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My Friend Sancho

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

To buy it online from the US, click here.

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

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

Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.

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

Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Media

Mahatma Gandhi At A Barbeque

Does this advertisement offend you?

I like the ad, and the campaign that it is part of. (Check out the Jyllands-Posten ads with Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.) But I suspect that if the Gandhi ad was seen in India, there would certainly be so-called Gandhians getting upset by such a portrayal and demanding an apology from Jyllands-Posten—thereby missing the point entirely.

(Link via email from Ambuj Saxena.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 September, 2008 in Freedom | Media

The End Of The World

Rediff reports:

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

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


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

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

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

(Link via email from Gautam.)

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

India Loves Billionaires

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Red Lace Bra vs Black Thong

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

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

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

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

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

Madam’s Permission

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

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

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

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

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

Shooting Dead People

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

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

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

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

Lion Govind Is A Spammer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patriotism In China

The quote of the day comes from June Shih, who compares CCTV, a Chinese broadcaster, to NBC, and observes:

NBC is patriotic because patriotism sells; CCTV is patriotic because patriotism is the law.

And surely you’ve heard about the 900 Chinese soldiers who had to wear nappies during the opening ceremonies. Of such things are great nations made.

(Slate link via email from Abhishek. Nappy link via No. 3.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 August, 2008 in Media | News | Sport | WTF

Reality Television

I bet the TV chaps involved in this incident got a hollering from their boss. “I can’t believe you didn’t manage to shoot that guy falling to his death,” he probably said. “Just imagine what the TRPs would have been.”

(Link via email from Sandeep.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 August, 2008 in India | Media | News | WTF

DD’s Olympic Coverage

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

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

The Journalistic Integrity Of The Hindu

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bastiat Prize Shortlist For 2008…

... has been announced. The finalists are:

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

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

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

Chodenge Or Chhodenge?

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

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

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

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

Starting Young

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

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

You do the math.

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

A $100 Speedway Gas Card

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Link via email from Srini Sitaraman.)

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

The Versatile Corpses of Middle-Class India

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

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


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

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

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

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

PS: While on Sainath...

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

Offending Dalits

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Update: Krishna Prasad has more details and analysis.

And BV Harish Kumar writes in:

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

(Churumuri link via email from Gautam.)

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

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

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

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

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


There’s a missing word in the sentence below:

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

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

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

Some Things I’ll Remember From This IPL

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

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

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

Beard? TV? Must be Prannoy Roy

Mohib writes in:

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

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

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

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

Indian Newspapers and the Internet

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

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


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

Reporting The Spelling Bee

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


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

(Alert via email from Devangshu.)

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

The NY Times Gets American Idol Wrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leafy Food

Krishna Prasad, via Facebook message, points me to this rather strange advertisement below which I’m sure must be against our culture in some way:

It seems the Kannada words are a translation of the tagline: “Turn Over a New Leaf. Try Vegetarian.”

Honestly, in these circumstances that would be difficult even for a vegetarian, no?

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 May, 2008 in Media | Miscellaneous

Top Motherfuckers

One of the first websites I visit when I begin surfing every day is Rediff. And without fail, they have a headline that says, “Top MFs.” They mean mutual funds, but you know just how I read it, don’t you? I wonder if it’s perversely deliberate (on their part).

That said, see its accompanying headline today:


Posted by Amit Varma on 16 May, 2008 in Media | Miscellaneous


I love this:

(Link via email from Vinjk.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 May, 2008 in Media | Miscellaneous

Dear Ravi Shastri

Dear Ravi Shastri

Have you ever seen a tracer bullet? Do you even know what a tracer bullet is?


Amit Varma


More open letters here. And earlier…

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 May, 2008 in Letters | Media | Sport

Rigour to the Discourse in the Fabric

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

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

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

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

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

The Bastiat Prize for Journalism 2008…

... is now open for entries.

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

To repeat what the prize is about:

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

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

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

‘Moved By The Idea Of Being Moved’

Salil Tripathi begins a piece on P Sainath thus:

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

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

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

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

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

Method Acting From Shahid Kapoor?

Indiatimes reports:

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

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

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

And just see that headline!

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

I Wonder If…

... Hindustan Times now has a Facebook beat.

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

Sexual Health Adviser—Several Positions

Nitin Pai, teeming with generosity, emails me this marvellous advertisement:


I’m sure some applicants would begin their applications with the words, “I have heard that there is a vacancy…”

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 April, 2008 in Media | Miscellaneous

Hey, Nobody Dives Like That!

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


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

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

Our Man Munna Sing

The ancients looked to religion as a source of happiness. In our times, those who are enlightened turn to Rediff message boards. Rediff has a news story up today about “a mid-air scare” suffered by Manmohan Singh’s plane. At the time of posting this, these are the latest few comments there:

Our MAN Munna sing was getting abducted by Sonia
by mahamadpoppat on Apr 23, 2008 08:22 AM

Our MAN Munna sing was getting abducted by Sonia

Scare and Aliens
by prashanth prashanth on Apr 23, 2008 08:09 AM

This shows aliens in Indian space.

RE:Scare and Aliens
by Ananya on Apr 23, 2008 08:14 AM

ha ha ha, you are surely one of them :)

RE:Scare and Aliens
by raghu bear on Apr 23, 2008 08:25 AM

hey ananya whats up where r u from ? :)

Spy by americans
by lourdes xavier on Apr 23, 2008 08:02 AM

It may also be some kind of spy.
They just digg into small issues. but forgot to analysis on larger issues. Poor Mammohan

Needless to say, I’ll be following that page closely to see if Ananya replies to raghu bear. Who knows, this could be the start of a beautiful romance.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 April, 2008 in Media | WTF

Who’s the Victim in This Sting Operation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also read: Lad from Varanasi living a dream.

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

On Shorter Overs and Billowing Swimwear

Quiz question: what are the following lines about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

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

The Perils of Opening the Batting

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

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

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

What Do Cricket Commentators Say When They Reach Orgasm?

Ans. It doesn’t matter how they come as long as they come.

Yes, I’ve been watching the Indian Premier League, and while the cricket is good, the commentary’s getting on my nerves. I wrote a few years ago on how cricket commentary (and writing) in India relies so much on cliches, and things haven’t changed. Having said that, the danger of some of these commentators not using cliches is that they start talking nonsense. Yesterday, for example, I heard L Sivaramakrishnan say:

It’s a hard man’s game – that’s why it’s a profession.

This was during Extraaa Innings, and its host responded to this by saying “yes, yes, you are right,” or something to that effect. I had been prepared for a long evening a couple of hours before by Ravi Shastri saying that VVL Laxman is “an excellent slipper”, but Siva never fails to surprise you. What a guy.

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

“If We Turn Things Upside Down…”

Check out this great commercial from the 2003 presidential elections in Argentina:

Clever advertising alone isnt enough—Lopez came third that year. But what a commercial!

(Link via email from Nitya Pillai.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 April, 2008 in Media | Miscellaneous | Politics

Salil Also Rises

Salil Tripathi writes in:

Your post on Congress’s “Son Rise” reminds me of my time at Celebrity, the now-defunct magazine edited by Shobha De (then Kilachand), where I wrote for some time before going to the United States to study. It was
early 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi had just been appointed the general secretary of the Congress Party (India Today had the famous cover of Rajiv wearing a Gandhi cap, and the headline asked: Will the cap fit?). We used to have a great time making fun of Rajiv, his friendship with Amitabh Bachchan, etc. We had a gossipy column, where we used to write a quip each month (the magazine came out each month) about Rajiv Gandhi, punning on “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway.

The first was of course, “the son also rises”. Then, we got creative, and said “the son also surprises” (when he did something unexpected), “the son also fetches prizes” (when he was given some honour by some sycophant), “the son also fetches prices” (when pricey T-shirts were sold with his mugshot), “the son also cries” (when he showed emotion in public), and so on. It was modeled after Esquire showing Nixon’s laughing face, saying - why is this man laughing? It was all silly, but then I was in my early 20s at that time.

The only way not to do silly things in one’s early 20s is to die at 19, so all is forgiven. And Celebrity is such an apt name for a magazine in these times. Almost all our publications could call themselves that. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 April, 2008 in Journalism | Media

An Overdose of Puns

One of the worst fashions in Indian journalism is to put puns in headlines. Occasionally it can work, but most of the time, it is cringe-inducing. For a perfect example of this, check out this shocker from Rediff:

Cong ‘son rise’ in poll-bound K’taka?

I’m sure the kid on the desk who wrote that must have been rather pleased with himself, but he should note that not only is it an atrocious pun, it is also a cliché—as you’d expect in a country with such a tradition of dynastic politics and poor headline-writing. The above story is about local Congress leaders in Karnataka promoting their children, but in the context of Rahul Gandhi alone, see how often this pun has been used.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, I’m considering possible headlines for this post. My options include “Punny Business”, “Not all Pun and Games” and “Pun-jabi headlines”.


Sick, no?

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 April, 2008 in Journalism | Media

She Asked For It?

My friend Shivmeet Deol is appalled at a story that appeared today in Mail Today (PDFs: 1, 2), and has shot off a letter to them. It deserves to be read, and as she doesn’t have a blog, I’m publishing it here, with her permission:

Dear Sir,

I read your report of Sheeba Thomas’s murder in Mail Today this morning, and found the stance of the story infuriating. The opening line itself is misleading, with that unnecessarily emphasized detail about the live-in relationship.

The issue is this: a young woman has been murdered. She is a victim. The perpetrators are still out there. Those are the most important facts. That’s how a mature, objective crime report would deal with it.

But your report focuses on the other facts – chiefly that she isn’t the ‘good’ Indian woman – about her lifestyle and the rest of it, detracting from the real issue of the crime itself. It is judgmental and utterly preachy and in fact makes it sound like she brought it upon herself. Playing up all these stereotypes – ‘air-hostess’, living with a man she isn’t married to, out late at night, ‘unconventional’ lifestyle (which means what, simply that she was sexually active and wore what she liked?), that picture of her in the mini-skirt – is narrow-minded, and viciously so, of you and your paper. And in that, it is irresponsible journalism. It isn’t up to you or your paper to judge how she lived or who with and how many lovers she had or what time she came home. Or what she wore.

Plus, that picture of the poor woman lying there in her blood is unnecessary sensationalism, and undermines her dignity even further.

It was a distastefully done story and the publication ought to take some sort of responsibility for it, maybe by doing a follow-up story by someone who can examine this with more sense and less prejudice, and focuses on the crime and what it is being done to sort that out, and not by making young women sound like accessories in their own murders.

Shivmeet Deol

Sadly, this is not a problem with Mail Today alone, or with this story alone. Remember Scarlett Keeling and her mom?

Update: Elsewhere, in another context, more talk of “loose character.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 April, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | News

Rahul Gandhi, Britney Spears and Groundnut Oil

I’ve been a bit preoccupied the last couple of days, and blogging has been light. So a few quick links:

Rahul Gandhi, who is travelling through Karnataka, wants journalists to leave him alone. “I want to interact with people freely,” he says, “because I like to say many things off-the-record.” In other words, he doesn’t want to be accountable for his public utterances. He’s lucky he’s inherited India and not the USA, where virtually anything a politician says can end up on YouTube.

Mid Day mistakes betting for match-fixing. The headline mentions match-fixing, the text only speaks of betting and satta. Do they really think there’s no difference?

Rediff reports: “Britney’s pregnant teen sister gets engaged”. That’s too much information for one headline, no? By the time Rediff’s readers process it, the baby will out and cutting records.

Abdul Ghaffar, accused of stealing “two cans of groundnut oil 14 years ago,”, has been acquitted. There is no mention in the report whether the people who actually took that oil have been apprehended. I consider it likely that they’ve consumed the evidence.

I’ve just discovered Ayaz Memon’s column from last Sunday: It’s headlined “The fantasy of make believe.” Er, Ayaz?

And finally, check out this superb piece by one of my favourite columnists, Stanley Fish, on denouncing and renouncing. An excerpt:

This denouncing and renouncing game is simply not serious. It is a media-staged theater, produced not in response to genuine concerns – no one thinks that Obama is unpatriotic or that Clinton is a racist or that McCain is a right-wing bigot – but in response to the needs of a news cycle. First you do the outrage (did you see what X said?), then you put the question to the candidate (do you hereby denounce and renounce?), then you have a debate on the answer (Did he go far enough? Has she shut her husband up?), and then you do endless polls that quickly become the basis of a new round.

I am beginning to believe that the main purpose of elections is not to enable democracy but to provide newspapers with material to write about. And blogs, of course.

Blogging will continue to be infrequent for the next couple of days. I wish you happiness.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 March, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics | WTF

Presumed Guilty?

PTI reports:

Former BCCI President Jagmohan Dalmiya has been found to have misappropriated over Rs 2.90 crore of the cricket body’s funds during his tenure, police said on Monday.

Acting on a case filed by the BCCI in March 2006 after Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar took over as head of the game’s governing body, the Economic Offences Wing (EOW) has found that Dalmiya diverted funds meant for legal fees towards other expenses including paying for personal phone bills.


The crime branch will be filing a chargesheet against Dalmiya, Gautam Dutta and KM Choudhary in the matter on Wednesday in a local court, he said.

I don’t get it. The chargesheet hasn’t been filed yet, and the newspapers report that Dalmiya “has been found to have [blah-blah]”. It’s as if the cops and investigative agencies in the country pass judgement on crimes, not the courts. Surely an “allegedly” in there wouldn’t have harmed the story too much.

I’m not supporting Dalmiya here, who may well be guilty for all I know. But a judgement on that should come from the courts, not from the cops investigating him or the press, seeking a story but unconcerned about what the truth may be.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 March, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | News | WTF

Writing About Classical Liberalism

A couple of months ago, I had praised Gautam Adhikari for setting out a classical liberal direction for the Times of India editorial pages. Well, Sauvik Chakraverti writes in to argue that my praise was undeserved, as demonstrated by a recent editorial in the newspaper that Sauvik calls “illiberal, intolerant and unsympathetic.” Sauvik has a piece on it that I recommend you read. An excerpt:

[T]he editorial is blind to reality. It asks the totally stupid question: “How is it that the drug trade in Goa is flourishing, that too, in full public view and under the nose of the state police who’s duties include cracking down on such activities?” The drug trade is flourishing all over the world, including New Delhi. I myself scored marijuana in London a stone’s throw from the headquarters of Scotland Yard. The duties of the Goa police also include ensuring road safety. Every Goan, local as well as tourist, would be safer if this duty was performed. The drug trade should be legalized – but this is probably ‘too liberal’ an idea for the editor.

I admire Sauvik immensely, and agree with his thoughts here, but I have a problem with the way he expresses them. Consider this sentence: “This illiberal, unsympathetic and ignorant editorial then descends to rank idiocy.” This may be true, but the harsh language alienates the neutral reader who might be coming across some of these ideas for the first time. A better approach would be to calmly lay the facts and the argument out, and to respect the reader enough to let him come to his own conclusion without shouting it at him. This is especially true when those ideas—legalizing the drug trade, for example—sound radical to a normal guy, which makes it important for the tone to be measured and reasonable.

I hope I’m not coming across as preachy here, for Sauvik is a much sharper thinker than I am. (He also won the Bastiat Prize a few years before I got lucky.) But I’m angry that such a fine mind, which can open so many doors for so many people, does not find a platform on the editorial pages of a single major newspaper in India, many of which are filled with mediocre writing. I’m quite sure that the tone of the writing, not the content, is responsible for that.

And while on drugs and Goa, I’d mentioned in a recent post that I was in favour of legalizing drugs as well, and will elaborate on that in a longer piece soon.

Update (March 21): Sauvik writes in to inform me that he does indeed have a regular column in the Sunday edition of the New Indian Express. My apologies. I shall watch that page regularly.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 March, 2008 in Economics | Freedom | India | Journalism | Media

Grammar Unaffects the Times of India

If you’re in an institution as powerful as the Times of India, and you can’t think of a suitable word in a headline, don’t worry, just make something up. Nobody messes with the ToI. Consider this remarkable headline from yesterday:

Airport strike unaffects flight services

Words fail me. Time for a neologism?

(Link via email from MadMan.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 March, 2008 in India | Journalism | Media | WTF

The New Master of the Kremlin

David Remnick, writing about how “it’s always been easier to contemplate a new master of the Kremlin by seizing on homey anecdotes,” tells us about Dmitry Medvedev:

Now comes Dmitry Anatolyevich Medvedev, the next President of Russia. Five feet four. Forty-two years old. Lawyer. Friend and longtime protégé of Vladimir Putin. Husband (wife: Svetlana). Father (son: Ilya, age eleven). Nickname in the Kremlin: the Grand Vizier. Favorite book as a boy: “The Soviet Encyclopedia.” Understands “Olbanian,” the term of art for Russian Internet slang. Practices yoga. Swims each morning and evening. Big fan of seventies schlock bands. “I’ve loved hard rock since my school days,” he told an interviewer not long ago. “Today, for example, I can boast that I have the entire collection of Deep Purple.” And, if you’re still curious, Medvedev keeps an aquarium in his office at the Kremlin. He alone is permitted to feed the fish.

When Vladimir Putin came to power, on New Year’s Eve, 1999, we learned that he was a judo expert, that he had a poodle named Toska, and that his grandfather had been a cook for Lenin. But the most salient fact about him was that he was a career KGB agent. And, in eight years as President of the Russian Federation, Putin has been as true to his school as any Old Etonian. According to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a well-regarded sociologist in Moscow, who studies the biographies of the Russian élites, Putin has filled the leadership ranks with former officials from the KGB and the FSB. As he once told an assembly of officers at Lubyanka, “There is no such thing as a former agent.”

The most salient fact about Medvedev is not that he will have been elected by the Russian people to be their President but that he was selected by Putin to be his junior partner. Medvedev, of course, understands his role. In the speech in which he announced his candidacy, he thrilled the spies, bureaucrats, and corporate barons who depend on Putin for their status and their wealth by declaring that, if, perchance, he was lucky enough to win, he would make Putin his prime minister. It was at that moment that Dmitry Medvedev became five feet three.

What a summary! What is there left to say about Medvedev after this?

I’ve read four books by Remnick, by the by, and recommend them all highly. (1, 2, 3, 4.) They are all exemplars of the art and craft of reporting and non-fiction writing.

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

The Pubic Domain

The apology of the day comes from the Island:

Our main headline yesterday should have read ‘Robbers of public money will end up in hell—Chief Justice’. Due to an inadvertent error the word ‘pubic’ had crept in instead of ‘public’. We tender an unqualified apology to Chief Justice Sarath N Silva.

This reminds me of an incident from my callow youth that happened around 12 or 13 years ago. I worked in Channel [V] then, and despite being a scriptwriter for them, did not have a computer to myself at work. Their public relations department had a computer that was mostly free, but the two ladies who worked there would act immensely pricey about letting me use what I considered an office resource. The screensaver on their computer read “We Are Proud Of Being Channel [V]‘s Public Relations”, and in a fit of youthful pique, I removed the ‘l’ from ‘public.’

Exactly 41 days later—I counted—they noticed and changed it back. I could have changed it again, of course, but I didn’t, so that I would have the pleasure of watching them wait in front of their machine every morning till the screensaver came on just to see if it had been changed. Cheap thrills.

Update: Via Groundviews, here’s a screenshot of the headline as it appeared:

(Groundviews link via email from Deane.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 March, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Personal

Another Drain Inspector’s Report

Writing in the First Post, Sean Thomas presents a diary of his visit to Kolkata, and no doubt thinks he’s doing groundbreaking journalism by pointing out how poor some Kolkatans are, in contrast with the affluence others enjoy. Two sample entries:

17:50 See that behind me is a man naked from the waist down, in the process of soiling himself; his loins are a mass of scarlet sores and his wounds are seething with flies. Realise the man is dying.

22:30 Have dinner in hotel restaurant of softshell crab in brandy sauce, accompanied by Chilean shiraz.

There’s nothing quite as bracing as poverty pornography, eh? These contrasts are the biggest clichés of foreign journalism about India, and Thomas would have done better telling the stories instead of painting the images, and examining the causes of that poverty instead of showing us that it’s there, which we already know. But maybe he had a flight to catch, and didn’t have the time.

(Link via email from Salil Tripathi, who correctly compares Thomas to Katherine Mayo—which is where my headline comes from.)

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

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