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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

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.)

image

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.

image

Here’s the address and phone number:

Shiok Far-eastern Cuisine
96, Amar Jyoti Layout
Koramangala Inner Ring Road
Domlur
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:

Read more...

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.

Workoutable

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?”

Eureka!

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.

Connect

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.

Nonbelief

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.”

Agnosticism

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.

Consolation

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 About.com’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


A Night Owl’s Lament

Balzac may have worked through the night, “fueled by innumerable cups of black coffee,” but night owls are frowned upon at large. As Anne Fadiman wrote in “At Large and At Small”:

The owl’s reputation may be beyond salvation. Who gets up early? Farmers, bakers, doctors. Who stays up late? Muggers, streetwalkers, cat burglars. It’s assumed that if you’re sneaking around after midnight, you must have something to hide. Night is the time of goblins, ghouls, vampires, zombies, witches, warlocks, demons, wraiths, fiends, banshees, poltergeists, werefolk, bogeymen, and things that go bump. (It is also the time of fairies and angels, but, like many comforting things, they are all too easily crowded out of the imagination. The nightmare trumps the pleasant dream.) Night, like winter, is a metaphor for death: one does not say “the dead of morning” or “the dead of spring.” In a strange and tenebrous book called “Night” (which every lark should be forced to read, preferably by moonlight), the British cynic A Alvarez (an owl) points out, glumly, that Christ is known as the Light of the World and Satan as the Prince of Darkness. With such a powerful pro-lark tradition arrayed against us, must we owls be forever condemned to the infernal regions—which, despite their inextinguishable flames, are always described as dark?

I was reminded of Fadiman’s essay when I read Deepa Ranganathan’s piece in Slate, “Can a Night Owl Become a Morning Person?” In my case, the answer would be a resolute no. If I need to be awake at seven in the morning, I stay up, for that is easier than waking up at that undemonly hour, and I find that my best work, such as it pitifully is, is done at night. Like now, when it’s almost 2 am.

So what am I doing writing this post? Bye.

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


How The Internet Has Changed My Life

I had a lousy cold a couple of days ago, and was hunting in my medicine drawer for Wikoryl. The partner asked me what I was searching for. Absentmindedly, I replied:

“AVG Anti-Virus.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 June, 2008 in Personal


Chess Without The Dice

The WTF quote of the moment comes from Germany’s football star Lukas Podolski:

Football is like chess, only without the dice.

A decade-and-a-half ago, I represented Maharashtra in under-19 chess. No dice was used. Perhaps that makes me a national level football player.

(Link via separate messages from Devangshu Datta and Krishna Prasad.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 June, 2008 in Personal | Sport | WTF


Writing Is Work; Reading Should Not Be

This is a great motto for a writer to have:

It’s up to me, not the reader, to do the work.

That’s Lee Child speaking in an article by Charles McGrath. I know literary types who would disagree with the sentiment—Let the readers do some work, they will say, it’s rewarding for them—but if reading feels like work, then it should not be done.

I’m not as good a writer as I’d like to be, so I do the smart thing and stick to short posts on India Uncut—by the time you get tired of them, they’re over.

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 June, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Miscellaneous | Personal


Elephants Like Us

Jai Arjun Singh presents pictures of elephants that reveal the human condition. Consider the picture below, with its accompanying caption:

Lady elephants are better at public displays of affection, much the same way it is with humans. This one kept nuzzling her husband’s belly with her trunk. He seemed to enjoy it but he didn’t reciprocate - looked straight ahead.

I suppose he wanted his space. Maybe he’ll regret it some day.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 June, 2008 in Miscellaneous | Personal | Small thoughts


Time Off

There’s been a death in the family and blogging will be infrequent over the next few days. Until then, three links sent to me by readers to help you through these difficult days:

1] A Gaybombay survey reveals the hottest players in the IPL. When I received Vikram Doctor’s SMS about it, I tried to guess, through my straight lens, who would top the poll. I was way off: Shane Watson figured low down in the list. Now you guess who won.

2] Jonathan Leake of The Sunday Times explains why “txting mks u clvr.” Do you think it could be said that txting is the Twenty20 of writing? If so, I guess I’m Aakash Chopra—and willfully so. (Link via email from VatsaL.)

3] And this is just Dam Funny. (Link via email from Mohit.)

Shabba khair now, and take good care of yourself.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 May, 2008 in Miscellaneous | Personal


All Hail Icelandic Sagas

Responding to my post about Icelandic happiness, Devangshu Datta writes in:

Iceland has 7 GMs and 14 IMs in a population of 3 lakhs, which makes it by far the best chess playing nation per capita. It also has a high percentage of tall blond women and sexy sagas, which generally involve burning people alive.

I should emigrate there, I think. I’m not a tall blond woman, but my chess is decent and I can burn. So there.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2008 in Miscellaneous | Personal | Sport


Goya’s Dark Nightmare World Is A Happy Place

Responding to my post “We Should Celebrate Rising Divorce Rates”, Krishna Prasad writes in to point me to this piece: No wonder Iceland has the happiest people on earth.

Looking away from the now-tiresome subject of divorce, here’s a paragraph from the piece that rather intrigued me:

Why is there such an abundance of artists in Iceland? What drives them? ‘We do it so as not to become mad,’ replied Haraldur, who is tall, nervy and thin with eyes that have the concentrated energy of a laser beam. Not to become mad? ‘Yes, to keep the beast at bay.’ The beast? ‘The beast is Iceland, this island on which we live with its terrifyingly harsh nature, its bitter ever-changing weather. It’s Goya’s dark nightmare world, beautiful but grotesque. This is the moody beast of Iceland. We cannot escape it. So we find ways to live with it, to tame it. I do it through my art,’ said Haraldur, whose attempts to pacify the monster have also included the writing of three books in which ‘there are no animals, no trees. We have to have a rich internal life to fill the empty spaces, to fill the silence with our own noise.’

Meanwhile the sapping heat of Mumbai prevents me from writing as productively as I’d like to. What to do about this beast?

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


Signs Of Life…

... are apparent in Rave Out and Workoutable, both of which opened their eyes and looked around a few hours ago. Amitava Kumar sent in “One Chai and a Wills Navy Cut”, an appreciation of Pablo Bartholomew’s recent work. And I had a few questions lying around from a recent quiz I conducted, so I figured this would be a good day to start uploading them.

I cannot promise that Rave Out will not slip back into coma. I don’t like to harangue contributors, and I’ve been too lazy to write stuff for it myself, though I’ve been intending to do so for a while now. Workoutable will continue on a regular basis, though. As for Extrowords, I have about 100 old crosswords that I was too lazy to upload, but they’re all on the hard drive of an old laptop whose motherboard crashed. So I need to get an external casing for that hard drive, retrieve the data, and then I’ll be ready to roll. Sadly, lassitude is the driving force of my life, and I cannot promise when this will happen.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2008 in Personal


Marvel vs DC

Jonathan Lethem says in an interview with Powell’s.com:

The other thing about Marvel superheroes, as opposed to DC, is that when Superman is Superman, that’s who he really is; Clark Kent is a pretense. When he’s Superman, he’s fulfilled; he’s in his right place. And Batman is really Batman; Bruce Wayne is the disguise. With the Marvel superheroes, it’s the other way: When they put on their costume, they’re pretending. Despite their powers, they have massive imposter syndrome.

I was a huge Marvel fan as a kid in the 80s, and I hated DC, but I never thought of it this way. To me, the Marvel superheroes just had more complexity—even more humanity, if I may put it like that. There was much more gray. (This was before Frank Miller reinvigorated DC’s Batman franchise.) And I liked Spiderman the least of the Marvel superheroes.

That reminds me, I need to go watch Iron Man today.

PS: Powell’s has some great author interviews, look on the left panel of the Lethem interview for more.

Update: In separate emails, Rahul Gupta, Gaurav Sabnis and Abhishek Mehrotra quote this excerpt from Kill Bill 2:

As you know, l’m quite keen on comic books. Especially the ones about superheroes. I find the whole mythology surrounding superheroes fascinating. Take my favorite superhero, Superman. Not a great comic book. Not particularly well-drawn. But the mythology… The mythology is not only great, it’s unique. Now, a staple of the superhero mythology is, there’s the superhero and there’s the alter ego. Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man is actually Peter Parker. When that character wakes up in the morning, he’s Peter Parker. He has to put on a costume to become Spider-Man. And it is in that characteristic Superman stands alone. Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears - the glasses, the business suit - that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent. He’s weak… he’s unsure of himself… he’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.

Ya, whatever. I still think Superman is the suckiest, most simplistic superhero. If boredom was my Kryptonite, Superman would have killed me by now.

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


Somebody Take This Sinus Away

I won’t be blogging any more for most of today: my sinus has exploded, my throat has imploded, and there’s an elephant on my head. My laptop screen is swimming in front of me, and the only person who gives me TLC and treats me like a baby is half a continent away till Monday. So you’ll just have to manage without India Uncut updates for a while.

Note: Also, allow me to inform you that none of my photographs look like me. None at all. It’s most inexplicable.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 May, 2008 in Personal


The Bastiat Prize for Journalism 2008…

... is now open for entries.

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

To repeat what the prize is about:

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

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

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


“Porn For Book Nerds”

This has me all excited; there’s no better way to spend those lonely nights.

(Link via email from Manish Vij, who found it over at Andrew Sullivan’s.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 April, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Personal


Amit Agarwal Blogs, Honda CR-V Comes

“Google AdSense and Blogging Brought Me This Car,” reveals Amit Agarwal. It’s a Honda CR-V. It couldn’t be more well-deserved, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Congrats, Amit.

And why is this other Amit still a pauper? I can rationalize. Boo hoo.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 April, 2008 in Blogging | Personal


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