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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.


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


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Lighthouse

Luck is All Around

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

You are lucky to be reading this. When your father ejaculated into your mother, somewhere between 300 to 500 million spermatozoa were released. One of them held the blueprint for you. That one sperm cell made it through the acidic furnace of the vagina, the graveyard for most sperms, and then outlasted the survivors to somehow become a person. Taking into account the fact that this was almost certainly not the sole sexual encounter between your parents at the time, your chances of coming into existence were probably a few billion to one. Given that your parents were born of similar odds, and somehow managed to meet and hook up and produce you, it is even more of a miracle that you exist. Indeed, consider that our specific species should itself evolve and survive through the ages, on this one out of trillions of planets (yes, trillions), and you get a true idea of how remarkable your existence is. Don’t be under the illusion, though, that this makes you special: everything around you is there despite similar odds against it. However unlikely it is for a specific something to exist, it is inevitable that some things will, indeed, be there. Congratulations.

While everything else pales into insignificance beyond the spectacular fact of our existence, we’re still not satisfied. We spend our days striving for this or that trivial little thing, and stressing out over small matters like the maid coming late or the scratch on the car or the tax returns or the in-laws or getting laid. (We are programmed to worry specifically about that last one, but we are again uniquely fortunate, among species, to be able to ignore our programming. Be a rebel, don’t fuck today.) Honestly, just the fact that we are here should keep us in a constant state of elation and wonder. But we get tripped up by vanity. We believe that we are special (as a species and as individuals), and that we possess the intelligence to make sense of the world, and to rule it. This vanity, in the cosmic scale of things, is either comic or tragic, depending on how seriously you take yourself. And me, I find it hard to take myself too seriously when I’m sitting in a dark room in New Bombay playing cards with a drunk builder who’s snorting cocaine as he asks me, “Kya laga liya, sirjee?

Four years ago I became a serious poker player. I did it to make money, but ended up learning how little I knew about life. The most important thing I learnt from poker was about the role of luck in the world. Poker is essentially a game of skill, but only in the long run (which can be longer than you imagine). In the short run, luck dominates. Every action has associated probabilities, and you try to manouver your way through a poker game in such a way that the probabilities are on your side. Keep getting your money in as a 51% favourite, and in the long run, all the money is yours. In the short run, you could get hammered again and again and again. For that reason, poker players are constantly told not to be ‘results-oriented’. As Lord Krishna recommended in the Bhagawad Gita, just keep doing the right thing, and all will be well. Eventually.

While I am an atheist, the Lord was on to something. In life, too, luck plays a far bigger role than we realise. And as in poker, the management of that luck is the key skill we need to learn. Let me turn to sports to illustrate what I mean. In the last installment of Lighthouse, I had written about how luck plays a huge role in football, which is also a game of probabilities. For example, Lionel Messi scores from a direct free kick 1 in 12.5 times. This is the bare number, over a sufficiently significant sample size of free kicks. And yet, we cheer madly when he curls one in, and groan and go ‘WTF is he doing’ when he flips one way over – even though, in the larger scheme of things, they’re the same shot. While fans and even most reporters don’t get this, managers do, working furiously to maximise the probabilities in their favour. (Every action on a football field has a probability associated with it.) But fans go by results, and while those may even out in a league over a season, they never do in knockout tournaments, much to the bemusement and frustration of the men in charge. Maradona has won a World Cup, Messi hasn’t, what does that say to me? Nothing at all. It’s luck.

I was a cricket journalist for a few years, and in retrospect it amazes me how seriously we took results. Every action on a field has a number associated with it. A full delivery outside off in the 40th over has X% chance of reverse-swinging into the batsman, Y% chance of being cover-driven if it doesn’t, and Z% chance of beating the field when that happens. Through a day, as the overs go by, thousands of events of different probabilities intersect as we arrive at a result that is determined partly by skill and partly by luck. And yet, we cheer the slog that goes for six and boo the batsman holing out in the deep with a majestic lofted off-drive. Chance can determine careers: MS Dhoni blundered by leaving the last over of the first T20 World Cup final to Joginder Sharma, but it was hailed as a masterstroke when it happened to work. After Sharma conceded a wide and a six, what if Misbah-ul-Haq hadn’t played that one false stroke? Would Dhoni be Dhoni?

Life, like sport, consists of millions of intersecting events with varying probabilities, and Luck is a lead character in the drama of every person’s life. The lesson here is to not sweat what we cannot control, to take nothing in our lives for granted, and to make each moment count. And also, to be humble, because humility is the only appropriate response to the awesome complexity of this world.

Meanwhile, in that dark New Bombay room, my builder friend asks me again, “Kya hai bhai? Gutty laga li kya?” I stare at the table and show no emotion. He calls. I show him my cards, reflecting on my good fortune, and on billions and billions of spermatozoa.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 August, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Poker | Sport


I Have Something To Ask You

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

Writing a column is an act of hubris. When you present a column to the world, you are essentially saying, before whatever you say in the column: ‘Listen to me, my opinions have value.’ No writer will deny that this is the implicit premise of the very act of writing columns. This is both arrogant and delusional, but we choose to be in denial of this, for if we were not how could we write, in the same way that we choose to be in denial of our mortality, for if we were not how could we live? Anyway,in today’s column, I shall not present my views before you. Instead, I will ask you a few questions, to which there are no right or wrong answers. These are just difficult questions, even if some of them have seemingly simple answers, and I present them in the hope that you might find some of them stimulating. I have just one request to make: Instead of just skimming over the piece, please pause at the end of every question and formulate an answer in your mind.

Question 1: Do you support the rights of two consenting adults to do whatever they wish with each other provided they do not infringe on the rights of anyone else? Q2: Why? Q3: Do you support gay rights? Q4: Do you believe in free markets?

Q3 and Q4 are related to Q1: If you believe that no one should interfere in what two consenting adults choose to get up to with each other, as long as they mess with no one else, then that should apply to both sex in a bedroom and commercial transactions. The moral case for not interfering with free markets and homosexuality is, thus, exactly the same. If you support gay rights because you believe in freedom, it would seem hypocritical to then condemn free markets. Or vice versa. If you support either of these because of a reason not based on your support for individual freedom, then that’s ok. But Q5, If so, what is that first principle you draw from?

Now, you might say that you support gay rights but not free markets, because much as you love freedom, you also have to look at the consequences of actions, and ‘unfettered’ free markets can have adverse consequences. (The same argument could be made from the other side about homosexuality and its impact of society.) Q6,  Do you believe that freedom should be subordinate to utility? That our attitude towards a particular behaviour should depend on the consequences of that behaviour? Q7, If so, who determines what the likely consequences of anything could be, and how we should therefore treat that act? A democratically elected government? Q8, If so, can you think of examples where a democratically elected government fucked up spectacularly? Q9, If so, might it make sense to instead enshrine certain principles in the constitution that even a democratically elected government cannot mess with? Q10, If so, should these include freedom? Q11, If so, what kind of freedoms should be included? Personal freedom? Freedom of speech? Freedom of sexual orientation and carnal intercourse? Economic freedom? Q12. If you value some of these over others, why so?

(To deviate a moment from questions and actually make an observation, allow me to point out that none of these are actually protected by the Indian constitution, although it pays lip service to a couple of them. But that’s neither here nor there.)

Moving further along the subject of freedom and consequences, here’s Q13: Do you believe that women should have the right to choose whether or not to abort a baby? I’m guessing that’s an easy one to answer, so here’s another easy one: Q14: Do you support the ban on female foeticide?

If your answer to both these questions is ‘yes’, then Q15, How can you resolve the contradiction inherent in supporting a woman’s right to choose whether to abort and being against female foeticide? If a woman has the right to choose to abort, aren’t her reasons behind this decision irrelevant to that right, and an examination of those reasons invasive to her privacy? You might personally find her reason for it repugnant, but should your feelings affect her rights? And as a general practice, should the feelings of some people be an excuse to abrogate the rights of some others?

Of course, if you are into consequences, you could argue that female foeticide should be banned purely because it skews the sex ratio, which is bad for society. But, to consider a thought experiment, what if in the natural course of things, 11 girls were born for every 10 boys, and the prevalent rate of female foeticide actually corrected this imbalance? Q16: Would it be okay then? If not, why not? (Apart from the rights of the foetus, which you already agree are subordinate to the rights of the mother if you answer ‘yes’ to Q13.)

I haven’t asked the questions above to show the absurdity in this position or that, or to bring you round to any particular way of thinking. These are thorny issues with many nuances. I’m a libertarian and a freedom fundamentalist, and I support both gay rights and free markets, with my support for the latter, though it stems from principle, being bolstered by the benefits of economic freedom. (Contrast the two Koreas.) But the first principles I draw upon are not the only ones you can construct a worldview from. And there are situations where even those first principles don’t lead me to a coherent answer. At times, one is left with more questions than answers. And that’s okay. We are feeble creatures, and don’t have to know everything.

*

Previously on Lighthouse:

The Minister’s Lament
The Language of Indian Politics
Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 June, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Minister’s Lament

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

I love group photos. All the ministers of this new government had gathered to be shot, and I was dressed in my finest khadi. My party wasn’t originally part of this coalition, which consisted of one national party and 16 regional ones, and ended with 269 votes. It needed three seats, and I had four, mostly thanks to biriyani and fractured votebanks. They promised to make me a minister. ‘Actually we’ve run out of ministries,’ I was told, ‘but we’re creating a few new ones to keep up with demand.’ I took my place in the group portrait. The photographer stood a long, long way back.

The next day I showed up at the newly built Secretariat 3, was shown into my office, and met my secretary, Mr Batra. As we waited for word from the PMO about what we were supposed to do exactly, he showed me what Twitter was. Who knows, he said, it might come handy sometime.

Who woulda thunk? That evening, word reached us that I was now the first ever Minister for Social Media (MSM). I was asked to go to the PM’s office within an hour, where I would be handed a statement that I would read out at a press conference. We duly headed off. We could have walked, but I chose to be driven in my official Honda Accord with a red beacon on top. Sitting inside, siren blaring, beacon flashing, I remembered the village where I had been born.

‘The Ministry for Social Media,’ I read out, ‘will empower the youth of our country by ensuring the smooth functioning of social media. We will make sure that poor and disempowered people everywhere have access to it. Everyone will have a voice. Thank you.’

‘Minister,’ a voice piped up behind the many television cameras, ‘social media functions well enough on it’s own, and already gives a voice to the disempowered. What more will you do? Will you censor social media?’

‘No questions,’ barked Rameshwaram, the secretary from the PMO, and ushered me backstage. As I left he told me, ‘Good luck minister. And a word of advice: keep a low profile.’ I pondered on this as I was driven home, siren blaring, beacon flashing, trying my best to be low key in the car. People stared.

When I reached office the next morning, Batra was exultant. ‘I’m already at work on budgets, sir,’ he said. ‘We’ll need new departments. One each for Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, YouTube. Hahaha, Yummy!’ I wasn’t quite so happy. The ministry did not give licenses for anything. No one had to come to me for permission to do phallana dhimkana. I controlled nothing; and therefore had no sources of revenue. All these years of building my political career and this was my reward: a cow without teats. But I did have power. Now, how would I use it?

Soon enough I started getting phone calls from ministers. A sex tape of Ram Lakhan Yadav had just been uploaded on YouTube. (‘It’s doctored, of course, but even then, my good name is being besmirched, samjhay na?’) The PMO called to say that there was a fake Facebook page up purporting to be the official PMO page. Mrs Goel, minister of women’s welfare, informed me that some people on Twitter were abusing her. And so on. I was asked to get these pages removed, the users banned, and in one case, arrested. (He had threatened to attack Mrs Goel.)

We couldn’t go through with the arrest because the culprit turned out to be a 65-year-old professor of anthropology in the US, but YouTube videos and Facebook pages were removed, Twitter users banned. I even assigned a few minions to edit and monitor the Wikipedia pages of my fellow ministers. My ministry grew; we were never short of work.

And yet, policing social media felt like trying to empty out an ocean with a bucket. By the end of the first month, there were six Facebook pages pretending to be the PMO’s official page. We’d ask for one to be taken down, two more would pop up. Ram Lakhan Yadav could have started a TV channel, there were so many different clips of him engaging in carnal contact with members of both sexes. (‘All doctored, this is a conspiracy against me. I think the CIA is involved, samjhay na?’) Mrs Goel had a fan club bigger than Scarlett Johansson, and horror of horrors, there were even people attacking me on Twitter, the audacity of it.

It got worse. Three big corruption scandals broke out via social media in month 2 of the government. I felt a certain schadenfreude at that, and was secretly gleeful that they happened at ministries I was denied. Meanwhile, the PMO was frantic. I told Rameshwaram that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube all complied with our requests: but there was only so much they could do. ‘Can’t we just stop the internet itself?’ I asked. ‘Let no one in India access it?’

Rameshwaram sighed. ‘I set up a committee to examine the matter,’ he said. ‘But the only thing the bastards on the committee did was surf porn. No, we’re stuck with the internet, I’m afraid. Find another solution.’

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I sat with a glass of my favourite single malt at 11pm in my office when I got a new email. The subject: ‘Your naked pictures are now on Twitter.’ I instantly clicked through to the link provided, but Twitter didn’t open, some other site did, and then my computer went blank. So did I. You have seen the video by now on YouTube: I stood up, punched the monitor off the desk, threw my glass of single malt across the room, slammed my phone down on the ground and banged the wall saying ‘Shit, Shit, Shit.’ (All this while my peon was shooting the action like he’s Govind Nihalani.) Yes, I banged that wall, till my fists bled and I was sobbing. I never thought it would come to this, that I would be a minister in the biggest democracy in the world, and I would. Feel. So. So. So. Helpless.

*

Previously on Lighthouse:

The Language of Indian Politics
Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 May, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics


The Language of Indian Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

Previously on Lighthouse:

Politics and the Sociopath
A Godless Congregation

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


Politics and the Sociopath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

Previously on Lighthouse:

A Godless Congregation

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


A Godless Congregation

I have just started a monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line, called Lighthouse. This is the first installment.

A few days ago, a curious thing happened at a friend’s place. Seven of us were sitting around a dining table enjoying the postprandial bliss that inevitably follows copious consumption of Coorg Dry Pork and Hanumantu Mutton Pulao, when somebody asked the question, ‘So, when did you first realise you were an atheist?’ We traded stories, and realised at the end of it that every one of us was a non-believer, thus making us surely the most godless dinner congregation that evening in Mumbai. A full table, and not one deity between us. How unusual – and how very strange that in the second decade of the 21st century, such a gathering should be unusual to begin with.

Let’s not talk about science and modernity – we still live in primitive times. There are 13 countries where people who admit to atheism face execution under the law – and even in the supposedly modern USA, being an atheist pretty much finishes your prospects as a politician. The Huffington Post recently reported that there are no self-declared atheists in the US Congress, and a study by the Universities of British Columbia and Oregon found that ‘atheists are among society’s most distrusted groups, comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances.’ This is no doubt true of India as well, where Arvind Kejriwal, once an atheist, rediscovered religion as he ran for public office, and breathlessly thanked ‘the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru’ when he became chief minister of Delhi. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and put those ravings down to cynical roleplay rather than to genuine self-delusion.

I was an atheist long before I knew I was one. Back in the day, I shared the common misconception that atheists are people who believe that there is no god. But this is a faulty definition. The dictionary will tell you that atheists are actually people who do not believe that there is a god. Consider the subtle difference: atheism is the absence of belief. Until something has been proven to exist, it is rational not to believe in it – and the burden of proof always lies with the believer. An absence of belief does not always correspond to a belief in absence, which explains why most nonbelievers are non-militant about their nonbelief. As a correspondent to the Economist put it a few years ago, atheism is no more a belief system or a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.

When I realised this, it struck me that I had never collected stamps. And as I grew older, the nonbelief that existed perhaps out of laziness was reinforced by learning about science and examining my own deepest fears. All these millennia, god had needed to exist for two reasons: one, to explain everything about the world that we cannot. (The God of the Gaps.) Two, to provide consolation for our deepest existential fears. Over time, and especially in the last century-and-a-half, the gaps in our knowledge have shrunk drastically, and we no longer need a divine explanation for natural phenomena. As Douglas Adams once said about the theory of evolution, ‘The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.’

A deeper reason for why god must exist, however, is to mask our own cosmic insignificance. We are tiny, temporary fragments of a universe far larger than our inadequate brains are capable of imagining – and we’re too scared and arrogant to accept this simple fact. No, we must build narratives of our centrality to the universe, and devise potential afterlives that help us stay in denial of the one simple fact that we will be dead one day, with no greater meaning or purpose to it all. It is said that humans are set apart from other species by our self-awareness – you could also call it self-delusion, perhaps?

It is easy to be a fount of rationality and say these things, of course – but beyond the chatter, we actually have to come to terms with it. It eats me up, knowing that I am just a speck of dust in the larger scheme of things, and that soon I’ll be gone, poof, just like that. What good is my existence if I won’t be around after the fact to reflect on it? As loved ones die and I grow older, I can’t help but envy those around me for their false consolations, their anesthesia: they cope, they thrive, they manufacture meaning in their lives. Our job is harder.

But that is a private matter, and I overstate the angst. Atheists don’t live their lives tormented by the absence of a man in the sky with a beard – and most of us, if I may use the collective noun for non-stamp collectors with little else in common, aren’t even militant about our atheism. Why, then, are atheists held in such poor regard by believers everywhere?

One possible reason is that this has nothing to do with religion per se, and more to do with how we construct our identities with the belief systems we follow. Liberals abhor conservatives and vice versa, and clashes of ideology can get deeply personal. Perhaps it is the same with believers and nonbelievers. Every atheist is, in a sense, a personified slap on the face of all believers, a walking, talking reminder of their weakness and their delusions. It is natural to react viscerally to this, is it not?

Believers sometimes rationalise their distaste for atheists by arguing that religion is the source of morality, and that atheists can’t possible have any incentive to behave ethically. Let’s leave aside the historical issue of the staggering amount of violence committed in the name of religion – there is also a case to be made that codes of conduct existed before religions did, and that religions merely codified what already existed, and might even have been hardwired into us. Ultimately, we behave the way we behave, do the things we do, out of regard for our fellow human beings, and for our own humanity. And if that is all we ever believe in, well, it’s good enough.

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Previous posts on atheism: 1, 2, 3.

 

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 February, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Personal


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