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My Friend Sancho

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

To buy it online from the US, click here.

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

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

Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.

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

Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Personal

Would You Like To Design A Book Cover?

As you know, my first novel “My Friend, Sancho” will be published by Hachette India in April 2009, and we’re getting it all together right now in terms of a final edit and production details. One of the areas I’m keen to get right is cover design. My publishers and I both felt that we needed a design that was different from the kind we see in our bookstores these days, and we thought of opening it up to a much larger pool of people than a publisher would usually have access to. And so, with the imagined sound of trumpets and applause in the background, Hachette India and India Uncut bring you:

The “My Friend, Sancho” Cover Design Competition

This is how it works: in the next few paragraphs, I shall share a synopsis of the book, and link to an excerpt that gives you a sense of the voice of the main character in the book. I shall also attach Hachette’s official design brief for the book. Based on that, you are invited to send in a cover design, or many if you want, for the book. If we choose to use one of them, you get Rs. 15,000 worth of Hachette books and cover credit.

(You may not have heard of Hachette before, but you would certainly have heard of many of the imprints it owns, such as Hodder, Orion, Octopus, Hamlyn, Little, Brown & Company, and Orbit. It’s the largest general books publisher in the UK, the second largest publisher in the world, and had more books in the New York Times bestseller list last year than any other publisher—so there’ll be much to choose from. Hachette has just launched in India, and “MFS” will be the first release of their local list. So if you win the prize, you will be bewildered by the choice of books available in their catalogues here.)

In case Hachette is unable to use any of the covers submitted, the first prize will not be awarded—but we will pick the design we like the most and award the designer Rs. 5000 worth of Hachette books, plus empanelment on Hachette’s roster of preferred designers. I’m hoping this doesn’t happen, and some kickass designs come in. Needless to say, I will carry all the designs I like on India Uncut, and link to the designer’s homepage wherever relevant.

And now, about the book: “My Friend, Sancho” is a love story set in Mumbai. Abir Ganguly, the protagonist, is a 23-year-old, cynical, wise-cracking journalist on the crime beat of a newspaper. He is asked by his editor to do a feature story on Mohammad Iqbal, a man killed in a police encounter. As research for the story, he meets Iqbal’s daughter, Muneeza. An unlikely friendship forms between them, but before it can become anything more, certain matters need closure.

The first chapter of the book is here (pdf link). It will give you a sense of the tone of the book, and the voice of the character. But the book develops into a love story, not the gritty thriller you might expect from that chapter.

My own brief: The cover I’m looking for should be one that reflects the playful, young tone of the book. It should attract attention from a distance without being loud or gaudy. It should be classy, so when you hold it, you feel like taking it home with you. It should be minimal—I hate clutter, and there shouldn’t be too many elements in there.

What images from the book can you use? Well, Abir and Muneeza have black coffee and iced tea together a couple of times, and those are possible images. They meet at the food court of a mall a few times—but I don’t fancy either of them being represented on the cover. There is also a talking lizard in the book, and he could make an appearance somewhere, perhaps curling onto the spine. Feel free to use something abstract—for now, I’m more interested in the feel being right than the image being representative.

Important point: This might be the first of a series of books, so you could begin with a design template that can be extended onto future books. One example in Indian bookstores is the series of Penguin hardbacks of Amitav Ghosh’s books—they’re clearly part of a series, they’re minimal, with just one strong visual for each cover, and they’re powerful. Of course, they’re grim and convey gravitas, where the covers for the Abir Ganguly books need to convey youth and playfulness, but they work well as a series.

The publisher’s design brief is below, under the fold. It is entirely written by the dudes at Hachette, which I find important to point out, because I would never have the audacity to praise my own book. (Also, the blurbs are obviously a temporary filler.)


Posted by Amit Varma on 23 December, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | My Friend Sancho | Personal

The Mosquito And The DNA Test

If the immensely thorough Martin Beck was still active today, I imagine he might well have been involved in cases like this one:

Police in Finland believe they have caught a car thief from a DNA sample taken from a mosquito they noticed inside an abandoned vehicle.

Finding the car in Seinaejoki, north of Helsinki, police saw that the mosquito had recently sucked blood and decided to send the insect for analysis.

The DNA found from laboratory tests matched a man on the police register.

They arrested the guy, who claimed that he was “just hitch-hiking a lift with a man.” Right.

If I was writing a book of fiction involving a case like this, I wouldn’t make it so easy. In my book, the cops would find the mosquito, do the DNA test, match it with a former criminal on their database—and then find that he died five years ago. So how did the mosquito drink his blood? That would be a nice mystery to solve.

Hell, too many ideas, too little time. And there’s also this blog to maintain…

(Link via email from Anand.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 December, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | News | Personal | Small thoughts

Escape With Manjula Padmanabhan


Manjula Padmanabhan does a reading of her novel, Escape, tomorrow at Crossword, and I will be in conversation with her at the event. She will read out a part of the book, after which we shall chat about the novel and her writing, followed by audience questions. If you are a fan of her work—and there is much to like—drop in tomorrow. The details:

Where: Crossword, Kemps Corner, Mumbai
When: 7pm, Thursday, December 18, 2008


Even if you can’t make it to the event, I recommend you pick up the book. It is set in a country of the future where all women have long been exterminated. The story stars a young girl named Meiji, who has been brought up in secret by three uncles, who run an enormous risk if they are discovered by the ruling generals. As Meiji approaches puberty, they keep her from adulthood by artificial means—but then realize that this is unfair to her, and she should be allowed to grow. Equally, her presence there is dangerous to both her and them. So they decide to let her blossom into a woman, and to send her away from this country, presumably to a place where women are natural. She is accompanied by her youngest uncle.

At one level, this is an adventure story of the journey these two make. At another, it is a coming-of-age story, as a young girl grows into adulthood without having the slightest clue of what it’s like to be to be a woman, both physically and emotionally. At the level I most enjoyed it, though, it is a love story, as her uncle, who hasn’t seen a woman for many years, tries to balance his desire for Meiji with his concern for her welfare.

I won’t give away any more—but be warned that if you start this book close to bedtime, you will be groggy in the morning, for it’s extremely hard to put down.

Also read: Jai Arjun Singh’s review of Escape, and his interview with Manjula;  and Nilanjana S Roy’s article placing Escape in a literary historical perspective. There are many more useful links on Manjula’s blog.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 December, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Personal

Where Bloggers Are Encouraged To Bluff

Anything that contains the words, “The World Blogger Championship”, obviously must be encouraged, especially if the championship in question is a championship for bloggers, not of blogging—for how can you compete in blogging?, where I spent a fair bit of time these days, is hosting the fourth annual World Blogger Championship of Online Poker this month, and I intend to take part. To participate, I’m supposed to verify that I’m a bona fide blogger by posting the code below on my blog—so here goes:

Online Poker

I have registered to play in the PokerStars World Blogger Championship of Online Poker!

This PokerStars tournament is a No Limit Texas Hold’em event exclusive to Bloggers.

Registration code: 575030


A couple of nights ago, a few bloggers, Mr Sabnis, Lord Khanna and Sir Srivathsan were at my place, and we played an all-night poker game. It could, in a manner of speaking, be considered the Mumbai Blogger Championship of Offline Poker. I began the night with one matchbox and ended with six, so I am pleased to say that that particular championship belongs to me. Now for the world…

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 December, 2008 in Personal

Clothes And Indianness

The WTF lines of the day come from the fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee:

In the light of the recent terror attacks, I feel that we should assert our unity through our Indianness in clothing. [...] Think about it, men and women in Indian traditional wear is the first step towards feeling Indian… and thinking like one. Picture this — men in kurtas and women in saris or salwar kurtas at CST station on a busy Friday morning.

If Mukherjee ever does go to CST on “a busy Friday morning”, he will find most of the women there dressed in “saris or salwar kurtas” anyway. Maybe it doesn’t seem that way from whichever five-star hotel he stays at when he comes here for his fashion shows, but most Indian women wear Indian clothes most of the time.

And anyway, what is an Indian dress? If one gets anal about it, and takes a historical perspective, one could argue that stitched clothing came to India from outside, and salwar-kurtas and saree blouses thus don’t qualify as Indian. Equally, I would argue that the jeans and T-shirt I’m wearing right now are as Indian as the churidar kurta I wear on special occasions—to begin with, they’re manufactured here. Perhaps Mukherjee, or Sabya as the DNA article refers to him, feels less Indian when he wears jeans—I don’t.

And while I wear kurtas quite often, the reason I mostly wear jeans with them, and not a churidar or suchlike, is a practical one: Jeans have zippers. With ‘Indian’ clothing, the logistics of relieving oneself, when one needs to pee, can get daunting—especially for a lazy half-bong like me.

‘Sabya’ also says in that article that he is “actually planning to approach the Planning Commission of India with this suggestion.” How I’d love to be a fly in the wall when that meeting takes place. A fly in jeans.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 December, 2008 in India | Personal | WTF

Papaya As Contraceptive

If Mahinder Watsa did not exist, we would have to invent him. Who else could get so many thousands of people to display their utter ignorance of sexual matters? Consider this question on Ask The Sexpert:

I indulged in unsafe sex on the ninth day of my period cycle. My friends asked me to have papaya to avoid pregnancy, which I did. Now, I am waiting for my periods. Should I take any other precaution? Please help.

Mr Watsa, naturally, sagely answered that papaya does not help in these matters. This reminds me of a chappie I knew in junior college who was just discovering his sexuality at the late age of 16. One day he called me and said, “Amit, I have a question to ask.”

“Go ahead,” I said seriously. “If it is within my domain of expertise, I shall do my best to answer.”

“Amit, here’s what I want to ask. How does one, um, how does one, ah, how does one, eh, [whispers] masturbate?”

I scratched my chin. What to say to this now? I decided to mess with him.

“Oh, that’s easy,” I said. “Just catch the tip and squeeze it hard.”

“Thank you, Amit! Thank you!”

I went back to whatever I was doing, and half an hour later he calls me again.

“Amit, there’s a problem.”

“What happened?”

“I followed your instructions but, ah, but, er, [whispers] it’s hurting.”

So there you go. If this was to happen today, the dude would promptly write a letter to Mahinder Watsa, and Mr Watsa would, in all seriousness, proceed to explain how one masturbates.

Oh, wait.

Earlier posts on Mr Watsa: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 December, 2008 in Personal | WTF

A Return To Blogging

So I’m back to blogging after what I think was my longest break ever of 11 days. I hope you’ve been good in all this time. Have you been visiting other blogs? Naughty, naughty.

I’d promised in my last post to blog some thoughts on the aftermath of the attacks, but there was an overdose of facts, alleged facts and opinions around me, and I didn’t see any value joining in myself. I got many invitations to light candles, hold hands in unity, and join ‘say no to terrorism’ Facebook groups—as opposed to the ‘say yes to terrorism’ groups, I guess—but I declined them all, not seeing the point to them. I mean, they’re useful in terms of making an individual feel better in a time of sorrow and anger, and building a sense of community—but no more than that. It’s just temporary feel-good-ness

The continuous flow of outrage has amused me a bit. Why now? The LeT and other such groups have been fighting a war on India for years now, so the fact that there are terrorists out there who are plotting against India is hardly a revelation. Equally, my question to all those people complaining about how our governments have let us down is this: Where were you for the last 61 years? Ever since we achieved independence, our government has been designed to rule us, not serve us, and is like a massive beast feeding itself and getting fatter and fatter, while we labour under the illusion that this beast serves us. Hello? This beast serves only itself, and none of what went wrong, either with our security or with our response to the attacks, was atypical. This is what our government is, and has been for six decades. Why weren’t we outraged earlier?


Still, better now than never. There was a semblance of accountability after the attacks, with Shivraj Patil, Vilasrao Deshmukh and RR Patil resigning, and you would hope that this motivates their replacements to get their act together. But remember—one of them is Chhagan Bhujbal, and his return, after his earlier resignation because of the Telgi scam, holds a lesson for the Patils and Deshmukh: all this is a charade, and public memory is short.

The biggest issue with our government is one of accountability. Governments are held accountable by elections, but, alas, most politics in our country is identity politics, fought on the basis of caste, religion, ethnicity etc. Issues rarely decide elections. (Also, all politics in India is local, and no single issue can possibly decide a national election.) Will it be different this time? Perhaps. But if the Manmohan Singh government fails to bring the LeT planners to justice, what are the options you have? The BJP, under whom IC 814 took place?


We were lucky in capturing one terrorist alive—without Mohammad Ajmal Kasab’s confessions, we might have had indications that these attacks were the handiwork of the LeT, but no proof strong enough to convince the international community. Because of the details given to us by Kasab, some of them independently corroborated by the Indian and US intelligence establishments, there is no doubt about either the organisation or the people involved. That opens a window of opportunity for us to act tough, and we have to exploit that window, or rue the missed chance forever. We have the high moral ground right now, and we must act.

And how should we act? Unlike most commentators around me, I believe that I simply don’t have enough information to be able to comment on specifics. We don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes between the India, Pakistan and US governments, and I am inclined to give Manmohan Singh the benefit of the doubt, for now, when he says that restraint can be a sign of strength. Sure it can—but only if it achieves results. Rahul Gandhi’s words, that “there is also a cost to killing innocent Indians”, are encouraging—and this government must be judged by whether it can inflict that cost, and punish the perpetrators.


And that’s it for this post. Regular blogging resumes. Such relief comes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 December, 2008 in India | Personal | Politics

India Uncut Turns Four

There will be no birthday celebrations, but India Uncut turned four today. The first post of this blog was written on December 1, 2004, and since then I’ve written more than 6000 posts on this blog alone. Most of my blogging has been filter-and-comment, where I link to interesting or newsworthy pieces and comment on them, but I’ve also done a little reportage when I’ve been travelling on journalistic assignments, as well as op-ed kind of posts.

India Uncut has changed my life in many ways. I got much journalistic work because of this blog, including the weekly column with Mint that won me the Bastiat Prize last year. It helped me polish my writing skills, making my posts crisper, and less self-conscious and self-indulgent. I learnt more about the world while blogging, because writing a post on most things involves a certain amount of background research. I fell into many traps, and in the process became aware of them—such as the need to have an opinion on everything, or to have narratives that explain every event, and so on. (I will elaborate on this some other time.)

Many of my old posts make me cringe, either in terms of how poorly they were written, and how shallow the thinking behind them was. But they’re milestones on a journey I’m still on, and I’m thankful for that. Perhaps four years from now, the posts I write these days will also appall me. In fact, I hope they do—that will at least mean that I’m getting better, and there’s still a point to it.

The biggest thing I have gained from India Uncut is the readership this blog has. It baffles me sometimes—why would so many people want to read me? And I’m also deeply grateful for it. The biggest blessing a writer can have is a sense that people are reading him and engaging with his writing. I never had this sense when I wrote my column for Mint, or wrote pieces for WSJ, the Guardian or even a high-traffic website like Cricinfo. With India Uncut, I do—and feel immensely fortunate.

This blog has changed over the last few years—there are fewer posts per day, and since the time I stopped writing columns and op-eds to focus on being a novelist, less detailed commentary on economics or politics. Many of you have written in complaining about this—but I must confess that I never felt at home being that sort of a pundit. It wasn’t my natural ground; and though I’m quite pleased with many of the columns I wrote, and was getting better at the form as the years went by, I always felt that it was a compromise, and not what I would most like to do.

From the time I learned to read, I have wanted to be a writer of fiction, telling stories. Over the years, I have procrastinated, and eventually something had to give. It did this year, and I finally sat my ass down and wrote a book. Obviously I can’t say how good it is—maybe I’ll look at it a few books down the line and cringe, the way I do with some old IU posts. But I thoroughly enjoyed writing it, and felt at home. That’s all I want to do from now on, and I’m reconciled to the relative poverty that implies.

That said, this blog was a happy accident. Once I got used to the medium, I began to enjoy it throughly, and I shall continue to blog for as long as I can. (Or as long as my broadband connection allows me to.) It’s immense fun—and with so much WTFness in the world, maybe it’s even necessary. (For me, not for the world, which won’t change because of a few puny blog posts.) The nature of the blog has changed a bit over the years, but I hope you won’t mind the trade-off once my books start coming out.

On that note, I must inform you that blogging will remain slow for another week. The deadline I mentioned here, for handing in the final manuscript of “My Friend, Sancho”, has been extended by my kind publishers by a week. And I’m still at work. I’ll put up a post tomorrow with some more thoughts on the aftermath of the attacks, and then take it easy. We go back a long way, I think you’d agree, and a few days don’t matter. No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 December, 2008 in My Friend Sancho | Personal

This City With Arms Wide Open

Before I go back into hibernation, a few links and thoughts.

My friend and former colleague Sambit Bal has a beautiful piece on Cricinfo about these attacks, echoing the feelings I’d expressed in my earlier post of how it seems perverse to think of anything else, do anything else, while this mayhem is happening. He writes:

I was on the streets of Bombay covering the communal riots in 1992, and the serial bomb blasts in 1993. I have seen a mob with swords chase a man and sever his arm from his body; I have seen rioters set an old man alight after garlanding him with car tyres; and I have faced the prospect of being burnt alive myself. For days I left home kissing my small child goodbye with thoughts of the worst. Those days return to haunt me sometimes even today.

But somehow I felt I understood what was happening then. I couldn’t relate to it, but I understood the thirst for retaliation and revenge, the hatred and the frenzy that temporarily consumed ordinary people. I even wondered about a foreseeable future when I could sit down with some of the rioters and talk about what drove them to such madness.

But this is simply beyond my comprehension. Every time I see the photograph of the young man - who looks not a lot older than my son - dressed in jeans and t-shirt, carrying a machine gun as casually as a satchel on his shoulder, bearing a sinister glee in his eyes, I am reminded of Barack Obama’s words about the killers of 9/11: “My powers of empathy, my ability to reach into another’s heart, cannot penetrate the blank stares of those who would murder innocents with such serene satisfaction.”


Another good friend, Prem Panicker, has been putting up some fine posts at his blog. Here’s the latest.

His Twitter updates are also exceptional, drawing both from the live coverage of his colleagues at the scene of action, and from what he sees on TV. For example:

TV LOL: “Intermittent firing has been going on non-stop at the Taj”.

Indeed, Mumbai’s Twitter users have been magnificent over the last two days. If you’re one of them: Salute.


This report pissed me off:

Sources said though the plane carrying NSG Commandos was ready by midnight, it could not take off due to the delayed arrival of a VIP, who wanted to accompany them to Mumbai, at the Delhi airport. Worse, the Commandos had to wait for a vehicle at the Mumbai airport until morning.

Also, I see no pressing reason why Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, LK Advani and other political VIPs had to visit the victims at this time, diverting precious resources at a time when the police were already stretched. Why now?

I’d blogged about this VIP syndrome in 2005, when I was travelling through Tamil Nadu after the tsunami. Disasters come and go; our VIPs stay the same.


People are calling this Mumbai’s 9/11. In the sense that this city will never be the same again, I agree. But in terms of what we do about it, I’m not sure.

Once it was clear that 9/11 was caused by al-Qaeda, the US went after them, not bothering with niceties like their geographical location. From the information available at the time of writing this, it seems that we can soon be equally certain of who’s behind this. So what will we do?


Ramesh Srivats captures some WTF moments from the last two days here. But, as he points out, it’s as scary as it is funny. An excerpt:

Commandos are landing on the Nariman Building. They seem to be tip-toeing down. They are communicating to each other through hand signals. Secrecy & surprise are paramount. And NDTV is showing this live!!! With informative commentary on how many commandos have landed and so on. Perhaps NDTV’s research has shown that terrorists only watch cartoon network during missions.


For decades now, we’ve taken it for granted that our army is better equipped and trained than our police. Our army defends our country from outside attack; our police looks after local law and order, which demands less of them.

But it’s become clear now that that old paradigm has changed. As long as we are threatened by terrorists, we will remain in a state of suspended war, and we need to invest in bringing our cops up to date with urban warfare, in terms of both training and equipment.

The heroism they have displayed in the last two days makes it clear that our police can match the best forces in the world in terms of valour and spirit. But it’s time now to back them up so that if terrorists attack Mumbai again, we won’t need to call in the army.


Some quick links to end this post:

One of my friends mentioned in an email that perhaps our security forces should ask themselves one question when they are faced with such situations: “WWID:
What Would Israelis Do?” On that note, The Jerusalem Post relays criticism of our security forces by Israeli defense officials.

Check out Sadanand Dhume’s piece in The Wall Street Journal titled “India’s Antiterror Blunders”. In his piece he describes how “the Indian approach to terrorism has been consistently haphazard and weak-kneed.”

My friend Salil Tripathi has a piece in Far Eastern Economic Review in which he writes” “If Bombay maintains its stride, if it continues to exude its characteristic warmth, it is in spite of those who rule it, and not because of them.”

And in “The Longest Day”, Vir Sanghvi writes that “even before the post-mortems begin and the excuses are offered up, three points need to be made.” I don’t always agree with Sanghvi’s analysis—but this is an excellent piece, and he is dead right on all three counts.


There have been many things I’ve wanted to write over the last couple of days, and many pieces I’ve wanted to link to, but I’ve felt too unsettled and disturbed to put it all together. This city is my home not just because I live here now, but because it embraced me when I first came here. I often say that Mumbai is the only city in India where you can land up from anywhere and feel at home right away. Indeed, if the men behind this mayhem, who allegedly travelled here from Karachi, came here as tourists, they too would feel at home in no time. And I know, despite the pain and the rage that all Mumbaikars no doubt share with me today, that this will not change. Our arms will still be open—but hopefully, so will our eyes.

Blogging might be slow for the next couple of days for the reasons explained here. Subscribing to my RSS feed is one way to stay updated.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 November, 2008 in India | News | Personal | Politics | Small thoughts

A Night Out In Mumbai (Updated)

This is turning out to be one crazy night. A friend of mine had an opening of her art exhibition a few hours ago, so we ventured to South Bombay for that. We attended the exhibition, sipped the litchee juice, nibbled on party snacks, and then six of us headed out for dinner. First we tried Indigo Deli, which is a couple of hundred metres from the Taj. We were told there would be a 25-minute wait. So we headed to All Stir Fry, the restaurant in the Gordon House Hotel in a lane down from there. They told us we’d have to wait 20 minutes. We stepped out again, and as we did so, we heard gunshots, and saw people running towards us from the left side.

One of the hotel employees rushed out and told us to get back in. “There must have been an encounter,” he said. “Get back in, you’ll be safe inside.”

We followed him in. We waited in the lounge-bar upstairs for a while. The big screen there was showing cricket. India won. Then someone changed the channel.

That’s when we realised that this was much more than a random police encounter, or a couple of gunshots. We heard that terrorists with AK-47s had opened fire outside Leopold’s, the pub down the road. We heard there was firing elsewhere in the city as well, including in the Taj. We watched transfixed, and as the apparent scale of the incidents grew, we realised we couldn’t go home. We asked if they had a room vacant; they did, so we settled in, switched on the TV, and watched in horror.


Uptil this point, these are the things we know from TV:

A bunch of terrorists opened fire in various parts of the city using AK-47s and suchlike. Some of them, it was reported, captured a police jeep and went around shooting people in that.

Terrorists captured parts of both the Taj and the Oberoi. There have been bomb blasts at both hotels. (We heard the second one at the Taj from our window in the Gordon House Hotel.) It is rumoured that foreigners have been taken hostage. It is reported that parts of the hotels are on fire.

At least four top police officers have been killed. Some members of parliament are reported to still be trapped inside the Taj.

There has also been attacks on the Marriott in Juhu, as well as the Ramada. There was an attack on VT Railway Station. There were blasts in Santa Cruz and Vile Parle. There was an attack on Cama Hospital, and, I’ve just heard, Bombay Hospital.

A petrol pump was blown up in Colaba, a couple of minutes walk from where we are.

And, just a minor statistic, no doubt, amid the horror of today: a diner was shot while coming out of Indigo Deli, where we were standing minutes earlier.


I’m fine now, I suppose, in terms of physical safety. If I wasn’t accompanied by the partner, and if three of the six of us weren’t women (including one who is pregnant), I would have headed out to the Taj. But the area is cordoned off, and I don’t have a press pass anymore, so I’d probably have been turned away. A journalist friend of mine is outside the Taj, and speaking from her colleague’s cellphone—hers ran out of battery a while ago—she tells me that she is safe behind the armymen who have now arrived on the scene. I hope that helps. I hope this is over soon.

Earlier today, I was working on a final polishing of my novel before it goes to press. Now I wonder what’s the point. The book will come out in April, and Bombay will be a different city then. This book was written in a Bombay before these attacks; it will come out in a Bombay after these attacks, and it somehow feels, as I sit here in the business center of a boutique hotel a stone’s throw away from mayhem, that it will be inadequate. It is a love story—and isn’t that perverse?

But of course, I say that now, caught up in the moment, a little more emotional than I normally am. Maybe tomorrow it won’t seem so bad. Maybe next week we shall be normal again, and life will go on as it always has. Maybe I’ll come to Indigo Deli for dinner sometime, and when asked to wait 20 minutes, shall loiter in the pavement outside, enjoying the night air of this city I love so much. Maybe. Maybe not.

Update (10.25 am): Right, I’m safe at home now. We hardly slept, and were told early in the morning by friends that a curfew was going to be imposed on the city, and if we wanted to leave for home, we’d better leave right away. The news mentioned that three terrorists were still on the loose in the city, and the Taj still burnt, but we stepped out anyway and made it back safely. We passed the Ramada and the Marriott on the way, perhaps taking the same route that one group of gunmen took last night on the way to Borivali, where gunfire was also reported.

Suddenly, what is familiar seems macabre.


I was on Larry King Live on CNN about three hours ago. They called me and asked me to be on the show as an eyewitness, at which I protested that I hadn’t actually seen anything, I was merely in the vicinity. But they’d read what I wrote in this post earlier, and they wanted me to talk about that. So I agreed, and came on briefly. King asked me if I’d actually seen any terrorists—I felt guilty that I couldn’t offer him any dope there.

Deepak Chopra was also on the show, speculating that the attacks had taken place because terrorists were worried about Barack Obama’s friendly overtures to Muslims. (I know: WTF?) That sounded pretty ridiculous to me, but such theories are a consequence of our tendency as a species to want to give gyan. A media pundit, especially, feels compelled to have a narrative for everything. Everything must be explicable, and television expects instant analysis.

This is foolish, for sometimes events are complicated, and we simply need to wait for more information to emerge before we can understand it. But many of us—not just the pundits—don’t have the humility to accept that. We want to feel in control, at least on an intellectual level, so reasons and theories emerge. But the world is really far too complicated for us. Yet somehow we muddle along.

The right kind of gyan, in the immediate aftermath of this, is historical perspective, which Christiane Amanpour provided on King’s show. Anything else is premature.


The kind folk at the Gordon House Hotel did three important things for us last night. One, they ushered us in when the gunshots began, assuring us that we’d be safer inside than outside. Two, they got us a room for the night, and extra mattresses and so on. Three, in the morning, they refused to accept payment for the room, insisting that we were their guests and this was their duty.

We left them a hefty tip out of gratitude, but I’m still in disbelief about their kindness. I often complain about the poor service in the hospitality industry in India, but never again about All Stir Fry or the Gordon House Hotel. What guys!


We passed Churchgate on our way home at about 8.45. It was obviously nowhere near as crowded as usual. But still there was a steady stream of people headed out, staring ahead, trooping off to work. This city did not sleep last night, I know. But it will not rest either.


Update (November 28): I have a new post up with more thoughts, and a few links: “This City With Arms Wide Open”.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 November, 2008 in India | Personal

Peaceful, Easy Feeling

Blogging for the rest of this week is going to be slow. I need to deliver the final manuscript of “My Friend, Sancho” to my publishers by November 30, and am rewriting a portion of it that I wasn’t quite satisfied with. So I shall go easy on the surfing and blogging for the next four days, though I won’t lay off entirely. Stay tuned—and subscribe to my RSS feed if you haven’t already.

And if the empty hours get too unbearable, make a list of five things you would do today if you were going to die tomorrow. And then go out and get started on one of them. (You can call this Paanchvidaniya.) Have fun!

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 November, 2008 in My Friend Sancho | Personal

The Unaccommodated Man (And The Fluttering Moth)

Check out James Wood’s superb review of “The World Is What It Is”, Patrick French’s wonderful biography of VS Naipaul. I love the first paragraph.

George Packer also has a good review of the book here.

And while on books, I was fascinated by this image uploaded by Mark Sarvas of the plot chart of “Harlot’s Ghost”, Norman Mailer’s 1991 novel. Daunting.

Mailer’s considerable achievements include winning the Bad Sex Award, and this year’s winner has just been announced. Here’s the sentence that surely clinched it for Rachel Johnson’s “Shire Hell”:

As he nibbles and pulls with his mouth, his hands find my bush, and with light fingers he flutters about there, as if he is a moth caught inside a lampshade.

If I read that line before I lost my virginity, I’d probably have taken a vow of celibacy. I do take a vow, though, of never attempting to write a sex scene in my own books. Unless I’m taking the mickey out of it—no pun intended.

And to end this post with publishing news, some publishers are feeling the effects of the downturn—and some aren’t. Go, Hachette!

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 November, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Personal

India Uncut on Facebook

For those of you so interested, there is now an India Uncut Facebook group. My friend MadMan started it for me, insisting that readers of this blog would appreciate it. In case that’s true, well, there it is.

One of the nice things about Facebook is that it makes you feel popular. In the real world, I have just a handful of good friends—and none of them are free for coffee when I’m done with my day’s work at 4 am. On Facebook, on the other hand, I have many ‘friends’, even if I haven’t even met most of them, and can succumb to the illusion of being loved and wanted even as I go about my solitary way in the real world. I hope my Facebook Friends, and the declared India Uncut readers on that Facebook group, will buy my book when it comes out in April. Now, that will give me a warm glow!

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 November, 2008 in Personal

Sancho Finds A Home

Right—I’ve finalized a publisher. I’m pleased to announce that my first novel, My Friend, Sancho, will be published by Hachette India in April 2009.

Hachette India is part of Hachette Livre, the world’s second-largest publisher, who had more books than any other publisher last year in the New York Times bestseller list. While they’re giants worldwide, they’ve just set up shop in India. They launched officially in a function in New Delhi last evening; my book will be the first release in their local list.

So all of you complaining about how I no longer write five posts a day will soon, I hope, see that it’s been worth it.

Meanwhile, the broadband connection of the friends I’m staying with in Delhi is down—I’ve cunningly managed to log on to a neighbour’s wi-fi just to make this important announcement—so blogging will be slow for a couple of days. But your patience will be rewarded.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 November, 2008 in My Friend Sancho | Personal

Congratulations, Miguel Syjuco…

... for winning the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize!


After Miguel’s book Ilustrado was shortlisted, he had told the Guardian that making it to the shortlist was “like someone coming into my dark room and throwing open the curtains.” That seemed like a perfect simile to me—writing is a solitary act, with insecurity and self-doubt our closest companions, and the room does seem terribly dark sometimes. This prize ensures that the curtains will always remain open on Miguel’s work, and I’m delighted for him.

Miguel and I had exchanged emails after we got longlisted for the prize, and we promised to send each other signed and inscribed copies of our books. Now I can’t wait!


And when will My Friend, Sancho be on the shelves? I’m going to Delhi this Sunday to meet all the publishers who have made me offers, and finalize a deal. Whoever I sign with, the release date is likely to be around the end of April 2009. I’ll announce it here within a week.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 November, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | My Friend Sancho | Personal

‘At The End Of The Day…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiok 2.0…

... is now open.

Shiok is one of my favourite restaurants anywhere, and I wish Madhu Menon, my friend who runs it, had moved it to Bombay. Instead, he’s moved it to a new location in Bangalore—so if you live there, I hate you. Shiok serves South-East Asian food, and if you make the wise dining choice of going there sometime, ask for my favourite dish, Drunken Beef. (That’s just one minor masterpiece among many, of course.)


The old Shiok had acquired a cult status for its lounge extension, which served up some terrific cocktails. (Some of Bangalore best bartenders have been trained by Madhu.) This has now been expanded into a separate lounge named Moss. Check that out as well, and raise a toast to India Uncut if you go there after reading this post.


Here’s the address and phone number:

Shiok Far-eastern Cuisine
96, Amar Jyoti Layout
Koramangala Inner Ring Road
Bangalore - 560 071
Phone: 6571 5555 / 6666 (changed from old number)

Previous posts on MadMan: 1, 2.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 November, 2008 in Personal

I Have Always Had A Flat Stomach

Once it was a studio apartment; now it’s a 2 BHK.

It’s kind of sad that the more the real estate expands, the less attractive it becomes. Call it Varma’s Law of Middle Age.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 November, 2008 in Personal | Small thoughts

My Congratulations…

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

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

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

A Blogging Midlife Crisis

Someday years from now Usain Bolt will look back fondly and tell a child on his knee, or maybe just his knee, that he was once able to run 100 metres in less than 10 seconds. Similarly, I am pleased to inform you that I once made 22 posts in a single day on India Uncut, and averaged five posts a day for a year. (I can’t be bothered to find that day now, but it’s somewhere on the old Blogspot avatar of this blog.) Well, I just counted how many days it took me to make my last 22 posts, and I find that they span almost two weeks.

Clearly I’m going through some kind of blogging midlife crisis, because there’s been nothing else in my life to keep me busy. It isn’t that I haven’t been in front of my computer, or have stopped surfing the net—I’m online as much as I used to be. But I’ve just been listless, unable to find anything interesting enough to blog about, unwilling to blog just for the sake of it. I’m certain this is a temporary phase, and the WTFness of the world will inspire me to resume my normal blogging pace. But until then, I wish to offer you consolation in the knowledge that the variety of bloggers out there for your edification is growing with every passing day—just consider the newest addition to that list.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 October, 2008 in Miscellaneous | Personal

The Man Asian Shortlist…

... has been announced. Your favourite blogger hasn’t made it there. My congratulations to the writers who did—I’m happy for them and look forward to reading their books, but if I ever find one of them walking in front of me on a promenade, and I happen to have a poison-tipped umbrella available, I don’t promise inaction.

Excerpts of most of the longlisted works are available here, and you can check out the first chapter of “My Friend, Sancho” if you feel like. I haven’t yet decided which publisher to go with—I have generous offers from three of them—but the book should be on the stands by the middle of next year.

Updates will follow.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 October, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | My Friend Sancho | Personal

Amitava Kumar Brings Rave Out To Life

Those of you who read this blog through their feed readers may not notice when other sections of this site are updated, so I thought I’d make a note that Rave Out has sprung back to life. Amitava Kumar has just done a superb Rave Out on Joseph O’Neill’s celebrated novel “Netherland”, and I shall upload a Rave Out on Anne Tyler’s beautiful novel, “Back When We Were Grownups”, sometime in the middle of next week. From then on, I’ll aim for a couple of Rave Outs a week. So watch that space.

As for the other sections, well, blame it on laziness. I have many Workoutable questions that just await uploading, and I also have over 100 old crosswords I’d made for Mint that haven’t yet been uploaded on Extrowords. But they’re on the hard drive of my earlier laptop, whose motherboard had given way, and I have yet to retrieve the data. My lassitude is so immense, it feels eternal.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 October, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Personal

Not Allowed This Navratri

1] Free distribution of condoms.

2] Backless cholis and low-waist ghagras.

3] Blogging.

Ok, fine, I made that third one up. I can’t (yet) cite the moral police as an excuse for my recent blogging slowdown—I’ve just had a bout of blogging fatigue, which, after close to four years and more than 6000 posts, I’m allowed. Immense listlessness has come. Massive pointlessness is felt. And so on.

Anyway, I’m resuming now. Let’s see how it goes.

(Links via emails from Mahendra and Mani respectively.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 October, 2008 in Freedom | India | Personal

The Pursuit Of Happiness

Reader Vipin Kannoth writes in to tell me that he sent a poem to a mutual friend yesterday, and she told him that his poem was just like my Facebook status message at the time. My status message read: Amit was at the store yesterday to buy Happiness, but it was out of stock. Shortlived Joy was on sale, though.

Vipin’s poem has much more merit than my glib message—so do read Happiness 2.0.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 September, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Personal

Of Myths And Urban Spaces

The partner is an art curator, as some of you would know, and while each show she puts together takes months of work, she just happens to have three big shows taking place in the space of a week right now. I love much of the work on display, so here’s a quick plug for all three.

Of Myths And More opened on Wednesday at Sanstache Art Gallery in Worli (besides Mela restaurant) and runs until October 17. In this show, the invited artists use ancient myths to illuminate their concerns about the modern world. I especially liked the work by KK Muhamed, Santosh Morajkar and Hanuman Kambli, whose paintings seem backlit, so vibrant their colours are.

Bricks and Mortar opens today at Hacienda, a gallery in Kala Ghoda. The show is themed around urban spaces, and some of the work here is quite stunning (and rather large). Examples follow below the fold. This show gets over on September 30.

Art Bazaar is an art fair organized by the Concern India Foundation at Coomarswamy Hall in Fort between September 22 and 25. Different galleries showcase their artists there, and Jasmine has a stall where she presents art by a mixed bag of established and upcoming names. What I like most about this collection is that all the art here is relatively affordable—everything is below Rs 1 Lakh, and the cheapest works are just 7k each. Given the artists on view, that’s quite something. (Again, examples below the fold.)

Jasmine’s previous shows are linked on the right sidebar of her old site, and this is her new site. But be warned that low-res images do not justice to the art on view, so if you’re in Mumbai and interested in art, drop in for one of these shows. You might also happen to bump into me with one of my pet cows.

And now for a sampler of my favourite works from these shows:


Posted by Amit Varma on 20 September, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Personal

Remembering David Foster Wallace

Rahul points me to this tribute in which a bunch of writers and editors share their memories of David Foster Wallace. Good stuff.

Tragic as Wallace’s death is, I think that suicide is the most dignified way to die: you choose the time and manner of your own passing, and can prepare yourself for it without burdening others. (I know most of my readers won’t agree, and I won’t try to convince you!)

Of course, just as suicide may sometimes reflect humility, in embracing our own mortality, it can also reflect arrogance, as drama queen Yukio Mishima’s seppuku certainly did. But what a writer he was, that Mishima, saving his only bad plot line for his own life. Such it goes…

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 September, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Personal | Small thoughts

Venky’s In The Way

My broadband has been down for the last two days, which explains why there hasn’t been much blogging in that time. My dial-up is as slow on Venkatesh Prasad on sedatives, and it takes me five minutes to open an email on Gmail, and 20 minutes to make a post like this. So the mails pile up, my readers leave me for Amitabh Bachchan, and I’m out of touch with what’s happening in the world.

But I’ll hang in here, and so must you.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Bangalore, Venky Prasad contemplates a comeback. I’ll keep on running after bowling the ball, he thinks, and reach the batsman before the ball does. If that don’t psyche them out…

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 September, 2008 in Personal

Two Indian Libertarian Blogs

“I have a complaint about India Uncut,” a reader writes in. “Once upon a time, your blog was a goldmine of libertarian thinking, especially when you were writing your column for Mint [Thinking it Through]. Now you rarely blog about libertarian matters. I still enjoy your posts, and am addicted to your blog, but I wish there it had more political and economic commentary.”

Ok, I plead guilty. There are three reasons for why there is less libertarian stuff on my blog these days:

1] I have given up writing columns and Op-Eds, and am trying to be a full-time novelist instead. So those impassioned (sometimes too impassioned) essays about freedom and suchlike are a thing of the past—at least for a while.

2] While reacting to the news around me, I often find I am repeating myself. How often can I rant about the nature of government or free speech or the wastage of the taxes we pay?

3] I am blogging less frequently than I used to: once I did five or six posts a day; now I write about half that much.

So if you agree with the reader above, I apologise. But you should not worry, for there are two relatively new Indian libertarian blogs out there which are just terrific. Indeed, I wish I could write as powerfully, and with as much insight, as these two guys.

First, there is the old gun, Sauvik Chakraverti, a former winner of the Bastiat Prize. Sauvik blogs at Antidote, and pays no heed to political correctness or the fashion of the day. He is always thought-provoking, and I enjoy reading his blog immensely.

And then, there is the new kid in town, Vipin Veetil. Vipin blogs at Catallactics, and his trenchant economic commentary is a joy to read.

Go check out these two blogs. I’m a fan.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 September, 2008 in Freedom | Personal

On Short Writing

Arjun Swarup writes in to point me to “Haiku Nation”, a piece on short-format writing that he says made him think of me:

Short is in. Online Americans, fed up with e-mail overload and blogorrhea, are retreating into micro-writing. Six-word memoirs. Four-word film reviews. Twelve-word novels. Mini-lit is thriving.

It’s an interesting piece, but I couldn’t see why it made Arjun think of me. So I asked him. “Because one of your key points about good writing,” he replied, “one that you have frequently commented upon, is to keep it short, simple and concise.”

I clarified: “My point isn’t that good writing is short, but that it is no longer than necessary.”

Small formats have their value, but if a piece of writing is so short that it does not get to the meat of the matter, then it is too long. And while I love the six-word Hemingway story everybody cites (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn”), I’d rather read “The Old Man And The Sea” than 100 stories like that.

But that’s just me.

Also read: an old essay of mine on short attention spans, “Beautiful Scatty Minds.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 September, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Personal | Small thoughts

The Inside Story Of The Booker Prize

In a superb feature, “Tears, tiffs and triumphs”, The Guardian has persuaded “a [Booker Prize] judge from every year to tell us the inside story of how the winner was chosen.” Much fun—and much enlightenment: an observation that crops up more than once is that the judges come to jury meetings with their minds made up, and the rest is horse-trading. James Wood, a judge in 1994, writes:

[T]he absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism). In practice, judge A blathers on about his favourite novel for five minutes, and then judge B blathers on about her favourite novel for five minutes, and nothing changes: no one switches sides. That is when the horse-trading begins. I remember that one of the judges phoned me and said, in effect: “I know that you especially like novel X, and you know that I especially like novel Y. It would be good if both those books got on to the shortlist, yes? So if you vote for my novel, I’ll vote for yours, OK?”

That is how our shortlist was patched together, and it is how our winner was chosen.

My first novel is on the longlist of another literary prize, and even though I know that prizes don’t make a book better or worse than it is, I’ll be either ecstatic or heartbroken on the day the shortlist is announced. The rational part of my brain tells me to not think about it, to get back to that second book that I’ve begun, to write another 500 words, or 300, or even 50, before I head off to bed. But the roulette wheel spins, and I’m holding my breath…

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 September, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | My Friend Sancho | Personal

Just A Thread

Reading James Wood’s “The Broken Estate” I came across this superb quote by Gustave Flaubert:

Stupidity consists in wanting to reach conclusions. We are a thread, and we want to know the whole design.

To me, this sums up the difference in writing the kind of opinion pieces that have been my living until recently and writing fiction. In an opinion piece, by the nature of that form, I need to display certainty; in fiction, I can embrace ambiguity, and follow threads. More and more, I feel myself drawn towards the latter—it makes me more certain of myself, if that makes sense.

I still hold strong opinions about many things, but I just don’t find those all that interesting. Uncertainties attract me more—such as the thought of whether there’s any Lindt left in the fridge. Off I go to find out, reveling, as Flaubert surely would, in the journey.

Update: Lindt was found. Mmmm!

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 August, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Personal | Small thoughts

Constant Bereavement

It’s hard to come to terms with a loved one’s death—but how much harder is it to have to do it again and again and again? Here’s Margaret Thatcher’s daughter, Carol, on how she’s had to tell her mom about her father Denis Thatcher’s death repeatedly:

Dementia meant she kept forgetting he was dead. I had to keep giving her the sad news over and over again. Every time it finally sank in that she had lost her husband of more than 50 years, she’d look at me sadly and say, ‘Oh’, as I struggled to compose myself. ‘Were we all there?’ she’d ask softly.

Some days I hope that I die young. At least that will spare me the horror of losing my faculties, witnessing my own decline, knowing that it isn’t over yet but it’s getting there and that my best, such as it pitifully was, lies behind. And being dependent on others.

On other days, my mood is better, and Dr Mahinder Watsa is an important reason for this. Consider these two magnificent questions that he’s been asked in his latest column:

* I am 29 years old and married. I had sex with my wife 15 months after she gave birth to our son. Can this lead to a second pregnancy?

*  Can an abortion take place by consuming Vitamin C?

The second question is particularly masterful because grammatically it makes no sense at all—even if abortions could consume Vitamin C, how would they ‘take place’? Therein lies its genius.

Earlier posts on Mr Watsa: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 August, 2008 in Personal | Small thoughts | WTF

Farmers Are Dying In Vidarbha

My friend Peter Griffin brings my attention to Quick Tales, a writing competition organised by Caferati and LiveJournal for fiction shorter than 500 words. The first prize is Rs 19,999, so if you enjoy storytelling, head over and participate. Make it racy, ok?

But why have I titled this post thus? Well, Peter has also announced a Godawful Poetry Fortnight, and he demands that I contribute to it. I don’t write poetry, bad or otherwise, but I did write a little ditty to amuse some friends a few days ago, and I present it below. It is certain to piss off both the lefties and the righties in the blogosphere: the lefties will think I’m trivialising a serious issue, and the righties will think I’m trying to make them feel guilty. But I shall sacrifice the loss of goodwill, for this is for a good cause. Peter wants godawful, and this is godawful:

Farmers are dying in Vidarbha
by Amit Varma

I’m sitting in my airconditioned room right now
Soaking in some fashionable gloom right now
While farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

I’m surfing the web and writing a blog
I’ve eaten heartily and will sleep like a log
While farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

Tomorrow I shall go and chill at a mall
Indulge myself in bling and all
While farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

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

I drink Kingfisher and I travel Jet
I use Meru cabs (haven’t got a Merc yet)
While farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

When I go to the gym I wear special shoes
Talk in an accent about jazz and blues
While farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

I think I’m super hot, and also super cool
The globe is warming but I’m playing the fool
While farmers are dying in Vidarbha.

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

And hey, what d’ya say, look at it this way
If I was in Vidarbha and my hair was gray
I would also be dyeing in Vidarbha.

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


Mandatory tag: Godawful Poetry Fortnight.


PS: The poem was inspired by the meme mentioned in my post, Monster Trucks, Party Clocks and Chidiya Choo Choo.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 August, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Personal

Independence Day

Well, Happy Independence Day, and all that. A couple of publications asked me to write pieces for their Independence Day issues, but I chose not to because I had nothing to say beyond what I already did in my piece last year, The Republic of Apathy. That should tell you why August 15 leaves a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Independence, yes; freedom, um…

I have much to blog about, but have been travelling for the last three days, and am in Chennai today after going from Chandigarh to Delhi to Mumbai. Regular blogging will resume once I’m back in Mumbai this weekend.

Until then, a question for Cthulhu fans to ponder: If unspeakable horror leads to shrieking insanity, what does unshriekable horror lead to?

While you ponder this deep theological ctheolhogical question, ta da.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 August, 2008 in Freedom | India | Personal

Why Don’t We Read More?

Soumya Bhattacharya wonders why Indians don’t buy more books. He does some math for us:

It costs Rs 200 to watch a movie on a weekend evening at a multiplex. (And that’s without the popcorn and the soft drinks.) Now my edition of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — for my money the finest novel of 2007 and a New York Times bestseller, which means that a lot of people, including those who make their reading choices based on what Oprah recommends in her book club, have bought it — costs Rs 195. A Penguin Modern Classic — the storehouse of the finest literature in the history of literature — usually costs Rs 250.

It costs Rs 900-1,200 for a meal for two at a restaurant in Mumbai. You could get the new Ghosh and the new book of stories by Jhumpa Lahiri (award-winning, finely calibrated, exquisite tales of belonging and loss) for Rs 1,049. It costs Rs 125-150 for a coffee and a sandwich at one of the coffee chains. A Penguin Popular Classic — the cheaper version of the Penguin Modern Classic — is available for Rs 95. Oh, and my Orwell Centenary Edition of Shooting an Elephant and Other Essays costs Rs 367. That’s less than what I would spend for a few drinks at a Mumbai bar. So it’s not the money. And it’s certainly not that we don’t have the time. (If I could lay my hands on a study that totted up the amount of time we spend sending text messages or watching puerile rubbish on TV or travelling, vacant-minded, and not reading…)

It’s just that we’d rather not buy books. Most of us choose not to.

Bravo! I wish it would somehow become cool for people to read books. (Books in general, not just Chetan Bhagat.) And then, once they bought books to be cool, they got addicted.

Given my choice of what I want to do with my life, of course, that’s just self-interest speaking.

(Link via Nilanjana.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 August, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | India | Personal

The Paper Clip

Raymond Chandler writes:

A long time ago, when I was writing for the pulps I put into a story a line like ‘he got out of the car and walked across the sun-drenched sidewalk until the shadow of the awning over the entrance fell across his face like the touch of cool water’. They took it out when they published the story. Their readers didn’t appreciate this sort of thing: just held up the action. And I set out to prove them wrong. My theory was that they just thought they cared nothing about anything but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, they cared very little about the action. The things they really cared about, and that I cared about, were the creation of emotion through dialogue and description; the things they remembered, that haunted them, were not for example that a man got killed, but that in the moment of his death he was trying to pick a paper clip up off the polished surface of a desk, and it kept slipping away from him, so that there was a look of strain on his face and his mouth was half opened in a kind of tormented grin, and the last thing in the world he thought about was death. He didn’t even hear death knock on the door. That damn paper clip kept slipping away from his fingers and he just wouldn’t push it to the edge of the desk and catch it as it fell.

This excerpt is from “The Raymond Chandler Papers”, a marvellous collection of Chandler’s letters and some nonfiction, edited by Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane. It is full of such gems.

Chandler’s insight hurts me when I think of popular English fiction in India. There’s isn’t one writer in that space who can write about that paper clip. I think our readers deserve better.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 August, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Personal

I’m Probably Male

What do you do when you want to find out whether you’re male or female? You click here. My results:

Likelihood of you being FEMALE is 3%
Likelihood of you being MALE is 97%

The program in question does its analysis based on one’s browsing history. You do the test and see what you are.

As for me, I will now delete my cache and try to be female for an hour. Then I’ll do this test again. L’that only.

(Link via Andrew Sullivan via MR.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 August, 2008 in Miscellaneous | Personal

The Bastiat Prize Shortlist For 2008…

... has been announced. The finalists are:

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

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

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

The Meat Kit

All my vegetarian readers are hereby advised to click on this.


PS. Sorry. It’s Nilanjana’s fault. She showed me this picture after dinner at her and DD’s place—I’m passing through Delhi on the way to Chandigarh—and as I was unable to eat it, I thought I’d blog it.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 August, 2008 in Miscellaneous | Personal

“Don’t Worry, Sir, The Money Has Been Deducted”

I needed to book some train tickets today, so I optimistically hopped over to the IRCTC website to use their online booking facility. The user interface was horribly designed, but as long as I could figure out how things functioned, I didn’t care. I chose my train, filled in my details, made my credit card payment. But after I clicked the last confirmation button that I had to, the screen just went blank.

I thought maybe my tickets had been booked, and clicked on ‘booked tickets’. No luck. So I called their customer service people. The first time I got through, the woman at the other end heard what my problem was, went mmm, hmmm, and hung up. I tried again. This time, I warned the lady who picked up not to hang up on me. Then I gave her my user id so she could access my account details. Then this conversation happened:

IRCTC lady: So what is problem?

Me: The problem is that after I made my credit card payment, the screen just went blank.

IRCTC lady: Just a minute. (Pause.) Sir, was your ticket worth Rs 365?

Me: Yes.

IRCTC lady: Don’t worry, sir, the money has been deducted.

Me: Ah. Yes, well, but my ticket history is not showing that I’ve booked any ticket.

IRCTC lady: Yes sir. That is because the ticket has not been booked.

Me: What? The money has been deducted from my account but the ticket hasn’t been booked?

IRCTC lady: Yes sir. That happens. It is an online site, no?

I was too flabbergasted by this to even lose my temper. She eventually said that I would get a refund, but no doubt that’ll involve bureaucracy and online forms that go blank and so on, and I’ve mentally said goodbye to these 365 bucks.

If the government simply outsourced its ticketing to competing private vendors, I suspect I wouldn’t have this problem. Where there is an unthreatened monopoly, what else can one expect?

Update (8.48 pm): More than 40 readers have written in since I made this post, vouching for the efficient service of IRCTC, and assuring me that I’ll get my refund easily. Given the number of people vouching for the website, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt for now. What’s more, I will head over there and try to book a ticket again. Let’s see how it goes now.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 August, 2008 in Economics | India | Personal | WTF

Breathe Again

“My Friend, Sancho” is done and dusted, and I resume blogging now. Are you happy? Is this what you wanted? Huh? Huh?

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 August, 2008 in My Friend Sancho | Personal

The Boiler Room

In this great interview of (and about) Robert Gottlieb, Michael Crichton says:

In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room and, you have to assume, the ship’s exterior.

This is from “The Paris Review Interviews, 1.”

And yes, I’m stuck in the boiler room, wondering if this ship will stay afloat. Such it goes…

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 July, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | My Friend Sancho | Personal

The Longlist For The Man Asian Literary Prize 2008…

... has been announced. My first novel, “My Friend, Sancho”, is one of the longlisted books.

I should call it a novel-in-progress, actually. Authors were allowed to enter 10,000 words of their manuscript for the prize, and I made the longlist on the basis of my first three chapters. I need to submit my entire manuscript by August 1 to remain in contention for the prize, and I’m not quite done with it yet. Thus, for the next few days, I take a break from India Uncut.

I know this will be hard, but the rewards will be reaped by you as well, so hang in there. Also, if you’re desperate for WTF entertainment, there’s Lok Sabha TV. They outdo Bollywood, they do—and it’s all for real.

PS: I’ll write more on my book, and the process of writing it, in a later post—probably at the start of August.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 July, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | My Friend Sancho | Personal

Match-Fixing In Parliament

This is rich.

In unrelated news, my blogging will be light this week, as I’m attempting to finish off something that I need to get done by the end of this month. At least that’s the official story.

There are rumours that bookies have staked a huge amount on India Uncut suddenly going quiet for a few days—you know what the odds of that are—and a cartel of bookies has camped out at the Hyatt for a week to try and pay me off. The rumours say that I have succumbed to their considerable temptations.

Needless to say, I deny those rumours. I have work.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 July, 2008 in India | News | Personal | Politics

Kharcha Paani

Reacting to my post, “Paperwork (aka The Corruption Rant)”, Jitendra Mohan writes in:

I am reminded of a similar incident.

It was 27th of June, 2002 (yeah, such was the shock that I still remember the date). Despite having all the required documents, I had to literally run from pillar to post to get my emergency passport to be able to take GRE the next day. No one was even ready to listen to me even though there wasn’t any paper-work missing. I was a poor student then..and pleaded helplessly. No one even glanced at me. Finally, after 8 hours of running around when I lost my temper at the Chief Passport Officer (CPO) she asked her assistant, yadavji, to ‘help’ me. And this guy calls me in his private chamber and shamelessly says “thoda sa kharcha paani kijiyega tab na hoga”.. and I was like “i have all the documents and i am just a student. mere paas paisa nahi hai utna”. He goes: “sabji mandi samajh rakhe hain kya?”

I had never felt more helpless in life before. My misery was exploited to the fullest and I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even complain against the harassment as everyone from top to bottom was corrupt. Atrocious.

This is not a problem with the people in power—it is problem with power. Give people power over others, and they are likely to exploit it. Give government servants discretion, and they will use it for their self-interest. That’s human. The solution is to a) make sure that there is a limit to the amount of power any individual has and b) there are safeguards against the misuse of power.

Too often, we forget that our government should serve us, not rule us.

This doesn’t just apply to government, of course. My passport expires next month, and to renew it I need a document from my housing society stating that I live there. The old fogies who man the society office, retired people who otherwise probably get no bhav, are giving me a tough time, demanding all kinds of paperwork that has no relevance to my residence here. I have no choice but to comply. The cost of fighting the system is greater than the cost of just giving in. So it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 July, 2008 in Freedom | India | Personal

Monster Trucks, Party Clocks and Chidiya Choo Choo

A believer would put it down to karma. On Saturday morning, as a bunch of friends and I were sitting in a cafe at Dadar about to head off to Pune, we devised a game inspired by P Sainath. The game went thus: pick up the newspaper and after every headline, add the words “while farmers die in Vidarbha.” So, for example, you’d have “India ready with climate action plan while farmers die in Vidarbha.” Or “Anne Hathaway’s love secrets, revealed, while farmers die in Vidarbha.”

We amused ourselves in this pathetic way for a few minutes before one of us opened the page to Dr Mahinder Vatsa’s sex advice column in Mumbai Mirror. (My earlier posts on it: 1, 2.) We then modified our game to read out each question beginning with the words “I am a farmer dying in Vidarbha.” So, for example, you would have a question that went: “I am a farmer dying in Vidarbha. Whenever I get sexually excited, I experience an excruciating pain in my testicles…” Or: “I am a farmer dying in Vidarbha. I am 19 years old. My weight is 48 kilos. My problem is that I have small breasts.”

I don’t need to elaborate that what we were doing was very, very wrong. It was made even more wrong by the fact that farmers were probably dying in Vidarbha as we played this game. Punishment was due—and the wrath of the gods duly come our way.


When we were about 40 minutes outside Pune’s city limits, the cab I was in slowed down behind a truck. Gaspode and I were sitting in the back seat. Suddenly, there was a loud noise, something banged my head, and fragments of glass lay all around me. We turned around: a truck had hit the back of our car; the windscreen at the back was shattered; its frame had disappeared; and, to my immense relief, my book was fine. I’d kept a copy of Paul Auster’s “Timbuktu” behind me, and I retrieved that and tumbled out of the car.

I wish I could dramatize the moment, but there really was no great drama to it. By the time I realised I was in an accident, the accident was over and I was obviously fine, as was Gaspode. It could have been much worse had we been resting our heads against the seat and napping, as we had been a few minutes before this. We were also lucky that the windscreen was made of the kind of glass that, as a safety feature, crumbles into tiny, harmless bits—Gaspode was taking out some of them from his hair for more than an hour.

So now all we had to do was get to Pune. We thanked the great Omniscient Sainath for not punishing our blasphemy with something worse, and hailed down one of those large tempo-type autos. We cast a regretful last look at our cab, below which much petrol had leaked. Sadly, we were carrying no matches.


The tempo-type auto was empty when we got in, and offered to drop us to the outskirts of Pune. But once we were inside, it started picking up people. Two women and a baby; a young man who looked like Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar; three more women, all of whom looked like Nirupa Roy; two burly farmers, perhaps from Vidarbha; and a man with a goat.

Actually, I’m exaggerating about the goat. There was no goat that tried to give Gaspode a blowjob, so that part of the narrative must be omitted. But I don’t exaggerate one bit when I say that when all of the aforementioned people were in the vehicle—one of the ladies almost on my lap—we were overtaken by a bicycle. It was a surreal morning.


The afternoon was worse. We attended a quiz by Derek O’Brien and the questions, many of them multiple choice, were horrendous. A sample: “Which of these is better for fighting bad breath: mint or chewing gum?” You know the kind of quiz I like : this was worse than any monster truck.


Wait, it isn’t over. We took a cab back in the evening and almost got hustled off the road by a truck behind us. Our driver yelled something at the truck driver and made him stop on the side of the road. Then he got down, walked over to the truck, pulled the driver out and slapped him three times. Then he charged back in and gave us a smile.

“Boss, why did you have to do that?” I said in Hindi. “What if he comes after us and bangs his truck into the car?”

“Ha,” said the driver. “That never happens.”


The next day, I was in Bangalore to take part in a quiz conducted by the KQA as part of their 25th anniversary celebrations. (My team reached the final, ahead of some terrific quizzers, but we were outclassed there. This quiz was excellent.) In the evening, I was at a party at Madhu ‘MadMan’ Menon’s house, where I was spending the night. I was pooped after the traumatic events of the last two days, and drunk far more than I normally do. Then, at 10.30, I realised that the party was over and everyone had left.

“What’s up, why did everyone leave so early?” I asked Madhu.

“What’s the time?”

I looked over at his big wall clock. “It’s 10.30,” I said.

“No,” said Madhu. “It’s 1.30 in the morning. That’s my party clock. It always says 10.30. That way, nobody leaves. At 11.30 they look at the clock, think it’s only 10.30, and they hang on. Isn’t it brilliant?”

I had to agree it was brilliant.


The next evening, Madhu and I were hanging out with an extremely smart lady of tender years. She told us the latest Savita Bhabhi storyline and then gave us tips on how to search for porn on the net. I remarked:

“You know, I find this so strange. There are two men and one woman at this table, and it’s the woman who’s giving all the advice on surfing porn.”

“Amit, it’s not about which gender you belong to,” she said. “It’s about which generation you belong to.”

Madhu and I, 32 and 34 respectively, looked at each other with great nostalgia. I’m telling you, it felt like my life was over.


There is one memory of the trip I will always cherish, though. That came when Madhu, asked to sing opera, which he does exceedingly well, instead sang “Chidiya Choo Choo Karti Hai.” He said that he’d first seen the song when he was eight years old, and it was the first WTF moment of his life. Indeed, it is remarkable: Watch this!

My favourite bits are Jeetendra’s armpit sweat when he does “Happy Birthday to Me”, and the necking camels just after. But there is much to choose from. Such a masterpiece.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 July, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Personal | WTF

Quizzing is Not Just a Trivial Pursuit

This piece of mine was published on Sunday (June 29) in Mail Today.

It’s Sunday, and you’ve had enough of boring op-eds and opinion pieces all week. So let me start this piece with a quiz question about cards: In Texas Hold’em Poker, which hand is known as ‘six tits’? 

If you don’t know the answer, I encourage you not to shift your eyes to the end of the piece, where I reveal all. Just look at the question one more time: as the Beatles would say, you can work it out. 

Every two Sundays, a diverse group of people meet in an office in a Mumbai suburb and ask each other questions like this. They are the Bombay Quiz Club (BQC), a group I co-founded on April Fool’s Day, 2006. Most Indian cities have clubs with a much older pedigree – the Karnataka Quiz Association of Bangalore celebrates its 25th anniversary today, and the K Circle of Hyderabad predates that by a decade. But the kind of quizzing all these clubs do is rather different from what most Indians understand of the term.


To most Indians, quizzing is about knowledge. You are asked a question: you either know it or you don’t. If you don’t, the quiz is terribly boring. There might be drama about who is winning or losing, but beyond that narrative, your brain isn’t being made to work. You might as well watch a soap opera.

But attend a quiz by the BQC or by any of these other quizzing clubs and you’ll find a different dynamic at play. You will find that the quizzing they do is not so much about knowledge but about problem solving. Even if you don’t know a question, you can still work it out by clues given in the question. Sure, you still need to know things: but if you’re intelligent and have a basic interest in the world, you have a crack at solving any question. A 100-question quiz then becomes not a boring event where you know some things and are clueless about others, but a challenge in which you try to solve 100 brainteasers, often with the help of team-mates in a collaborative process that is immense fun.

For example, here’s a question I asked in a quiz last year: “X is a unit of hype. One kiloX is equal to 10.42 days. One MegaX is equal to 28.5 years. What is X, and why is it so called?”

When I asked this question, I also advised the teams to use their calculators. The team that cracked it was the one that figured out that X was equal to 15 minutes. The answer, then, was obviously Warhol, who had famously said: “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Now think of what a boring question this would have been if I had simply asked: “What is the unit of hype?”


Every well-framed quiz question should lead to a Eureka moment. You are asked a question, you search it for clues, one teammate suggests one strand of thought, another suggests an alternative, you rack your brains and suddenly it all falls into place. My friend J Ramanand, the last man to win Mastermind India, expressed it beautifully when he wrote: “Working out answers is sometimes like tugging at the loose thread in a sweater. A decent yank & the whole thing unravels magically.”

To illustrate this, here’s a question framed by the quizzer Arun Simha: “H0H 0H0” is a postal code used by Canada Post for routing letters sent in Canada to which person?”

The question is bewildering – until one notices that H0H 0H0 can also be read as Ho Ho Ho. Yank that and you come to Santa Claus. (Jabba the Hutt is also associated with that laugh, but any reasonable quizzer would eliminate that option, for why would Canada Post care about Jabba the Hutt?)

Here’s another question, framed by a BQC quizzer, Sumant Srivathsan: “If ‘three short - three long - three short’ (. . . - - - . . .) is Morse code for SOS, where would you be most likely to come across ‘three short - two long - three short’?” 

The ‘three-shorts’ are the clue. Clearly the second code stands for S-something-S, and when you work that out, you start thinking of what the missing letter could be. M? SMS? And then you remember the default Nokia ringtone for incoming messages (“beep-beep-beep, beeeep-beeeep, beep-beep-beep”) and the answer falls into place.

Imagine how boring the question would be if it was framed thus: “In morse code, which letter does ‘two long’ stand for?” Or “What is the default Nokia ringtone for incoming messages inspired by?”

I was recently asked by a friend, whose only acquaintance with quizzing is via Kaun Banega Crorepati, how I prepare for a quiz. The answer, of course, is that one can’t prepare for this kind of quizzing. Schoolkids may buy Malayalam Manorama and learn capitals and currencies, but the best quizzers are simply people who live life fully. They show an interest in the world around them; they read a lot; they watch films and listen to music; they are culturally aware; they keep in touch with the news. And when quiz questions pop up that touch on any of those areas, they have a chance at cracking it, even if they don’t know the funda behind the question.

Ah, fundas! Quizzers use that term a lot. What does it mean? Loosely speaking, a funda is an interesting fact at the heart of a question. Every good question contains a little nugget that tells you something you didn’t know already. Sometimes this is trivial, sometimes not. But the net effect of a good quiz with solid fundas is that you end the quiz not just entertained by it, but also more knowledgeable about the world in a meaningful way.


A connect question in a quiz is one in which you are asked to find the common thread running between a few different elements: four visuals, say, or a video, an audio and a picture, and so on. But, in a way, all of quizzing is about connecting. We look for something in the question that we are asked that we can connect with the world we know. And when a funda is new to us, it expands that world. If it’s interesting, it might even increase out interest in a particular area of knowledge. We might finish a quiz wanting to see a certain film or read a particular book, or simply looking at something in an entirely new way. To extend Ramanand’s analogy, after we yank the thread and the sweater unravels, we find other uses for that wool. 

So the next time you’re playing poker on a Sunday and your opponent beats you with a hand that has three queens in it, congratulate him (or her) for holding six tits. Then walk right out and find a good quiz to take part in. It’ll be worth your while.

*  *  *

I’ve earlier written on this subject here: The Joys of Quizzing. Also check out this three part primer by J Ramanand and Niranjan Pednekar: 1, 2, 3.

I do all my quizzing at quizzes organised by the Bombay Quiz Club, and if you’re in this city and would like to try out quizzing, please do. For other cities, check out the KQA (Bangalore), K Circle (Hyderabad), Boat Club Quiz Club (Pune), QFI (Chennai) and the Qutab Quiz Club (Delhi).

More more essays and op-eds by me, click here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 July, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal

Zombie Blogging Not Required

The rumours are partly true: a truck did crash into a car I was travelling in on Saturday; but that is not the cause of this hiatus in posts. I’ve been travelling, making sure Pune is doing okay, confirming reports that Bangalore is getting by, and I return to Mumbai this evening before despair floods the city. By tomorrow, I shall resume blogging at my usual pace and reveal all.

And even if, FSM forbid, the accident had taken me out, it wouldn’t have stopped me. I would have become India’s first Zombie Blogger. Some things just can’t be stopped. So be patient…

Teaser to tomorrow’s posts: Chidiya Choo Choo Karti Hai...

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 July, 2008 in Personal

The Balls of West Indians

In a conversation with Rajdeep Sardesai, Sandeep Patil remembers being Sunil Gavaskar’s roommate in 1983:

I asked him if would be able to even see the balls of West Indians. He asked me what do you mean by ‘the balls of the West Indians?’ I told him the cricket balls that will be bowled by Marshall. I had not faced West Indians then and Sunil told me that you have faced Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson; you will be able to see the balls. I saw the ball and I hit a six.

My favourite bit in the interview, though, is when Sardesai asks what Kapil Dev said to his team in the dressing room after India was dismissed for 183 in the final. Kapil replies:

I just said c’mon Jawaano, let’s fight it out.

Through a nostalgia-tented lens, of all this seems charmingly uncomplicated. But in my view, the politics is less today and our cricket is much better. (Not the West Indies’s, sadly.) Still, it’s good to remember.


Many readers of this blog, shameless young kids all, were born after that 1983 World Cup. Those of us born before it are often asked where we were when the final was won. I was nine at the time, and hadn’t yet begun following cricket. I vaguely remember being in a room with many family members, all of them rather excited. When they began jumping up and down at the fall of the tenth West Indian wicket, I looked at the screen and sagely remarked: “But they still have one batsman left.”

(Link via email from Sanjeev.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 June, 2008 in India | Personal | Sport

What’s Consolation For An Atheist?

This piece of mine was published this Sunday (June 15) in Mail Today.

Even an atheist is tempted to believe sometimes. My mother died about three weeks ago, losing a long battle to cancer, and I found myself faced with false consolations. Ma had been a believer, and the others in my family also tend that way. They could console themselves with the thought that there might be an afterlife, that perhaps she was now in “a better place.” Friends who came to see us told us that they were praying for her soul, and that God had been merciful to her, and that it could have been worse. All this was useful for others – but not believing in God or souls, I had to deal with death as death.

I’ll come to terms with my mother’s death – with some sorrow, one moves on. But I think about my own, and that is harder. If I cast aside the existence of a higher being, I have to accept my own insignificance in the world, and that when I die, that will be that: no soul, no heaven or rebirth, no greater purpose to my mundane life. At low moments, it makes everything seem pointless. 

And yet, being an atheist is not a choice I have made, choosing one belief system over another. This is because atheism is not about belief at all: it is about the absence of belief.


Some people think that atheism means believing that there is no God. This is a flawed perception. The primary meaning of atheism that most dictionaries will give you, though there are secondary meanings that have evolved from bad usage, is of “disbelief” in God or a deity. That means that atheists are not people who believe that there is no God, but people who do not believe that there is God. The difference is huge.

The conviction that there is no God is irrational because one cannot prove a negative. (How do you prove that something does not exist?) However, it is entirely rational to not believe in something whose existence has not been demonstrated. I don’t believe in dragons or fairies because no one has yet proved to me that they exist. Ditto God. I am not asserting that God does not exist, but simply saying that I don’t believe in the existence of God because I see no evidence of Him (or Her, or It). This is not a dogmatic position: if you can prove to me tomorrow that God or dragons exist, I will start to believe in them. Until then, I remain in disbelief. That’s atheism.

People often speak of atheism as if it is a movement or an organised belief system – or even a religion of sorts. That is not true. The Economist published a letter from Chad English of Ottawa a few months ago that summed it up well: “Atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby. When you understand why there are no ‘aphilatelist’ conventions, you will understand why atheists don’t congregate.”


It is a common mistake to view belief in God as running along a continuum in which we have theists (who believe), agnostics (who are undecided) and atheists (who don’t believe). This is based on a misunderstanding of agnosticism, which doesn’t deal with belief at all, but with knowledge. The word ‘agnostic’ is a combination of the Greek α (without) and gnōsis (knowledge), and refers to a person who believes that the truth about something, in this case the existence of God, is unknowable. It has nothing to do with believing or not believing.

Indeed, it is possible to combine agnosticism with either theism or atheism. A believer may choose to believe in God while accepting that some things are fundamentally unknowable. An atheist may agree with that view. I see myself as both an atheist and an agnostic: an atheist because I do not believe in God, as His/Her/Its existence has not been proved; an agnostic because I believe that on this matter, we may never know the truth for sure.

For that reason, I am not militant about my atheism. What other people choose to believe in is none of my business, and I respect their right to their beliefs. But the right to religion does not imply the right to force it on others. I object when people try to coerce others into conforming with their beliefs, believing that their religion gives them the license to infringe on the rights of others. Religion in the private domain and in community settings can be useful, and a force for good, but too often in recent times, it has been used to justify the worst excesses: genocides, riots, terrorism, and all kinds of coercion. We have seen deplorable instances of this from every major religion in the last 100 years (including communism, which relies as much on faith as any God-based belief system). 

Thus, it is not religion per se that is a problem, but our attitudes towards it. The right to religion is a human right that should be contingent, like all other rights, on respecting the corresponding rights of others. But many ‘religious’ people have the arrogance to believe that they, the enlightened, are due special privileges that would otherwise be unjustifiable; and many ‘secular’ people are inexplicably keen to pander to them. This endangers the basis of a free society, where artists have been terrorized into thinking twice before drawing a cartoon of another man’s god or painting another man’s goddess, not by the alleged power of those gods and goddesses, but by the primitive fury of their followers.


I may not believe in God, but I have no doubt that belief in God serves a purpose for many people. In primitive times, before we understood what the sun was or why there were eclipses and storms, the world must have appeared a terrifying, bewildering place. Religion offered an explanation for everything, and made us believe that we weren’t as small and insignificant as, well, as we are. Besides rendering the world explicable, it made mortality bearable. When someone close to us died, we could tell ourselves that they were in a better place.

As science has gradually filled up the gaps in our knowledge, the God of the Gaps has shrunk, almost becoming redundant. And while the consolations of belief are useful, I would rather reject those false certainties and look for consolation in smaller, surer things. As Austin Cline once wrote: “A person who truly enjoys and appreciates their life will take pleasure in it and enjoy it regardless of whether any sort of afterlife exists. They might believe in an afterlife and even in some sort of wonderful heaven, but they won’t depend upon the existence of such a heaven in order for their lives to have meaning or purpose.”

*  *  *

I’ve written on this subject a fair bit on my blog; a few posts: 1, 2, 3, 4. If you want to read more about atheism, I can’t think of a better site than’s section on atheism, written by Austin Cline. The left sidebar there has some links to some fine pieces by Cline.

And for more essays and Op-Eds by me, click here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 June, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal

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