My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.
A few years ago I tried an experiment where I put the entire text of my book, “God’s Debris,” on the Internet for free, after sales of the hard copy and its sequel, “The Religion War” slowed. My hope was that the people who liked the free e-book would buy the sequel. According to my fan mail, people loved the free book. I know they loved it because they emailed to ask when the sequel would also be available for free. For readers of my non-Dilbert books, I inadvertently set the market value for my work at zero. Oops.
So I’ve been watching with great interest as the band “Radiohead” pursues its experiment with pay-what-you-want downloads on the Internet. In the near term, the goodwill has inspired lots of people to pay. But I suspect many of them are placing a bet that paying a few bucks now will inspire all of their favorite bands to offer similar deals. That’s when the market value of music will approach zero.
That’s my guess. Free is more complicated than you’d think.
The irony is that free isn’t free. You might think that you’re reading India Uncut content for free, but actually you’re paying a price for it: The price of your time. Every second you spend reading India Uncut, you could be doing something else, and that opportunity cost indicates the value you place on my content. Sadly, there is no mechanism yet by which I can benefit from that, which is why we bloggers are so impoverished.
Arzan Sam Wadia informs us about “Movember (the month formally known as November), .... a moustache growing charity event held during November each year.” Apparently you start the month clean-shaven and end it with a moustache, raising “money and awareness about male health issues” on the way.
Apropos of nothing, I’ve been told three times in the last month that I’ve lost weight, and my face looks leaner. Each time, it’s been soon after I’ve shaved. I must try shaving the rest of my body one of these days and seeing if that works.
I arrived back in Bombay about 24 hours ago, wide awake until the sun came out, asleep all day, and then awake again into the late hours. Jet lag, you might say, but this was pretty much my schedule before I left for the US. Still, I need to move to a normal routine soon.
Below, some quick notes in lieu of many posts…
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The Incomparable Mr Vij
One of the great pleasures of my stay in NYC was hanging out with Manish Vij of Ultrabrown fame. I had a place to stay for just half my trip, and asked Manish if he knew of any cheap hotels where the partner and I could spend the remaining four days. Manish insisted that we stay at his place, a compact flat in Harlem. He left the bedroom to us, slummed out in the tiny hall, and took us around his city. No doubt it affected his work—he stayed up late finishing pending tasks, some of which have turned out ultracool.
Manish had spent a few months in India earlier this year, and my first impression of the guy when I met him in Bandra was of a dude who went around clicking pictures everywhere in a touristy way. But as time went by I realized that his interest in his surroundings went much below the skin. Manish has this fabulous skill of immersing himself in the local culture of wherever he is without being judgmental or cynical, and that native enthusiasm shows through on his blog. Spending time with him was most rewarding, even if his taste in movies differs rather drastically from mine. (He loves Devdas and hates Dor. Pah!)
So my deepest thanks to Manish, and here’s a picture of us below, taken by the partner. I’m presumably doing something disgusting with myself, while Manish looks on in bemused disapproval…
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On Tehelka and Gujarat
Tehelka‘s powerful expose on Gujarat broke while I was in NYC, and I simply didn’t have enough time to read up on it, and see the clips, and blog about it. A couple of things struck me early on:
1. We already knew what had happened in Gujarat—there was enough credible journalism on the subject. Tehelka‘s story gave us proof, and added details, and that will be valuable for historians at a later point in time. But I don’t expect it to change India’s politics, or change the way the Gujarat riots are perceived at large. People have already taken their positions on Gujarat, and expecting a BJP supporter to say “Oh my goodness, this has opened my eyes” is unrealistic.
2. I am cynical about the rule of law in India. In my eyes, it works only for the powerful, not for the common Indian. And just as justice has been hard to come by for the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, and the Bombay riots, justice may never be fully done in Gujarat—even if a few foot-soldiers get punished here and there.
I hope I’m wrong on both the above points, needless to say.
Also, I share the outrage expressed by Shoma Chaudhury in this piece, where she speaks of how so many people are speculating on Tehelka‘s motives rather than focussing on their journalism. “We can be shown a man gloating over a foetus ripped out of a mother’s womb,” she writes, “but we would rather embroider why we are being shown this than react with honest emotion to the fact.”
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It’s November? Really?
I walked a lot in New York, and it was a pleasure. Back in Mumbai, the weather is insanely hot, and such walking simply isn’t viable. And so the tummy will grow again.
Really, this is November, for FSM’s sake. Where’s winter?
A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to win the 2007 Frédéric Bastiat Prize for Journalism. I picked up a handsome cheque and an engraved candlestick at a ceremony in Manhattan, and reflected that much as I valued the money and would cherish the candlestick, I would have been happier if the writings that made me eligible for this award had been unnecessary. The Bastiat Prize, according to its organizers, is meant for “journalists whose writings wittily and eloquently explain, promote and defend the principles of the free society.” In the India of my dreams, I would not need to do those things.
Frédéric Bastiat was a French essayist who lived in the first half of the 19th century. His ideas, however, are terribly relevant to modern India. Indeed, if his work had been widely read and understood by the men who brought us freedom and shaped our nation after independence, we would not be such a poor country. Virtually every mistake that independent India’s policymakers made in the economic sphere could have been avoided if they had just read his great essay, That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen.
I’m in NYC till Tuesday night, and am getting no time to blog here. I know how you feel, life must seem so empty. Be brave, hold on till I return, and I promise that for a week I’ll do seven posts a day instead of five. All will be well. Don’t give up. Keep the faith. Etc.
Off I go now to shame myself by doing some touristy thing…
Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2007 in
Sree Sreenivasan and SAJA have very kindly organised a SAJA event in NYC where I can get to meet anyone interested in hanging out. The details are here. I’m sure I’ll meet many interesting people.
And yes, I know, SAJA’s description of me is entirely too kind. I’m not sure what a ‘top blogger’ is, and all I can vouch for is that I’m a harmless one. Unless Himesh hits the soundtrack. Once “Jhalak Dikhla Ja” starts playing, all bets are off, as my inner animal emerges.
Posted by Amit Varma on 26 October, 2007 in
I’m rushing off to celebrate now. More details will follow in a few hours.
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More details: I went out and celebrated, came back and slept a bit, and woke up to find, to my surprise, that it was the 25th morning, not the 24th, and it hadn’t all been a dream. There stands the candlestick I got as my prize, a homage to Frédéric Bastiat’s magnificent Candlemakers’ Petition (pdf link).
It was evident from the fact that the organisers flew me here and put me up in style that I was going to be one of the first three. I just didn’t know what position. I got passes to the event for a bunch of my friends: Yazad, Manish and Prashant and wife. Reuben was also there with his partner. We formed a desi table at the dinner and made jokes about Gujjus, which always helps break the tension.
My default mode is cynical, and I had been convinced for a few days that I didn’t deserve to win. My three nominated pieces were Where’s the Freedom Party?, A Beast Called Government and The Devil’s Compassion. They were all written fairly early in my stint as columnist at Mint, when I was still getting a handle on tone and suchlike. The first of those pieces was clumsily written, even if the content was close to my heart. The second was fairly basic for a sophisticated audience, even if it might have seemed radical to some readers in India. The third, I thought, worked well for me—it was satire, and Bastiat did satire, so that could help.
I told a friend of mine a few days ago (Rahul, I think, or Chandrahas) that I’d probably have a better crack at it next year, and had grown considerably as a columnist since these pieces were written. He gave me a cricketing analogy that now seems quite apt. “Sometimes you’re bowling really well, beating the bat constantly, but not getting any wickets,” he said. “Sometimes you bowl full tosses and long hops, and pick up a five-fer.” And indeed, I’ve bowled well often, especially on my blog, where every day I work hard to find interesting things to write about. I’d paid my dues in other ways, and I didn’t mind the wickets now.
My main source of stress on the final day was the speech I thought I might have to give if I won a prize. I’m socially awkward, most comfortable alone in a room with my laptop, and was terrified at the thought of having to speak in front of so many people—some of them writers I admire a lot, like John Stossel and Tom Palmer. I wrote to last year’s winner, Tim Harford, for advice. Tim advised me to keep it under a minute. That sounded like 60 seconds too much to me—still, I thought of things I could say, but didn’t have the courage to actually sit and script it.
The first hint I had that I might win was when the event photographer kept taking pictures of me, more so than of anyone else. “Damn,” I thought, “does this mean I’ll have to give a speech?” The evening passed slowly, with one of the high points being a charming and witty keynote speech by Anne Applebaum. “I will be such a contrast if I have to speak,” I thought. Perhaps I wouldn’t win any prize. My pessimism was suddenly wishful thinking.
After dinner, the prizes were announced in reverse order. Third place—Jonah Goldberg. Jonah went up, took his candlestick, and walked off without having to speak. “Ah,” I thought, “I hope I come second then. I won’t have to speak either.” In any case, I’d told my friends earlier in the day that my money was on Clive Crook winning. I’d read his entries during dinner—they gave out a booklet with all the nominated pieces—and my belief that he would win was strengthened by his wonderful essays. If I was a judge, I’d have voted for Clive. (Indeed, all the entries were excellent, and I’d probably have marked myself sixth.)
Then they announced the second prize. Clive Crook.
Two thoughts went through my mind. One: “This means I’ve won!” Two: “Shit, shit, shit, I might have to speak!”
Then, like in a reality show, they waited, and lingered, and delayed. I was dying inside, of excitement (“Win!”) and fear (“Speech!”). They said that one of the things that stood out about the winner was an essay that reminded them of Bastiat’s satirical style. They were talking about The Devil’s Compassion, I realised. I had won!
Then they announced my name. My table roared. I went up, shook hands, all in a daze, and collected my candlestick. And my cheque. And then I was walking off, safe and sound, when members of the crowd demanded a speech. So I turned around, walked back, banged the candlestick on my head to ease my tension, and began with a joke about how a few days ago I’d read a headline that reminded me of Frédéric Bastiat. To my amazement, everybody laughed. Some people clapped. Emboldened, I continued. They laughed at all the right moments, and suddenly I was sailing. A roomful of people was paying attention to me, and laughing at my jokes, and clapping loudly for me. There are few experiences in my admittedly uneventful life that can match that feeling. I came off stage, and even though I hate the way I smile, I couldn’t stop grinning.
The other nominees were gracious, and came and congratulated me. I felt a little guilty, as if I’d stolen a toy that belonged to some other child. Then some of us went out drinking, after which some of us hung out till 3 am, and then I slept, terrified that I’d wake up and it would be the 24th and there would no candlestick. But there is.
As I mentioned in my post about being nominated, it all began with India Uncut. The blog led to the column, and made me grow as a writer. And I wouldn’t have bothered if no one was reading me. So thank you—you are more a part of this than you realise!
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Note: My entourage took a video of the proceedings. If it comes out okay, I’ll upload it for you to see.
Update 2: Many bloggers have blogged about this and congratulated me—my thanks to all of them. Gaurav was the first to break the news: Yazad texted him while I was giving my acceptance speech. Manish then blogged about it after we went to my room to change. He added the picture, of me and the partner, later. Sonia and Arzan, old buddy and new buddy, used the picture in their posts, as did Vinod at Sepia Mutiny. Reuben used another picture by Manish in his eyewitness account. (Manish should demand royalties.) There were also kind posts from Prem, Jai, Ravi & Prashant, Nitin, Ash at Desi Pundit, and last year’s winner, Tim. (Apologies if I’ve missed anyone!)
I’ve also got tons of email congratulating me. I’m touched that so many people, most of whom I’ve never met, would take the trouble to write. Thank you!
Posted by Amit Varma on 25 October, 2007 in
Later tonight I’m heading off to New York City, and will be there until October 30. While the trip is ostensibly for a professional purpose, I’m basically going to chill out, eat a lot of good food, raid bookstores, shop for rubbish and meet old friends. In other words, it’s going to be a holiday.
While I expect to have internet access there, I may not be blogging much. (But if the mood strikes me, I may, so keep an eye out. You could subscribe to my RSS feed.) I will resume regular service when I return.
Time for a confession: Over the last couple of months, I’ve been terribly preoccupied with personal matters, and haven’t had time to do justice to the other sections on this site. I promise to restore regular service on Workoutable, Extrowords and Rave Out when I return. I’ll also try and be more efficient with my email. If you’ve mailed me anytime in the past few weeks and I haven’t responded, I apologize—it’s just been very busy, and I have this deplorable habit of putting things off for later.
Given that all of Monday will pass without my blogging, I can’t possibly end this post without directing you to something worth reading. Check out “So You Want to be a Masonomist” by Arnold Kling. Kling blogs at EconLog, one of several terrific blogs written out of the George Mason University, and his essay sums up the beliefs of the GMU guys. Regular readers of India Uncut will know that I’m a fan, and I agree with Kling’s essay on every particular. It succinctly states near the start:
Most economists favor the free market, with reservations. Masonomics rejects the reservations. If John and Mary are free individuals, and John trades with Mary, then John and Mary both are better off. End of story.
Everything flows from there, doesn’t it? Read the full piece, it’s wonderful. And lose the we!
No more so than food in general, writes Sandy Szwarc, who examines “one of the largest studies [on healthy eating] ever undertaken in the United States” and finds:
The take-home message is that the soundest science for decades supports eating normally, enjoying everything, and not worrying so much. When we enjoy a variety of foods from all of the food groups — as most everyone naturally does when they’re not trying to control their eating — and trust our bodies, we’ll get the nutrients we need to prevent deficiencies. And that is the only thing that nutritional science can credibly support. The rest is dietary religion.
I’m now in the mood for some cheesy pasta, followed by yummy gelato. That’s what my body wants, and who am I to say no? As for the paunch, I’ll rationalize it as being an evolutionary signal of prosperity. I can rationalize anything.
One of the first thoughts I had when I left my job a year ago, fully intending never to take up a job again, was: “Wow, I won’t have to attend a meeting for the rest of my life.” I have worked in television, advertising and journalism, and never have I attended a meeting that was remotely productive. Bosses would show authority (and reveal insecurity), non-bosses would try to show how they’re full of ideas (regardless of whether those are workable or not), and everybody would repeatedly remind everyone else that they existed. If any useful decisions ended up being taken, they were ones that could have been arrived at between two of the people present in one tenth of the time. Yawn, and all that.
Tyler Cowen, by the by, wrote a recent piece in Forbes where he argued that “[m]ost meetings aren’t as wasteful as they seem” because “[t]hey bestow social intelligence.” Great point, but in my case, I’m not sure if the social intelligence thus garnered was worth the opportunity cost.
... I was a female herbalist in Mexico. So this site tells me. It doesn’t mention if I was hot, but I’m sure I must have been quite a stunner, curing people with the mere motion of my heaving bosom, with the herbs just incidental.
Demands, demands, demands. Reader Smitha writes in to ask when Rave Out, Extrowords and Workoutable will resume, a query various other readers have made during the last few weeks. Immense guilt comes. I stopped updating those about a month ago, when I got preoccupied with one dastardly thing after another, and those became extra chores. I have more time now, a couple of Rave Outs in the bank, many Extrowords waiting to be used, and so on. No more shall I tarry.
All those sections resume tomorrow. Tra la.
Posted by Amit Varma on 19 September, 2007 in
I’ve been in Chandigarh all this week, and will be here for another 10 days. Being online has been a struggle in this time, with my Hutch GPRS incredibly slow and my local Reliance Webworld having backend problems. My emails have piled up, so if I haven’t replied to a message you’ve sent, my apologies. Blogging has taken place sporadically, and may be slow until Monday—then again, it may not. So bear with me and all that. (Rukawat ke liye khed hai, blogging mein thoda chhed hai.)
This is the second-last post of today, unless sudden inspiration strikes. The last one links to one of my favourite essays, which made me very happy when I read it, for being such a lucid illustration of an important truth. That’s coming up in five minutes, unless this cyber cafe catches fire or something, which it well might if I spontaneously combust with the combined energy of the pent-up posts within me. Pah.
Posted by Amit Varma on 14 September, 2007 in
I’m back in Mumbai after three days in Hyderabad, where I was attending a conference on liberalism organized by Barun Mitra of The Liberty Institute. I met many interesting people there, and some enlightenment happened amid much conversation. One high point: while casually discussing popular slogans that could spread ideas of liberty, Sauvik Chakraverti suggested “Rukawat Hatao!” I thought that rocked, not just because it plays on the frustration of Indians at the many rukawats our government places in front of us, but also because it encompasses “Garibi Hatao.” If you hatao the rukawats, I believe the garibi will also go.
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The conference was at Ramoji Film City, and on the second day we were taken on a tourist trip of the place. The Ramoji Film City essentially houses sets of all kind, most of them built with plaster of Paris. There was the Gateway of India, with the Taj Mahal inside. There was Mumbai’s Central Jail, with a beauty parlour inside. There were plaster-of-Paris imitations of slices of landscape from Switzerland, Hollywood, London, Kolkata and Benaras. There was an empty square about which our guide told us, “You can make this whatever nagar you want. Put a statue of Shastri, it is Shastri Nagar. Put a statue of Gandhi, it is Gandhi Nagar.” There was a railway station, with the trains being moved on tyres, for those were out of sight. There was a “Forward Planning Garden” and a “Family Planning Garden,” and much artificial greenery all around.
Then we got back to the hotel for our conference, and even the real building seemed like plaster-of-Paris to us. My only regret in all this: they didn’t show us a plaster-of-Paris Hilton.
* * *
Yesterday, with the conference over, I hopped over for lunch to my friend Sridala Swami‘s place. Her son charmingly gifted me a couple of drawings of cows, and then gave me a tutorial on how to draw cows. First he drew a cow, part by part, carefully explaining the process. Then I drew a cow. I am a slow learner, and the boy was upset. “All the udders can’t be the same size,” he told me. “And you’ve got the hooves all wrong. Also, why have you drawn a smile? Cows don’t smile.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “I’ve seen cows smile. Cows are always smiling at me.”
He looked at me strangely. “I have never seen a cow smile,” he said, with an air of finality. The subject was closed. He moved on. “Here, let me show you how to draw a buffalo.”
The lad no doubt inherits his artistic temperament from his mother, who is a poet. Sridala gives a reading of some of her poems in Mumbai on September 13, so drop in if you’re interested. (I’ll again be out of town, sadly.) I don’t understand poetry, being deficient in such matters, but here is a nugget from one of her poems that I rather liked:
I want to be like a tree
on which the birds rest
but when they fly away
there is no pain.
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Yesterday evening was memorable, as I met up with friends and bloggers I respect a lot, Nitin Pai, Ravikiran Rao, Gautam Bastian and Naveen Mandava. Nitin was at the conference with me, and is always stimulating company, besides being a great guy. Ravi, Gautam and Naveen are based in Hyderabad, though the first two had once been in Mumbai, before deserting. We spoke much about economics, politics and chicken chettinad, and Nitin and I had a fierce argument on whether India should have sent troops to Iraq. (He argued yes, I vehemently argued no.) We hung at Barista, then hung at CCD, and in between, Nitin picked up a slice of Paradise, for his wife had warned him that he won’t be allowed inside his house if he doesn’t have lots of biriyani with him. Yes, Mr Pai is a hardliner on foreign policy, but when it comes to domestic matters…
I’ve been busy recently, and am heading in an hour—yes, in the middle of the night, such a freak I am—to Hyderabad for a conference on liberalism in India. (The classical kind, not the mutated American leftie version.) A backlog of intended posts have piled up, a couple of which I’m saving for later, as they deal with large themes I want to comment on at length. But before that, some quick links.
Ramachandra Guha writes in the Hindustan Times about how Veer Savarkar, Bhagat Singh and Subhash Chandra Bose are making a resurgence as modern heroes in India. “These varying traditions and ideologies are united precisely by [a] call for blood” he writes. “Blood must be spilled, and plenty of it: whether to build a Hindu Rashtra, a Socialist Utopia, or a Bose-ian India.” He believes this is “mostly a male or macho thing” (isn’t all politics?), and finds it ironic, “this adoration of violent revolutionaries by men who owe their political independence and their democratic freedoms to a bunch of (now mostly dishonoured) non-violent reformers.”
I read the weekend columnists of our broadsheets with great interest—I will write more on what I think of each of them at length some other time—and I’m glad that the economist Kaushik Basu will write every Sunday for HT. In his first column last Sunday, he spoke of the virtues of scepticism. In a time when certainty counts for knowledge and vehemence is mistaken for strength, it is a welcome note to strike.
In a magnificent essay on cinematic style (via email from Prem), David Bordwell nails a challenge all columnists face. “Popular journalism doesn’t allow you to cite sources, counterpose arguments, develop subtle cases,” he writes. “No time! No space! No room for specialized explanations that might mystify ordinary readers! So when the critic proposes a controversial idea, he has to be brief, blunt, and absolute. If pressed, and still under the pressure of time and column inches, he will wave us toward other writers, appeal to intuition and authority, say that a broadside is really just aimed to get us thinking and talking.”
All true, the restraints we face, but still we try to be clear, and honest with ourselves and our readers. A column can’t be a book or a research paper, and I think readers appreciate that. No?
In my final link for this post (via Cafe Hayek), Noah Shachtman writes in his Iraq Diary of how a consultant on the middle east, “Mac” Macallister, enlightened him on the foolishness of the American policy to give free soccer balls to Iraqi kids. He writes:
“I, as an individual, may want that kid to have a soccer ball. But consider the effect, okay?” he [Macallister] says.
Shame and honor are “limited resources,” Mac explains. “They’re exchanged like currency. And it’s a zero sum game. If I embarrass you, I take some of your honor, and you give me some of your shame. Now you want to do something to get it back.
“The father, off to the side, is thinking, ‘Hey, that’s my job.’ So you’ve shamed him. He might also know that the kid doesn’t deserve it. Shamed him again. And if you give the ball to the little kid, he could get beat up, since the bigger ones prey on the littler ones. More shame. So does that father grab an Ak-47 and do a drive-by, to get back some of his honor?”
Okay, the soccer-for-shooting exchange is a little extreme…
That’s a superb point, and one that I’ve experienced in a different context. When I travelled through the tsunami-affected areas of Tamil Nadu in December 2004 and January 2005, I found that while many people donated clothes, those clothes mostly formed little colourful heaps by the roadsides of TN. The people they were meant for were not beggars, and their sense of honour would not allow them to take old clothes. If you wanted to help them, you had to be careful about how that help was offered. Even poor people have pride. (Some related posts I’d made then: 1, 2, 3.)
Blogging may be light over the next couple of days. Don’t be naughty and go surfing porn just because you don’t find new posts here.
James Norton reports on a Mark Morton study that uses Google to examine “how particular adjectives and euphemisms for overweight attached themselves to various genders and classes.” The findings:
Men, for example, are portly (39,200 results versus 746 for women), while women are plump (91,000 hits versus 15,500 for men).
The big finding, however, comes with black women. Disproportionate to everyone else (vastly, in some cases) they are labeled fat, obese, and overweight. His take: As the ultimate outsiders (in race, gender, and usually class) they’re attractive targets for adjectives that carry negative connotations.
Yes, words reveal so much, don’t they? If I like a fat person, I’d affectionately call him or her chubby or fatso. But if I dislike a fat person, my language would be entirely different. (There is such a difference between the harsh motay! and the cute motoo!, is there not?)
And what words do I like used to describe my own ambitious belly? None at all. Don’t you dare. I’m Adonis himself. Okay? Thank you.
“I have stopped befriending people,” writes S Mitra Kalita in Mint. “These days, I simply engage in social networking.”
Mitra’s piece is about the odd nature of ‘friendship’ on social networks like Facebook, and I think part of the problem is with the terminology they use. According to Facebook, the only social networking site I’m part of, I have 112 ‘friends’. If we take that word literally, this is ludicrous—the number of friends I have in the real world, if I refrain from interpreting the word loosely, is not more than a tenth of that. And I keep getting ‘friendship’ requests from people I don’t know and have never corresponded with, which of course I ignore.
I think I’d be less inclined to ignore those requests, and Mitra would surely also be more comfortable, if instead of ‘friends’ Facebook called them ‘contacts’. Facebook, of course, would think that ‘friend’ is a warmer word than the impersonal ‘contact’, and many people probably like the thought of having hundreds of ‘friends’—perhaps it gives them a sense of belonging that might otherwise elude them in meatspace?
As it happens, Mitra is one of my Facebook friends, and I’ve never met her. But she was the one who added me as a friend, so she’d better not complain now!
By conservative estimates there are around 5 lakh Bollywood aspirants at Lokhandwala, Adarsh Nagar, Millat Nagar (and adjoining areas under the Oshiwara police station jurisdiction), Four Bungalows and Versova.
I have no idea how they arrived at that figure, though knowing how Mid Day works, they are likely to have asked the office peon to think of a random number between 10 and 1 million. In any case, I would like to take this opportunity to assure India Uncut readers that I am not one of those “5 lakh Bollywood aspirants.” Yes, yes, my charm is legendary, and I do keep smelling salts handy for passing women who routinely swoon, but the blogging world needs me more than the film industry. So there.
What’s that about the swooning? Body odour? Don’t be silly, have you ever met me? Pah!
My great insight of the day is that we need other people just to be able to talk to ourselves. And social life is all about personal validation, with a few bonuses thrown in that were never the point in the first place. This thought, perhaps just a momentary and typically cynical fancy, strikes me after reading what Christopher Brookes has to say about Neville Cardus:
One of his favorite conversational adversaries was John Barbirolli. As well as being close friends, they were both great actors and each enjoyed upstaging the other “for the greater glory of God.” At one of their lunchtime meetings, true to form both spent the first hour talking sixteen to the dozen without taking the slightest notice of what the other might have been saying. The occupant of a nearby table recalled that to his surprise and admiration at one point in this exchange Sir John took out his false teeth but still kept talking. By this time Neville was of course a master of the art of masticating and conversing simultaneously….
This excerpt was quoted by Terry Teachout in this post. And I’m not being derisive of Cardus or Barbirolli—I admire anyone who can keep going.
A new study of European cities by the WHO has found that the emotional distress caused by noise pollution is responsible for three out of every 100 deaths typically blamed on heart disease. This could translate to as many as 210,000 deaths in Europe each year due to lack of peace and quiet. The unwanted raucous increases levels of stress hormones, even while we sleep, which can then lead to heart failure, strokes, high blood pressure, and immune problems if present in the bloodstream for extended periods of time.
I’m lucky that my apartment is fairly high up in my building, and there is an expanse of quiet mangroves outside my window. (Even the mosquitoes here don’t buzz much, they just get down and dirty, the horny little beasts.) Still, unlike some people I know, I find it hard to write if the TV is on, or there’s music playing in the house, and a noisy environment tires me out quickly. That’s one reason I’m not a party animal, and prefer quiet evenings with friends to hanging out at some disco or nightclub where one can’t even hear oneself think.
[W]hat the hell’s wrong with India’s news channels? I turn on the tv, and here’s the big story - twin farmers have a common wife. And all this written in white on red huge letters breaking news style. The guy from studio is live, and asks his correspondent “unse poochho ki unko thoda awkward (english word used in midst of hindi questions) feel nahi hota hoga?” and the correspondent asks the same to the farmers’s wife. “Dekhiye, hamne to pehle hi bolaa tha aisa kuchh nahe hai” and she repeats that to most of the questions asked. Believe me, it was a huge story.
I change the channel. Next up, a meteorite found. The news channel contacts an astronomer guy who explains thousands keep falling from the sky. I agree this might be intresting to some, okay, but to continue the same thing for hours? I don’t think so.
Gawd i’m already exhausted.
Or maybe you should blog on it.
Hmm. I haven’t been watching much TV these days, because I’ve been too busy doing nothing at all. That’s my core competence. I rock at doing nothing.
It doesn’t feel like Bombay when I look outside my window: there is a vast expanse of green, mangroves almost as far the horizon, and the breeze is beautiful. Just standing by the open window I feel tranquil—till the mosquitoes attack.
Mosquitoes at my Seven Bungalows residence are a breed apart. Most mosquitoes can be shaken off, but not these buggers. A lifetime of dealing with mosquitoes has given me some reflexive patterns of behaviour, such as shaking myself when I sense that a mosquito is on me, which generally dislodges the pesky insect. Shaking doesn’t work with these fellers, though.
So I’ll be reading something or surfing the net, and will note a mosquito on my arm. I will shake it. The mosquito will stay seated, as if it is part of my arm. I will pick up a book or a remote control and aim for it, and it will slip away just in time, as I hurt myself grievously. (I shouldn’t read heavy books in hardback, I will tell myself.) Then the mosquito will come and sit on my other arm, and look at me with hurt in its eyes.
Sometimes, they attack in hordes. So I’ll be sitting in the loo, invitingly naked, glancing through pretty pictures in my local Bombay Times or HT Cafe, and some 74 of them will descend simultaneously on my body. (I exaggerate, I’m a blogger.) I will glance at them and vibrate. They will all vibrate with me. I will stop vibrating. They will stop vibrating. Then they will look at me, and, all together now, vibrate once more on their own, in a ridiculous caricature of the way I vibrate. You see, they will be mocking me.
I will vainly try to kill a few of them, but will only hurt myself in the process. Eventually I will stumble out of the loo with only half the blood I had when I went in, reeling under an onslaught that would make Spartans proud, and some idiot friend of mine will call. “Yaar, don’t you get bored sitting at home all day?” he or she will ask. Bored?
Anyway, enough self-indulgence for today. I shall now go back to the lovely view from my window. Excuse me while I vibrate.
Posted by Amit Varma on 23 August, 2007 in
More Britons dream about becoming an author than any other job, according to a new survey.
A YouGov poll has found that almost 10% of Britons aspire to being an author, followed by sports personality, pilot, astronaut and event organiser on the list of most coveted jobs.
I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar was true of English-speaking people in the cities of India. I have wanted to be a writer since I was three years old; but for a decade, so has almost every Indian that I run into. Ever since Arundhati Roy got her advance and her Booker, every Joe on the street wants to be a writer. I could be biased, because I’ve worked in ‘creative’ professions such as advertising, television and journalism, where such ambitions are likely to abound, but every second person I meet says he or she wants to write a book. Most of them don’t actually read much, and their prolificness is often inversely proportional to the quality of their work. They are generally more in love with the idea of being a writer than with the act of writing.
As much as I am embarrassed to tell people that I want to be an author because it has become such a clichéd ambition, I am also shamed by the fact that most of my close friends are genuinely talented writers, who work with far more rigor and discipline than I have been able to muster so far. (You know who you are, and I won’t embarrass you with links.) They inspire me, much as the hordes of wannabes outside repel me. So maybe, one of these days, I should stop doing useless things like blogging and get down to some serious work.
A raging nostril and a parched throat has deprived me of much sleep over the last couple of days, and I slept at five this morning, and went back to sleep after my maid came a couple of hours ago and finished her work. Obviously I did not want to be disturbed. At 9.26am, my phone rang.
Female voice: Hello, may I speak to Mr Amit Kumar?
Me: (Exasperated) I am not Amit Kumar.
(Long pause, in which I can almost hear the woman tilt her neck down and check the name again. Then:)
Female Voice: Oh, Amit Varma. May I speak to Amit Varma. I am [forgot-name] calling from HSBC Bank.
Me: (emphatically) No you may not! (I hang up.)
So I’ve put the phone back and I’m off to sleep again when, at 9.30am, the phone rings again.
Male Voice: (Shouting) May I speak to Amit Varma?
Male Voice: (Shouting) I am Rocky calling from HSBC Bank.
Me: Rocky, why are you shouting?
Male Voice: (Shouting) My colleague called a few minutes ago and you shouted at her. I have to do the same to you, no?
At this point, allow me to express my sincere hope that Rocky gets lucky with the colleague on whose behalf he shouted at me. Where can one find such macho men these days?
Posted by Amit Varma on 23 August, 2007 in
The good part about being unwell and on strange medication is the surreal dreams one sometimes has. Today, when the maid rang the bell early in the morning, I was dreaming about my column. In my dream I was worried that I had put too much salt in it. (Yes, literally salt.) And just as the bell rang, and I got out of bed, I realised with relief that I could not have put too much salt into the column. After all, I said to myself, I’d copy-pasted just the text from my word doc into my blogging interface, and all the formatting gets stripped when I do that.
So no salt.
Posted by Amit Varma on 23 August, 2007 in
... over the last few days, because I was first distracted and then unwell, and have been sniffling ferociously and fighting a headache for the last 36 hours, all alone at home, trying somehow to deliver my Thursday column for Mint on deadline. I just about managed that, but blogging has suffered, as has updating the other sections of this site, such as they are. Presumably I’ll be healthy and kicking soon, and the blog posts will roll out as before—or maybe I’ll get iller and iller, and that’ll be that. Who cares anyway?
I’m off to sleep now. Please call after half an hour and ask me if I want a free credit card. Thank you.
Posted by Amit Varma on 22 August, 2007 in
[T]he days are so long I do not know any more what to do with a day—I have no “interests” at all. Deep down, a motionless black melancholy. And fatigue. Mostly in bed—that is the best thing for my health. I had become very thin—people were amazed; now I have found a good trattoria, and will feed myself up again. But the worst thing is: I no longer see why I should live for another six months—everything is boring, painful, dégoûtant. I forgo and suffer too much, and have come to comprehend, beyond all comprehension, the deficiency, the mistakes, and the real disasters of my whole past intellectual life. It is too late to make things good now; I shall never do anything that is good any more. What is the point of doing anything?
No, I am not quoting from it because I identify with it. I am not thin, and I haven’t really had an ‘intellectual life.’ Apart from that, well, I don’t know…
After getting my degree, I will become a strapless gown consultant. Many ladies will come to me. One of my first customers will be a nubile nymphet of slim proportions.
“I would like to wear a strapless gown,” she will tell me, her eyelids fluttering.
“Hmm,” I will remark, contemplating her structural equipment. “That can be arranged. I have just the dress for you.”
I shall hand her a silken contraption, and she shall disappear into the changing room. Five minutes later her head will pop out.
“Sir,” she shall say, timidly.
“Yes?” I shall ask. “Is it fitting ok?”
“I’m not sure, sir,” she shall say. “I’m rather worried that it will fall.”
“Leave that to me,” I shall say. “Come here, let me have a look.”
She shall walk over, and indeed it would appear to the untrained eye that the said silken contraption is incapable of withstanding my sole occupational hazard, gravity. But my eye is not untrained. I shall walk behind her, ignore the temptation that the vast expanse of bare back would pose to a lesser man, and adjust her dress a bit.
“Now walk around,” I shall say. She shall walk around gingerly, and then nod and say shyly, “It’s ok. How do I look?”
“Magnificent,” I shall remark. “May I take a photograph of this moment. You are my first client, and I am filled with pride, among other things.”
“Ok,” she shall say, blushing coyly. I shall aim my 2MP cellphone camera at her, and a moment before I click, the silken contraption will collapse to the floor, and her structural equipment will heave.
“A strange development,” I will remark. “Trial and error is clearly needed.”
* * *
The next day, the nubile nymphet will reappear, accompanied by a buxom lady of substantial charm.
“A gown for you, mademoiselle?” I shall ask.
“No,” the buxom lady will bark as her face reddens. “I have come here to investigate a most egregious wardrobe malfunction that beset my sister here yesterday. The matter involves a falling gown. Please explain what happened.”
“Be calm, mademoiselle,” I shall say with sinister grace. “All shall be revealed.”
I shall lay open my thesis on the table, explaining with the help of painstakingly created diagrams exactly where the problem lies. I shall conclude, “My immaculate craftsmanship took your sister’s protrusions into account, but I regret to say, with great shame, that I had not accounted for unaccountably vigorous heaving of the bosomal area. Having spent my university days engrossed in study, I had not come across such movement before. Nevertheless, allow me to offer your sister another gown, and I promise this one shall not let her down. Or, to be most precise, let itself down.
“And if I may add to that, mademoiselle,” I will say, casting a lingering but entirely professional glance at her structure, “let me assert that a gown of the strapless nature shall have no trouble staying up on your body, given the extent of your mammaric development. Would you like to try a gown as well?”
She shall agree, perhaps out of newly kindled scientific interest in this fascinating subject, and I shall hand them strapless gowns tailored specifically for their body types. With these silken contraptions in hand, they shall disappear into the changing rooms.
Five minutes afterwards, they shall both emerge. Words will fail to express the professional pride I feel when I note the delicacy with which my work hangs on the ladies concerned, and the excellent job it does of maintaining the ladies’ admirable modesty while leaving nothing else to the fevered imagination. “Beautiful,” I shall exclaim. “Come here, I shall put some finishing touches.”
They shall come close to me, and one by one, I shall examine their dresses, making structural adjustments that make sure that their dresses sit perfectly on them—on the verge of giving in to gravity, yet coyly holding back.
Then I shall whip out my cellphone and ask them to pose. They shall do so. The nubile nymphet will bend slightly, sensuously. Her buxom sister will proudly thrust forward her chestacious torso. Just then, as I am about to click, the door of my office will burst open, and a large man with a long grey beard will stride in. Both ladies will look at him and shudder with shock, thereby altering the delicate alignment of my silken contraptions, which will slide to the floor as I click the picture.
Both ladies, fear spreading across their faces, will yelp, “Daddy!”
“Girls!” the man will boom. “I never expected this of you! Pick up your clothes and leave immediately. Wait at home while I sort out this, this, man. I will talk to you later!”
The girls will rush to their changing rooms to take their clothes, put them on with an immensely undue haste, and leave hurriedly. The man with the beard will bang the door shut after them, and march up to me. “You make strapless gowns?”
“Erm, yes, I do,” I will say, wondering if these are my last words.
The man with the beard will look around, assuring himself that he is alone with me. Then his cheeks will turn red, as he sidles up to me and asks, “Do you think you’d have one for me?”
I’m delighted to announce to my readers that I’ve been nominated for the 2007 Bastiat Prize for Journalism. I’m the only writer from Asia to make the final shortlist of six. The prize aims to honour writers “whose work cleverly and wittily promotes the institutions of the free society,” and is named after the great French philosopher and essayist, Frédéric Bastiat.
Regular readers of this blog will no doubt know that Frédéric Bastiat is one of my intellectual heroes. I’ll take this opportunity to link you again to two of my favourite works by Bastiat: his magnificent essay, “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen”; and his satire on protectionism “Candlemakers’ Petition” (pdf link).
You can download the shortlisted entries of previous years from this page. Most of it is quite wonderful.
And thank you for reading me all this time. If you didn’t keep reading me, I’d have given up blogging long ago, and it’s India Uncut that brought me to the attention of Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, the editorial pages editor of Mint, who would never have heard of me or seen my writing otherwise. He took a big chance by offering me a weekly column to write, and then the freedom to shape it as I pleased. This whole thing began as a labour of love, and I’ll beat myself on the head with a candlestick, in baffled delight, if it leads to profit.
One more in my series of old favourites: “Madras Central” by Vijay Nambisan. This poem won a national poetry competition in 1988, one that I had also entered, at the tender age of 14, with poems that I’m sure would make me cringe now. I loved “Madras Central” then, and while my tastes have changed drastically, I am still as moved by the end of the poem as I was when I first read it.
Madras Central by Vijay Nambisan
The black train pulls in at the platform,
Hissing into silence like hot steel in water.
Tell the porters not to be so precipitate-
It is good, after a desperate journey,
To rest a moment with your perils upon you.
The long rails recline into a distance
Where tomorrow will come before I know it.
I cannot be in two places at once:
That is axiomatic. Come, we will go and drink
A filthy cup of tea in a filthy restaurant.
It is difficult to relax. But my head spins
Slower and slower as the journey recedes.
I do not think I shall smoke a cigarette now.
Time enough for that. Let me make sure first
For the hundredth time, that everything’s complete.
My wallet’s in my pocket; the white nylon bag
With the papers safe in its lining-fine;
The book and my notes are in the outside pocket;
The brown case is here with all its straps secure.
I have everything I began the journey with,
And also a memory of my setting out
When I was confused, so confused. Terrifying
To think we have such power to alter our states,
Order comings and goings: know where we’re not wanted
And carry our unwantedness somewhere else.
Scott Adams is a fantastic cartoonist and a very funny writer, but he writes the occasional odd post when he tackles a subject that he is not too familiar with. PZ Myers tears into him for a strange post on atheism, in which Adams had remixed Pascal’s Wager in a rather odd way. Read Myers and Austin Cline for more on his post, but being an atheist myself, let me clarify one point.
Atheism is not a belief that there is no God—it is the absence of belief in God. I am an atheist not because I am 100% sure that there is no God—how does one prove the negative anyway?—but because I see as little evidence around me for God as for flying fairies or invisible pink unicorns. I’m open to evidence that any of those exist, but in the absence of such evidence, I will not believe in them.
Adams’s post was particularly galling because he was not even arguing against atheism, but against his own silly misrepresentation of it. If it was wilful, it was intellectually dishonest; I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that it was just sloppy thinking. I am a massive fan of Adams’s blog, and will continue relishing his posts, but I wish he avoids one of the great dangers of blogging: publishing thoughts without thinking them through.
And yes, of course, I’ve done that as well, and have silly posts in my past that embarrass me when I revisit them. (I’ve done around 5000 posts across my blogs, and such wanton prolificness invites blunder, though I try my best to avoid that now.) So I feel for Adams…
When I was younger it was fashionable to criticise Eliot for writing from a god’s eye view, as though she were omniscient. Her authorial commenting voice appeared old-fashioned. It was felt she should have chosen a limited viewpoint, or written from inside her characters only. I came to see that this is nonsense. If a novelist tells you something she knows or thinks, and you believe her, that is not because either of you think she is God, but because she is doing her work - as a novelist. We were taught to laugh at collections of “the wit and wisdom of Eliot”. But the truth is that she is wise - not only intelligent, but wise. Her voice deepens our response to her world. [...]
[H]ere is Dorothea struggling with newlywed misery: “That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
Indeed, we see ourselves as we want to see ourselves, and that is the extent of our self-reflection. Who can take the horrible truth?
History has a habit of punishing those that don’t take their chances.
That’s Geoff Boycott to Mike Atherton, and it seems especially apt in the light of how this India-England Test series is going. Allow me to quibble by pointing out that this alleged habit of History is not a compulsive one—India missed plenty of chances through last year’s tour to West Indies, but ended up winning the Test series regardless.
As my default mode is cynical, let me also add that History punishes everybody anyway. As John Maynard Keynes once said, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” Everything ends, so why bother taking chances, just go through the motions.
Or maybe I’m low today because my broadband is down and this dial-up is slow. With such mundane matters do existential crises reach a head. Maybe I’ll be chirpy again when the broadband’s back, who can tell?
Reader Shradha Revankar writes in regarding Indian Idol:
Amit Paul is easily my favorite but if there was one person I could vote for it would be Mini Mathur. I have never seen any anchor on Indian television with so much panache as Mini. She speaks best only next to Javed Akhtar. She was the only one to speak in Deepali’s defence when Anu made unnecessarily rude comments about romances and crushes. She even makes the ‘acts’ they are supposed to do watchable. My only complaint is that she totally outshines Hussain but then given the kind of clothes he has been wearing in the show, I don’t really mind. Here is a lady who does her job well, yet the Mandiras of the world get more attention. You should write about her.
Indeed I should. Mini’s actually been my colleague twice in my career. When I joined HTA Delhi as a trainee copywriter in 1994, Mini had just joined in client servicing. If I remember correctly, the first brief she gave was the first brief I received. Years later, when I worked in MTV, she applied to be a VJ. Whatever TV work she had done till then was unimpressive: I remember telling my boss, who thankfully over-ruled me, that Mini was too squeaky and over-enthusiastic.
Needless to say, she has come a long way since, and is a fantastic anchor. She’s comfortable in her own skin, never puts on an act for the camera, and show enormous empathy for the Indian Idol contestants, who are all basically just young kids in a stressful situation. Also, Mini’s TV persona is an extension of what she is in real life—at least what I remember of her from many years ago—and it’s apparent that even when she is anchoring a show, what you see is what you get. We don’t see much of that on television, even in reality shows, and I think it’s tremendous.
That first brief, by the way, was for the back-panel copy of a Chito Chat packet. Even I’ve come a long way, no?
“Modern-day pirates can be just as merciless as the Caribbean buccaneers,” Choong told me. He recalled the 13 pirates—12 Chinese and 1 Indonesian—who hijacked the Cheung Son, a Hong Kong-registered cargo ship, off China in 1998. “They blindfolded the 23 crewmembers, beat them to death with clubs and threw their bodies overboard,” he said. Then they sold the vessel to an unknown party for $300,000. But they were caught, convicted of piracy and murder in a Chinese court, and sentenced to death.
On their way to the firing squad, Choong said, the 13 sang Ricky Martin’s bouncy 1998 World Cup soccer theme, “La Copa de la Vida,” jumping up and down in their chains as they bellowed the chorus: “Go, go, go, ale, ale, ale.” (Afterward, Choong said, “the Chinese charged their families the cost of each bullet” used in the executions.)
If I was on my way to a firing squad I’d sing Himesh songs, it would make me fear life more than death. No, but seriously, I can’t decide whether these guys were poor deluded bastards, or whether they were wiser than all of us, and had figured out the futile little game. What do you think?
I have decided that words that begin with the hard, heartless, masculine letter ‘T’ sometimes sound much better without them. For example, such charm would come to sit under a ‘ree’. How nice it would be to ‘ouch’ someone you love on the ‘ummy’. To hear the rain ‘ippetty-ap-ap’ on the roof, indeed, to travel in a ‘rain’, to ‘umble and fall’ after ‘ripping’ on an ‘omato’ that just happens, serendipitously, to be on the floor. Even the ‘Imes of India’ sounds suitably frivolous.
Indulge me—give me some similar examples that come to your mind in the comments, which are open for this post. It seems silly, but life is futile, and none of us have anything better to to do with our ‘ime’ anyway. ‘Rust’ me on that!
I made a prediction about how the series would end two years ago. And I was right! You can call it magic.
How did I like Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows? Well, as in the rest of the series, I think JK Rowling’s great skill is to keep miniature dramas erupting on the pages so that it becomes impossible to put the damn book down. There’s always some conflict involving these characters that one has grown to care about, however minor, such as the spat between Ron and Hermione, his disappearance and return, and her subsequent sulking. But the larger plot moves slowly, and is poorly constructed. The series ended in a manner too soppy (or is it sappy?) for my liking, so much so that I was glad the book ended and I wouldn’t be reading about these silly people again. But I enjoyed it thoroughly while it was on, and my magical hat is duly doffed to the magnificent lady who could give so much joy to so many people. That’s a big deal.
Robin Givhan of the Washington Post has written a piece on, of all subjects, Hillary Clinton’s cleavage. An excerpt:
Showing cleavage is a request to be engaged in a particular way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a woman is asking to be objectified, but it does suggest a certain confidence and physical ease. It means that a woman is content being perceived as a sexual person in addition to being seen as someone who is intelligent, authoritative, witty and whatever else might define her personality. It also means that she feels that all those other characteristics are so apparent and undeniable, that they will not be overshadowed.
I’m sure feminist bloggers will have a lot to say about this, and I’ll avoid comment simply so that I don’t get into trouble. All I can say is that I’m a huge fan of cleavage, regardless of the motives behind its display. Cleavage makes the world a better place.
I suspect my buddy Manish would also have wanted to be that Swedish woman a few months ago. But he’s in New York now, having escaped India for just one reason: Broadband. Here he explains why that’s one reason Indian start-ups have it hard.)
I had mentioned earlier that Jai Arjun Singh had promised to blog about his water tank, and he has. His second post on the beginning of grihastha ashram is most entertaining, full of water tanks, dead crows and rinches. Indeed, no one in the history of writing—and I say this after exhaustive study—has written about water tanks more eloquently. Consider this paragraph:
[O]ne good thing about marriage is that it has belatedly heightened my awareness of water tanks. I realise now that I have been unpardonably neglectful of these huge black plastic things, considering this is a city where you can’t cast your gaze sky-wards without seeing dozens of them everywhere. Having not thought about water tanks at all for most of my life, I now regularly have nightmares where they gather around and tap-dance, like the penguins in Happy Feet, and then bend forward and tip their lids to show me that they are all empty. Each time I pass a tank on the road I stop and examine it respectfully, even perambulate it a couple of times.
I feel immensely jealous of Jai. The frustrations of my life are all intangible things, hard to pin down or put a shape to, or to explain to others. He has tanks!