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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: Small thoughts

Buy Elections

Rediff reports on the Thirumangalam bye-elections:

For the people of this assembly seat in south Madurai, the poll process is more a ‘buy election’ than a bye-election. Nobody here talks on issues like price rise, power cuts and shabby roads. The only topic of discussion is ‘who is giving how much money and when?’

One voter admits to rediff.com that he received Rs 3000 for his vote. He expects more money to come his way, as there is still a week to go before the votes are cast.

Well, every election is really an exercise in buying voters. Either you can buy them with promises of good governance, better infrastructure, law & order and so on; or you can buy them with money and material goods. If the promises have no value, and both voters and politicians know that every promise is an empty one, then what’s a pragmatic voter to do? Take the money, of course. A self-perpetuating cycle duly begins, and there you have it, democracy at the grassroots.

(Link via email from Rajeev Mantri.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 January, 2009 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts


The Mosquito And The DNA Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Link via email from Anand.)

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


Against All Odds

In an interview by Tasha Robinson, Danny Boyle is asked if it was difficult to get permissions while filming Slumdog Millionaire in India. Boyle replies:

There’s lots of things that can be solved with cash. [Snickers.] And there’s occasional things that can’t be solved with cash, which become a bureaucratic nightmare for some reason, and there’s no distinction between the two. There’s no way of reading a situation and saying, “Yes, that’ll be a bureaucratic nightmare, but that one we’ll be able to buy off.” It just depends on the day, apparently. The most extraordinary thing, you’d be given permission for, and then the weirdest, simplest things, you just wouldn’t be able to obtain permissions. And it would go on and on and on forever and ever, and there was no way to know. You have to kind of approach it with an open, quite optimistic mind, no matter what’s thrown at you, because it will only ever result in damaging the film if you let any kind of despondency get to you. You have to remain optimistic, and that’s clearly how people live their lives there. Against all the odds, they retain kind of a spirit which allows them to get through against insufferable odds. The poverty, the traffic, the lack of infrastructure, the flooding during the monsoons—there’s just so many things that are coming at you at the whole time that your spirit has to remain, and that’s certainly true.

“The poverty, the traffic, the lack of infrastructure, the flooding during the monsoons”—and the bureaucracy: Are the first four made worse by the fifth, you think? If we’re reconciled to that, are we not then automatically reconciled to the rest?

(Link via email from Arun Simha.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 December, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Small thoughts


This City With Arms Wide Open

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

*

This report pissed me off:

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

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

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

*

Some quick links to end this post:

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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


Share The Pain

One of the defining characteristics of our species is that when we are miserable, we like to see others miserable as well. Indeed, if everyone is more miserable than us, we might even start feeling cheerful. The joy of others seems an affront to our misery, an injustice to be set right. Perhaps that as why, in Philip Larkin’s words: “Man hands on misery to man./ It deepens like a coastal shelf.”

So why is this news so shocking?

A Dutch court convicted two men Wednesday for attempting to infect 14 victims with HIV in a bizarre sex case.

The Groningen District Court found the two guilty of severe assault for injecting semiconscious men with HIV-infected blood at sex parties between January 2006 and May 2007.

[...]

Prosecutors had argued that the two men, along with a third who was acquitted of major charges, had drugged the 14 victims and intentionally infected them.

The statement by the judges quoted in that piece indicates that at least one of the two men was himself HIV-positive. His action is reprehensible, but imagine yourself in his place—would you think, Why me? Why not him? Or her?

*

Lest I be accused of spreading misery myself by linking to such news, let me share an old joke that I first heard in the 1980s.

Santa Singh goes to New York for the first time. He wanders down the wrong roads, and is mugged by a gentleman with a syringe. The mugger says, “Give me all your money, or I will plunge this syringe into you. It contains HIV-infected blood.”

Santa Singh says, “Oh balle balle, I am not giving you my dollars. Go ahead, plunge syringe.”

“Dude, are you insane?” says the mugger. “If I inject this into you, you will get AIDS.”

“No problem, praa-ji,” says Santa. “Plunge away.”

The mugger injects Santa, then looks with astonishment at his victim, who is still smiling.

“I don’t get it dude,” says the mugger. “I just injected you with HIV-positive blood, and you’re smiling.”

“Oh that’s okay,” says Santa. “I have protected myself against AIDS. I’m wearing a condom.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 November, 2008 in News | Small thoughts


Worst First Date Ever

See the result.

(Link via email from Neel.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 November, 2008 in Miscellaneous | Science and Technology | Small thoughts


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


Our Unfit Politicians

Via Cafe Hayek, I find this superb quote by HL Mencken that is especially apt for this season:

Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right.

This doesn’t just apply to America—all political parties everywhere are unfit for the job. The purpose of government is to serve the people, but people enter politics to rule, not serve. Their incentives are aligned to their own interests, not to ours. Yes, theoretically they are accountable, for we can vote them out of power if they misuse it, but given that we are always faced with a choice between the pillager and the plunderer, this isn’t much good in practice.

And it’s easy to rationalize our choices, isn’t it? We vote for the devil because he has fire in his belly; we choose the deep, blue sea because of its calming influence. And so on.

Also see: A Beast Called Government.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 November, 2008 in India | Politics | Small thoughts


Pickpockets And Conductors

Mumbai Mirror reports:

There are probably very few Mumbaikars who have never had their pockets picked at one time or another while travelling on a bus. So, it will probably come as shock to know that most of these thieves are in cahoots with bus conductors.

The Andheri police who recently busted a gang of pickpockets who robbed commuters in BEST buses across the city were surprised to find out during investigations that the crooks worked hand-in-glove with bus conductors. The thieves would actually share their booty with the conductors for being allowed to ‘operate’ on the bus.

Pickpockets and conductors, of course, aren’t restricted only to buses. They’re all around us.

No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2008 in India | News | Small thoughts


Terrorism In Our Cities

Consider these two headlines from today’s papers:

Youth opens fire in Mumbai bus, 1 dead
MNS leader held for setting buses on fire

And now, a question for you: Aren’t these both acts of terrorism?

*

Also read: Mobs Are Above The Law.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2008 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts


The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Python

I must be the only person who thinks this is a melancholy story.

Update: Abi writes in to point me to Lonesome George, who, I agree, sets a new bar for lonesomeness. (He has recently mated, I’m pleased to report, which should give hope to all lonesome people out there.)

And Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan points out that lonesome pythons can be dangerous. Who’d a Thunk it?

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 October, 2008 in News | Small thoughts


The Style And Substance Of Political Rhetoric

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

More than ever on the campaign trail, the candidates are dropping their G’s. Hardworkin’ families are strainin’ and tryin’a get ahead. It’s not only Sarah Palin but Mr McCain, too, occasionally Mr Obama, and, of course, George W Bush when he darts out like the bird in a cuckoo clock to tell us we are in crisis. All of the candidates say “mom and dad”: “our moms and dads who are struggling.” This is Mr Bush’s former communications adviser Karen Hughes’s contribution to our democratic life, that you cannot speak like an adult in politics now, that’s too austere and detached, snobby. No one can say mothers and fathers, it’s all now the faux down-home, patronizing—and infantilizing—moms and dads. Do politicians ever remember that in a nation obsessed with politics, our children—sorry, our kids—look to political figures for a model as to how adults sound?

Noonan’s right, of course—but I would argue that this “infantilizing” of political speech is entirely appropriate. After all, consider the content of all our political rhetoric.  Both Obama and McCain, like political leaders anywhere else in the world, speak in ridiculously simplistic terms that they surely don’t believe in themselves. On one hand, they pander to their base, whose vision of the world is often formed out of ideological slogans; on the other, they try to assuage voters by proposing simple solutions to complex problems such as unemployment, global warming and the financial crisis. To win elections, they have to dumb it down.

So it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the style of fighting elections is catching up with the substance of it. Isn’t it like that in India also?

(Link via email from Sanjeev.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 October, 2008 in Politics | Small thoughts


The Methi Murders

This is quite the headline of the day:

Why did the hacked body have methi in its mouth?

What a great beginning that would make for a mystery novel. I can just imagine an Indian Maigret being puzzled by such a case, going home, and being fed methi for lunch by his wife. And then more murders. Why methi?

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 October, 2008 in News | Small thoughts


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


It’s OK Not To Know

David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W Bush, and the man who coined the term ‘Axis of Evil’, writes:

Somebody who knew President Bush well once remarked to me. “You’ll notice he never asks questions.”

“Why not?” I said.

“Because he doesn’t know what it’s okay for him not to know.”

Frum worries that Sarah Palin is going down that same road, but really, the arrogance born from ignorance is one shared by most politicians and, dare I say it, many commentators. Bush was a disaster for primarily this reason, and the McCain-Palin ticket reeks of it.

Barack Obama, on the other hand, seems to have a more inquiring mind and a capacity for nuance—the books written by him attest to this, as do many of his interviews (such as the one I mentioned here), even if he often has to feign certainty on the campaign trail for obviously political reasons.

I could be reading him wrong, of course. I hope we get a chance to find out.

(Link via Marginal Revolution.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 September, 2008 in Politics | Small thoughts


Mine Is Bigger Than Yours

IANS reports from Durban:

Three men were shot dead and two left injured after an argument between a group of Indian and white visitors to a bar here, allegedly over the size of genitals.

[...]

A worker at the bar, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, said a customer of Indian origin had remarked to a white customer while they were both at the urinal in the bar that his penis was bigger than that of the white customer.

“After both men returned to their friends, the two groups began swearing at each other before the group of five Indian men left the scene and all returned with firearms. They opened fire and three guys died on the spot.”

Now, this is one of those rare fights that is explicitly about penis size. But my contention is that all fights between men, in some way or the other, are about who has a bigger dick. No?

(Link via email from Gautam, who found it at Boing Boing.)

PS: Actually, this could be the hidden dynamic even when women are involved. This is how the debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden should really unfold:

Palin: Peanut!

Biden: Big enough for you!

Palin: Peanut!

Biden: You don’t even have one! Boo!

Palin: Smaller than even Obama’s, isn’t it? Confess now, didn’t you peek when you were standing besides him at the campaign urinal? Eh? Tell, tell, the nation is watching. Say ‘boo’ again!

Biden: Boo hoo. Boo hoo hoo hoo hoo.

Palin: Peanut!

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 September, 2008 in Dialogue | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


VIP Dreams

Reading this article, a thought strikes me: When I was growing up in the 1980s, before the economy started opening up, were there kids who, instead of aspiring to be a doctor or engineer or suchlike, simply aspired to be a VIP?

(Link via email from Neelakantan.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 September, 2008 in India | Small thoughts


Reality TV Madness

I love watching reality shows: I think they reveal human nature much more than most scripted television shows. Sure, reality TV participants are aware that there’s a camera on them, and they act accordingly—but viewers account for that awareness. The artifice is obvious—and everything else is real.

Human nature isn’t all pretty, of course, and here’s a reality show clip that shows a variety of obnoxious people beating each other up. I wouldn’t want to be in the same room as any of these specimens, that’s for sure—but they’re all so familiar.

The language is NSFW—but why the hell is “sister’s penis” used as an abusive term anyway? Some things I’ll never understand.

Oh, and read the comments, they’re priceless.

(Link via email from Mohib.)

Update: Reader Visu points me to a video of what happened before the slapping started. What a show! These guys make the MTV Roadies auditions look like a kindergarten party.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 September, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | India | Small thoughts | WTF


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


Hadron Collider Thoughts

“As you know,” my friend Rahul writes in, “the Large Hadron Collider starts its experiments on Wednesday. The most extreme view is that the world will end. I don’t believe that for a second. But you wonder: How anti-climactic would it be if the world actually ended, and we never did get around to doing all those things we said we’d do if we knew our date of extinction?”

I used the limited sample size of the one car accident I’ve been in to tell him that if the world did end, we would probably be dead before we knew what was happening, with no time for any last thoughts. But I have two questions for you?

1] If the world was to end, would you prefer that it end suddenly without your being aware of it, or that you had some time to contemplate your end, and maybe do some things still left undone?

2] If your answer is that you’d like some time, how much time would you like?

Okay, now here’s the deal: you’ve got that time. It starts now.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 September, 2008 in Small thoughts


Buried Alive

AP reports:

A Pakistani lawmaker defended a decision by southwestern tribesmen to bury five women alive because they wanted to choose their own husbands, telling stunned members of parliament this week to spare him their outrage.

“These are centuries-old traditions and I will continue to defend them,” Israr Ullah Zehri, who represents Baluchistan province, said on Saturday. “Only those who indulge in immoral acts should be afraid.”

I bet you’re shocked and outraged by the above two paragraphs, as I am. But at what? At the unusual act of burying the women alive, or the attitude of Zehri, which is so commonplace even in India?

To put it differently, if those women hadn’t been buried alive, but merely censured, and Zehri spouted the same crap about ‘centuries-old traditions’, would we have been as shocked? I probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. And that’s the problem.

(Link via email from reader Yadhu.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 September, 2008 in India | News | Small thoughts


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


Do You Think Kashmir Is An Integral Part Of India?

If so, indulge me and try the following exercise:

1] Frame an argument, or even your position on the subject, that states why Kashmir should remain part of India.

2] Then replace the word ‘India’ with ‘the British empire’, and ‘Kashmir’ with ‘India’.

I suspect that your sentiments will then appear rather similar to those expressed by Winston Churchill when he opposed India’s independence. The principle that our freedom fighters fought for then was that Indians alone should be in charge of India’s fate, and not the British; it could similarly be argued today that Kashmiris alone should be in charge of Kashmir’s fate, and not other Indians. Anything else is imperialism.

I write this post because of heated discussions on a couple of email groups about two articles that appeared this weekend:

1. Independence Day for Kashmir by Swaminathan Aiyar.

2. Think the Unthinkable by Vir Sanghvi.

“As a liberal, i dislike ruling people against their will,” writes Aiyar, and suggests a plebiscite in which “Kashmiris decide the outcome, not the politicians and armies of India and Pakistan.”

Sanghvi writes: “If you believe in democracy, then giving Kashmiris the right to self-determination is the correct thing to do.”

I agree with both of them—and my concern extends to the North-East, where we treat the people as badly as the British once treated us, if not worse. Of course, given the imperatives of Indian and Pakistani politics, a plebiscite is impossible, and no solution to Kashmir exists. The wound will fester on. Nationalists need not worry.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 August, 2008 in Freedom | India | Politics | Small thoughts


DD’s Olympic Coverage

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

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


Isn’t It A Shame That In Modern India…

... the following statement qualifies as a boast, not a confession?

I was the one who had had a leading Bengali daily’s office vandalised because it had defamed Jyoti Basu.

That’s Subhas Chakraborty, a West Bengal minister, speaking to Rediff in the WTF interview of the day.

(Link via email from Rajagopal.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 July, 2008 in India | Politics | Small thoughts


Does Sonia Gandhi Do Sarcasm?

That would be one explanation for this headline: Sonia all praise for Left despite bitterness.

In other news of chhutkara, Rajesh Talwar has finally been released on bail. First his daughter gets murdered; then the cops, anxious to show that they’ve solved the murder, concoct a case against him and shove him in jail: even if he ends up a free man, can he ever be free again?

But here’s a thought: The cops now say that Talwar’s compounder committed the murder with accomplices. The compounder isn’t a middle-class dude. Will the newspapers and TV channels be viewing these new claims with as much skepticism as they did the allegations against Talwar? Or will we all move on with relief?

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 July, 2008 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts


Contact the Love Doctor

People keep talking about how mobile phones are as much entertainment devices as they are communication devices—I agree. No, I’m not talking about listening to music or watching videos or playing games on the phone—I’m referring to the remarkable spam SMSs I keep getting. Just see this sample from the last few days, represented with spelling and punctuation as in the original:

Sender: 53131

Message: Aap jyada haste hai, sochte hai ya Gussa karte hai? Ab janiye apne baare mein. SMS DOB Birth date and month (DD/MM) to 53131. For eg: DOB 0508 to 53131 Rs 3/SMS

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Sender: 54545

Message: Love is gentle, Love is blind! Are you in LOVE? Check with our Love Doctor to know if you are in Love. SMS LD to 54545 and answer few simple questions. Rs3/SMS

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Sender: 51515

Message: Is ur personality as precious as a pearl to u? Use ur name to find out more about ur personality. Sms NAME (ur name) to 51515. Eg: NAME Preeti to 51515. Rs3/sms

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Sender: Just Talk

Message: Kaash kabhi aisa hota ki koi apna hota jisse karta sari baat call 55365. Rs 9/min aur kahein apni dil ki baat.

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Sender: Voice Chat

Message: Friendship is a promise spoken by the heart and Voice Chat will help you do it. Call 55121, chat with ur desired partner. Just Rs2/min. Subscribe now Rs30/month

Needless to say, I haven’t tried any of these services, though I’m tempted to find out if my personality is like a pearl, as I’ve always suspected. But clearly there is a massive market for all these studies, and if I was a sociologist, I’d be going through the SMSs I get very carefully. There’s a picture of India here that is as true as any other.

PS: You were about to crack a joke about Rediff message boards, weren’t you? Well, don’t.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 June, 2008 in India | Small thoughts


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


The Humpacious Seal

This is surely the headline of the day:

‘Sex pest’ seal attacks penguin

There’s apparently even a video of the incident, which I’m sure must qualify as porn for some species or the other. Damn these biological imperatives. How much better life would be if we were programmed to just cuddle. No?

(Link via email from Anand Krishnamoorthi.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 May, 2008 in Miscellaneous | Small thoughts


Parenthood

A man starts abusing his daughter sexually when she is 11. A few years later, he lures her to “a windowless basement” and imprisons her there. He fakes a letter from her that indicates that she has run away from home. Then, for 24 years, he keeps her in that basement, rapes her repeatedly, and has seven children with her. One of them dies after birth. Three are taken to the man’s home, where he pretends that his ‘runaway’ daughter has abandoned them, and are adopted by him and his wife. The oldest two, now aged 18 and 19, and the youngest, aged 5, remain in the basement, where they are denied sunlight, friends, the normal life above the ground. Eventually the oldest daughter falls ill, has to be taken to hospital, and the story unravels from there. You can read about it here.

This reminds me of something Theodore Dalrymple once wrote: “Men commit evil within the scope available to them.” This man’s scope was limited to his own family—but such damage is bone-chilling. I hope they lock him away for the rest of his life—though nothing he faces can equal what he made his daughters go through—but the difficult question here is not what is to be done with him, but what is to be done with us.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 April, 2008 in News | Small thoughts


Grains of Wheat

Check out this beautiful passage from Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”, a novel set in early-18th-century Peru:

The Abbess was one of those persons who have allowed their lives to be gnawed away because they have fallen in love with an idea several centuries before its appointed appearance in the history of civilization. She hurled herself against the obstinacy of her time in her desire to attach a little dignity to women. At midnight when she had finished adding up the accounts of the house she would fall into insane visions of an age when women could be organized to protect women, women travelling, women as servants, women when they are old or ill, the women she had discovered in the mines of Potosi, or in the workrooms of cloth merchants, the girls she had collected out of doorways on rainy nights. But always the next morning she had to face the fact that the women in Peru, even her nuns, went through life with two notions: one, that all the misfortunes that might befall them were merely due to the fact that they were not sufficiently attractive to bind some man to their maintenance; and, two, that all the misery in the world was worth his caress. She had never known any country but the environs of Lima, and she assumed that its corruption was the normal state of mankind. Looking back from our century we can see the whole folly of her hope. Twenty such women would have failed to make any impression on that age. Yet she continued diligently in her task. She resembled the swallow in the fable who once every thousand years transferred a grain of wheat, in the hope of rearing a mountain to reach the moon. Such persons are raised up in every age; they obstinately insist on transporting their grains of wheat and they derive a certain exhilaration from the sneers of bystanders. ‘How queerly they dress!’ we cry. ‘How queerly they dress!’

I wonder if, in 2308 AD, this is how they’ll speak of today’s libertarians. How queerly we dress!

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 April, 2008 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Freedom | Small thoughts


A Machine For The Production Of Politics

David Brooks speculates on why Hillary Clinton will do anything to win the Democratic nomination:

Clinton’s long rear-guard action is the logical extension of her relentlessly political life.

For nearly 20 years, she has been encased in the apparatus of political celebrity. Look at her schedule as first lady and ever since. Think of the thousands of staged events, the tens of thousands of times she has pretended to be delighted to see someone she doesn’t know, the hundreds of thousands times she has recited empty clichés and exhortatory banalities, the millions of photos she has posed for in which she is supposed to appear empathetic or tough, the billions of politically opportune half-truths that have bounced around her head.

No wonder the Clinton campaign feels impersonal. It’s like a machine for the production of politics.

The Clintons epitomize this machinery, but come now, isn’t this what all politics is about? As I never tire of saying, politics is not about public service, but about power; most politicians enter politics not to change the world but to rule over as big a part of it as they can; they will do whatever it takes to get power, for otherwise they wouldn’t have entered politics; and as we are a species hardwired by evolution for self-delusion, it is natural, after a point, for us to start believing in the lies we are living.

I have no doubt that Clinton is not a cynical woman trying to get to power at all costs. She really believes that America needs her. She really believes that she alone deserves to get the Democratic Party’s nomination. She really believes whatever she needs to. But that process, that level of delusion, is not unique to Clinton, or to her party, or her country.

Also see: Don Boudreaux’s post, How Dare She.

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Click here for more posts on politics.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 March, 2008 in Politics | Small thoughts


Inertia

AP reports:

Authorities are considering charges in the bizarre case of a woman who sat on her boyfriend’s toilet for two years — so long that her body was stuck to the seat by the time the boyfriend finally called police.

Ness County Sheriff Bryan Whipple said it appeared the 35-year-old Ness City woman’s skin had grown around the seat. She initially refused emergency medical services but was finally convinced by responders and her boyfriend that she needed to be checked out at a hospital.

Strange as this particular case is, it feels like life itself. Happenstance places us in a particular situation, or we make a careless choice—and then we remain stuck, even though we can leave at any time, until we can no longer leave. It could be a bad job, an unhappy marriage, even a lifestyle that produces a paunch and a stoop: we become victims of inertia.

So really, how many of us are stuck on a seat?

(Link via email from Gautam.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 March, 2008 in News | Personal | Small thoughts


Cover Your Eyes

Have you guys watched Silsila? There is a scene in the film in which, if I remember correctly, Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor are bathing together, and discussing a previous time they bathed together, when a girl had accidentally walked in on them. Instead of covering their crotches, the two of them had covered their eyes.

“To transform itself into a ‘world-class city,’ India’s capital is locking up panhandlers,” reports CSM. Isn’t that the same kind of foolishness?

(Link via email from Gautam. I couldn’t remember which film the scene was from, and Rahul, Richa and Satin helped me out.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 March, 2008 in India | News | Small thoughts


Politics and the Fools in Love

Richard Cohen writes in the Washington Post:

Politics can be ugly, not to mention sad. Broken dreams are strewn across the American landscape. Fred Thompson resigned from “Law & Order.” Chris Dodd moved his family from Connecticut to Iowa just for the caucuses. Mitt Romney blew through a fortune. John Edwards campaigned through personal pain. The difference between a presidential candidate and a fool in love is only a matter of Secret Service protection.

And if I may add to that, the difference between self-delusion and self-belief is just as thin. In a parallel universe, Barack Obama is sitting in his kitchen going What was I thinking? and the Wall Street Journal is acclaiming Thompson as the next coming of Ronald Reagan. Such it goes…

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 February, 2008 in Politics | Small thoughts


Politics and the Law

Raj Thackeray is priceless. Writing an open letter to Sudheendra Kulkarni in the Indian Express, he says:

[D]o political movements need to obey the law? Political history learnt by me tells me that breaking the law, getting arrested, braving lathis and getting jailed are symbols of a principled agitation.

In recent times, the rulers and opposition parties indulged in movements of political compromise, in which morchas are taken out, the share of benefits of the government and opposition parties are decided. Then the protesters and their companions go home and sleep peacefully! This is called todbazi (compromise). The word political movement is an equivalent word for breaking the law!

Most Indian politicians would surely agree with Thackeray that politics in India has become all about “the share of benefits of the government and opposition parties”—though few would state it so openly. Our politicians treat this country as government property, theirs to use as they please when they come to power, and theirs to bargain for when they are in opposition, using the threat of violence. For them, the law is a tool to oppress the common man, and not something that their activities need to be subject to. No wonder they ask, do political movements need to obey the law?

And really, what’s the difference between them and the British Empire we fought to overthrow. That was just timepass, or did we really want freedom?

Also read: Nitin Pai’s astute take on the subject, and my earlier essay, The Republic of Apathy.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 February, 2008 in Freedom | India | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


The Power of a TV Remote

What a fantastic story. Potentially allegorical?

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 February, 2008 in News | Small thoughts


Long, Healthy Lives…

... are hazardous to the taxpayer, reports IBNLive.com. A study has found that “the health costs of thin and healthy people in adulthood are more expensive than those of either fat people or smokers,” and “healthy people live longer and may develop long-term diseases in old age like Alzheimer’s which are very expensive to treat.”

The solution here is not to prevent people from living long and healthy lives. Instead, it is to question what our governments do with the money it coerces out of its citizens. Is it fair to take money from the obese to pay the medical costs of the relatively healthy, as is effectively the case here? Would it be fair the other way around? Is the government taxing us to provide certain basic services like law and order, or to redistribute it according to the interests of a few politicians in power?

I hope to live a long and healthy life— and even if I don’t, to be a burden on nobody. Is that unusual?

(Link via email from Andy.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 February, 2008 in Economics | Old memes | Taxes | Small thoughts


John McCain = Moe Greene

I may not always agree with Peggy Noonan, but her columns make for great reading, and her insights are always sharp. Consider this excerpt:

Mr. McCain seems to me to have two immediate problems, both of which he might address. One is that he doesn’t seem to much like conservatives, and never has. They can’t help admire him, but they’ve disagreed with him on so many issues, and when they bring this up his demeanor tends to morph into the second problem: He radiates, he telegraphs, a certain indignation at being questioned by people who’ve never had to vote in Congress and make a deal. He’s like Moe Greene in “The Godfather,” when Michael Corleone tells him he’s going to buy him out. “Do you know who I am? I’m Moe Greene. I made my bones when you were going out with cheerleaders.” I’ve been on the firing line, punk. I am the voice of surviving conservatism.

This doesn’t always go over so well. Mr. Giuliani seems to know Mr. McCain is Moe Greene. Mr. Huckabee probably thought “The Godfather” was kinda violent. Mr. Romney may be thinking to himself, But Michael Corleone won in the end, and had better suits.

I’m just glad someone’s comparing politics to the underworld. One could be considered a more respectable form of the other.

But which one?

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 February, 2008 in Politics | Small thoughts


Core Competence

The Guardian reports:

She was so convincing as White House hotshot CJ Cregg in The West Wing that Allison Janney has been offered work as a political pundit and is now being wooed by more than one Democratic candidate. They seem to be forgetting, she tells Emma Brockes, that she is an actor - and not too strong on politics.

On the contrary, I think they’re smart to run after her. A key part of politics, especially during elections, is playing a part, and the core competence of many political actors is acting. From Barack Obama to Mitt Romney, they’ve all carefully crafted their persona depending on the political constituency they think they can pander to most efficiently. It’s the wisdom of that choice, and the quality of their acting, that will decide who wins.

(Link via email from Salil Tripathi.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 January, 2008 in News | Politics | Small thoughts


Who is Today’s Ota Benga?

Hari Balasubramanian, in an excellent post, tells us the story of Ota Benga, “a pygmy from the Belgian Congo [who, in 1906,] found himself sharing a cage with an orangutan at the Bronx Zoo, as part of an exhibition intended to illustrate the stages of evolution.” Benga’s filed teeth, Hari writes, which came from “a tradition of cosmetic dentistry followed by his people ... was mistaken as a sign of cannibalism.” That impression suited the zookeepers, who “scattered bones in the cage.” No one protested.

Hari asks:

The outrage we feel today about this scarcely believable story from just over a century ago is an indication of just how much sensibilities have changed. But to me the key issue is not what happened to Ota Benga; rather, it is this: What is it that most of us do not condemn today and are complicit with that will in 2107 seem utterly outrageous?

This is a great question, and one that I’ll attempt to tackle in a longer piece at some point in time. Let me point out, in the meantime, that we don’t need need to compare different periods of time for such startling contrasts in attitude—we can simply compare continents, or cultures, of today.

For example, the Qatif rape case, where the victim of a gang rape in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to six months in prison and 200 lashes, is no less appalling than Ota Benga’s story. The victim has been ‘pardoned’ after an international outcry, but barring stray cases like this, the West is largely tolerant of such nonsense, even justifying it in the name of cultural differences.

Will a rape victim in Saudi Arabia in 2107 be treated better? I sure hope so. As for Ota Benga, his Wikipedia page tells us that “at the age of 32, he built a ceremonial fire, chipped off the caps on his teeth, performed a final tribal dance, and shot himself in the heart with a stolen pistol.”

It’s a relief that he couldn’t be prosecuted for that theft.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 December, 2007 in Freedom | Miscellaneous | Small thoughts


On Being Labelled

I found this excerpt, from a Bryan Appleyard piece on science fiction, to be quite telling:

In the 1970s, Kingsley Amis, Arthur C Clarke and Brian Aldiss were judging a contest for the best science-fiction novel of the year. They were going to give the prize to Grimus, Salman Rushdie’s first novel. At the last minute, however, the publishers withdrew the book from the award. They didn’t want Grimus on the SF shelves. “Had it won,” Aldiss, the wry, 82-year-old godfather of British SF, observes, “he would have been labelled a science-fiction writer, and nobody would have heard of him again.”

Well, who knows, buoyed by the award, Rushdie might well have gone on to write Midnight’s Cyborgs. Wouldn’t that have been such fun?

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 December, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Small thoughts


If You Want To Live In A Welfare State…

... find a way to get to prison.

(Link via email from Santosh.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 November, 2007 in News | Small thoughts


The Unintended Consequences of Proxy Warfare

Are we going round in circles?

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 November, 2007 in News | Politics | Small thoughts


A Lesson For Padma Lakshmi

Arm candy is replacable.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 November, 2007 in Small thoughts


Politics and The Middle Class

Sagarika Ghose writes:

“Why don’t you all join politics,” Sonia Gandhi asked the genteel and educated audience at the Hindustan Times leadership summit. “Politics is not that bad.” The educated middle class certainly does need to join politics, but not join politics to work antiseptically on laptops, use snobbish words like “synergy” and worry about getting their hands dirty. Politicians instead must revel in the political process. They must adore people, jump into crowds, pump hands, kiss babies, travel by train to remotest corners, walk where there are no roads, speak a language that touches hearts, causes tears to flow and raises a million cheers.

I agree with Ghose’s sentiment, and wish that instead of merely writing columns about what’s wrong with India, I could jump into the fray myself, and “adore people, jump into crowds, pump hands etc.” But that isn’t a realistic prospect for someone like me. Why so? Because my first language is English, and I am not proficient enough in any of the Indian languages to make speeches in them, or convince people of whatever my vision is. If my Hindi was as good as my English, I could think of politics seriously, and trust in the power of ideas and my passion for change. But given that I can only find eloquence in the language of the elite, I wouldn’t stand a chance in Indian politics.

Ah, you say, but look at all the urbane young politicians out there in a similar position: Rahul Gandhi, Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora, et al. My reply: look at their last names. Their political equity comes from the family they were born into. Indeed, Sonia Gandhi may say that politics “is not that bad,” but had she married a Chopra and not a Gandhi, she wouldn’t even consider it as an option.

Of course, most Indians are bilingual, at least, and much of the “educated middle class” Ghose exhorts to join politics is probably not as handicapped as I am. To them I say: Jump in if you want to make a difference. Our politicians may be venal, but politics itself need not be so, and is the surest route to changing the world.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 November, 2007 in India | Personal | Politics | Small thoughts


The Tiger and the Gorge

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha writes in The Rise of India:

There is a fascinating story in one of the classical Hindu texts that throws light on key existential dilemmas. A man is running hard to escape a hungry tiger. He tumbles in panic and rolls off a precipice. He is falling to what promises to be a certain death in the gorge below, when he just manages to clutch at a small tree that is growing on the rock face. He hangs there for dear life. The choice is a bleak one. Above him is a hungry tiger and below him is a deep gorge. There is death on both sides. Just then, the dangling man’s eyes fall upon an abandoned beehive that is a few feet above the tree that he is frantically hanging on to. There is honey dripping from the beehive. The man shuts his eyes and puts his tongue out to catch the sweet honey. It is his moment of fleeting bliss!

Now what does one make of this wonderful parable of existential dilemma? There are two possible explanations. The first is that humans are a contemptible lot. Here is this man facing a certain death and, even then, all he can think of is petty gratification of his senses. The story purportedly shows what trivial levels men can sink to in the face of important challenges. The other explanation is that the human condition is hopeless anyway. We are caught between the tiger and the gorge. It is the drops of honey that make our lives worth living. We maintain our humanity by aspiring to enjoy the little sensory pleasures.

I favour the second analysis, though I worry that the first one is correct and I am merely rationalizing. And I often look ridiculous to myself, head extended, mouth open, waiting for honey to fall. Why not just let go?

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 October, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | India | Small thoughts


Leaving Home

At first, this seems to be no more just the kind of odd news that is so popular on the internet.

But could it also serve as a parable about how you can never really get away?

(Link via email from Prabhu.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 October, 2007 in News | Small thoughts


Two Barbers, and Happiness

There’s an old question I remember having heard when I was a kid: You go to a small town and realise you need a haircut. There are just two barbers in town. One of them has a lousy haircut. The other one has the coolest haircut ever. Who do you go to?

The answer, of course, is that you go to the barber with the bad haircut. As there are just two barbers in town, they obviously cut each other’s hair. So the bad-haircut dude is the better barber.

I was reminded of this today when I came across a New York Times report about a study that reveals that, in general, men are happier than women. The implications of that are obvious.

Shame on us.

Update: Falstaff writes in to point me to “[t]he ever reliable Mark Liberman on why the New York Times report you cite, like most NY Times coverage of research findings, totally misinterprets the research findings and provides implications that are totally bogus.”

And reader Arup Raha writes in to berate me for the suggestion that men are responsible for making women unhappy. Dude, I was joking. Men rock. Really.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 September, 2007 in Miscellaneous | News | Small thoughts


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