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My Friend Sancho

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


To buy it online from the US, click here.


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


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


Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


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


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Journalism

The Offing Offence

Binand Sethumadhavan writes in:

Re ToI’s proofreading practices: Today’s (5/2/09) Hyderabad print edition of ToI has an article on page 16 titled “Google’s latest offing: Mobile tracking system”. Is it that they really didn’t know the difference between “offing” and “offering”?

The question, for me, is not whether they know the difference, but whether they care that there is one. If the editor in charge of that edition is reading this, is he feeling bad because the mistake was made, or because the mistake was caught? That’s the question.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 February, 2009 in Journalism | Media | WTF


Dalit Child

Here’s an interesting headline:

Policeman sacked for beating up Dalit child

If you read the piece, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that those cops deserved to be sacked. No one should beat up a kid in that manner. But I’m curious about one thing: Nothing in the story indicates that the girl’s caste had anything to do with the beating she got. So why does the headline find it important to specify that she is Dalit?

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 February, 2009 in India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics | Small thoughts


Family Matters And Noodle Straps

In the WTF news of the day, The Times of India reports:

In a brazen act of violence, remniscient of the Shri Ram Sene goons in Mangalore, a man kicked and stamped his wife because she was dressed “as a man”.

Adding insult to injury, the police promptly dispatched the battered woman, who suffered the ignominy in full public glare, to her in-laws house, terming it as a “family matter”. No case was filed.

I have three reasons for outrage here.

One, at the dude, who presumably thought he was behaving like a man by beating up a woman.

Two, at the cops, for denying the woman her rights, and treating her as if she was the property of her husband and in-laws. This attitude, by the way, is actually enshrined in some of our laws.

Three, at ToI, which printed “remniscient” instead of “reminiscent”. All hail India’s No. 1 English newspaper.

*

Elsewhere, women are being warned not to wear noodle straps.

Can’t dress like a man, can’t dress like a woman, what’s a chica to do?

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 February, 2009 in Freedom | India | Journalism | Media | News | WTF


Manmohan Singh = Lord Buddha?

These have to be the WTF opening lines of the day:

Prince Siddhartha took sanyas to eventually become Lord Buddha when he confronted misery due to old age, sickness and death. Even as the Congress party plays down Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cardiac bypass surgery on Saturday, his absence from the Prime Minister’s office cannot be ignored.

This is from Sheela Bhatt’s piece on Rediff, Why the Congress will miss Dr Singh. The rest of the piece is political analysis, and Buddha makes a reappearance only in the last paragraph, in an equally tenuous way. Many writers often try too hard to find clever ways to begin and end their pieces, and this is a great example of that. The piece is strong enough to stand on its own, and the reader is looking for substance, not cleverness. A simple beginning would have sufficed. Bringing Buddha into it was most unnecessary.

Maybe I should take sanyas from reading Indian publications…

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 January, 2009 in India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics | WTF


Vir Sanghvi Exercises His Free Speech

Who doesn’t love a good media brawl? Vir Sanghvi’s just put up a blog post explaining why he won’t write for Mint any more. An excerpt:

I will not write for a publication that censors its columnists and denies them the right to free speech while writing long, impassioned pieces about the freedom to criticize others from the Prime Minister downwards. All of us exhibit double standards to some degree. But Mint’s hypocrisy takes my breath away.

Notice what is curious about that excerpt? While Sanghvi is accusing Mint of denying him the right to free speech, he is exercising that very right on his own blog. The very fact that he is able to make the accusation, thus, invalidates the accusation itself.

From what I can make of the controversy, Mint refused to carry Sanghvi’s piece criticizing them. It is their paper, their space, and they were within their rights to do this. They did not stop Sanghvi from publishing the piece himself—as indeed he has. They exercised their right to their property—he exercised his right to free speech. For him to claim that they censored him is just factually incorrect.

Imagine, for example, if Raj Thackeray was to come to your house and demand that he make a speech from your living room window. Obviously you’d say, “This is my house, get the hell outta here!” Would you then be censoring Thackeray, and denying him his right to free speech?

I am not defending Mint here, merely quibbling with Sanghvi’s careless choice of words. If Mint portrays itself as being open to criticism, and denied its star columnist freedom over what he writes, then Sanghvi’s allegation of hypocrisy might well be justified. But I don’t know the details of this case, and will withhold judgment.

Disclosure: I used to be a columnist with Mint until last year.

Also read:

1] Anant Rangaswami’s rejoinder to Sanghvi’s criticism of his publication, (Not) learning from Vir Sanghvi. The semantics at the end of his post are much fun.

2] For more of my thoughts on the basis of the right to free speech, as well as all other rights, check out these three pieces:

a] The Origin of Human Rights.

b] Shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre

c] The Flying Spaghetti Monster v Private Property

(Sanghvi and Rangaswamy links via emails from Rahul and Salil respectively.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 January, 2009 in Freedom | India | Journalism | Media


The Call Of Conscience

Lasantha Wickramatunga, the chief editor of The Sunday Leader, a Sri Lankan newspaper, was shot dead last week near Colombo. He had survived earlier attempts at murder, and had known that further attempts were likely. So he wrote an editorial with the instructions that it be published in case he was killed. Here it is.

All of the essay is remarkable, and it seems unjust to quote just a bit of it, but this excerpt seemed particularly relevant:

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Contrast this with The Times of India, whose editors, according to a memo from their boss that I got to see recently, were instructed last month not to focus too much on depressing news. Do you think anyone there would lay down his life for you?

(Link via separate emails from Rishab, Arun and Kevin.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 January, 2009 in Freedom | India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics


Style Tips For Satyam Employees

Rahul Tamaskar sends me the screenshot below of Rediff’s headlines a couple of hours ago. Such juxtaposition!

image

Imagine Ramalinga Raju in one of these.

Meanwhile, Hari Shenoy blogs that Raju should go to Pakistan, “for they would be more than glad to grant asylum to anyone we want to hunt down.” Quite.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 January, 2009 in India | Journalism | Media | News | WTF


Dog Bites Judge, Dies

Now that we’ve been jaded by “Man Bites Dog” stories, what’s a newspaper to do? Well, here’s what The Times of India gets up to:

image

Reader Mihir Modi was kind enough to send me the image. As for the story itself, if you’re wondering whether the dog died or the judge, well, you can find out here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 January, 2009 in India | Journalism | Media | News | WTF


Where It’s At

This headline sums up these times so well:

MBA students lose crores in share market, kidnap boy

I love the new economy—every day, alternative revenue streams emerge.

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 November, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | News | WTF


Vidarbha Strikes Back

Check out the WTF juxtaposition of the day:

On the day Citigroup announced 52,000 job cuts it emerged that Bipasha Basu will be making Rs 1.5 crore for her star turn at Sahara Star on 31st night.

The moral of the story: If you’re a banker, get yourself a boob job.

*

And what better time to write a sequel to my poem, “Farmers Are Dying in Vidarbha”?

Vidarbha Strikes Back
by Amit Varma

I write this ditty from an AC mall
I’ve got money and will burn it all
While farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

Today at work they set me free
So I came on this shopping spree
While farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

I’ve got loans to pay, EMIs and such
I can’t afford to splurge too much
While farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

Farmers are dying, Oh farmers are dying
Farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

I’m buying left, and I’m buying right
I spend at day and I shop at night
While farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

I’ve gone nuts, I’m sure you think
The economy’s in the kitchen sink
And farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

I cannot help this spending urge
It’s like sex, I’m driven to splurge
While farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

Farmers are dying, Oh farmers are dying
Farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

But hey, what d’ya say, look at it this way
Farmers are passe, we need something new today
What about bankers dying in Vidarbha?

Bankers are dying, Oh bankers are dying
Bankers are dying in Vidarbha.

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 November, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Journalism | Media | WTF


All The News That’s Fit To Dream

If you’re already tired of 2008, take a look at the New York Times edition of July 4, 2009. This is the online version of a fake edition of the paper, of which thousands of copies were distributed free across New York in a fantastic hoax. I don’t know why the NYT itself is calling this a spoof—this doesn’t make fun of the paper, but instead uses it to present the vision the authors have of America under Barack Obama. I’m sure they’ll end up disappointed—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

But it’s very funny. Someone should do one for the Times of India...

(Links via separate emails from Gautam, Udhay and Gaspode.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 November, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Miscellaneous | Politics


‘At The End Of The Day…’

Vinjk points me to a list compiled by The Telegraph of the top ten irritating phrases in the English language. Some of them, I am ashamed to say, I find myself using in everyday speech—though I try to avoid them in my writing. Nevertheless, when I am lazily blogging in the middle of the night, a careless phrase or two may slip through.

In an old essay, The Dialect of a Cricket Writer, I’d written about how cricket writing in India is full of clichés, and how it is every writer’s duty to avoid them. When I wrote about cricket, I tried to do just that. But I hadn’t, at the time of writing that piece, done any live commentary.

A few months after that essay came out, I covered India’s tour to Pakistan for the Guardian, during which I also gave hourly radio updates for the BBC. Those updates were 60 seconds each, and a dude who ran a local Pakistani radio station heard me at work and invited me to do a stint of live radio commentary for him. When we are young, we are foolish, and I agreed.

What a disaster I was! Whenever I needed to say something, only clichés would pop into my head—and being live on air, I had no time to think of alternatives. A batsman french-cut a ball for two, and after describing the shot, I said, “it doesn’t matter how they come, as long as they come.” The game reached its final stages and I said, “Every run is crucial now.” By the time the game was over—I forget who won that one—I was more despondent than the losing side. Amit Varma the writer witnessed Amit Varma the radio commentator in action and unleashed a series of angry WTFs. Amit Varma the radio commentator, duly chastised, resolved never to do live commentary again.

That doesn’t mean that I will go easy on cliché-mongers—professionals have a duty to work at their craft till they get it right, and you will never hear a tired phrase from Harsha Bhogle when he does radio commentary. But it did make me empathetic towards writers who use clichés in their writing. That said, just as I never did radio commentary again, they too should give up writing and find some other work.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 November, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Personal | Sport


Guilty By Association?

Just yesterday the Indian media was jumping up and down in celebration because they had discovered an Indian name among Barack Obama’s advisors—that of Sonal Shah of Google.org. Well, now they’re all jumping up and down in righteous indignation because she was once allegedly linked to the VHP. My friend Reuben Abraham knows Shah well, and delivers an impassioned defense:

As a friend of mine said at the time, these people are doing to Sonal exactly what the right-wing loonies tried to do to Barack Obama with the Bill Ayers story, i.e., guilt by association. If you have made the mistake of being somewhere near Bill Ayers, by definition, you’re “palling with the terrorists.” This is vile. This is wrong. This is destructive. This is disgusting. And this is precisely the sort of vile politics that the United States needs a break from; the sort of politics the average person is tired of, if Obama’s mandate is anything to go by.

More than Reuben’s personal testimony, Shah’s record speaks for itself:

While she was at Clinton’s treasury department, she worked actively in Kosovo and Bosnia in setting up the central banking system and refloating the currency, both measures vital to the stability of the new states, and especially in preventing hyper-inflation. She also worked in Indonesia during the Asian financial crisis with Robert Rubin’s team. Lest the irony be lost, all three countries are predominantly muslim, not exactly the natural home of the anti-muslim fundamentalist some of these news reports imply Sonal is.

Fawzia Naqvi, a Pakistani Muslim, also pitches in for Shah in Reuben’s post.

If the elections were still on, poor Obama would no doubt be accused of “palling around with Hindu fundamentalists”.

*

Imagine this: You die, get to Heaven, and God greets you at the door. “Let me in,” you say. “I’ve been good all my life, I’ve helped old ladies cross the road, administered first aid to a fly, procreated for the grace of God, I mean You. Now let me into Heaven.”

“Aha,” says God. “You didn’t read the small print. The large print in the contract says that you don’t get into heaven if you have sinned. The small print says that you don’t get into heaven if anyone you know has sinned.”

“Anyone I know?” you protest. “But that’s absurd.”

“That’s the way it is,” says God. “And if no one you know has sinned, I might just invoke the six-degrees clause. You thought Earth had global warming. You ain’t seen Hell yet.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 November, 2008 in Dialogue | India | Journalism | Media | Politics


All The News That’s Fit To Print

If anthropologists from 300 years later see the screenshot below, of the Times of India’s headlines right now, I wonder what conclusions they will draw:

image

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 November, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media


Dear Times Of India

Dear Times of India

In light of this post by Jyothsna of The Cooks Cottage, I’d like to inform you of a couple of things:

1. Everything on the internet is copyrighted by default. Blog posts and articles posted online cannot just be picked up and used without permission. This is especially true if your reporters put their own byline on it.

2. This applies to photos as well. (On that note, well done Twilight Fairy.)

I assume that your repeated infractions of copyright result from ignorance, not malice or apathy. Thus, it would be nice if you could educate all your staffers and editors on the points mentioned above.

And no, I am not implying that you are the only newspaper that treats the internet as a free resource. But you’re the biggest, and should lead the way by addressing this issue in your code of conduct. If you have one, that is.

Regards

Amit

*

The hall of shame: 1, 2.

More open letters here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 November, 2008 in Journalism | Media


My Congratulations…

... to Barton Hinkle, the winner of the 2008 Bastiat Prize. And also to Swaminathan Aiyar and Fraser Nelson, who came second and third respectively. Their shortlisted articles are here (pdf link). I particularly loved the first of Barton’s pieces—it’s satire that Bastiat would have been proud of.

Barton was also shortlisted last year, and his pieces then were also exceptional—you can read them here (pdf link).

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 October, 2008 in Freedom | Journalism | Media | Personal


Finally, A Reason To Buy The Times Of India

Devangshu Datta, in a wonderful tribute to RK Laxman, comes up with a good reason to buy The Times of India:

Unfortunately, even Laxman’s presence wasn’t enough for me to continue with my daily ritual of passing the paper onto the raddi-wallah after that one brief moment of homage. For a while, I continued to take it because I was rearing kittens — it was absorbent and useful for little misunderstandings during the house-breaking phase. Once the cats became civilised, I stepped aside from that value-chain.

So if you have kittens at home, you’re excused. Otherwise, why do you read ToI?

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 October, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media


The World’s Greatest Democracy…

... has simply got to have polls like this one:

Vote! Which celeb has the worst smile?

Knowing our country’s celebs, most of them would want to win this thing. Anything for the limelight.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | WTF


Needless And Redundant

I’m bewildered and confused by Abu Salem’s legal notice to Monica Bedi, which seems to be written by his lawyer, for its inclination and tendency to use two words where one would do. From the three news reports about it (1, 2, 3), I find that:

1] Salem is “deeply hurt and distressed” by Monica’s denial of their marriage. He is unable to “comprehend or fathom” why she would do such a thing.

2] He had “actively encouraged and supported” Bedi’s acting career.

3] He finds “peace, solace and comfort” from reading the letters she sends him.

4] His love for her shall never “diminish or fade away” even if she wants to “split up or sever their marital ties”.

5] If their marriage is an “obstruction, hardship or obstacle” to her acting career, he is ready to divorce her so that she is “free, happy and at liberty.”

Phew, whew. If I was a judge reading this, I would book Salem and his lawyer for contempt of court for wasting my time in such a manner, in this way.

Many of our journalists are no better, of course.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 October, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | Miscellaneous | News


Sarah Palin. Bikini. Dev Anand

I just saw this box on The Times of India homepage:

image

Fantastic juxtaposition, no?

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 September, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | WTF


‘New Age Virgins’

Here’s the WTF headline of the day:

Confessions of new age virgins

I’ve read many bizarre trend stories in the Indian media, but this is particularly befuddling. New age virgins?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 September, 2008 in Journalism | Media | WTF


The End Of The World

Rediff reports:

A 16-year-old girl in Madhya Pradesh allegedly committed suicide after watching news about the possibility of the end of earth, following the atom-smasher experiment in Geneva that began on Wednesday.

Chhaya, a resident of Sarangpur town in Rajgarh district, consumed sulphos tablets (an insecticide) on Tuesday, her parents said.

[...]

Her parents told reporters that she had been watching reports about the world’s biggest atom-smasher experiment in Geneva on news channels since the last two days, following which she got restless and ended her life.

It’s a horribly sad story, and I wonder what went through her mind as she made her decision, and what other factors contributed to it. I’m guessing she wasn’t particularly happy otherwise, and there were other black holes in her life besides the notional ones in the news. (Speaking of which, read this.)

And see the irony—I read this story shortly after getting an email from Nitin that today is World Suicide Prevention Day. I’ve been keeping a close watch on myself ever since.

(Link via email from Gautam.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 September, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | News | Science and Technology


India Loves Billionaires

One week ago, in an article in Mint titled ‘Jet global expansion put on hold from November’, the following sentences appeared:

On international routes, Jet, run by billionaire non-resident Indian Naresh Goyal faces fresh competition. Kingfisher Airlines, promoted by billionaire Vijay Mallya, starts its international operations in September with a Bangalore-London flight.

A Mint reader named Harish Jagtiani sensibly wondered why the article needed to point out that Goyal and Mallya were billionaires, and posed that question to the editor of Mint, Raju Narisetti. Narisetti, in his blog, examined how many times the word ‘billionaire’ had appeared in India’s newspapers, and replied:

Clearly, business journalists love to point out someone’s billionaire status and I suspect if the B-word wasn’t so long, it would end up in more headlines as well! Is it our admiration for the relatively newly minted Indian billionaires that makes reporters go ga-ga? Actually, it turns out that being a billionaire is a good way to end up in many other newspapers. While the word appeared some 942 times in Indian newspapers in the past year, it appeared 4,102 times in Australian newspapers and 7,190 times in UK’s newspapers. I do think Harish has a point in that dropping the B-word has become a bit of a lazy crutch, whether the reference makes sense in the story or not. In a profile of Vijay Mallya it sure seems to make sense. In a story about Jet pulling back on international flights, does it really matter whether Naresh Goyal is a billionaire or not?

Narisetti’s blog The Romantic Realist works best when Narisetti writes about journalism: unlike the other journalist-bloggers I have read, he is honest, insightful and self-critical. Bloggers love criticising the mainstream media, and this blog is the first I’ve seen that gives an unflinching inside view of MSM from the top. Here are some other posts on journalism that he’s written:

Headllines Above (and Below) The Rest
Should Indian journalists cover up the truth?
Why this shouldn’t be called a foray into blogging
How bad writing (and no editing) can bias readers

Promising stuff, even if the design and user interface is appallingly bad. Why do newspaper websites in India try to reinvent the freaking wheel?

*

Disclosure: I wrote a weekly column and created a daily crossword for Mint for about a year, and we parted ways acrimoniously in January. I have never met Narisetti.

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 September, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media


Red Lace Bra vs Black Thong

Red Lace Bra wins, according to a poll run by Mid Day. I wonder if the details matter here, and if Black Bra wouldn’t beat Red Lace Thong by exactly the same margin.

The WTF quote of the day comes from the same article, where someone called Harshad K is quoted as saying:

I think women look great in knee-high, black leather boots. A woman who sports boots, is in touch with her own desires.

That would certainly be true if she wore nothing else, I suppose. And why that ugly comma after ‘boots’? Does it indicate that the copy editor who made the page also likes women in boots, and had to pause in the middle of that sentence to catch his breath?

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 September, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Miscellaneous | WTF


Madam’s Permission

Govinda, the member of parliament from the North Mumbai constituency, explains to DNA why he has focussed on his acting career over his constituency:

Maine Soniyaji se do saal pehle anumati maangi thi (two years ago I had sought permission from Soniaji). I had told her that mujhe acting ke taraf dhyan dena padega kyunki I had some debts to repay. I told her I might not be able to concentrate as much on my constituency (North Mumbai) as I would like to. I had Madam’s permission…

What about his constituency’s permission? I hope the voters there duly show him who’s in charge in the next elections.

Also, why has DNA written Sonia’s name as Soniya in that Hindi sentence? Why the ‘y’?

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 August, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics | WTF


Shooting Dead People

Shooting living people has an ethical cost; shooting dead people may not. HT reports:

For a few weeks starting last April, Bunty and his gang riding bikes went on a killing spree shooting dead people at random…

This happened in Delhi, where there are presumably enough dead people on the streets to shoot at randomly. There’s no such fun in Mumbai, where everyone I see on the streets and in the malls is boringly alive. It’s so predictable. Pfaw.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 August, 2008 in Journalism | Media | News | WTF


Lion Govind Is A Spammer?

Rediff has a slideshow up on the top ten spamming countries in the world. India comes in at No. 9, and the page on that has a picture of a lion that looks like it has drunk one shot of tequila too many, with the caption:

Lion Govind relaxes after receiving treatment at the Kamala Nehru Zoological Garden in Ahmedabad.

I think I’ll need a few tequilas myself to get the connection. I did google “Lion Govind” to try and find out, and I found this article, with the following utterly delightful sentence:

Lion Govind and lioness Ekta have been provided air coolers to beat the heat.

I demand a comic book on Lion Govind, the Air-Conditioned Spamming Kingpin. Any other tribute would be inadequate.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 August, 2008 in Journalism | Media | News | WTF


DD’s Olympic Coverage

Note to Shailaja Bajpai: They don’t just call it “O-lump-ics”, they also call it “A-limp-ics.” What to do: English is an Indian language now. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 August, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Small thoughts


The Journalistic Integrity Of The Hindu

Aadisht Khanna has a piece in The New Indian Express today that praises The Hindu as a great Chinese institution:

Every other media outlet outside China supports the cause of the Dalai Lama, but only The Hindu has the journalistic integrity to expose him as a puppet of so-called Western democracy, and the wealthy beneficiary of a superstitious and feudal system.

So pronounced is The Hindu’s courage and integrity that it maintained its criticism of the vicious and savage Tibetans when they went on a violent rampage earlier this year.

It did this despite criticism from readers (those imbeciles!), its own readers editor, and a number of reactionary, pro-imperialist “human rights” organisations determined to malign China’s peaceful rise. India should be proud that it has a newspaper which is able to stand up for the viewpoint of a great and powerful nation.

I wonder if the management of the The Hindu will even realise that this is satire. Hmmm…

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 August, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | Politics


The Bastiat Prize Shortlist For 2008…

... has been announced. The finalists are:

Swaminathan Aiyar
Tyler Cowen
A Barton Hinkle
Fraser Nelson
Ashutosh Tiwari
Daniel Weintraub

This is a formidable line-up, and I’m even more convinced now that I was an unworthy winner last year. Swami and Tyler, especially, are writers I admire immensely, and I can’t wait to read the nominated articles of all six dudes. My congratulations to all of them.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 August, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Personal


Chodenge Or Chhodenge?

The difference a missing ‘h’ can make is enormous. This is why I read the Times of India.

In other news, young Aadisht points us to this well-intentioned (and undoubtedly wise) owl:

Reminds me of that classic CSNY song, “Broil Your Children.” Or s’thing like that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 August, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Miscellaneous


Starting Young

The Hindustan Times informs us that American newspapers have started outsourcing copy editing jobs to India. Given the poor standard of editing in our newspapers, this seems rather strange to me. So does the following line about one of the local companies providing editorial services, Mindworks:

Mindworks also hires editorial staff from English-language newspapers and magazines. The average age is 30, and employees have on average 15 years of work experience.

You do the math.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 July, 2008 in Journalism | Media | News | WTF


A $100 Speedway Gas Card

I think this is a shocking story—on two levels.

One, two consenting adults get together in a room to make a transaction, and both are arrested because the state knows better than them how they should live their lives. Their mugshots end up on the website linked to above, as they are publicly humiliated for a private act that harmed nobody.

Two, part of the payment for the woman’s services was made “with a $100 Speedway gas card,” and that predictably becomes the headline for the story: “Sex for Gas.” Is that supposed to be funny?

The story says: “A local prosecutor noted that it was sad to see someone selling their body for gas, in this case about 25 gallons worth.”

Given that she chose that option over all others available to her, is it not even sadder that we condemn her to worse? It’s a disturbing story, for I do not see the difference between me and that woman, selling her services for a living, or that man, satisfying his needs peacefully without infringing anyone’s rights. Who are we to tower in judgement over them?

Some earlier pieces:
Don’t Punish Victimless Crimes (March 29, 2007)
A Choice to Sell Sex (September 11, 2007)
Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should Be Scrapped (May 4, 2008)

(Link via email from Srini Sitaraman.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 July, 2008 in Freedom | Journalism | Media | WTF


The Versatile Corpses of Middle-Class India

The WTF generalisation of the month comes from the formidable Malavika Sanghhvi, who writes that “if one goes by present trends ... [t]oday’s India is indicating that the best way to end an affair is murder!”

Everyone seems to be doing it: MBA students, BPO employees, private airline crew, TV actors, defence personnel, politicians, middle class housewives… I can’t remember a time when we have woken up each morning to so many crimes of passion.

[...]

Today, urban murder for matters of the heart seems to be one more facet of reform India — like multiplexes and caramelised pop corn.

And there are corpses strewn everywhere. Attractive, upwardly mobile, Japanese car-driving, Macdonald’s burger-eating, mobile phone-using corpses, who all lived the middle class Indian dream… until an ex-lover’s ire caught up with them.

The emphasis is mine, because I’m super-impressed that corpses can drive Japanese cars and use mobile phones. The next time you’re at McDonald’s and the gentleman besides you seems to be walking stiffly, watch out. And if the attractive lady besides him behaves coldly with you, well, there you go.

I really hope P Sainath writes an article responding to Sanghhvi’s piece. There are two approaches he could take: One, he could agree with her wholeheartedly and blame it on India’s liberalisation, because of which rich corpses use Japanese cars and mobile phones while corpses of farmers committing suicide in Vidarbha do not have access to such facilities. Two, he could berate her for writing about deaths in the city and ignoring rural affairs, like the rest of our middle-class obsessed media. Either way, fun would come.

PS: While on Sainath...

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 June, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | WTF


Offending Dalits

Regular readers of India Uncut will know that I keep ranting about how giving offense has effectively become a crime in India because of some of our silly laws. Well, Rediff informs us:

Amid high drama, the editor and two journalists of a leading Telugu daily Andhra Jyothi were arrested on Tuesday night for publishing an allegedly offensive story on Dalit organisations and its leaders.

[...]

The police said the arrests were made by invoking the provisions of the stringent Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act following publication of a lead story in the second largest circulated daily of Andhra Pradesh last month that criticised unnamed Dalit leaders and their organisations.

While I’ve often written about section 295(a) of the Indian Penal Code, (Don’t Insult Pasta, for example), this law is new to me. For your reading pleasure, here’s the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.

The only part of that law that could have been applied in this case, as far as I can tell, is put forth in section 1 (3) (x) of the act, which recommends punishment for “[w]hoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, intentionally insults or intimidates with intent to humiliate a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe in any place within public view.”

Firstly, doing a story on Dalit organisations and their leaders obviously should not fall within the purview of this clause. Secondly, should insulting someone be a criminal matter at all? Should the state get involved if some random person calls me names? If your answer is ‘no’, does that answer change if I happen to be a Dalit? Why?

Most of the other clauses in that act seem perfectly fair to me. But those things—taking away somebody’s land, coercing someone into forced labour etc—are criminal acts regardless of the caste of the victim. What does it say about our country, the state of our legal machinery and our politics that we have a separate act to protect Dalits from things that all of us should be protected from anyway?

Update: Krishna Prasad has more details and analysis.

And BV Harish Kumar writes in:

This law is (ab)used a lot in Government offices where people keep threatening their bosses and other colleagues with this Act. IIRC all one needs to do is send a postcard to the SC or someone that ‘atrocities’ are being committed and there will be an enquiry and I think the person in question (the offender) can be suspended from duty till the completion of the enquiry.

(Churumuri link via email from Gautam.)

Update 2: Elaborating on Harish’s letter, quoted above, Harish’s dad, B Phani Babu, writes in:

I know one such case—When a charge sheet was filed against a person on charges of forgery and tampering of records, he (he belonged to the Reserved Category) took an offensive step of complaining to the SC/ST commissioner that he was being harassed. It was my signature and my documents that were tampered with and we almost became the defendants in the case. Fortunately we had a written statement from this person admitting his guilt. Otherwise our heads would have rolled!

It took almost two years to sentence the chap. It was a very mild punishment - just an increment down. He continued ‘serving’ and enjoying all monetary benefits like Overtime etc.

This is the most powerful weapon for an ‘SC/ST’ employee in Government Service. He can get away with anything! I can vouch for the above incident as I myself almost became an affected party!

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 June, 2008 in Freedom | India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics


‘Allegedly’

There’s a missing word in the sentence below:

Sarita was raped on April 10 by head constable Balraj Singh and constable Silak Ram, both deployed at the CIA staff-I of Rohtak, a day after the two demanded Rs 6,000 for releasing her husband.

However heinous an accusation, our legal system is supposed to consider the accused innocent until proven otherwise. But our media would rather rush to judgement before that. Where’s the drama otherwise?

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 June, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | News


Some Things I’ll Remember From This IPL

Here’s the latest installment of Over the Wicket, my column for NDTV: The best and worst of the IPL.

The column’s supposed to be fortnightly, but as the IPL just got over, we figured we’d finish off this month’s quota with one burst—thus the two pieces this week.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 June, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Journalism | Media | Sport | WTF


Beard? TV? Must be Prannoy Roy

Mohib writes in:

Related to your post, Indian Newspapers and the Internet, I saw this slideshow at the HT website.

Please browse to the last image (9) of the slideshow. It erroneously mentions Arun Lal as Prannoy Roy and also manage to get the name incorrect (Pranav Roy). Just because he has a beard and is on TV? WTF?

Well, I have a (temporary) beard now, so I guess all I have to do to be Prannoy Roy is climb on my TV set. So there.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 June, 2008 in Journalism | Media | WTF


Indian Newspapers and the Internet

It’s long been a grouse of mine that Indian newspapers don’t take the internet seriously. The websites of Indian newspaper sites are poorly designed and badly maintained, disrespecting the reader with clutter, intrusive pop-ups and poor editing. Newspapers should ideally assign one of their top editors to look after their website exclusively, and his or her team should be as good as the main newspaper desk. After all, as time goes by, newspapers are likely to have far more readers online than offline.

Sadly, none of the men who run our newspapers seem to agree with me. See the caption in the screenshot below, for example, from DNA‘s homepage today—do you think something this shoddy would ever appear on their newspaper’s front page?

image

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 May, 2008 in Journalism | Media


Reporting The Spelling Bee

I can’t resist sharing this screenshot with you, from Rediff (annotation in red added by me):

image

If that was done deliberately by a wicked sub at Rediff—well done, lad! Now change it before Prem kicks your ass.

(Alert via email from Devangshu.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 May, 2008 in Journalism | Media


The NY Times Gets American Idol Wrong

I thought foreign papers sucked at covering Indian events, so I’m rather surprised to see that the New York Times does as bad a piece on this year’s American Idol as I’d have expected them to do on Indian Idol. Ignorance is the key: it seems unlikely to me that the writer of the piece, Stephen Holden, actually watches the show regularly. Being an Idol buff (and an idle one), I have a few points to make on his piece:

1. David Cook’s triumph can hardly be said to have “reversed last season’s trend, when Jordin Sparks, an unformed talent with a bubbly personality and a big voice, won, and the older and less glamorous but far more talented Melinda Doolittle came in third.” Firstly, both Cook and the man he beat, David Archuleta, are far more talented than anyone last year was, and comparing the two seasons is pointless. Secondly, viewers don’t vote based on one’s age or bubbliness, but on the individual they have in front of them. Extrapolating a ‘trend’ from this is silliness, the immaturity of an observer trying to find patterns where none exist.

2. Simon Cowell wasn’t “flip-flopping” by praising Cook earlier in the season and berating him in the finale. He was reacting differently to different performances. Duh!

3. Holden writes that Cook “refused to follow the unspoken guidelines for the competition.” Well, I don’t know what “unspoken guidelines” Holden has intuited, but the spoken guidelines on the show, constantly articulated by the judges, is that the singers do something different with the songs they choose, and infuse their own personality into it. Cook did this repeatedly, and was duly praised for it. He won, thus, because he followed the guidelines.

4. Holden writes of Cook: “Stylistically he occupies the same broad pop-to-rock territory as Bryan Adams.” This is nonsense. Cook is a hard-edged rocker, far from the pop-rock easy listening that Adams specializes in. This has been evident in his treatment of songs all season, as also in the album he recorded independently a couple of years ago, Analog Heart. (Torrent zindabad.)

5. When Cowell told the Davids, “You’ve got to hate your opponent”, he meant it as a joke, in keeping with the boxing theme of the night. American Idol hasn’t encouraged an adversarial edge among its participants at all. On the contrary, they get rather too soppy when someone gets voted out.

6. When Jimmy Kimmel referred to “19 weeks of karaoke”, I suspect he wasn’t slamming the show but making an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek allusion to Cowell’s tendency to refer to lifeless performances as “karaoke.” It was an in-joke you need to actually watch the show to get.

7. This season’s contestants were certainly not “an uninspiring group of singers.” The judges repeatedly spoke of how this was one of the best seasons of the show, and I agree. Singers like Michael Johns and Carly Smithson would have been credible winners in any other year, and there weren’t any Sanjaya-like weak links in the final 12. Was Holden actually watching?

Phew, that’s all for this piece. I suspect knocking American Idol has almost become an ideological thing in some quarters: It’s big money and big business, therefore it must be slammed. But it’s big money and big business because millions of people are riveted by how it makes the dreams of ordinary men and women come true, and how a good voice alone can get you noticed and change your life. Who would have heard of Cook and Archuleta 30 years ago?

Like Cowell, I liked both the Davids so much that I didn’t care who actually won. And by the time the finale began, it was irrelevant to their careers. They’ve built up substantial fan followings of their own that will be unaffected by the result of the show, and will no doubt have distinctive careers. All this, in just a few weeks. Wow.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 May, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Journalism | Media | WTF


Rigour to the Discourse in the Fabric

Sambit Bal, once my boss at Cricinfo and one of the best men I know, is a cricket writer I admire for his clear thinking and lucid writing. That’s why it hurts when he comes up with a sentence as monstrous as the one below:

Sport runs in Kolkata’s veins; it is ingrained in the socio-cultural fabric of the city, and though fans here can often be irrational, there is also a discernible intellectual rigour to the public discourse on cricket.

I can forgive the cliché at the start of the sentence, but “socio-cultural fabric of the city”? “Public discourse on cricket?” “Discernible intellectual rigour?” Ouch!

Pedantic aside: The ‘though’ makes the ‘also’ redundant.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 May, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Sport | WTF


The Bastiat Prize for Journalism 2008…

... is now open for entries.

Yes, I know, they picked an unworthy winner last year, but it’s still a hell of a prize, and I enjoy reading their shortlisted writers every year. Past winners can’t take part for three years after their win, so I’m not in the hunt this year, which is a bummer because I could have sent much better entries this time. (I’d have picked three out of these six pieces: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.) But if you fit the participation criteria, do enter, and if you know someone who could win, let them know.

To repeat what the prize is about:

The prize was developed to encourage and reward writers whose published works promote the institutions of a free society: limited government, rule of law brokered by an independent judiciary, protection of private property, free markets, free speech, and sound science.

The prize fund amounts to US$15,000—the first prize was worth US$10,000 last year, which has been quite handy for an otherwise impoverished writer. The heavyweight contenders this year, as always, will probably be American, but the Indians I’d put my money on are Salil Tripathi and Bloomberg’s Andy Mukherjee. Enter, boys!

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 May, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Personal


‘Moved By The Idea Of Being Moved’

Salil Tripathi begins a piece on P Sainath thus:

The foreign correspondent Edward Behr had titled one of his books Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English? It pithily shows journalistic callousness, where reporters hardened by tragedy cannot respond in a humane way to a crisis. But it is one thing to be moved, quite another to be moved by the idea of being moved. And honest reporters try to avoid falling into that trap by reporting facts, letting them speak for themselves.

Read the full piece. Sainath, I have always felt, is an excellent reporter when he is doing the honest reporter’s job of reporting facts. But when he lets his ideology take over, his pieces lose their way. Faulty government policies are responsible for the plight of our farmers, and it is disingenuous of Sainath to offer more such government interference as a solution. It is convenient to blame “neoliberal economics”, as if free markets have ever been allowed in agriculture or in rural India, but the truth is that only free markets and free enterprise can give our farmers the choices they deserve. (I’ve written on this subject often, but points 15 and 16 of this post sum up my thoughts on it.)

In other words, Sainath rocks at description but sucks at prescription. What a pity.

Also read: Salil’s cover story on farming in the April 2008 issue of Pragati.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 May, 2008 in Economics | Freedom | India | Journalism | Media


Method Acting From Shahid Kapoor?

Indiatimes reports:

While actors are at their experimental best these days, Shahid Kapoor will not be left behind. After his stellar performance in Jab We Met, the actor is super-charged and willing to go any distance to get into the skin of the character.

Shahid, we hear, will be opting for a new long-haired look for his upcoming project, a musical, to be directed by Ken Ghosh.

So now you know what commitment means in Bollywood. “Willing to go any distance”, it seems.

And just see that headline!

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 April, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Journalism | Media | News | WTF


I Wonder If…

... Hindustan Times now has a Facebook beat.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 April, 2008 in Journalism | Media | WTF


Hey, Nobody Dives Like That!

The picture of the day is by David Kadlubowski of the New York Times; it forms part of a slideshow on nude vacations—or ‘nakations’.

image

I love the composition of the picture, but find the hiding of body parts hilariously contrived. In a slideshow about nude vacations, why be priggish about the body?

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 April, 2008 in Journalism | Media


Who’s the Victim in This Sting Operation?

By now I’m sure you’ve heard about the Jothikumaran case—a sting operation has allegedly revealed that K Jothikumaran, the secretary of the Indian Hockey Federation, accepted a bribe “for getting a player included in the senior team.” The fellow has denied it, making a ridiculous excuse that Prem Panicker scoffs at here. Most of us have given up on India hockey long ago, and this is hardly surprising. But there’s one element of this whole thing that intrigues me.

The DNA report states that the bribe was offered to select a player named Lalit Upadhyay in the national team. The report later says:

Upadhyay, however, has nothing to do with the sting; his name was used just to make the deal look real.

Does that mean that Upadhyay’s name was used without his knowledge or consent? Is that not dreadfully unethical? And wasn’t it guaranteed to screw Upadhyay over no matter what happened? There are three possible scenarios here:

One: Jothikumaran turns out to be an upright fellow, and goes public with the bribe offer, as in the Kiran More-Abhijit Kale case. Where does that leave Upadhyay? Does the channel come forward and admit that they were trying to carry out a sting operation, or do they stay quiet? Even if they admit their role in it, don’t the authorities look at Upadhyay with suspicion from then on, and perhaps punish him for it by ruining his career?

Two: Jothikumaran refuses the bribe, but stays mum about it. He believes that Upadhyay (or his agents) offered him a bribe, and he resolves never to select the man again. There is no occasion for the truth to come out, for the channel will never publicize a failed sting operation.

Three: Jothikumaran accepts the bribe, and is exposed. This is what has allegedly happened now, and in the process, an insinuation has been made that Upadhyay was never good enough to get into the side on his own. Whether that is true or not, the IHF might find it inconvenient to select him ever again, for it will evoke memories if it doesn’t raise questions.

Three possible outcomes: in all of them, Upadhyay gets hurt for no fault of his own. If DNA’s report is correct, and Upadhyay didn’t know how his name was used, then Headlines Today, the channel in question, might have done him immense harm. Do you think they care?

Also read: Lad from Varanasi living a dream.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 April, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | Sport


On Shorter Overs and Billowing Swimwear

Quiz question: what are the following lines about?

It can all be seen as a metaphor for India itself, which is growing younger, hipper and more willing to take chances, awash in cash as its economy expands at 9 percent per year.

For the answer, check out this Washington Post article by Emily Wax, a lazy piece of journalism that is full of facile observations and clichéd analysis like the lines above. It’s not as bad as the Sean Thomas piece I linked to a couple of months ago, of course—but that’s hardly praise.

For one, Wax gets her facts wrong, and shows she hasn’t done basic research on what she is writing about:

[Twenty20 cricket] condenses nearly a week of match play into three hours, with shorter “overs,” which are similar to innings in baseball.

Shorter overs indeed! Then Wax explains that Indians are unused to people showing as much skin as the IPL cheerleaders are:

The American women’s presence has caused a stir across India, a conservative, Hindu-dominated country where even at the beach, women often shun swimwear in favor of saris, which are made of at least six yards of billowing fabric that covers everything from the neckline to the ankles, sometimes leaving the belly exposed.

I’m sure Wax’s editors did not ask her which beach she visited, if she went to one at all. Why upset preconceived notions? And what stir have the IPL cheerleaders caused? They’ve been written about because it’s a new gimmick for cricket, and not because they show too much skin—Wax would find as much skin on any of our entertainment channels, or in our glamour magazines, the entertainment pages of newspapers and online photo galleries. (An example from today…)

A quick Google search reveals that Wax seems to be a celebrated young foreign correspondent, but in my view, the best judges of that are not peers or bosses, but the residents of the places you are reporting from. To someone who does not know India, this piece of hers must seem full of insight and telling detail, instead of the sloppy hackwork that it is. But who cares what the natives think?

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 April, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media


The Perils of Opening the Batting

In an email responding to my post on cricket commentary, BV Harish Kumar writes:

I have long held the belief that we haven’t had good opening pairs because the batsmen could never tolerate the partner during the between-the-overs chat. List of openers in the 80’s/90’s: Sidhu, Srikkanth, Arun Lal. I rest my case.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 April, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Sport


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