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: India

The Language of Indian Politics

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

Indian politics is a strange beast. I just completed an online politics quiz that promised to tell me which political party I should vote for based on issues. I answered questions on economics, foreign policy, healthcare and brands of dog food to be told that I supported 81 per cent, 78 per cent and 68 per cent respectively of the main three parties’ positions. In truth, I am repulsed by Indian politics – but that finding is not as absurd as it seems.

How does one think about Indian politics? In Arnold Kling’s excellent book, The Three Languages of Politics, he argues that American politics revolves around ‘three dominant heuristics (oppressor-oppressed, civilization-barbarism, freedom-coercion).’ Progressives look at the world through the prism of oppression, conservatives through that of Western civilisational values being under threat, and for libertarians, individual freedom is paramount. These three ‘tribes’ have their own political language which usually just serves the purpose of talking past the others, who they typically regard as ‘unreasonable’. They frequently engage in ‘motivated reasoning’ – parsing the facts for only those that support the conclusions they’ve already reached – instead of ‘constructive reasoning’ – analysing the facts on their own merit to try and arrive at the truth. Kling argues that the political space in America is getting more and more polarised because these three tribes just can’t talk to each other anymore.

Now, in a superficial sense, it might seem that these heuristics are relevant to Indian politics. The BJP, with its religious nationalism, might seem like an Indian version of American conservatism. The Congress, from Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian Socialism to Indira Gandhi’s ‘Garibi Hatao’ to Rahul Gandhi’s vacuous social welfare talk, might seem to fall into the progressive camp. Local political commentators have long been used to analysing Indian politics in terms of ‘left’ and ‘right’. This is misplaced.

In America, while the beliefs of each side might seem idiotic to the other, they are at least internally coherent. The political parties in India, in contrast, are all over the map. If you cut-paste paragraphs from the party manifestos and submit me to a blind test on who said what, I would surely fail. (The fault would not be mine.) And if we ignore rhetoric and examine the behaviour of the parties when in power, whether at the centre or state level, the difference between them is negligible. If the BJP is against free markets – witness their stand on FDI in retail – the Congress has always been an enemy of free speech – they are the ones who banned The Satanic Verses. Who is left and who is right?

There are two factors that shape politics in India. One is the nature and structure of government. Our government is far more powerful than it should be, with an excess of discretionary power over the common man. We are worse off under our government, regardless of which party is in charge, than we were under the British. Our government is effectively set up not to serve us, but to rule us – and to extract hafta from us as the underworld would. Think of political parties as rival mafia gangs fighting for the right to loot us for five years.

The second factor shaping our politics is the nature of our electorate. Most of our politics is local; and all of it is tribal. Our tribes aren’t formed around ideas or ideologies, though, but around identity. (Caste and religion, mainly, in that order.) And the art of Indian politics is creating and sustaining votebanks out of these many disparate tribes. The alleged pseudo-secularism of the Congress, for example, is a consequence of their wooing minority votebanks. The rise of the BJP in Gujarat in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s, in fact, was partly because the Patels and the Brahmins came into the BJP fold as a backlash to the Congress masterplan of consolidating their KHAM votebank (Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim) with the help of reservations. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement, a political masterstroke, finished off what was left of the KHAM alliance. There were no higher ideals being pursued here: Indian politics is about patronage, about mustering up enough votes to get to power; and then rewarding the folk who got you in.

Our two main parties are an abomination. The Congress is an empty shell devoid of belief, and tied up in a feudalism that has harmed our nation and made Narendra Modi possible. (India would be a better place if Kamala Nehru had had a headache all of February 1917.) The BJP has its roots in a religious outfit in which grown men show how macho they are by doing PT drill in khaki knickers, though I believe their leader is more in thrall of Mukesh Ambani than Veer Savarkar. Hindutva is just a political tool. Offer Modi a chance to rule in hell or serve in heaven, and he will choose hell. Power is the only religion.

AAP might appear to be an exception to this – but is it really? It defines itself mainly in opposition to the other players – ‘politicians bad, we’re the common man, vote for us’—but what exactly do they stand for themselves? How you you reconcile a party that brings together strange bedfellows such as Kumar Vishwas and Medha Patkar, Meera Sanyal and Prashant Bhushan? Arvind Kejriwal correctly focussed on a huge problem in our country – corruption – but came up with a solution that would make the problem worse. (Instead of reducing the discretionary power of government, which is the root cause of corruption, he wants to add an extra layer of discretion in the form of a Jan Lokpal. Like, duh, that will work, really?) They’re an outstanding political startup, but politics is to governance what courtship is to marriage, and we all saw how they behaved in Delhi. 

One remarkable thing about these elections is that it seems to have shaken the young, the urban, the middle-class out of their apathy. I can’t say the same for myself.  It’s going to be a long, hot summer, and I’d like some lemonade.

*

Previously on Lighthouse:

Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 April, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


Politics and the Sociopath

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

‘For those of us climbing to the top of the food chain, there can be no mercy. There is but one rule: Hunt or be hunted.’ – Frank Underwood, House of Cards.

I have often wondered, what kind of person wants to be a politician? Growing up, we gravitate towards our future professions on the basis of interests or aptitude or, often, just circumstances. What we are drawn towards depends on the kind of person we are: someone bad at maths in unlikely to turn to engineering or investment banking, just as an introverted geek is probably going to avoid a career in news broadcasting. So what are you like, then, if you aspire to be a politician and actually end up being good at it?

First up, the stated reasons are mostly bunkum: aspiring politicians want to serve the community or make the world a better place only as much as Miss India contestants want to be like Mother Teresa. No, with few exceptions, people are driven to get into politics by just one instinct: the lust for power. It’s primal, it’s hardwired into us—the chief of the tribe has the best chance of propagating his genes—but there are many who want what only a few will get, and the road to the top is always bloody. Those who navigate this road successfully need to possess ambition, charm and ruthlessness in equal measure.

The kind of person best suited to navigating this road is a sociopath.  A sociopath—the term is also used interchangeably with ‘psychopath’—is essentially a person who feels no empathy towards his fellow humans, a condition that is innate and originates in the brain. (Damage to a part of the brain called the amygdala is the most likely culprit.) The psychologist Robert Hare defined sociopaths as “intraspecies predators who use charm, manipulation, intimidation, and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others, they cold-bloodedly take what they want and do as they please, violating social norms and expectations without the slightest sense of guilt or regret.”

Needless to say, sociopaths are therefore cut out for some professions more than others. While sociopaths comprise upto 4% of the general population, they are estimated to make up over 20% of the prison population in the US, which is what you’d expect from people who lack any conscience. It has been theorized that they are also over-represented among trial lawyers, bankers and, you guessed it, among politicians.

A study published last year analyzed the 42 US presidents leading up to George W Bush and found a high degree of sociopathy in their personalities. But this is not necessarily a negative assessment. As Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist who worked on the study, said, “Certain psychopathic traits may be like a double-edged sword. Fearless dominance, for example, may contribute to reckless criminality and violence, or to skillful leadership in the face of a crisis.” Indeed, over a century ago the philosopher and psychologist William James had said, “When superior intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce [...] in the same individual, we have the best possible conditions for the kind of effective genius that gets into the biographical dictionaries.” Sociopaths can aquire power more easily than others—what they do with this power is a different matter entirely.

While politics is the natural habitat of the sociopath, political systems differ across the world. Sociopaths are more likely to dominate politics in those countries where the state has more power and less accountability than it should. I would think, therefore, that there is a greater likelihood of finding a sociopathic politician in India than, say, in Scandanavia. Indeed, the disdain with which Indians regard politics and politicians in general indicates that there is something to this. In the general population, one in 25 people is a sociopath; list down the names of 25 Indian politicians and see, according to you, how many fit the bill.

There are exceptions, of course. In my view, the following gents don’t seem to be sociopaths: the hapless Manmohan Singh, an accidental politician; Rahul Gandhi, a buffoon trying to run the family business because he’s good at nothing else (or simply because it’s there); Arvind Kejriwal, a sanctimonious and misguided activist who took an unusual route into politics. But one man who seems to fit the bill, and who even his opponents would admit is remarkably talented as a politician, is Narendra Modi. To me, he seems to be a textbook sociopath, who believes in nothing, has no principles, and will simply do whatever it takes to get to power and stay there.

If you agree with my assessment, consider the implications: if Modi is indeed a sociopath, all the things you like or loathe about him may be misplaced. He may be neither a bigoted Muslim-hater nor a champion of development and growth, but simply an opportunistic politician pandering to different constituencies at different times. (On one side, the electorate of Gujarat, with whom the perception that he engineered the riots, whether or not he did, brought him much support. On the other side, the small business owners and industrialists who fund him, and spread the impression that he supports free markets while his actions reveal him, so far, to be no more than a crony capitalist.) Every aspect of his public image could simply be carefully constructed to get him political gain, and his actions if he becomes prime minister would be tailored around the constraints and opportunities of his political environment, which will be different at the national level from what they have been in Gujarat or on the campaign trail.

All this, I must clarify, is neither a defence nor a condemnation of Modi. Being a sociopath is biological destiny, just as being left-handed or gay or allergic to coriander is, but how you are born should be neither a reason to condemn you nor an exculpation for your actions. Men should be judged by what they do, not by what they are—and it is not the purpose of this column to examine whether Modi is a genocider or a developmental messiah, both of which are simplistic narratives anyway. Just consider this: If Modi is indeed a sociopath, whose public persona is constructed around whatever will get him to power in this democracy of ours, then whatever you like or dislike about him reveals less about him and more about the state of India itself. When India looks at Narendra Modi, it looks into a mirror. What you are is what you get.

*  *  *

Previously on Lighthouse:

A Godless Congregation

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 March, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics


A Tale of Two Cities

I was on a CNN-IBN show earlier this evening, where the topic under discussion was the arrest of two girls over a Facebook post one of them made (and the other one ‘liked’) about how the city should not be shut down just because Bal Thackeray had died. The channel seemed to be treating it as if the event was out of the ordinary. It wasn’t. It was same-old, same-old, in two distinct ways.

One, it illustrates the legacy that Thackeray has left behind. In my mind, Bombay and Mumbai are two separate entities: Bombay is a thriving cosmopolitan city which embraces immigrants and the entrepreneurial energy they bring with them, and is a harmonious melting pot of cultures. Mumbai is an intellectually repressed place, the creation of a divisive demagogue that thrives on intolerance. These two girls were arrested in Mumbai, the city that Thackeray built. Bombay is the city some of us cherish and are trying to save. And even though Thackeray might himself now be dead, his dangerous legacy clearly lives on.

Two, while in the studio they kept discussing Section 66 of the IT Act, the truth is that the problem is a broader one than just social media and the IT Act. The Indian Penal Code contains sections that are just as draconian, such as Sections 295 (a), 153 (a) and 124 (a), and Article 19 (2) of the Indian constitution lays down caveats to free speech, such as “public order” and “decency and morality”, which are open to interpretation and, thus, to misuse. It’s sad, but our constitution does not give free speech the same kind of protection that, say, the First Amendment of the US constitution does, and our laws, many of them framed in colonial times, allow authorities to clamp down on free speech whenever they so desire. (For more, read: ‘Don’t Insult Pasta.’) It’s not just the IT Act that is a problem here.

So Thackeray is dead, and free speech is ailing. Such it goes.

Also read

Bal Thackeray’s Poisonous Legacies—Rohit Chopra
Fear and Loathing in Mumbai—Vinay Sitapati
Why I can’t pay tribute to Thackeray—Markandey Katju
Thackeray could have done so much more for Marathis—Aroon Tikekar

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 November, 2012 in Freedom | India | News


‘The Businessman Panicked’

I don’t know why, but I find this kind of funny.

And what’s with the quote marks in that ToI headline? Succinct editorial comment, you think?

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2012 in India | News


‘An Offer They Could Not Refuse’

So while everyone’s celebrating the arrival of Akhilesh Yadav and how he’s revitalised the Samajwadi Party and UP Politics, take a look at this news report, about how Mulayam Singh Yadav managed to persuade his party veterans to allow his son to be chief minister:

Earlier during the day, when Akhilesh’s name was thrown up for discussion at the informal meet, the response was overwhelming. Only a few feeble voices of dissent were raised.

But an astute Mulayam did not take much time to dilute these voices. Sources said that Mulayam managed to placate both his younger brother Shiv Pal Yadav and close confidante Azam Khan by making an offer that they could not refuse.

While Shiv Pal was assured the most lucrative of portfolios in the new cabinet, Khan was promised the prestigious slot of assembly speaker.

Note the phrasing: the most lucrative of portfolios. And that, in a nutshell, is politics in India. Bring in the new, long live the old…

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 March, 2012 in India | News | Politics


Heavy Fuel

Mid Day reports:

In an attempt to prevent animal abuse, the state government has instructed petroleum giants Indian Oil, Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum to not transport oil using animal power.

image

I’m blogging this only because of the delicious irony of Petroleum companies transporting their fuel in bullock carts. I have no comment to make on the animal rights angle here— though it’s not as bizarre as the report about the five killer whales in San Diego who “have been named in a slavery case that argues they should have the same constitutional rights as humans.” I mean, if whales have rights, it could be argued that chickens and cows do as well, and then your food could start suing you posthumously. If PETA ever sues me on behalf of a chicken that I ate the previous night, I will snap produce a legal document with an illegible scrawl on it, and say, “The chicken signed this waiver of its rights before I cooked it. Choke on that.”

Ok, lunchtime.

(Photo courtesy Mid Day.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 February, 2012 in India | News | WTF


The Dalit Cartel

Check out this piece by Shikha Dalmia on the role that market forces play in perpetuating the caste system. Quite fascinating; though I wish her editors had thought of a better headline…

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 February, 2012 in India


Ban Nudity! Ban Nightlife!

Our right-wing lunatics are so funny sometimes that it’s hard to hate them. Balbir Punj has a bizarre (but typical, so maybe not so bizarre) rant up on the New Indian Express about how Western values are ruining our country. His arguments are so priceless that you have the read the whole thing, I can’t just excerpt for WTFness. Among other things, he thinks that ‘nudity’ and ‘nightlife’ are “Western aberrations”, and rants against same-sex unions on the grounds that they only take place for ‘pleasure’, which, in his opinion, is a bad thing. Punj has it exactly the wrong way around: the rising divorce rates he rails against are, in my opinion, something to celebrate, and the decline of family values is a damn good thing.

Ooh, I can imagine Punj choking on his coffee if he reads this. But wait, coffee must surely also be a Western aberration, no?

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 February, 2012 in Freedom | India | News | Politics | WTF


The Ill-Effects of a Rave Party in Udupi

The Hindustan Times reports that two Karnataka ministers were caught watching pornographic videos “when the house was in session.” The camera crew of a TV channel apparently “filmed cooperation minister Lakshmana V Savadi watching porn clips on his cellphone and women and child development minister CC Patil peeping in during a discussion in the House.” Savadi’s explanation:

I was watching the video clip of how a woman was raped by four people to know about the incident and prepare for a discussion on the ill-effects of a rave party in Udupi recently. I do not have the cheap mentality to see pornographic visuals.

I’m gratified that our ministers do so much research for their work. What, however, is a ‘cooperation minister’? Ah well.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 February, 2012 in India | News | Politics | WTF


‘No Touching, Only Seeing, Okay?’

I’m amazed that India hasn’t yet woken up to the fact that Himesh Reshammiya is the new Govinda. I mean, check out the awesome video below of ‘Umrao Jaan’, a song from his forthcoming film Damadamm. It’s WTF, yes, but it is brilliant in its WTFness, which is quite deliberate and over-the-top, much as Govinda was at his best. There are just so many kickass moments in this. I especially love the end…

(Link via Mudra Mehta.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 September, 2011 in Arts and entertainment | India | WTF


Vishwa Bandhu Gupta and Cloud Computing

If you thought Ponytail’s speech the other day was funny, wait till you see this: Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, former IT officer, explaining, among other things, why cloud computing is a problem:

I love how clueless the interviewer looks. On second viewing, his reactions are the funniest part of the video. Insanely good.

(Link via Arun Simha.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 August, 2011 in India | WTF


Arindam Chaudhuri (and 200 Million Murders)

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

An excerpt:

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

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

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

*  *  *  *

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

That would be an an excellent idea.

*  *  *  *

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 August, 2011 in India | News | Politics | WTF


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

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

image

(Via Joy Bhattacharjya on Facebook.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 August, 2011 in India | WTF


Anna’s Song

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

1. I’m anti-corruption.

2. I’m anti-Anna Hazare.

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

4. The law is frequently an ass.

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

6. Better the elected asses than the dictatorial unelected.

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

8. Yes, these views can be held simultaneously.

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

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

And some good pieces by others on the subject:

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

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

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

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

(Via Arun Simha.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 August, 2011 in India | Politics


Dead Rats and Incense Sticks

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

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

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 August, 2011 in Economics | India | News | Politics | Small thoughts


Potted Irregularities

The quote of the day comes from Sheila Dikshit:

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 August, 2011 in India | News | Politics | WTF


Cows vs Jawans

The Times of India reports:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 July, 2011 in India | News | Old memes | Cows | Politics | Small thoughts


Mr Kalmadi Needs To Pee

DNA reports:

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

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

[...]

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 July, 2011 in Dialogue | India | News | Politics | WTF


Mutton Samosas and the Soul

CNN reports the WTF news story of the day:

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

(Link via Sanjeev Naik.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 July, 2011 in India | News | WTF


Room Service

The Times of India reports:

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

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 July, 2011 in India | News | Small thoughts


The Prime Minister’s Speech

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

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

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

Good morning, gentlemen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good morning, gentlemen.


*  *  *  *

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 June, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder


India’s Second Freedom Struggle

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

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

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

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

One: Limit the power of government

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

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

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

Three: Reform the Indian Penal Code

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

Four: Ensure Free Speech in India

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

Five: Respect Taxpayer’s Money

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

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

Six: Treat the Right to Property as Sacred

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

Seven: Reform Schooling

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

Eight: Reform Agriculture

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

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

*  *  *  *

Also read: this similar wishlist from another time.

* * * *

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 June, 2011 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Viewfinder


The Tiger, the Painter and the Celebrity Machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *  *

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 June, 2011 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Journalism | Media | Sport | Viewfinder


To Hell With Family Values

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

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

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

For all this, I blame ‘family values’.

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

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

*  *  *  *

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

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

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

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

*  *  *  *

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

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

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

*  *  *  *

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

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

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 May, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Viewfinder


The Godman’s Blessing and the Sportsman’s Curse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *  *

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

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

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

*  *  *  *

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

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

*  *  *  *

Also read: An old personal essay by me,

“What’s Consolation For an Atheist?”

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 April, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Old memes | Astrology etc | Sport | Viewfinder


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 by Amit Varma on 25 April, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | News | Politics | Viewfinder


‘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 by Amit Varma on 22 April, 2011 in India | News | WTF


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 by Amit Varma on 21 April, 2011 in India | Journalism | Media | News


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 by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2011 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics | Viewfinder


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 by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2011 in India | Journalism | Media | Sport


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 by Amit Varma on 05 April, 2011 in Arts and entertainment | India | News | WTF


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 by Amit Varma on 12 January, 2011 in Arts and entertainment | India | News | WTF


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 by Amit Varma on 08 January, 2011 in Arts and entertainment | India | News | WTF


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 by Amit Varma on 07 January, 2011 in India | News | Politics | WTF


The Thunderous Silence

This is the 30th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 25.

Indian journalism stinks right now.

A few weeks ago, a plagiarism controversy broke over at India Today. Content theft is alarmingly common in Indian publications, but this was different because it involved the editor. Aroon Purie’s bylined editorial had lifted a few sentences, verbatim, off a piece written on Rajnikanth by Slate journalist Grady Hendrix. In Twitterverse and the Blogosphere, parallel universes that mainstream mediawallahs generally manage to ignore, poop hit the fan. Eventually, Purie came out with an explanation that was at once shameful and shameless: he was jet-lagged, he said, and someone else had written the piece for him. Hendrix duly ridiculed the explanation (scroll down to his comment here).—it couldn’t have been very hard to mine it for humour.

There were three issues that Puriegate highlighted. One, Indian publications don’t give a damn about plagiarism, which is a sackable offence in any respectable publication in the West. Over the years, established writers like film critics Nikhat Kazmi of the Times of India and Gautaman Bhaskaran of the Hindu have been caught plagiarising, and they have continued in their jobs. (Kazmi was exposed by fellow Yahoo! columnist Jai Arjun Singh; Bhaskaran was outed here.) While those were the high-profile cases, numerous other mainstream media plagiarists have been exposed in the last few years, but none punished. In fact, an India Today journalist was accused of plagiarism not long ago, and the magazine turned a blind eye. All of this amounts to an admission by editors that they do not believe that their writers are good enough to produce quality content under pressure, and so it’s okay to steal. That makes it ironic that they so often take the moral high ground, ranting and raving about corruption in public life, while they harbour thieves themselves.

The second issue, a rather comical one, was that Purie doesn’t write his own editorials. This has been known for years—as many as three different friends of mine have ghost-written his edits in the past—and it’s absurd. Purie is the editor of a major national magazine, and he’s incapable of writing 800 words of coherent text? No wonder he condones plagiarism, as does the institution he has built. No wonder their standards are so shoddy, their prose so uniformly insipid, their journalism so mediocre. And while that last sentence is true of India Today and Purie, it is also true of practically every major Indian newspaper and magazine today—and Purie is probably no worse than most other editors. So there you go.

The third issue, the most serious one according to me, is how the media closed ranks to support Purie. So much so that a column Mitali Saran wrote for Business Standard highlighting just these issues was spiked by the paper. Saran’s column, Stet, had run in BS since 2006, and its distinctive authorial voice made it one of the most highly regarded columns in the country. Then she wrote this piece; BS refused to carry it; and she walked away. Consider what she had written: “When our [media] is confronted with its own scandals, you can hear the clang of a fraternity closing ranks, followed by the weird sound of thousands of furious back-scratchings, followed by the thunderous silence of stones not being thrown in glass houses.”

That thunderous silence can be heard this week as well. I haven’t gone through the transcripts of the Niira Radia tapes, and I don’t have an opinion on the controversy itself. But it clearly is a major issue that should be covered by all major newspapers and TV stations. And yet, as The Hoot and blogger Harini Calamur point out, the media has mostly ignored their story, as if it doesn’t matter. But if this story doesn’t matter, then the media doesn’t matter, because this strikes at the heart of what journalism is and should be about. The media isn’t willing to do this self-examination—for obvious reasons. So much, then, for the notion of our journalists being the watchdogs of society—these dogs guard the burglars who strip our houses bare. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 December, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Journalism | Media | Viewfinder


It’s Only Words

This is the 29th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 18.

The world is so insane that it is a wonder satirists have a job. I read recently in Hindustan Times—yes, HT, not an Indian version of The Onion—that the makers of Golmaal 3 have been sued by The Indian Stammering Association “for mocking people who stammer.” Shreyas Talpade stammers in the film, and the other characters reportedly keep making fun of him. (I haven’t seen the film.) So this organisation of stammerers is upset about it, and they’re going to court. So far, an association of mute people hasn’t surfaced to join in the revelry—Tusshar Kapoor plays a mute character in the film, and ends up landing the heroine, which does not surprise me: which woman can resist a man who just shuts up and listens?

Seriously, are we a society of eight-year-olds? Even if the explicit intent of the film was to make fun of people who stammer—and it obviously wasn’t—so what? Such mockery always reflects badly on those doing the mocking, not on those being mocked. Why be so sensitive to criticism and mockery (or even abuse)? How insecure do we have to be to let mere words affect us so much?

A few months ago, a salesman from an finance company called me a couple of times to try and sell me an insurance package. I was irritable that day, and the second time I said something to the effect of “... and don’t f***in’ call me again!” before hanging up. 30 seconds later, the phone rings. It’s the same guy, demanding to know “Why you call me f***er? WHY YOU USE BAD LANGUAGE?” I lost it this time, and unleashed a string of pejoratives at the fellow. I hung up again, he called me again. Though I did not answer any more of his calls, he called me about 35 times in the next two days, and his number is still saved in my mobile phonebook as ‘Birla Sunlife Troll.’

Why did it matter so much to him that a random stranger called him X and Y? He screwed up his peace of mind, agitated over it for a couple of days, and it is likely that it affected his interactions with other people around him as well, besides endangering his job. It was irrational—but we are an emotional species more than a rational one, so it is understandable that one gets upset about it, even though being called a ‘bastard’ or a ‘bhainchod’ does not literally make one a bastard or a bhainchod—and hell, we don’t even know what ‘chootiya’ means. But while being upset at abuse or mockery is understandable, what is bizarre is that we expect the legal system, like a school teacher in a yard full of unruly schoolkids, to take over and punish the bad boys. What is even more bizarre is that our legal system actually has provisions for this.

I’ve written before about how certain provisions of the Indian Penal Code make it a crime to give offence in certain contexts, and how the Indian constitution does not provide adequate protection to free speech. All that is a shame, and an example of what’s wrong with our legal system. But there is also something wrong with us, that so many of us take offence so easily at something we could so easily ignore. It speaks of low self-esteem and diffidence, the very qualities that a stammering association should be trying to eradicate in its members. That makes this court case especially ironical, doesn’t it?

*  *  *  *

My respect always goes up for people who show they can laugh at themselves. The sardar who tells sardar jokes, the fat guy who jokes about his paunch, the poker player who mocks his own poor plays, these are my kind of people. They are comfortable in their own skins, and they get that we are a bumbling, imperfect species doomed, biologically, to self-destruct—so some things are just not worth getting het up about. The biggest human failing is that we take ourselves too damn seriously. When we do that, the universe laughs at us.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 December, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


No, We Can’t

This is the 28th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 11.

Barack Obama’s visit to India has made him such a huge celebrity here that it’s a wonder he hasn’t yet been asked to appear on Bigg Boss. I can imagine the housemates being given a task: ‘The President is coming, prepare for the president’s visit.’ So they get all set to greet Obama: Veena Malik puts on her best make up and pouts in front of the mirror, Dolly Bindra personally supervises the making of special gaajar ka halwa with secret ingredients, Ashmit Patel and Hrishant Goswami trim their eyebrows again, Shweta Tiwari puts on a finely-tailored, figure-hugging anarkali churidar kurta, and choreographs a dance for herself, Manoj Tiwari composes and practises a Bhojpuri song written specially for the occasion, Mahabali Khali practises punching through walls to impress the president, Sara Khan decides that she will try and call Obama ‘Pops’ so as to cuddle up to him, and they all line up in the garden as the moment nears. The gates swing open. Pratibha Patil walks in.

Okay, this is unlikely to happen—as unlikely as our country is to ever throw up a politician quite like Obama. A few months ago I was invited for a television talk show to discuss “Who is India’s Obama?” I couldn’t participate because I was busy at the time, but I found the question ridiculous. For a political figure like Obama to rise in India would be as unusual as growing palm trees in a snowfield. India’s political system would never allow someone like Obama to rise, and would disincentivise entry in the first place.

Consider how Obama climbed the ladder in politics. He wasn’t from a privileged background or a political family: he worked as a community organiser in Chicago in the 1980s, and then graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review for a while. He worked as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School for a few years, and wrote an acclaimed memoir. Given that background, you’d have expected him to stay in academics and write more books, maybe even winning a Pulitizer along the way. (He’s a very fine writer.) But he saw a different calling for himself.

It might have been idealism that motivated him to join politics, but he also possessed the pragmatic street-smartness without which you can’t rise in that profession. He networked superbly in the local political scene and built a base for himself. (Interestingly, poker was a part of his tactical mix, as James McManus points out in this article in the New Yorker. For more on the role poker has played in American public life, I strongly recommend you read McManus’s magisterial history of poker in America, Cowboys Full.) But Obama’s rapid ascent in national politics was not a result of backroom wheeling-and-dealing, but of the power of ideas. He came on the national scene when America, tired of the Iraq war and the growing partisanship in politics, was ready for a change. Obama, a thinker of much nuance, was also a speaker of great clarity and eloquence, and galvanized a nation with his words alone. Despite being criticized for his lack of managerial experience, he also ran perhaps the greatest political campaign in American history.

Now, can you imagine a similar career graph for a politician in India today? America is the most meritocratic of all countries, and their politics is truly democratic, which is why they have an incumbent president whom pretty much no one outside his city had heard of just ten years ago. India, on the other hand, as I have written before, has a feudal political system, and none of our parties are internally democratic in the true sense of the term. All our promising young politicians are scions of political families who have been handed an inheritance. The time is past when someone like Obama could emerge on the scene from nowhere and rise to the very top in Indian politics through the force of his ideas. An Indian Obama would be a professor at a business school, a top manager in a multinational company, an acclaimed writer with a modest income—or he would simply have gone abroad, where the opportunities are far greater.

Obama’s visit hasn’t prompted any self-reflection in our political elite or our media, though. We gush over him, we get orgasms when he praises India or disses Pakistan, but we don’t think a little harder and realise that what Obama says about India not being an emerging nation any more is just sweet talk. We are still a backward, emerging nation, and this is amply reflected in the poverty of our political landscape, where Ashok Chavan and Suresh Kalmadi stand for the quintessential, typical Indian politician. Can India produce an Obama in this kind of system? No, we can’t.

*  *  *  *

Needless to say, my admiration for Obama doesn’t necessarily translate to support for his policies. While it’s heartening to see a politician who doesn’t speak in platitudes and is capable of intellectual depth, Obama inherited an enormously difficult set of circumstances, and I find aspects of his approach to the economy somewhat dubious. (Indeed, when it comes to expanding the role of government in America, there isn’t much difference between GWB and BHO.) That said, even Lincoln and Roosevelt, it could be argued, were not confronted with two problems quite as complex as this economic crisis or as nebulous as the war on terror. But that’s a subject for another day.

*  *  *  *

Speaking of young politicians, check out England. Their prime minister, David Cameron, is 44 years old. His deputy prime minsiter, Nick Clegg, is 43. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (their equivalent of a finance minister) is the 39-year-old George Osborne. The leader of the opposition (and of the Labour Party) is Ed Miliband, who turns 41 this December. In contrast, Indian politicians in their 50s are often described as “young and upcoming”. It’s crazy—but perhaps a dysfunctional system deserves senile or our-of-date leaders. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder


Traffic Lights and Potholes

This is the 27th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 4.

It’s absolutely freaky, the shit that happens in the USA. A few days ago, my friend (and renowned former blogger)  Manish Vij lodged the following complaint online about a traffic signal (reproduced with permission; I’ve changed road and city names):

“The traffic signal on [AB-CD] Rd. at [XY] Dr. needs to be adjusted for traffic at night. The last five nights, the signal for through traffic on [AB-CD] has been red for up to 2 minutes when I’ve hit the signal between 1 and 4 am. It’s especially odd because [XY] is a small street which T intersections into [AB-CD], and even during the day rarely has more than a handful of cars turning left onto [AB-CD].”

Within two hours—yes, two hours—he got the following reply in his email inbox:

“Hi Manish,

The signalized intersection at [AB-CD] Rd. and [XY] Dr. is on a recall timing because of the recent construction of the new ramps some of the traffic detector loops have been cut. We have scheduled them to be replaced soon after the ramps at the intersection are all complete.

Thank you,

[Name here], P.E.

Associate Engineer

City of [AB] - Public Works”

In other words, he made a complaint to the local government, as a common citizen, without going through any contacts or other such loops, and actually got a reply the same day. That’s just crazy. Can you imagine that happening in, say, Mumbai? If a local traffic signal is malfunctioning, or neighbourhood garbage isn’t being cleared as regularly as it should, or the road outside my house is full of potholes, I wouldn’t have the slightest clue about where to go to complain. And if I did know where to go, I wouldn’t bother wasting my time for something that is merely a minor irritant for me, because I know that my government does not consider itself accountable to me. And there is not a damn thing I can do about it.

(On a tangent, if I did complain about potholed roads, I would be laughed out of whichever decrepit government building I lodged my complaint in. Everyone knows why Indian roads have potholes: so that they can be repaired, which means more commissions and kickbacks for everyone concerned. The government servants who look after our roads are incentivised, in a system where corruption is the norm, to build (or repair) roads badly so that they need to be repaired again soon. Rinse and repeat. For the common man, the roads are the point; for our government, the potholes are the point. The roads are merely the means to an end: the destination is the potholes.

Okay, end of bizarre parenthetical roads rant.)

What causes local governance to be so inept here when compared to the US? Well, firstly, it’s the incentives within our system of government. Our government is top-down and centralized. For example, it’s Sonia Gandhi in Delhi who will decide who becomes chief minister of Maharashtra, not local party workers driven by local concerns, and accountable directly to us. In an ideal system, government would be local at its core, like the Panchayati Raj kind of model, where we elect our local officials based on our immediate concerns, and their incentives are aligned towards servings us well—a sentiment that then travels upwards. But, as I wrote in an earlier column, ‘Politics and Inheritance’  there’s no inner-party democracy in India, and no local accountability (though tools like the RTI are a big step forward.) Our parties are effectively competing mafias. Consider the recent Adarsh Society scam, where a chief minister was found to have dubious dealings, and the party is still hunting around for a clean replacement. Well, here’s stating the obvious: There isn’t one. Politics in India is inherently dirty business, and you can’t rise to the top here without playing by the rules of that game.

The biggest cause for the state of governance in India, though, is our own attitudes. After I wrote in my last column that our governments believe they exist to rule the people, not serve them, my friend Vinay Suchede wrote in to elaborate: “Something that has irked me is the media itself uses phrases such as ‘Cong rule, BJP rule, Cong-ruled state, BJP-ruled state etc’. It promotes the notion that we are subjects and that we are ruled.” That’s a good observation, and illustrates that despite our managing to be rid of the British empire in 1947, we’re still not quite independent. We still have rulers, we still have royalty, and as long as we do, we will have potholes on our roads, garbage on our streets, and problematic traffic lights. And those are the least of our problems.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder


Politics and Inheritance

This is the 25th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on October 21.

One of the defining images of Indian politics of recent times came a few days ago in Mumbai when Aditya Thackeray stood on a stage at a Shiv Sena rally, drew a sword out of its sheath, and held it aloft. He had just been handed his inheritance—not the sword, but a political party. His grandfather Balasaheb Thackeray had just launched him in politics, and told the world that the Shiv Sena would now belong to him. (Not in so many words, of course: he asked SS supporters to ‘bless’ the young man.) And thus, a political party in the world’s largest democracy was handed over.

With a couple of exceptions, this is the fate of almost all Indian political parties. They are feudal and are run by dominant families like family-owned firms—which some might consider apt because the business of democracy is, after all, a business. The Congress is owned by the Gandhis: Rahul is almost uniformly considered to be a future prime minister, and most of their young leaders are themselves children of prominent politicians (there is no other way to get to the top on your own steam). But even here, there is a heirarchy, which is why there is no way Jyotiraditya Scindia or Sachin Pilot or Milind Deora is considered a future PM the way Rahul Gandhi is, because, like a kind of caste system, the heirarchy of families within the party percolates through generations.

Most regional parties are also like this. In Tamil Nadu, it is understood that after M Karunanidhi passes on, the DMK will pass on to one of his children. In Andhra Pradesh, Jagan Mohan Reddy reacted with shock and horror when the state Congress wasn’t handed over to him after the death of his dad, the former chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy. (It was like his dad died and suddenly some random stranger started living in his family home.) From Mulayam to Akhilesh, Narayan to Nitesh, Jaswant to Manvendra, Indian politics is one long family soap, with plenty of drama and predictable outcomes. (Indeed, think of the Congress as a saas-bahu saga, and there you have it, the last 45 years.)

I don’t have an issue with politicians’ children taking up their parent’s profession. Anyone should be free to enter politics, and the kids of a politician would have such an early and constant exposure to that world that their interest in it is quite natural. (Besides, power is intoxicating and addictive, a factor that would not feature in most other professions.) My issue, rather, is with the way our parties are structured: despite being players in a democracy, none of them are democratic themselves.

A political party should ideally be a democracy within a democracy. In the US, if you want to run for election as a Democrat or Republican, you first have to win primaries within the party. Even if you are from a royal family of politics, you need to get out in the political marketplace and convince the members of your party that you have what it takes. You need to be clear about where you’re coming from ideologically; you need to discuss policies in concrete terms; you are under public scrutiny, held accountable for your words. Even George W Bush and Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy weren’t handed their party on a platter: they had to go out and get the votes.

Well, over here, parties don’t have primaries, and are run by insiders in proverbial smoke-filled rooms. Rahul Gandhi or MK Azhagiri or Uddhav (or Aditya) Thackeray do not have to campaign for votes within their parties and win party primaries—they are anointed, not elected. By saying this, I am not knocking them, but the systems they have inherited. Politics should find its expression from the grassroots up, but instead we have top-down politics, with all our parties—and therefore every government—believing that it exists to rule the people, not to serve them. Political parties, for all practical purposes, are competing mafias, battling for the spoils of power and the right to take hafta in a particular neighbourhood. The Thackerays are not all that different from the Corleones.

*  *  *  *

To his credit, Rahul Gandhi has made the right noises, spurning positions in government even as he speaks of introducing inner-party democracy in the Congress. His mother had also chosen to relinquish the prime minister’s seat, and for that, they have my respect, and the benefit of the doubt. But here’s the thing: despite his being such a prominent politician, a probable future PM, we know next to nothing about what Rahul believes in or stands for. What are his views on economic reform? What does he feel about greater fedaralism and smaller states and more local self-governance? What are his recipes to tackle the many ills that ail our society, from poverty to corruption to (the lack of) universal education? What does he think is the most likely practical solution to the Kashmir problem?  In the US, he would have to spell all this out in some detail, in TV debates and otherwise. Here, barring a few bromides and soundbytes, he has offered little.

How odd it is that in this political marketplace, we, the consumers, know so little about the products and brands we have to choose from. To a large extent, the fault is ours. We need to be more demanding of the people who take and squander our taxes. But our daily lives have enough to occupy us, and apathy comes easy. Isn’t that so?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics | Viewfinder


Such a Wrong Journey

This is the 24th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on October 14.

You have to feel sorry for poor Rohinton Mistry. A few years ago he cancelled a book tour in the US because on its first leg, “as a person of colour he was stopped repeatedly and rudely at each airport along the way - to the point where the humiliation of both he and his wife [became] unbearable.” This was in the aftermath of 9/11, with racial profiling in full swing and Mistry, brown and bearded, having the wrong kind of looks. Still, he could have consoled himself with the thought that the US isn’t where he’s from, and he would never be treated that way in Canada, where he lives, or in Mumbai, where he was born. Right?

Ah well. While Mistry in person hasn’t been harrassed, his Booker-nominated book, Such a Long Journey, was recently withdrawn from the Mumbai University syllabus because of a protest spearheaded by Aditya Thackeray, the 20-year-old grandson of Bal Thackeray. Thackeray Jr., who is being launched in politics as the head of the Yuva Sena, a youth wing of the Shiv Sena, reportedly instigated the student wing of the party, the Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena, to launch a protest against the book. The reason, according to the BVS chief, was that the book “uses extremely obscene and vulgar language in its text and also makes anti-Sena remarks.” The university’s vice-chancellor, presumably not wishing to be beaten up by Shiv Sena thugs, duly took it off the syllabus.

Thackeray Jr. justified his decision in an interview to Mid Day saying, “It is a question of people’s sentiment and India is a very sensitive country. There is a man (Balasaheb Thackeray) who has millions of followers and the author insults him purely on the basis of his own opinion and not the facts. That is where the problem lies.” Watch the video of the full interview on that page, it’s fairly amusing—and also quite scary. When Thackeray says, “You can’t just abuse someone,” it’s not just the immature voicing-off of a random 20 year-old kid, but a portent for the future, from the inheritor of a political party that uses intimidation and thuggery as its political weapons of choice. True, it is not the only party doing so—but it is the primary party responsible for what my friend Salil Tripathi, in an excellent column published today in Mint, calls “Bombay’s decline into Mumbai.” This is what we are becoming, and these are the people who will take us there.

*  *  *  *

The Sena does not have a monopoly on intolerance: instead, it is actually written into our laws, and in our constitution, neither of which respect free speech. (I’ve been writing about this for years, for example in my old piece, ‘Don’t Insult Pasta.’) The Indian Penal Code, framed by the British in colonial times, contains a number of laws that make giving offence a crime, and throttle free speech. For example, there’s Section 295 (a), which makes it a non-bailable offence to “outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” There’s Section 153 (a), which seeks to punish “any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities”. There’s Section 124 (a), which prescribes life imprisonment for anyone who “by words or expression of any kind brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government”—something that any critic of any government could be accused of.

The constitution, framed not by the British but by the freedom fighters who got us independence, cops out when it comes to free speech. While Article 19 (1) (a) pays lip service to it, Article 19 (2) lays out “reasonable restrictions” such as when it applies to matters such as “public order” and “decency or morality”, matters which are, of course, open to interpretation. I’d love it if we had something like the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which contains no such caveats—but sadly, we don’t.

Adults should not run around complaining about the words of others. Even in school, the kid who ran to the teacher demanding that the boy who called him a monkey should be punished was laughed upon by everyone. But in our public life, it has somehow become quite okay to complain that someone who has offended you should be punished. If giving offence is a crime, then free speech is impossible, because anything you say can potentially offend someone or the other. And people who take offence so seriously are demeaning both themselves and the entities on behalf of which they are getting offended.

If Bal Thackeray is indeed such a great figure, then why should the words of one Rohinton Mistry bother him? Are any of our religions so fragile that they need to be protected from the criticism of mere humans? God, if He existed, would no doubt be exasperated by the things humans do on His behalf. “Am I so powerless?” I can imagine him asking. “Am I so petty? Jeez, you humans suck. Stop this videogame already.”

My fellow Yahoo! columnist Nitin Pai coined a term a few years ago that I find very apt: Competitive Intolerance. It’s become a rising trend in politics in recent years, especially in Mumbai, where the Shiv Sena and the MNS, with their warring Thackerays, are constantly finding grievances to complain about. These have nothing to do with the state of public services or infrasructure or poverty or any of the urgent issues that should concern us all, but silly things like mere words in a book. Like, really, come on.

*  *  *  *

It, of course, remains a lasting matter of shame that India, the world’s largest democracy, was the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses. Until that ban is reversed, do not tell me that India is a free country. We accomplished part of the job in 1947—but much remains to be done, in so many different areas. Sadly, most people don’t care. Do you?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


Let’s Talk About Sex

This is the 22nd installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on September 30.

Location: A small preview theatre in South Mumbai. Characters: Five members of the Censor Board for Cinema in India, and a young bespectacled man, his brows furrowed, looking younger than his years despite streaks of grey in his hair. They are watching a film called Lunch, Snacks aur Dhokla.

The film is centred around the instinct to eat, and the desire for food that is an undercurrent in all our social interactions. Through the film, hidden cameras show people engaged in the act of wanting to eat, plotting about eating, dreaming of food and, in a scandalous five-minute scene, two characters actually sitting at a table and eating food. It is a provocative sequence: two people, alone together with their desire, shamelessly, repeatedly, keep thrusting food into their oral orifices, and then chewing, chewing, chewing.

So far, the censors have been tolerant. Barring the occasional small change, such as asking that a clearly racist putdown of black coffee be chopped, they haven’t been demanding. But at the end of this bold scene, they ask for the film to be paused. The censors whisper among themselves, so softly that the director can practically hear his racing heartbeat. Finally, the chief censor asks the director to step forward.

“This is too much,” says the safari-suit clad optician. “We cannot have this scene. You must cut it.”

“But I’ve applied for an ‘A’ certificate,” says the director. “What’s wrong with it if only adults see it?”

“Our society is not ready for it. Even our adults need to be protected from themselves. We know what’s good for them, trust me. Cut that scene.”

The director swallows his pride, forgets all his logical arguments, and begs. This works. The censors allow him to keep half the scene. Five minutes becomes two-and-a-half minutes of raw, unrestrained, uninhibited eating. It is more than the director could have hoped for 20 years ago—but that’s poor consolation. He gets home just in time for dinner and, while having sex, starts crying.

*  *  *  *

The scene above is my reconstruction of what the film-maker Dibakar Banerjee might have gone through when the censor board saw his film Love Sex aur Dhokha, based on my friend Rahul Bhatia’s report in Open magazine. The only difference is that I’ve replaced sex with eating. This is a significant difference, and turns the scene at the censor board from one that is routine and expected to something surreal. And yet, in my view, it is absurd that this difference should exist.

Sex and eating are both acts that are central to our existence. We are hardwired for hunger and lust.  These are the primal instincts that drive us, and are at the heart of all our motivations. And yet, our attitudes towards them are so different.

We eat openly, and talk about food openly. It is not socially unacceptable to ask a friend of the opposite sex if she has tried the seafood risotto at the new Italian restaurant down the road—but ask her if she’s tried the reverse cowgirl position, and you’ll get some strange looks, especially if there are other people around. We can ask people out for dinner—and yet, not ask them casually if they’d like to have sex with us. (Though the former is often intended as a prelude the latter.) We have to find roundabout ways of getting to the point. (In evolutionary terms, the only point.)

We might admire foodies for their taste and discernment, but we look down on a woman who ‘sleeps around.’ (Indeed, the word ‘slut’ is a pejorative, which is so WTF.) We don’t talk about sex openly, and in some cultures more than others, feel embarrassed by public displays of affection. Most bizarrely, in an Indian context, we censor the depiction of sex in our movies, even in those certified for adults alone, as if we became a nation of more than 1 billion people by kissing with our lips closed. It is absurd—as absurd as the scene that begins this piece.

*  *  *  *

Thankfully, literature does not have to deal with the restrictions that film-makers face. Those battles were won long ago, and it is not uncommon for a mainstream novel to feature detailed and evocative descriptions of all kinds of sexual acts, with a straightforward frankness that most cinema, even in the West, cannot match. I say ‘thankfully’, because of a recent assignment I’ve just taken up: I’ve been asked to put together Electric Feather 2, Tranquebar’s follow up to Electric Feather, the groundbreaking anthology of erotic fiction from South Asia, which was edited by the novelist Ruchir Joshi. I’m excited by the task ahead of me, not just from the point of view of enjoying erotic writing, but also from a literary point of view.

The Indian subcontinent is a sexually repressed region which is just beginning to stumble towards modernity. This is a land where the 19th century coincides with the 21st—and they often share a bedroom or a head. Sex is one of the major fault lines in our society, and a literature that attempts to capture these times will, at some level, have to enter that territory. An anthology of erotica from the subcontinent is, thus, much more than a chance to create a naughty collection that you can read in the loo: it is a serious literary project than can aspire to make contemporary readers sit up with the shock of recognition—and readers a hundred years from now to say, ‘Ah, so that is how it was.’

I’m already approaching writers I admire for submissions to the anthology. And I’m also open to new voices, or voices that I may simply not be aware of, in my ignorance. So if you are a writer and think you’d be interested in contributing, do write to me at amitblogs[AT]gmail[DOT]com.

*  *  *  *

It’s a little ironic that I should be editing this collection, because I find writing about sex immensely hard—only partly because of the absurdity of the act itself. As a fiction writer, I try to keep my writing at a minimal and functional level. I don’t have a taste for baroque, expressionistic writing, and I also do not like writing that shows a fetish for description. Given that writing about sex is usually descriptive, and often lushly so, I tend to skim over those bits when they pop up in books. The subject is such that you have to be pitch-perfect when you attempt it, and that makes it very hard. No wonder so many otherwise great writers have performed so ineptly at writing about sex, as a glance at the past shortlists of the Bad Sex Writing awards would demonstrate.

That said, I’d rather have the writers in this anthology overreach instead of holding themselves back. As in sex itself, if they avoid self-consciousness and just enjoy themselves, it should work out okay.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Personal | Viewfinder


Not My Festive Season

This is the 21st installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on September 23.

I write these words in my living room as a cacophony of drumbeats assails me from the streets outside. This is not an accompaniment of my own choosing: for the last hour, I’ve been listening to my iPod to keep the noise away. Sarah McLachlan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, John Mayer, AR Rahman and Monsters of Folk have all tried their very best, but there’s only so much music one can listen to, and I can’t take the bloody drumbeats any more. “Go, thee, to the sea,” I feel like proclaiming, “and drown thee, just for me.”

It is not that I have anything against Ganesh Chaturthi per se. Ganesh Chaturthi was turned into a mass festival by Lokmanya Tilak for a reason: as Wikipedia puts it, “to bridge the gap between Brahmins and ‘non-Brahmins’ and [...] generate nationalistic fervor among people in Maharashtra against the British colonial rule.” It seems that “the festival facilitated community participation and involvement in the form of intellectual discourses, poetry recitals, performances of plays, musical concerts, and folk dances.”

Well, where are the intellectual discourses, poetry recitals, performance of plays? For the common man, such as me, the festival is an endless array of disturbances, especially on Visarjan days, when hordes of people troop to the sea with their Ganesh idols, banging drums, blasting music, blowing whatever those local vuvuzela thingies are called. Besides the traffic being disrupted, the noise is deafening. Local laws prohibit public gatherings from playing music at night at a fraction of the decibel levels these blokes churn out, but where there is religion and cultural nationalism, what good is the law? If I take a procession down the street on Beth Orton’s birthday playing “Central Reservation” at half this volume, the cops will come and dunk me into the sea.

I don’t want to pick out just Ganesh Chaturthi: I’m an equal opportunity festival basher, and disapprove also of Holi (with its socially sanctioned hooliganism) and Diwali (with its severely polluting firecrackers, which once used to trouble bronchial ol’ me, though I’m no longer assailed by those issues these days). My issue is not with festivals per se, though, but the way they’re celebrated by some people. (Also, in the case of Diwali, one does see hazaar shopping, and for an evil capitalist consumerist like me, there is nothing better than the smiles on people’s faces after money well wasted. The women also dress up quite prettily, serving a reminder of how Indian women are so much better looking than Indian men—not a matter you will find me complaining about.)

It’s not just the festivals: any occasion of celebration in India, be it New Year’s Day or winning a cricket match, brings out the worst in many people. No doubt sociologists would have theories on the repressed Indian (male) masses letting loose at every chance they get, and there might well be socio-economic factors here, but I’m not going to pontificate on all that here. (Also, you might think I’m an elitist, trying to drown out the Real India [TM] with my noise-free Bose headphones, while farmers are dying in Vidarbha.) All I want is for the noise to end so I can get on with my life, and living near the sea is no longer a nuisance. Until next year.

*  *  *  *

Don’t you think there is something terribly poignant in hordes of people who live sad and sordid lives taking idols of their deity every year to the sea, dunking them there, continuing with their sad and sordid lives for 12 more months, without the divine intervention that should logically follow the dunking, and then rinsing and repeating? I know it could serve as a metaphor for the larger pointlessness of things, but isn’t this particularly pointless? Do these guys not get it? There’s no one up there, duh.

That said, modaks are okay. There’s always a flip side.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 November, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Viewfinder


Urban Planning—A Short Story

This is the 18th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on August 26.

Let’s take a break from serious column writing this week. Here’s a short story I wrote a long time ago that has just been published by Rupa as part of a collection of Indian short stories, Why We Don’t Talk. It’s called ‘Urban Planning’, and features, in a side role, Abir Ganguly, the narrator of my novel My Friend Sancho.

‘The commissioner will see you now,’ said Gaitonde, the secretary of the municipal commissioner of Mumbai, to Abir Ganguly, the journalist from The Afternoon Mail.

Ganguly walked into BR Sharma’s office. He walked up to his desk and offered him his hand. BR Sharma pretended to look at his mobile phone. ‘Sit down, Ganguly,’ he said. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘Sir, I need to ask you a question about the recent move of the Mumbai Stock Exchange from Worli to Vashi. I need to know if your office authorised it.’

‘Well, yes, we were told the stock exchange is moving, and we do not have a problem with that. We were told it will relieve pressure off the city center towards New Mumbai. That is a good thing.’

‘Well, sir, I am just coming from Vashi. From the stock exchange building.’

‘It’s ready already? The new building? How is it?’

‘The new building is the old building, sir.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The new building is the old building. The stock exchange has shifted, but not from one building to another. The Mumbai Stock Exchange building itself has shifted to Vashi. From Worli.’

‘The building itself? How is that possible?’

‘That’s what I’m here to ask you sir.’

‘So what is in Worli? Where, um, the building used to be?’

‘Sir, there is a Sulabh Shauchalaya there, and half of a public park. They used to be in Vashi.’

‘How can this be?’

‘That is what I am asking, sir?’

‘I will see for myself.’

*  *  *  *

BR Sharma got into his Ambassador with the deputy commissioner for urban planning, S Lokapally. ‘Bahubali,’ said BR Sharma, ‘Do you have any idea what is going on here?’

‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’

‘Lokapally?’

‘Yes, sir. Lokapally.’

‘Ok. Lokapally, do you have any idea of what is going on here?’

‘No, sir.’

*  *  *  *

The ambassador stopped at where the gate of the Mumbai Stock Exchange used to be. There was a crowd of curious people being shepharded away by police. BR Sharma’s driver got out of the car, sprinted round to BR Sharma’s door, and held it open. BR Sharma got off, grabbed the belt of his trousers and, in an authoritative way that made it clear who the boss was, hauled it up by an inch. He really did need to go to the gym.

Oh, and the building wasn’t there.

As Ganguly had said, there was a Sulabh Shauchalaya and half a public park, with half a bench at one corner of it.

‘I have never seen anything like it before,’ said BR Sharma.

‘Neither have I, sir,’ said Lokapally.

‘Veeravalli,’ said BR Sharma.

‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’

‘Lokapally,’ said BR Sharma, ‘I want to get to the bottom of this. Institute an enquiry. Set up a committee. I want to know how that building got from here to there without our permission.’

‘Yes, sir.’

*  *  *  *

Later that evening, the municipal commissioner, the police commissioner and the home secretary were ushered into the chief minister’s office.

‘I want to know, how this can happen?’ asked Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil, the chief minister.

‘It is most worrying, sir,’ said BR Sharma. ‘I think this is a law and order issue. Our police is supposed to guard our property. How come none of the policemen saw this happen?’

JP Fernandes, the police commissioner, bristled at this. ‘Urban planning is the direct responsibility of the municipality,’ he said. ‘If a building moves from Point A to Point B, the municipality is responsible. Had I been asked to provide forces to defend any of the buildings in the city, I would have done so. Mumbai’s law and order is the best in the country.’

‘The best in the country, my foot,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Now a building has gone, tomorrow the whole of South Mumbai will move to New Mumbai, and your policemen will be sitting on the kattas putting oil on their paunches.’

‘Now now, Sharmaji,’ said JP Fernandes, ‘this is most unwarranted. Why don’t you first keep your buildings in their place?’

Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil stepped in. ‘Calm down, men. This is not the time to fight.’ He turned to Pravin Deshmukh, the home secretary. ‘Pravin, the inquiry committee will take some time to give their report. But the press is hounding us for answers now. What are we to tell them?’

‘I have an idea, sir,’ said Deshmukh. ‘Let’s tell them that we ourselves shifted the building from Worli to Vashi. We will say that it was a planned move by us, which saves on construction costs. We will be enigmatic about how we shifted the building, and will say that we cannot reveal our methods, it is a state secret. And we should guard the new location of the building, to make sure that nothing happens to that.’

‘Good idea,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. He turned to BR Sharma. ‘I would like you to speak for us at the press conference. And Fernandes, I want your forces guarding the Mumbai Stock Exchange round the clock. Okay.’

‘Yes, sir,’ the two men said together.

*  *  *  *

BR Sharma waited until the flashbulbs stopped going off. Then he read out the statement prepared for him by Deshmukh’s secretary, Vincent Lobo. Then he asked for questions.

Ganguly, who’d had his ear to his mobile phone until a minute ago, popped his hand up.

‘Sir, can you tell us if the municipality plans to shift any more buildings in this manner?’

‘No. I mean yes. I mean yes, I can tell you that no, we will not shift any more buildings for now. One is enough.’

‘Well, sir, I have just got news on my cellphone that the Air India building has shifted to Mahim.’

‘What?’

‘Yes, sir. The Air India building has shifted from Nariman Point to Mahim. It is now in the middle of the road at the start of the Mahim-Bandra causeway. In its place in Nariman Point, according to what my colleague just told me on the phone, is a traffic signal with a bird on it.’

‘A bird?’

‘Yes, sir. A bird.’

*  *  *  *

Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil was pacing up and down when BR Sharma entered his cabin.

‘Varma,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. ‘Here you are.’

‘Sir, my name is Sharma.’

‘Ok, Sharma. Look, these bloody journalists are hounding me, and my press officer will get an ulcer like this. And the PM has been calling, and I don’t know what to tell him. I need an explanation. I need this matter sorted out. Should we conduct a puja?’

‘Sir, I’ve already set up one enquiry commission. I’ll set up another one.’ This was unprecedented in terms of efficiency. Two enquiry commissions looking into the same thing? Amazing.

‘And what will your enquiry commissions do, ask the buildings why they moved?’

‘Sir…’

‘I know all about your bloody enquiry commissions. I want answers. I want to know how a building can move from here to there. And did nobody see it? Mumbai never sleeps, Mumbai never sleeps, we are told. Well, somebody must have seen the building shifting. Find him!’

*  *  *  *

Three hours later, BR Sharma and Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil met again, this time in the police commissioner’s office. ‘We have a witness,’ said JP Fernandes. ‘He is waiting in the next room. He says he was staring at the Air India building when it moved.’

‘Why was he staring at it?’ asked BR Sharma.

‘What else could he stare at? Have you seen the other buildings there?’

The three men walked into the next room, where an old man in a dirty white kurta-pajama sat on a chair. His hair was ruffled. He clearly hadn’t bathed in many days, and the police inspector with him, Inspector Waghmare, held a handkerchief to his nose. (His own nose.)

‘So tell us the details now,’ barked Fernandes. ‘What did you see?’

‘Sir, I was sitting at the paanwalla opposite the Air India building, just about to put a paan into my mouth, when I heard a loud thud. I looked at the building. It was shaking.’

‘Shaking?’

‘Yes, sir. And then a lighting bolt appeared and hit my paan.’

‘A lightning bolt? Your paan?’

‘Yes, sir. And then Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, appeared before me in a silk Banarasi saree with lots of gold jewellery. She wore a red bindi on her forehead. She had a Rolex watch on her wrist. She had a twinkle in her eye.’

Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil looked at BR Sharma. BR Sharma looked at Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.

‘She told me,’ the witness continued, ‘that all my good deeds had finally borne fruit, and she was going to make me rich beyond my wildest dreams. She was going to give me a prime parcel of land in South Mumbai. The plot that was behind her at that moment, in fact.’

‘And what did you say?’

‘I said, but Deviji, there’s a building there.’

*  *  *  *

BR Sharma’s phone rang. It was his secretary. ‘Sir, Mr Lokapally says that the enquiry commission is gathered in the conference room. They are waiting for you.’

‘Let them wait,’ thundered BR Sharma. ‘I am the municipal commissioner of Mumbai. Let them wait. And, er, have you organised samosas?’

‘Yes, sir. The samosas are on their way to the conference room.’

‘I’ll be there in a minute.’ BR Sharma hitched up his belt, smoothened his shirt, patted his paunch consolingly, and headed towards the conference room. The samosas were already there, and many of them were being eaten.

‘You are here!’ said BR Sharma.

‘Yes, sir,’ said Lokapally. ‘We were waiting for you.’

BR Sharma grabbed a samosa and looked around the table. He was bad at names, but he knew what they all did. There was an architect, a civil engineer, an urban planner and the head of the Mumbai Stock Exchange at the table.

‘Tell me, gentlemen, what do you make of what has just happened?’

‘Sir, it is not possible,’ said the civil engineer.

‘What is not possible?’

‘Sir, the building shifting like that. It is is not possible. You see, buildings have deep foundations, and they cannot just…’

‘But it has shifted,’ BR Sharma exclaimed. ‘What do you mean it is not possible? It has happened.’

‘We should deny it, sir. We should deny it repeatedly, and after a while, people will forget about it.’

BR Sharma stared at him. Yes, that was the standard practice in public life. But not for something like this, surely. He turned to the architect.

‘Architect,’ he barked, ‘tell me, what do you think?’

‘Sir, it is too early to say. I agree with my esteemed colleague here that it is not possible…’ – he clearly hated his esteemed colleague – ‘but the building has shifted, and the matter must be examined. And we shall examine it. We are the committee. In fact, I suggest we constitute a fact-finding mission to Japan. I volunteer to head it.’

‘Why, have any buildings shifted there?’

‘No, sir, not like this. But their architecture is advanced. Their buildings are made to be earthquake-proof. Maybe if the stock exchange was made with that technology, it would not have moved.’

BR Sharma knew this was ridiculous. Junkets were good, junkets were healthy, but not at a time like this. He turned to the urban planner and asked him his opinion.

‘Sir, the shift is poorly planned,’ he said. ‘If I was carrying out such a shift, I would not have left half a bench in Vashi and brought the other half to Worli. We must find out who is responsible.’

BR Sharma sighed. He looked at the head of the stock exchange, whose name was SK Gindotra, he now remembered. Gindotra had been a classmate of his in school. He used to play badminton.

‘Gindotra, what about you? What hypothesis do you have?’

‘These samosas are damn good, Sharma,’ said Gindotra. ‘As for what hypothesis do I have, I have none. I don’t know how the damn building shifted. There are limits to my knowledge, and I accept that with great humility. But I do know this: you government people don’t have the slightest clue about what is happening. You are running around like headless chickens, and I am enjoying the sight. I just wish my bloody commute was suddenly not so long.’

BR Sharma looked at Gindotra, and a wave of affection rushed through him. Yes, the samosas were good.

*  *  *  *

Outside, the media wallahs gathered.

‘This is Ashok Brihanchaputlakumar from New Bharat TV,’ barked one young man into a TV camera. ‘We are gathered outside the municipal commissioner’s office in Mumbai – but who knows, we may suddenly find that the office has disappeared and is in Delhi now. No, dear viewers, I am not joking. All over Mumbai, buildings are going from one location to another. The Mumbai Stock Exchange has shifted from Worli to Vashi. The Air India Building is now in Mahim. No one knows how this has happened. No one saw this happen.’

Now he began to wail.

‘Is this the coming of kalyug? Is this a plot by Pakistan? Is this a plot by the CIA? The government owes us an answer, and we at New Bharat TV will get you an answer. We will wait here until BR Sharma comes out, and we will ask him some hard questions. For you! We will do it for you! For the nation! Our great India! We want answers! Aaaaanswers!’

At this point, Ashok Brihanchaputlakumar had an epileptic fit and passed out.

‘Sir,’ said Lokapally inside the building. ‘A reporter seems to have fainted outside.’

‘Go out and make sure he is taken to the newest hospital,’ said BR Sharma, ‘wherever it is.’

*  *  *  *

That evening, BR Sharma sat in the loo. If the chair in his office was his seat of power, the commode in his loo at home was the seat of peace and calm. No one could disturb him here.

But he wasn’t at peace now. Why were these buildings moving around like this?

The art of government, he had learnt early in his career, is the art of confidence. A government servant may not be in charge of a certain situation – but he must pretend to be. The public looks to the government to control the economy, to maintain law and order, to make sure everything in its cities and towns works. Often, governments may have no control over these things – and little understanding of them. Still, people have blind faith in governments, and if that faith is broken, all is anarchy.

So when a crisis comes, you need to signal to the common folk that you are in command, and are taking action. Make statements in the press; institute a committee; issue a show-cause notice to someone; or, if nothing else works, distract the media by raiding a dance bar. Do something.

BR Sharma had once been part of a committee that was investigating rising prices in Maharashtra. Among the nine members of that committee, eight had different theories about why prices were rising and how they could be countered. BR Sharma did not have an opinion on this matter. There were too many factors involved in such phenomena, and as long as Mrs Sharma did not complain to him about why onions were 25 rupees a kilo, he really didn’t care.

That committee didn’t actually end up doing anything. But the government said a committee was at work, thus showing that they were fixing the problem – and the next year, monsoons were good, and prices came down. The committee patted itself on the back, and went for lunch to the Taj, where BR Sharma had seven golden-fried prawns followed by half a sushi platter. He had a stomach upset the next day and did not go to work, because of which Mumbai stopped running, suddenly confused about what to do.

Now, again, there was a big problem and the people of his city had turned to its municipal commissioner. And BR Sharma didn’t have a damn clue about what to do. If this matter wasn’t sorted out quickly, people’s trust in government would disappear. Like a child who learns that there is no Santa Claus, the people of Mumbai would lose the faith – and they would never regain it.

BR Sharma made a face. His nutritionist had been right, he really did need to have more fibre in his diet.

*  *  *  *

The next morning, traffic was slower than usual. The road down Mahim Causeway that led to town was blocked because of the Air India building, and the load on alternative routes was immense. BR Sharma had foreseen this, and had reached office at seven-thirty, before the rush hour traffic became really bad. He had tossed and turned all night, and his eyes were red.

At 9.30, his mobile phone rang. He looked at the caller ID. It was Abir Ganguly, that damn reporter.

‘Hello?’

‘Hello, Mr Sharma. This is Abir Ganguly. You won’t believe this, but I am at Madh Island.’

‘Ganguly, you are calling me to tell me you are in Madh Island? What am I supposed to with that information? Why is it important to me? I am fed up of you!’

‘No, sir, this is important. It’s like this, five minutes ago, I was on my way to Worli. Now I am in Madh Island. That is because the Bandra-Worli Sea Link has now become the Versova-Madh Island Sea Link.’

BR Sharma gulped. Had he heard correctly? Was he dreaming?

‘Yes, sir, I kid you not, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link now connects Versova and Madh Island. And I really would like your quote on this matter, sir? Has this also been planned by the government? Why weren’t commuters warned about it earlier?’

‘The monsoons,’ said BR Sharma. ‘It must be the monsoons.’

‘What?’

‘Nothing,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Look, I can’t comment on this till I set up an enquiry and we get more information on this. But I can tell you one thing off the record?’

‘What?’

‘The next time a building moves, please do not call me. Assume that I already know. I am the municipal commissioner of this city. I know everything.’

*  *  *  *

At noon, BR Sharma was in Worli, at the exact spot where the Sea Link used to begin. (Or end, depending on whether you lived in South Mumbai or North Mumbai.) With him were Lokapally, JP Fernandes and Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.

‘I think we are ready,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil, looking up at the nearest street light. ‘Varma, switch it on.’

‘Sir, my name is Sharma.’

‘Sharma, switch it on.’

‘Mahakali, switch it on.’

‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’

‘Lokapally, switch it on.’

Lokapally spoke into his phone, and the street light came on. The four men stared into the sea – as did their 40 or so minions there, who would not have dared to look elsewhere while their bosses were looking in that direction.

‘Nothing happened,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.

‘Yes, sir,’ said BR Sharma.

‘This is the beauty of science,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. ‘Now we know what does not work.’

He turned around and walked away. He had been told that just before the Sea Link disappeared, one of the streetlights there, which had been on a few hours longer than it should have been, had been switched off. Light off – Sea Link gone. Correlation – causation. So Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil wanted to see if turning the light back on would bring the Sea Link back. No such luck.

‘If a hen had laid an egg here just before the Sea Link vanished,’ said JP Fernandes to BR Sharma, ‘I wonder if our honorable chief minister would have tried to push the egg into the hen’s arse. What do you think?’

‘I don’t know. But I do know this: If there was a hen here this morning, it’s no longer here. It’s disappeared.’

*  *  *  *

From there, BR Sharma went home for lunch. There was nothing to be done. He had set up another committee that morning, but he was confident nothing would come of it. He had read all the newspaper reports on this subject, but none of them had the slightest clue of what could have caused this.

Some commentators were putting forth theories that pushed forward whatever agenda they believed in. Swami Ramdas said that God was punishing Mumbai for its immoral ways, and for its tolerance of homosexuals. TV Iyengar said that while the specifics needed to be examined, this was surely the fault of unbridled capitalism. MS Azmi blamed global warming. Ravikiran Sabnis said that this proved that government had failed, and that markets would fix this. And Govind Joshi said that this was all the fault of allowing migrant labour into Mumbai.

They were all mad. BR Sharma wanted to line them up in front of a wall somewhere and shoot them with a water pistol. Just like that.

‘I heard about the Sea Link on the news,’ Mrs Sharma said. ‘This is so strange. Are you all right?’

‘This is like you running off with the driver,’ said BR Sharma.

‘With Prem Singh? Why would I run off with Prem Singh?’

‘No, not you literally, and not Prem Singh literally. I mean, a guy thinks his life is just fine, then one day his wife runs off with his driver. All his certainties are shattered. He loses faith. This is like that.’

‘But have you seen Prem Singh’s face? He must be earning so little. Why would I run off with him?’

‘It’s an analogy,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Don’t take it literally.’

‘You are very disturbed. Why don’t you stay at home today and not go back to work? You need to rest.’

‘I think I’ll do just that,’ said BR Sharma. He had already put his phone on silent. He glanced at it: 279 missed calls.

Mrs Sharma set the lunch out on the table. Baingan ka bharta. Dal. Some chicken curry from last night. Chapatis. Rice. BR Sharma looked at the food and thought, how lucky I am. This was a good meal. He had a good life.

But he didn’t have an appetite, and after one-and-a-half chapatis, went to the bedroom to nap.

*  *  *  *

In his dream, he woke up to the sound of waves. He went to the window, and found that his house was in the middle of the sea. He ran around the house, to all the windows: they were surrounded by water. Mrs Sharma sat in the living room, knitting.

‘You know, I’m missing my kitty party because of this,’ she said. ‘My mother was right: I should not have married you. You are good for nothing.’

‘Your mother said that?’

‘Maybe not. But she should have. Now see where you’ve gotten us. Do you even know where we are?’

BR Sharma looked out of the window. No, he did not know where they were. But he could see the sun setting in the distance. He looked at his phone. No signal. They were stuck.

And in Mumbai, he knew, where his house had been, there was now a pool of salt water. He could imagine Lokapally standing outside it, dialling his number furiously. Oh, how he wished the phone would ring now, so he could pick it up and say, ‘Lokapally, Lokapally, I remember your name!’

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 August, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Fiction | India | Personal | Viewfinder


The Cockroach Party of India (Marxist)

Mamata Banerjee is a riot. But her allegations are borderline plausible. Tells you a lot about the CPI(M), eh?

(Via @geetharamc.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 July, 2010 in India | News | Politics | WTF


Anticipating Schadenfreude

At least the guy is being honest. Where do you get that in Politics?

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 July, 2010 in India | News | Politics | Sport | WTF


Divine Demat

This is a remarkable opening sentence for a news report:

Can Hindu deities have demat accounts to enable them transact in shares and debentures on the stock market?

Before you snort out whichever beverage you are currently consuming, consider that the IT department has already issued PAN cards to the deities in question. Go figure.

(Link via Marginal Revolution.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 July, 2010 in India | News | WTF


Beware of the Cronies

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

In 1944 a group of seven businessmen, including JRD Tata, GD Birla and Kasturbhai Lalbhai, came together to produce a document titled A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India. As the name indicates, it outlined an economic vision for soon-to-be-independent India. It envisioned a mixed economy with strong government intervention in markets, a huge public sector, and much protectionism so that Indian companies would be sheltered from foreign competition. Jawaharlal Nehru’s eventual economic policy would be on the lines of what this document laid out, and one of its authors, John Mathai, was even a finance minister in Nehru’s government. Because ‘A Brief Memorandum Outlining a Plan of Economic Development for India’ is a most unfunky name, the document eventually came to be called The Bombay Plan. (Just as Hindus may be offended at their religion being associated, in name only, with the Hindu Rate of Growth, I am not too happy about that document being named after my beloved city. Ah, well.)

In his fine book, India After Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha cites the Bombay Plan as an example of the support Nehru’s Fabian Socialism got from industrialists of the day, and writes, “One wonders what free-market pundits would make of it now.” At a colloquium of classical liberals I attended a few days ago in Bangalore, one attendee wondered why more industrialists in present-day India don’t speak up for economic freedom. The answer to this is simple: big business is as much the enemy of free markets as big government is.

The cornerstone of free markets, competition, is great for consumers, as it delivers better-quality products and services at lower prices. But it is terrible for established businesses, which are constantly under pressure to keep prices low and salaries high, and may be wiped out by more innovative and efficient competitors. There’s nothing they’d like more than high entry barriers in their industry, so that their place is secure. Thus, to expect the established industrialists of the 1940s to support free markets would be naive: economic freedom is actually against the interests of big business. The journalist Seetha Parthasarathy pointed out at the colloquium I attended last week that the Swatantra Party, which spoke up so ardently for free markets in the 1950s and ‘60s, hardly got any funding from businessmen and industrialists of the day. That makes perfect sense: they would have felt threatened by it.

This is why it irritates me no end when critics of free markets point to the evils of big business as a repudiation of our principles. The truth is that a libertarian or classical liberal is as wary of big business as a socialist is. Indeed, now that communism is dead, one of the greatest threats to freedom everywhere is not socialism, but crony capitalism. To look after the interests of the common man, we must beware of the cronies.

*  *  *  *

Death, taxes and crony capitalism are inevitable. When I am in a pessimistic mood, generally after a bad meal or a spell of television surfing, I lose hope that we will ever have economic freedom. Free markets, indeed, seem slightly utopian. After all, we don’t live in an economy that is a blank slate. We live in times of big government. Big governments only get bigger, not smaller. (This is true even in the West, when the size of government expanded even under fiscal conservatives like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.) It is not in the interest of those who run governments to curtail their power or the money available to them. (Like, duh.) It is a beast that keeps on growing, and feeding on us.

Power and money always go together. The more power government has, the more it can subvert markets, the more big business runs to it, with big money, to safeguard its own interests. Crony capitalism is inevitable. Big government is one ass cheek, big business is another, and together they’re shitting on capitalism.

*  *  *  *

What about the recent financial crisis in the US? The notion that it illustrates the inadequacy of free markets is a simplistic one, like most narratives generated by the media. The crisis came about because of a melange of complex factors, and we’ll be debating the respective merits of those for decades. There is no shortage of actors to blame. The low interest rates of the Fed in the early 2000s played a key role. (It amuses me when Alan Greenspan is sometimes described as a libertarian. Whatever his youthful infatuations may have been, the chairman of a central bank can no more be a libertarian than General Dyer was a freedom fighter.) Defenders of free markets will also point to the Community Reinvestment Act, and the role played by Fannie and Freddie, both quasi-government entities. But it is true that there were structural issues with the way markets themselves functioned at the time.

Short-term incentives in the finance industry weren’t aligned with long-term interests. If you worked in Lehman Brothers, and had to choose between chasing massive short-term profits (with the consequent bonuses for yourself) that carried a long-term risk to your company, and a prudence that would put you out of step with your peers, for absolutely no benefit to you and the risk of losing your job, what would you do? C’mon, it’s human nature. As Chuck Prince famously said, “As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.”

How does capitalism deal with this? Simple: when companies screw up, their bottomline gets affected, and sometimes they go bust. The learning percolates through the markets, and the incentives change for future players. The problem here is that when the long-term consequences of their short-term behaviour hit the finance industry, the government stepped in. Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bust, but others were bailed out on the grounds that they were ‘too big to fail’, and that their failure threatened the entire economy. (Was this really so? We’ll never know. We’ll just have to take their word for it.) The result: Moral Hazard. The sort of short-term risk-taking that led to the crisis wasn’t punished, and the incentives haven’t changed. On the contrary, the financial whizkids out there will now be further emboldened to keep taking wild risks, secure in the knowledge that when things go bad, the government will bail them out.

What would you call this? Free markets? I don’t think so.

*  *  *  *

Until 1991, capitalism in India was crony capitalism. The license raj ensured that the markets were a tijori and the government held the key. All big industrialists had liaison offices in Delhi whose job was to deliver adequate chai-paani to government officials in exchange for licenses and other favours. Money chased power; power sought money.

The liberalisation of 1991 didn’t really change much. Firstly, it was a limited liberalisation, and most markets in India remain unfree. Secondly, the government still retains enormous power. As this paper (pdf link) points out, crony capitalism continues to thrive in India. R Jagannathan wrote in DNA last year: “In his current avatar as PM, Manmohan Singh, architect of the initial reforms involving delicensing, deregulation and downsizing, has presided over the largest expansion of government spending in living memory. In the current fiscal year (2009-10), government will borrow more than Rs 400,000 crore (probably Rs 500,000 crore, if you consider off-budget items like oil bonds), a figure that’s larger than the entire central expenditure for 2004-05, the first year of the UPA. Large government is invariably accompanied by crony capitalism. Reason: when government spends more, private companies do more business with it.”

And here’s an excerpt from a speech Manmohan gave in 2007: “Are we encouraging crony capitalism? Is this a necessary but transient phase in the development of modern capitalism in our country? Are we doing enough to protect consumers and small businesses from the consequences of crony capitalism? [...] Do we have a genuine level playing field for all businesses? What should be done to inject a greater degree of competitiveness in the industrial sector?”

One has to wonder, why on earth was he asking those questions? He’s the prime minister, no?

*  *  *  *

So should I be pessimistic? Naysayers of free markets argue that they’re a utopian construct, and that a perfect free market, with a government that limits its role to administering the rule of law and enforcing contracts, does not exist anywhere. Perhaps. But here’s the thing: perfect good health is also a utopian construct, and there is no one in the world who is perfectly healthy. And yet, it is something to aspire to, and as individuals, we’re constantly trying (or should be trying) to get as close to it as possible. (Just don’t ask me what I had for dinner last night.) Similarly, it is my contention that free markets are the surest route to prosperity, and we should keep fighting to make our markets as free as possible. We, the people, the consumers, are the biggest beneficiaries of this. Not the fat-ass businessmen, in bed with the sleazy politicians, who just want to milk us dry. As long as we are aware of this, there is hope—for we do live in a democracy, don’t we?

*  *  *  *

Further reading: I’d written a column on this subject a couple of years earlier: ‘Arpita and the Bombay Plan’.

My column last week was on a related subject: Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

Also, here’s a superb debate on Cato Unbound: ‘When Corporations Hate Markets’.

Previously on Viewfinder

Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Postscript:  My thanks to Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan, Mana Shah, Raj Cherubal, Sumeet Kulkarni, Deepak Shenoy, Vikramjit Banerjee, Parth Shah, Seetha, Arun Simha, Sunil Laxman and Devangshu Datta for their part in discussions that helped me refine my views on this subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 June, 2010 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


‘Dalit set afire over phone’

When I first saw this headline, I did a double take. I thought, What? Someone was set on fire via a telephone call? Then I read on and found that the phone in question was merely the object of dispute that led to the crime. A dalit man was accused by five people, “said to be from the upper caste,” of stealing a mobile phone. When he denied it, they set him on fire.

That explains the headline. So it’s just a normal incident then. No need to be shocked.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 June, 2010 in India | News


Indian Liberals and Colour Pictures

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

Earlier this week, I spent two days at a fascinating colloquium on Indian liberalism in the outskirts of Bangalore. At night we slept in airconditioned tents, and in the day, gathered in a conference room and discussed weighty matters like the definition, relevance and scope of Indian liberalism. I was awed by the intellectual firepower that I was privileged to be in the company of—but, at the same time, there hung in the air a whiff of the same kind of dissonance that the airconditioned tents evoked.

To begin with, what is ‘Indian liberalism’? The term ‘liberal’ has been so debased and so variedly used as to have practically no meaning left in it. I consider myself a classical liberal, believing in individual freedom, negative rights and a free society, which is how liberals in continental Europe would see themselves. Yet, in the US, the term means practically the opposite, as American liberals, from the Left, are opposed to free markets, which makes their appropriation of the term oxymoronic. (Some of my friends would remove the ‘oxy’ from that judgment.)

In India, the term is used in a woolly way, and one can never quite be sure what it’s meant to mean. Ramachandra Guha, in his essay ‘The Absent Liberal’, referred to PC Mahalanobis as a liberal, and in a talk he gave us before the conference, to Jawaharlal Nehru as one. Labelling people is a complex matter, especially when they are politicians and contain multitudes of multitudes, and such a label is often both true and false, depending on perspective, as with Nehru. (His institution building and commitment to democracy and secularism mark him out as a great liberal; his economic policies, which so ravaged India, do not.)

Almost all of us at the conference were classical liberals, at siege in a world where the values we believe in have either not been accepted or are being questioned. The broad theme of the conference was how to spread liberal ideas, and the task seems hard for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the classic truths of liberalism are all counter-intuitive, such as the non-zero-sumness involved in progress, the concept of spontaneous order, and the fallibility of all human beings—the last especially important in the context of the blind faith we have in government, which is always a collection of flawed human beings, often with perverse incentives.

Secondly, economic liberalism is under increasing attack from people who point to the economic crisis in the US as a failure of free markets, or wonder why India has so many inequalities despite being supposedly liberalized. These kind of attacks deserve a serious and respectful response, but I don’t see much of that in the media around me. In next week’s column, I will attempt a partial response, and share my views on why neither the financial crisis nor India’s inequalities represent a failure of free markets. But for now, let’s get back to the subject of the colloquium, and this column: how can we spread classical liberal ideas in India?

Some of my fellow participants referred to the Swatantra Party, and were exploring whether a classical liberal party of that sort could build a following in the politics. More power to those who try, though I believe that such a political party is a pipe dream, and a waste of time. (I didn’t always hold this view.) A political party might start out liberal, but the many necessary compromises of politics will soon dilute any ideological stance it takes, till it ends up indistinguishable from the parties around it, slave to the imperatives of the political marketplace, where niches are formed more on the basis of identity than ideology.

Instead, I think classical liberals need to ask themselves the question, Why are we liberals? For me, the answer is not just that liberalism gives me an intellectual framework with which I can make sense of the world, but also that I believe that it has solutions to most of the political and economic problems that the world, and modern India, faces: from farmer suicides in Vidarbha to rising prices to deepening inequality. If this is the case, and my liberalism follows from the practical utility that it provides, then what I need to promote is not liberalism itself, but these immediate solutions to the urgent, pressing problems of our times, whose merit lies not in their being liberal but in their being both right and practical. Then I can avoid labels and focus purely on solving real-world problems with all the real-world constraints that a utopian vision of the world does not always taking into account.

This being the case, we do not need a separate liberal political party to spread liberal ideas. Instead, if we offer practical ways to make the world a better place, our ideas can spread through osmosis into every political party. Liberalism can then triumph in the political battlefield by winning in the marketplace of ideas—perhaps without the label attached, for ideological labels often hinder the spread of good ideas.

*  *  *  *

One example of such real-world problem solving comes in the work of Parth Shah, the founder of the Center for Civil Society in India, and the moderator of the sessions at the colloquium. For years now, Parth and his team have been promoting the concept of school vouchers. Many dogmatic classical liberals would be opposed to this idea, for it assumes state spending on education. But India is a poor country, education is key to our progress, and it is a given that the government will spend money to make this happen. The problem here is that our government, over the last 63 years, has achieved very little in this space. How can it spend its money more efficiently?

School vouchers, first championed by Milton Friedman, enable competition and the free market to lift the standards of education. The quality of government schools is abysmal, teacher absenteeism is a constant problem, and the incentives are all skewed. There’s one way to change these incentives, and to bring accountability into the system: fund the students, not the schools. If the students are given school vouchers, which they can take to whichever school serves them best, whether it is public or private, schools are forced to lift their standards in order to survive. The power shifts to students and their parents, and the quality of education necessarily rises.

Instead of writing op-eds and policy briefs about school vouchers from an armchair somewhere, Parth and the CCS gang have spent years talking to politicians and bureaucrats across the country to make it happen, offering real-world models of implementation, alongside studies of how low-cost private schools are already transforming education for the poor. To see the pilot projects that are already in place, and the difference they are beginning to make, check out their website. (Also, here are my earlier articles on this: 1, 2.)

*  *  *  *

Another of the participants at the colloquium, Raj Cherubal, offered me his prescription for how liberals can drive change: ‘colour pictures.’

Cherubal works as a coordinator at Chennai City Connect, and holds the view that politicians and bureaucrats, sometimes caricatured as the villains in the piece by dogmatic liberals, are often on our side, and agree with us about the nature of the problems. But giving them abstract ideas about what to do is pointless, for they don’t have the bandwidth to take them further. The only effective approach is two-pronged: One, show them case studies to demonstrate that our solutions have worked elegantly elsewhere; Two, give them a detailed road-map of how to implement the solution.

Raj offered an example of this from the domain of urban planning. His team went to the Chennai city authorities with a proposal to modernise LB Road. The babus were skeptical, and threw up various objections to this, such as how there wasn’t enough space to get the job done, what would happen to the hawkers, and so on. Cherubal and his team then walked the streets, measured every inch of space available for themselves, and drew up elegant redesigns and colour charts (‘red for footpath’) that showed exactly how the street would look when redesigned, how much space was currently being wasted, and the precise actions that could be undertaken to transform that space, right down to costs and so on. The project was approved, and is now underway. What made it happen? “Colour pictures,” said Raj.

In a similar proposal about transforming the T Nagar neighbourhood, Raj’s team showed the Chennai authorities detailed photographs of identical streets in Bogota and Manhattan as an example of how these Chennai streets, with identical space, could be transformed. (T Nagar’s Panagal Park can be just like Manhattan’s Union Square, Raj tells me.) Again, the colour pictures made all the difference.

Raj uses the term ‘colour pictures’ as a metaphor and a proxy: what he actually showed these men in power was “a vision for a better future”. He made it compelling and tangible, with no vague head-in-the-clouds talk about grand ideas. These examples are not examples of liberal ideas per se, but this is exactly the approach that classical liberals in India should take: Eschew the grand talk, get down to brass tacks, bring out the colour pictures.

An aside: The airconditioning in those tents actually worked wonderfully well. Who woulda thunk it?

Previously on Viewfinder

We are All Gamblers

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 June, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Viewfinder


We Are All Gamblers

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

Atish is 24, tall, dark, okay-looking, middle-class and drunk at this suburban pub in Andheri. He sees a pretty girl across the room, sitting with her friends, sipping on a cocktail, and the way she smiles is so beautiful, he cannot take his eyes off her. He has met her once before, at a friend’s party, but he cannot remember her name. He found her attractive then; he aches with longing now. Maybe it’s the beers—or maybe, he thinks, destiny. She gets up to go to the salad bar. She glances at him once—her eyes linger for a second longer than they should, and then she looks away. This is the moment to go up to her, reintroduce himself, and make casual conversation. Will he make a fool of himself, or will this be the start of something beautiful? He weighs up the odds, and decides that he has more to gain than lose. He gets up and walks towards her.

Two tables away, Mr Chaddha is nursing a glass of Black Label, along with grievances that carry a stronger aftertaste. His friend, Mr Bhatia, told him three months ago that he had inside information about a company whose stock was sure to take off, that it was the right time to buy. Mr Chaddha parked 16 lakh rupees in that stock. That investment is now worth 3 lakhs. Mr Bhatia also lost money, and was last seen muttering about ‘black swan events’ and suchlike. Mr Chaddha wishes he had invested in a mutual fund instead. Little does he know that he will do so and, a year later, regret it as bitterly. The scotch will continue to flow, as inevitable in Mr Chaddha’s life as shehnai at an Indian wedding.

As Atish walks towards the salad bar and Mr Chaddha looks into his glass of whisky, Meena walks past outside. Meena is 21, dusky, tall for a girl, graceful, a little introverted, a journalist. She has always liked to write, and her first poem as a child was: “My mommy, she has lovely hair/ My daddy is a grizzly bear/ My sister’s skin, I love to touch/ I love them very, very much.” She was seven then, and 14 years later, she decided that she did not want to get married so young, that she did not need to walk around a fire seven times to have sex with young men, and that she wanted to be a journalist in Mumbai. So she fought with the grizzly bear and made her mother with lovely hair cry, and landed up in Mumbai, where she got a job in a women’s magazine. As she walks past, she is thinking of how much she hates her boss, her job, the lecherous peon in office named Mishra, and these new shoes of hers that are biting her feet as if in mockery. But it could be worse. She could be trapped in a bad marriage like her friend Geeta, whose husband beat her up last Thursday and, when Meena reacted in horror on the phone, said, “Maybe it’s my fault, maybe I did something wrong.” Who wants to live like that?

Decisions, decisions, choices, choices. Every day in a hundred different ways, we gamble with our lives. We weigh up the odds, calculate pros and cons, and choose which way to act.

Atish’s decision to go and talk with that pretty girl is, to my mind, not very different from a poker player’s decision to bet half the pot when he sees he has middle pair on the flop. Mr Chadda’s investment decisions occupy the same moral and mathematical space as a punter who lays a bet on all odd numbers between 13 and 24 on the roulette wheel. Meena is thinking about giving in to her parents by moving back home to Chennai, but continuing to be a journalist there, which on a Blackjack table could be considered ‘surrender’. In the casino of life, they are all gamblers—and so are we.

This is why I am outraged that ‘gambling’ is banned in India. Firstly, such a ban is morally wrong. If an adult makes a decision about a particular course of action, or two consenting adults enter into an arrangement about anything at all without infringing the rights of anyone else, it should be nobody’s business but theirs. The government is violating their rights by getting in the way.

Secondly, such a ban is hypocritical. We already allow most forms of gambling, so to ban just a few makes no sense. Investing in stocks, for example, is as risky for the average investor as most things you could do in a casino. All the governments that have refused to legalize gambling have themselves gambled consistently: consider the Emergency, the politicisation of the Mandal Commission Report, the BJP’s decision to stick with Narendra Modi after Gujarat, and the decision of the UPA to push away the Left Front so that the nuclear deal could proceed. Some of these backfired, some did not, and some are still open to interpretation. But these were all gambles by governments that don’t allow gambling.

What sense does that make?

In these modern times, government should exist to serve us, not rule us. Yet, our government routinely behaves as if we are mere subjects. It patronisingly tells us that we are not mature enough to decide many things for ourselves, and furthermore, should not have the right to do so. It censors the films we watch, even the adult ones. It limits our freedom of speech so that we don’t offend anyone, as if we are children in a playground. Besides taxing us prohibitively, it does not allow us to decide what to do with our money. What business is it of any government if I wish to bet on the outcome of a cricket match or at a Blackjack table?

Besides the moral argument, there is also a practical case for legalizing gambling. When you outlaw what is essentially a victimless crime, such as gambling, you don’t finish it off, you merely drive it underground. Gambling thrives in every city and town of India, but is run furtively from shady rooms by unaccountable operators. Often, it runs on trust, and no one gets ripped off. But where it gets most lucrative, the underworld is involved, and things get dicey. If gambling was legal, and the entities that ran it were as respectable as HSBC or Kotak Mahindra, I doubt there would be matchfixing scandals. There would be transparency, accountability, and though my libertarian friends will hate me for saying this, I would not object to regulatory oversight by the government. The incentives of the operators would then change, as would those of punters, who would no longer need to be underground with the underworld.

The other practical reason for legalizing gambling is the revenues this would bring the government. Ten years ago, it was estimated that “during an India-Pakistan match over Rs 10,000 crore is reportedly generated in the country.” A tax of 5% of that comes to Rs 500 crore for just one day. I have heard estimates of the amount of betting during the IPL that dwarf this. And these figures are just for cricket. I’m willing to wager, if I am allowed to, that if the government legalized all forms of gambling, and taxed them conservatively, it would make enough money from it to cover the expenses of the NREGA. And much more.

To summarize, gambling should be legalized on a matter of principle, because what consenting adults do with their own money should be nobody else’s business. It should be legalized because if it is not, it remains a victimless crime, a category that makes no sense. It should be legalized because doing so reduces the scope of the underworld to exist. And finally, it should be legalized because the revenues that would then go to the government instead of the black economy could fund many of its pet projects. Legalizing gambling is a no-brainer, and I am sure that if the government weighs up the odds, it will see more pros than cons. Will it fight inertia and make this play? I hope it does.

Also read: Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should be Scrapped.

Previously on Viewfinder

Homeopathic Faith

Give Me 10,000 Hours

Match ka Mujrim

The Man with the Maruti 800

Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims

The Hazards of Writing a Column

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 June, 2010 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Viewfinder


Page 1 of 20 pages  1 2 3 >  Last »