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My Friend Sancho

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


To buy it online from the US, click here.


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


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

God appears!

A 30-year-old gent from Mumbai has reportedly approached the Bombay High Court asking that they declare him to be God. HIndustan Times reports:

“I am the supreme lord and the god of all religions. I am Jesus Christ, Lord Ram, Lord Krishna and even Gautam Buddha. Earlier, I was born as Alexander the great,” Dharmendra Mishra told the court.

This supreme god had one prayer to make to the high court — ask President APJ Abdul Kalam to officially declare him as god and hand him the affairs of the nation.

“Give me the power to rule the country, the world and the United Nations,” he told the division bench of acting Chief Justice J.N. Patel and Justice S.C. Dharmadhikari.

This is savagely joyful. To my unending dismay, the court dismissed his petition, “saying that such a case does not fall under the jurisdiction of the judiciary.” Pah.

But the most delightful element of it all is that the fellow works in a call center. I can imagine some poor housewife from Texas calling a helpline because her washing machine isn’t working, and this guy picks up and says, “Hello, this is God on the line. How may I help you?”

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in India


Why Liz Hurley is good for India

Because the economy benefits from her marriage to Arun Nayar. Times of India reports:

The hospitality sector estimates that the Jodhpur wedding [between Nayar and Hurley] should cost about Rs 1 crore.

I’m assuming that with so many foreign guests coming down, and some of them perhaps being tempted to return later, the indirect benefits of the wedding will be even greater than that. And much of the money spent may not have been spent within India if not for Liz Hurley. Thus, however much we may envy the rich their ability so spend so ostentatiously, we should actually encourage them to do more of this, because it ends up creating jobs for people at the bottom of the ladder throughout the hospitality industry.

Also read: “Lavish weddings are good for the economy.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Economics | India


8 billion dollars

Or rather, US$7.922 billion. That’s how much money a Punekar named Hasan Ali was allegedly worth until recently. CNN-IBN reports:

The Income Tax department claims to have traced unaccounted wealth valued at Rs 35,000 crore to accounts operated by a Pune-based businessman Hasan Ali.

If true, and if that is the sum total of Mr Ali’s wealth, he would place No. 62 in the Forbes list of the richest men in the world. What I find stunning is that with this kind of money, he didn’t simply buy himself immunity from the legal system by putting top politicians and bureaucrats in his pocket.

And on an entirely unrelated note, is it only me who finds the following line, from the Wikipedia page on the Sahara Group, somewhat amusing?

Sahara india parivar is the largest family in the world. [sic]

Such procreation must happen!

(CNN-IBN link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in India


The silent revolt against government schools

Naveen Mandava had an excellent Op-Ed in Mint today, which he reproduces on his blog, titled “The Unknown Education Revolution in India.” It adds to the argument for school choice in India, and illustrates how lesser government regulation can lead to greater growth.

Also read: My WSJ Op-Ed on the subject, “Why India needs school vouchers.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 March, 2007 in India


Your maid funds Unani

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

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

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

Read more...

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


Where your taxes go: 17

To the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy.

This year’s budget allocation: Rs. 563.88 crores. (PDF link.)

Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16. Also see: 1, 2, 3.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 March, 2007 in India | Old memes | Taxes


On the Taliban, DJs and cows

When the Taliban bans music in the areas where they’re in charge—this one is in Pakistan, not Afghanistan—it’s hardly surprising: we all know what they’re like. But you wouldn’t expect a bunch of people in Haryana to ban DJs, would you? Well, they have. And here’s one reason why:

Due to high volume of music preferred by DJs, people can’t milk buffaloes and cows in the morning as the animals are unable to sleep at night.

Monstrous. Even cows have a right to pardy!

(Link via email from Gautam John, who spotted it on Youth Curry. And yes, I know I said no more cow posts, but the public demand is driving me nuts. So here you go. 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.)

And in case you missed it, the Taliban has also effectively banned shaving. It’s good news for Afghan lice, but it adds an urgency to the War on Terror. After all, Gillette needs to expand into new markets.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 March, 2007 in India | Old memes | Cows


God sulks

You’d think in a poor country such as ours, food would be almost sacred. Well, check this out:

In a country where millions go to bed hungry, Rs 1 million worth of food meant as a holy offering at Orissa’s Jagannath temple was destroyed on Friday because a foreigner had entered it—an act seen as defiling the premises.

Ooh, God is so sensitive, She sulked and refused to eat because a foreigner entered Her dwelling place. Ooh, poor thing.

(Link via email from Sanjeev Naik.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 March, 2007 in India


On rave parties, victimless crimes and shooting the messenger

All the newspapers today are full of the “rave party” that was busted by cops near Pune yesterday. It is a party that I might well have gone to in my youth (I never did drugs, but I did like to rebel), and I feel sorry for the kids who’ve been arrested for activities that harmed no one. It is a pity that so many victimless acts are treated as crimes in our country. If I want to snort a little of whatever it is kids these days snort, what business is it of anyone else? Unlike cigarettes, where bystanders can be hurt by passive smoking, most recreational drugs don’t even harm anyone else.

But then, who cares about individual freedom in this country?

An aside: And do check out the following line in Posted by Amit Varma on 05 March, 2007 in Freedom | India | News


On internet connections

Dear readers

For your enjoyment, an email conversation is reproduced below, between me and my kind friend Manish Vij, who has consented to the publication of this most-enlightening exchange. Please read from the top. As I am blogging this via broadband, the grain of rice in front of me lies unsullied.

Warm regards and Happy Holi

Amit

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 March, 2007 in India | Personal


Where your taxes go: 16

In paying too much for condoms.

(Link via email from reader Jayakamal Balasubramani.

Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. Also see: 1, 2, 3.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 March, 2007 in India | Old memes | Taxes


Astrologers, dead men and the World Cup

given their predictions for the World Cup. Daruwalla says:

In 1983, the combination in the Indian team was that of Capricorn (Kapil Dev), Cancer (Sunil Gavaskar) and Libra (Mohinder Amarnath), which worked wonders. Even this time, captain Rahul Dravid (Capricorn), Sourav Ganguly (Cancerian) and Virender Sehwag (Libran), may repeat the success story.

With 15 guys in each squad, you can probably get any combination of sun signs that you desire, and it is not unlikely that all the squads may contain a Capricorn, Cancer and Libra. Note that both gentlemen are being cautious, though Jumaaaaaaani more or less counts Australia out of the running. No matter what happens, though, I’m sure believers will note only the parts of their prediction where they seemed to have got it right. Always, the confirmation bias.

(Some earlier posts on astrology etc: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19.)

My take on the World Cup: After a close perusal of some fine coffee beans (followed by their consumption, as is necessary for the ritual to be successful), I have come to the conclusion that my earlier post on this subject, written months ago, was somewhat off target. To my list of seven favourites, I add an eighth: New Zealand. I don’t think I can get any more precise than that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 March, 2007 in India | Old memes | Astrology etc | Sport


Do we really love cricket?

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

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

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

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

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

Read more...

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


Bangalore for the Western gaze

Immense exotification happens here. It’s a parade of stereotypes, that slideshow. All except for one picture, which you will no doubt identify if you enjoy good food. Heh.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 March, 2007 in India | Media


On the CBI

Mulayam Singh Yadav does not want the CBI to carry out the probe in the case of his alleged disproportionate assets. His fear of the CBI is, by itself, a sharp comment on the efficiency of the agency.

And what is that comment? I suppose that depends on which party you support.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 March, 2007 in India | Politics


The mistake some of us make when we talk about the budget…

... is in assuming that government spending can solve all our problems. The government may spend more on education, but that doesn’t mean that Indian kids will get anywhere near the education they should, or that the education system will become better. Our mai-baap sarkar may announce a safety net for workers, but that doesn’t mean that workers will benefit. It may extend the REGB, but that doesn’t mean that it is doing anything to enable the growth of employment in this country. In some cases, it might actually be harming the cause of those it claims to benefit, by spending money inefficiently that, had it never been taxed in the first place, would have done more good for the economy.

Beyond that broad point, I will offer no comments on the budget—there’s enough of it out there in the MSM already. I’m just glad there isn’t a cess on blogging.

Additional notice: My “Thinking it Through” column won’t appear today in Mint, because they needed the space for budget analysis, some of which is very good. Regular service resumes next week.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 March, 2007 in Economics | India


Reading too much into elections

The BJP has done well in the Punjab and Uttarakhand elections, and already people are calling it “a saffron wave.” That is as much rubbish as all that talk about the UPA having got a mandate from the last elections. (As I mentioned here, one look at the constitution of this Lok Sabha should disabuse notions of a “collective will.”) Individuals vote in elections for their own individual reasons, and much of the time, in an age of a fractured electorate and hung parliaments, huge amounts of luck determines who gets into power.

It is, of course, typical of us to try to discern patterns in all of this. But these patterns, these mandates, they’re illusory things. No point celebrating or mourning yet, depending on which party you support. Flip-flop hota rahega.

Also read: my essay from last week, Don’t Think in Categories. It’s relevant.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 February, 2007 in India | Politics


On making budgets and winning elections

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, in a piece titled “Parable of the Shopkeeper,” offer us this mind game:

Suppose you plan to open a shop on a street that is lined with houses. These houses are evenly distributed along the street. There are two things you know at this point of time. There is a competitor who is patiently waiting to open a shop just next to yours. And the customers who live along this street will walk into the shop that is nearest to their homes.

So, where will you build your store?

Well, if you build it at the corner, your competitor will simply build one next to yours but closer to the center, so more people will end up going there. The logical thing, therefore, is to build one close to the center. And that, indeed, is what politicians do. As Niranjan writes:

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 February, 2007 in India | Politics


Coaching classes for cheating in exams

I suppose there’s a certain honesty in this kind of dishonesty. Is it not revealing?

Let’s see, what else could be started in this vein? Tutorials on how to bribe government servants? Demonstration videos of how to break traffic rules? Street plays promoting intolerance?

Nah. There wouldn’t be a market for those. They all come naturally to us.

(Link via email from reader Aboli Salvi.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 February, 2007 in India


Terrorism isn’t about bombs…

... It’s about fear.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 February, 2007 in India | Small thoughts


A celebration of erotica

Gautam John brings my attention, via email, to a place called “Love Land” in South Korea, which is a theme park “crammed with soft porn memorabilia.” Check out the pictures. Do you think such a place would ever be allowed to come up in India?

No, na?

But once, they allowed Khajuraho...

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 February, 2007 in Freedom | India


Where your taxes go: 15

To space.

You see any earthly reason for it? I don’t.

(Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14. Also see: 1, 2, 3.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 February, 2007 in Economics | India | Old memes | Taxes


Don’t think in categories

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

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

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

Read more...

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


Amitabh for president?

I’m amused by all the speculation around whether Amitabh Bachchan will consent to being a candidate in India’s presidential elections. If anything, it shows how meaningless the post is, a vestigial organ of government. In the past, it’s been used to kick politicians upstairs, reward old partymen for a few decades of service, or make a symbolic gestures about inclusiveness. (The calculus of caste and religion plays a part; see here and here.) But at least most previous presidents have had some kind of experience in politics and governance. Why does Bachchan deserve to be president?

On the other hand, do consider who won it last. I can’t imagine Bachchan coming up with anything quite like APJ Abdul Kalam’s poetry. I can live with “Eir Bir Phatte.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 February, 2007 in India | Politics


Where’s the Freedom Party

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

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

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

Read more...

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


Why India needs school vouchers

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

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

Read more...

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


Fighting against censorship

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

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

Read more...

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


Empowerment, not slavery

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

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

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

Read more...

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


The kidnapping of India

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

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

Read more...

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


Good intentions, bad ideas

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

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

Read more...

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


The myth of India’s liberalization

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

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

Read more...

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


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