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.
A horror film from 1980 anticipated the Age of Instagram. And it is indeed a horror.
William Shakespeare was once confronted by his girlfriend. “You pretended to be so gentle and millennial while wooing me,” she said, “and then you go and write Titus Andronicus. What’s going on in that head of yours?”
“All the world’s a stage,” replied Willy, “and we are all performing. Even I don’t know what I really am.”
We live in performative times. Peeps on Twitter are signalling virtue, peeps on Instagram are documenting what they want others to believe their life is like, and solitary loners are blogging about their solitary aloneness. All this merely makes explicit what was true for humans all along: we’re putting on an act.
I thought of this recently while watching a masterpiece released in 1980: Cannibal Holocaust. This was one in a wave of Italian cannibal movies that came along in the late 70s and early 80s, and was directed by Ruggero Deodato, known to the French as ‘Monsieur Cannibal’. His work influenced directors like Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. After Cannibal Holocaust, his ninth film, was released, Sergio Leone wrote to him to say: “Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world.”
He did. He was arrested because it was believed that the murders that took place in the film were real ones, and it was a snuff film, such was the realism with which it was shot. The actors had to show up in court to prove that they were alive. The film was banned in more than 50 countries, before which it grossed US$ 200 million worldwide.
In the film, a group of documentary filmmakers go off into the Amazon jungle to make a documentary about cannibal tribes. They go missing. A rescue team led by an American anthropologist goes off in search of them. After numerous adventures, they discover the mutilated bodies of the filmmakers – and all the footage that they shot. They bring this back to New York.
This footage is like a film within a film within a film, because the filmmakers are like conceited millennials instagramming everything. Whatever you see on camera is a performance, and they record everything, even sex. They are stars of their own reality show. They will use only some of what they shoot, but they shoot almost compulsively. It feels like an addiction.
A few days into the trip, their guide is bitten by a snake. They record his pain. They amputate his leg to save him. They record the aftermath. They leave him to die. The camera is on all the time.
When they reach the tribes, they need spectacular footage, so they stage a massacre, forcing tribe members into a hut, setting it on fire and not letting them escape. This is for their documentary. (For a previous documentary, we are told, they had incited executions in war-torn countries so that they’d get some dramatic footage.) What happens next is not for the documentary.
They trap a tribal girl, and gang-rape her. Every detail of this is filmed, with one man handing over the camera to another when his turn comes. Later, they come across the girl impaled on a wooden stick, and find it hard to hide their glee at getting such a great shot. They do a pop-sociological explanation for the camera by saying she was killed because she lost her virginity.
Later, the tribe comes for revenge. As they scurry through the jungle, one of the two cameramen is hit by a spear. The director shoots him so they can get footage of him being mutilated by the tribals, and tells the other guy, “Keep filming, Mark.” They do, as the tribals cut off their captive’s penis, decapitate him, hack his body into pieces and then cook and eat him.
Then they are on the run again, the director speaking to the camera as they run. His girlfriend, the lone woman in the group, is caught and dragged away. He decides not to try to rescue her, with the surviving cameraman reminding him of his priorities. “Think of the film! Think of the film!”
They follow, they shoot. The girl is stripped, raped, hacked, decapitated. The tribals hold her head aloft and celebrate – and then notice the filmmakers in the bushes, who keep the camera on. The last shot of the footage is the bleeding face of the director besides the fallen camera, and you have to wonder at what point he snapped out of his filming state and realised that this was real. The horror of that moment!
The film was controversial for other reasons. Although no humans were murdered, six animals were killed live on film. With each death, the director cuts off the sound to play the elegant score by Riz Ortolani, and that repeats when the human deaths are filmed. This is also commentary.
Interesting trivia: years later, Deodato played a sophisticated cannibal in one of my favourite scenes in Eli Roth’s Hostel 2. He walks into the room, elegantly slices off a piece of thigh from a conscious captive, and then proceeds to sit at a table and eat it, as a theme from Bizet’s Carmen plays in the background.
Roth was inspired by Deodato, and I consider Hostel 1 and 2 to be great films as well. Isn’t this odd, that I find social commentary in horror films? No, it isn’t. Given what human nature is like, there is no genre more apt.
If you have the stomach for it, you can watch Cannibal Holocaust here. NSFW, trigger warning, etc etc.
I’m overjoyed that two good friends, Shruti Rajagopalan and Devangshu Datta have made the shortlist for the 2017 Bastiat Prize for Journalism. I won this in 2007 and 2015, and this is the first time two Indians have been shortlisted. I hope one of them can bring another Candlestick home.
What makes me especially proud is that they were nominated for pieces published in Pragati, the online magazine I relaunched as editor early this year. What better validation could there be that we are in the right direction?
The Bastiat Prize celebrates the same values that Pragati set out to enshrine, so this shortlist makes me especially happy. But these two were close friends before the magazine existed, and that’s the reason I’m so excited today.
A few days ago, the magazine Pragati relaunched under my editorship. This was the editorial I wrote to mark its return.
One of my babies on that space: a section called Brainstorm, which aims to “create a space where diverse minds can discuss big issues in a respectful way.” The first such discussion, on ‘The Future of the Indian Republic’, is underway. Here’s my intro post to kick that discussion off. You can read all the essays in that discussion here
One of the great things about social media is that we talk to each other much more. I am not being ironic: because of Facebook alone, I know much more about my friends than I would otherwise. I am also in touch with many more people than I would otherwise be, especially old friends. This is useful as one gets middle-aged. At some point around 40, the world starts to narrow and goes on narrowing. Social media keeps it broad, and even recluses stay up-to-date and tip-top, as they’d say back in my day. One could argue that this sense of connection is synthetic, even pathetic, and has no connection with the real world out there. One could also argue that there is only one world, and it is in our heads; and anything in our heads, it follows, is in the real world.
This column is not about the personal, though, but the political. There is far more political awareness among young people today than there was when I was growing up in the 1980s. When I was a teenager, I did not know the difference between left-wing and right-wing, and my informed opinion of Rajiv Gandhi was that he was handsome. Today, 12-year-olds have vociferous opinions and are signing online petitions when they are not on hunger strikes in between meals. Political discourse has increased exponentially in volume; but how much is noise and how much is signal?
There were hopes that social media would lead to a virtual global town square where informed citizens could debate with one another. Instead, it has led to a conglomeration of echo chambers, some of them truly bizarre. No matter what you believe in, you can now find hordes of like-minded people online, and be reassured by the validation they provide. This has lead to a phenomenon that social scientists call ‘group polarisation’. The economist Cass 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.”
Thus, we find that most political discussion online consists of people talking past each other. And when they do talk to each other, it isn’t pretty. Anonymity (or even physical distance) turns mice into tigers, and most political discussions online turn personal really fast. If you want to dominate a discussion, you ignore the issues involved and attack the person instead. There are three key ways in which this happens.
One, you accuse your opponent of hypocrisy. (This is also known as Whatboutery.) So if someone talks about the 2002 Gujarat riots, you go, ‘But what about the 1984 Delhi riots? I didn’t see you condemn that?’ If someone points to a Muslim lynched by a Hindu mob, you say, ‘What about that Hindu social worker killed by Bangladeshi migrants in Assam?’ If they defend the free speech of a member of phallana community, you say, what about dhimkana community, where were you when they were censored? Not just trolls, all politicians do exactly this.
When Arvind Kejriwal was questioned about the hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ money he spent on running ads for the Delhi government, he replied, ‘But the BJP also does this. Why don’t you question them?’ There is no end to such Whataboutery—and you will note that on every such instance, the original issue is soon forgotten, and the fight centers on the hypocrisy of the complainant.
Two, you question the intent of your opponent. She could be a CIA agent, a pinko stooge of the Chinese, a lackey for the corporates, a ‘paid audience’ or a ‘presstitute’, in that colourful coinage of a retired army general with that typical Indian penchant for tasteless puns. Ah yes, she could also be anti-national, trying to break up the country. Any issue they raise, they can be told, ‘Ah, but you have an agenda for kicking up a storm. We’re on to you!’
This can be combined most effectively with Whataboutery. For example, if the Congress raises the issue of a corruption scandal in the BJP government, the BJP can say that their intent in raising this matter is to divert attention from their own scam from a week ago. What about that? This can even get recursive. (To visualise this process, imagine fractals.)
Three, you categorise your opponents by applying a pejorative label on them, and then dismiss that entire category as being beneath contempt, thus removing the need to engage with it. This happens across the spectrum. Just go on Twitter, and you’ll find it packed with ‘bhakts’ and ‘aaptards’ and ‘adarsh liberals’ and ‘sickulars’ and so on. Once you apply such a label to someone, you do not need to engage with them in reasoned debate.
Attacking the person instead of the argument is an ancient tradition—some intrepid historian might even find that it is of Indian origin. I have just enumerated the three most common ways of doing this. There are many other ways of appearing to win an argument within even engaging with it to begin with. Check out ‘38 Ways to Win an Argument’, by Arthur Schopenhauer and you will see some examples. They include noble techniques such as shifting goalposts, attacking straw men and appeals to authority. The 38th of them is masterful, and one that many Twitteratti are adept at: ‘Become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.’
Most delighfully, you can not only resort to this, but you can immediately turn the tables with some canny projection when your opponent reacts in anger. He’ll be like, ‘What the fuck did you just call me?’ And you go, ‘Don’t use bad language, did you just say “fuck”? You are clearly not capable of reasoned discourse.’
In a sense, this gets to the heart of the matter. The whole point of political discourse seems not to be political but personal. When we take a point of view, we make an assertion not about the state of the world but about ourselves. Our ideologies become a proxy for personal statements: ‘I am compassionate.’ ‘I am righteous.’ ‘I am clever enough to engineer society.’ Many of our actions in the political sphere are not meant to actually affect change, but to show our nobility. And because our positions are so tied to our identity, any attack on them is an attack on us. We react viscerally. It feels personal; so we get personal.
The Times of India has an amusing report on how Ashish Nehra was trolled on social media after he revealed that he owned an old Nokia phone and wasn’t even on social media. Which leads one to the question, how was he trolled then? You can write whatever you want on Twitter and Facebook, but the guy’s not on either of those. You don’t have his phone number. So what, you’re going to go stand outside his house and shout snarky one-liners?
There is a deep truth here about how not to get trolled. And there is a deeper truth here that, hard as it may be to believe, predates social media. It is this: people can only get to you if you let them get to you. Your peace of mind is in your hands.
I never thought I’d say this, but I’m beginning to like Nehra, and I’m feeling nostalgic towards Nokia phones. Be still, my beating heart!
I was fortunate a few days ago to win the Bastiat Prize for Journalism for the second time. The prize is given annually to a writer whose work serves to “explain, promote and defend the principles of the free society.” I had also won it in 2007, and became the first person to win it twice.
Maharashtra Rural Development minister Pankaja Munde today opined that media should not give “excessive” coverage to crime against women as it instills “energy” and “pleasure” among people with a criminal mindset to try “something new.”
Hmm. I have three things to say:
One: Munde is saying that she wants the media to only report good news because bad news, as per her reasoning here, perpetuates bad actions. This is a convenient position to take when her government is in power. Will she hold the same view when she is in the opposition? I hope someone asks her when that time does come.
Two: I wonder what is the source of her reasoning. What is the proof that the coverage of crimes inspires people to actually commit crimes? What is the study, where is the data? And if there is none, is her wisdom gleaned from years of observation? Who does she hang out with? From a sociological point of view, this is all most fascinating.
Three: There are news outlets that still use the word ‘opined.’ This, to me, is the real scandal in this report.
This is the 13th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.
You can hold a currency note up against the light, if you have been trained well, and detect whether it is real or fake. Is there a similar test that can help catch and expose a counterfeit liberal? Yes, there is. It is the ‘but’ test. A counterfeit liberal is one who will espouse a liberal principle but then, immediately, before putting a full stop on the sentence, add the word ‘but’. And there’s always a universe after that ‘but’.
For example, a faux-liberal will say, “I believe in free speech, but…” Or “I believe in free markets, but…” That ‘but’ invalidates all that comes before it. Anyone who says he believes in free speech “but…” is not a liberal but a hypocrite. (And he doesn’t believe in free speech, obviously.) I have a term for these kinds of people, who abound in the Indian intellectual space. I call them Kim Kardashian Liberals. Too much But.
What is a true liberal then? I consider myself a classical liberal, and it disturbs me that the term is used so loosely these days. Our discourse has become muddy, and words like ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ are used in such nebulous ways that conversations around these concepts often involve people talking past each other, with plenty of Buts swinging here and there. So, in a further effort to help you identify counterfeit liberals, beyond the simple but useful heuristic of keeping an eye out for Buts, let me elaborate upon what classical liberalism precisely means. Specifically: the first principles from which we arise at our support for freedom.
Many classical liberals arrive at their liberalism through natural rights. Are there any rights that we are born with? According to the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, the most basic right of all is the right to self-ownership. “Every man has a property in his own person,” Locke wrote. “This no Body has any right to but himself.” This is, to borrow a term Thomas Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence, self-evident. When we are born, we own ourselves – it doesn’t make any sense that anyone else does, or that everyone communally does. Our right to self-ownership, of course, is contingent upon our respecting the corresponding rights of others.
All other rights emerge from the right to self-ownership. Our right to life, to start with, is a direct corollary of the right to self-ownership. The right to free speech, for we own our thoughts and their expression. The right to the fruits of our labours – or, essentially, the right to property. The right to freely associate with anyone we wish to, whether that interaction is social or economic. And what does freedom mean? It means freedom from an infringement of these rights.
Talk of rights often gets muddy because a new class of counterfeit rights has come up in the last few decades (created by counterfeit liberals, as you’d expect.) These are not really rights, but entitlements. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin helpfully coined the terms negative and positive rights to demarcate the difference. Negative rights are all rights that emerge from the right to self-ownership – like the right to life, to property, to free speech, to free trade and suchlike. To respect these rights of yours, people simply have to not infringe them. So someone not killing you is respecting your right to life, a government not censoring you is respecting your rights to free speech, and so on. This why they’re called negative rights. Positive rights, on the other hand, are not rights at all, but entitlements disguised as rights. The right to food, the right to education, the right to broadband etc are all positive rights. To honor these rights, someone has to actively give something to you. And as money doesn’t fall from the sky – if it did, there would be inflation, and God would effectively be taxing you – the only way to honor a positive right is to infringe a negative right. You have to tax Peter to give Paul his free broadband.
To a classical liberal, negative rights, which arise from the right to self-ownership, are the only kind of legitimate rights. All these rights, in a manner of speaking, are property rights, as they arise from the fact that you own yourself to begin with. Thinking in this manner, from these first principles, can bring clarity on a host of issues. People who want to suppress free speech for the cliched reason that “you can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre” are using a flawed example: a person shouting fire in a crowded theatre, whether he be the owner defrauding his patrons or a patron creating a disturbance on someone else’s property, is infringing on the rights of someone or the other in any case. All our rights are contingent upon respecting the corresponding rights of others, which this particular miscreant is not doing. You do not need to limit free speech to punish this particular troublemaker. (As you’d have guessed by now, I’m a free speech absolutist. No Buts.)
Seen through a prism of first principles, most public intellectuals in India do not have a coherent worldview. For example, a few years ago, a prominent columnist wrote about how he supported free speech when it came to MF Husain, because he was an artist, but not when it came to the Danish cartoonists, because, according to him, they were out to provoke. (So what if they were?) This position makes no sense. What are the first principles of this person here? Don’t ask him – he might put those Buts to good use and twerk you.
The hypocrisy that really staggers me regards free speech and free markets. A classical liberal supports both. Those on the left support only the former. Those on the right do it the other way around. This is bewildering. Once you have decided that two consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want with each other as long as they are not infringing on anyone else’s rights, what does it matter whether they are fucking or trading? But no, our Kim Kardashian Liberals will find something to object to, and there will be no coherence to their arguments.
Many classical liberals arrive at their support for freedom from a utilitarian standpoint. Free markets lead to economic prosperity; freedom of expression results in cultural growth; so they support both, without reference to natural rights. This is also a coherent way of arriving at liberalism. Kim Kardashian Liberals don’t show this coherence, and are soon unclothed.
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Recently I came across Jim’s Rule of Buts, a creation of the blogger Jim Henley. The rule goes: “In any charged conversation, find any statements containing the conjunction ‘but’ and reverse the clauses.” This usually changes the meaning of the sentence completely. One example Henley gives is “the classic apology:” ‘I’m sorry I yelled at you, but what you said made me really angry’ means a completely different thing from ‘What you said made me really angry, but I’m sorry I yelled at you.’ If our Kim Kardashian Liberals had to follow this rule, a statement like ‘I believe in free speech, but you should not offend anyone’ would transform itself to ‘You should not offend anyone, but I believe in free speech.’ Now that second But is most pleasing, and one I would gladly caress.
One of the finest graphic novels I’ve read recently is Paying For It, a ‘comic strip memoir about being a john’ by the Canadian writer Chester Brown. In 1996 Brown’s girlfriend informed him that she had fallen in love with someone else. Brown took it well, and they even continued living together for a while, till eventually Brown moved on. But he saw no sense in seeking conventional relationships that involved ‘possessive monogamy’, and instead started seeing prostitutes. Paying For It is an account of more than a decade spent eschewing romantic love and instead satisfying his sexual needs with a series of paid encounters.
Brown treats his encounters in a matter-of-fact way, right down to his chapter titles (‘Carla’, ‘Anne’, ‘Angelina’, ‘Back to Anne’, ‘Edith’ etc). There are no seedy, cheap thrills to be had here, and Paying For It is more about the internal workings of Brown’s mind through these years than anything that actually happens. He doesn’t try to sentimentalise or glamorise the lives of the women he sleeps with, and there isn’t much of their back story in the book.
The book would be worth your time for the appendices alone. In a series of clear, nuanced arguments, Brown lays down why prostitution should be decriminalised. He is a libertarian (as am I), and the basic premise of that argument is simple enough: what consenting adults do with one another is no one’s business but their own, as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights while doing so. When a john sees a prostitute, it is fundamentally an economic transaction, with one party paying the other for services rendered. That’s it. There is no moral dimension to it.
One can argue, especially in a third-world context, that many prostitutes are forced into that line of work, and that there is always coercion involved. This is exactly why prostitution should be legal. Whenever the state outlaws victimless crimes, such as prostitution or sports betting, the underworld fills the resultant vacuum, and things get shady. Human trafficking thrives not because prostitution exists, but because it is illegal and we’ve left it to the mafia. (Ditto match-fixing in the context of sports betting in India.) If it was legal and transparent, trafficking and coercion would be vastly reduced, and easier to counter when they did happen.
There are those who hold that prostitution necessarily involves implicit coercion, because which woman would choose it willingly? This is just plain disrespectful to the women who make that choice. If someone deems it the best option open to them, who are we to pass judgment on their choices? Also, why is it frowned upon if you sell sexual services for money, but not if you sell other parts of yourself? One of my marketable assets, for example, is my writing ability, and I’ve sold my services to dozens of publications over the years. (Indeed, at the moment I write columns for both Hindu Business Line and the Economic Times.) Am I a slut then? Do I become a slut if I sell my physical labour? If I work as a construction worker or a massage therapist? Why do we stigmatise sex?
You could look at that last question as either a rhetorical question or as an anthropological one. But here’s my point: if we look down upon sex workers for the kind of work they do, then that reflects badly on us, not on them. People who use the terms ‘whore’ or ‘slut’ as pejoratives are demeaning themselves.
That brings me to the sad, sad story of Shweta Basu Prasad, who was caught a few weeks ago in a ‘prostitution racket.’ Prasad is an accomplished national-award winning actress, who has also made a documentary on Indian classical music, and decided, at some point, to look at other ways of earning money. She was arrested during a raid at a five-star hotel in Hyderabad where she was, we are salaciously informed, ‘caught in the act’. She was sent to a government rehabilitation home for ‘rescued’ women. (She had no say in this.) And of course, she was named and shamed in the media.
Some of the people who spoke out in her defence were outraged that she was put in the spotlight and humiliated, and not the businessmen on the other side of the transaction. But why should even they be named and shamed? In my view, both Prasad and the businessmen were doing nothing wrong – there was clearly no coercion involved, just consenting adults getting together. Nor did the pimp involved do anything wrong in bringing them together. The people who should be ashamed here are the police, who spend time and effort busting victimless crimes instead of focussing on so many of the other duties they fail to perform. And it’s obvious why. Why do you think the raids happened in the first place and the businessmen weren’t named?
The police across the country act like a mafia engaged in extortion of those unfairly criminalised by our antiquated penal system, such as homosexuals, prostitutes and their customers, gamblers and so on. They are the ones who should be shamed, who should not be able to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning, whose families should feel embarrassed by them. And yet, poor Shweta Basu Prasad is treated like a criminal and humiliated in this manner. It’s a disgrace. She did absolutely nothing wrong, and is the victim here, not of the clients she was working with, but of the police, and of our hypocritical, repressed Indian society.
The last chapter of Brown’s book is titled ‘Back to Monogamy’. But unlike what that might indicate, he doesn’t realise the error of his ways and goes off and find a conventional girlfriend. Instead, he finds his comfort zone with one of the women he has had paid sex with, and decides to be monogamous with her while continuing their financial arrangement. This might seem unusual to you, but on reading the book, you’ll see why it makes perfect sense for Brown. We all stumble through life, trying to understand what makes us happy, making compromises, negotiating with our destinies. Whatever works, works. There is no right or wrong in this.
Having resumed blogging, it was natural for me to head over to the ToI site for the potential double WTFness of 1. what’s happening and 2. what the ToI is reporting. Not much gratification there, though their ‘city’ section did provide some food for thought. Here are the four headlines on that section:
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I actually clicked on one of them. Apparently Ayesha Takia complained on Twitter about Kingfisher Airlines, and Siddharth Mallya responded: “Not too sure who she is, an actor of some sorts?? [sic]” Well, I’m not sure who Siddharth Mallya is. Someone or the other’s son and boyfriend? Is there anything else he’s famous for?
One of the great delights of Indian newspapers is that they often report seriously news that is insanely, rotfl-ly funny. Take the following news headline: ‘Dhoni Keeps Promise, Adopts a Tiger’. On reading this story, you find that India’s cricket captain, MS Dhoni, has adopted a tiger called Agsthya in the Mysore Zoo. Javagal Srinath persuaded him to do so, and Dhoni isn’t the only early adopter: Zaheer Khan has adopted a leopard, Anil Kumble has adopted a giraffe and Virat Kohli has adopted a rabbit. (Incredibly, I’m making up only the bit about Kohli.) The tiger is 9 years old, so any questions about whether it will be nursed by his wife are out of place here. In any case, young Sakshi Dhoni would no doubt not want her Masabasaris to be peed on by a baby tiger, and I’m safely assuming that young Agsthya Dhoni will remain a resident of Mysore Zoo.
As you would guess, this reminds me of MF Husain. The celebrated painter died last week, and the media has been full of tributes to him. (My friend, the prolific Salil Tripathi, wrote four of them: 1, 2, 3, 4. My fellow Yahoo! columnist Girish Shahane also wrote one.) Husain is one of the most recognisable and familiar figures in this country: almost everybody surely knows his name. He was an uber-celebrity, which is ironic for two reasons. One: He was hounded out of the country by goons who believe that goddesses should not be painted naked. (Ludicrously, they believe in goddesses. WTF?) Two: Most of the people to whom he was such a recognisable figure, who would have burst crackers and felt mega-proud if a nobel prize for painting were instituted and given to him, wouldn’t be able to tell you what made him great. They wouldn’t have an opinion on what was notable about his art, and why his paintings are more or less compelling than those by Raza, Souza or Salman Khan. They’d know that he likes to be barefoot because Bombay Times (and Lucknow Times and Kota Times and suchlike) would have mentioned it a few hundred times, and they’d know he liked painting horses and developed crushes on Bollywood actresses from time to time. But that’s it. To them, he’s a celebrity because he’s a celebrity.
It’s a sign of the widespread shallowness of human beings that being celebrated and being a celebrity are two different things. People become celebrities by achieving something, or by being someone’s wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/alleged shag. But once they make it to page 3 a few times, the original reason for their celebrity becomes redundant, and they become ‘famous for being famous’. First they get their 15 minutes of fame for XYZ; then they get a lifetime of fame for being famous for that original 15 minutes, and XYZ no longer matters. Husain the quirky public figure displaces Husain the painter. When he dies, we pretend to be celebrating his work, but we’re really just celebrating his celebrity, which is as much our doing as his. Then we move on to Dhoni’s tiger and Kohli’s rabbit. (I can’t get Kohli’s rabbit out of my mind.)
Why are we so shallow and obsessed with the superficial? One reason, undeniably, is that we are all voyeurs. I watch Bigg Boss religiously when it’s on, and spend as much time on Bombay Times as The Times of India. (This is because ToI is boringly awful and BT is glamorously awful, and I prefer pretty pictures.) Which of us doesn’t clamour for gossip on who is sleeping with who, and who had a wardrobe malfunction resulting in a near nip-slip (as if everybody doesn’t have two nips), or which designer flicked a design from which fellow designer (as if they both haven’t flicked from an old issue of Vogue)? We crave wealth and beauty, and are obsessed by the rich and the beautiful: that is in our genes.
Another possible reason is an evolutionary one, cited by Johann Hari in an old essay on the subject. It is possible, he writes, that “we are hard-wired to seek out Big Men (or Women) and copy them,” an instinct that evolved for our survival and has led to the flourishing of the tabloid media. We are drawn towards success and achievement and beauty; celebrity seems a validation of all these things; so we are drawn towards celebrity, ultimately for its own sake.
This is not necessarily harmful, unless we become stalkers or are stalked by them. But this celebrity thing can be taken too far—consider the temples built for this cricketer or that film star, and the near-religious adulation heaped upon them. This is especially dangerous when they enter politics, extending the halo of their celebrity into a field where you actually need to be competent, and merely being photogenic or charming or controversial or famous isn’t enough. The south has had its share of filmstar-turned-chief ministers, who gather cults, not followings. Their power makes them celebrities, their celebrity gives them more power, and the perpetual motion machine keeps running. This cannot be healthy.
We also make the mistake of assuming that because we are familiar with the public image of a celeb, we are familar with the celeb himself. If a particular cricketer is known for being humble and unassuming, it doesn’t actually mean that he is really that way. His public persona is being mistaken for his personality, which may or may not coincide, and if they do, that is bound to go to his head, so how the hell can he stay humble? Celebrity is tough.
Another mistake we make is assuming that being a celebrity extends your competence in fields other than what you are originally known for. The frequently naive views of celebs are given more importance than they deserve, often in subjects they know nothing about. (For example, Dhoni’s giving a lakh to Mysore Zoo does nothing for animal rights. It is a cosmetic gesture, though I have no doubt it is a well-meaning one, and he’s an awesome cricketer, so Agsthya is now my favourite tiger.) Sometimes, of course, they are sensible, but I am always surprised when that is the case. In general, celebs’ views on politics or economics are staggeringly banal or stupefyingly silly. But then, just as we get the leaders we deserve, perhaps we also get the celebs we deserve.
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Going back to the news item on Dhoni, I notice his quote about the tiger being our ‘national animal’. WTF is a national animal? Is the concept itself not absurd, like a national bird or national sport or national colour or a national brand of underwear? It’s like an insecure nation reassuring itself with a signalling device. Why isn’t the donkey our national animal? There are more donkeys than tigers in India, surely? Is it because donkeys are vegetarian?
Dhoni should have thought about this and adopted a donkey in protest.
The crises of 2011 have underlined how media time stretches real time. The duration of an event in the public mind is a function of the total length of all broadcasts about that event. The relentless focus of cameras and commentators can make rapidly evolving circumstances appear to move at a glacial pace. Consider this: it took nearly half a year after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, for the first bombs to rain down on Iraqi troops. Kuwait was overrun on August 2, 1990, and the American-led response, Operation Desert Storm, commenced only on January 17, 1991. Few people accused President George Bush of reacting too slowly, but then the twenty-four hour news cycle was in its infancy, and real time matched media time fairly closely.
When the US itself was targetted on September 11, 2001, its response was, naturally, quicker. The assault on the Taliban regime commenced 27 days after the World Trade Centres were destroyed. The reaction to the current Libyan crisis unfolded at much the same pace. The first major protests in Tripoli took place in mid-February, and Operation Freedom Falcon began on 19 March. In that time, both the Arab League and the United Nations, organisations not celebrated for decisiveness or alacrity, passed resolutions authorising military intervention. I cannot think of any purely internal disturbance or civil strife that has elicited a concerted international armed response in a comparable span of time. Yet, President Obama was censured for ‘dithering’ and ‘dilly-dallying’ by critics on the Left, Right and Centre (Sarah Palin, John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, Eliot Spitzer and Christopher Hitchens among them). By the end of March, pundits were mourning the failure of air strikes to dislodge Colonel Gaddafi, and either urging stronger action or questioning the entire operation. In real time, they came across like petulant children in the backseat of a car asking, five minutes after leaving home, “Are we there yet?”
In the recent period, editorial integrity has been severely compromised and news coverage linked directly to advertising in a way that is little different from paid news. A meaningless distinction has been sought to be made between walls and lines, and the walls between editorial and advertising are sought to be replaced by “lines” between them. Very recently, those of us who were not privy to the deal making learnt to our shock that a major interview with A. Raja in defence of the telecom licensing policy published on May 22, 2010—that was referred to by the Prime Minister in his press conference—involved a direct quid pro quo in the form of a full page, colour advertisement from the Telecom Ministry that was specially and hurriedly cleared by the Minister personally for publication on the same day in The Hindu. The contrast between such a deed and pious editorial declarations including the campaign against paid news cannot be starker.
Indeed, much as we criticize the Slimes of India for selling editorial content, at least they’re upfront about it. The Hindu, as much of the left tends to be, is self-righteous and holier-than-thou in the abstract, but unprincipled and unscrupulous in the concrete. Also, when it comes to the language they use, ToI is sloppy, sometimes comically so, but the Hindu is often turgid and pretentious, as Ravi’s letter demonstrates. There is this popular belief, practically a meme, that the ToI is shit and the Hindu is a paper of high standards. I think both newspapers are a disgrace to journalism—and when it comes to editorial integrity, neither can take the moral high ground.
Just imagine, if Ravi wasn’t such a whiner, we’d probably never know about this Raja quid pro quo.
My buddy Deepak Shenoy has a Yahoo! column up today that expresses a complaint I’ve had about many Indian sports journalists for a while now: they are innumerate, and draw conclusions on the basis of inadequate data. The example Deepak provides is the following fact, trumped “on Twitter, TV and ... the internet when Mahela Jayawardene scored his hundred” in the World Cup final, as if it had great statistical or predictive significance:
“No century-scorer has ever been on the losing side of a World Cup final.”
As Deepak points out, there have been only five World Cup finals before this in which a batsman scored a century. Just five. There is no way that is a sample size large enough to draw a meaningful conclusion from.
Cricket journalism is littered with such conclusions, though, using stats with unjustifiable authority. Consider the following widespread belief among cricket lovers:
South Africa are chokers.
I heard this a lot after they crashed out of this World Cup, but what’s the basis for this, really? Cricinfo’s Statsguru reveals that out of 27 ODI tournament finals, they have won 16. On the bigger stage, though, at the World Cup, they have lost at the knock-out stage five times.
Now, much as 0 out of 5 seems revealing, that’s still way too small a sample size to draw conclusions—especially when those five times stretch across generations. When we say South Africa are chokers, are we talking about Kepler Wessels’s squad in 1992, Hansie Cronje’s side in 1999, or Graeme Smith’s boys this year? Is there a new science of Sports Genetics that explains how such qualities can be passed on across generations?
Through the World Cup, reporters fed old narratives or built new ones on the basis of such nonsense data. For example, MS Dhoni got savaged for promoting Yusuf Pathan up the batting order, where it seems he was a proven failure—on the basis of 11 ODIs (out of a total of 51), in which he batted between 3 and 5. More importantly, Pathan batted at 3 or 4 in just two games in this World Cup, and failed in both—but two is not a remotely meaningful number.
In such cases, I’d always defer to the captain and team management’s judgement, who are closer to the action and the players, rather than the ranting of reporters who couldn’t tell the difference between an arm-ball and a doosra, but feel the need to criticize from their perch on high, using numbers with all the finesse of monkeys using calculators.
The judgments the media arrives at, you will note, are passed in hindsight, after the outcome is known. MS Dhoni got applause for leading us to the T20 World Cup, but would have been slammed for his decision to bring on Joginder Sharma for that last over in the final had Misbah-ul-Haq played one shot slightly differently. All our experts criticized him for picking Ashish Nehra over R Ashwin in the recent semi-final, and praised him afterwards for his prescience. Had Dhoni gotten a bad decision or an unplayable ball in the final, and India had lost, he would have been chastised for promoting himself up the order—but we won, so hey, it’s a masterstroke.
One of the lessons I’ve learnt as a poker player—and it applies generally to life as well—is that the quality of your decisions should not be judged by their outcomes. In the short term, too many variables determine the outcome of any action, beyond just the action itself. The quality of a player’s captaincy, for example, can only be judged over a long period of time—and even then, the other variables at play make that very difficult. For example, the question of whether Dhoni or Saurav Ganguly were greater captains than Tiger Pataudi or Sunil Gavaskar are difficult ones precisely because the latter two led lousy teams in difficult times, and they couldn’t possibly have gotten the results Dhoni and Ganguly (and also Dravid, for that matter) did. So our evaluation of their captaincy cannot be based on results alone, and there is a subjective element to it.
In my subjective opinion, Dhoni is the best captain we’ve ever had—but my basis for this opinion is not just his results, but the manner in which he goes about his job. He had the cojones to promote himself up the order in the final and take the responsibility upon himself in that ultra-high-pressure situation. Even if he’d been out for a duck, and India had lost, he’d still have my eternal respect for that.
A few years ago, I made to decision to never work in a company again. I struck out on my own, did much blogging and column-writing, wrote my first novel, and started playing poker seriously. And while I occasionally felt the inevitable loneliness that comes from working alone, from the writing life, I never regretted the decision or considered going back to a regular job. Being my own master was an awesome luxury, and the tradeoffs were worth it.
One of the factors in my decision was the nature of companies. The skills you need to succeed within a corporation are actually quite different from the ones that you need to excel at whatever you’ve been hired to do. William Deresiewicz expresses it perfectly in this wonderful essay on solitude and leadership:
That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along.
You, reading this: I presume you have a job and work in a company somewhere. Do you agree with this?
* * *
Besides this, I found that I was much more productive while working on my own than in a company environment. Maybe it’s just me, but I found that in a normal office day, I might be at work for 10 hours, but within that period I’d only actually work for a total of maybe one. The rest of the time would go surfing, faffing, idling, day-dreaming, gossiping and other such ings. When I am by myself, on the other hand, I may idle all day, but when I work, I work. It may only be for an hour, but at least I don’t waste nine more in a pretense of work, in an elaborate charade that benefits no one.
Still, that’s just me, and I speak of my experience in television (in the last millennium) and journalism (in this one), and I’m sure there are other corporate environments which are more productive. But Deresiewicz’s observation about the greasy pole, I suspect, holds true for them all. That’s the nature of the beast.
* * *
I discovered Deresiewicz’s essay via David Brooks’s Sydney Awards. There are many more gems there, check them out: 1, 2.
This is the 30th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 25.
Indian journalism stinks right now.
A few weeks ago, a plagiarism controversy broke over at India Today. Content theft is alarmingly common in Indian publications, but this was different because it involved the editor. Aroon Purie’s bylined editorial had lifted a few sentences, verbatim, off a piece written on Rajnikanth by Slate journalist Grady Hendrix. In Twitterverse and the Blogosphere, parallel universes that mainstream mediawallahs generally manage to ignore, poop hit the fan. Eventually, Purie came out with an explanation that was at once shameful and shameless: he was jet-lagged, he said, and someone else had written the piece for him. Hendrix duly ridiculed the explanation (scroll down to his comment here).—it couldn’t have been very hard to mine it for humour.
There were three issues that Puriegate highlighted. One, Indian publications don’t give a damn about plagiarism, which is a sackable offence in any respectable publication in the West. Over the years, established writers like film critics Nikhat Kazmi of the Times of India and Gautaman Bhaskaran of the Hindu have been caught plagiarising, and they have continued in their jobs. (Kazmi was exposed by fellow Yahoo! columnist Jai Arjun Singh; Bhaskaran was outed here.) While those were the high-profile cases, numerous other mainstream media plagiarists have been exposed in the last few years, but none punished. In fact, an India Today journalist was accused of plagiarism not long ago, and the magazine turned a blind eye. All of this amounts to an admission by editors that they do not believe that their writers are good enough to produce quality content under pressure, and so it’s okay to steal. That makes it ironic that they so often take the moral high ground, ranting and raving about corruption in public life, while they harbour thieves themselves.
The second issue, a rather comical one, was that Purie doesn’t write his own editorials. This has been known for years—as many as three different friends of mine have ghost-written his edits in the past—and it’s absurd. Purie is the editor of a major national magazine, and he’s incapable of writing 800 words of coherent text? No wonder he condones plagiarism, as does the institution he has built. No wonder their standards are so shoddy, their prose so uniformly insipid, their journalism so mediocre. And while that last sentence is true of India Today and Purie, it is also true of practically every major Indian newspaper and magazine today—and Purie is probably no worse than most other editors. So there you go.
The third issue, the most serious one according to me, is how the media closed ranks to support Purie. So much so that a column Mitali Saran wrote for Business Standard highlighting just these issues was spiked by the paper. Saran’s column, Stet, had run in BS since 2006, and its distinctive authorial voice made it one of the most highly regarded columns in the country. Then she wrote this piece; BS refused to carry it; and she walked away. Consider what she had written: “When our [media] is confronted with its own scandals, you can hear the clang of a fraternity closing ranks, followed by the weird sound of thousands of furious back-scratchings, followed by the thunderous silence of stones not being thrown in glass houses.”
That thunderous silence can be heard this week as well. I haven’t gone through the transcripts of the Niira Radia tapes, and I don’t have an opinion on the controversy itself. But it clearly is a major issue that should be covered by all major newspapers and TV stations. And yet, as The Hoot and blogger Harini Calamur point out, the media has mostly ignored their story, as if it doesn’t matter. But if this story doesn’t matter, then the media doesn’t matter, because this strikes at the heart of what journalism is and should be about. The media isn’t willing to do this self-examination—for obvious reasons. So much, then, for the notion of our journalists being the watchdogs of society—these dogs guard the burglars who strip our houses bare. Such it goes.
At about the time this column is published, I’ll be speaking at the Asian Bloggers and Social Media Conference in Kuala Lumpur. The organisers contacted me a few weeks ago and asked me to give a half-hour talk on blogging. My first reaction was, Oh no, what can I say about blogging that hasn’t been said already? The subject is so 2004, and anything one can say about it sounds obvious: Yes, blogs make the tools of publishing available to all of us, democratise free expression, and yada yada yada. Yawn.
I thought about it some more, though, and realised that the subject is a very personal one for me. Over the last seven years, blogging has changed my life. As a medium, it has offered me opportunities I did not have as a mainstream journalist. It has broadened and deepened my perspectives of the world around me. It has sharpened my craft as a writer. It has introduced me to ideas and people I’d never otherwise have known. How this has happened, how this medium can be so powerful as to have such an impact on my life, seemed worth exploring. So I agreed to give the talk, which is titled, What’s the big deal about Blogging?
A little background: In 2004, I was a mainstream journalist. I had worked in television and written for newspapers, and at the time was the managing editor of Cricinfo. It was a fun job, and a great place to work in, but I was itching to go beyond the usual formats offered to me of cricket coverage: the match reports, the analysis, the colour pieces, the features, the news reports. These were all categories with familiar templates, and not much scope to go beyond them. I was just beginning to read blogs from around the world, and thought I’d try this new medium. 23 Yards was born.
I had taken baby steps into the medium. I did not use a blogging software for 23 Yards, but improvised within the content management system that Cricinfo then had. Some of my posts, when I look back on them, make me cringe. There are parts that are wordy, preachy, self-important, self-conscious, and lacking of the economy I would come to pride in myself in the years to come.
In December 2004, I started winding up 23 Yards, having decided that I was sick of cricket, and needed to detox. I began India Uncut. I planned it as a filter-and-comment blog. Several times a day, I would link to pieces on the web that I found interesting, and share my views on them. I would intersperse that with ruminations on issues that mattered to me, and occasional reportage, when I was travelling and there was the scope for it.
At the end of that month, the tsunami struck Asia. A friend told me that he was going to travel down the coast of Tamil Nadu, and would be glad if I would accompany him. I accepted his offer, and for the next few days, we went from one tsunami-affected area to the other. I felt the need to write about those experiences, and rather than use my journalistic contacts to write about it for a newspaper or magazine, I chose to blog. I’d keep taking notes, and every time we saw a cyber cafe, we’d stop for a few minutes and I’d upload a few posts.
I returned home to find that my posts had been linked to by bloggers and mainstream publications across the world, and the traffic was stratospheric. Once the initial spike had settled down, I realised that I now had a regular readership. And as I continued to blog steadily, it continued to grow. It didn’t matter that I was nobody, that I was new to this, that India Uncut was so fresh into the world. As long as I consistently put out compelling content, I would have readers. The only limit on me was me.
That period taught me a few important lessons about blogging—and many more would follow in the years to come. I’ve summarised a few of them below. (Note that when I use the term ‘blogging’, I include much of ‘social media’ in it. Twitter is micro-blogging, after all, and I was writing posts of that length and Twitter-like frequency on IU before Twitter existed—many Facebook posts are also effectively blog posts.)
1. Blogging captures the moment. One of the most attractive things about blogging to a mainstream journalist is that it has immediacy, and is not a slave to news cycles. A newspaper journalist, if he sees something today, will find it published tomorrow. A blogger can put it out there within five minutes, and it can be read (and linked) around the world in ten. Today, when everyone’s using Twitter and newspapers handle their websites much better, this doesn’t seem like a big deal. But when I was travelling through coastal Tamil Nadu in 2004-05, in the aftermath of the tsunami, it was huge.
2. Blogging frees you from the dictates of length. In a newspaper or magazine, one is bound by word limits. But when you’re writing for the internet, word limit does not matter. Your posts can be as long as you want, and you do not have to trim needlessly or submit to a sub-editor somewhere doing so. Also, importantly, your posts can be as short as you want. Sometimes, you might want to share a simple thought or an anecdote, which would otherwise not bear expanding into a full-length piece. Blogs allow you that luxury. Consider, for example, these posts of mine from the time of the tsunami: 1, 2, 3, 4. What could I do with them if I wrote for a newspaper?
3. Blogs contain multitudes. A blog post can have added dimensions in ways that a print article can’t. For one, you can use hyperlinks to encompass immense content that might otherwise have to be explained to the reader. Because of that, the need to simplify or give context is reduced—and you provide a valuable service to your reader in the process. Two, whether or not a blog has comments enabled—some high-traffic blogs disable it because they can’t control the noise-to-signal ratio—a blog post or a tweet stands a high chance of becoming part of a larger conversation, with other bloggers linking to it, commenting on it, tearing it apart and so on. There is much value in this both for the reader and the blogger, who can grow intellectually if he has the humility to listen.
4. Blogging enables greater breadth of coverage. This point is especially important during a catastrophic event of such magnitude that it stretches the limits of traditional media. While newspapers and television channels struggled to cover the tsunami adequately with their limited resources, bloggers posted regular updates, and one now-defunct website even posted SMS updates that enterprising citizen journalists sent in. (Those were pre-Twitter days.) More recently, during 26/11, the most immediate coverage was to be found on Twitter, which provided a more vivid and powerful picture of proceedings than the TV channels could manage. Once the channels and newspapers got their act together, it was different, but in the immediate chaos that day, the best news was crowdsourced.
5. Blogging enables greater depth of coverage. The biggest problem with mainstream media, especially in India, is that journalists are generalists. They don’t have specialised knowledge about any subject, and consequently often get the nuances wrong, and are unable to cover any issue in great depth. The reason for this is simple: specialists are busy doing whatever they specialised in, which is, for them, more lucrative or satisfying than journalism. Where is their voice to be heard?
In blogs, that’s where. A specialist may not have time to write for a newspaper, but can certainly blog about the subject, at his own pace and convenience. This vastly improves the depth of coverage of practically any subject you can think of. As an example, see the difference economics blogs like Marginal Revolution, EconLog, Cafe Hayek and the Freakonomics Blog have made to the coverage of economics. Not only do you have specialists from across the spectrum expressing themselves on the subject, but there is also a continuous dialogue on these subjects, happening across blogs and Twitter streams and continents. We take such depth for granted today—but isn’t it astonishing?
6. Blogging keeps Mainstream Media honest. Much of the mainstream media, especially in India, is immune to criticism, but the Blogosphere (and the Twitterverse) does play the role of a watchdog of sorts. Bloggers have exposed plagiarism in the mainstream media (1, 2), regularly catch journalistic sloppiness, and all this attention surely plays a part in making journos (and their editors) wary of screwing up. It’s no panacea, of course, especially in India, where one of our biggest publishing houses continues selling editorial space despite years of screaming from all of us. But we’ll keep screaming, and one day we’ll be loud enough. I hope.
7. Blogging keeps bloggers honest. Bloggers need watchdogs as much as the mainstream media does, and the Blogosphere plays this self-regulating role. Every post you write, every errant sentence, is liable to be taken apart by a fellow blogger somewhere—especially if you write about hot-button topics like politics, economics or Himesh Reshammiya. Trust me, the criticism is never-ending, and while much of it can be superfluous, some of it can also be sharp and precise. The result of that is that you cannot slip up, and be sloppy in either your thinking or your writing.
8. Blogging enables the Long Tail of Opinion. Sorry for the jargon—and this is, again, a fairly obvious point. Blogs enable relatively rare strands of opinion to find their rightful constituency through the internet. Libertarianism in India, for example, was surely non-existent, or at best fragmented, before the internet came about. Thanks to my blogging, though, I discovered a host of fellow libertarians around me, met them in person, made friends with them. Since we kept blogging about our ideas, that way of thinking found an audience out there it would not otherwise have had. Since ideological opponents kept engaging us, we had to question, sharpen and refine those ideas, which made for much better dialogue all around. I use Indian libertarianism as just one example, but this is true for just about any kind of ideas out there—including the Cult of Cthulhu. Fhtagn, okay?
9. Blogging breaks down geographical barriers. This again sounds banal, but let me give you a concrete example of this. A few years ago, the Indian government, in its efforts to ban one particular Blogspot site they found objectionable, ended up blocking all of Blogspot. So suddenly, one day, tens of thousands of Indian blogs were inaccessible to Indian readers—and even their authors. Naturally we kicked up a fuss, and the matter got sorted out. But while that happened, guess who came to our rescue. A group of Pakistani bloggers got together and created and popularised proxies through which all these Blogspot blogs could be viewed by readers in India. (IIRC, they had been through similar censorship issues, and had the tools ready.) We were divided by geography and popular political rhetoric—but united in our commitment to free speech. Blogging enabled us to find (and support) each other.
10. Blogging can help you find your voice as a writer. When you write for a mainstream publication, you are bound by house style, and the whims of the editor or copy editors you work with. The copy you write is seldom quite the article that appears. A blog, on the other hand, is all you. It gives you the luxury of space and time to find and refine your own voice as a writer. You might initially be awkward and self-conscious—but as time passes, you will get into your groove. Pick any blogger who has been writing for a few years, compare his early posts with some recent ones, and you’ll see what I mean.
11. Blogging sharpens your craft as a writer. When you write a blog with one eye on building a readership, you cannot bullshit. At a functional level, your writing has to be spot on. Your readers have countless other things they could be doing with their lives, and hazaar links to click on if you bore them. You cannot be self-indulgent, and your prose cannot be flabby or long-winded.
When you write regularly for such readers, your writing is bound to improve. I wrote an average of five posts a day for the first few years of my blogging—my frequency has dipped alarmingly since, alas—and have probably written more than 8000 posts across blogs and platforms. That kind of practice is bound to have an impact on your writing. Many of my early posts make me cringe today, and I’ve clearly improved hugely as a writer. And as I keep writing, hopefully I will keep improving. (Also see: Give Me 10,000 Hours.)
12. Blogging rewards merit. As I learned after my coverage of the tsunami, the blogosphere is meritocratic. Not only is there no entry barrier, all you need to do to build a readership is consistently produce compelling content. It is my belief that writers on the internet invariably get the audience their work deserves. (Size may not always be an indicator of quality, as a good niche blog may have less readers than a so-so mainstream blog, but my point is that it will find its potential readership.) The internet is viral, social media is social (duh!), and the word gets around.
13. Blogging expands your world. From a reader’s perspective, the sheer variety of content that blogging enables introduces one to ideas and content we may not otherwise have come across otherwise. There’s a lot of such content out there, and over time we find out own filters to navigate this content. Thanks to blogs, I’ve learned much more about the world than I otherwise would have.
From a blogger’s perspective, the world expands as much. Most of my close friends today are people I met through blogging—many of them also bloggers. At a personal level, this is what I cherish most in my journey as a blogger—the people I have met, the friends I have made. Much as I mock the term, maybe there is something to be said for ‘social’ media after all.
We’re a weird species that takes itself far too seriously, and it is my theory that if a true picture of the human race is to be found in journalism, it will emerge in the odd news sections of most papers and news sites. In today’s column, rather than focus on a serious world-changing topic that requires your immediate intervention, let’s look at some of the odd news from around the planet.
Reuters’ ‘Oddly Enough’ section is a reliable source of laughs—and revelation. Take this story headlined ‘Chinese police beat official’s wife by mistake’. Here’s what happened: the lady in question tried to enter the building where her husband, “a provincial law enforcement officer,” works. The cops outside, “assigned to guard the office building and ‘subdue’ petitioners”, thought that she was a petitioner and set about subduing her. According to a local report, “a strong wave of fists rained down on her for more than 16 minutes.” She ended up in hospital with “a concussion, and damaged brain and nerve tissues.”
The report says that “ranking police officers apologized profusely”, and a Communist Party chief explained, “This incident is a total misunderstanding. Our police officers never realized that they beat the wife of a senior leader.” Beating anyone else, of course, is totally okay.
Now, that’s a story in the weird news section. But I don’t think it’s weird at all. I think it’s good journalism that goes to the heart of the society it reports on, and illustrates the system of governance and the role of power. Also, it has resonance beyond China.
Another weird headline from the same section: ‘Bridge game fights “led man to murder wife.”’ This story is about a 52-year-old man who stabbed his wife to death following arguments that were ostensibly about her bridge-playing capabilities. He and his wife apparently played much social bridge together, and a fellow player said that he had “started drinking heavily which led to ‘vicious’ criticism of his wife’s prowess at bridge and a deterioration in his own game.” Once, in the middle of a card game, he “shouted at his wife and threatened to throw her off the balcony.” Eventually, he killed her.
At one level, this is just a weird story. At another, it’s a portrait of a relationship that is fairly typical—marriages of this sort are common, and I’m sure every reader of this column knows a couple where the woman is forced into a submissive role by an insecure, demanding prick of a husband. That this one involved arguments about bridge and ended in a stabbing make it unusual—but apart from that, it’s commonplace.
Another headline from the same section: ‘Romantic comedies affecting off-screen love lives.’ It seems that “a poll of 1,000 Australians found almost half said rom-coms with their inevitable happy endings have ruined their view of an ideal relationship.” An Aussie ‘relationship counsellor’ has said, “It seems our love of rom-coms is turning us into a nation of ‘happy-ever-after addicts.’ Yet the warm and fuzzy feeling they provide can adversely influence our view of real relationships.”
The tyranny of the imaginary over the real is reflected not just by romantic comedies, but also by porn. Women have long complained that men get idealised notions of sex and female bodies by watching porn, and that regular women can’t match up. (It’s probably truer that porn can act as a substitute for real-world intimacy rather than a benchmark for it.) This works both ways, of course, as few men have organs quite as extravagantly elongated as some male porn stars do, but women seem to prefer romantic comedies to porn, and I suspect they expect more from their men with regard to romance than sex. (The ideal man is gifted at both, but is either gay or married.)
You can go look up such weird news in that Reuters section, or websites such as Fark.com, or even in all our local newspapers, which are full of them. They reveal human nature as well as the state of our society far better than all the serious news out there about politics and economics and so on. For example, in our Indian papers today, we can read about the female Congress MLA breaking flowerpots in the Bihar Legislative Council and having to be dragged out. We can read about Sachin Tendulkar’s blood being distributed along with a special edition of his biography. Or about how “bugs and roaches” set off a “passenger revolt” at a train terminus. All of this is weird, yes—and all of this is us. This is how we are.
It’s a bit disconcerting that newspapers should report stuff like this—and that people would want to read it. What is it about other people’s dirty linen that we can’t stop staring. Bhala iski kameez...
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
Welcome to Viewfinder. This is my new weekly column on Yahoo India, one of ten columns that will start appearing on Yahoo from this week. In this piece, I shall tell you a bit about these columns, and what we hope to do differently. Let me begin, however, by telling you about a common problem that all columnists face, which we will also have to deal with: the problem of arrogance.
The act of writing for an audience is an act of hubris. When you set out to fill an empty page, you assume that the words you write will have some value, that your thoughts will move readers from one paragraph to the next, and keep them turning the pages (or scrolling down). How presumptuous is this? What leads me to imagine that my thoughts are worth your time?
Reporters who write for the news pages can plausibly claim that their writing has value because they are setting out, as is often said, the first draft of history. The facts that they report are the essential raw material from which we manufacture the story of the world. But columnists make claims on your time with nothing to offer but opinions; perhaps an argument for this or that; a worldview they want you to share. Why should their opinions be worth more than yours?
One conceit that a columnist might have is that his calling is to help you make sense of the world. Reality is complicated and confusing, and no one has the time or resources to figure it out on their own. To construct narratives that make it all simple and explicable, the columnist might say, does you a service—and it’s damn hard to do.
Well—yes and no.
There are a number of traps inherent in creating such narratives, and most of the opinion columns I see in the daily papers fall into them. They have implacable opinions on whatever they write about; they exude certainty; contributing to a public discourse that is severely polarized, they choose black or white. They construct simple narratives of a complex world—and when the columnist gets lazy, simple can fast become simplistic.
A couple of years ago I gave up writing my column for Mint, Thinking it Through, to pursue what was pretty much my life’s only serious ambition: of writing novels. I instantly felt much more comfortable—and honest—there. In literature, one embraces complexity and ambiguity and can eschew certainty. Good or bad don’t have to be distinct entities. The cause of everything need not be clear. Even in a whodunnit, these days, guilt need not be assigned. Most importantly, one need not pretend to have all the answers.
Literature is my natural habitat and I remain primarily a novelist. But given the chance to set up a section of columns for Yahoo India, and to write one of my own, I decided to take it up as a challenge to produce work that does not fall into these familiar traps. Here, then, are some of the things we’ll keep in mind to make sure that your time spent reading us is worth it.
One: We will not simplify needlessly. Too much of the journalism we see around us is driven by the hunt for narrative. What’s the story? Complex narratives do not sell; simple ones are easier to create and sensationalize.
Take the last general elections in India, for example. The narrative that the media has sold us is that the Congress made massive strides and that the BJP was decimated. But take a deeper look at the numbers and you’ll realize that how flawed that story is. As Devangshu Datta wrote in Business Standard, the vote share of the Congress went from 26.5% to 28.6%; the BJP dipped from 22.2 to 18.8: not a seismic shift at all. That the UPA gained so many seats is because of a number of diverse reasons, such as the changing pattern of local alliances that split the opposition vote in many places, such as in Maharashtra.
This happens in every election. Politics in India is now essentially local, and the people of India do not vote as one. And yet, after every general elections, the media talks of a national ‘mandate’ and so on. There are no mandates in national politics – except in the mind of the lazy reporter.
We will watch ourselves for this tendency to take relief in simple storylines. In a complex world we will set out, with a deep breath, to examine that complexity.
Two: We will not talk down to you. Many columnists, high on the power of their megaphones, tend to condescend to the reader. We will watch out for this. We will not treat you like a student in a classroom or the faithful attending our sermon, but as equals sitting across us in our living rooms. Accordingly, we shall feel free to adopt a more personal tone. The columns I like reading the most are those in which I get a sense of a person behind the column, not just a worldview or a body of opinions. That is what we will try to give you.
Every alternate Friday, for example, Jai Arjun Singh will write a column on cinema, Persistence of Vision. But this won’t be the typical film column: He will be writing on his journey as a film-lover, how he fell in love with different kinds of movies, and so on. It will be a personal narrative, and to me, that is what will set it apart. The book critic Sanjay Sipahimalani alternates with him on Fridays with his column, Dead Tree Diaries. Sanjay won’t be writing just about the world of books, but his world of books: how he became a serious reader, his moments of illumination regarding voice and point of view and other such things in literature, the different stages in his reading and so on. If you love books, I promise that you will find it more worth your while than the standard round-up of what’s been happening in the world of books.
Three: We will aim to be timeless, not just topical. Most newspaper opinions pieces are purely topical; and therefore, ephemeral. We will aim to write pieces that you can read five years later and still enjoy. Sure, as most columnists do, we will address current affairs. But while doing so, we will also try and examine bigger ideas and greater truths.
For example, Nitin Pai, known for his sharp analysis of foreign affairs, will set out every alternate Tuesday to demystify international relations for you in a column named Pax Indica. Rather than just comment from on high about current affairs, he will explain the different schools of thought in the field, and talk about the prism through which he views geopolitics. Whether or not you agree with him, it will at least be clear to you what his belief system is, and which first principles he draws them from.
Similarly, Deepak Shenoy will set out every Wednesday to demystify the seemingly complex world of money. It is his contention that complex acronyms like ULIP and CDO and BRIC and OECD embody simple concepts that anyone can master, and he will set out to make every reader of his columns an expert in this world. As ULIPs and CDOs will always be with us, I suspect his column archives will always be worth a read.
Among other things, we will also use the flexibility the internet gives us, a luxury newspaper columnists do not have. One of its unique features is the absence of a word limit. However, even though this is an introductory column, I suspect I might be pushing that limit a bit too far right now. So I shall let the columns speak for themselves over the next few days. Meanwhile, with much excitement, let me share the lineup we have for you:
Announcement time: For the last few weeks, I’ve been working as a consulting editor for Yahoo India, helping them put together a few new sections. The first of them, Yahoo India Columns, launches today. I’ve put together a team of 10 columnists, including myself, who will make sure that from Monday to Saturday every week, Yahoo has a column for you. My introductory piece, the first installment of my new column, Viewfinder, is here.
Here’s the full line-up of columns and columnists:
Anything That Moves—Girish Shahane links culture and politics (fortnightly, Mondays)
Minority of One—Mohit Satyanand’s private take on public affairs (fortnightly, Mondays)
Corner Plot—Ashok Malik on that great Indian obsession—politics (fortnightly, Tuesdays)
Pax Indica—Nitin Pai demystifies the anarchy of international relations (fortnightly, Tuesdays)
Atlas Invested: Deepak Shenoy on the world of money (weekly, Wednesdays)
Viewfinder—Amit Varma plays around with frames of reference (weekly, Thursdays)
Dead Tree Diaries—Sanjay Sipahimalani on the three Rs: reading, writing and Reality. (fortnightly, Fridays)
Persistence of Vision—Jai Arjun Singh takes you on a night out to the movies. (fortnightly, Fridays)
Mirth Vader—Anand Ramachandran discovers the power of the light side. (fortnightly, Saturdays)
Stereotypist—Aadisht Khanna plays the boom box of absurdity (fortnightly, Saturdays)
I’m sure you’re familiar with some of these writers, but the columns they will write for us will take them beyond what they usually write elsewhere. I’ve spoken a bit about that in my column today—and I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading them as the weeks unfold. Watch that space!
Mint was kind enough to give me permission to retain the title of my column for them, Thinking it Through. But after getting their permission I realised that this column is actually going to be quite different in tone and character. So I’ve named it Viewfinder. What I intend to do with it should take me out of my comfort zone—and I hope you come on that ride with me.
Also, while it appears today because the section needed to launch with it, from next week Viewfinder will appear every Thursday, as Thinking it Through used to. Thor fhtagn!
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.)
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?
Note the exclamation mark. But no, it’s not the enthusiastic reporting of Sherlyn’s increased hotness that makes this headline WTF, but the metric used to measure it. She is hotter, it seems, because her “new management agency is pitching her as the face of the cover for the most read and most popular lifestyle, fashion and health magazines.” In other words, she is hotter because she has better PR.
I suppose given the state of our media, that makes some kind of perverse sense. Such it goes.
The WTF Q&A of the day comes from a WSJ interview of Sonia Dara, the first model of South Asian descent to make it to the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue:
WSJ: During your shoot in Rajasthan, you posed with some local women who cover their heads, as is local tradition. Did you feel it made them uncomfortable to pose with you in a bikini?
Dara: To be completely honest, I was the one who felt the most uneasy because I thought I was putting the women in a potentially uncomfortable situation. At first glance, the concept of a Hindu girl in Sports Illustrated might seem contradictory. With that in mind, I posed as elegantly as possible, in order to never undermine my Hindu upbringing. I really hope this is made clear in my photos.
Yes, it’s clear. Her pout is Vedic, and her slim figure is surely the result of righteous fasting. Happy now, foreigners?
And really, who finds such slimness attractive? At best I’d imagine it’s a niche taste. If I was ever to spend quality time with someone so slim, I’d want to feed her, not do naughty-naughty. This is one fad that totally befuddles me.
Reader Mani Shankar writes in to point me to a post by Vir Sanghvi in which he hits out at people “who blog and tweet”. I have three things to say about it:
1] Sanghvi criticises bloggers and blogging… in a blog post. Is there not a little bit of dissonance there? If he is blogging, he is a blogger. And yet, his criticism doesn’t seem directed at himself.
2] He attacks a straw man and generalises madly. He’s upset because some bloggers “complain that the media are only interested in circulation and viewership (or TRPs)”. (He doesn’t link to any of them.) He finds this criticism invalid, so he generalises about how bloggers “regard themselves as an elite.” Which bloggers? All bloggers? Me also? Him also?
This is as silly as my attacking the writing skills of Indian journalists because some journalists mix metaphors. It would be fallacious of me to generalise in that manner, and far more productive for me to link to a specific journalist whose writing falls in that category—as I did a few days ago with poor Bobilli. Should I have generalised about Indian journalism on the basis of Bobilli’s writing?
3] Finally, when people (bloggers or otherwise) criticise the media for chasing TRPs, they are effectively criticising them for catering to the lowest common denominator. Sanghvi attacks them for feeling this way, and calls them an elite. But hey, wait a second, what about when journalists criticize politicians for the exact same thing? As when Sanghvi himself writes:
If we are led by the lowest common denominator then that is where we will remain in the community of nations: at the lowest level, without any hope of catching up with the rest of the world.
The “elite bloggers” Sanghvi mocks presumably hold the same sentiment about our media. Can Sanghvi not take his own medicine?
There’s another response on Sanghvi’s post over at Retributions. I think this is by one of those “pseudonymous bloggers” Sanghvi is so upset about. Heh.Correction: The post is by Rohit Pradhan, who’s not been pseudonymous for a while now, I’m told.
Just when you think the ultimate has happened, the absolute worst, something even more dire, comes along.
And yet. No matter how overwhelming the tragedy, how bleak the outlook, no matter what malevolent forces the fates see fit to hurl at this tiny, beleaguered, mountainous, sun-splashed portion of the planet, there is no quit in the Haitian people.
They rose up against the French and defeated the forces of Napoleon to become the only nation to grow out of a slave revolt. They rose up against the despotic Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier and sent him packing. Despite ruthless exploitation by more powerful nations, including the United States, and many long years of crippling civil strife, corruption, terror and chronic poverty, the Haitian people have endured.
They will not be defeated by this earthquake.
The overwrought prose and dubious insight here is more suited to a schoolboy’s essay than an NYT column. No quit in the Haitian people? That sounds just like the patronising remarks about Mumbai’s ‘resilience’ after each terrorist attack that we go through. Mumbaikars went to work on 27/11 not because they were resilient or especially brave but because they had no choice. They continued commuting in trains after the train blasts of 2006 because of the same reason. From outside it might look brave, but here, we see it as just getting on with our lives. Is there an option?
The people of Haiti, I’d imagine, are like people everywhere else—they make do with what there is, and respond to circumstances as they arise. That is a human quality, not a Haitian one. There is no quit across the world.
When he was 22, he [Brown] won an “America’s Sexiest Man” contest, the prize for which was $1,000 and a chance to pose naked in a Cosmopolitan magazine centerfold. One of his daughters — this is perhaps the best-known factoid in the campaign — came in somewhere between 13th and 16th on “American Idol.”
“For our family, especially me being on ‘Idol’ but my dad being in politics, there are always so many people who have something negative to say,” Ayla Brown told The Boston Herald this week. Her talent was singing, not sentence construction.
Now, how crass is that last sentence? When she’s writing about politics in these polarised times, one can expect her to get snarky and personal about the candidate from the party she opposes. But his daughter? I can imagine a tabloid going there, but an NYT columnist should surely consider it out of bounds.
I wonder, if Herbert and Collins left the awesome platform of the NYT and started independent blogs, how many readers would they have? That would be the real test, and I’m sure they’d be resilient if it went wrong.
On a mailing list I’m part of, I came across this wonderful excerpt from a book called Thinkertoys:
Imagine a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb toward the banana. As soon as he touches the stair, spray all the monkeys with ice-cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result - all the monkeys are sprayed with ice-cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.
Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and will want to climb the stairs. To his surprise, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.
Next, remove another of the original monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.
Again, replace a third monkey with new one. The new one goes to the stairs and is attacked. Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.
After replacing the fourth and fifth monkeys with new ones, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with ice-cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.
I have a feeling that this is the problem with Indian television programming and Indian newspapers. Hardly anyone thinks outside the box. And the box is old. There’s a great opportunity not being taken here because no one has courage and imagination. Pity.
My friends waved at me from the buffet counter not knowing what the human sperms did to me during those fifteen minutes.
This is Sherlyn Chopra writing about… well, I really can’t summarize on a family blog such as this what she is writing about. Read it for yourself.
Her post also contains the magnificent line, ‘A tall white hunk dressed in a black suit walked up to me.’ But just when you think this is like some nice, romantic Yashraj film, there’s a touch of Bunuel. Masterful.
That said, I have more respect for Sherlyn Chopra’s writing skills than Bobilli Vijay Kumar’s. This is the man who once wrote, as my friend Prem Panicker pointed out, that Raj Singh Dungarpur is the ‘uncrowned grandfather of Indian cricket’. Week after week, he writes columns that mangle metaphors, torture idioms, and in general try too hard to show his mastery of the language. But just when you thought you’d seen it all, he comes up with this gem:
Tiger Woods is finally realising that life is not always a bed of roses. He has slept in so many, anyway, that he would have known that a prickly one was just a birdie away.
However, even in his wildest dreams (and as we know now he does have wild dreams, even if you don’t count kinky sex or foursomes), he wouldn’t have expected that he would end paying such a heavy price. Will he really need to put away his club to save the marriage?
Tiger is, of course, not the first person to fish in muddied waters; nor will he be the last high-profile athlete to play the field so well. The only reason he has become the butt of all jokes is because, ironically, he is Tiger Woods.
Mind you, this is the sports editor of the Times of India writing. When his reporters write like this, he probably pats them on the back proudly instead of making them stand in a murga pose outside the ToI office for six hours, which is the only apt punishment.
Three men holding key positions in one of India’s biggest private sector companies were on their way to a party at their boss’s swanky Cuffe Parade home, when driver Goverdhan Vaidya, who is in his mid fifties, suffered a cardiac arrest.
The men asked him to stop the car, which was at Cooperage, helped him out and sat him down on the pavement.
Then, they got back in the car and drove off to the party, leaving a breathless Vaidya holding his chest in excruciating pain.
Luckily, a passerby took Vaidya to hospital and he was saved. But here’s my question: nowhere in Mid Day’s article are the names of the three men in the car mentioned, or of the company they work for. Why?
Reuters has a story on how a zoo in Gaza painted black stripes on a couple of white donkeys and passed them off as zebras. The kids who came to the zoo were reportedly delighted. The other donkeys no doubt went WTF.
And the thought that struck me as I read this news: What a delightful metaphor for media hype.
I don’t know about advice, but I would ask aspirants to join advertising only if they were truly interested in people. Because that is what it’s all about. I see too many people who are too self-centered, too wrapped up in their own world in advertising today. It’s not about a great felicity with words or magic with visuals at all. It’s about being interested in what the peon who brings your tea dreams about. Ask yourself, do you really care about the fantasies of a housewife who does not have a life so the others in her family can? Do you know what a rainbow tastes like to a little street child? Do you really understand what a cell-phone means to an illiterate woman in Balia whose husband works as a vegetable vendor in Mumbai? If you don’t give a damn, please stay away from advertising. Write a book, paint a masterpiece, make a movie that wins at every international festival, but DO NOT join advertising.
I’d modify that a bit and say that in my opinion, this advice holds true for literature and cinema as well. So if you don’t care what the peon dreams, don’t write a book or make a film either. You can go paint a masterpiece, though.
And really, speaking about writing, there are too many books written these days by writers who stick their heads up their own arseholes and describe what they see. That reflects in their sales as well—who besides friends and family can tolerate the view up there? A little less self-indulgence, and some looking around at the fascinating world around them, would help.
And no, duh, do you really expect me to take names here? I’m not getting into no lit controversy, ever!
For a moment, I almost thought “Lenovo G550 Notebook” was a ToI headline—sure, it does say “ads by Google” below, but that’s small and you see it later. The font and the bullet point make it seem like it’s just another of the top stories on the site. Such it goes.
And in case you’re wondering what Ayesha Takia has lashed out at Baba Ramdev for, well, the dude apparently said that all actors were “characterless”. Some actors complain about that themselves when they’re not getting any roles, but that’s not what the good Baba meant. Ah, well, whaddya expect?
I tweeted a couple of hours ago about the bizarrely headlined feature on Sherlyn Chopra (“Have Breasts, Will Talk”), but the most WTF thing about the article wasn’t any of the priceless quotes from Sherlyn, or the report’s inept attempts at eloquence, but the para at the end:
While it’s clear that the Internet is the way of the future, she has entered into an exclusive agreement with Times Internet Limited. Under this agreement exclusive mobile rights of all her mobile content lie with Times Internet Limited, specifically to be provisioned by Indiatimes 58888, on SMS, WAP, Voice and all operator platforms. “It’s a great honour! With most actresses shedding their inhibitions, there is a lot of competition on the internet. And I love it. It compels me to redefine excellence,” she says. You can follow more about Sherlyn. Get her mobile downloads, for example, send messages or listen to her thoughts, straight from her. Just call 58888799 or SMS SHERLYN to 58888. Call rates are Rs 7 per minute and SMS rates are up to Rs 3 per message.
This is ostensibly a feature article, mind you. So much for the wall between editorial and business.
Nevertheless, isn’t it delicious how they snuck that quote in the middle? Sherlyn has my best wishes for redefining excellence in the context she mentions.
The New York Times has a bizarre story up now titled ‘Facebook Exodus’. The story begins:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Facebook, the online social grid, could not command loyalty forever. If you ask around, as I did, you’ll find quitters. One person shut down her account because she disliked how nosy it made her. Another thought the scene had turned desperate. A third feared stalkers. A fourth believed his privacy was compromised. A fifth disappeared without a word.
The exodus is not evident from the site’s overall numbers.
Well, if you ask around, you’ll find people who believe that Israel planned 9/11, or the earth is flat, or that Christianity began in India and was originally called Krishnaniti. Really, WTF is a phrase like “if you ask around” doing in serious journalism? At least the story is honest enough to tell us that “the exodus is not evident from the site’s overall numbers”—but if there’s no exodus, there should also be no story, no?
I suspect the story emerged out of this classic template of how many feature stories are born:
1] Editor asks in his weekly meeting for ideas for stories.
2] Enthu young journo offers an idea: Facebook exodus!
3] Editor is excited. He roars, Do it, do it, let’s burst the bubble of the biggest thing going on the net!
4] Journo gets to work, interviews her pals who have left Facebook, feels good about all this. She crafts a smartass opening line. Everything’s going well till she sees the numbers, which reveal that the premise behind the story is wrong. There’s no Facebook exodus.
5] But so what? She won’t let the facts come in the way of an otherwise perfectly good feature story. And the editor doesn’t care—he’s not going to rush around now looking for a replacement story for that slot.
6] So boom, the story comes out, rich in anecdotes, poor in data.
I’ve seen this play out so often in my career, it’s not funny. Most journalists approach their stories with a preconceived notion of how it will turn out, and after that it’s a matter of getting the facts to fit the narrative, and not the other way around. Such it goes.
(Link via email from Jitendra Vaidya.)
I certainly need to ditch Facebook, that’s for sure. Especially Scrabble. An extremely evil and immoral friend invited me to play a game a few days ago, and once hooked, I’ve played about 80 games since then with an 80% win record, and four Bingos in a row in the last game that I played. In all this time, work has suffered. I think I need to go cold turkey.
Drama, drama, drama—that’s all our newspapers want. The Indian media’s been full of two overblown stories in the last few days, so much so that I feel I need to wear a mask before I pick up a damn newspaper. First up, there’s swine flu. Swaminathan Aiyar examines some numbers and finds:
[In India] 1.37 million people die annually of respiratory diseases and infections, 7,20,000 of diarrhea, and 5,40,000 of tuberculosis. These are staggering numbers. They imply that on an average day, 3,753 people die of respiratory diseases and infections, 1,973 of diarrhea, and 1,479 of tuberculosis.
Seen in this light, 20-odd swine flu deaths are almost laughably trivial.
If there is an epidemic in India, it’s the hysteria over swine flu, not swine flu itself. I’m not complaining, because for the last few days, the places where I usually hang out have been less crowded than usual. Things are getting back to normal though, but with narrative-hungry journalists all around, other infections will no doubt pop up.
Like Shah Rukh Khan. The outrage over Khan’s detention at a US airport is most silly. Our media, if you go to the heart of it, is not outraged because of the racial profiling in play—that’s old hat, at least eight-years-old in the context of the US, and I didn’t see Bombay Times cry a river when Rohinton Mistry had to cancel a US book tour because he was fed up of being questioned at airports, or when hazaar random Indians have been questioned over the years. Racial profiling story—not pushed before because there’s limited masala.
Shah Rukh spices it up. Our media’s on this story because of the celebrity angle. How dare they mess with Shah Rukh? Don’t we fawn over Brad Pitt when he comes to India? India has arrived, Slumdog won Oscars, Shah Rukh is loved by hundreds of millions, Madonna wears only a bindi to bed, blah blah blah. How could they not have recognised our hero? That’s what the outrage comes from, the celebrity angle with a pinch of nationalism thrown in—and it makes me want to barf.
If the cops threatened to slap section 377 on Shah Rukh and Karan Johar, you can bet there would be outrage about that as well, because the guys are celebs. But it’s been happening to ordinary people for decades, and the media hasn’t given a damn. It’s the celeb angle that makes stories here, ordinary people don’t count.
There is a theory that all this is a publicity stunt for Shah Rukh’s forthcoming film, My Name is Khan, which is supposedly about racial profiling. I find it hard to believe that he can get US authorities to cooperate with him on a publicity stunt, so that’s a bit beyond the pale. But it is entirely possible that after the incident happened, he decided to milk it in the media. But that’s the game, and I wouldn’t blame him for that. I’d blame the media for making such a fuss about it.
Or maybe it’s our fault, because the media only gives us what we want? As it is, we are to blame for Shah Rukh being a star in the first place. A curse upon us.
How many of you think Shah Rukh should be locked up in Guantanamo for his bad acting alone? Hmm, I thought so.
India can’t get enough of Rakhi Sawant. After the swayamwar where she found herself a fiancee, she is now going to simulate being a parent on a reality show. Along with her man, Elesh Parujanwala, who was named by a Canadian Bong after his favourite fish, she is taking part in a show in which five celeb couples will spend time bringing up borrowed children on television. Check out this snippet from the news item:
Rakhi and the audience may be used to her infamous low-cut blouses, but obviously, the bachchas aren’t. And, as a source present at the launch of the programme told us, one baby couldn’t help but explore the territory! Embarrassing? You bet!
If the kid becomes a techie when he grows up, he’ll at least have prior work experience in silicon valley. And think of the TRPs of the show now, as millions of Indians tune in to live vicariously through a baby’s exploration.
Ribald jokes apart, this is one reality show concept that I find appalling. Are the parents of these kids actually renting their babies out? Other reality shows feature adults being placed in situations of their own volition—but babies? How could someone do that?
Parenthood is a massive responsibility, and it’s irresponsible to become a parent if you can’t live up to that. I see too many parents around me who are simply not ready for that role, who have unfairly screwed with their kids by bringing them on the planet. This is a fine illustration of that.
Really, I can’t imagine this happening with the websites of The New York Times or The Guardian, if something comparable affected their countries. In India, our MSM outlets just don’t take their websites seriously enough. They make fun of Twitter and blogging every now and then, but aren’t on the ball themselves for something so important. What’s the point of having a website then?
(That’s a rhetorical question. I know the point is this. I’m just ranting.)
I hope this isn’t like 2004. I saw some of the aftermath, and some memories remain more vivid than I’d like. This earthquake is reportedly 7.6 on the Richter Scale, much less than the one in 2004—but you never know. People on the coast will obviously not get news of the alert from websites and TVs, and in any case, it’s the middle of the night. The government said, after the last one, that they have emergency plans in place for just such a contingency. Regardless of whether a tsunami actually strikes or not, it should be clear in the next few hours how nimble the machinery can be at a time like this.
Update (3.50am): ToI now has a headline on their homepage about it, so they’ve jumped into action as well.
Meanwhile, a couple of Pacific typhoons are also causing much havoc. Not a good day for the continent.
Chandni Parekh recently forwarded me a hilarious press release she received on behalf of the actor Purab Kohli. Given that press releases are intended for the public domain, I’m reproducing it in full here, typos, spellos and grocers’ apostrophes intact, for the charm of it:
Please find below a small snippet on Purab Kolhi. He is currently shooting in Ahmedabd
Fun time khakra time.
Do you know that Purab is a big fan of: khakra’s. He always has them on shoots. He’s even got his regular supplier in Bombay who he keeps getting refills from.
But now in the heart of Gujarat he is discovering a whole new world of khakra’s. He just can’t stop eating them on the sets of Hide and seek Apurva lakhia’s co production with Moser Baer. Purab has been shooting in a farm house where he is finishing the family’s stock for the year. “They have hidden secrets here, have you tried the muthiya khakra’s” says Purab over the phone.
Looks like he’s going to come back with excess baggage.
I wonder if poor Kohli knows what his PR man is up to? Really, is this what we’ve come down to when it comes to promoting films? Khakras? (Or even khakra’s?)
Who knows, one day all this may come together in the headline, “Will Purab Kohli wear a bikini?” (Or “Will Sonam Kapoor wear a Khakra?”) Today’s parody is tomorrow’s headline, so don’t laugh, who knows?
It’s a gallery about big breasts in Hollywood, and the captions are quite hilarious. Note the many euphemisms for boobs that they use, clichés and variations on clichés, all of them: ‘steaming big naturals’; ‘twin assets’ (three times); ‘busty bosom’; ‘hot twin peaks’; ‘accentuating curves’; ‘enhanced fuller twins’; ‘real nice set of bombs’; and so on. I wonder if copy editors are trained in this kind of writing—I’d really like to see the manual.
And today, I came across a completely WTF gallery:
This is a gallery of ostensible nip slips—with ToI blurring out the nips when they slip. Given that this is an internet gallery, and that the uncovered nips are a search away, this is most bizarre. Why have a gallery of nip slips and cover the nips? What’s the point?
(Note that I noticed the gallery only due to my purely academic interest in WTFness. That’s not the kind of headline you expect to see on India’s No. 1 newspaper site. I have no interest in nips or twin assets. Really.)
ToI‘s galleries are rather interesting from a sociological perspective, actually. Here’s another one: