionnaire and looked over it more carefully. He turned the pages, reading the questions to himself. He appeared disappointed, though I sensed that his disappointment wasn’t aimed at me.

Niggers are the ones who live in this building,” he said at last. “African Americans live in the suburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can’t find no work.”

He looked at a few more pages of the questionnaire. “You ain’t going to learn shit with this thing.”

I’d been looking forward to reading Venkatesh’s book for a while, and it was riveting enough for me to finish it in one sitting. But I was disappointed. I expected much more insight on a variety of issues. For example, the way in which the drug gangs ran the housing projects of Chicago seemed to me a fascinating illustration of how informal systems of government and law & order function where there would otherwise be anarchy. I also expected to learn much more about the drug trade and the informal economy. (Venkatesh’s other work tackles these areas.) I suppose this book was meant for a general audience and kept reasonably light, with more storytelling and less analysis.

Also, the characters seemed like cardboard to me, and barring Venkatesh himself, I did not feel I knew any of them well enough. But this wasn’t a novel, and that’s excusable. For a book that takes about three-to-four hours to read, this is certainly worth the cost.

More:

Tyler Cowen’s review.
Venkatesh’s home page.
Venkatesh’s guest posts on the Freakonomics Blog.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 March, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


The Two Ways of Loving a Book

The greatest happiness, even greater than sex, is reading a good book. I’ve got lucky the last couple of days with Anne Fadiman, whose “At Large and At Small” was kindly gifted to me by Nilanjana a few days ago. It’s a book of familiar essays, and I derived great consolation from her essays on coffee and circadian rhythms, instantly losing my guilt at staying up every night drinking coffee by the barrel. I demand you go out and grab it and devour every word.

The excerpt below, though, is from “Ex Libris,” her book on the joys of reading. Here you go:

When I was eleven and my brother was thirteen, our parents took us to Europe. At the Hôtel d’Angleterre in Copenhagen, as he had done virtually every night of his literate life, Kim left a book facedown on the bedside table. The next afternoon, he returned to find the book closed, a piece of paper inserted to mark the page, and the following note, signed by the chambermaid, resting on its cover:

SIR, YOU MUST NEVER DO THAT TO A BOOK.

My brother was stunned. How could it have come to pass that he—a reader so devoted that he’d sneaked a book and a flashlight under the covers at his boarding school every night after lights-out, a crime punishable by a swat with a wooden paddle—had been branded as someone who didn’t love books? I shared his mortification. I could not imagine a more bibliolatrous family than the Fadimans. Yet, with the exception of my mother, in the eyes of the young Danish maid we would all have been found guilty of rampant book abuse.

During the next thirty years I came to realize that just as there is more than one way to love a person, so there is more than one way to love a book. The chambermaid believed in courtly love. A book’s physical self was sacrosanct to her, its form inseparable from its content; her duty as a lover was Platonic adoration, a noble but doomed attempt to conserve forever the state of perfect chastity in which it had left the bookseller. The Fadiman family believed in carnal love. To us, a book’s words were holy, but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them were a mere vessel, and it was no sacrilege to treat them as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated. Hard use was a sign not of disrespect but of intimacy.

Even better, if I may add to that, one does not need to expend energy seducing a book, for it is always compliant and often, if the writer is skillful enough, enthusiastic.

I was a courtly lover as a child, and my father, a devout collector of books, instilled in me a sort of reverence for them. In India, of course, it is considered disrespectful to touch a book with your feet, as if it is an idol—and I don’t anymore believe in idle worship. Now I am carnal, happily writing notes in the margins of books, leaving them facedown, reading them while eating and allowing my gravy-stained fingers to turn the pages, as if to leave a mark that says You are part of me now, and here, I am part of you as well.

“Ex Libris” is a beautiful book: if you love books, or are “bibliolatrous” like the Fadimans (what a charming word!), you will love every essay in it. I hope that love is carnal.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 March, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Personal


Listen Very Carefully

Here’s a lovely excerpt from the short story “Oh, Joseph, I’m so tired” by Richard Yates:

That small room of ours, with its double function of sleep and learning, stands more clearly in my memory than any other part of our home. Someone should probably have told my mother that a girl and boy of our ages ought to have separate rooms, but that never occurred to me until much later. Our cots were set foot-to-foot against the wall, leaving just enough space to pass alongside them to the school table, and we had some good conversations as we lay waiting for sleep at night. The one I remember best was the time Edith told me about the sound of the city.

“I don’t mean just the loud noises,” she said, “like the siren going by just now, or those car doors slamming, or all the laughing and shouting down the street; that’s just close-up stuff. I’m talking about something else. Because you see there are millions and millions of people in New York—more people than you can possibly imagine, ever—and most of them are doing something that makes a sound. Maybe talking, or playing the radio, maybe closing doors, maybe putting their forks down on their plates if they’re having dinner, or dropping their shoes if they’re going to bed—and because there are so many of them, all those little sounds add up and come together in a kind of hum. But it’s so faint—so very, very faint—that you can’t hear it unless you listen very carefully for a long time.”

“Can you hear it,” I asked her.

“Sometimes. I listen every night, but I can only hear it sometimes. Other times I fall asleep. Let’s be quiet now, and just listen. See if you can hear it, Billy.”

And I tried hard, closing my eyes as if that would help, opening my mouth to minimize the sound of my breathing, but in the end I had to tell her I’d failed. “How about you?” I asked.

“Oh, I heard it,” she said. “Just for a few seconds, but I heard it. You’ll hear it too, if you keep trying. And it’s worth waiting for. When you hear it, you’re hearing the whole city of New York.”

I read Yates’s story a few minutes ago in The New Granta Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford, which contains some lovely stories—check out the ones by John Cheever and Raymond Carver. But this one is my favourite.

For more on Yates, try these links:

Rebirth of a dark genius by Nick Fraser.
The Lost World of Richard Yates by Stewart O’Nan.
Out of the ashes by James Wood.

And here’s a fine interview of Yates in Ploughshares.

(Fraser link via Antiblurbs.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 February, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


Nothing Left To Steal

The anecdote of the day comes from Paul Collier’s book, The Bottom Billion:

Some years ago I found that my neighbor at a conference was was a former vice-president of Ghana. He explained that he was delighted to have been invited to the conference: the invitation had actually prompted his release from prison. He had been imprisoned following a coup d’état, and so we talked about that. He told me how unprepared the government had been for the coup; it was totally unexpected. Surely not, I said; coups are pretty common. He explained why the government considered itself safe: “By the time we came to power, there was nothing left to steal.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 December, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Economics | Politics


Should Government Subsidize the Arts?

Here’s Frédéric Bastiat on the subject:

Does the right of the legislator extend to abridging the wages of the artisan, for the sake of adding to the profits of the artist?

And to extend that question, what causes justify abridging the wages of the artisan?

(The quote was from Bastiat’s great essay, That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen. Read the full thing!)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 October, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Economics | Freedom | Old memes | Taxes


The Tiger and the Gorge

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha writes in The Rise of India:

There is a fascinating story in one of the classical Hindu texts that throws light on key existential dilemmas. A man is running hard to escape a hungry tiger. He tumbles in panic and rolls off a precipice. He is falling to what promises to be a certain death in the gorge below, when he just manages to clutch at a small tree that is growing on the rock face. He hangs there for dear life. The choice is a bleak one. Above him is a hungry tiger and below him is a deep gorge. There is death on both sides. Just then, the dangling man’s eyes fall upon an abandoned beehive that is a few feet above the tree that he is frantically hanging on to. There is honey dripping from the beehive. The man shuts his eyes and puts his tongue out to catch the sweet honey. It is his moment of fleeting bliss!

Now what does one make of this wonderful parable of existential dilemma? There are two possible explanations. The first is that humans are a contemptible lot. Here is this man facing a certain death and, even then, all he can think of is petty gratification of his senses. The story purportedly shows what trivial levels men can sink to in the face of important challenges. The other explanation is that the human condition is hopeless anyway. We are caught between the tiger and the gorge. It is the drops of honey that make our lives worth living. We maintain our humanity by aspiring to enjoy the little sensory pleasures.

I favour the second analysis, though I worry that the first one is correct and I am merely rationalizing. And I often look ridiculous to myself, head extended, mouth open, waiting for honey to fall. Why not just let go?

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 October, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | India | Small thoughts


An Accumulation of Losses

In a lovely build-up to a poem by Constantine Cavafy (reproduced here in italics), Rachel Cohen writes:

Walking in cities is an accumulation of small fragments of loss. A woman you want to keep looking at turns a corner; two people pass and you hear only, “It cannot be because of the child”; you look through a window at a drawing that looks like a print you have seen somewhere before, and it’s obscured when someone pulls a curtain across the window; a woman turns ferociously on the man standing next to her, but by the time you reach home you can no longer remember her face.

You begin to feel weighed down by all these losses, which seem separate from you, from the you that walks and sees and remembers and forgets and returns home. You wonder if the city in which you live is not the right city for you. Some other city might be less oppressive, freer. You dream of moving. And yet, you suspect that

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

(Cavafy, “The City”, written 1894, revised 1910, tr. Keeley and Sherrard)

Magnificent poetry, and an essay worthy of it. The extract was from “Lost Cities”, an essay by Cohen published in The Threepenny Review, though I first read it, a few hours ago, in The Best American Essays 2003, which I picked up at a Landmark sale for 99 bucks. (Yes, I mean rupees. Hurry!)

For more on Cavafy, check out Chandrahas’s post on the man and his work.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 October, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


VS Naipaul’s Advice To Writers

My post a few minutes ago about the misuse of the word populist reminded me of a list of suggestions VS Naipaul drew up many years ago for beginning writers at Tehelka. I first read that list in my friend Amitava Kumar‘s introduction to a fine collection of essays edited by him, The Humour and the Pity: Essays on V.S. Naipaul. Here it is, reproduced in full:

VS Naipaul’s Rules for Beginners

1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.

2. Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.

3. Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.

4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.

5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.

6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.

7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way. Small words; short, clear, concrete sentences. It may be awkward, but it’s training you in the use of language. It may even be getting rid of the bad language habits you picked up at the university. You may go beyond these rules after you have thoroughly understood and mastered them.

I think this is fantastic advice, even if I myself don’t follow all of it. (I write long sentences sometimes, but I tell myself that I’m no longer a beginner, so it’s allowed!) No. 2, especially, should be internalized by all of us, so that there is an end to long, meandering blog posts that go on and on and on…

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 October, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


Morals

Line of the day:

He waited years to have children because he thought it was wrong to sleep with a married woman.

That’s Dogbert speaking in Clues for the Clueless by Scott Adams. Joyous.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 October, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


The Style of the Huntress

If Cosmopolitan had existed in ancient Rome, Ovid would be the editor. Here’s Ovid’s advice to women:

What attracts us is elegance - so don’t neglect your hairstyle;
Looks can be made or marred by a skilful touch.
Nor will one style suit all: there are innumerable fashions,
And each girl should look in her glass
Before choosing what suits her reflection. Long features go best with
A plain central parting: that’s how
Laodamia’s hair was arranged. A round-faced lady
Should pile all her hair on top,
Leaving the ears exposed. One girl should wear it down on
Her shoulders, like Apollo about to play
The lyre; another should braid it in the style of the huntress
Diana, when she’s after some frightened beast,
Skirt hitched up.

I long to be a frightened beast. Anyway, go read Charlotte Higgins’s piece on Ovid’s advice on finding a partner, which is an extract from her book Latin Love Lessons. That’s certainly more inviting than Lovely Latin Lessons. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 September, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Miscellaneous


The Use of Force

Quote for the day:

The direct use of physical force is so poor a solution to the problem of limited resources that it is commonly employed only by small children and great nations.

David Friedman in The Machinery of Freedom, a wonderful book that I wholeheartedly recommend you read.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 September, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom


Certainty

Quote for the day:

The fanatic has no questions, only answers.

—Elie Wiesel, quoted in What Makes a Terrorist by Alan B Krueger.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 September, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Politics


Die With John Coltrane

I was chatting with my friend Shruti Rajagopalan about a piece she is writing on John Coltrane, and she forwarded me this excerpt from the book Jazz: A History Of America’s Music:

“Many years later”, the tenor saxophonist Bradford Marsalis recalled, “a lot of younger musicians were hanging around with Elvin Jones, and they were talking about, ‘Man, you know, you guys had an intensity when you were playing with Coltrane. I mean, what was it like? How do you play with that kind of intensity?’ And Elvin Jones looks at them and says, ‘You gotta be willing to die with the motherfucker.’ They started laughing like kids do, waiting for the punchline, and then they realised he was serious. How many people do you know that are willing to die—period? Die with anybody! And when you listen to those records, that’s exactly what they sound like. I mean that they would die for each other.”

Elvin Jones, by the by, was the drummer of Coltrane’s Classic Quartet, and worked with him on A Love Supreme, among other albums.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


Why Others Are Necessary

My great insight of the day is that we need other people just to be able to talk to ourselves. And social life is all about personal validation, with a few bonuses thrown in that were never the point in the first place. This thought, perhaps just a momentary and typically cynical fancy, strikes me after reading what Christopher Brookes has to say about Neville Cardus:

One of his favorite conversational adversaries was John Barbirolli. As well as being close friends, they were both great actors and each enjoyed upstaging the other “for the greater glory of God.” At one of their lunchtime meetings, true to form both spent the first hour talking sixteen to the dozen without taking the slightest notice of what the other might have been saying. The occupant of a nearby table recalled that to his surprise and admiration at one point in this exchange Sir John took out his false teeth but still kept talking. By this time Neville was of course a master of the art of masticating and conversing simultaneously….

This excerpt was quoted by Terry Teachout in this post. And I’m not being derisive of Cardus or Barbirolli—I admire anyone who can keep going.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Personal | Small thoughts


Julian Simon on Demographic Forecasting

Julian Simon writes in The Ultimate Resource:

[D]emographic forecasting is very easy - even movie actresses can do it.  Meryl Streep noted that “men were given more than twice as many roles as women in 1989 movies”, and then she forecast that “by the year 2000 we will have 13 percent of roles…and in 20 years we will be eliminated from the movies.”

Heh.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Economics


Eating History, Writing Sport

This is a such a wonderful paragraph:

After dinner he’s back in his room looking out the window. He’s supposed to be in his room doing his homework and he’s in his room all right but he doesn’t know what his homework is supposed to be. He reads a few pages ahead in his world history book. They made history by the minute in those days. Every sentence there’s another war or tremendous downfall. Memorize the dates. The downfall of the empire and the emergence of detergents. There’s a kid in his class who eats pages from his history books nearly every day. The way he does it, he places the open book under the desk in his crotch and slyly crumples a page, easing it off the spine with the least amount of rustle. Then he has the strategy of wait a while before he brings his fist to his mouth in a sort of muffled cough with the page inside his fist, like whitesy-bitesy. Then he stuffs in the page and the tiny printed ink and the memorized dates, engrossing it quietly. He waits some more. He lets the page idle in his mouth. Then he chews it slowly and carefully and incomplete, damping the sound by making sure his teeth do not meet, and Cotter tries to imagine how it tastes, all the paper points and edges washed in saliva, becoming soft and limp and blottered so you can swallow smooth. He swallows not so smooth. You can see his adam’s apple jerk like he just landed a plane on a foreign shore.

This is from Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which begins with the resonant line, “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” The prologue of the book, also published separately as a novella, recreates ‘The Shot Heard Around The World’ with some of the most evocative sportswriting I have read. Here’s the third para of that prologue, about people gathering for the game:

Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trams, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day—men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts, going to a game.

What sentences! If only someone could write on cricket like this…

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | IU Faves | Sport


Investing in an Ideology

Nick Cohen writes in his book, Far Left—How Liberals Lost Their Way:

Cult leaders know they must exhaust their followers as well as isolate them. The harder the party or the church forces them to work, the less time they have to think for themselves. As important, the harder they work, the greater their investment and the tougher it becomes to accept that the years of labour have been an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. Overly rational historians wonder why supporters of causes from Bolshevism through to Islamism don’t give up when they realize that the death and suffering will never bring the workers’  paradise or new Caliphate; why they fight on for decades, only to achieve more death and suffering? They forget the emotional outlay and the lost lives of dead comrades and martyrs. For immense and minute revolutionary movements alike, more suffering is easier to accept than the admission that all the previous suffering was in vain.

The point of needing to justify the investment one has already made in a cause is spot on, and explains the central problem of the Indian Left. Even if all evidence shows that Leftist philosophy is fatally flawed, that everything the Left does in the name of the poor actually harms the poor, that it does not make moral or utilitarian sense to assign different values to personal and economic freedoms, people of the Left, and Indian intellectuals who have built their worldviews and staked their reputations on Leftist dogma, will continue to be in denial. No matter how often they are mugged by reality, the likes of Prakash Karat and AB Bardhan will never have the courage to confront a lifetime of mistaken thinking, and to admit that it was all a waste. Given that, one can rationalise anything.

Cohen’s book is a wonderful read, by the way, and I can’t resist sharing this wonderful nugget about Gerry Healy, the leader of the Workers Revolutionary party, which imploded spectacularly in 1985 when 26 woman members accused Healy of sexual abuse:

The Sunday Mirror described how Healy’s seduction technique included chat-up lines Leon Trotsky would have recognized. ‘He would throw his arms around women and tell them to submit. If they protested—and some of them did—he would say, “You are doing this for the party and I AM THE PARTY”’.

Smooth.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom | India | Politics


A motionless black melancholy

Friedrich Nietzsche to Franz Overbeck, March 24, 1883:

[T]he days are so long I do not know any more what to do with a day—I have no “interests” at all. Deep down, a motionless black melancholy. And fatigue. Mostly in bed—that is the best thing for my health. I had become very thin—people were amazed; now I have found a good trattoria, and will feed myself up again. But the worst thing is: I no longer see why I should live for another six months—everything is boring, painful, dégoûtant. I forgo and suffer too much, and have come to comprehend, beyond all comprehension, the deficiency, the mistakes, and the real disasters of my whole past intellectual life. It is too late to make things good now; I shall never do anything that is good any more. What is the point of doing anything?

No, I am not quoting from it because I identify with it. I am not thin, and I haven’t really had an ‘intellectual life.’ Apart from that, well, I don’t know…

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Personal


Everything near becomes far

In 1977, in a lecture on blindness, the by-then partially blind Jorge Luis Borges wrote:

I want to end with a line of Goethe: “Alles Nahe werde fern,” everything near becomes far. Goethe was referring to the evening twilight. Everything near becomes far. It is true. At nightfall, the things closest to us seem to move away from our eyes. So the visible world has moved away from my eyes, perhaps forever.

Goethe could be referring not only to twilight but to life. All things go off, leaving us. Old age is probably the supreme solitude—except that the supreme solitude is death. And “everything near becomes far” also refers to the slow process of blindness, of which I hoped to show, speaking tonight, that it is not a complete misfortune. It is one more instrument among the many—all of them so strange—that fate or chance provide.

This lecture is one among many in Borges’s Selected Non-Fictions.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


The Patriot—Nissim Ezekiel

Reader Rachna Shetty writes in:

A few hours after reading your article, “The Republic of Apathy”, I read Nissim Ezekiel’s poem “The Patriot”. The poem is poignant as India completes 60 years of independence.

Indeed, it is—and it reminds of why I must read more poetry. Here it comes:

The Patriot
by Nissim Ezekiel

I am standing for peace and non-violence.
Why world is fighting fighting
Why all people of world
Are not following Mahatma Gandhi,
I am simply not understanding.
Ancient Indian Wisdom is 100% correct,
I should say even 200% correct,
But modern generation is neglecting-
Too much going for fashion and foreign thing.

Other day I’m reading newspaper
(Every day I’m reading Times of India
To improve my English Language)
How one goonda fellow
Threw stone at Indirabehn.
Must be student unrest fellow, I am thinking.
Friends, Romans, Countrymen, I am saying (to myself)
Lend me the ears.
Everything is coming -
Regeneration, Remuneration, Contraception.
Be patiently, brothers and sisters.

You want one glass lassi?
Very good for digestion.
With little salt, lovely drink,
Better than wine;
Not that I am ever tasting the wine.
I’m the total teetotaller, completely total,
But I say
Wine is for the drunkards only.

What you think of prospects of world peace?
Pakistan behaving like this,
China behaving like that,
It is making me really sad, I am telling you.
Really, most harassing me.
All men are brothers, no?
In India also
Gujaratis, Maharashtrians, Hindiwallahs
All brothers -
Though some are having funny habits.
Still, you tolerate me,
I tolerate you,
One day Ram Rajya is surely coming.

You are going?
But you will visit again
Any time, any day,
I am not believing in ceremony
Always I am enjoying your company.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | IU Faves | India


Are ideologies just a rationalisation…

... for the lust for power? Hans J. Morgenthau once wrote, in Politics Among Nations:

While all politics is necessarily pursuit of power, ideologies render involvement in that contest for power psychologically and morally acceptable to the actors and their audience. (Ideologies) are either ultimate goals of political action… or… pretexts and false fronts behind which the element of power, inherent in all politics, is concealed. They may fulfil one or the other function, or they may fulfil both at the same time. The nation that dispensed with ideologies and frankly stated it wanted power would… find itself at a great and perhaps decisive disadvantage in the struggle for power.

I found this at the start of an excellent piece in today’s Mint by my buddy Nitin Pai, “Why we must export our Islam.” Do read.

PS: The edit pages of Mint have much to read today. The main edit reprises the theme of my column yesterday, and speaks of how “Indian cricket will benefit from market competition.” And S Mitra Kalita writes in her column, “As we revel in India’s freedom next week, it would not be hyperbole to suggest that British imperialism has been replaced by something just as disturbing and powerful…”

I have an essay coming out tomorrow that elaborates on just that theme. Watch this space.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | India | Politics


Time lost

This is not just an excerpt from a book, but a short story in its entirety. It’s by Johann Peter Hebel, one of many in his collection of stories, The Treasure Chest:

To the Swabian regiment a recruit - such a beautiful, well-built youth - came in the year 1795. The officer asked him how old he was. The recruit answered: “Twenty-one. I was ill a whole year, otherwise I’d be 22.”

This is translated from German by MJ Iles, and I got there via PrufrockTwo.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


The roar on the other side of silence

Here’s AS Byatt on George Eliot:

When I was younger it was fashionable to criticise Eliot for writing from a god’s eye view, as though she were omniscient. Her authorial commenting voice appeared old-fashioned. It was felt she should have chosen a limited viewpoint, or written from inside her characters only. I came to see that this is nonsense. If a novelist tells you something she knows or thinks, and you believe her, that is not because either of you think she is God, but because she is doing her work - as a novelist. We were taught to laugh at collections of “the wit and wisdom of Eliot”. But the truth is that she is wise - not only intelligent, but wise. Her voice deepens our response to her world. [...]

[H]ere is Dorothea struggling with newlywed misery: “That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”

Indeed, we see ourselves as we want to see ourselves, and that is the extent of our self-reflection. Who can take the horrible truth?

(Link via PrufrockTwo.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Personal | Small thoughts


“You forget what you want to remember”

Often when I’m reading a book, I come across something I feel like sharing: a few lines, a stray passage, maybe even just a particularly well-constructed sentence. I may not like the whole book, and may not even have finished it at the time I feel like blogging that bit, so I can’t write about it on IU Faves or Rave Out. So I’m starting a new series with this post called Excerpts.

The first one is from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

They passed through the city at noon of the day following. He kept the pistol to hand on the folded tarp on top of the cart. He kept the boy close to his side. The city was mostly burned. No sign of life. Cars in the street caked with ash, everything covered with ash and dust. Fossil tracks in the dried sludge. A corpse in a doorway dried to leather. Grimacing at the day. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put in your head are there forever, he said. You might want to think about that.

You forget some things, don’t you?

Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts


Page 1 of 1 pages