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.
The 50th installment of Rhyme and Reason, my weekly set of limericks for the Sunday Times of India, appeared today. I might be the only person in the world who gets paid for writing limericks, and the credit for this section has to go to Neelam Raaj, the editor at the Sunday ToI who saw me messing around with limericks on Twitter and asked me to write some for their columns page. I’ve never seen any other newspaper in the world run verse on their edit page, so this is a bold conception to begin with, and would never have occurred to me.
Until then, I’d been doing it for fun, but once you start getting paid for it, and published on a platform like that, you need to take it seriously. No guidelines existed, though: many folks—including Shakespeare—had tried the form, and a handful (like Ogden Nash) did some amazing work in it, but limericks have been more lighthearted bar-room amusement than a serious form. I would have to be my own guide. So, within a few weeks, I formulated the following set of three rules for myself.
1. The basic form of a the limerick must be sacrosanct. A limerick is not just a rhyme scheme of aabba, but also a syllable scheme of 99669. (One can do TT66T or 99559, but this pattern is important for the musicality that distinguishes limericks) I didn’t care about this when I would write them for Twitter, but decided that it was important to be disciplined about this.
2. The limerick should contain normal sentences with perfect grammar. They should not only be musical when read aloud, but also normal sentences that would not sound not out of place in conversation. As a nod to one poetic convention, I capitalise the beginning of each of the five lines. But the grammar otherwise is as it would be in prose. (This capitalisation is also necessary because it appears in a narrow column on the ToI page,and the longer lines sometimes get broken in two. The capitals indicate where each of the five limerick lines begin for someone who is reading it for the first time and may not be familiar with the form.)
3. The content of the limerick has to be worth putting out there even as prose. That is, the limerick needs to say something that would be worth saying even if it hadn’t been crafted into this form. A limerick should never have the sole purpose of saying, ‘Look Ma, I can rhyme!’ Indeed, guidelines 1 and 2 above are the easy part. So whether it’s a quip or satire or serious commentary, it should stand on its own, outside the form.
I’ve attempted to use this form not just for light-hearted quips, but also for serious commentary. Sometimes, I’ve blown it, especially with regards to 3, but at least I know what I don’t like about those. Equally, I’ve sometimes messed it up even after getting all three guidelines right because I chose a non-musical sentence construction, like the time I put three stresses one after another. (This is called a Molossus.) Iambic works best, and when one deviates, one should know why.
So yeah, a lot of effort goes into making it look easy. That said, writing verse is a de-stresser for me, and thus the opposite of any other writing I do. Rhyme & Reason is a work on progress, so I hope it keeps getting better. You can check out the archives here.
Posted by Amit Varma on 24 September, 2017 in
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
Here’s the video and transcript of a keynote speech I gave at the Asia Liberty Forum on January 11, 2017 in Mumbai.
Note: In this conference, the word ‘liberal’ was used in its classical, European sense, not in the American one. I’ve used it in the same sense in this speech, almost interchangable with ‘libertarian’, though I usually prefer not to use the word as it means so many things to so many people.
Before I start, I want to congratulate Parth Shah for 20 years of CCS. Parth, I’ve lost count of the number of young people I have met to whom you’ve been a teacher and a guide, and there is one thing common to all of them: not only do they respect you enormously, but they also love and adore you even more than they respect you. That’s remarkable. Thank you for existing!
I’ve started on a happy note, but I’m afraid that the rest of my speech will contain both sadness and anger, and maybe a little hope. The topic of my keynote speech today is “Freedom in India.” Now, I’m not going to talk about the history of what I call this ongoing freedom struggle in India: most of you know that story too well. Instead, I want to share my personal feelings about where we stand today.
I think the quest for freedom in India that all of us care about so much is at an important crossroads. We face challenges we did not face before. We have opportunities we did not have before. And to understand the road ahead, I think there are two things we have to do. One, we must come to terms with Narendra Modi.
Let me first lay the context for why Modi became such an attractive figure for many freedom-loving people before 2014. Eric Hoffer writes in his book The True Believer, which is a book about the rise of mass movements, that they are driven by frustration. Modi tapped into different kinds of frustrations during his rise to power. Among them were classical liberals who cared for freedom – both personal freedom and economic freedom – and were frustrated by nearly seven decades of state oppression that had kept hundreds of millions of people in poverty for much longer than they should have. The reforms of 1991, we must remember, were a product of circumstances, and were not driven by political will. They did lift millions of people out of poverty, but they were limited and half-hearted, and once the balance-of-payments crisis was over, they more or less stopped. We still remain largely an unfree country. In the 2016 Index of Economic Freedom, India was still at a miserable 128 – eight places lower than 2014, by the way. This is trivial – most of you know this.
Modi appeared, to many of my friends, as a beacon of hope. The Congress was – and is – feudal party ruled by a repugnant family that has harmed India immeasurably, and most regional parties were focussed on narrow identity politics. Modi is a master of optics, and as he built himself up as a national leader, he became a bit like a Rorschach Inkblot Test – you could see in him what you wanted to.
No wonder many classical liberals fell in behind him. They were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for the Gujarat Riots of 2002, and put that down to incompetence rather than collusion. They were sick of the status quo, and he represented a hope for change. As my friend Rajesh Jain put it, he was “a lighter shade of gray.” At least he made the right noises – his slogan ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’ was music to my ears.
Now, a party on the campaign trail is like a young man wooing a woman: he’s on his best behaviour, and he’ll tell her just what she wants to hear. But governance is like what happens after marriage: the girl find out the truth about the guy: he farts all the time, he snores like a hippopotamus getting dental surgery without anaesthetic, he surfs porn all night, he beats her up, indeed, he beats her up day after day after day – and very often, she rationalises this, because she made this choice, and there seems to be no alternative.
Let’s take a brief look at how the Modi government has performed. The first thing we learned about Modi is that he is no reformer. Under him, government has grown bigger and more authoritarian. The welfare schemes he once criticized have grown, and some of them have been renamed and he has pretended that they are his ideas. He has not carried out any of the reforms he promised to, including low-hanging fruit like privatising non-performing public sector units that no one would have fought for. Indeed, he has shown us that he is actually a true heir of the Congress party: he has the economic vision of Nehru, and the political instincts of Indira Gandhi. And I mean both of those as a criticism.
Like Nehru, Modi has a top-down, command-and-control vision of the economy. To him, society is a machine to be engineered: he considers himself a better engineer than his predecessors, but he is an engineer nonetheless. And like Indira, he uses power as a tool to oppress and harass his opponents, and to clamp down on dissent, and to reward his cronies.
For two years between 2014 and 2016, Modi carried out almost no reforms, despite making some noises in the right directions: remember, he is a master of optics. But then, in November last year, he showed his true colours as an authoritarian social engineer. There is a thought experiment that I sometimes throw to my friends: It’s the morning of November 8, 2016, and you are the prime minister of India for exactly one day. In that day, you have to enact exactly one policy which, without breaking the law or going against the constitution, harms the people of India the most. The maximum damage to the maximum people. What are you going to do?
Think about this and let me know if you come up with an answer better than what Narendra Modi actually did. Allow me to break down for you what Demonetisation actually did. Modi essentially took all 1000 and 500 rupee notes out of circulation. Now, a 1000 rupees is equal to around 15 dollars. It is not really a high-denomination note. Modi had perhaps not bought anything from a store in two decades, so he didn’t realise that these notes are not used mainly for as unit of storage, as high denomination notes are in some other countries, but as a medium of exchange. Common people use these notes. So much so that 86% of the currency in use consisted of these notes. 86%!
Let me share some more figures with you. Before November 8, 97% of the transactions in this country were cash transactions. Contrary to the blatant lies of the government, only 53% of all Indians had bank accounts. That’s 600 million people without bank accounts. How do you think they stored their money? Yes, you could notionally go to a bank anyway and exchange this money for new notes, but you need a government ID for this, and again, despite the lies spread by the government, 300 million people in India had no form of government ID at all. And even those who did have bank accounts could deposit their money after standing in a queue for hours, but had limits placed on withdrawals. Get this, they were not being allowed to withdraw their own money!
I wrote at the time that it was the largest assault on property rights in the history of mankind, a point that my friend Barun Mitra reiterated in his excellent speech yesterday. The opportunity costs were huge – people spent hours in queues begging for their own money, and could not use either their time or the money they had productively. Much of the economy is informal, because of structural failures of the state itself, and it came crashing down. Migrant workers across the country were laid off because there was no cash to pay them, and they went back home. Farmers could not sell their produce or buy seeds for the next harvest. Truckers lined up on roads with nowhere to go and nothing to carry. Thousands of businesses across the country shut down.
In all this, the rich got away. The government kept changing the goalposts for why they did this. First, they said it was to counter black money. But a finance ministry estimate, based on thousands of income tax raids in the past, shows that only 6% of black money is kept in the form of cash: the other 94% is in gold, real estate and foreign accounts. Even that 6% was laundered. You see a reflection of this in automobile sales. They have plummeted for two-wheelers and three-wheelers, but SUV sales are steady. The rich got away.
The government also said that Demonetisation would kill fake currency. Well, their own estimate showed that only one in 4000 notes was fake, a perfectly acceptable figure, and the usual way of tackling this, practised across the world, is to phase out old notes. The government also said that terrorist activity would be hurt by this, but cross-border attacks have actually gone up in this time. Yes, criminal activity has been affected, but that’s because ALL business has been affected. You do not cure a cold by cutting someone’s head off.
So there was no benefit, and the cost is incalculable. Some more figures: According to the All India Manufacturer’s Association, in a report released last month, employment is expected to fall 60% by March, and revenues will come down by 55%. And the IMF released a forecast that said that India’s GDP will grow by only 6.6% this year, a full percentage point lower than last year. Let me tell you what that number means. My friend Nitin Pai of the Takshashila Institution recently estimated that with every 1% rise in the GDP, 2 million people come out of poverty. Two million people. That is the opportunity cost of Demonetisation in just the short term: those two million people trapped below the poverty line because of one man named Narendra Modi. This is both a humanitarian disaster and a moral outrage.
Now, the question here is, all these classical liberals who supported Modi in 2014, have they seen the light now? This is a man who doesn’t give a damn about liberal principles, and is taking the country backwards. Friends of mine who are here tonight have invoked The Road to Serfdom to describe what is happening, and some talk of creeping fascism. But what do our classical liberals have to say?
My friend the economist Suyash Rai said an interesting thing to me a few days ago. He said, “Mujhe communist se dar nahin lagta, mujhe classical liberal se dar lagta hai.” (“I am not scared of communists, I am scared of classical liberals.”) There are too many people who pay lip service to freedom but support this oppressive regime. There are a number of reasons for this: Some of them invested too much emotionally in Modi, and will rationalise anything he does. Others have been co-opted into the establishment, with Padma awards or seats on the Niti Aayog or Prasar Bharti or the RBI Board of directors, and now that they are finally establishment intellectuals, they ain’t gonna give it up.
I met one of them the other day and said to him, “Isn’t modern technology wonderful?” He said, “Why?” I said, “Bro, this is the first time I’ve seen a man without a spine stand up straight.”
But leave aside the narrow compulsions of weak men without principles. What are the lessons I draw from all of this? Lesson number one: You can never depend on politicians to advance your principles. David Boaz once said, “There are only two political philosophies: liberty and power.” These are necessarily opposed to each other. Those who enter politics lust for power. If your ideas or your support seems useful to them, they will pretend to be on your side, but when they’ve gotten what they wanted, they will spit you out. Their incentives come firstly, from the special interests that fund them, and secondly from the people who elect them. And that brings me to lesson number two.
Lesson Number Two is that policy advocacy is mostly useless. If you want to make an impact on the political marketplace, you need to attack the demand side, not the supply side. You need to go to the people!
I said earlier in this talk that there are two things that people who care about freedom have to take into account today. One, we have to come to terms with Narendra Modi. Two, we have to understand this political marketplace. And the most important thing to understand about India is its changing demographics.
India is rapidly growing younger and younger. The average age in India today is 27, and 60% of the country is born after the liberalisation of 1991. This is both a problem and an opportunity.
Here’s the problem. These young people are growing up in an India that needs 1 million jobs every month – 12 million jobs a year – to accommodate this new workforce. These jobs aren’t there. One of the reasons Modi won in 2014 was that he promised to create these jobs. He hasn’t delivered; he can’t deliver The government can’t create jobs, it can only enable job creation. But the reforms that would make this happen – labour reforms, ease of doing business reforms – simply aren’t happening.
It’s no surprise then all the recent agitations in India have been centred around reservation in government jobs: The Jat agitation in Haryana, the Patidars under Hardik Patel in Gujarat, and so on. And this will get worse. Artificial intelligence will now decimate jobs in the service industry, where we’ve done relatively well recently. And automation will mean that the window for becoming a manufacturing superpower because of cheap labour will be closed to us forever. So there is a coming crisis.
Now, how are we to sell our ideas in times such as these. Classical liberal notions like spontaneous order and the positive-sumness of things are unintuitive and hard to sell in the best of times, but even more so in times of scarcity. I used to think that rising prosperity will end identity politics in India, but no, identity politics is on the rise, and we are becoming tribal again. No wonder populism is winning.
But there is also an opportunity here. These young people are not bound up in the dogmas of the past. They are not necessarily believers in the religion of government. If we manage to get out there in the marketplace of ideas, they will be more receptive than any generation before them. And that is the principle challenge before us. How can we get into the culture? How can our ideas be part of the discourse? Understand this: the prime minister of India in the year 2050 could be a 15-year-old girl who is sitting in a small town in India somewhere at this very moment, doing her boring homework. How can we reach her with our liberal ideas? Can we shape the way she thinks about the world? Can we package our ideas in an empathetic way that appeals to her emotions? Can we get her off Snapchat? Can we reach her on Snapchat?
In another two or three decades, this demographic tide will reverse itself, and we will become a rapidly ageing country. Will we still be poor or illiberal then, or will we be a beacon of freedom for the world? I can’t answer that – and I don’t even have any specific answers as to how we can get there from here, but I thought it important to highlight the challenges we face. Things are not rosy, freedom is not on the march. But we have to try, and I know this: just by the size of the battlefield alone, this battle for freedom in India will be the most significant freedom struggle in the history of humankind. And we can only win it on a full stomach. It’s time for dinner, guys, thank you for listening to me.
In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.
There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.
The essay went on to illustrate this with what is now known as the Parable of the Broken Window. Economists consider this one of the earliest—and certainly the clearest—explications of the concept of opportunity cost. More than that, though, it laid out a way of thinking about the world that went beyond economics. The great economics journalist Henry Hazlitt wrote his seminal text, Economics in One Lesson, based entirely upon Bastiat’s essay.
So why is a 19th century essay relevant today? Well, it wouldn’t be if its concepts had been internalized by everyone. But they haven’t been, and governments constantly make disastrous policies that could have been avoided if policy makers simply looked at the world through the lens of the Seen and the Unseen. That is exactly what I will attempt to do in this weekly podcast. Every week, I will get experts from different fields to lay bare the inner workings of their domains, and to show how policies framed with the best intentions often have the worst consequences.
A new episode of The Seen and the Unseen will be uploaded every Tuesday. I hope you enjoy it!
Exactly one year ago, on November 17 2015, I sat opposite Steve Bannon in his NYC office as he asked me if I’d be interested in starting Breitbart India. I had won the Bastiat Prize (for the second time) a few days before, and a lady who was one of the funders of Brietbart, and of certain leaders in the Republican Party, got in touch with the organisers to ask if she could meet me. (It’s not fair of me to name her because she’s not really a public figure.) She’d been impressed by my speech, and thus this meeting.
I didn’t know much about Breitbart, though I’d glanced at it. I did not know they were alt-right—I didn’t even know the term then. All I knew was that they were a conservative site, and that was enough for me to say no. I was a libertarian, I said, pro-immigration, pro-gay rights, and it didn’t fit. Furthermore, I advised them that there was no point in Breitbart setting up in India.
‘It’s incongruent,’ I said. ‘There is no analog of American conservatism in India. The Indian right is driven by bigotry and nativism, with no deeper guiding philosophy behind it. [Consider the irony of these words.] You will not find any Burkean conservatives here. Don’t come.’
‘Well, we think that Modi is India’s Reagan,’ said Bannon.
I laughed, and told them that Modi was no Reagan. I explained why he was a statist, top-down thinker, someone who would only expand the power of government over common citizens, more like the Leftist Indira Gandhi than Reagan. They nodded. The thrust of my decision to not consider the option they were offering me, though, was that I was libertarian, not conservative.
The lady did try her hardest to convince. ‘I’m actually a libertarian,’ she said, and then launched into a diatribe on gay marriage, saying, ‘I don’t understand why they ask for marriage. We gave them so much. What’s wrong with civil unions?’
A little later she said again, ‘I’m actually a libertarian.’ And then launched into a diatribe against immigrants in America, and how the cultural fabric of Europe was being torn apart by their immigrants. It was kind of funny, though at the time I was more flattered than amused. Still, I had to say no.
Bannon is now the right-hand man of someone who has really small hands and will be the most powerful man in the world starting January. Now that I know more about the alt-right, that thought is scary. I’m still glad that I didn’t explore their offer further. I could have been somewhat richer, maybe even influential, if I’d taken it up—but I sleep well at night now, and that’s what matters.
I must point out here that my meeting with them was very pleasant, and they were warm and courteous despite my not coming on board. Also, unlike many from across their aisle (whom I deplore quite as much), they were intellectually honest. They had their priors and their first principles, and everything they said and did stemmed from there. One may disagree with those ideas, even find them repulsive, but they’re not hypocrites.
In another context, I also believe that no matter what happens, I’ll always be anti-establishment. There have always been but two political philosophies, David Boaz once wrote, liberty and power. Everyone in politics fights for power; every libertarian must fight for individual freedom. Until Modi became PM, I was the fiercest critic of the Congress and their ruling family, who kept India poor for decades longer than they should have. When Modi took over, I expressed cautious optimism at first, but get threatened almost daily now for my vehement opposition to Modi. (He is right-wing on social issues, left-wing on economics, and thus an enemy of freedom in every respect.) Whoever is next, I know, with a sigh, that I shall be against them too.
Sometimes, this makes me feel crushingly alone. I often joke that there are only three true libertarians in India, a number I have modified to two because one of them is not unequivocally against the social engineering of Modi’s demonetisation. (My friend Barun Mitra is the other true libertarian, my fellow holder of the flame!) If I am to be true to myself, I will always remain on the outside, ridiculed by everyone else, condemned to the eternal vigilance that Jefferson spoke of, which will always be the cross of libertarians to bear.
Of course, I also have my other passion, writing fiction, to sustain my spirit. I hope you didn’t read my shitty first novel. I hope you will read the one I’m writing now.
When I spoke with 12-year-old NM Carissa Yip before the round, she’d never heard of the pop star. I said, “He was big in the 80s and 90s, and one of those stars who went by only one name, like Madonna.”
Yip: “Who’s Madonna?”
This happens more and more to me when I talk to young people these days. They make me feel like I am living in a different age—not just with regard to music and films and books, but also politics and economics. It has been speculated that so many young people support Bernie Sanders in the US because they grew up after the breakup of the Soviet Union, and have no idea of the horrors of socialism. Similarly, in India, I find that many young people who were born in the 90s don’t have the same kind of visceral understanding of how Fabian Socialism crippled us because they were born too late for that. I was an 80s kid, of course—and it’s taken me decades to come to the terms with the fact that I’m not a kid any more.
My musical tastes happen to run older than my generation. Bob Dylan and Van Morrison are still banging on. They’re so clearly from another world that it might as well be fictional, and I might as well be schizophrenic.
Posted by Amit Varma on 22 April, 2016 in
I’m a devout carnivore, but a decade-and-a-half ago, I turned vegetarian for a year. My reasons were moral, and best illustrated by a story about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In his later years Tolstoy was a vegetarian, and one day he invited his aunt home for dinner. She said she’d come but insisted, ‘I must have chicken!’ Tolstoy paused at this condition, but then agreed to provide the bird. The lady duly came home, gup-shup happened, and then when they moved to the dining table, she found a live chicken on her chair, and a carving knife alongside.
‘We knew you wanted chicken,’ Tolstoy said, ‘but none of us would kill it.’
The story, as I know it, ends there—but I can’t imagine Tolstoy’s aunt ate Tolstoy’s chicken. She must have been rather exasperated, and Tolstoy was indeed a bit of a spiritual crackpot towards the end of his life. But the story of the chicken resonates with me. It demonstrates our denial when it comes to food. In our mind, there is a screen between the meat that we eat and the animals that are killed for that meat. We taste the flavour and enjoy the texture, but we behave as if the butchery never happened. We pretend that the chicken on the plate and the chicken on the chair are different creatures. But of course they are not. Tolstoy’s flapping, squawking chicken is Varma’s Chicken a la Kiev—and so, many years ago, I gave up meat.
Even if I later explained my subsequent regression by talking about recurring headaches and how my body was too used to meat to give it up, deep down I know that’s just a rationalisation. I didn’t have the strength of character to carry through on my resolve. I dreamed of luscious, succulent kababs, and ignored the screaming of the lambs.
The guilt and dissonance I still occasionally feel may soon be moot, though. Some fine scientists, much to be praised for their noble endeavours to better humankind, have recently found a way to grow meat in the labaratory, without a sentient creature being involved. Within a couple of decades, I predict, you will be able to eat a medium-rare steak that is, in every way, the same as any you would get today, except for the fact that no animal will be harmed in its making. The organ it will come from would have been manufactured a la carte, and would never have been part of a living creature. Tolstoy’s aunt’s grilled chicken leg would have nothing to do with Tolstoy’s actual chicken.
On that note, at the turn of this new year, let me tell you about a concept propounded by a gentleman named WEH Lecky way back in the 19th century: The Expanding Circle. Lecky posited that there is a circle of beings who qualify for our moral consideration as equals, and that this circle has tended to expand through human history. In prehistoric times, we might have regarded just our family or our tribe as being part of that circle, and everyone else would have been ‘the other’. Other tribes, then other nations, other races, and so on. But through time, that circle expanded. It began to include other communities and races, and eventually included all of humanity itself. It is this expanding circle that led to the end of slavery, to women being allowed to vote, to the great immigrant nations across the world, like the US of A. And this circle is still expanding.
The philosopher Peter Singer, in fact, argues that one day animals will be within this circle. He believes that one day we will be as aghast at meat-eating as we are today when we look back at slavery or women not being allowed to vote and so on. For a person in the 23rd century, looking back at the 21st, it will seem as astonishing that we once killed animals for food as it does to us that the great apostle of liberty, Thomas Jefferson, once kept slaves.
At this point, it is worth considering why the expanding circle expands. To my mind, and I say this with sadness, the reasons are instrumental. The circle expands because incentives change. The two main factors driving this are Trade and Technology.
Economics teaches us that every human being can provide value to this world (comparative advantage) and that voluntary trade always leaves both parties better off, leading to a positive-sum game. If ‘The Other’ is working hard to improve our lives, and it is in our interest to improve theirs, for that is how we profit, then the circle is bound to expand to include them. Immigration is great not just because of moral reasons, but because it helps societies and economies flourish. The larger our circles are, in whatever sense, the better we do.
Technology also plays its part. Until recently, half of humanity – the female half – was deeply constrained because that’s just how the comparative advantage game played itself out. Housework and raising large families took so much time that it made economic sense for family units to specialise, and for women to stay at home and for men to go out and be bread-earners. This got codified in social norms, and thus women got forced into subsidiary roles. That changed in the 20th century. Firstly, household technology freed up huge chunks of women’s time. Secondly, birth control gave them, well, more control over their bodies. There is much to be said for good intentions, but women’s empowerment really happened because of technology, and so hurray for technology.
And hurray for technology one more time, because if our circle expands to include animals, it will do so not because of the benevolence of meat eaters around the world, but because growing meat may no longer require the killing of animals. And here, consider the consequences of all animal products being manufactured without animals being involved. The incentives around rearing farm animals will change entirely. And so one day, cows and pigs and chickens and goats may go extinct not because we ate them, but because we stopped. The irony is delicious.
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.
As the posts below (and above, as time goes by) would show, I’ve started blogging again. By that I mean, blogging blogging. Between 2004 and 2009, I wrote more than 8000 posts on India Uncut, at around five posts a day, and the readership was good—I got about 20k-pageviews-a-day when I tailed off. There were diminishing returns and all that, and I got into other things, and I subsequently used IU just for posting links to my columns.
Now that I’m back to writing full-time—even though I’m writing a book and not taking on too much media work—it makes sense to resume blogging—especially as I love the short format of the blog post so much. It’s perfectly suited to the pithy thought that packs in more than an ephemeral, shallow tweet could do, and yet should not be forced into a longer piece when that could be stretching it. The Age of the Blog is over, of course, and much of what blogs provided to people has been made redundant by Twitter and Facebook, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never get the kind of readership I used to have. Still, if only to indulge myself, I’m at it again.
Posted by Amit Varma on 29 October, 2015 in
I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been shortlisted for the 2015 Bastiat Prize for Journalism. This is an annual prize that aims to “honor the writing that best demonstrates the importance of individual liberty and free markets with originality, wit, and eloquence.” I had won this back in 2007. No one’s won it twice.
The trophy I most cherish having received is the beautiful candlestick I got when I won the Bastiat in 2007. (It’s inspired by this famous essay by Frédéric Bastiat.) Even if I don’t win another, that one sits on my mantelpiece reminding me that there is always, somewhere a light to be lit. I’ll keep lighting the fire.
Posted by Amit Varma on 03 October, 2015 in
This is the 42nd and last installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
This is the 42nd and final installment of Range Rover, and I end this column at an appropriate time: after around five years of being a professional poker player, I have stopped playing fulltime, and am getting back to writing books. I am the first winning player i know to walk away from this game – but more than the money, I cherish the life lessons that poker has given me. As I sign off, let me share two of them: the first accounts, to some extent, for my love of the game; the second is the reason I am leaving it.
Poker is a game centred around the long term. The public image of poker is based around hands we see in movies or YouTube videos, and the beginner fantasizes about specific events, spectacular hands in which he pulls off a big bluff or deceives someone into stacking off to him. But once you go deeper into the game, you learn that short-term outcomes are largely determined by luck, and your skill only manifests itself in the long run. You learn to not be results-oriented but process-oriented, to just make the optimal move at every opportunity and ignore immediate outcomes. You learn, viscerally, for much money and pride is involved, the same lesson that the Bhagavad Gita teaches: Don’t worry about the fruits of your action, just do the right thing.
Needless to say, this applies to life as well. Luck plays a far bigger part in our lives than we realise: the very fact that you are literate enough to read this, presumably on a device you own, means you have already won the lottery of life. Much of what happens to us and around us is outside our control, and we would be foolish to ascribe meaning to these, or to let them affect us. Too many players I know let short-term wins and losses affect them, and become either arrogant or angry. This is folly. Equanimity is the key to being profitable in poker – and happy in life.
Why am I leaving a game that has given me so much? There are many reasons: Poker is all-consuming, and impacts one’s health and lifestyle; my real calling is to write, and I am pregnant with books that demand labour; but one key reason is that poker is a zero-sum game.
In life, you benefit when others do too. When two people transact a business deal, they do so because both gain value from it. When lovers kiss, the net happiness of both goes up. Life is a positive-sum game. But poker is not. You can only win if someone else loses, and the main skill in poker is exploiting the mistakes of others.
Now, all sport is zero-sum and consenting adults play this game, so this should not be a problem—except for the fact that poker lies on the intersection of sport and gambling. Gambling addiction destroys lives and families just as drug or alcohol addiction do, and i have seen this happen to people around me. I can sit at a poker table and calculate equities and figure out game-theoretically optimal ways of playing—but where is the nobility in this when my opponent is not doing likewise, but is a mindless slave to the dopamine rushes in his head? In the live games I played, I sometimes felt that there was no difference between me and a drug dealer: we were both exploiting someone else’s addiction.
When I write books, i have a shot at enriching myself by enriching others. This can never happen in poker. And so, my friends, goodbye.
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Addendum: You can read all the archives of my column on the Range Rover homepage. Here, briefly, are some I enjoyed writing.
I have a coffeeshop question for you. You are sitting in a café with a friend, talking about this and that, and a stranger comes and sits at the next table. It could be anyone: a gorgeous girl, a Bollywood celebrity, a gym-toned hunk. There is a moment’s pause, while you and your friend take in the presence of this new person, and then you continue talking. But you are aware that this stranger, who is alone, can hear every word you say. You and your friend are not talking about anything private; maybe you are talking about a new film you saw, or a book you read, or a friend’s divorce. Will the presence of the stranger at the next table affect the content and tone of your conversation?
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There is a YouTube clip floating around on the interwebs that has been linked to a lot recently. It features Robin Williams and Stephen Fry chatting with Michael Parkinson. In it, Fry, who had just written a book on bears, comments on how animals are different from humans. “‘When you wake up in the morning, a bear does not say, ‘Oh god, I was a very bad bear yesterday. I’m guilty.’ They don’t feel guilty that they possess organs of sexual generation. They don’t feel they should wear clothes. They just spend 100% of every minute of every hour of every day being a bear. And a treefrog spends all its time being a treefrog. We spend a lot of time trying to be somebody else. You know, trying to be like the person next door, the person on television, the person in the movies… we’re trying to be somebody else. Animals, supremely, are themselves.”
(If I may add to this, it could be said that animals are Buddhist. They are always living in the moment. They are mindful. I know people who go to Vipassana courses to attain just this quality. I did once, many years ago, and for the last eight days of the 10-day course, I basically thought about sex. But the first meal I had after the course, at an Italian restaurant, was the best I’ve had in my life. The restaurant had nothing to do with it. My ten days of focusing on the senses were responsible. My taste buds took in every damn nuance of the dish I ate. I was in the moment – though I suppose in a different way from a bear having a meal, which probably just goes through the routine motions programmed into it. Also, bears are vegetarian, which puts a limit on prandial pleasure. And this is precisely the kind of pointless parenthetical digression that humans, and not bears or treefrogs, indulge in too much.)
Fry’s point, I suppose, was that what sets humans apart from other creatures is that we are social animals in such a way that we allow other people to define our self-image. We care too much about what they think of us. This is absurd.
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The stranger at the next table. Would you speak differently, or say different things, because someone you had never met before and would never meet again was listening? Does the approval or admiration of strangers matter to you?
I reached middle age recently – it is a mental state more than an age, I know, but I got there anyway – and got down to thinking about all the things I didn’t like about myself. At 20, I had been an obnoxious, insufferable, arrogant fool, but I wouldn’t dislike that guy so much if I hadn’t changed in many ways, so that’s okay. But there is one quality I still have and don’t like and would love to discard : the anxiety about how other people perceive me. This damn anxiety is common to us all; it’s probably the most prominent part of the human condition. We dress up before going to social gatherings, comb our hair, put make up or shave or suchlike, preen preen preen – and then spend all our time at these gatherings behaving like the person we’d like others to believe us to be. Everything we say or do in public is, at some level, for the consumption of others. When we are truly ourselves, whatever that is, if such a thing is even possible, it is because we are fatigued from the pretence, and let our guard down.
So my middle-age resolution, which I have the rest of my life to break repeatedly, is that I want to be comfortable in my own skin. I don’t want to care about what others think of me. And if I am in a café chatting with a friend, I don’t want that conversation to be affected by a stranger at the next table. Even if my friend is an imaginary friend.
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The Stephen Fry video. The reason people have been linking to it is that Robin Williams killed himself recently, and this is one of the YouTube clips where he is at his funniest. I also found it incredibly sad. In the first part of this interview, Williams speaks alone with Parkinson, and brings the house down. In the second part, Fry joins Williams, and you’d expect this half to be mainly about Fry and the book he’s promoting. But Williams keeps interrupting him, wisecracking constantly, not letting Fry complete many of his thoughts. It’s almost like at some level he is saying, “Look at me. I’m here too. I’m so funny. Don’t you love me?” Fry is graceful about this, and even jokes about Williams’s ‘logorrhea’, and Williams has the wit to laugh at himself. You sense his self-awareness here, and also his sadness. (This interview was in 2002.) I think Williams knew, as most comedians must, that humour is an anesthetic. That’s all it is. And there must be times when it isn’t enough.
This is the 18th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.
A few months ago, a friend of mine, J, wondered aloud how he would tell his prospective in-laws what he did for a living. An MBA by training, J was now a professional poker player. ‘Tell them you’re a game theorist,’ I said, ‘and are now engaged in the financially optimal application of your skills.’ My suggestion was glib and facetious: The skill involved in winning at poker is just half the story. The other half is disturbing and unpalatable.
J and I frequently play a game in New Bombay where we’re the only two long-term winners. The last time we played there, this is how the session ended: an affluent builder, many whiskeys down and possibly coked up as well, was raising and reraising every hand without looking at his cards. Stacks were 2000bb deep, the table was five-handed, and the rest of us were just waiting for hands with which to take the rest of his money. There wasn’t much mathematical calculation to be done, no equities to be worked out, no ranges to construct. Just wait to get a hand against the drunk guy. He did eventually stack himself, and J and I left big winners for the session.
I didn’t feel elated after my score, though. ‘We pride ourselves on studying the game, cracking the math, all that other shit,’ I said to J as we drove away, ‘but in the end this is what it comes down to. Sitting in a dark room waiting for a drunk builder to give his money away. Where is the nobility in this?’ J replied, ‘Yeah, we’re like drug dealers exploiting people’s addictions.’
I can give you all the counter-arguments to that, considering that I use them to rationalise what I do all the time. We play poker as an intellectual challenge; they are grown adults acting of their own free will; if we didn’t take their money someone else would. All this is the truth, but it’s not the whole truth. Poker is a unique game in the sense that it inhabits a twilight zone between sport and gambling. When J enters a hand against a drunk builder, they’re actually in parallel universes playing two different games. J approaches the game like a science and a competitive sport; the builder is basically gambling, like it’s teen patti or roulette, and he’s doing it because he is addicted to it. He’s a slave to dopamine. (This duality is within us as well, and J and the builder could easily switch universes once in a while.)
I have seen this addiction destroy lives around me. Businessmen have been ruined and gotten into heavy debt; marriages have broken down; previously respectable bankers have begged hosts of games, ‘Please give me one more buyin, just one more, I’ll pay you next week, promise.’ Sounds just like ‘one more hit’ or ‘one last peg’, doesn’t it?
The effects of rake make poker a negative-sum game. As the poker player Dan Colman put it in a post a month ago, ‘The losers lose way more money at this game than winners are winning. A lot of this is money they can’t afford to lose.’ Colman wrote this after winning US$15.3 million in a million-dollar tournament at the World Series of Poker this year. He refused to give interviews after his win, saying he didn’t want to promote poker. ‘I capitalize off this game that targets people’s weaknesses,’ he wrote. ‘I do enjoy it, I love the strategy part of it, but I do see it as a very dark game.’
The vast majority of players are long-term losers, but they are not the only victims of this addiction. Poker has a corrosive impact on the lives of even the winners. You achieve excellence at the game by playing a lot; and then need to put in volume for your edge to manifest itself in profits. As a result, your life can get consumed by the game, with everything else in it a backdrop for your obsession with poker. It isn’t healthy, and in at least one sense, the consummate professional and the drunk builder are in the same boat.
I have just started a monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line, called Lighthouse. This is the first installment.
A few days ago, a curious thing happened at a friend’s place. Seven of us were sitting around a dining table enjoying the postprandial bliss that inevitably follows copious consumption of Coorg Dry Pork and Hanumantu Mutton Pulao, when somebody asked the question, ‘So, when did you first realise you were an atheist?’ We traded stories, and realised at the end of it that every one of us was a non-believer, thus making us surely the most godless dinner congregation that evening in Mumbai. A full table, and not one deity between us. How unusual – and how very strange that in the second decade of the 21st century, such a gathering should be unusual to begin with.
Let’s not talk about science and modernity – we still live in primitive times. There are 13 countries where people who admit to atheism face execution under the law – and even in the supposedly modern USA, being an atheist pretty much finishes your prospects as a politician. The Huffington Post recently reported that there are no self-declared atheists in the US Congress, and a study by the Universities of British Columbia and Oregon found that ‘atheists are among society’s most distrusted groups, comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances.’ This is no doubt true of India as well, where Arvind Kejriwal, once an atheist, rediscovered religion as he ran for public office, and breathlessly thanked ‘the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru’ when he became chief minister of Delhi. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and put those ravings down to cynical roleplay rather than to genuine self-delusion.
I was an atheist long before I knew I was one. Back in the day, I shared the common misconception that atheists are people who believe that there is no god. But this is a faulty definition. The dictionary will tell you that atheists are actually people who do not believe that there is a god. Consider the subtle difference: atheism is the absence of belief. Until something has been proven to exist, it is rational not to believe in it – and the burden of proof always lies with the believer. An absence of belief does not always correspond to a belief in absence, which explains why most nonbelievers are non-militant about their nonbelief. As a correspondent to the Economist put it a few years ago, atheism is no more a belief system or a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.
When I realised this, it struck me that I had never collected stamps. And as I grew older, the nonbelief that existed perhaps out of laziness was reinforced by learning about science and examining my own deepest fears. All these millennia, god had needed to exist for two reasons: one, to explain everything about the world that we cannot. (The God of the Gaps.) Two, to provide consolation for our deepest existential fears. Over time, and especially in the last century-and-a-half, the gaps in our knowledge have shrunk drastically, and we no longer need a divine explanation for natural phenomena. As Douglas Adams once said about the theory of evolution, ‘The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.’
A deeper reason for why god must exist, however, is to mask our own cosmic insignificance. We are tiny, temporary fragments of a universe far larger than our inadequate brains are capable of imagining – and we’re too scared and arrogant to accept this simple fact. No, we must build narratives of our centrality to the universe, and devise potential afterlives that help us stay in denial of the one simple fact that we will be dead one day, with no greater meaning or purpose to it all. It is said that humans are set apart from other species by our self-awareness – you could also call it self-delusion, perhaps?
It is easy to be a fount of rationality and say these things, of course – but beyond the chatter, we actually have to come to terms with it. It eats me up, knowing that I am just a speck of dust in the larger scheme of things, and that soon I’ll be gone, poof, just like that. What good is my existence if I won’t be around after the fact to reflect on it? As loved ones die and I grow older, I can’t help but envy those around me for their false consolations, their anesthesia: they cope, they thrive, they manufacture meaning in their lives. Our job is harder.
But that is a private matter, and I overstate the angst. Atheists don’t live their lives tormented by the absence of a man in the sky with a beard – and most of us, if I may use the collective noun for non-stamp collectors with little else in common, aren’t even militant about our atheism. Why, then, are atheists held in such poor regard by believers everywhere?
One possible reason is that this has nothing to do with religion per se, and more to do with how we construct our identities with the belief systems we follow. Liberals abhor conservatives and vice versa, and clashes of ideology can get deeply personal. Perhaps it is the same with believers and nonbelievers. Every atheist is, in a sense, a personified slap on the face of all believers, a walking, talking reminder of their weakness and their delusions. It is natural to react viscerally to this, is it not?
Believers sometimes rationalise their distaste for atheists by arguing that religion is the source of morality, and that atheists can’t possible have any incentive to behave ethically. Let’s leave aside the historical issue of the staggering amount of violence committed in the name of religion – there is also a case to be made that codes of conduct existed before religions did, and that religions merely codified what already existed, and might even have been hardwired into us. Ultimately, we behave the way we behave, do the things we do, out of regard for our fellow human beings, and for our own humanity. And if that is all we ever believe in, well, it’s good enough.
It has been 364 days since I last blogged. I cannot let a year pass. Hence this post. But I assume that by now, this blog has lost all its regular readers. If there is no one to read this, does this post exist?
If not, I suppose a year has passed. But if there is no blog, can it pass?
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ps. The plan is to get back to regular blogging, just for my own sake. So I will starting now. (Which is when?)
Posted by Amit Varma on 16 December, 2013 in
So it’s about 10.45pm, and we’re headed in a tourist taxi to Siena Village, a resort a few kilometres from Munnar. We’ve already driven about three hours from Kochi airport, I haven’t slept in 48 hours, the fast, winding journey through the ghats has made me feel a little sick, and I’m kind of testy. Our overly talkative driver tells me that road from Munnar to Siena winds through a hilly jungle, and ‘sometimes at night, elephants attack cars.’ We begin that leg of the journey.
Halfway through, we find that an autorickshaw and another car have stopped in the middle of the road, and the rickshaw guy is gesticulating wildly at us to stop. He babbles something in Malayalam, and I assume his auto has broken down and he wants help or suchlike. I’m desperate to get to the hotel and crash. ‘Just drive, dude,’ I tell my driver. ‘Let’s get going.’
‘We can’t go,’ he says. ‘There are elephants charging down the road.’
Along with the rickshaw and the other car, we park our car at a clearing at the side of the road. ‘So what do we do now?’ I ask. ‘Elephant, elephant,’ the driver mumbles, and jumps out of the car to join the others to peer down the road. I’m about to get off when he comes back, gets in the car, and drives about 30 meters back down the road, towards Munnar. There he stops and waits, as we turn around to see what’s happening. The other car also moves away. The rickshaw remains.
Then the elephant lumbers in.
This massive grey beast saunters down the road, stops at the clearing, and stares at the auto, right besides where we had been a minute ago. Then it goes over and gives us a masterclass of how to obliterate an autorickshaw in 40 seconds flat. It uses its trunk to swing it around in the air and bash it on the ground. It uses its legs. It uses its fury. In less than a minute, what was once a vehicle is now mangled bits of metal and plastic. Satisfied at a job well done, the elephant gets back on the road, and looks at us. Or rather, I am sure of it, at me. Our eyes meet.
All this time, our driver is telling us, ‘Take picture, take picture. Get off and take picture.’ We’ve already told him to get on back to Munnar, obviously we’ll find a hotel there for the night. But he doesn’t listen. ‘Take picture, take picture.’
‘Drive,’ I tell him again. ‘Let’s go to Munnar.’
He doesn’t budge. The elephant takes a step towards us. It maintains eye contact. I think it knows my name.
The driver doesn’t budge. The elephant does.
‘Drive boss, drive us back to fuckin’ Munnar, what are you waiting for?’
He snaps to life and starts driving. Then he says, ‘Sir, no need to be rude. I have studied engineering, you know.’
The simultaneous urges to sleep, puke and get away from an elephant have made me lose it by now. ‘So why are you driving a tourist taxi then?’ I ask.
‘Because this is Kerala.’
Update: The elephant’s name is Padiappa. It turns out that he had a traumatised childhood, and has killed eight people in the last few years. He’s undergoing counselling treatment, and was apparently given an injection three months ago after which he calmed down somewhat. However, he got restless again a couple of days ago. He destroyed some crops two nights ago, and then the auto last night.
All this was told to me by the Mallu driver Bipin, who is no longer mad at me. I can’t be sure about Padiappa, though, and am avoiding casual social encounters with him.
Posted by Amit Varma on 20 March, 2012 in
... is done. The next time India walk out to play a Test match, my favourite sportsman of all time won’t be there, and I’m not even sure I’ll feel like watching. India with someone else at No. 3 will seem like Led Zeppelin without Jimmy Page—and yeah, so what if Robert Plant does get that 100th hundred?
When we spoke a couple of weeks ago, I asked if he regretted not having retired in England. His response was a further revelation of character. He would certainly have retired if he hadn’t had a good series, he said, but after doing so well, retiring would have been selfish. There was a series to be won in Australia, and he owed it to the team to make the trip. And no, there were no regrets. He would do it no other way, even if offered a second chance.
I’d written a bunch of pieces on Dravid back in my days as a cricket writer, the last of which, I think, was this: ‘Rahul Dravid: Transcending History’. Many of the pieces celebrating him today and yesterday, unfortunately, seek to reinforce a bunch of entirely untrue cliches about him. No, Dravid was not just a dour technician with loads of patience—he was a beautiful, attractive strokeplayer at his best, who combined elegance and grace with a sense of purpose. No, he was not a misfit in one-day cricket: for a period of maybe four years, he was possibly even the best ODI finisher in the world, batting at Nos. 5 and 6. And no, despite the debacle of the 2007 World Cup, he wasn’t a failed captain: he led us to memorable series victories outside the subcontinent, in West Indies and England, something we hadn’t managed for a decade before he took over.
It is a retirement freighted with more meaning than merely the end of an individual career. Rahul Dravid was an old-fashioned cricketer: he was a Test match batsman who was great without being glamorous, brave without being brash. He was, if you like, the polar opposite of Virat Kohli, Indian cricket’s new poster boy. When this honourable man called it a day, middle-aged fans across the subcontinent shivered: they felt a goose walk over Test cricket’s grave.
When I began to understand the kind of politics there are in the game, he only said one thing: that this game has given me so much in life that I will never be bitter. There is so much to be thankful for, no matter what else happens, that never goes away.
Contrast that with some of the bitterness you see in some former and current cricketers.
This personal essay by me appears in the winter edition of Forbes Life India.
I feel the ground sway under my feet as I get up. I gather my chips and walk unsteadily to the cashier’s cage. I’ve been playing poker for 40 hours now, and I’m up by the amount I used to earn in a month in my last job. But it’s been a swingy session, and I was down by a lot at one point till I fought back, and I was up by more than I am now till I lost a couple of hands. I’ve faced euphoria and devastation within 40 seconds of each other in the same hand, when I flopped the nuts—the best possible hand—on the flop, and my opponent, after going all-in on the turn, out-nutted me on the river. I’ve been on a high fueled by four Red Bulls and the excitement of winning, and now the ground is shaking and I wonder if I am about to faint and finally be punished for this brutal lifestyle. Then I realize, with some relief, why the earth is moving so gently under my feet: we are on a boat, after all—a floating casino in Goa, solidly anchored but still on water. I do not know what time it is, or what day, or whether I have missed my flight back to Mumbai. What I do know is that this session is over, I need sleep, and once I have rested I’ll be back for more.
I am a poker obsessive. This is a problem because it is difficult to state whether it is a problem or not. If someone is obsessed with tennis or chess or cricket, it becomes apparent soon enough whether they’re any good at it, and whether they have a future in it, because there are clear metrics to measure performance. If someone is obsessed with roulette or teen patti, it is equally clear that they are addicted to gambling, which can only be harmful in the long run. But poker exists in a twilight zone: it is both a game of skill, and a gamble. You could play it as a card game involving chance, and do it for the dopamine rushes that keeps addicts addicted; or you could study it as a science, bringing probability, game theory and psychology to bear on each carefully weighed decision. In the long run, a mathematical approach makes you money: If you keep getting your money in when the odds favour you, you will end up profitable. But in the short run, luck plays a huge role in the game. (The management of luck is the key skill in the game.) And in this short run, the wild gambler, the compulsive addict, can win huge amounts, while the skillful player can lose, and lose, and lose, despite constantly making the correct decisions, till he is emotionally imbalanced enough to actually start playing badly. Because this is a game that fosters self-delusion, that universal (and necessary) quality in human beings, it is impossible for me to say whether I am here as a gambling addict or as a serious sportsman. I know that I have both in me, and they battle every second that I am on the table.
I was drawn to poker, I suppose, for the same reasons that I was drawn to chess or scrabble: the intellectual challenge that it presented, and the competitive instinct that it fueled. I started playing the game three years ago, on the world’s biggest poker site, Pokerstars. Because of the difficulty in depositing money onto the site through Indian credit cards, which are barred by the RBI from depositing money on gambling sites, I used to play freeroll tournaments, that required no entry fee and had small guaranteed prizes. It was a good way to learn the basics of the game, and I followed it up by reading all the great instructional books in poker literature: the Sklanskys, the Harringtons, the Millers, the Brunsons, the Gordons. But this was all theoretical stuff, and I was itching to play live poker, with real people, who would give off tells when they bluffed me so I could make hero calls, like they do on television. None of my friends played poker, but early last year, I managed to get myself into The Sunday Game, a weekend gathering of poker enthusiasts in a suburban hotel in Mumbai. They’d book a room, organise a tournament, maybe two, with a Rs 3000 or 5000 buy-in, with 10% going to the rake to pay for the room, and the rest forming a prizepool for the top three or four players. Sometimes they’d play a cash game afterwards with a buy-in of Rs 1000. Looking back at the time, I realise that I was ridiculously bad: but playing with better players helped me, as did the fact that, being an obsessive with a steep learning curve, I worked hard on my game and got better really fast.
I still needed validation, though, and I got some when I went to Goa in June 2010 for the India Poker Championship, an event in which there were three tournaments held over the weekend at Casino Royale, a floating casino. Playing ABC poker, sticking to basics, I reached the final table of the main tournament, and got a modest payout for coming fifth. What was more thrilling, though, was how my cash-game sessions ended up. On the last day, I made a hero call against two all-in players on the turn, with one card to come, and won a pot worth Rs 1.5 lakhs. At the time, it seemed enormous to me, and I went home from that trip with a tidy profit.
Believing that mastery of the game was inevitable, I sought out cash games to play in Mumbai, and found one in a flat in Lokhandwala where I spent probably 100 of the next 120 nights. The apartment belonged to a player I shall refer to as Hunter, a savvy model and entrepreneur who conducted a home game every night, charging 2% of each pot as rake, and providing food and non-alcoholic drinks on the house. The first time I went there, the game had a modest Rs 5000 buy-in, with blinds of Rs 25 and 50. There was a raised platform on one side of the room, on which Hunter put a mattress, and we sat on that and by its side and played our game. Within three months, the blinds had increased to Rs 100 and 200, and the standard buy-in was Rs 20,000. Earlier, winning or losing 20 grand in a day was noteworthy: now, there could be three lakhs on the table at any given point, and you could win or lose a lakh in a day.
Naturally, Hunter had the platform demolished, and a new table and swank new chairs were purchased for us. My routine for about six months was this: wake up in the evening, pass time impatiently, and head off to Hunter’s place in time for the game to begin at 8 or 9 pm. The game would then go on till around 8 in the morning. I’d have a Red Bull while playing, and there would be chips and biscuits and fruits and other snacks. We could also order from any restaurant in the area, and ordering dal khichdi from Rhythm restuarant at 1am was, I recall, a common occurrence. At one point, Hunter decided that his players deserved healthier food. So a cook was hired for us, and though he was appallingly bad, at least we got home-cooked food in the middle of the night.
It was here that I discovered that the most important part of the game is the mental part: not in terms of calculating equity against opponent’s ranges and all that, which is of course essential, but in keeping your mental equilibrium through the inevitable swings of a poker session. I was given to steaming if someone gave me a bad beat after playing badly himself, and by allowing myself to feel angry or frustrated, I’d play worse than normal. I’d get bored and lose discipline and play more hands than I should, or passively chase draws even when the odds weren’t right for it. I’d lose more money playing badly than I won when I was playing well. The essential attribute of a poker player is that he must not be results-oriented, for good play is rewarded only in the long run, but must instead always focus on doing the right thing, making the correct play, regardless of its immediate consequence. (A la what Krishna said in the Bhagwad Gita.) It took time for me to cultivate that detachment in myself. (Having my iPod and Kindle with me helped conquer impatience.) Luckily, through that whole process, I remained a profitable player.
I also grew close to some of the other poker obsessives I played with. There is a strange dissonance at play here: on one hand, I wanted nothing more than to take the money of these people I played with, and I knew they wanted to empty my pockets as well; on the other, some of them became close friends, far more so than colleagues in an office would. Perhaps that is not quite so surprising: this was not an ordinary workplace where we met every day, but an emotionally fraught battlefield, such an unusual one that none of our non-poker playing friends could ever understand what it was truly like.
I also spent a while playing at a nearby club where some informal poker tables ran, and between these two places, met a wider cross-section of people than I would in any conventional job. Any writer would cherish meeting so many unusual characters: S, the government contractor who did not understand the game, was a true addict, and would mechanically push chips to the middle, pot after pot, every night, until his sources of funding, a probable by-product of Nehruvian socialism, dried up and he disappeared; P, the Delhi businessman who reportedly dropped around 75 lakhs over six months, and had to take a large loan from M, a player-cum-moneylender, who lent money at exorbitant rates (M was barred from Hunter’s game, though, which was relatively clean); B, the 20-year-old whose parents thought he was away nights because he worked in a call center, and who is now a full-time bookie; R, a reckless young gambler who called himself the Tom Dwan of Lokhandwala, and got into debts that he paid off by selling seats to a college where his father was a trustee; and others such as a couple of Bollywood actors and a cricketer who was as fearless on the poker table as on the field. (I say this in a good way.) They were fascinating people by themselves, but even more so in the context of this dramatic game, where emotional upheaval is routine.
The swings had a huge impact on us. On a day when I won a lot, I’d walk out with a lilt to my step, on top of the world, filled with self esteem and confidence, and women on the street would turn to look at me. When I lost, I’d be deflated and depressed, asking myself metaphysical questions not just about the point of this pursuit but of any pursuit. Eventually we got used to these fluctuations, as we needed to in order to stay sane. Our approach to money changed as well. Quite often, we’d have breakfast at the nearby Lokhandwala MacDonald’s; but equally often, a couple of us would head to the Juhu Marriott for the excellent breakfast buffet there. Earlier, in my middle-class way, I’d consider a Marriott breakfast an occasional extravagance. But now, when we were winning or losing over 30k in a day, we felt entitled to it. It cost, after all, no more than six big blinds. Or three straddles. Half a c-bet. Looking at the world through this prism made everything seem cheaper—though while at the tables, we never thought of the chips in terms of their real value, or we’d have been paralysed into inaction. (‘I can buy two iPads with the money I’m about to bet. OMG!’)
All this while, I kept going to Goa regularly. Last year, there was at least one tournament series every month; this year, one can easily spend four weekends there playing tournies continuously. I ended 2010 well, reaching seven final tables out of 14 tournaments played, including a second-place finish. But as I spent the first half of 2010 running bad in tournaments, I would put down both my good streak and my bad one to variance: these were short-term results, and the sample size was so small that it would be foolish to read too much into them. My focus remained cash games—until May this year.
By May, I’d overcome a downswing in the first part of the year—January was my only losing month—and had arrived at a healthy daily rate of profitability. But my game had stagnated, and I felt I needed to up it a notch. I decided to give up the potential earnings of the live games I played, and instead focus in a direction where immediate payouts weren’t likely: online poker.
Online poker is far tougher than live poker. The world’s best players play online, multi-tabling furiously, using complex tools that analyse their opponents’ historical betting patterns and raising frequencies. It is an evolved, highly technical battlefield, and most local players I played with had, like me, been small net losers online—despite a good streak here or there. Unlike many of them, I did not want to rationalise this away by cribbing that online poker was rigged. I wanted to conquer the beast.
Around the middle of this year, I joined a team put together by Adi Agarwal, a 26-year-old from Kolkata who has won more than US$ 3 million online in the last four years. (This is a matter of public record, by the way: there are websites that compile online results across all major sites, and everyone’s results, provided you know their username, are publicly available.) He had also finished in the top 100 of the main event of the World Series of Poker, the de facto world championship. (He declares his poker income and pays his taxes, for what it’s worth.) Adi wanted to stake us to play online and local tournaments with his money: in return, he’d get 50% of all winnings. Most importantly, he would go through our hand histories and actively coach us, taking care of leaks in our games. This was a win-win arrangement: it was risk-free in terms of investment for me, and a top player would share his insights on the game with me—almost akin to a tennis rookie being coached for free by an elite pro. And if his team played well, Adi would also stand to make more money than he could just playing on his own. (Such staking arrangements are very common, and most top players, to reduce variance, are part of such staking stables.)
For the last three months, thus, I’ve been playing at home. I’ve invested in a giant screen for my desktop, on which I can tile 20 tables at the same time. At 9pm, I start my online grind. At peak frequency, around midnight, I’m playing around 12 tables. By the time the night winds up, at around 8 in the morning, I’ve played over 30 tournaments. There is a five-minute break every hour, in which I have to pee/make coffee/get Red Bull from the fridge/make my ham-and-salami sandwich and so on. I also have the team on Skype, and we discuss poker, and how we could have played certain hands differently, and so on.
There is a method to this madness. Luck, or variance, plays a big role in poker in the short run, and the best way to counter this is to bring the long run closer by playing a lot. Online, you play many more hands per hour than you do live, and you can play multiple tables at the same time. The volume of play you put it, thus, could make a night of online poker equal to two months of live poker. If you play correctly, you are much more likely to be profitable—and the fields in online tournaments are so large that the occasional huge payout is likely for a good player. Just a month ago, I was chip leader in the biggest weekly tournament, the Sunday Million, with 25 people left. The first prize was over US$ 200,000; I ended up 18th for a fraction of that. An online grinder can make a healthy living stringing together smaller wins; but when the big one comes, it can be life-changing.
I still play live tournaments in Goa, though, and have won two in the last month. Hunter’s game in Mumbai has shut down for a host of reasons, one of them being a comical raid by the Anti-Terrorist Squad—a surreal story for another day. As many as four of the other regulars from that game have turned pro, and two of them regularly play high-stakes games in Goa, and speak of winning or losing five lakhs in a session as they used to speak of 50k swings six months earlier. The poker boom has only just started in India, and despite pending legal issues, hinging around poker’s acceptance as a game of skill, poker seems almost certain to become one of the country’s most popular sports.
And what about the way poker has consumed my life? I write a blog named India Uncut, which at its peak, when I wrote five posts a day, got 10,000 pageviews a day and had 17,000 RSS feed subscribers. Recently, I went two months without a post. My first novel, My Friend Sancho, was well received and sold well, but I just haven’t made enough progress on another one. (Among other projects, I’m planning a crime novel featuring a poker-playing detective who uses the cognitive tools he’s refined through playing the game to solve cases in the real world. A good way to bring my passions together, you think?)
When I gave up the corporate life to be a full-time writer, I had decided that I would only have one yardstick to judge my life: Do I wake up every morning looking forward to a day at work? And hell, I certainly do begin every day just waiting to being dealt in. I even played through an entire session in a dream one day, figuring out ranges and calculating equity in hand after hand after hand. And while I’ve given myself a deadline to start writing seriously again, until then, I will give myself up to this obsession. My chips are in the middle—I’m all in.
* * * *
And here’s a box that accompanied the piece:
There is an old saying that poker is the easiest game to learn and the hardest to master. Luckily, there are plenty of resources online you could use for either purpose. There are many sites where you could learn the basics of the game, but for a pithy explanation of the rules of the game, you could just start with Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_hold_%27em
The best site to play online is Pokerstars, at http://www.pokerstars.com. It’s the world’s biggest poker platform, is reliable and trustworthy, and while it doesn’t accept deposits from Indian credit cards, there are other deposit options that could help you get around that.
And so blogging resumes on India Uncut with an ironic act: a link to an essay by James Surowiecki, ‘Later’, which deals with procrastination. As I’ve been meaning to restart regular blogging for quite a while now, that link seems apt—and yes, I’ve finished reading the essay.
Surowiecki quotes an economist who describes procrastination as “a basic human impulse,” which provides me with a little (only a little) comfort. I procrastinate in every area of my life, not just blogging. My Gmail inbox probably has as many starred emails as unstarred ones, testimony of how many people must be angry with me because I haven’t replied. My tax returns are delayed, my hair is long and manic because I’m always getting a haircut tomorrow, my Kindle is full of books I intend to read, or have started reading, but never gotten down to finishing. And there, in the background, is the question of when I get down to writing my next book. But there are more mundane matters to sort out first—and such it goes.
So anyway, a man’s gotta get down to doing essential things at some point or the other, and this blog is one of them. Starting today, therefore, expect regular blogging and tweeting. Seriously. This time, I mean it.
Two bits of good news for long-suffering India Uncut readers:
1] Yahoo! Opinions, the section of columns at Yahoo! edited by me, has resumed operation.
2] India Uncut is also now going to wake up from slumber and become regular again. I know I’ve promised this before and gone right back to sleep, so this time it’s not too credible, but hell, give me a chance. For around four of the six-plus years this blog has been in existence, I wrote an average of five posts a day, so I certainly am capable of getting that momentum going.
But how can I write more posts if I don’t finish this one?
Posted by Amit Varma on 05 April, 2011 in
I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish. That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation. I wish that children nowadays could have similar experiences, but it’s not very easy.
I think Miyamoto’s lament holds true not just for kids but for all of us. We are desensitized and apathetic, and there is no sense of wonder in our lives anymore. How does one recapture it? I don’t think going back to nature and escaping from the urban grind is an answer in itself. Those of us who do that do it as an anaesthetic or a balm. There has to be something more.
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.
For a blogger who once took pride in writing five posts a day, my decline has been startling. For the last few months, I’ve basically gone into hibernation, popping up only to post my column for Yahoo!, Viewfinder, on IU—and that too, often weeks late. This is shocking and will not do. I protest. I am deeply pissed with myself.
So here’s my new year resolution for 2011, taken a few days in advance: I will get back to blogging, perhaps not a few posts a day, but certainly a few posts a week. I will also tweet. I will make up for my abandonment of you with a series of blazing, insightful posts that, in the manner of much that you read in the blogosphere, you will forget in the time it takes to finish a cup of coffee. What is life without these momentary pleasures?
On to more mundane matters: some of you may have noticed that the entire Yahoo! columns section has disappeared off their site. This is in no way a consequence, as one imaginative reader speculated, of my scathing attack on the Indian media in the last installment of Viewfinder. Instead, this has happened because the columns section is shifting publishing platforms in Yahoo!, and while we get the new one ready, the old one has gone offline for all kinds of complicated technical reasons. The section will resume in a few days, and the archives will be up again, so chill and go easy on the salt, it’s not good for your blood pressure.
In more immediate news, I feature as a talking head in the latest episode of the CNBC TV18 show, Storyboard, hosted by Anuradha SenGupta. The show deals with the emergence of “the empowered digital citizen” in India in 2010, and Santosh Desai, Sevanti Ninan (of The Hoot) and Neeraj Roy are the other guests. It will, no doubt, be online on their website soon, but if you’re old-fashioned like me and like to watch TV shows on TV, you can tune in to it at 8.30am and 2.30pm today (Saturday, Dec. 25) or 11.30am and 9.30pm tomorrow. I hate watching myself on TV, so I’ll probably give it a skip, but you’re welcome to point and laugh.
Phew. That’s more blogging than I’ve done in months. I’ll take a break now, but I’ll be back soon, right after a non-commercial break.
Growing up, I was a lucky kid. My father was an avid reader, and his collection of books numbered in the thousands. It wasn’t a surprise, then, with books all around me, that I became a keen reader as well. At an age when other children dream of being astronauts or movie stars or cricketers, I wanted to be a writer. And I wasn’t just reading Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys—at age ten, I discovered a book called The House of the Dead, thought the title indicated a thrilling read, and embarked on my first foray into serious literature. It happened to be written by a dude named Dostoevsky, and while it didn’t contain the ghost stories I expected, it got me hooked. Dostoevsky was my first favourite, and I admit that looking back on it, I find it a bit freaky that I read all the major Russian novelists at age ten, and all of Shakespeare as well. (I liked Titus Andronicus more than Macbeth, so it’s fair to say that my tastes weren’t all that refined.)
My reading habit ebbed and flowed over the years. From a weird-ass, serious geeky kid who read a lot, I turned into a rebellious teenager who wore torn jeans, listened to alternative rock and didn’t read all that much. But one thing didn’t change: the desire to be a writer. After college, I wandered into copywriting, then into writing for television, then journalism, then blogging, and then after years of procrastination that I blame on my half-Bengali genes, I finally wrote my first novel a couple of years back. None of this would have been possible if my dad hadn’t been such a collector of books, and if serendipity hadn’t started at home. Forget the fact that I am a writer: I’d be an entirely different person if I hadn’t been the kind of reader that I was. My life would have been diminished.
As it happens, I have become a bit of a book collector like my father was, and while he lived in large, spacious bungalows all his adult life, I have lived in relatively small apartments in Mumbai for much of mine, and the thousands of books I own have created a major storage issue. The bookshelves are overflowing; all the beds with storage space are filled with books; there are three cupboards filled with books; the tables and sofas in my living room overflow with them. So it’s a surprise that I held out for so long before buying my first Kindle.
One reason I didn’t buy the Kindle earlier is that I like the feel of books in my hand. (Not so much the much-touted smell of paper, because years of sinus issues have ravaged my sense of smell.) Also, I used to think that I wouldn’t like the Kindle because one can’t read off a computer screen for too long. However, on using a friend’s Kindle, I discovered that the E Ink technology that the Kindle uses replicates the look of print on paper almost exactly, and is easy on the eyes. (No backlit screens and all that.) Also, the marketplace, which was once a bit limited, has now expanded, and book prices are quite affordable: often cheaper than you’d get in a real bookshop, and when it’s not, the premium is worth it in terms of convenience and storage space. So I’ve gotten myself a Kindle 3, and I love the machine already: it’s lighter than a paperback, can contain thousands of books, and the look and feel is just wonderful.
But I’m not writing this column to evangelize the Kindle as a device. I’m writing, instead, because while browing the online store, I remembered my privileged childhood. I bought a handful of books on my first day with the machine, but the vast majority of the hundreds of books I downloaded in my first few hours with it were free. Every book published before 1924 is in the public domain, and therefore free to download. So there I was, reliving my childhood, downloading Dostoevsky and Turgenev and Dickens and Shakespeare and Mark Twain and even some of Agatha Christie and Wodehouse on my Kindle—for free. In half a day, I put together a collection of books that must have taken my father years of perseverance and saving up to compile. To me, that is a matter of great wonder.
For someone who doesn’t like children very much, and chose long ago not to have any himself, I will now have the audacity to give the parents reading this piece a word of advice: kindle your children. The biggest thing you can do for your kids is open up the world to them, and reading is a great way of doing that. One can’t force kids to read, of course, but merely having books around the house is often enough. (Most avid readers I know picked up the habit that way.) The Kindle—or any other ebook reader that you prefer—saves you a lot of trouble and makes it easy to put a world of books at your kids’ disposal. So here’s what I suggest: gift your kid a Kindle, load it up with a library of free classic books, and set up a one-click payment system through a debit card with a monthly budget so that your kids can buy a reasonable amount of books themselves, regularly, without your supervision. Give them the power—and set them free. There is a good chance that, 30 years later, they will thank you for it. And, thanks to the wonders of technology, it will take you far less effort than it took my dad.
Location: A small preview theatre in South Mumbai. Characters: Five members of the Censor Board for Cinema in India, and a young bespectacled man, his brows furrowed, looking younger than his years despite streaks of grey in his hair. They are watching a film called Lunch, Snacks aur Dhokla.
The film is centred around the instinct to eat, and the desire for food that is an undercurrent in all our social interactions. Through the film, hidden cameras show people engaged in the act of wanting to eat, plotting about eating, dreaming of food and, in a scandalous five-minute scene, two characters actually sitting at a table and eating food. It is a provocative sequence: two people, alone together with their desire, shamelessly, repeatedly, keep thrusting food into their oral orifices, and then chewing, chewing, chewing.
So far, the censors have been tolerant. Barring the occasional small change, such as asking that a clearly racist putdown of black coffee be chopped, they haven’t been demanding. But at the end of this bold scene, they ask for the film to be paused. The censors whisper among themselves, so softly that the director can practically hear his racing heartbeat. Finally, the chief censor asks the director to step forward.
“This is too much,” says the safari-suit clad optician. “We cannot have this scene. You must cut it.”
“But I’ve applied for an ‘A’ certificate,” says the director. “What’s wrong with it if only adults see it?”
“Our society is not ready for it. Even our adults need to be protected from themselves. We know what’s good for them, trust me. Cut that scene.”
The director swallows his pride, forgets all his logical arguments, and begs. This works. The censors allow him to keep half the scene. Five minutes becomes two-and-a-half minutes of raw, unrestrained, uninhibited eating. It is more than the director could have hoped for 20 years ago—but that’s poor consolation. He gets home just in time for dinner and, while having sex, starts crying.
* * * *
The scene above is my reconstruction of what the film-maker Dibakar Banerjee might have gone through when the censor board saw his film Love Sex aur Dhokha, based on my friend Rahul Bhatia’s report in Open magazine. The only difference is that I’ve replaced sex with eating. This is a significant difference, and turns the scene at the censor board from one that is routine and expected to something surreal. And yet, in my view, it is absurd that this difference should exist.
Sex and eating are both acts that are central to our existence. We are hardwired for hunger and lust. These are the primal instincts that drive us, and are at the heart of all our motivations. And yet, our attitudes towards them are so different.
We eat openly, and talk about food openly. It is not socially unacceptable to ask a friend of the opposite sex if she has tried the seafood risotto at the new Italian restaurant down the road—but ask her if she’s tried the reverse cowgirl position, and you’ll get some strange looks, especially if there are other people around. We can ask people out for dinner—and yet, not ask them casually if they’d like to have sex with us. (Though the former is often intended as a prelude the latter.) We have to find roundabout ways of getting to the point. (In evolutionary terms, the only point.)
We might admire foodies for their taste and discernment, but we look down on a woman who ‘sleeps around.’ (Indeed, the word ‘slut’ is a pejorative, which is so WTF.) We don’t talk about sex openly, and in some cultures more than others, feel embarrassed by public displays of affection. Most bizarrely, in an Indian context, we censor the depiction of sex in our movies, even in those certified for adults alone, as if we became a nation of more than 1 billion people by kissing with our lips closed. It is absurd—as absurd as the scene that begins this piece.
* * * *
Thankfully, literature does not have to deal with the restrictions that film-makers face. Those battles were won long ago, and it is not uncommon for a mainstream novel to feature detailed and evocative descriptions of all kinds of sexual acts, with a straightforward frankness that most cinema, even in the West, cannot match. I say ‘thankfully’, because of a recent assignment I’ve just taken up: I’ve been asked to put together Electric Feather 2, Tranquebar’s follow up to Electric Feather, the groundbreaking anthology of erotic fiction from South Asia, which was edited by the novelist Ruchir Joshi. I’m excited by the task ahead of me, not just from the point of view of enjoying erotic writing, but also from a literary point of view.
The Indian subcontinent is a sexually repressed region which is just beginning to stumble towards modernity. This is a land where the 19th century coincides with the 21st—and they often share a bedroom or a head. Sex is one of the major fault lines in our society, and a literature that attempts to capture these times will, at some level, have to enter that territory. An anthology of erotica from the subcontinent is, thus, much more than a chance to create a naughty collection that you can read in the loo: it is a serious literary project than can aspire to make contemporary readers sit up with the shock of recognition—and readers a hundred years from now to say, ‘Ah, so that is how it was.’
I’m already approaching writers I admire for submissions to the anthology. And I’m also open to new voices, or voices that I may simply not be aware of, in my ignorance. So if you are a writer and think you’d be interested in contributing, do write to me at amitblogs[AT]gmail[DOT]com.
* * * *
It’s a little ironic that I should be editing this collection, because I find writing about sex immensely hard—only partly because of the absurdity of the act itself. As a fiction writer, I try to keep my writing at a minimal and functional level. I don’t have a taste for baroque, expressionistic writing, and I also do not like writing that shows a fetish for description. Given that writing about sex is usually descriptive, and often lushly so, I tend to skim over those bits when they pop up in books. The subject is such that you have to be pitch-perfect when you attempt it, and that makes it very hard. No wonder so many otherwise great writers have performed so ineptly at writing about sex, as a glance at the past shortlists of the Bad Sex Writing awards would demonstrate.
That said, I’d rather have the writers in this anthology overreach instead of holding themselves back. As in sex itself, if they avoid self-consciousness and just enjoy themselves, it should work out okay.
Let’s take a break from serious column writing this week. Here’s a short story I wrote a long time ago that has just been published by Rupa as part of a collection of Indian short stories, Why We Don’t Talk. It’s called ‘Urban Planning’, and features, in a side role, Abir Ganguly, the narrator of my novel My Friend Sancho.
‘The commissioner will see you now,’ said Gaitonde, the secretary of the municipal commissioner of Mumbai, to Abir Ganguly, the journalist from The Afternoon Mail.
Ganguly walked into BR Sharma’s office. He walked up to his desk and offered him his hand. BR Sharma pretended to look at his mobile phone. ‘Sit down, Ganguly,’ he said. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Sir, I need to ask you a question about the recent move of the Mumbai Stock Exchange from Worli to Vashi. I need to know if your office authorised it.’
‘Well, yes, we were told the stock exchange is moving, and we do not have a problem with that. We were told it will relieve pressure off the city center towards New Mumbai. That is a good thing.’
‘Well, sir, I am just coming from Vashi. From the stock exchange building.’
‘It’s ready already? The new building? How is it?’
‘The new building is the old building, sir.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The new building is the old building. The stock exchange has shifted, but not from one building to another. The Mumbai Stock Exchange building itself has shifted to Vashi. From Worli.’
‘The building itself? How is that possible?’
‘That’s what I’m here to ask you sir.’
‘So what is in Worli? Where, um, the building used to be?’
‘Sir, there is a Sulabh Shauchalaya there, and half of a public park. They used to be in Vashi.’
‘How can this be?’
‘That is what I am asking, sir?’
‘I will see for myself.’
* * * *
BR Sharma got into his Ambassador with the deputy commissioner for urban planning, S Lokapally. ‘Bahubali,’ said BR Sharma, ‘Do you have any idea what is going on here?’
‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’
‘Yes, sir. Lokapally.’
‘Ok. Lokapally, do you have any idea of what is going on here?’
* * * *
The ambassador stopped at where the gate of the Mumbai Stock Exchange used to be. There was a crowd of curious people being shepharded away by police. BR Sharma’s driver got out of the car, sprinted round to BR Sharma’s door, and held it open. BR Sharma got off, grabbed the belt of his trousers and, in an authoritative way that made it clear who the boss was, hauled it up by an inch. He really did need to go to the gym.
Oh, and the building wasn’t there.
As Ganguly had said, there was a Sulabh Shauchalaya and half a public park, with half a bench at one corner of it.
‘I have never seen anything like it before,’ said BR Sharma.
‘Neither have I, sir,’ said Lokapally.
‘Veeravalli,’ said BR Sharma.
‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’
‘Lokapally,’ said BR Sharma, ‘I want to get to the bottom of this. Institute an enquiry. Set up a committee. I want to know how that building got from here to there without our permission.’
* * * *
Later that evening, the municipal commissioner, the police commissioner and the home secretary were ushered into the chief minister’s office.
‘I want to know, how this can happen?’ asked Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil, the chief minister.
‘It is most worrying, sir,’ said BR Sharma. ‘I think this is a law and order issue. Our police is supposed to guard our property. How come none of the policemen saw this happen?’
JP Fernandes, the police commissioner, bristled at this. ‘Urban planning is the direct responsibility of the municipality,’ he said. ‘If a building moves from Point A to Point B, the municipality is responsible. Had I been asked to provide forces to defend any of the buildings in the city, I would have done so. Mumbai’s law and order is the best in the country.’
‘The best in the country, my foot,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Now a building has gone, tomorrow the whole of South Mumbai will move to New Mumbai, and your policemen will be sitting on the kattas putting oil on their paunches.’
‘Now now, Sharmaji,’ said JP Fernandes, ‘this is most unwarranted. Why don’t you first keep your buildings in their place?’
Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil stepped in. ‘Calm down, men. This is not the time to fight.’ He turned to Pravin Deshmukh, the home secretary. ‘Pravin, the inquiry committee will take some time to give their report. But the press is hounding us for answers now. What are we to tell them?’
‘I have an idea, sir,’ said Deshmukh. ‘Let’s tell them that we ourselves shifted the building from Worli to Vashi. We will say that it was a planned move by us, which saves on construction costs. We will be enigmatic about how we shifted the building, and will say that we cannot reveal our methods, it is a state secret. And we should guard the new location of the building, to make sure that nothing happens to that.’
‘Good idea,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. He turned to BR Sharma. ‘I would like you to speak for us at the press conference. And Fernandes, I want your forces guarding the Mumbai Stock Exchange round the clock. Okay.’
‘Yes, sir,’ the two men said together.
* * * *
BR Sharma waited until the flashbulbs stopped going off. Then he read out the statement prepared for him by Deshmukh’s secretary, Vincent Lobo. Then he asked for questions.
Ganguly, who’d had his ear to his mobile phone until a minute ago, popped his hand up.
‘Sir, can you tell us if the municipality plans to shift any more buildings in this manner?’
‘No. I mean yes. I mean yes, I can tell you that no, we will not shift any more buildings for now. One is enough.’
‘Well, sir, I have just got news on my cellphone that the Air India building has shifted to Mahim.’
‘Yes, sir. The Air India building has shifted from Nariman Point to Mahim. It is now in the middle of the road at the start of the Mahim-Bandra causeway. In its place in Nariman Point, according to what my colleague just told me on the phone, is a traffic signal with a bird on it.’
‘Yes, sir. A bird.’
* * * *
Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil was pacing up and down when BR Sharma entered his cabin.
‘Varma,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. ‘Here you are.’
‘Sir, my name is Sharma.’
‘Ok, Sharma. Look, these bloody journalists are hounding me, and my press officer will get an ulcer like this. And the PM has been calling, and I don’t know what to tell him. I need an explanation. I need this matter sorted out. Should we conduct a puja?’
‘Sir, I’ve already set up one enquiry commission. I’ll set up another one.’ This was unprecedented in terms of efficiency. Two enquiry commissions looking into the same thing? Amazing.
‘And what will your enquiry commissions do, ask the buildings why they moved?’
‘I know all about your bloody enquiry commissions. I want answers. I want to know how a building can move from here to there. And did nobody see it? Mumbai never sleeps, Mumbai never sleeps, we are told. Well, somebody must have seen the building shifting. Find him!’
* * * *
Three hours later, BR Sharma and Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil met again, this time in the police commissioner’s office. ‘We have a witness,’ said JP Fernandes. ‘He is waiting in the next room. He says he was staring at the Air India building when it moved.’
‘Why was he staring at it?’ asked BR Sharma.
‘What else could he stare at? Have you seen the other buildings there?’
The three men walked into the next room, where an old man in a dirty white kurta-pajama sat on a chair. His hair was ruffled. He clearly hadn’t bathed in many days, and the police inspector with him, Inspector Waghmare, held a handkerchief to his nose. (His own nose.)
‘So tell us the details now,’ barked Fernandes. ‘What did you see?’
‘Sir, I was sitting at the paanwalla opposite the Air India building, just about to put a paan into my mouth, when I heard a loud thud. I looked at the building. It was shaking.’
‘Yes, sir. And then a lighting bolt appeared and hit my paan.’
‘A lightning bolt? Your paan?’
‘Yes, sir. And then Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, appeared before me in a silk Banarasi saree with lots of gold jewellery. She wore a red bindi on her forehead. She had a Rolex watch on her wrist. She had a twinkle in her eye.’
Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil looked at BR Sharma. BR Sharma looked at Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.
‘She told me,’ the witness continued, ‘that all my good deeds had finally borne fruit, and she was going to make me rich beyond my wildest dreams. She was going to give me a prime parcel of land in South Mumbai. The plot that was behind her at that moment, in fact.’
‘And what did you say?’
‘I said, but Deviji, there’s a building there.’
* * * *
BR Sharma’s phone rang. It was his secretary. ‘Sir, Mr Lokapally says that the enquiry commission is gathered in the conference room. They are waiting for you.’
‘Let them wait,’ thundered BR Sharma. ‘I am the municipal commissioner of Mumbai. Let them wait. And, er, have you organised samosas?’
‘Yes, sir. The samosas are on their way to the conference room.’
‘I’ll be there in a minute.’ BR Sharma hitched up his belt, smoothened his shirt, patted his paunch consolingly, and headed towards the conference room. The samosas were already there, and many of them were being eaten.
‘You are here!’ said BR Sharma.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Lokapally. ‘We were waiting for you.’
BR Sharma grabbed a samosa and looked around the table. He was bad at names, but he knew what they all did. There was an architect, a civil engineer, an urban planner and the head of the Mumbai Stock Exchange at the table.
‘Tell me, gentlemen, what do you make of what has just happened?’
‘Sir, it is not possible,’ said the civil engineer.
‘What is not possible?’
‘Sir, the building shifting like that. It is is not possible. You see, buildings have deep foundations, and they cannot just…’
‘But it has shifted,’ BR Sharma exclaimed. ‘What do you mean it is not possible? It has happened.’
‘We should deny it, sir. We should deny it repeatedly, and after a while, people will forget about it.’
BR Sharma stared at him. Yes, that was the standard practice in public life. But not for something like this, surely. He turned to the architect.
‘Architect,’ he barked, ‘tell me, what do you think?’
‘Sir, it is too early to say. I agree with my esteemed colleague here that it is not possible…’ – he clearly hated his esteemed colleague – ‘but the building has shifted, and the matter must be examined. And we shall examine it. We are the committee. In fact, I suggest we constitute a fact-finding mission to Japan. I volunteer to head it.’
‘Why, have any buildings shifted there?’
‘No, sir, not like this. But their architecture is advanced. Their buildings are made to be earthquake-proof. Maybe if the stock exchange was made with that technology, it would not have moved.’
BR Sharma knew this was ridiculous. Junkets were good, junkets were healthy, but not at a time like this. He turned to the urban planner and asked him his opinion.
‘Sir, the shift is poorly planned,’ he said. ‘If I was carrying out such a shift, I would not have left half a bench in Vashi and brought the other half to Worli. We must find out who is responsible.’
BR Sharma sighed. He looked at the head of the stock exchange, whose name was SK Gindotra, he now remembered. Gindotra had been a classmate of his in school. He used to play badminton.
‘Gindotra, what about you? What hypothesis do you have?’
‘These samosas are damn good, Sharma,’ said Gindotra. ‘As for what hypothesis do I have, I have none. I don’t know how the damn building shifted. There are limits to my knowledge, and I accept that with great humility. But I do know this: you government people don’t have the slightest clue about what is happening. You are running around like headless chickens, and I am enjoying the sight. I just wish my bloody commute was suddenly not so long.’
BR Sharma looked at Gindotra, and a wave of affection rushed through him. Yes, the samosas were good.
* * * *
Outside, the media wallahs gathered.
‘This is Ashok Brihanchaputlakumar from New Bharat TV,’ barked one young man into a TV camera. ‘We are gathered outside the municipal commissioner’s office in Mumbai – but who knows, we may suddenly find that the office has disappeared and is in Delhi now. No, dear viewers, I am not joking. All over Mumbai, buildings are going from one location to another. The Mumbai Stock Exchange has shifted from Worli to Vashi. The Air India Building is now in Mahim. No one knows how this has happened. No one saw this happen.’
Now he began to wail.
‘Is this the coming of kalyug? Is this a plot by Pakistan? Is this a plot by the CIA? The government owes us an answer, and we at New Bharat TV will get you an answer. We will wait here until BR Sharma comes out, and we will ask him some hard questions. For you! We will do it for you! For the nation! Our great India! We want answers! Aaaaanswers!’
At this point, Ashok Brihanchaputlakumar had an epileptic fit and passed out.
‘Sir,’ said Lokapally inside the building. ‘A reporter seems to have fainted outside.’
‘Go out and make sure he is taken to the newest hospital,’ said BR Sharma, ‘wherever it is.’
* * * *
That evening, BR Sharma sat in the loo. If the chair in his office was his seat of power, the commode in his loo at home was the seat of peace and calm. No one could disturb him here.
But he wasn’t at peace now. Why were these buildings moving around like this?
The art of government, he had learnt early in his career, is the art of confidence. A government servant may not be in charge of a certain situation – but he must pretend to be. The public looks to the government to control the economy, to maintain law and order, to make sure everything in its cities and towns works. Often, governments may have no control over these things – and little understanding of them. Still, people have blind faith in governments, and if that faith is broken, all is anarchy.
So when a crisis comes, you need to signal to the common folk that you are in command, and are taking action. Make statements in the press; institute a committee; issue a show-cause notice to someone; or, if nothing else works, distract the media by raiding a dance bar. Do something.
BR Sharma had once been part of a committee that was investigating rising prices in Maharashtra. Among the nine members of that committee, eight had different theories about why prices were rising and how they could be countered. BR Sharma did not have an opinion on this matter. There were too many factors involved in such phenomena, and as long as Mrs Sharma did not complain to him about why onions were 25 rupees a kilo, he really didn’t care.
That committee didn’t actually end up doing anything. But the government said a committee was at work, thus showing that they were fixing the problem – and the next year, monsoons were good, and prices came down. The committee patted itself on the back, and went for lunch to the Taj, where BR Sharma had seven golden-fried prawns followed by half a sushi platter. He had a stomach upset the next day and did not go to work, because of which Mumbai stopped running, suddenly confused about what to do.
Now, again, there was a big problem and the people of his city had turned to its municipal commissioner. And BR Sharma didn’t have a damn clue about what to do. If this matter wasn’t sorted out quickly, people’s trust in government would disappear. Like a child who learns that there is no Santa Claus, the people of Mumbai would lose the faith – and they would never regain it.
BR Sharma made a face. His nutritionist had been right, he really did need to have more fibre in his diet.
* * * *
The next morning, traffic was slower than usual. The road down Mahim Causeway that led to town was blocked because of the Air India building, and the load on alternative routes was immense. BR Sharma had foreseen this, and had reached office at seven-thirty, before the rush hour traffic became really bad. He had tossed and turned all night, and his eyes were red.
At 9.30, his mobile phone rang. He looked at the caller ID. It was Abir Ganguly, that damn reporter.
‘Hello, Mr Sharma. This is Abir Ganguly. You won’t believe this, but I am at Madh Island.’
‘Ganguly, you are calling me to tell me you are in Madh Island? What am I supposed to with that information? Why is it important to me? I am fed up of you!’
‘No, sir, this is important. It’s like this, five minutes ago, I was on my way to Worli. Now I am in Madh Island. That is because the Bandra-Worli Sea Link has now become the Versova-Madh Island Sea Link.’
BR Sharma gulped. Had he heard correctly? Was he dreaming?
‘Yes, sir, I kid you not, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link now connects Versova and Madh Island. And I really would like your quote on this matter, sir? Has this also been planned by the government? Why weren’t commuters warned about it earlier?’
‘The monsoons,’ said BR Sharma. ‘It must be the monsoons.’
‘Nothing,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Look, I can’t comment on this till I set up an enquiry and we get more information on this. But I can tell you one thing off the record?’
‘The next time a building moves, please do not call me. Assume that I already know. I am the municipal commissioner of this city. I know everything.’
* * * *
At noon, BR Sharma was in Worli, at the exact spot where the Sea Link used to begin. (Or end, depending on whether you lived in South Mumbai or North Mumbai.) With him were Lokapally, JP Fernandes and Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.
‘I think we are ready,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil, looking up at the nearest street light. ‘Varma, switch it on.’
‘Sir, my name is Sharma.’
‘Sharma, switch it on.’
‘Mahakali, switch it on.’
‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’
‘Lokapally, switch it on.’
Lokapally spoke into his phone, and the street light came on. The four men stared into the sea – as did their 40 or so minions there, who would not have dared to look elsewhere while their bosses were looking in that direction.
‘Nothing happened,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.
‘Yes, sir,’ said BR Sharma.
‘This is the beauty of science,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. ‘Now we know what does not work.’
He turned around and walked away. He had been told that just before the Sea Link disappeared, one of the streetlights there, which had been on a few hours longer than it should have been, had been switched off. Light off – Sea Link gone. Correlation – causation. So Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil wanted to see if turning the light back on would bring the Sea Link back. No such luck.
‘If a hen had laid an egg here just before the Sea Link vanished,’ said JP Fernandes to BR Sharma, ‘I wonder if our honorable chief minister would have tried to push the egg into the hen’s arse. What do you think?’
‘I don’t know. But I do know this: If there was a hen here this morning, it’s no longer here. It’s disappeared.’
* * * *
From there, BR Sharma went home for lunch. There was nothing to be done. He had set up another committee that morning, but he was confident nothing would come of it. He had read all the newspaper reports on this subject, but none of them had the slightest clue of what could have caused this.
Some commentators were putting forth theories that pushed forward whatever agenda they believed in. Swami Ramdas said that God was punishing Mumbai for its immoral ways, and for its tolerance of homosexuals. TV Iyengar said that while the specifics needed to be examined, this was surely the fault of unbridled capitalism. MS Azmi blamed global warming. Ravikiran Sabnis said that this proved that government had failed, and that markets would fix this. And Govind Joshi said that this was all the fault of allowing migrant labour into Mumbai.
They were all mad. BR Sharma wanted to line them up in front of a wall somewhere and shoot them with a water pistol. Just like that.
‘I heard about the Sea Link on the news,’ Mrs Sharma said. ‘This is so strange. Are you all right?’
‘This is like you running off with the driver,’ said BR Sharma.
‘With Prem Singh? Why would I run off with Prem Singh?’
‘No, not you literally, and not Prem Singh literally. I mean, a guy thinks his life is just fine, then one day his wife runs off with his driver. All his certainties are shattered. He loses faith. This is like that.’
‘But have you seen Prem Singh’s face? He must be earning so little. Why would I run off with him?’
‘It’s an analogy,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Don’t take it literally.’
‘You are very disturbed. Why don’t you stay at home today and not go back to work? You need to rest.’
‘I think I’ll do just that,’ said BR Sharma. He had already put his phone on silent. He glanced at it: 279 missed calls.
Mrs Sharma set the lunch out on the table. Baingan ka bharta. Dal. Some chicken curry from last night. Chapatis. Rice. BR Sharma looked at the food and thought, how lucky I am. This was a good meal. He had a good life.
But he didn’t have an appetite, and after one-and-a-half chapatis, went to the bedroom to nap.
* * * *
In his dream, he woke up to the sound of waves. He went to the window, and found that his house was in the middle of the sea. He ran around the house, to all the windows: they were surrounded by water. Mrs Sharma sat in the living room, knitting.
‘You know, I’m missing my kitty party because of this,’ she said. ‘My mother was right: I should not have married you. You are good for nothing.’
‘Your mother said that?’
‘Maybe not. But she should have. Now see where you’ve gotten us. Do you even know where we are?’
BR Sharma looked out of the window. No, he did not know where they were. But he could see the sun setting in the distance. He looked at his phone. No signal. They were stuck.
And in Mumbai, he knew, where his house had been, there was now a pool of salt water. He could imagine Lokapally standing outside it, dialling his number furiously. Oh, how he wished the phone would ring now, so he could pick it up and say, ‘Lokapally, Lokapally, I remember your name!’
Earlier this week, my friend Arun Simha directed me to a post by the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, ‘The Woods’. Arun wrote, “Now that you’ve gone to your hideout, you will no doubt, relate.” I haven’t gone to any hideout, but I can understand why others get that impression: I’ve gone cold turkey on the internet, and much to my own surprise, have practically stopped blogging after six years of daily posting. So it seems like I’ve disappeared into the woods, though I’m still trapped in the city. Arun was right about one thing, though: I did relate to Coates’s post.
Part of it deals with the need to get away. Coates writes: “Years ago, when I was trying to be a poet, a good man told me ‘You can’t get better in a crowd.’ I thought about that after I broke my Iphone. I felt rather silly for ever even owning one, for advocating for one, because I think my need was essentially built on a desire to not be alone, to not face the terror of my own singular thoughts.”
I get that completely, because I’ve made the same cop-outs. I realised earlier this year, after a second self-aborted attempt at writing my second novel, that I needed to get away if I was ever to write seriously. I needed to escape both the city, with its crowds of people, and the internet, with the intellectual overload that it provides. Most importantly, I needed to escape the clutter of my own thoughts. I had to get to a quieter place, free from traffic (I don’t mean cars and bikes), and allow myself to discover the stories I wanted to tell.
I am not denying that we are a social species, or that people need people. One of the downsides of leaving regular employment to be my own master was that I was alone so much. I missed the water-cooler conversations, the idle office chatter, the bitching and the banter. I enjoyed the fact that the local Landmark Bookstore is in a mall, so after my book-and-magazine buying trips, I could hang out at the food court, nurse a double-shot Americano and observe life in action. (And in air conditioning.) I would often meet friends there and, I suspect, talk too much.
But society kills us also. When we are with other people, we aren’t quite ourselves. (Unless we’re really comfortable with them, in which case we could be accused of taking them for granted.) Always, in some small way, we are anxious. We want to be loved, respected, accepted, validated. That makes every human interaction, besides those that are sexual or violent, a charade of some sort. But this is not grand drama, it’s petty drama. It’s theatre that takes us away from ourselves, from “the terror of [our] own singular thoughts.”
Much of this drama is futile. Georges Simenon, when asked in a Paris Review interview (pdf link) in 1955 about the dominant themes of his work, replied: “One of them, for example, which will probably haunt me more than any other is the problem of communication. I mean communication between two people. The fact that we are I don’t know how many millions of people, yet communication, complete communication, is completely impossible between two of those people, is to me one of the biggest tragic themes in the world. When I was a young boy I was afraid of it. I would almost scream because of it. It gave me such a sensation of solitude, of loneliness.”
That solitude is inevitable, whether we are amid people or not. We are all lonely in crowds. But we are also often not ourselves in crowds. So there is a point to getting away, and sooner or later, I must do that.
* * * *
If you want a soundtrack for this piece, you could try Eddie Vedder’s ‘Society’, from where I’ve adapted the title of this post. Or one of my favourite songs of all time, ‘Unsatisfied’ by The Replacements.
* * * *
In his post, Coates also talks about his disillusionment with debate on the internet. I relate to that as well. Over the years, I’ve been in countless internet debates, across blogs and Twitter and all of that. I’ve argued for free speech and free markets and accountable governments and this and that, and I’ve come to realise that most of those arguments were not about free speech or free markets or accountable governments or this or that, but simply about one thing: whose dick is bigger.
Think about it, why do these discussions often get so heated and personal? It is not because there’s anything at stake—most of us can’t affect policy or shape public opinion, and much of what we argue about doesn’t even affect us directly. Instead, we take it so personally because our worldviews are part of our identity. They are how we make sense of the world and ourselves. So if someone attacks a part of our worldview, we react as if we ourselves have been attacked. In public. So we respond accordingly, unwilling, for the most part, to accept that we might be wrong, or that the truth might be too complex for any of us to fathom—or that this shit doesn’t really matter.
All the self-importance and self-righteousness you will find on the internet and elsewhere is self-delusion. It’s also peacock strutting, signalling, territorial display. It’s ‘My dick is bigger than yours’, gender no bar. (We find less loony women on the net, though, which surely says something.) There’s only so much one can take of that.
Needless to say, I’m not dissing the internet, or blogs. Blogging, as I have written before, has changed my life, and I’m grateful for that blessing. (Grateful to no one in particular, of course, being an atheist.) But more and more, I find myself uninterested in the conversations around me. What is there to be said that hasn’t been said already? What do our own words matter in that din?
* * * *
Back to Coates. In a blogosphere full of urgency and topicality, I find Coates’s blogging, laidback and introspective and so honest, a welcome break. Consider, for example, his post from last October, ‘Shame’. Look at those last two paragraphs. That is how it is done. It is timeless and transcendent.
I spend as much time playing poker these days as I once would spend reading and writing, and my friends sometimes ask me in jest what literature and poker have in common. My reply is that both provide an understanding of human nature. I am not being facetious.
Ever since I started playing poker seriously, I’ve held the view that poker reveals the way our brain is wired. For example, if we carry a list of cognitive biases with us to a poker session, and tick off the ones we witness in action, we’d probably run through the entire list by the end of the evening. If we’re aware of this, we can exploit these missteps in others—and avoid them in our own play.
In writing this article, I run the risk of revealing to my regular opponents a few of the tricks of my trade. But for the greater good of humanity, I shall lay those considerations aside. Here, then, are a few of the cognitive biases that come into play on a poker table.
1. The Sunk-Cost Fallacy. Suppose you are in office one day, and there is much buzz about a new Japanese restaurant that has opened round the corner. “Let’s go there for lunch,” you suggest. All your regular cronies concur, except one girl who says, “I so want to come, but I’ve got lunch from home, and it will be wasted.” That is her only reason for not coming. She doesn’t want the packed lunch, and would vastly prefer some unagi, but the Sunk Cost Fallacy comes in the way.
The logical way of thinking about this is that the packed lunch is a sunk cost—and that if she would otherwise prefer to come to the new Japanese restaurant, then she should ignore that sunk cost and come anyway. This is the same mistake many stock market investors make. They will buy a stock for, say, Rs 70. It will slip to Rs 60. Its downward momentum will make it logical to sell the stock, but they will reason that they have already lost Rs 10 on it, and will keep the stock in the hope of recovering that money somehow.
Poker players make the same error by throwing in good money after bad. Let us say that you have pocket aces. You raise pre-flop, a loose player calls, and the flop comes AQJ with two hearts. (You have none.) You have a set, but slow-playing is dangerous because of the flush and straight possibilities out there, so you make a pot-sized bet. Your opponent calls. The turn is a ten of hearts. You make a bet two-thirds the size of the pot, and your opponent raises three times that. For any good player, unless you have a read that the opponent is weak, this is an auto-fold. There are four cards to a straight out there, three to a flush, and if your opponent has one of those, you have exactly ten outs to a full house or quads, and the odds don’t justify continuing. But you say, “I have already spent so much money on this pot. All that will be wasted. I can’t leave now.”
Good poker players know that the money already in the pot no longer belongs to you, and that at every street you must make new evaluations about how to proceed. But we are human, we have put money in the pot, and it’s so hard to let it go. Isn’t it?
2. The Endowment Effect. The above poker example also illustrates the Endowment Effect, which Wikipedia describes as “a hypothesis that people value a good or service more once their property right to it has been established.” It’s been much written about recently in a slew of books about behavioural economics, and is a bias we often see in poker when a player ‘falls in love with his hand.’ In the above example, if you are a spectator watching the hand, it is obvious that the set of aces should be folded. In the middle of the action, though, you ascribe more value to the hand than you would if some other player held it because it’s your hand, and it’s so hard to let it go. Almost all regular players have faced a situation where they play AK, flop top pair-top kicker, but their bet on the flop encounters a big raise (or even an all-in) from a solid player who doesn’t make crazy moves. Seen from the outside, it’s time to consider folding, because he could have a set or two pair, but if you’re the guy holding AK, it’s so much harder to make that dispassionate decision.
When I started playing poker, I’d refer to this as the Starting Hand Bias. Weak players who hold JJ will often be reluctant to fold to a bet following a flop that has two overcards, and players who have AK or AQs will find it hard to give it away when they don’t connect on the flop. It takes discipline to overcome this bias and throw the hand away.
3. The Normalcy Bias.Wikipedia defines this as “an extreme mental state” that “causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster occurring and its possible effects.” This is related to the Availability Heuristic, “a phenomenon in which people predict the frequency of an event, or a proportion within a population, based on how easily an example can be brought to mind.”
Two examples come to mind from my own play, against the same opponent. In one case, there were four cards to a flush on the board, with no repeat cards, and I had the ace of that suit—in other words, the nut flush. But the four cards were connected with a gap in between, and there was the small chance that my opponent had the one card that made her a straight flush that beat my hand. I raised, she insta-reraised, and my read was that she was very strong. But I thought, “Nah, straight flushes are so rare, she can’t possibly have one.” I did refrain from re-reraising all-in, though, and merely called, to be shown the only hand that could beat mine.
In another hand, I had a full house and was reraised on the river. The only hand that could be beat me was quads, and my opponent, who is not difficult to read, showed immense strength. Quads are so rare, though, that I ignored my read and called. You guessed it: Black Swan event.
We see the same phenomenon when a player flops a low flush, and is quite happy to reraise all-in, assuming that his hand is surely the best hand, because hey, he can’t remember the last time two players flopped a flush. That’s exactly the kind of hand that busts players out of tournaments.
4. The Recency Effect. This can be defined as “the tendency to weigh recent events more than earlier events.” Wikipedia gives an example: “If a driver sees an equal total number of red cars as blue cars during a long journey, but there happens to be a glut of red cars at the end of the journey, they are likely to conclude there were more red cars than blue cars throughout the drive.”
In poker, this can lead us astray against loose opponents. Let us say that in the last half an hour of a session, you have seen a player raising with KQo, QTo, 79s, A6s and even 58o, all marginal (some outright dubious) hands, especially from early or middle position. So you’re in a hand where he’s raised from early position, and you have AJs. You reraise, he calls. The flop is A23 rainbow. He checks, you bet the pot, he reraises by three times, a move that recent evidence indicates he is capable of making with nothing. What do you do?
I’ve gone all-in a similar situation, only to be shown AK. I had fallen prey to the Recency Effect. I’d made a move based on his recent play, quite ignoring that even loose players get good cards, and that my hand, because of the jack kicker, was not quite a monster.
This is a bias that good players can exploit successfully by changing gear in the middle of a session. Play loose for a while, then suddenly go tight, and you will get paid off on premium hands. Play tight for a bit, and then make a bluff, and your opponents will give you more credit than is due and fold.
Also see: The Primacy Effect, “the tendency to weigh initial events more than subsequent events”. You often see sharks exploit this by starting a session with some loose play, for advertising effect, so they get paid off on their premium hands later by players overvaluing marginal holdings. In other words, these sharks behave like fish at the start of a session, and later go chomp chomp chomp.
5. The Confirmation Bias. This is the tendency to ignore all information that contradicts our preconceptions, and to treat all other information as evidence. People who believe in astrology, for example, will remember all the instances when an astrologer’s predictions came true, and ignore all the times they did not. Ditto homeopathy, and suchlike.
I see this all the time with poker players. I know players, for example, who love to play hands like 58o and 63, and will call big preflop raises with them. They have stories about how they once flopped a straight with 63, beating two opponents who had AA and QQ, and so on. Another player I know has a goofy theory that if two or three players have shown strength with preflop raises and reraises, and he has two low cards, he should call because the other all surely have high cards, so there is a greater probability of low cards hitting the board. (Go figure.)
Players with beliefs like this remember the handful of times such play works for them, and ignore all the other times when it doesn’t. If you play a hand like 85o, you will flop two pair or better approximately one in 34 hands. The rest of the time, you are basically losing money. Weak players remember the one time they hit—not the 33 times they don’t.
“I don’t play poker.” The protagonist of “The Crack of Doom”, a wonderful installment of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from 1956, says these words to a friend near the start of the film. As it proceeds, we find out why. When he was younger, his life was shaken up by the game. He got some bad beats at a poker session, lost his buy-in, and, his ego hurt, decided to buy back into the game and recover his losses. But it was night, his bank was shut, so he took four thousand dollars out of a ten-thousand dollar stack that had been given to him for official purposes. In case he lost it, he intended to pay it back the next morning by dipping into his savings account, where he had nine thousand dollars. Well, he lost it. So he went home, looked into his passbook, and found that his wife had withdrawn all their savings. He woke her up to ask her what had happened to it, and she tearfully confessed that she had blown it up in the stock market. (A more foolish option than investing in poker, if you ask me.) Our man was devastated. He faced humiliation and possibly jail for his behaviour. He was, effectively, a thief. He was doomed. Unless…
You got it. He went back to his office, took the remaining six thousand dollars and went back to the poker game, where he found himself, as the title suggests, on the crack of doom. I shall give no more away, you have to watch it for yourself. (The film is online in two parts, you can see it here: 1, 2.)
The form of poker they were playing in the film was five-card stud, which is rarely played these days: Texas hold ‘em is the most popular form. But apart from that, if you adjust for inflation, the film seems like it was made yesterday. Every regular poker player will find echoes of himself in the film: the compulsive need to get back to the table, the belief that a good run is just around the corner, the despondency on our hero’s face as he loses, and loses, and loses. We’ve all had sessions like that.
I’ve written in an earlier piece—‘The Beautiful Game of Poker’—about how poker is essentially a game of skill. The skill comes in being a winner in the long run, but in the short run, luck plays its part. People chase gutshot draws at a cost that is not justified by the pot odds and catch it on the river, 82 suited kicks the ass of AA after a pre-flop all-in is followed by a flush on the flop, a flopped straight is beaten by a runner-runner full house, bad beats pile up on bad beats. The thrill of being part of this action is similar to any other casino game where there is no skill involved and the odds are against you—roulette, for example.
Many poker players, such as me, disdain most other casino and card games—we treat poker as both a science (of mathematical probability and expectation) and an art (of reading people and navigating the shores of human behaviour), and certainly not as pure gambling. Not all poker players are like that. I play poker regularly in Mumbai and Goa, with different groups of people, and many of my poker buddies are in it for the thrill of gambling. They know the numbers, they understand the skill aspect of the game, but they don’t come to the tables because they value the intellectual and sporting challenge, but because they need their fix. They’re addicted.
In his recent book, What’s Luck Got to do With it?, Joseph Mazur speaks about how “recent research, using PET scans, suggests that pathological gamblers, alcoholics, and drug addicts have similar patterns of neural activity when exposed to their individual addictions. [...] PET scans of pathological gamblers show increased levels of dopamine during play and even more substantial increases during high-risk, high-stakes playing.” Such gamblers find it hard to stay away from the tables; they focus on their winning sessions and ignore their losses entirely; and they have weird notions of the lady we spend our lives wooing: Luck.
There are two fallacies in particular that help gamblers rationalise their behaviour. One is the Monte Carlo Fallacy, also known as the Gambler’s Fallacy, or the “law of averages.” As this post on the subject defines it, this is “the belief that the likelihood of a random event is influenced and/or predicted by other independent events.” For example, a roulette wheel comes up black five successive times, so you decide to bet on red because red “is due.” Or you flip an evenly weighted coin eight times and it lands on tails each time, so you figure that it surely must land on heads the next time it’s flipped. (The probability remains 50%; coins don’t have memories.) Compulsive gamblers fall prey to this fallacy all the time, telling themselves that their luck has been so rotten that things will surely change now, and that a good session is due. Of course, if they’re playing roulette or any of the casino games where the house has an edge, or if they’re playing poker without regard to its mathematical aspect, they are bound to lose in the long run, irrespective of the winning sessions that are inevitable (like a coin landing on heads five times in a row if you flip it long enough), and that they’ll selectively remember to justify their continued gambling.
The other fallacy is the Hot Hands Fallacy. This is the reverse of the Gambler’s Fallacy; in Mazur’s words, it is the tendency to “expect long runs of the same outcome to continue.” For example, if an evenly-weighted coin lands on tails eight times in a row, you expect it to land on tails the ninth time as well. If you flip a coin long enough, there will be successive streaks of the both tails and heads coming up too many times in a row for it to seem random, even though it is exactly that. Mazur writes, paraphrasing Amos Tversky, “People reject randomness and the mathematical expected number of runs because the appearance of long runs in short samples seems too purposeful to be random.”
I see this all the time in my poker sessions. Often, a losing player will get up from the table and say something like, “Yaar, aaj mere patte hit nahin ho rahe. Better not play any more today.” Or if he’s winning, “Today is my lucky day. I can feel it. And I have a good feeling about these cards.” And then he plays 85o and flops a straight, reinforcing his belief that luck is on his side. (If the flop is AKK, he folds and forgets that he had a ‘feeling’.) In Goa a couple of months ago, I sat at a cash table where a loaded gambler repeatedly called down a young man’s raises with shit cards, all the time saying things like “I shouldn’t play these cards, but I’m only playing them because you’re in the hand. My luck is running well against you.” He kept sucking out in outrageous fashion, and the youngster, a Ranbir Kapoor lookalike with curly hair, was sucked out of three or four buy-ins and went away shattered, his poor girlfriend in tow, unable to hang it out for the long term in which the fish’s ass would certainly have a hook through it.
In most facets of life, an irrational belief in luck is harmless. When it comes to gambling, though, it can cost serious money, and destroy lives. Mazur quotes an old Arab proverb in his book: “Throw a lucky man into the sea and he will come out with a fish in his mouth.” The truth, especially when it comes to poker, is that if you throw a gambler into the sea, he will be eaten by sharks.
* * * *
Just as we seek patterns where there are none on a roulette wheel or a poker table, we construct those narratives in life as well. The world is maddeningly complex, unfathomable and tragic. (Why tragic? Well, we all die and that’s that: there is no greater meaning or purpose behind the randomness of nature that created us.) To comprehend it, we try to fit everything into patterns, and build narratives that help us make sense of it. Some of these narratives happen to be true; many, when the truth is beyond us, are not. Religion is an example of this—but even though religion is irrational, it is perhaps necessary for a weak species like ours, which makes it rational to be irrational for many of us. But I’ll write about that some other day.
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.
The essence of sport is not triumph but tragedy. Every year, 128 men take part in the Wimbledon Men’s Singles, and 127 end their journey gutted, trying to smile while their insides are churning. For most of the 219 men racing the Tour de France this year, there will be more heartbreak than glory, and much pain along the way. Sport is not just the Spanish celebration of the recent World Cup, but Asamoah Gyan holding his head in his hands—not just after one missed penalty, but for the rest of his blighted life.
In poker, that tragedy is about the bubble. While most sports fans are detoxing from the football or following cycling or cricket or golf, a bunch of us have our eyes trained, through the lens of internet updates, on the main event of the World Series of Poker—the de facto World Championship. 7319 players entered this year, and 747 people were in the money. (747th prize is US$19,263—the winner will take home US$8.9 million.) The player who comes 748th is considered to be the ‘bubble boy’—or ‘in the bubble’.
Two hands of sporting tragedy. First, Angel Guillen, with all-powerful pocket aces in the hole, shoved all his chips in the middle, and was called by pocket jacks. Guillen had an 81% chance of winning the hand and surviving. The 19% held up, a jack came on the flop, and a dream was over. Guillen was 749th out of 7319 people, and had been busted with the best hand. In a parallel universe, the dealer did one final shuffle of the deck, Guillen got 27 offsuit, folded the damn thing and survived.
And then there was Tim McDonald, who went all in with pocket queens against A2 suited—at 68% to win. But life is cruel. When the hand was done, Pokerstars reveals, McDonald “stood there like the loneliest man at a bachelor auction.” Let me tell you something: there isn’t a poker player in the world who doesn’t know that feeling.
* * * * *
Poker is an amazing game. It astonishes me sometimes that it is considered by some people to be a form of gambling. Friends of mine who play both bridge and poker often assert that poker requires more skill. Indeed, as a former chess player, I find it a far more demanding sport to master. In chess, all the action is on the chess board in front of you, and there is an objectively correct move for most complex positions. In poker, you’re not just playing the cards on the table, but also the players around you. Every situation is unique and filled with imponderables, and it is often impossible to ascertain the right move at the time.
The most popular form of poker is Texas Hold ‘Em, and in a nutshell, here’s what it’s about. Each player is given two cards face down at the start of the hand. After this, five community cards are dealt, in groups of three (the flop), one (the turn) and one more (the river). Of these seven cards—the five everyone shares on the board and the two in his hand—each player has to make a five-card hand. (Here’s the hierarchy of hands.) The best hand wins. There are four rounds of betting—after the hole cards are dealt, at the flop, at the turn and at the river—and, sometimes, a showdown at the end.
At its most basic level, the game demands maths. Say I am dealt AJ, both spades, a fairly strong hand. I raise, an opponent calls, and we see the flop. It comes 72K, with the 7 and the 2 being spades. My opponent, who has a short stack, goes all in. My sense of the situation is that he has a king in his hand, probably AK, and therefore the best hand at the moment. There are nine spades left in the deck that give me this flush: thus, I have an 18% chance of completing my flush on the turn, and a 36% chance of completing it by the river. Because my opponent is all in, there will be no further bets, so 36% is the key figure here.
Now, whether or not I should call the bet depends on what is known as pot odds. Assume there are 1000 bucks already in the pot, and my opponent’s all-in bet amounts to 800 bucks more. That means that to enter a pot of 1800 bucks, I need to pay 800—or odds of just over 2 to 1. As my odds of hitting the flush are 2 to 1, slightly better than the pot odds, I should make the call. However, had his bet amounted to 2000 more, that would have meant investing 2000 to enter a pot of 3000, at odds of 1.5 to 1. My chances of ending up with the best hand would have been worse than that, thus mandating an automatic fold.
Every decent poker player develops an intuitive sense of pot odds, so we don’t even need to calculate them. If a poker player consistently gets his money in the middle when the pot odds are in his favour, he will make money in the long run. In the short run, he will suffer what poker players call bad beats, losing hands he is the favourite to win. Indeed, he may get all his money in the pot six times in a row when he is 70% favourite to win and lose each time. Such swings happen. But as long as he plays with a small percentage of his total bankroll (look up ‘bankroll management’), he can tackle these swings (look up ‘variance’) and come up a winner. Chris Ferguson, the former world champion, described the role of luck in poker thus: “On any one given hand, it might be 99% luck and 1% skill. Over the course of a tournament, it might be 30% skill and 70% luck. Over the course of a month, maybe it’s 30% luck and 70% skill, and over the course of a year maybe it’s 90% skill and 10% luck.”
But the maths is just one part of playing the game. It is a hygiene factor, something every good player must master, just as every batsman needs to learn how to keep his elbow straight while straight driving. But maths involves just the cards on the table, while every competent poker player will tell you that in this game, you play the people, not the cards. You need to be able to deduce, from betting patterns and physical behaviour, what kind of cards your fellow players are playing with, what cards they think you have, what cards they think you think they have, and so on. At that level, the cards you have often don’t matter—if you can get into the other guy’s head better than he can in yours, you win. As a recent Economist report revealed, a 2009 study analysed 103 million hands played at pokerstars.com and found that more than 75% of them never even reached showdown. So much for the cards.
While this incredible sport has become hugely popular in the US and Europe—the Economist piece I linked to earlier has more—it is just beginning to boom in India. Sadly, the gambling laws in the country make playing poker for money effectively illegal in India, which is why tournaments here have to be organised on one of the two offshore casinos in Goa. (I came fifth in one of them a few weeks ago, and am headed to another one tomorrow.) I have two issues with this: One, despite the short-term element of luck, poker is not gambling in the traditional sense of the word, but a game of skill. Two, in any case, gambling should be legalised. Even if you do not grant me the second point, the first should be indisputable to anyone who’s played the game.
* * * * *
I can’t end an article on poker without a bad beat story now, can I? Yesterday, my run of 12 consecutive winning sessions came to an end when I received one bad beat after another in a session with friends. The worst moment: I had AQ suited, and the flop came 7J2 rainbow (different suits, so flushes ruled out.) The turn came Q. In my estimation, from previous betting and the expression on my opponent’s face, he had a lower pair—probably the 7. So, confident that my top pair was the best hand at the moment, and that he would call any bet because he was playing that way, I went all in. He called and showed K7 offsuit—my read was correct, and the math was on my side: my opponent had an 11% chance of sucking out on me. Well, yes, you guessed it—the river was one of the two 7s left in the deck, my opponent had trips, and I was busted. It was the last straw in a haystack full of them in a day filled with suck-outs, and I stood up, threw my cards on the table, and uncharacteristically exclaimed, “F*** man, f***ing river.”
That sentiment united me with Angel Guillen, Tim McDonald and every poker player who’s ever seen a hand through. F***ing river. But we come right back and keep on playing, because in poker, the right decision sometimes leads to the wrong outcome, and vice versa. You just need to think of the long run and keep on doing the right thing. Indeed, that’s something the Bhagwad Gita could tell you. The lessons we learn in poker are lessons we would do well to apply in life—so shuffle up and deal.
The giant panda fell asleep, I guess. For a number of complicated reasons, my blogging has fallen away in the last few weeks, and I’m quite upset about that. I built the readership of this blog by blogging five times a day for more than three years, before slipping into an easier pace that still produced multiple posts a day. By those standards, the last few weeks have been a disappointment. And yet, I had my reasons, and they’re good ones.
So here’s what I’ll try to do from today onwards: at least one post every weekday. Let’s see how that goes.
Also, thanks to the many readers who wrote in to complain about my not blogging anymore. Even if I couldn’t reply to each individual email, I’m grateful for the concern.
The giant panda went off to hibernate. It fell asleep, and later woke up to realise that giant pandas can’t hibernate. Their bamboo diet does not allow them to store the fat required. So, regretfully, the giant panda snacked on a bamboo hamburger and trotted back to work.
What I’m saying is, I’ll blog regularly from now on. What I’m also saying is, giant pandas are cute and cuddly. Treat them well, and they can hug you so warm you’ll never feel winter again.
I don’t watch much television—some cricket once in a while, and Bigg Boss when it is in season, for its unwitting insights into human nature. But one of the shows I do follow regularly when it is on, and am a bit of a fanboy of, is American Idol. A few hours ago I saw the final two contestants, Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox, battle it out for the crown. They’re two of my favourite AI contestents ever, and I’m convinced both will have glorious careers, regardless of who wins. (The winner hasn’t been announced at the time of writing this.) And Bowersox blew me away with her final song of the day, a cover of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain”.
“Up to the Mountain” is inspired by Martin Luther King’s classic “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he delivered in 1968 the day before he was assassinated. It’s a powerful song, and has been brilliantly performed in the past by the likes of Solomon Burke, Kelly Clarkson, Susan Boyle and Griffin herself. Bowersox’s version lived up to all that. The emotion in her singing was palpable, and she barely held back her tears as she improvised and sang the words “It’s been a long time coming….” When I watched it for a third time, discreetly wiping a tear because men are not supposed to be moved unless by force, I wondered whether, while rehearsing the song, the thought struck Bowersox that it had been a long time coming for her as well.
Bowersox has been a musician since childhood. She was used to public performances as a kid (such as this one, at age 13), and used to busk at train stations in Chicago as she grew older to support herself. She wrote and recorded a bunch of stirring songs, some of which are up on You Tube. (Check out “Farmer’s Daughter” and “Holy Toledo”.) She had years of struggle and music behind her before she decided to take part in AI, partly so that she could give her child a better future. (She is a single mother.) She had paid her dues.
Talent shows such as AI are often portrayed as platforms where great natural talent is discovered and nurtured and allowed to bloom. But Bowersox’s story is actually typical of the great singers it has showcased. Kelly Clarkson was singing seriously from the time she was in school, and performed in a number of musicals. Carrie Underwood performed prolifically as a kid, and almost got a record contract with Capitol Records at the age of 13. Adam Lambert did musical theatre from before he reached his teens. Clay Aiken sang in school and church choirs, performed in musicals, and had his own band. Chris Daughtry, David Cook, Fantasia Barrino: they all started young, they all paid their dues.
You’ll find the same phenomenon in pretty much any talent show, anywhere. Natural talent alone isn’t enough to make you good. You have to work damn hard, and practice damn hard. Some researchers have even put a number to how many hours of practice you need to achieve excellence: 10,000 hours.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study conducted in the early 90s by the psychologist K Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music, which was renowned for its training program for violinists. Gladwell writes, “With the help of the Academy’s professors, they [Ericsson and his colleagues] divided the school’s violinists into three groups: [...] the world-class soloists ... the merely ‘good’ ... [and] students unlikely to ever play professionally. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practised?”
After doing the match, the study found that “the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice… the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.” The part of the study that I find astonishing is that not only did all the top performers have over 10,000 hours of practice to their credit, but everyone who put in 10,000 hours was a top performer. The key to excellence was not natural talent, but hard work. (Caveat: this is not to say that talent doesn’t matter at all. Firstly, as the researchers pointed out, there was a minimum level of talent required to get into the Academy. Secondly, a completely untalented musician would probably not get the positive feedback for his work that would motivate him to put in 10,000 hours in the first place.)
Ericsson and his colleagues elaborated on their theory at some length in their famous paper, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” (pdf link). Gladwell, illustrating it in his book, turned to examples like the Beatles, who spent months doing live shows in Hamburg long before they made it big, and Mozart, who, for all his prodigiousness, was composing since early childhood before he produced his first acknowledged masterwork at the age of 21—around the time he might have been winning American Idol if he was a singer who lived in our times.
The 10,000-hour rule might seem a bit pat, in terms of the number itself, but the general principle, that hard work matters far more than talent, is one I find credible. Look at our own geniuses, here in India: Sachin Tendulkar might have been born with a special talent, but the most memorable stories of his younger years are those that speak of his hard work: he would spend hours at the nets, perfecting his cricketing reflexes, and would get his coach, Ramakant Achrekar, to ferry him around on his scooter from one match to the other so he could play as much cricket as possible in a day. Another genius, AR Rahman, was a keyboardist in Ilaiyaraaja’s troupe at the age of 11, and played and arranged music for a number of bands in his youth. At the time Roja released, in 1992, he had been in the music business for 15 years. I suspect if you ask them to comment on this, they would agree that if you take away the toil, the 10,000 hours, they would never have made it here.
I feel a personal connection with the 10,000-hour-rule, for it holds true not just for geniuses, but for anyone who wants to improve his skills at anything. Given a certain baseline of talent, it really is hard work alone that makes the difference. (And luck: being in the right place at the right time. But that’s an uncontrollable element.) Ordinarily, this would have been bad news for someone like me a few years ago, aspiring to be a writer but as lazy as a brick. I was lucky, though, that the internet came of age with me, and I started blogging when I did. Blogging was fun, and never felt like work. Motivated by a growing readership, and the pleasing validation it brought, I blogged voraciously, averaging about five posts a day on India Uncut for the first four years of my blogging life. (I’ve gotten tardy, and barely manage that many in a week these days, a matter I intend to remedy.) I’ve lost count of how many posts I’ve written, across blogging platforms, but my last estimate was over 8000. Put it together with the journalism I did, the columns and suchlike, and that’s a hell of a lot of hours. I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back at my earlier writing, much of which makes me cringe, the 10,000 hours I metaphorically put in made me a vastly better writer than I was. (This is relative, of course, and maybe ten years later I’ll read this piece and cringe.) I’m far from being the only writer to benefit from blogging: close to home, the lucid prose of Annie Zaidi’s recent book, “Known Turf”, surely owes a debt to her many years of blogging over at her blog, Known Turf.
At one level, the central point of this piece seems obvious. Of course hard work is important: that isn’t rocket science, and we don’t need an academic study or my anecdotal endorsement to tell us that. Nevertheless, practically every day I come across the attitude that ‘talent’ brings with it an entitlement to fame and recognition. (It is mostly the untalented who have this attitude, ironically enough.) I see this in talent-show auditions, where people sing all flat and besura, and act outraged when they are rejected. I see this when young people ask me for advice on how to become better writers, and are surprised when I say ‘read and write as much as possible’. (A good writer must be a good reader, so you need 10k hours of reading as well.) I know writers who have written one book and will never write another because now that they haven’t been acclaimed as geniuses, what’s the point in writing any more? I sit in the local Barista at Versova and see the Bollywood wannabes all around me, the self-conscious actors, the scriptwriters bent over their laptops, and so often I overhear them cribbing about how their talent gets such a raw deal. Well, maybe sometimes it does.
And sometimes, you have to keep at it.
* * * *
Whoops. As I’m getting ready to wind it up and send in my piece, I read that Lee DeWyze has just been crowned the new American Idol. Good for him. He’s no overnight success either, having released three indie albums before he made it big here. Star World shows AI episodes three days late, so rather than wait, I will now start downloading this final episode. Given the perilous state of my allegedly broadband connection, I can only hope it doesn’t take 10,000 hours.
About 20 years ago, when I was in standard XI or XII, I qualified to play in a state-level chess tournament for schoolkids in Sholapur. I was part of the Pune contingent, and the school championships covered practically every other sport played in India—though chess was a first that year. When my team of four players landed up the day before the event began, we were shown into a large hall and told we’d be sleeping there for the night, with many of the other athletes and sportsmen who had shown up. About 60 people could have fit in it in normal circumstances. There were more than 100 of us. No bedding was provided, part of the floor was wet (leakage from somewhere), and sleep didn’t come easy.
The next morning, we found that the toilet facilities intended for us amounted to a small shed outside the building that had three or four cubicles in it. Inevitably, fights broke out in the rush to use it. There were judokas, wrestlers, weightlifters and shot-putters around. As you’d expect, we chess players had to learn to control our bowel movements.
I came third, and qualified for the nationals. Bizarrely, it coincided with my final exams, as it must have for many of the schoolkids who qualified. I did not go.
The regular age-group tournaments that the national chess federation organised were not much better. I represented Maharashtra once in the national junior championship (under-20), in 1992 or 1993, and the tournament was held in Vijaywada in the peak of summer. ‘It is so hot here,’ a local friend told me, ‘that crows drop down dead in summer.’ The electricity, which was variable, went off one day before the round began. I was drawn to play a player I respected hugely for his theoretical knowledge, though I felt that once you leave theory out of it, I was better than him. So, to take him out of his opening repertoire, I played 1. b4—the Orangutan opening. He arrived late at the table, took one look at the board and burst out laughing. The sweat poured down my face, and my head throbbed. I lost that game, finished lower in the tournament than I’d expected, and retired from chess at the age of 19.
I don’t blame my early departure from the game on outside circumstances. It was evident to me that I wasn’t good enough to play the game at a higher level, and I will always cherish the memories I have, including the time I beat a future grandmaster (I was 18, he was 15, but already considered a prodigy; I still remember the spectacular rook sacrifice I unleashed, leading to mate in four.) I also made significant pocket money in college as a chess hustler, but that’s a tale for another day.
Why I relate these stories, though, is to give a sense of how hard it was to make it in any Indian sport apart from cricket. Most of those sports are run by the government, and I don’t need to elaborate on the inevitable inefficiencies that result, and the hardships and bureaucracy that young sportspeople have to battle. You always feel that you’re fighting against the system, and whatever you achieve is in spite of it. I cannot stress this enough: To just survive the damn system, to keep playing the sport you love through years of this crap, you have to be made of stern stuff.
To actually come out of this and excel at the international level: that’s a whole different deal. To those guys: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
* * * *
For chess players, it was hard for another reason. Back then, in the pre-internet, pre-liberalisation days, it was impossible to stay in touch with the cutting edge of chess knowledge. Chess books beyond basic ones were hard to come by; and were treasured when they did, even if they were outdated. And while all local players were bound by pretty much the same limitations, when Indians moved on to international chess, they were hopelessly behind in terms of knowledge and training.
One of my friends, Devangshu Datta, played chess at the national and international levels in the 1980s. Over an email conversation, which I quote with permission, he described how the barriers for Indian chess players were “absolutely mountainous.”
“To put it bluntly,” he wrote, “when I started playing East Europeans, the difference in ‘chess culture’ was stark. We knew so much less, it wasn’t funny. To take an analogy, it was like putting a bunch of talented kids with a basic knowledge of, say, self-taught HSC level maths into direct competition with people who had post-grad math degrees.
“We’d struggle through the opening and hit the middle game and start wondering what to do, then in the post-mortem, the opponent would say, ‘Oh, my trainer AN Other taught us that with this structure you have to play this way,’ and you’d be like, ‘Shit.’”
It was around that time that Viswanathan Anand broke through to establish himself as one of the best players in the world, and a potential successor to the great Garry Kasparov. This week he successfully defended his World Championship title against Veselin Topalov. His achievements, which I do not need to summarise, are greater than they would have been if they belonged to a Russian or East European player. They are beyond stupendous. In the context of where he came from, it’s like a guy takes a Maruti 800 into a Formula 1 race and wins the championship. That guy, frankly, is more than just the best driver in the world.
* * * *
After Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in that classic chess match of 1972, interest in chess in the US spurted. I suspect Anand’s achievements will have a similar effect in India. The live coverage of his match against Topalov was eagerly followed on Twitter, with near-live commentary being produced by some tweeters. For a chess player, the precision of his play in some of the games, like the last one, was breathtaking. But even for non-chess players unaware of the nuances, the match was dramatic and compelling. As I write these words, the day after his win, the newspapers and TV channels are full of him. Chess, amazingly enough, might just be on its way to becoming a spectator sport in India.
And what a time to be a young chess player in India. As Devangshu told me, “Until 1993, India had to wait an extra 4-6 weeks for Informant, a paper digest of, say, the 1000 best games played in the past quarter (many annotated by the players) to arrive from Belgrade. The East Europeans got it on day one. Now you get them instantaneously as they’re played. We get the annotated versions as quickly as anybody else, and I have home analysis of nearly the same calibre and quality as Anand does. You have free chess engines available that are as strong as the world champion or stronger in many respects. Plus, all the material is digital and includes depth of annotation that was unimaginable.”
Also, needless to say, playing chess competitively requires little investment in equipment, unlike other sports. (A chess set is all you need to start, and later a chess clock and an internet connection.) You aren’t dependent on the government any more. You have all the resources you need—and if you watched Anand at work this week, you also have the inspiration. For this reason, I expect India to produce a wave of strong chess players in the years to come.
Who knows, one of them may even win the World Championship someday. But it won’t be as big a deal as this. Anand is special.
Since I announced Yahoo! India Columns, readers have been writing in and asking about various aspects of that section that aren’t yet ready. For example, while individual columnists have homepages and RSS feeds, there isn’t yet a combined columns homepage or a combined RSS feed. Thus, this quick housekeeping note.
The platform on which Yahoo! columns will be hosted is under construction, and what you see on the site is an interim solution. When Prem and I first discussed the columns in January, we spoke of February 15 as a starting date. But Yahoo! is a large company, there’s competition for resources, and this got more and more delayed. Finally, we decided to launch with a stopgap solution that would lack some of the features of a full fledged section, but would at least allow us to kick the thing off. That’s what we have chosen to do.
For that reason, there is yet no ‘opinions’ tab on the left-hand navigation, and no section homepage. However, the latest column will always be linked from the headlines, and once one goes there, one can navigate to individual column homepages from the right panel.
There are a bunch of other bells and whistles missing, and Prem and I have created a comprehensive list of specs for the final section, which will take a few weeks more to be ready. But how that progresses is not in my control. My task was to put together this group of columnists, shape the columns with them, and edit each piece before it’s uploaded. I haven’t even been to the Yahoo! office in Bangalore, and I work from home. That’s how I like it—it spares me day-to-day managerial crap, and allows me to be the master of my own time. Meanwhile Prem is in the thick of things, driving the building of this platform—and much, much else that should turn Yahoo! India into a phenomenally exciting site in the months to come.
While I love building new things, I hate running them, and I’m a misfit in large companies. When I quit my job of managing editor of Cricinfo in late 2004, my then-boss, Sambit Bal, asked me to stay on as a consultant and add value in other ways. He wanted Cricinfo to have its own blogs, and I was the natural choice to build that section. I got to work, drew up specs, actually sketched out on a piece of paper the exact layout that I wanted—and what you see today looks exactly as I built it then. (The writers have changed, of course, in the years since I left.) The problem was that while I could have set up that thing over a weekend with my friend (and webmaster) Madhu, working in that big company, it took months to do. It’s not any individual’s fault; it’s just the nature of the beast.
So do have patience. At least the content is getting out there, and the backend and interfaces will follow.
Ashok’s wonderful piece disagrees strongly with one of the points I made in mine, and you will see many more such disagreements in this section in the days to come. A strong opinions section should contain diversity—and I believe this one has plenty of it. Our writers cover the spectrum, and will not hesitate to tear each other’s arguments apart—including mine. One thing I can promise you about this section is that it will not be an echo chamber.
As for Ashok’s specific point, I hope that he turns out to be right, and that there is a new, growing bloc of voters who vote for the reasons he specifies. But while that is desirable, I don’t see any evidence that it is happening yet. Was the ‘national vote’ worth just that 2% swing for the Congress in the last elections? If so, by what methodology can one arrive at the conclusion that those voters are voting for those reasons?
Some readers were surprised that there were no women among my columnists. I can only sigh. There was, actually, one fine lady in my lineup, but she had to drop out at the last moment because of unavoidable reasons. (She was sweetly and profusely apologetic when I told her of this criticism.) And if we expand the section at some point, as Prem and I are hoping to do, my shortlist for possible columnists includes more women (and a Pakistani and a Sri Lankan). But all that is in the future. For now, this is what we have, and I hope it’s worth your while.
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!
So the doorbell rings and it’s the cook. She walks into the kitchen and asks what I’d like today. I tell her, and then ask, ‘How’s your daughter?’ She hadn’t come yesterday because her daughter had a fall.
‘She’s not conscious yet,’ she says. ‘She’s got a swelling in her brain.’
‘What? She’s in hospital?’
‘Yes, but the doctor says that if she isn’t conscious by this evening, she’ll have to be shifted to another hospital. Chicken or mutton?’
Her tone is perfectly normal, like she’s telling me about her daughter’s school results or something. You’d never guess there was something wrong.
And that’s the life. Another maid, her husband was a drunkard who beat her everyday. You’d never guess there was something wrong.
We’re spoilt, and weak, the urban elite with household help. When life knocks us down we won’t have the fight in us. If someone close to me was unconscious with a swelling in her brain, I’d show it.
Self-esteem is, of course, a term in the modern lexicon of psychobabble, and psychobabble is itself the verbal expression of self-absorption without self-examination. The former is a pleasurable vice, the latter a painful discipline.
Indeed, that might also be one distinction between bad and good novelists. The bad ones just do the self-absorption, while the good ones begin their journey towards producing good work with self-examination.
I’d imagine, though, that any honest self-examination would necessarily erode self-esteem. In his essay, Dalrymple defines self-esteem as ‘the appreciation of one’s own worth and importance.’ When I look at the larger scheme of things, it is clear to me that we have no worth or importance, except perhaps to ourselves, which is circular and temporary. We are just one species in one tiny planet in one small solar system in a universe that has galaxies without end. And a short life span that ends when it ends, despite widespread irrational belief in souls and suchlike.
Despite that, most of us see humans as being the center of the universe. For example, we speak of global warming as endangering the earth. But we forget one thing: we are not the earth. Even if the most alarmist claims about global warming are true, then all that it endangers is humankind. The earth has been much hotter and much colder than it is now, and will go on merrily without us.
Our foolish collective self-esteem reminds me of this great quote by Douglas Adams:
Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.
Indeed. And how absurd is the notion of the self-esteem of a puddle?
Today is a sad day for me. One of my favourite restaurants, Shiok, is shutting down—today is its last day of operation. Shiok is based in Bangalore, serves far-eastern cuisine, and is owned and run by my good buddy, Madhu Menon. (He also designed and built this site for me in his spare time.) Running a business in these times is hard, and the day-to-day hassles can affect your quality of life. So after much agitating, Madhu decided to close Shiok and move on to a newer, quieter phase in his life. Those of us who know him well are happy for him—but sad for Shiok.
Sadly, I’m not in Bangalore today. That one last meal will not happen. (Madhu has promised to cook anything from the menu for me when I next visit his home, but that won’t stop me from shedding a quiet tear tonight.) If you’re in Bangalore, though, hop over today for lunch or dinner (or drinks in his lounge, Moss, where he whips up some pretty mean cocktails). I especially recommend the Drunken Beef—but really, the quality there is consistent and every last thing on that menu rocks.
I’m moderating a couple of interesting book discussions in the next few days, and India Uncut readers are invited to both of them. Details:
On Tuesday, March 2, at Landmark, Andheri, I’ll be discussing “The Detective and the Criminal Mind” with China Miéville, Mark Billingham, Denise Mina and Andy Diggle. China’s work spans genres, and his latest book, The City and the City, is a police procedural set in a city (and a city) like no other. It was recently nominated for the Nebulas, and I was blown away by it when I read it recently. Billingham is the creator of Tom Thorne, arguably the most memorable detective created in the last decade. Mina is also an exceptional crime writer, and she’s also written a few issues of Hellblazer. And Diggle is a big name for comics buffs, having written The Losers and a fair amount of Hellblazer.
I’m looking forward to the conversation—and there’ll be extended audience Q&A as well, so do join in. The details are here.
On Friday, March 5, I’ll be in conversation with Krishan Partap Singh at the launch of his book, Delhi Durbar. This event is at Crossword, Kemps Corner; the details are here.
And yeah, it’s a busy week—in a busy month. Watch this space.
The world seems to be split into roughly three different types of people: Those who have a passion for nothing, those who have a passion for one thing and those who have a passion for everything. This way of categorizing is not to cast a value judgement onto any particular group. My informal observation is that aspects such as intelligence, courage, moral fibre and wisdom seem roughly evenly distributed across all three of these groups although it may initially not seem that way. It’s always difficult trying to describe a group with an insider’s perspective if you’re not an insider but I’m going to give it a try… [link]
I think I fall in the second category: I have a passion for “multiple ‘one things’”. Two of them are story-telling and poker, and my passion for both could be considered, quite simply, a passion for understanding human nature. And that is so all-encompassing that maybe I fall in the third category. Whatever.
Just back from the Galle Lit Fest, rested, and all set to resume blogging. Let me begin with the good news that my publisher, Hachette India, just a year old in this country, has already become the second-biggest publisher in India, ahead of Harper Collins and Random House, and behind Penguin. Here’s the full story: I’m most pleased that My Friend Sancho has been described as one of their flagship sellers here. Authors are supposed to have uneasy relationships with their publishers, but I get along really well with these guys, and their success is well deserved.
Also, in the UK, Hachette consolidates its No 1 position, which it has held for a while now. More power to them.
In other book related news, I’ll be part of a panel at the Kala Ghoda Festival discussing “City Stories”. Anjum Hasan will moderate, and my fellow panelists are Chandrahas Choudhury and Lata Jagtiani. It’s on Monday, at 8pm; the full Kala Ghoda schedule is here. There’s also a panel on food writing at 6.30 pm featuring my friends (and India’s best writers on food) Vikram Doctor and Nilanjana Roy, and I’m looking forward to being in the audience for that. Hop over if you have time.
In a few hours, I’m off to the Galle Literary Festival. Blogging will be light till I’m back in town, and I don’t expect to be online much. But who knows, I may tweet salacious (and made-up) literary gossip if the fancy strikes me. Watch out for that.
If you’re at the festival, both the events that I’m part of take place on Sunday, January 31. At 10am, I will be in conversation with Shehan Karunatilaka, a Sri Lankan novelist who will be talking about his forthcoming novel, Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew. It’s a book set in the world of cricket, and we’ll talk about Sri Lankan literature, Sri Lankan cricket and Shehan’s own writing.
At 2.15pm, I will have a session to myself in which I will talk about My Friend Sancho, read out bits of it, and chat with the audience. If there is time, I may also read from an Abir Ganguly short story that I finished writing a few hours ago, and that will be part of an anthology of Indian writing that you’ll see on the stands later this year.
And ah, I promise at least one orgasm. So if you come, you’ll see me come. Promise.
It’s somehow appropriate for a lazy half-Bong to come up with a sleeper hit. Open Magazine‘s latest issue has a feature story titled “Silent Bestsellers”, and My Friend Sancho is one of the subjects of the piece.
There was actually a decent amount of buzz about the book both before and after it was published, so maybe it’s not so much of a sleeper. But it’s true, as the author of that story says, that “cocktail crowds don’t trip over each other trying to grab a photo op” with me. It is entirely their loss, I must say, for my company is more intoxicating than a Long Island Iced Tea spiked with Bhang.
In other personal news, the December issue of the Indian edition of the magazine T3 has compiled The T3 Tech 100, their list of 100 movers and shakers in the technology world. Anil Ambani comes in at No. 82, Jimmy Wales is No. 83, and Amit Varma is No. 84. (This Indian list doesn’t seem to be online, but here’s a screengrab, if I may call it that.) Shah Rukh Khan is No. 86, and I hope this settles once and for all the longstanding debate about which of us is a bigger stud.
No, but really, it’s an interesting list. Stephen Fry clocks in at No. 4, ahead of Steve Jobs (7), Steve Ballmer (10), Barack Obama (18), Bill Gates (27), Tim Berners-Lee (36), Mike Arrington (58) and Jeff Bezos (63). Go figure.
The last time I made such an august list was in April this year, when Business Weeknamed me one of India’s 50 Most Powerful People. The local auto drivers haven’t got the memo, though, and keep refusing to go where I want. Like, dude, do you not know who I am? I’m the juggernaut, bitch.
Maybe I should act in a Shah Rukh Khan film instead of him.
Being a three-time winner, I was inducted into the Indibloggies Hall of Fame this year, which means that I don’t get to take part from now onwards. But I can still vote! So here are the blogs I voted for, all of which I recommend highly:
There are other nominees worth checking out, but these are my personal favourites. Do check them out and vote for them if you feel like. You don’t need to vote in every category, by the way, just the ones you’re familiar with.
I totally feel like Sonia Gandhi right now. Like, where’s my starched sari?
Posted by Amit Varma on 04 December, 2009 in
What: Launch of My Friend the Fanatic by Sadanand Dhume. The author will read from the book, followed by a conversation with Amit Varma, and then a session of audience Q&A.
Where: Crossword Bookstore, Kemps Corner, Mumbai.
When: 7pm, November 27, 2009.
Dhume is a former WSJ and FEER writer who left journalism a few years ago to write a nonfiction book tracing the rise of Islamism in Indonesia. I loved the book, and will write about it again later. The subjects I’ll chat with him about this evening will include the nature of belief, the rise of Islamism in Indonesia, what it has in common with radicalism elsewhere, the dilemmas and challenges a nonfiction writer confronts while writing a book of this sort, and the growing popularity of Savita Bhabhi in Java. Try and come if you’re in the area.
And do check the book out. It sounds very serious and all, and it is, but it’s also very funny and light in its own way. You’ll enjoy reading it.