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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
[Name here], P.E.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.’
‘Yes, sir. Lokapally.’
‘Ok. Lokapally, do you have any idea of what is going on here?’
* * * *
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.’
* * * *
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.’
‘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.’
‘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?’
‘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.’
‘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, 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.’
‘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?’
‘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!’
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?
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.
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
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?
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.
I was delighted this Monday when my fellow Yahoo! columnist Girish Shahane took on homeopathy in his column ‘Sugar Pills and Skepticism’. It needed to be done, but while I found myself agreeing with much of his piece, I was disappointed by the last paragraph, in which Girish said that he uses homeopathy occasionally, and that it sometimes seemed “to have an effect, particularly with respect to allergies.” This is a fairly common view among many people, who admit that while homeopathy has no scientific foundation, ‘it seems to work’. For many of my friends, this puts homeopathy in the category of things that conventional science can’t explain yet, rather than those that have no scientific basis at all.
I used homeopathy for a few years when I was much younger. I believed then that it worked on me. I still have much fondness for my erstwhile homeopath, who I believe to be neither a fraud nor a fool. And some people close to me still pop sugar pills when they are ill. Yet, I now believe that homeopathy is no less ridiculous than astrology or numerology, and no more scientific than them. I’ve travelled the entire arc of belief when it comes to homeopathy, from an automatic, peer-influenced faith to skepticism to unbelief and contempt—and that is the subject of my column today: why so many people believe in homeopathy even though it is, to put it plainly, nonsense.
I won’t do a detailed debunking of homeopathy here. For that, I refer you to books like Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Simon Singh & Edzard Ernst’s Trick or Treatment, as well as this classic talk by James Randi. To summarise, the methodology of homeopathy makes no sense whatsoever, and scientific trials, when carried out with proper rigour, have shown homeopathic medicine to be no better than placebo, the standard for judging the efficacy of any new medicine.
The most bizarre thing about its methodology is the composition of the medicine itself. In homeopathic medicine, the substance being used to treat a patient has to be so diluted that there is generally not a chance that a single molecule of the substance remains in the medicine a patient is taking. In Randi’s video, for example, he displays a homeopathic sleeping aid that contains, as its active ingredient, caffeine. (Homeopaths believe that the substances that cause a particular condition should be used to treat it. Go figure.) The dilution of the caffeine in the medicine: “10 to the power of 1500.”
Randi asked the maths writer Martin Gardner if there was a way of explaining to the layman how much that really was. Gardner explained, “That’s equivalent to taking one grain of rice, crushing it to a powder, dissolving it in a sphere of water the size of the solar system, with the sun at the centre and the orbit of Pluto at the outside, and then repeating that process 2 million times.”
In Bad Science, Goldacre offers another analogy: “Imagine a sphere of water with a diameter of 150 million kilometers (the distance from the earth to the sun). It takes light eight minutes to travel that distance. Picture a sphere of water that size, with one molecule of a substance in it: that’s a 30c dilution.”
By these standards, there are so many impurities in regular drinking water that we are probably being treated for every major disease anyway.
Leave aside methodology. Maybe modern science hasn’t advanced enough, and we just don’t get it. Methodology would not matter if homeopathy actually worked. The standard test in medicine for seeing whether a treatment works is a double-blind placebo-controlled test. In this, patients are randomly divided into two groups, one of which is given the treatment being tested, and the other is given placebo—such as pills that look like real ones, but are actually inert. Neither the patients nor the doctors know which group is getting the treatment and which the placebo (that’s why it’s ‘double-blind’), thus eliminating psychological biases on their part. The mere belief that they are being treated often helps patients, so the true test for a treatment is if it can do better than placebo.
Homeopathy has failed such trials consistently. (Bad Science covers this subject in some depth, and also explains why some of the trials homeopaths claim have been successful have had methodological flaws, and suchlike.) There was a time when I wanted to believe the damn thing worked—but there is no evidence of it.
That brings us back to belief. Why do so many immensely smart people around us believe that homeopathy works if it does not? Surely they can’t all be deluded?
One reason why homeopathy seems to work on so many people is the aforementioned placebo effect. This is a remarkably powerful phenomenon, one that medical scientists are still studying with wonder. In Bad Science, Goldacre wrote about Henry Beecher, an American anaesthetist who operated on a soldier with “horrific injuries” during World War 2, using salt water instead of morphine, which was not available. It worked. Similar stories abound through the history of medicine, and the placebo effect is an established part of medical science. If you believe you are taking medicine, that belief itself might help you get better, and you will naturally ascribe the recovery to the medicine you took. This is why, for any medicine to get the approval of the scientific establishment, it has to be shown to be better than placebo—otherwise what’s the point?
There is also a phenomenon called regression to the mean which comes into play. Many diseases or physical conditions have a natural cycle—they get worse, and then they get better, quite on their own. This can be true of backaches, migraines, common colds, stomach upsets, practically anything non-major. If you take homeopathy during the course of this, and you get better, you might well ascribe causation where there is only correlation, and assume the medicine did it. As Simon Singh puts it, you may take homeopathy for a cold or a bruise, and “recover after just seven days instead of taking a whole week.” And there you go, you’re a lifetime fan of Phos 1M right there. (This is known as the Regressive Fallacy.)
I suspect this was one reason homeopathy became popular in the first place. Back in the 19th century, conventional medicine was in its infancy, and as Goldacre wrote in his book, “mainstream medicine consisted of blood-letting, purging and various other ineffective and dangerous evils, when new treatments were conjured up out of thin air by arbitrary authority figures who called themselves ‘doctors’, often with little evidence to support them.”
Indeed, seeing a doctor or visiting a hospital probably increased your chances of dying. Atul Gawande, in his book Better, tells us in another context that in the mid-19th century, at the hospital in Vienna where the doctor Ignac Semmelweis worked, 20% of the mothers who delivered babies in hospitals died. The corresponding figure for mothers who delivered at home: 1%. The culprit: infections carried by doctors who did not wash their hands. (Semmelweis tried to reform the system and was sacked.) This, then, was the state of mainstream medicine when homeopathy began gaining in popularity. In contrast, homeopathy was harmless, would not make you worse or give you an infection and kill you, and if you recovered in the natural course of things, you would give it the credit and tell all your friends about it. The growth of the system, I say with intended irony, was viral.
When it comes to any kind of belief, the confirmation bias comes into play. If we use homeopathy, we do so because we are inclined to believe in it, and our ego gets tied up with that belief. After that, we ignore all evidence that it doesn’t work, and every time we pop a few sugar pills and get better, we give homeopathy the credit. Also, the fact that so many other believers exist reinforces our own belief, for all these people surely can’t be wrong.
In a way, belief in homeopathy is similar to religious belief. (Yes, I’m an atheist as well.) I don’t berate my religious friends for their beliefs, because even though they might be wrong, there is often comfort in that kind of wrongness, especially when dealing with issues of mortality and insignificance. Similarly, if someone I know wants to pop homeopathic pills for a stomach ache or a common cold, I’ll let them be, both because of the power of the placebo effect, and because they’re likely to get better on their own anyway. (Also, I’d rather see them taking sugar pills than, say, antibiotics for something so trivial.)
But just as religious belief can be taken too far, so can homeopathic faith. When people treat serious ailments with sugar pills instead of proper medicine, matters get problematic - especially if they force such treatment on others, such as the Aussie homeopathy lecturer Girish wrote about and I’d blogged about once, who killed his daughter by insisting that her eczema be treated with homeopathy alone. That demonstrates that while blind faith may have its consolations, it can be lethal when taken too far. If only it could be given a homeopathic dilution.
What is the job of a journalist? An idealistic reader would say that it is to report the news, to put the facts of the world on record. A jaded news editor would say, it is to tell stories, ideally sensationalistic ones, that capture the attention of the reader. These stories are often a spin on the truth; and sometimes they may be outright false. A reporter’s brief is often to turn banal facts into gripping drama—and if there is no easy story to be had, then to manufacture one.
We see this in the way sports is covered in India. You might think that a sporting encounter is dramatic by itself, and does not need embellishment or hyperbole. But news editors seem to believe that readers not only want dramatic narratives, they want those narratives to be simple. (I wrote about this in the inaugural Viewfinder as well.) A cricket match may be decided by a number of complex factors, and the loser most often does not play badly, but simply gets outplayed by a better team. But this complexity does not make for a good story.
The most crass illustration of this came a few years ago, during an India-Pakistan series, when a news channel started finding the Match ka Mujrim (‘Villain of the Match’) in a post-match analysis show. Cricketers aren’t Mujrims, and on most days, even when matches are lost heavily, there may not be any blame to be assigned. In sport, shit happens. But no, it’s more fun, allegedly more engaging, and what’s more, far easier for a lazy thinker, to affix blame, paint the events of the day in black and white, and move on.
Last year, when India crashed out of the second T20 Cricket World Cup, there were the usual calls for our captain MS Dhoni’s head. When there was no story to be had, the media made it up, such as when, as Anand Vasu reported, “Dhoni’s effigy was burnt in his hometown Ranchi, ... apparently it was ‘arranged’ by two channels.” The footage was good—so what if the burning was staged?
The sports pages of our newspapers these days are also full of such nonsense. For the last three days we’ve been reading about an alleged brawl that our players had in a nightclub. Well, as this report indicates, it wasn’t a brawl, and it wasn’t even a nightclub. There was no story in it. But our players had already been painted as mujrims, and of course our journos took that narrative forward.
Another big story of the last few days was about how the BCCI was planning to sack Dhoni from the T20 captaincy. As Prem Panicker eloquently pointed out, it was a fabrication. And it was a particularly ludicrous one, when you consider that Dhoni is also captain of Chennai Super Kings, which is owned by BCCI bigwig N Srinivasan and has chairman of selectors K Srikkanth as a brand ambassador. If Dhoni is sacked from the Indian captaincy, it directly affects CSK’s brand value. Even if he really sucked as a captain—despite some bad tactical calls, I believe he is a splendid captain—he would not be sacked. He could walk on field in a bikini, holding a tennis racket, and he would keep his job. So what a dishonest story to run.
* * * *
Besides the lazy reporting, there has also been lazy analysis. Success breeds enemies, and the IPL has been successful, so obviously it has become fashionable to beat up on it. That’s okay, but to blame it for India’s poor performance in the T20 World Cup, as so many commentators have done, is ridiculous. If the IPL did tire out the men who played in it, or get them used to a lower standard of cricket, or fatigued them with its parties, then you’d expect the non-Indian players also to suffer from it. Well, consider the following facts:
The Man of the Tournament in the T20 World Cup, Kevin Pietersen, played in the IPL. The top run-scorers of England, Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand and India were all IPL players. Australia’s miraculous comeback in the semi-final was fashioned by two IPL batsmen. The top wicket-taker of the tournament, Dirk Nannes, was an IPL star. Barring Pakistan, whose players unfortunately missed out on the IPL, every team was driven by its IPL stars.
And yet, at the end, we were the only ones whining.
* * * *
I am a purist and prefer men wearing white flannels to those in coloured pajamas, but I’m an admirer of what the IPL has done for Indian cricket. I’m not speaking of how viewership has increased or how it has brought new followers to the game, both of which have happened, but what it has done for the cricketers. Before the IPL, the BCCI ran a monopsony. Young Indian cricketers who wanted to play for India had only one market for their services: the BCCI, via the state associations affiliated to it. It was no wonder that domestic cricketers were so underpaid. The teams they represented faced no competition for their services, and had no incentive to treat them well or pay them handsomely.
That has changed. The IPL has created 10 teams competing furiously for domestic talent, and forced, by competition, to pay them well. The result is that cricket is a viable career option even for players who will never play for India. A domestic journeyman today stands to make up to 100 times as much money as he might have made 10 years ago—and this is all because of the IPL. For this reason alone, I’m a fan.
* * * *
That said, there is much that is crass about the way it is covered. Commercial breaks in the middle of overs is pushing it a bit too far, even if the irony is delicious that as the Delhi Daredevils lose their second wicket, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag are rolling around in the grass, giggling over a call from Vidya.
And I am so glad to see the last of the ‘MRF Blimp.’ I am told that MRF paid an astronomical sum to ensure that the commentators would mention the blimp a minimum number of times during every match. What made this especially bizarre was that the alleged blimp was actually not a blimp, but a tethered balloon. Also, it wasn’t even there at the venue during some of the matches when it was shown, and the broadcasters used stock footage. Imagine that: commentators forced contractually to praise a blimp that is actually a tethered balloon and is not even there to begin with. Next year, for all you know, they’ll put up a tethered balloon shaped like a volcano, and say, ‘Hey look, MRF has brought a volcano to India for the first time! And it’s in the sky! Hey, did you see that? The MRF Volcano just burst!’
And then MRF Ash will prevent the MRF Blimp from taking off.
* * * *
There also seems to be a bit of a financial bubble formed around the IPL. Some friends and I parsed the numbers recently, and could not figure out how potential revenues could ever justify the current valuations of the franchises. Sahara paid crazy money for its franchise, and are reportedly planning an IPO for the team. I suppose that explains it: it’s the Greater Fool Theory at play. But will all the franchise owners, in the long run, find greater fools?
In any case, the financial madness around the IPL does not mean that the IPL hasn’t created immense value, just as the bursting of the dotcom bubble did not mean that technology wasn’t transforming our lives. Will the IPL bubble burst one day, or will the IPL continue to thrive? I believe both will happen.
* * * *
The IPL somewhat resolves one of the problems with Indian cricket: that it was a monopsony, and cricketers had only one credible buyer for their services. But the other, more serious problem, remains unresolved: that the BCCI is a monopoly.
That is a problem with most national sporting bodies worldwide. They have exclusive rights to the sports they control in the jurisdictions they function in, and that brings with it all the ills of an unfree market. There is no competition to hold them accountable.
In other countries, there are multiple sports that compete with each other for attention, and that can keep the sports bodies honest. But India is effectively a one-sport country. So the BCCI does exactly as it pleases, and much of it is unsavoury. To take just one example, the way it bullied the ICL, and messed with its players lives, was disgraceful. This is a problem, though, that has no solution.
The BCCI is not run on taxpayers’ money—so it’s not accountable to us. It is not a public limited company, and has no shareholders to answer to. The only stakeholders with any control over it are the state associations who elect its office bearers, and their incentives are aligned with continuing the status quo.
In other words, the BCCI is the Match ka Mujrim. And there’s nothing we can do about it, because without this mujrim, we don’t have a match.
I thought I’m inured to shock and horror, but this story made even me gasp:
In a hair-raising incident, a husband stitched the private parts of his wife with wire in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad city after her request to visit her parents enraged him, police said Friday.
Munda became angry when Sabitri said Wednesday that she wanted to go to her parents’ home and charged her with having an extra-marital relationship, Dhanbad Deputy Superintendent of Police Rajiv Ranjan said.
Their quarrel took a vicious turn when Munda tied his 21-year-old wife’s hands and legs and stitched her private parts with “iron wire”, Ranjan said. After committing the ghastly act, he locked her up in a room.
From one point of view, this guy is an outlier, a complete freak show, a madman.
From another, he’s the typical Indian male. He treats his wife as his property, and is sexually insecure. The manifestation of that is unusual—but the sentiment, alas, all too common.
Why do I need to have curfews when you have got the selectors?
I wish our captain and our media learned a lesson from this. We make excuses for our players under-performing by saying they party too much, or they spend their time shooting for commercials instead of practising, or they’re not committed or fit enough, and so on and on. Well, why go into all that? Why not keep it simple and just look at their performances?
As long as they’re performing, they stay in the side. What they do off the field is nobody’s business.
When they stop performing, they get dropped. What they do off the field is still nobody’s business.
No excuses, no gossip. Keep it simple. Performance.
Think it’ll happen?
Posted by Amit Varma on 15 May, 2010 in
India’s exit from the T20 World Cup has been blamed by many people, from current players to former players to the media to Ashton Kutcher on Twitter, on the IPL. Allegedly, the players played too much cricket, went to too many parties, and/or the low standard of the IPL softened them up too much.
Ah well. Consider this: As Australia march into the final without losing a game, their top five run scorers in the tournament happen to have played the IPL. So did their top wicket-taker. They will play England in the final, and England’s top run scorer also played the IPL. England beat Sri Lanka in the semi final, and Sri Lanka’s top scorer and top wicket-taker also played in the IPL. Barring Pakistan, whose players were unfortunately not part of this IPL, every major team was driven by its IPL stars.
About 20 years ago, when I was in standard XI or XII, I qualified to play in a state-level chess tournament for schoolkids in Sholapur. I was part of the Pune contingent, and the school championships covered practically every other sport played in India—though chess was a first that year. When my team of four players landed up the day before the event began, we were shown into a large hall and told we’d be sleeping there for the night, with many of the other athletes and sportsmen who had shown up. About 60 people could have fit in it in normal circumstances. There were more than 100 of us. No bedding was provided, part of the floor was wet (leakage from somewhere), and sleep didn’t come easy.
The next morning, we found that the toilet facilities intended for us amounted to a small shed outside the building that had three or four cubicles in it. Inevitably, fights broke out in the rush to use it. There were judokas, wrestlers, weightlifters and shot-putters around. As you’d expect, we chess players had to learn to control our bowel movements.
I came third, and qualified for the nationals. Bizarrely, it coincided with my final exams, as it must have for many of the schoolkids who qualified. I did not go.
The regular age-group tournaments that the national chess federation organised were not much better. I represented Maharashtra once in the national junior championship (under-20), in 1992 or 1993, and the tournament was held in Vijaywada in the peak of summer. ‘It is so hot here,’ a local friend told me, ‘that crows drop down dead in summer.’ The electricity, which was variable, went off one day before the round began. I was drawn to play a player I respected hugely for his theoretical knowledge, though I felt that once you leave theory out of it, I was better than him. So, to take him out of his opening repertoire, I played 1. b4—the Orangutan opening. He arrived late at the table, took one look at the board and burst out laughing. The sweat poured down my face, and my head throbbed. I lost that game, finished lower in the tournament than I’d expected, and retired from chess at the age of 19.
I don’t blame my early departure from the game on outside circumstances. It was evident to me that I wasn’t good enough to play the game at a higher level, and I will always cherish the memories I have, including the time I beat a future grandmaster (I was 18, he was 15, but already considered a prodigy; I still remember the spectacular rook sacrifice I unleashed, leading to mate in four.) I also made significant pocket money in college as a chess hustler, but that’s a tale for another day.
Why I relate these stories, though, is to give a sense of how hard it was to make it in any Indian sport apart from cricket. Most of those sports are run by the government, and I don’t need to elaborate on the inevitable inefficiencies that result, and the hardships and bureaucracy that young sportspeople have to battle. You always feel that you’re fighting against the system, and whatever you achieve is in spite of it. I cannot stress this enough: To just survive the damn system, to keep playing the sport you love through years of this crap, you have to be made of stern stuff.
To actually come out of this and excel at the international level: that’s a whole different deal. To those guys: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
* * * *
For chess players, it was hard for another reason. Back then, in the pre-internet, pre-liberalisation days, it was impossible to stay in touch with the cutting edge of chess knowledge. Chess books beyond basic ones were hard to come by; and were treasured when they did, even if they were outdated. And while all local players were bound by pretty much the same limitations, when Indians moved on to international chess, they were hopelessly behind in terms of knowledge and training.
One of my friends, Devangshu Datta, played chess at the national and international levels in the 1980s. Over an email conversation, which I quote with permission, he described how the barriers for Indian chess players were “absolutely mountainous.”
“To put it bluntly,” he wrote, “when I started playing East Europeans, the difference in ‘chess culture’ was stark. We knew so much less, it wasn’t funny. To take an analogy, it was like putting a bunch of talented kids with a basic knowledge of, say, self-taught HSC level maths into direct competition with people who had post-grad math degrees.
“We’d struggle through the opening and hit the middle game and start wondering what to do, then in the post-mortem, the opponent would say, ‘Oh, my trainer AN Other taught us that with this structure you have to play this way,’ and you’d be like, ‘Shit.’”
It was around that time that Viswanathan Anand broke through to establish himself as one of the best players in the world, and a potential successor to the great Garry Kasparov. This week he successfully defended his World Championship title against Veselin Topalov. His achievements, which I do not need to summarise, are greater than they would have been if they belonged to a Russian or East European player. They are beyond stupendous. In the context of where he came from, it’s like a guy takes a Maruti 800 into a Formula 1 race and wins the championship. That guy, frankly, is more than just the best driver in the world.
* * * *
After Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in that classic chess match of 1972, interest in chess in the US spurted. I suspect Anand’s achievements will have a similar effect in India. The live coverage of his match against Topalov was eagerly followed on Twitter, with near-live commentary being produced by some tweeters. For a chess player, the precision of his play in some of the games, like the last one, was breathtaking. But even for non-chess players unaware of the nuances, the match was dramatic and compelling. As I write these words, the day after his win, the newspapers and TV channels are full of him. Chess, amazingly enough, might just be on its way to becoming a spectator sport in India.
And what a time to be a young chess player in India. As Devangshu told me, “Until 1993, India had to wait an extra 4-6 weeks for Informant, a paper digest of, say, the 1000 best games played in the past quarter (many annotated by the players) to arrive from Belgrade. The East Europeans got it on day one. Now you get them instantaneously as they’re played. We get the annotated versions as quickly as anybody else, and I have home analysis of nearly the same calibre and quality as Anand does. You have free chess engines available that are as strong as the world champion or stronger in many respects. Plus, all the material is digital and includes depth of annotation that was unimaginable.”
Also, needless to say, playing chess competitively requires little investment in equipment, unlike other sports. (A chess set is all you need to start, and later a chess clock and an internet connection.) You aren’t dependent on the government any more. You have all the resources you need—and if you watched Anand at work this week, you also have the inspiration. For this reason, I expect India to produce a wave of strong chess players in the years to come.
Who knows, one of them may even win the World Championship someday. But it won’t be as big a deal as this. Anand is special.
No. 1: The player who can command his place as a specialist in the side in both batting and bowling. This kind of allrounder is hugely rare. Garry Sobers was one; maybe Keith Miller at his peak; among Indians, Vinoo Mankad qualifies. Of the quartet of the 1980s, Kapil Dev, Ian Botham and Richard Hadlee would not have got in as specialist batsman; and while Imran Khan was good enough to be a specialist in either discipline, his batting peak came after he had declined considerably as a bowler. In recent times, Jacques Kallis was one, but his bowling has declined since.
No. 2: The player who can command his place as a specialist batsman or bowler, but while he’s a worthy part-timer in the other discipline, would not command his place for that alone. Most people you call allrounders today fall in this category. Kallis has slipped into this category, and Shane Watson also fits in here. Shahid Afridi was one, though his bowling seems to have gotten worse. Among Indians, Irfan Pathan was one, till his bowling fell away just as his batting improved.
No. 3: The player who would not get in the side as either a specialist batsman or bowler, but who does both well enough for their combined value to get him into a weak side. India had some such ‘bits-and-pieces’ players in the 1980s (remember Kirti Azad?) and New Zealand had some in the 1990s. But against top-quality opposition, the bits-and-pieces allrounder will usually deliver in neither discipline, and will be a liability to the side.
Well, the reason I’m going over this is that in the current side, India have one player in the third category. I don’t believe Ravindra Jadeja would be in the Indian side as either a specialist batsman or a specialist bowler. We saw his limitations as a batsman when MS Dhoni sent him out to bat earlier than he should have in the game against England in the 2009 T20 World Cup, and the balls he ate up cost India the game. (He made 25 off 35.) We saw his limitations as a bowler today, when he was hit for six off six consecutive balls—Watson pumping the last three of his first over, and David Warner laying into him on the first three of his next. To add to this, he got himself run out with a ridiculously lazy piece of running between the wickets, ambling diagonally across the pitch. Like, really.
Jadeja is good enough to play in the IPL, where the standard of cricket is not so high and he will add value to any team. But I don’t believe he is international material, and it is shocking that he kept out a player like Rohit Sharma in the earlier games of this World Cup. We may just have learnt an important lesson today—but is it already too late?
The question can be asked, which category does Yusuf Pathan fall into? He is not good enough to play as a specialist bowler, but does he cut it as a batsman? I think the jury’s out on that. He is a phenomenal striker of spin bowling and medium-pace bowling—but has yet to prove himself against quality fast bowling. He had a good chance to get set in today and establish himself in the side—and he muffed it.
If we consider a wicketkeeper-batsman an allrounder by virtue of his performing in two disciplines, then we are fortunate to have seen Adam Gilchrist play in our lifetimes. He was both a great batsman and a top-flight wicketkeeper, and walks into my all time XI. In recent years, Mark Boucher, at his peak, could have played as either a specialist batsman or a specialist wicketkeeper. And I believe Mahendra Singh Dhoni also falls in that category. Yes, even in Test cricket, where the captaincy seems to have done him much good—he averages 71.8 as captain, in 13 Tests. That’s off the charts.
Since I mentioned my all-time XI, just for kicks, here it is: 1. Hobbs, 2. Gavaskar, 3. Bradman*, 4.Viv Richards, 5 Headley, 6. Sobers, 7. Gilchrist+, 8. Akram, 9. Warne, 10. Lillee, 11. Muralitharan.
On a different day, I’d probably give you a different XI. Nos. 5 and 10 are the ones always in question, and I’m also tempted to push Sobers one spot up and play five freakin’ specialist bowlers. Just imagine. Even Martians with eight hands and four bats would have a tough time against the Earth XI then.
I know you’re complaining Sachin isn’t there. How could I leave God out? Alright, then, here’s an all-time India XI, and God walks into this one: 1. Gavaskar, 2. Sehwag, 3. Dravid, 4. Tendulkar, 5. Laxman, 6. V Mankad, 7. Dhoni*+, 8. Kapil, 9. Amar Singh, 10. Kumble, 11. Harbhajan.
Why not Bedi, you ask? For balance. We already have a left-armer there in Mankad. Why not Prasanna instead of Bhajji? Because that damn spin quartet is too freakin’ romanticised. See their records carefully. Filter for matches won; filter for matches played overseas; that’ll tell you the story.
And yeah, we also romanticise Vishy, and don’t give Laxman his due. Compare their records also.
Among our commentators, Sanjay Manjrekar can be reliably banal, but rarely says something outright ridiculous, unlike some of his colleagues. Well, today he did. As India were headed out to chase Australia’s 184 in the T20 game today, he praised India’s strategy of playing the extra batsman, since the total they were chasing was so big, and said, ‘In hindsight, that’s proved to be a very good move by MS Dhoni.’
Duh, no. India lost precisely because they played that extra batsman. It meant that they played one specialist bowler less, and had to rely on part-timers to bowl 8 of the 20 overs in the innings. Against a quality batting side like Australia, that was asking to be pumped. That was exactly what happened, and Australia got a total that, given their pace attack and India’s problems against pace, was way too high for India.
Some people suggest that in T20 cricket, a side is best off playing as many batsmen as they can, and part-timers can do the bowling. This is nonsense. Bowlers win T20 games, as we saw in the IPL recently, and every team must have at least four specialist bowlers in the XI. Those that don’t will lose—and sometimes get pumped, as India did today.
A few days ago, a Delhi newspaper called me up to ask for a quote on a controversy that had begun, as any respectable controversy these days should begin, on Twitter. Sagarika Ghosh, allegedly harrassed by right-wing Hindutva types, had unleashed a series of tweets against what she termed ‘Internet Hindus’. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5.) The phrase caught on and led to much outrage from many bloggers, a spirited takedown of ‘the Hindutva fringe’ by my fellow Yahoo! columnist Ashok Malik, and a vehement defence of it by Kanchan Gupta.
I was baffled by the controversy. Firstly, the phrase itself seemed ridiculous to me, and I suspect that all the main protagonists using that term would have defined it differently. Secondly, I didn’t see what all of them were getting het up about to begin with. Ghose was over-reacting to criticism; the rest were losing their sleep over someone’s tweets: how noob of them.
If Ghose was, indeed, bothered by trolls, she would have done well to keep in mind the old jungle saying, ‘Never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and the pig enjoys it.’ The internet empowers loonies of all kinds by giving them a megaphone—but no one is forced to listen to them. The noise-to-signal ratio is way out of whack on the net (Sturgeon’s Law), and any smart internet veteran will tell you that to keep your sanity, you need to ignore the noise. Ghose, poor thing, had tried to engage with it.
We all know that people are more extreme on the net than they are in real life. The radical Hindutva dude who wants to nuke Pakistan on the net will, in the real world, sit meekly at Cafe Coffee Day arguing the relative merits of Atif Aslam and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. A commonly cited reason for this is the anonymity that the internet gives you. You get power without responsibility, and can say whatever you want without the fear of consequences. (This explains why so many comment trolls are anonymous or pseudonymous.)
But anonymity is just a small part of the story. Many people who take extreme positions on the internet do so under their real names. What’s more, they hold these positions in the offline world as well, though they probably didn’t believe in them so vehemently before they got online. What’s going on here?
I got an insight into this a while ago when I read a book named On Rumours by Cass Sunstein. In it, Sunstein cites an experiment he carried out with a couple of colleagues in Colorado in the USA in 2005. These guys gathered 60 subjects and split them into ten groups of six people each. The experiment was designed so that each group was homogeneous and fit a particular profile. Half the groups were liberal; the others were conservative.
At the start of the experiment, each participant was asked a series of hot button questions, including one on that most polarising of topics, global warming. Their anonymous answers were noted down. Then they went into a room with a group of like-minded people and discussed those issues. Fifteen minutes after the group discussion ended, they were again asked the same set of questions, anonymously and one by one.
Here’s how Sunstein summarised the results in his book: “In almost every group, members ended up holding more extreme positions after they spoke with one another. [...] Aside from increasing extremism, the experiment had an independent effect: it made both liberal and conservative groups significantly more homogeneous—and thus squelched diversity. [...] Moreover, the rift between liberals and conservatives widened as a result of discussing.”
This phenomenon is called Group Polarization. Sunstein defines it thus: “When like-minded people deliberate, they typically end up adopting a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation inclinations.”
This explains why the internet is such a polarised space. Let us say that someone believes, to pick an especially ludicrous conspiracy theory, that Israel knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, and warned Jews who worked at the WTC not to go to work that day. In a relatively open society like the US or India, you’re unlikely to find too many people in your immediate circle of friends and acquaintances who would believe this. But on the internet, which serves the long tail of beliefs, you will find many like-minded people. There will be websites validating your view and bulletin boards full of kindred souls. The confirmation bias will also kick in, and you will ignore any potential source of disagreement, and hang around with your own kind. Information cascades will be in play, as your conviction will harden, and the vehemence with which you state your views will increase.
As Sunstein concluded in a working paper he wrote on group polarisation, it is “plausible to speculate that the Internet may be serving, for many, as a breeding group for extremism.”
Such echo chambers don’t exist merely on the internet, of course. Societies that aren’t open, including ‘illiberal democracies’, to use Fareed Zakaria’s phrase, also serve as a breeding ground for extremism. To look at nearby examples from Pakistan, the following could well be the condensed biography of the median Lashkar or Taliban terrorist: He was born in a poor family, and the only education he received was in a Madrasa, which was essentially a place of indoctrination; he came of age thinking of America and India as evil, infidel lands, and of himself as an underdog whose duty was to fight a righteous battle; he had little or no exposure to conflicting views, or even to cultural products from outside his immediate environment; and he was probably sexually repressed, which increased his resentment.
Also, he was surrounded by people just like him. So really, there is no other belief system he could have in such a closed environment. I suspect if you or I were in his place, we’d pick up a gun too. How on earth would we know better?
This is not a justification for his actions. When it comes to terrorism, I am a hawk. I believe we should fight terrorists and terrorist groups without mercy or hesitation, and destroy the infrastructure that supports them. This is necessary—but not sufficient. It would tackle the symptoms, but not the disease itself.
Terrorism in Pakistan is enhanced by a structural problem: their society isn’t open enough, diverse enough, and prosperous enough. As long as this remains the case, echo chambers will abound, and the supply of extremists will not dry up. What can we do about this?
To begin with, it would help if we didn’t talk about Pakistan as if it was one monolithic entity. Just because ‘they’ attacked us on 26/11 does not mean we prevent ‘their’ musicians or cricketers from coming to India—we are talking of different creatures here, which are opposed to each other.
Broadly, and with the risk of simplifying, I see three distinct kinds of forces in Pakistan. One, the jehadi groups, which grow larger and more extreme because of self-perpetuating feedback loops, but are by no means the whole country. Two, the military establishment, whose incentives, as I wrote in a column three years ago, are aligned towards continuing the conflict with India. They have supported the jehadis, and have waged proxy wars through them, but are now under credible pressure to withdraw this support. And three, civil society, which wants what people everywhere want: peace, prosperity and a good future for themselves and their children. This, I believe, is most of Pakistan.
The stronger civil society gets, the weaker the support for extremism, and the more tenuous the military’s hold on the country. This is why I support increased trade and cultural exchanges with Pakistan (which is mutually beneficial anyway, as it’s a positive-sum game). I don’t think it’s contradictory to take a hard line towards Pakistan’s terrorist infrastructure and a soft line towards their artists and businessmen. Both have the same end in mind.
I am not suggesting that this would be a panacea. Not all terrorists come from repressive societies or poor backgrounds, and extremism will always be with us. But it would reduce the amount of polarisation that takes place—and hey, some of it might even shift to the internet. Then the Internet Hindus can fight the Online Muslims, and Sagarika Ghose can crawl up in a foetal position under her desk.
Lest my column be misinterpreted, let me state the obvious by saying that I am not implying any equivalence between ‘Internet Hindus’, whoever they are, who may cause Ghose to tear out her hair but haven’t otherwise caused any physical harm to anyone, and the jehadis of the Lashkar and the Taliban. I have mentioned them here only in the context of the mechanics of polarisation. There is no question who I would rather have lunch with.
Also, I would request anyone who wishes to coin more such terms to at least alliterate. Blogging Buddhists and Joomla Jains sound far more musical than Internet Hindus, if a little more niche. No?
ToI reports that the Supreme Court has “quashed 22 criminal cases filed against South Indian actress Khushboo for her remarks in various magazines allegedly endorsing pre-marital sex.” This is an encouraging judgement—especially the following words from the bench:
When two adults want to live together, what is the offence? Does it amount to an offence? Living together is not an offence. It cannot be an offence.
Well put. And extending that further, if two adults want to do anything together, by mutual consent, without harming or involving anyone else, what is the offence? Should there be an offence? No freaking way.
The cases against Khushboo were filed in 2005. It took five years for this trivial matter to be sorted out. Imagine the state of someone spending years living through the tension of more serious cases. In our legal system, the process can be the punishment.
And oh, while confirming when the cases against Khushboo were filed, I came across this masterful headline:
Two teenagers aged 14 and 15 years allegedly strangled their 13-year-old friend with a copper wire and then pinned his body to a wall using iron nails.The children were paid Rs 20,000 by a 35-year-old woman, Sabroon,to commit the murder.She was angry with the victim as she suspected he was stealing from her shop and wanted to get rid of him.
Pretty horrific. And I don’t know why, but I read that and thought of Lalit Modi. How strange.
Question: Do you wash your hands after you have had a wee?
Saatchi: I have an acute sense of hygiene so I wash my hands before I have a wee.
I love this because it so succinctly hints at what I have always believed: that we are dirty, not our sexual organs.
I do not recommend, of course, that you leave your hands unwashed after having a wee. Wash your hands as often as you can, out of courtesy for others if not concern for yourself. Indeed, wash your hands every time you read India Uncut—or you could catch my disease.
The WTF sentence of the day comes from Inder Sidhu of Tehelka, who writes about the band Indian Ocean:
That one of the most original bands in the country has been working within the same musical framework for 30 years is, frankly, shocking.
How bizarre a sentiment is that? I’m guessing Sidhu doesn’t like the Rolling Stones or Metallica or U2 or REM either, all of whom are “working within the same musical framework” that they started out with. And in literature, for the same reason, he probably finds Updike and Roth and Kundera and Munro “shocking” as well. Poor guy. What does he listen to or read?
Sidhu does have one good sentence in his piece, though: “The fact is that original rock in India is still wandering around with its umbilical cord, trying to find some place to plug it in.” There’s a valid point behind this comment—but it’s not the whole story. (And it could have done without the first four words—leaving those in is sloppy editing—but that’s just me being anal.)
Much to my surprise, quite a few people were surprised when King’s XI Punjab beat the Mumbai Indians yesterday in the IPL. They shouldn’t have been. At the halfway stage of the tournament, I predicted to a friend that Mumbai, then leading the league, would do worse in the second half than in the first, and Punjab, then at the bottom, would do better. And so it’s turned out. My reason for believing this had nothing to do with any deep cricketing insight, but with a simple statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean.”
The teams in the IPL are more or less evenly matched: they have a similar mix of overseas players, national stars and domestic players. (The salary caps ensure that this will continue.) And the format, being just 20 overs a side, that ensures that chance events play a much greater role than in other formats. For these reasons, I don’t believe that any team can ever truly dominate the league—unless they have a phenomenally lucky season, which will even out in the long run—or be too far below the rest. While in the short run the game is unpredictable, in the long run everyone’s going to be bunched around the mean.
So while I’m wary of predictions about specific results in the IPL, I’ll be glad to make a general wager on IPL 4. I’m willing to bet that the team that tops the league at the end of the first half will do worse in the second; and the other way around for the team that comes last. I have absolutely no idea, of course, which those teams might be.
As it happens, I would not make a similar bet for the EPL, where neither of my two conditions apply. (ie, teams are not evenly matched, and there is a far greater premium on sheer skill.) Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the IPL?
I don’t mean to say that matches at the IPL are decided purely by chance. There is immense skill involved, and I love the contest between bat and ball that we get to see every day. But the skill is so evenly distributed among the teams that in the long run, it evens out. The X factor that a captain like Shane Warne brings to the game does count for something—but while the Rajasthan Royals won IPL 1 under him resoundingly, in IPL 2 they won six out of 14 games. Such it goes.
I love local city news. Mumbai Mirror has a couple of stories today with absolutely killer quotes. The first is about a dude named Nitin Bhende, who nabbed a man who used to steal shoes from his building. His chief motivation: to get back a beloved pair of Bata shoes that he had bought “for Rs 999 at a discounted rate - the original price was Rs 1300.“Here’s what the delightfully named police inspector, Maruti Rathod, has to say on the matter:
We have arrested Hussain and have recovered Bhende’s no 10 Bata shoes. Bhende was asking us to hand over the shoes to him directly, but we have asked him to approach a court and seek permission for doing so.
So Bhende’s got to wait for his shoes while government machinery creaks into action.
The other story is about a dude named Apoorva Chakravorty who claims that a pujari he fought with “has been manipulating my brain and spoiling my deals by visiting my house in the form of a pigeon or a crow.” He has even given pictures of these crows and pigeons in his house to the police, who “are utterly baffled about how to deal with this case.” In the face of police inaction, he has evoked the RTI. The following quote is from the state information commissioner, Suresh Joshi:
There is no logic to his assumption that someone is taking the form of a crow or pigeon and harassing him. It does not amount to a cognizable offence.
Maybe the cops should just go arrest the damn crow—and then see if they can get the pujari in the same room. Eh?
Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2010 in
Shoaib’s brother-in-law Imran Zafar, who was shopping in Lahore for the wedding slated for April 15 in Hyderabad, said the family was unfazed by Ayesha’s claims. “Shoaib was duped and shown pictures of another girl as Ayesha. We have pictures of the girl who posed as Ayesha and which were sent from Ayesha’s email ID,’’ he said.
Imran said Shoaib had fallen madly in love with the girl whose pictures were sent to him. “But that girl was not Ayesha. Shoaib was trapped. Ayesha would tutor him online and have him parrot the line that they were married at select interviews,’’ the brother-in-law said.
Go figure. This dude claims that he fell in live with a girl, and wanted to marry her, on the basis of a photograph. And then the actual girl turned out to be someone else. The thing is, if you fall for a freakin’ photograph, the actual girl is always going to be someone else. Incredible WTFness.
As for the girl, she either married or wanted to get married to a guy she clearly didn’t know at all, and had perhaps never even met. Regardless of whose story is true, she doesn’t get my sympathy. She’s as much of an idiot as Shoaib is.
Indeed, their story illustrates why Nigerian scamsters are so successful. I wonder what Sania Mirza dreams about.
Aarushi points me via email to a couple of blog posts by Sherlyn Chopra. In one, Sherlyn says:
For quite sometime, I’ve secretly wished for a bigger butt. Guess, my mind strongly believes that my bum is petite. Hopefully, in early 2010 I shall fly to the US and meet some highly skilled surgeons and get their first hand opinion about whether or not butt implants are safe to acquire my desired result.
All through my teenage life, I’ve had a flat chest. Sometimes, I wondered if God had forgotten to give me breasts. It was only recently, a couple of years ago, that I had decided to get surgically enhanced breasts.
I know readers who would find this funny; and others who would say that Sherlyn is just trying to be provocative. But consider where the provocation lies—in honesty. She is sharing desires that many, many women have; she actually has the courage to act on those desires; and she is telling a repressed readership, which has been programmed into believing that talking openly about sexual matters is somehow wrong, about her boobs and her butt. I admire that.
But what does it say about us that such honesty can seem so scandalous?
The headline makes it seem that the victim was killed for being gay. But on reading the piece, you’ll find that his sexual orientation had nothing to do with his death. He saw someone getting mugged, tried to help him, and got fatally wounded in the process. That’s all.
So why mention his being gay in the headline?
Imagine the following headline: ‘Left-handed teen stabbed in Lokhandwala.’ WTF, no?
The British Intelligence Agency recently said the latest weapon of Al Qaeda is to use female suicide bombers with explosive breast implants, thus making it impossible to detect at security check-points.
The British Intelligence MI5 had stated that the Al Qaeda has a dedicated set of doctors to implant the explosives. They have been doing it with so much expertise that once the bomb is implanted it would be virtually impossible to detect.
This underscores how the only way to stop terrorism is through intelligence gathering. Fighting terrorism is all about infiltrating networks, finding out where the money comes from, stopping the flow, stopping the foot soldiers from entering your borders (if that’s possible), and dealing with terrorists before they get a chance to attack you. If your intelligence is messed up, you’re massively vulnerable. We have so many soft targets that they can pretty much strike at will. And yeah, their methods get more and more innovative.
That said, imagine a major terrorist strike getting foiled because a drunk Indian gentleman molests a pretty chica just before she boards a plane, and has his hand blown off. Just think, he wakes up in hospital minus hand, his wife glaring at him from his bedside, and a government official in a safari suit waiting patiently to tell him about the bravery award the government has given him. He still has one hand left, and perverse incentives regarding what to do with it.
While on Indian intelligence gathering, Nitin Pai makes some good points here.
Rediff link via email from Jenson Davis.
Posted by Amit Varma on 25 March, 2010 in
ToI has a report on a Maharashtra minister beating up an “alleged party worker” in public. The minister in question is a gent named Abdul Sattar, who “engaged in verbal duel” with a chap named Mohammad Nisar. Then:
Food & civil supplies MoS Abdul Sattar kicked the alleged Congress worker Nisar in full public view. The minister’s bodyguards first assaulted Nisar and then the minister allegedly kicked him in the stomach. Mohammad Nisar has been admitted to hospital after allegedly being hit the abdomen by minister Abdul Sattar.
Sattar later denied knowing Nisar. He said:
I do not know the man either. He is not a Congress activist and I am going to lodge a police complaint against him.
That’s right—the kicker is going to lodge a complaint against the kickee. And it makes perfect sense, because the police is likely to act on behalf of whoever is more powerful, and that’s clearly Sattar. So what does it matter who did the kicking?
Posted by Amit Varma on 23 March, 2010 in
My friend Rahul Bhatia has a fine story in Open about Dibakar Banerjee’s experience with the censor board during the evaluation of Love, Sex aur Dhokha. Not that there’s anything new about censorship in India, but Dibakar wanted an ‘A’ certificate for his film, and still had to make cuts and compromises. Why do adults need to be protected from sex and bad language? How effing condescending is that? Disgraceful.
Thank goodness I’ve chosen to be a novelist. Imagine if a committee had told me to cut the orgasm from MFS.
Heard about the recent furore over the garland of thousand-rupee notes that was presented to her Royal Majesty, Mayawati, by her party workers? One of her cronies has now come out and said that the media reports got it all wrong, and the value of the garland was “only Rs.21 lakh,” and not the Rs 5 crore that some people reported. (The rally at which it was presented reportedly cost Rs 200 crore, though the crony denied that figure as well.) Since then, the IT department has ordered a probe into Mayawati’s funds, while Her Highness has gotten herself another garland of notes. (Only Rs 18 lakh this time.)
Now, really, as long as it isn’t our taxes being spent, this should not bother me. But this kind of behaviour demonstrates, yet again, how our politicians believe that they are our rulers, and not our servants. This seems to be an attitude shared by most voters as well. Sure, many of them don’t like Mayawati, and would rather have a tribal leader of their choice on the throne, but you get what I’m saying.
Also, I have to say that a garland of currency notes is more honest and apt for the times we live in than one of dead flowers. Such it goes.
I feel hugely sorry for this kid. In her world, it might be a huge deal to become “the youngest girl to ever write the Intermediate or plus two examination in Andhra Pradesh.” (She’s nine or ten; the article states both.) But the pressure on her must be immense, and such ‘achievements’ are not the stuff of life. She’s obviously enormously smart and talented, but I’m sure there’s much parental expectation pushing her, and that isn’t good. Childhood should be chilled out and as stress-free as possible.
The government has banned Fashion TV for nine days after finding a program it aired offended good taste and decency by showing women partially nude.
The Information and Broadcasting Ministry statement said FTV channel would go off the air later Thursday until March 21. The statement cited an unnamed FTV program aired in September that showed women with nude upper bodies.
It’s immensely WTF that someone should think that topless women offend “good taste and decency.” Women have breasts. Straight men are attracted to them. These are just ho-hum facts of biology. Only massively repressed and resentful men and women would find partial nudity offensive—and one factor in their repression, certainly, would be this attitude against anything sexual. It’s a self-reinforcing feedback loop—the more you repress, the more repressed they get, the more you find reason to repress them further. In the 21st century, its all a bit bizarre.
What is even weirder is that the continuing spread of the internet threatens to make all this moot. Far wilder things than mere toplessness are a Google search away, and its practically impossible to filter all of that out. And why would you want to do that anyway? Sex is healthy, so let’s be open about it, and not whisper while talking about it or blush when the subject comes up. Or censor boobs.
Daniel Pepper of CMS has a worrying story up on how RTI activists in India are increasingly facing a backlash from the people they are trying to expose. He tells us about Ajay Kumar, who questioned “why a local politician had authorized the construction of private houses and shops on public land.” Consequently, Kumar was “attacked by a mob of two dozen” and “beaten in the head repeatedly by an iron rod, leaving him unconscious and bleeding profusely.”
At least he lived. On Valentine’s Day in Bihar, “well-known RTI activist Shashidhar Mishra was shot dead by unidentified gunmen on motorcycles at the entrance of his home.” And in Pune, “another activist, Satish Shetty, was killed while on his morning walk.” I have no doubt that other RTI activists who are trying to expose the rot in the system must also be dealing with immense intimidation.
Shailesh Gandhi, once an RTI activist and now a commissioner with the CIC, hits the nail on the head:
It tells me that the rule of law is almost absent. The truth is that powerful people feel there is no law.
I’ve often argued that the rule of law is effectively absent in India for those without money, power or connections. But there’s more to this than even that. In most scams of the kind that these brave activists are trying to expose, private parties are actually in collusion with government authorities. Most mafias in the country are public-private partnerships, and the incentives of the men in power are obviously tailored to keeping these partnerships going. Thus, not only is the rule of law absent for the hapless RTI worker who chooses to challenge the system, the government is likely to actively work against him. The machinery he turns to for help generally has every reason to thwart him—and to look the other way when he’s beaten on the head with an iron rod.
That said, the RTI is a powerful tool, and it is precisely because of its power that there is such a backlash against those who use it. If the RTI was ineffectual, this backlash would not exist. These attacks, thus, demonstrate how much the RTI is capable of enabling. That leaves me both hopeful and worried. Perhaps a change is gonna come—but there will be a cost.
This sentence says so much about the level of parliamentary debate in India today:
Finally, marshals were called in to remove the unruly MPs.
Who elected these dudes and put them in parliament? We did. I would hang my head in shame if that didn’t mean I’d be staring at my paunch.
I have mixed feelings on the larger issue of women’s reservation. If I was a woman, I’d find it offensive. Implying that women can’t rise in politics on their own is terribly condescending, especially when so many counter-examples exist—strong women like Uma Bharti, Sushma Swaraj, Renuka Chowdhury and, um, Pratibha Patil. (And Sonia Gandhi, who may be at the top because of her last name, but then, so are so many male politicians.)
Also, it implies that there are fewer women MPs because women are discriminated against by political parties. I’m sure there is some discrimination, but it is not the sole factor. My hunch is that people enter politics because of their lust for power, and that men are biologically programmed to seek power actively, while women aren’t—at least not to the same extent. Thus, there are fewer women who seek validation in how much control they have over other people, and fewer women who are attracted to politics. (In saying this, by the way, I am dissing men and complimenting women, though Renuka Chowdhury, on an episode of We The People where I stated this opinion, attacked me because she thought I was disrespecting women. Quite the opposite.)
Having said that, I think the bill may have some positive unintended consequences. At the very least, parliamentary decorum is likely to improve, and MPs are likely to behave with somewhat more dignity. There might even be fewer instances of marshalls being called in to control unruly MPs. Who can complain about that?