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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

A Donkey With Stripes

image

Reuters has a story on how a zoo in Gaza painted black stripes on a couple of white donkeys and passed them off as zebras. The kids who came to the zoo were reportedly delighted. The other donkeys no doubt went WTF.

And the thought that struck me as I read this news: What a delightful metaphor for media hype.

No?

(Picture courtesy Reuters.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 October, 2009 in Journalism | Media | News | Small thoughts | WTF


Dear Rahul Gandhi

Dear Rahul Gandhi

You have been quoted today as saying that you don’t believe in caste. Bravo. That is a position I applaud.

May I then assume that you don’t believe in reservations also? After all, by discriminating on the basis of caste, reservations perpetuate the same kind of divisive thinking that the caste system did. They don’t solve the problem—they make it worse.

Regards

Amit Varma

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Link via @iyerdeepak. More open letters here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 October, 2009 in Freedom | India | Letters | Politics | Small thoughts


Like a Government Department

In an excellent column, Vir Sanghvi looks at all the reasons why Air India is run so badly. To sum it up:

If you run your country’s flag carrier like a government department, a decline is inevitable.

His remedy, which flows naturally from this, is to privatize Air India. I agree with him. But here’s a question:

If Air India should be privatized because it is run like a government department, what about government departments?

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 October, 2009 in Economics | India | Politics | Small thoughts


Phul Singh vs State of Haryana (and the State of Indian English)

Oh boy, this Supreme Court judgment, excerpted on his blog by Imam Wapsoro, is masterful. Presenting Phul Singh vs State of Haryana, AIR 1980 SC 249:

A philanderer of 22, appellant Phul Singh, overpowered by sex stress in excess, hoisted himself into his cousin’s house next door, and in broad day-light, overpowered the temptingly lonely prosecutrix of twenty four, Pushpa, raped her in hurried heat and made an urgent exit having fulfilled his erotic sortie.

[...]

A hyper-sexed homo sapiens cannot be habilitated by humiliating or harsh treatment, but that is precisely the perversion of unreformed Jail Justice which some criminologists have described as the crime of punishment.

It may be marginally extenuatory to mention that modern Indian conditions are drifting into societal permissiveness on the carnal front promoting proneness to pornos in life, what with libidinous ‘brahmacharis’, womanising public men, lascivious dating and mating by unwed students, sex explosion in celluloid and book stalls and corrupt morals reaching a new ‘high’ in high places. The unconvicted deviants in society are demoralisingly large and the State has, as yet, no convincing national policy on female flesh and sex sanity. We hope, at this belated hour, the Central Government will defend Indian Womanhood by stamping out voluptuous meat markets by merciless criminal action.

The gentleman who wrote this is Justice Krishna Iyer. One can only assume that he proposed to his wife in some other language. Or maybe he spoke like this, and she went, Enough, enough, I’ll marry you, but please don’t go on and on in English. You libidinous brahmachari, you!

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The larger issue here is why Justice Iyer waxed so purplacious. I blame colonialism. Even after the Brits left, English remained a marker of class in India. The better your English, the more highly you were regarded (even by yourself). This led to a tendency of showing off how fluent you were in the language, and from there, to this kind of overkill. For Justice Iyer, the language he used was as much a signal as a tool: It signalled his sophistication and his class. Or so the poor fellow thought.

I believe this is also partly responsible for why style overwhelms content in so much Indian writing in English. As kids, we’re too used to parents and teachers and peers telling us, Wow, this is so well-written, your English is so good. (As opposed to Wow, your narrative was compelling, I lost myself in the story, I couldn’t put it down.) So they end up giving more importance to the language they use rather than the narrative they’re building, while the former should really be slave to the latter. Pity.

And we also see this a lot in our local trains. Two random people will be arguing over something, and then one of them will break into bad English, as if to say, I"m superior to you, I know English. You lout! And then the other guy will say something to the effect of Hey, I know English too. Only you can speak or what? Bastard! And so on.

I’d like to see Justice Iyer get into one those local train fights, actually…

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | India | Old memes | Purplocity/Verniness | Small thoughts | WTF


What the Peon Dreams About

Rekha Nigam has some wonderful advice on advertising:

I don’t know about advice, but I would ask aspirants to join advertising only if they were truly interested in people. Because that is what it’s all about. I see too many people who are too self-centered, too wrapped up in their own world in advertising today. It’s not about a great felicity with words or magic with visuals at all. It’s about being interested in what the peon who brings your tea dreams about. Ask yourself, do you really care about the fantasies of a housewife who does not have a life so the others in her family can? Do you know what a rainbow tastes like to a little street child? Do you really understand what a cell-phone means to an illiterate woman in Balia whose husband works as a vegetable vendor in Mumbai? If you don’t give a damn, please stay away from advertising. Write a book, paint a masterpiece, make a movie that wins at every international festival, but DO NOT join advertising.

I’d modify that a bit and say that in my opinion, this advice holds true for literature and cinema as well. So if you don’t care what the peon dreams, don’t write a book or make a film either. You can go paint a masterpiece, though.

And really, speaking about writing, there are too many books written these days by writers who stick their heads up their own arseholes and describe what they see. That reflects in their sales as well—who besides friends and family can tolerate the view up there? A little less self-indulgence, and some looking around at the fascinating world around them, would help.

And no, duh, do you really expect me to take names here? I’m not getting into no lit controversy, ever!

(Link via @bhatnaturally, via @rjauhari.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | India | Media | Personal | Small thoughts


Politics & Religion

image

Sure, there’s a Dussehra context to it, but even then I find the picture above most WTF. Such it goes.

(Pic courtesy HT)

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 September, 2009 in India | Small thoughts


Who is the Indian Lion?

Mark Sarvas’s excellent blog, The Elegant Variation, features a guest essay by Jon Meacham, the author of American Lion, on Andrew Jackson. It begins:

He was a brawler and a courtier, a duelist and a conciliator, a warrior and a lover, a hothead and a cool calculator. Five summers ago, when I started reading deeply in the life of Andrew Jackson, I was struck by a seeming contradiction: he was at once the most remote of heroes and the most modern of men. He was the first truly self-made man to rise to the White House, the architect of the presidency as we know it and champion of democracy in an age of elites. Scarred and bloodied, wounded physically and emotionally, he carried two (that’s right, two) bullets in his body for much of his life; wracked by pain, he nevertheless persevered, enduring much in order to make America work for the good of the many. He was a candidate of change, and his White House—riven by passion, sexual scandal, political intrigue and fears of secession—was the first we would recognize as a presidency in action. But I should not have thought Jackson ’s complexities surprising: America is complex, too, and he was the consummate American. Not to be too grand about it, but if you want to understand America , you have to understand Andrew Jackson.

So here is my question to you—about whom could we say the following words?

India is complex, too, and X was the consummate Indian. Not to be too grand about it, but if you want to understand India, you have to understand X.

Well, yes, India is too varied for anyone to be a “consummate Indian”—but who comes closest? In my view, it isn’t Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi, LK Advani or Prakash Karat, even Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi. Instead, I’d say the two politicians who come the closest are Mayawati and Narendra Modi.

IU readers know the contempt I hold both leaders in (most Indian politicians, in fact, but these two especially), but Mayawati and Modi embody the attitudes and aspirations of millions. They are both genuine grassroots leaders, and they’re chief ministers of their states because millions of people see in them the kind of India they want. Neither of them is a “consummate Indian”, for they are too divisive for that, but if you want to understand the India of 2009, you have to understand Mayawati and Modi.

You can’t say that about Sonia or Manmohan.

And to state the obvious, this post is not an endorsement, it is a lament.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 September, 2009 in India | Politics | Small thoughts


A Cattle-Class Country?

This is a bizarre controversy. A couple of days ago, in response to a question about whether he would be travelling economy class, Shashi Tharoor tweeted:

... absolutely, in cattle class out of solidarity with all our holy cows!

It’s always nice to see a minister be light-hearted. Sadly, his party isn’t. He’s been rapped on the knuckles for this act, and the party spokesman, Jayanti Natarajan, said:

We totally condemn it (Tharoor’s comments). The statement is not in sync with our political culture. His remarks are not acceptable given the sensitivity of all Indians.

Certainly the party does not endorse it. It is absolutely insensitive. We find it unacceptable and totally insensitive.

We do not approve of this articulation. Thousands of people travel in economy class.

Firstly, the lady desperately needs a thesaurus. She is being insensitive to her readers/listeners by going on and on about ‘sensivity’ and how ‘insensitive’ it all is. Once was enough, no?

Secondly, her party needs a dictionary. The term ‘cattle class’ has not been coined by Tharoor, but is a commonly used term for economy class. If it is derogatory to anyone, it is to the airlines that give their customers so little space, and not to the customers themselves. So whose sensitivity are we talking about here? Air India and Jet?

I’m a bit bemused, actually, by what the Congress is up to these days. An austerity drive means nothing when the government continues wasting our taxes on the scale it is. And berating someone for using the term ‘cattle class’ is needlessly sanctimonious when, after six decades of mostly Congress governance, we have hundreds of millions of people who cannot afford the basic necessities of life. Hell, most people in this country live cattle-class. And here we have the Congress strutting around and talking the talk.

Oh, and showing rare unity in WTFness, the BJP’s also condemned Tharoor’s tweet. Is there not one political party in this country that understands English and can take a joke?

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On another note, Times Now has asked me to appear on their show, “Newshour”, to chat about this topic. It’s supposed to be tonight, and while the show runs from 9pm to 10pm, I’m told this segment starts at 9.30. They said it’s titled “A Tweet Too Far”, and if they imply that Tharoor should not be tweeting, I will defend him with as much gusto as I can manage. We all ask for transparency in government, and here you have a minister who’s actually in direct contact with so many of his countrymen, and everyone’s getting all het up. If I was in the Congress, I’d recognise this as a good thing, and encourage more of my ministers to go online. Anyway, such it goes.

(Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 September, 2009 in India | News | Old memes | Cows | Personal | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


Man Rapes Dog

It’s a tabloid dream, this one. A taxi driver in Mumbai was caught doing zabardasti with a bitch, and duly arrested. In the masterful clip below, a Mid Day reporter asks a bemused policeman the details of the case. Her theory—he must have been missing his wife. Immensely WTF, all of it:

And here’s another clip where the lady who chased and caught the alleged rapist enthusiastically gives details of what she witnessed. Note the dog barking in the background.

And here’s a Punjab Kesari report of it, in which the policeman with the culprit seems to be doing strange things to his nostril. Or is he thinking of the dude who once had section 377 slapped on him because he copulated with a buffalo’s nostril?

(Links via email from Sanjeev Naik.)

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On a more serious note, the question here, of whether the guy’s act should be a crime, depends on what rights you’re willing to grant a dog. (And how you ascertain its volition, for that matter.) There’s this famous ethics thought experiment where a guy buys a live chicken, takes it home, copulates with it, and then kills it, cleans it and eats it. Sure, it’s yucky—but is it immoral? If killing the chicken and eating it is acceptable, you have already stripped the chicken of any rights—so why should that other thing matter?

One easy answer in this case is that if the dog in question belonged to someone else, then the rapist was infringing on that person’s property rights. But what if the dog had belonged to the rapist? Building the grounds for prosecuting him would then lead us into pretty thorny philosophical terrain.

I don’t think Mid Day would be too concerned about that, though. The dude was missing his wife, and that’s that.

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Update: I just came across this fine quote by Charles de Gaulle: “The better I get to know men, the more I find myself loving dogs.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 September, 2009 in India | News | Small thoughts | WTF


The Third World War?

This is pretty bizarre. Reuters reports:

South Africa reacted angrily on Friday to a report that tests on its world champion runner Caster Semenya had found she was a hermaphrodite, threatening a “third world war” over the affair.

Athletics’ governing body declined to confirm the report in Australia’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, which said the 18-year-old runner had both male and female sexual characteristics.

The IAAF said medical experts were examining the results of gender tests on Semenya, who won the women’s 800 metres at last month’s World Championships in Berlin. No decision would be taken until late November.

“I think it would be the third world war. We will go to the highest levels in contesting such a decision. I think it would be totally unfair and totally unjust,” said Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile.

That’s totally the wrong choice of words, and I bet the Taliban dudes are scratching their heads wondering who this new player in the game is. ‘We fight the West for so long,’ I can imagine Wali-ur-Rehman telling Hakimullah Mehsud, ‘and South Africa is in the news for threatening the third world war. WTF?’

‘I know what we can do,’ says Hakimullah Mehsud. ‘Let’s turn you into a woman, and when those filthy Americans question your gender, we’ll also declare a third world war. He he he.’

‘You insult me, fool,’ roars Wali-ur-Rehman, ‘and for this you must die.’

You know the rest.

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No, but really, the issue at the heart of this is quite complex. Reportedly, “tests had found Semenya had no womb or ovaries, but that she had internal testes, the male sexual organs which produce testosterone, and her levels of the hormone were three times that of a ‘normal’ female.” This led Pierre Weiss, the secretary-general of the International Association of Athletics Federations, to say:

It is clear that she is a woman but maybe not 100 percent.

This brings up the thorny philosophical question of what makes a woman a woman. Do you have to have a womb? Is there a level of testosterone you cannot go over? Do men have to find you inexplicable? What is the meaning of a conclusion that someone is “maybe not 100 percent” as a woman? What’s the pass percentage?

And ya, sure, these peculiarities do give Semenya an advantage over fellow athletes—but there is no level playing field in sports anyway. Top sportspeople are often physically abnormal in some way or the other: Lance Armstrong’s heart is one-third larger than normal, for example, and his his aerobic capacity is twice that of a normal human. So is he more than 100 percent man, and therefore at an unfair advantage? If you start barring sportspeople for biological advantages they are born with, you’d cut down on a lot of the excellence and thrill of sport.

Anyway, I don’t care one way or another about the Semenya controversy. As long as Barack Obama doesn’t shift his troops from Afghanistan to South Africa, I’m okay.

(Link via email from Luv.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 September, 2009 in News | Politics | Small thoughts | Sport | WTF


Till Sleep Do Us Part

The Times of India reports:

A research has found that sharing a bed often led to poor quality sleep as people were regularly disturbed by their loved ones during the night.

Speaking at a special seminar on sleep at the British Science Festival, Dr Neil Stanley, a sleep expert at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, said: “A normal double bed is 4ft 6inches wide. That means you have up to nine inches less per person in a double bed than a child has in a single bed.

“Add to this another person who kicks, punches, snores and gets up to go to the loo and is it any wonder that we are not getting a good night’s sleep?”

So if you and your partner spend 8 hours sleeping, it could be argued that you spend one-third of your life kicking and punching the other person, and snoring to keep them awake. And obviously they’re then irritable through the day, especially in office, where they punch and kick their colleagues, and snore when their boss is giving them a lecture. So they lose their jobs, become alcoholics, and one day, in a drunken brawl at the bar, break a bottle over a rowdy’s head, who promptly dies of choking on the biscuit they were chewing just at that time. Your partner goes to jail, and finally, finally, you’re sleeping well again. But maybe you shouldn’t have fallen in love in the first place?

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I like the bit in the piece where the researcher says, “No one can share your sleep.” So true. You can share everything else with the one you love, but for better or worse, your dreams are your own. You sleep alone; and you die alone. All that companionship is like light in the darkness—and always the light must go off.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 September, 2009 in Miscellaneous | News | Small thoughts


Good Intentions

There’s a Facebook status message meme going around that goes like this:

[Your name here] thinks that no one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status.

This is about as useful as candlelight vigils and online petitions. I could just as easily come up with a status message meme that goes thus:

[Your name here] thinks that no one should die or be poor, and no one should feel sad or lonely. If you agree, please post this as your status.

You get the drift. No doubt all these things are desirable, but stating that is kind of obvious. The big question is, how are these things to be achieved? In answering that, hazaar thorny issues crop up, and no one solution is a panacea. (Some, in fact, run counter to one another.) All that a Facebook status message of this sort does is help you make a statement about yourself. So why not simply put up a message that says:

[your name here] is a kind and compassionate person, and you should be impressed by that.

There. Cut to the chase!

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On a personal note, a friend SMSed today in great concern, asking if all was well with me. Apparently he saw an unusual lack of activity on India Uncut, and got worried. Well, yes, I’ve been immensely lax recently, but I’m back now, and intend to be regular. I promise. Smile now. Say cheese. Who’s a good reader now, bolly wolly golly?

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Update (sep 5): Sriram Gopalan writes in to share his FB status message:

I am an evil, evil person who thinks poor people should die without healthcare, so that the rest of us can harvest their organs. If you agree, please make this your status for the rest of the day.

Isn’t that so much more fun?

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 September, 2009 in Economics | Personal | Small thoughts


Exploring Rakhi’s Cleavage (And Babies For Rent)

India can’t get enough of Rakhi Sawant. After the swayamwar where she found herself a fiancee, she is now going to simulate being a parent on a reality show. Along with her man, Elesh Parujanwala, who was named by a Canadian Bong after his favourite fish, she is taking part in a show in which five celeb couples will spend time bringing up borrowed children on television. Check out this snippet from the news item:

Rakhi and the audience may be used to her infamous low-cut blouses, but obviously, the bachchas aren’t. And, as a source present at the launch of the programme told us, one baby couldn’t help but explore the territory! Embarrassing? You bet!

If the kid becomes a techie when he grows up, he’ll at least have prior work experience in silicon valley. And think of the TRPs of the show now, as millions of Indians tune in to live vicariously through a baby’s exploration.

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Ribald jokes apart, this is one reality show concept that I find appalling. Are the parents of these kids actually renting their babies out? Other reality shows feature adults being placed in situations of their own volition—but babies? How could someone do that?

Parenthood is a massive responsibility, and it’s irresponsible to become a parent if you can’t live up to that. I see too many parents around me who are simply not ready for that role, who have unfairly screwed with their kids by bringing them on the planet. This is a fine illustration of that.

(Link via Arnab’s Facebook status message.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 August, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | India | Media | News | Small thoughts | WTF


The Three Stages of a Writer’s Development

Here’s Peter Roebuck talking about the three stages of a cricketer’s development—but I believe it also applies to writers:

It begins with natural ability that takes a fellow as far as it can. Then comes a period of introspection in which the complications of the game are encountered and, to a greater or lesser degree, resolved. Finally the player reaches the final stage of a hazardous journey, beyond complexity, towards full understanding. This third stage is called simplicity, but it is profundity.

The thing is, with a cricketer, it is easy to tell which stage he is at, with little scope of self-delusion. Phil Hughes and Mitchell Johnson know, from their results on the cricket field, that they need to work out a few things. But writing is a subjective matter, and many writers may not know when there are problems with their game. As a result, they’ll never then do the necessary introspection and hard work needed to take them to the next level. That is why, the most important quality for a writer is surely humility—writers must be brutal critics of their own work, and must ruthlessly employ what Ernest Hemingway called “a built-in bullshit detector.”

On the flip side, that often erodes self-belief. It’s a thin line.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 August, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Personal | Small thoughts | Sport


Mr Saramago’s Elephant

Over at The New York Times, I find that Jose Saramago’s coming out with a new novel, based on “the real-life epic journey of an Indian elephant from Lisbon to Vienna in the 16th century.”

I’m a fan, so I can’t wait. And on that note, I read a fine piece by David Brooks today on a subject that seems rather Saramagoesque. It’s based on a question asked by a commenter over at Marginal Revolution: “What would happen if a freak solar event sterilized the people on the half of the earth that happened to be facing the sun?”

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Saramago’s themes still seem fantastic to us, but other fiction writers have to confront the relative bizarreness of reality itself. As Philip Roth wrote in 1961:

The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.

That’s true of India certainly—and it means that writers here really can’t complain. They’re surrounded by fascinating stories, and it’s up to them to catch them from the ether and turn them into print.

(Roth link and quote via email from Sanjeev.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 July, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Small thoughts


You Gotta Do Sach Ka Saamna

Here’s the WTF headline of the day:

Politicians want ban on Sach Ka Saamna

Sach Ka Saamna is the recently started Hindi version of The Moment of Truth, and is riveting once you start watching it—even if it does overlap with that other reality show, Is Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao. So what problem do our politicians have with it? Well, Kamal Akhtar, a Samajwadi Party MP, doesn’t like it that “obscene questions are asked by the anchor of the programme.”

“The host asked a woman in the presence of her husband if she would have physical contacts with another person to which she said no,” he said. “But her polygraph test said the answer was wrong. What kind of impression would it have created?” He sought a complete ban on the show.

I don’t get it—on whose behalf is Akhtar complaining? The participants of the show take part in full knowledge of the risks they incur, and that’s a choice for them to make. As for viewers, well, Akhtar is being hugely condescending when he assumes that we impressionable folks will be swayed by the show into infidelity, or suchlike. Listen, we already know what the world is like; we already know what human beings are like; we understand our urges, and know the consequences of giving in to them. Akhtar may want to foist a fantasy world upon us where nobody has anything to hide and everybody speaks only the truth—but that world does not exist, and is faker than the fakest Ekta Kapoor serial.

If anything, Sach Ka Saamna drives home the truth that most human relations contain some element of deception. In a viscerally direct way, it reveals the human condition. That can only help us become better human beings—to begin with, it might make us a little less sanctimonious.

That’s a matter of opinion, of course. Some people may hate the show, and are entitled to do so. But that is where the matter should end—not in calls for a ban. If Akhtar is so disturbed by Sach Ka Saamna, I have a suggestion for him—change the channel.

Or actually, no. He might then catch Is Jungle Se Mujhe Bachao and demand a ban on that because it reminds him of parliament.

(Link via email from Arshdeep.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 July, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


‘Absconding’

That’s probably the most disturbing word in this story. And in so many others, over the years.

Do you think it’s an apt word to describe our system of justice itself?

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 July, 2009 in India | News | Small thoughts


‘Copulate, Multiply Like Rats’

There’s an old saying that journalism is history’s first draft, so for all you journalists reading this, I offer these words by Milan Kundera:

... this is the most obvious thing in the world: man is separated from the past (even from the past only a few seconds old) by two forces that go instantly to work and cooperate: the force of forgetting (which erases) and the force of memory (which transforms).

It is the most obvious thing, but it is hard to accept, for when one thinks it all the way through, what becomes of all the testimonies that historiography relies on? What becomes of our certainties about the past, and what becomes of History itself, to which we refer every day in good faith, naively, spontaneously? Beyond the slender margin of the incontestable (there is no doubt that Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo), stretches an infinite realm: the realm of the approximate, the invented, the deformed, the simplistic, the exaggerated, the misconstrued, an infinite realm of nontruths that copulate, multiply like rats, and become immortal.

Spot on—and this is why I think one of the most important qualities of a historian or a serious journalist is humility: know that the truth is always more complex than it seems, cast aside all preconceived notions, and then do the best you can.

The above excerpt, by the way, is from The Curtain.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 July, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Journalism | Media | Small thoughts


‘Peeto, Peeto, Thok Ke Peeto’

The video below is surely the most inspired Michael Jackson tribute ever. Goodness me.

Mr Chaudhry has also performed an English version of “Beat It”, as well as many, many other songs. The first I heard of him was when a reader named Catfish forwarded me his rendition of Avril Lavigne’s “Skater Boy” a few months ago. The nonchalant matter-of-factness at the start is superb, isn’t it?

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The reason I didn’t blog about his marvellous videos when I first discovered them was that it seemed cruel. Here’s a man, in perfect good faith, uploading videos of himself singing karaoke, something that most of us would never have the guts to do; and here we all are, watching and laughing. I’ve always found those early episodes of Indian Idol and American Idol rather cruel for how they make fun of those horrendously bad singers in the early auditions. Sure, we can joke about how it’s their choice to put themselves out there, and tut-tut their self-delusions. But I would contend that we’re all self-deluded in different ways—most of our delusions stay private, so lucky us.

I finally decided to embed this video because I find Mr Chaudhry immensely endearing, and I’m sure most of you would agree. And besides being a likable old man, he’s also putting himself out there, ineptly and awkwardly trying to make the best of what he’s got. Isn’t that true of most of us?

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 July, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Small thoughts


Shiney And His Maid

Talking to friends about the rape allegations against Shiney Ahuja, I find many of them surprised not because Ahuja allegedly raped someone, but because the victim was his maid. This is a class thing here; had he raped a Bollywood starlet who went to night clubs in mini skirts, it would have been explicable, but his maid? What was he thinking?

So rationally they condemn the act, but instinctively they’re baffled about his choice of victim. Is their reaction of WTF itself WTF?

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I have been endlessly refreshing this news item on the case over the last couple of days. It is not because the page is being updated by Rediff’s staffers or something, but because each new batch of comments is remarkable. If our country’s average IQ is 100, there must be some seriously smart outliers making up for the commenters you find on Rediff. My favourite in that series is this one, but open any article and browse the comments, and you find gems.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 June, 2009 in India | News | Small thoughts


A Thought

Is a culture that celebrates celebrity a perpetual motion machine?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 June, 2009 in India | Journalism | Media | Small thoughts


Adiga’s Rickshaw Puller

The sentence of the day comes from a piece by Mridula Koshy on Malayalam literature:

Malayalam writers are in the enviable position of writing for Adiga’s rickshaw puller and not just about him.

‘Enviable’ is exactly the right word there. Indian writers in English don’t have access to that rickshaw puller as a reader—quite apart from the fact that most of us wouldn’t have the ability to make it worth his while even if he read in English. By virtue of the language we write in, our readerships in our own country are constrained. At the same time, of course, it is easier for us to reach out to a global audience—though I wish some of our writers didn’t pander only to them.

As long as India in all its mad and magnificent diversity is available to me as subject matter, I can live with the fact that my possible readership is just a small fraction of my countrymen. If she can’t be my lover, I’ll make her my muse.

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While on Koshy, her debut collection of short stories, If It Is Sweet, is out in the market. I’ve only read one story so far from the collection, “The Good Mother”, and I was blown away by it. Right at that masterful first paragraph, you know this woman can write. I can’t wait to get at the rest of the book.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 June, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Small thoughts


The Cigarette Quota

The London Telegraph reports:

Local government officials in China have been ordered to smoke nearly a quarter of a million packs of cigarettes in a move to boost the local economy during the global financial crisis.

The edict, issued by officials in Hubei province in central China, threatens to fine officials who “fail to meet their targets” or are caught smoking rival brands manufactured in neighbouring provinces.

Even local schools have been issued with a smoking quota for teachers, while one village was ordered to purchase 400 cartons of cigarettes a year for its officials, according to the local government’s website.

Yes, that’s The Telegraph, not The Onion. Reality is reinvented as farce. The thing is, this is no less absurd than any protectionist measure. Think of any subsidy or tariff, and at its heart it amounts to forced cigarette smoking. We don’t laugh about most of that, though.

(Link via email from Aniket Thakur.)

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I couldn’t help but remember Frédéric Bastiat when I read that news, so here’s a reminder that the Bastiat Prize, which I won in 2007, is now open for submissions for 2009. They have an additional prize for online journalism from this year, so all ye freedom-loving bloggers, go forth and enter.

Also read: Remembering Frédéric Bastiat.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2009 in Economics | Freedom | Politics | Small thoughts


I Love Zoozoos

And here’s a thought: Aren’t Zoozoos, with their substantial bellies and butts, just like Indian men?

Another thought: Don’t you chicas out there find the Zoozoos terribly cute?

Maybe there’s hope for us yet.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2009 in Small thoughts


Missed Opportunity

If Sanjay Gandhi had given himself a taste of his own medicine, we might not have had to put up with this crap.

(Link via email from Salil.)

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Also read: The Population Myth.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 May, 2009 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


‘Never Seen A Weak Sikh’

ANI reports:

Taking a dig at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi has said that he ‘has never seen a weak Sikh.’

Wooing Sikhs who form the majority in Punjab, Gandhi lashed out at the BJP for calling the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ‘as weak.’

‘They call our prime minister weak, the lion of Punjab, who has earned a name to the country in the world. I have not seen a weak Sikh in my life,’ Gandhi told an election rally at Barnala.

Now, I admire Manmohan Singh, and I agree that he is an upright man, and certainly not a weak prime minister. But isn’t Gandhi insulting the intelligence of the people at the rally with his talk of never having seen a weak Sikh?

There are two ways in which his speech could work. 1, it could piss off the audience with its patronising tone and silly generalisation. 2, it could please them, make them swell their chests with pride, and cause them to like Gandhi even more than they already did.

So how mature do you think our democracy is?

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And tell me, is there really a significant difference in silliness between these two generalisations: 1] All Sikhs are strong. 2] All Muslims are terrorists.

The latter is obviously more odious. But in logical terms, leaving aside intent and context, is there a difference?

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 May, 2009 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


Christian Lowell III In Urgent Need Of Assistance

Check out this marvellous piece of satire by Rupinder Gill.

419 scams lend themselves to satire quite well, actually. Here’s a piece I’d done a couple of years ago: A Business Proposal.

When everything’s a scam, could every scam be considered ironic, you think?

(Link via email from Salil.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 May, 2009 in Economics | Small thoughts


‘This Is Water’

It just struck me that in his famous 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address, David Foster Wallace is basically teaching Vipassanā. Without the cheesy music.

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I suspect if I bump into either Wallace or the Buddha in some afterlife, I’ll get beaten up for the above observation. ‘I’m a total non-violent kind of dude’, the Buddha will shriek as he chases me with a spectral katana, ‘but you really pushed the limit here.’ After a while, tired, I’ll stop, and he’ll swing and lop my head off. ‘Told you to be mindful,’ he’ll say.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 April, 2009 in Miscellaneous | Small thoughts


Rich Men In Politics

I just love this headline in The Times of India:

Parties should give more tickets to rich: Wealthiest candidate

The article is about a gentleman named Deepak Bhardwaj of the Bahujan Samaj Party, who has a net worth of Rs 600 crore. Bhardwaj says:

It is good that political parties nominate rich candidates in elections. If you find a rich person as your candidate, he or she can help the poor better and look after development work. How can a poor candidate serve the poor? It only stands to reason and therefore richer candidates should be given more chance to contest elections

The reason I am amused by Bhardwaj’s defensive attitude towards his wealth is that he has no reason to be on the back foot to begin with. As TN Ninan points out, “virtually every member [of the Lok Sabha] is a crorepati.”

Ninan suggests that politics is “India’s most lucrative profession,” and there is no doubt in my mind that he is right. In India, we take it for granted that our governments are there to rule us, not serve us, and do not question the amount of power they wield over us. Politicians, like all other humans, are driven by self-interest, so obviously they will use this power to enrich themselves, and the interest groups that help them come to power. The problem is with the system that allows them so much power with so few safeguards. The problem is with all of us, for allowing ourselves to be milked like this. (For more, read: “A beast called government.”)

To go back to Bhardwaj, he seems to have made his money from his family’s real estate investments, not from politics. But his political career might just be the best investment he has made. If he uses his money to buy himself power, he can then use that power to make much more money. Such it is.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2009 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts


On Power

I was most surprised at my inclusion in Business Week’s list of India’s 50 Most Powerful People, but I was as surprised by the huge number of people congratulating me. Firstly, most of them surely know that I am, actually, not very powerful at all. (One of them started laughing today when I told him the news. Quite.) Secondly, even if my inclusion on the list was to somehow make me magically powerful, is that something that calls for congratulations?

Look at it this way. Power really amounts to two things:

One, it is a byproduct of other achievements, such as earning much money or winning an election, in which case surely those achievements deserve congratulations, and not the mere declaration of power.

Two, it is a means to an end, and enables us to do worthy things. In that case, the congratulations should be for those worthy things, not for the power itself.

I was delighted at my inclusion on the list because I saw it as a validation of the blogging and writing I’ve done over the last few years. But so is the time that all my readers spend on reading India Uncut—indeed, the very fact that you are reading this right now. One of those is indispensable to me—so if you must congratulate me for something, congratulate me for the fact that you are reading me.

That shifts the burden of immodesty on you, so I can relax now. Thank you.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2009 in Personal | Small thoughts


What Jagdish Tytler And Sajjan Kumar Tell Us About The Congress Party

Update (October 28, 2009): Jagdish Tytler has sent me a couple of letters regarding the events referred to in this post. You can read them here.

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I’m glad that the Congress has withdrawn Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar from the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections. I think Delhi 1984 was as much of a blot on the nation as Gujarat 2002 was, and it is a travesty that our government has never even attempted to ensure that justice is done. But the manner of their withdrawal raises the following thought.

If the Congress believed that the duo was guilty of being part of the 1984 riots, then they should have never been selected as candidates for the party at all. If the Congress believed the duo to be innocent (or innocent until proven guilty), then their names should not have been withdrawn just because some dude threw a shoe.

The way the Congress has handled this makes it obvious that they do not believe in principles, but in power. They will do whatever it takes to come to power, and right or wrong be damned. In our political marketplace, it is inevitable that all parties and most politicians will be like this, so this is hardly surprising. But it does mean that every time the Congress takes the high moral ground on any issue, I will snigger.

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That said, I still prefer the Congress to the BJP. This is because the Congress stands for nothing, while the BJP stands for something pernicious. The BJP has, in its DNA, the politics of divisiveness. It is true that the Congress has also played such politics, but out of convenience, not belief. That makes their acts no less heinous, but, in my eyes at least, it makes them slightly less dangerous because there is less chance of things going wrong, of a repeat of 1984 or 2002.

And ya, it burns me up that I need to decide who I support on the basis of who is less dangerous. That totally sucks, but such it is, so there we go.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 April, 2009 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts


Move Over, Heer-Ranjha

To get a glimpse of the future of Indian television, consider these two news items:

1. Rakhi Sawant has announced a new reality show on NDTV Imagine in which she will begin “a nationwide search for her perfect husband along with the support of the audiences.” Fifteen dudes will be shortlisted, and at the end of the season, she will marry one of them. (If the marriage doesn’t last and the show is a success, she could do it again next year.)

2. A study has revealed that Varun Gandhi has “emerged as the new favourite of prime time TV news in the past two weeks.” After his controversial comments against Muslims, he “managed to achieve 22.57 hours of prime time coverage across six prominent channels,” about 9 hours more than the IPL, which was the second-most talked about topic.

You know where all this is going, don’t you? Yes, I hereby propose that Varun Gandhi be enticed to take part in the NDTV Imagine show, Rakhi Ka Swayamvar. He is eligible and from a noted family, she is voluptuous and hunting for a groom, and they both generate TRPs like cows generate milk. (Don’t ask why that image came to mind.) Also, it will keep the man out of politics, and the country needs that.

And will he win? Well, duh! I mean, imagine the Q&A round:

Rakhi: If someone attacks me, what will you do?

Varun: If someone raises his hand against you, I will cut his hand off.

Rakhi: If someone forcibly kisses me, what will you do?

Varun: If someone kisses you, I will cut his head off.

Now, in this context, she is totally going to find his comments romantic, not repulsive. And even if Varun doesn’t cut off Mika’s head, he could certainly take a leaf out of his father’s book and get forcible nasbandi done on Mika. Imagine the TRPs if that happens live.

Also imagine if, while walking to the mandap, Rakhi and Varun fall into a well and are trapped inside. Oh, the news, the viewers, the ratings, the media planners swirling in ecstasy! I have seen the future, and it is this, it is this, it is this…

(Rakhi link via email from Kind Friend. More Rakhi on IU: 1, 2, 3, 4, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 April, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Dialogue | India | Media | News | Small thoughts | WTF


Throwing The Shoe

We all know what it means to throw the book at someone, and now it seems that dictionaries will soon have to make space for a new phrase—‘throwing the shoe.’ The origin would be the journalist who threw a shoe at George W Bush a few months ago, and it seems to be becoming a trend now that a journalist in a press conference has hurled a shoe at P Chidambaram. (In a PC, at PC, as it happens.)

The Home Minister was referring to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots when the journalist, Jarnail Singh, asked him a question regarding the CBI clean-chit to Congress leader Jagdish Tytler.

When Chidambaram averted the question, Jarnail Singh - who works with Hindi daily Dainik Jagaran - threw a shoe at him.

In case you were curious, the shoe missed, which might well lead to informal courses in shoe throwing being conducted in the canteens of journalism schools. Now, what would the phrase ‘throwing the shoe’ actually mean? One possibility: ‘An over-the-top act of protest born out of the frustration of the futility of other forms of protest.’ It could, thus encompass acts that don’t involve shoes at all—though if it involves throwing other things, it could lead to confusion. Like, imagine if a protester throws a TV at a politician, and a journalist reporting it files a report beginning, “In Hazratganj this morning, an irate protester threw the shoe at politician Jagdish Tytler.” And his editor hauls him up.

Editor: Your report begins by saying that some dude threw a shoe. But it turns out that he threw a TV.

Reporter: Yes, sir, that’s a figure of speech.

Editor: Figure of speech, my ass. Which idiot says it is a figure of speech?

Reporter: Sir, I read it on my favourite blog: India Uncut.

Editor: Well, now you will have more time to read your favourite blog. Much more time.

Reporter: [Worried that he’ll be sacked] Sir, please don’t throw the shoe at me!

(Link via email from Gautam.)

Update: I didn’t realize that throwing shoes at politicians has already become a trend, and Wen Jiabao and an Israeli ambassador have had shoes thrown at them recently. I hope this practice doesn’t spread to book launches.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 April, 2009 in Dialogue | India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics | Small thoughts


Churidars And Leggings

One of the things I hate about the Indian literary scene is the writers who set their stories in India but write for a foreign audience. So instead of ‘dal’ they write ‘lentil soup’, and instead of ‘silk kurta’ they write ‘loose-fitting silk shirt’, and so on. I call them ‘tourist-guide writers’, more concerned with catering to Western demand for exotica than to the authenticity that would be true to their subject matter. Whatever. At least there is some rationale to their approach.

But why would an Indian publication, catering to Indian readers who know what Indian words mean, adopt the same approach? My readers know how very fashionable I am when it comes to clothes—except those who have met me personally—and I’ve been following the local coverage of the fashion weeks pretty closely. And time and again, I see Indian clothes being referred to in Western terms. For example, churidars are constantly being described as ‘leggings’. This is understandable if someone is writing for the US edition of Vogue, but all the local newspapers, as well as Rediff, which caters to an Indian and NRI readership, have taken to this.

I find this inexplicable for two reasons: One, ‘churidar’ is a lovely, sonorous word, and all Indians know what it means. Two, leggings tend to be form-fitting all the way from the waist to the ankle, while churidars are generally looser at the thighs. Besides being unnecessary, the substitution is also wrong.

There is similar confusion over salwars. Consider the outfit Shah Rukh Khan wore at the Manish Malhotra show a couple of days ago, which has been described variously as ‘pathialas’ [sic], ‘an Afghani salwar’ and ‘black harem pants’. Now, folks over in Patiala and Afghanistan can argue over the first two, but how is that thing he’s wearing ‘harem pants’? Why do we need to make our writing Western-friendly even when writing for Indian audiences?

Is it because the correspondents in question are so enthralled by coverage of Western fashion in foreign magazines that they find it necessary to stick to their glossary of terms? Or that Indian words, somehow, have become infra dig?

Also, does this attitude reflect something broader around us?

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 April, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | India | Journalism | Media | Small thoughts | WTF


Rhino Sacrifice In UP

The WTF quote of the day comes from a 30-year-old woman who wanted to “find a match” and went to a tantrik named Farid Shah for help:

Shah said that sacrificing a rhino would remove all obstacles and within a week’s time I’d get married. I paid Rs 2.95 lakh to perform the puja. He told me that he would book air tickets to go to UP to catch a Rhino and will return after completing the puja.

The cops are looking for Shah, and they’ll presumably book him for fraud when they find him—unless he really sacrifices a rhino and the chick hooks up with someone. So he’ll get what he deserves. But what of the woman? She’s apparently the daughter of a retired ACP, and is now a manager in a software company—that means she has a certain minimum level of education. I hope her friends and relatives are kicking her ass bigtime for her stupidity. How could she believe that a rhino sacrifice would help her find a man?

That said, I find her faith no odder than that of anyone who goes to a temple or a church or a masjid and prays for anything at all. Still, we’re all entitled to our beliefs, and the faith of others is none of my business. But I am bemused when they complain about the consequences.

(Link via separate emails from Girish and Doc.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 March, 2009 in India | News | Old memes | Astrology etc | Small thoughts | WTF


Don’t Diss Eunuchs

PTI reports that Uddhav Thackeray has called Manmohan Singh “a eunuch”. The Congress has called this “perversity of the highest order”. Well, I have just one question here:

What’s wrong with eunuchs?

I’m serious. Why can’t a eunuch be a good prime minister of India? We’ve had non-castrated men in the job, and most of them sucked. We had a woman, and she was a disaster. Why should being a eunuch be a disqualification? Indeed, why should that label be used as a pejorative?

While I’m at it, one more question—since the Congress has clearly made a list of perversities, and calling someone a eunuch is one “of the highest order”, what are other perversities in that order? And in lower orders? For edification, one really wants to know.

(Link via email from Rajeev Mantri.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 March, 2009 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


A Different Kind Of Beauty Contest

My good buddy Manish Vij, a connoisseur of all things Punjabi, points my attention via email to the video below from Miss World Punjaban 2008 that depicts the household work round.

When I saw this, my first reaction was one of WTF—but I reconsidered that after a little thought. There are different notions of what makes a woman desirable—some people value physical beauty and quick-wittedness, which leads us to the swimsuit and Q&A rounds of a regular beauty contest; and some would value more traditional attributes, like how well they can look after the kitchen—thus this round. Both reduce and demean women, but I don’t see why one is any more WTF than the other, per se.

Oddly, though, the rounds in this contest hark back not just to more ‘traditional’ values, but to an earlier age. In the household work round in the video above, you see a girl being tested for her skill on a chakki, not on, say, how well she can bake a dish in an oven. And in the beauty round here, one by one women contestants are asked what they do to maintain their looks, and one by one they speak about putting curd in their hair and besan on their skin—no one mentions using modern cosmetic products, which would obviously be considered an inappropriate answer. The judges smile after every answer, because surely even they know it’s a charade—just like all those chicks in Miss India contests claiming to idolise Mother Teresa.

PS: One of the contestants, I noted, was a girl named Pushpreet. Instantly I thought about what would happen if she was to marry a gent named, simply, Preet. On their wedding night he would go and sit besides her on the bed shyly. She would act all coy and all. He would edge close to her. And he would say, Oye, Pushpreet! And she would coyly push him. And he would blush and say again, Oye, Pushpreet! And she would push him again. And he would again go… ok, never mind, sorry.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 March, 2009 in India | Small thoughts


Mahatma Gandhi’s Glasses

“Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses,” CNN-IBN informs us, “along with some of his other possessions will go under the hammer in New York on March, 4-5, 2009.” And as you’d expect, some people are offended. “A staunch Gandhian” has been quoted as saying:

Any object associated with the Mahatma, the father of the Nation is our national heritage naturally. If that is auctioned it is not only an insult, it is also intolerable. We request US President Barack Obama to please honour our sentiments.

Immense WTFness implodes. Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses are our “national heritage”? Obama should “honour our sentiments”? Does anyone imagine that Gandhi himself would waste his time over such trivial matters, or that he would approve of this idol worship of himself?

Taking offence has clearly become our national pastime, and I hereby suggest that our honourable government institutes a Ministry of Offence to look after our interests. Just as we have a Defence Minister, we should have an Offence Minister. And no one should be allowed to get offended without:

a] Having a license for it. OR

b] Taking permission in triplicate from the ministry, six months in advance.

This is one of those rare areas in which government intervention might actually be solution. If my libertarian buddies are offended at that suggestion, well, such it goes.

(HT: Vineet.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 March, 2009 in India | News | Small thoughts | WTF


Operation Flood

Here’s an SMS I’ve received a few times in the last couple of days:

Help Operation Flood! This Friday Oscar nominated gay film Milk is releasing (with NO cuts) in Mumbai & Pune. Only if it does OK here will it get national release. Please pack theatres with friends & family to help Milk send a strong signal for tolerance and gay rights. Please forward this to friends.

I was planning to watch the film anyway this weekend, and I hope it does get a national release. But I wonder why the author of the message chose to call Milk a “gay film.” I would have thought there should be no such thing as a “gay film”, just as there’s nothing called a “straight film” or a “left-hander’s film” (if a film stars left-handers). I loved Brokeback Mountain because it was such a beautifully told love story, and the fact that its protagonists were gay is just detail. Equally, I enjoyed My Brother Nikhil, which, to its credit, unlike most other Indian films, showed its gay characters and their relationships as something utterly normal, requiring no explanation. I don’t think either of these films deserved to be slotted into a “gay film” pigeonhole, as if they are about gay people alone, and there is something there that the rest of us don’t get. If Milk is a well-made film, which by all accounts it is, I’m sure I’ll feel enough empathy with Harvey Milk, and enjoy the movie—I don’t need to be gay for that.

Anyway, when I saw the first of these SMSs, I thought of starting another chain SMS that began with the words, “Help Operation Barber.” But I’m too old for such frivolity now, so there it goes…

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 February, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Small thoughts


Lollipop

Dhoomketu points me to the WTF lines of the day, spoken by Gurudas Dasgupta of the CPI:

After seeing Lalu Prasad’s lollipop, we have today seen Pranabji’s lollipop. The budget is simply a poll lollipop.

All politics, if you think about it, is about whose lollipop is the biggest. And whoever wins, we’re at the receiving end of it.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 February, 2009 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


The Goody Show

IANS reports:

British reality TV star Jade Goody says she may allow her death to be filmed for a reality show.

“I’ve lived my whole adult life talking about my life. The only difference is that I’m talking about my death now. It’s OK,” she told the News Of The World in an interview published Sunday.

“I’ve lived in front of the cameras. And maybe I’ll die in front of them. And I know some people don’t like what I’m doing but at this point I really don’t care what other people think. Now, it’s about what I want,” said Goody, who has cancer and been given only months to live.

My fondness for reality shows is known to you—but I don’t quite think I’ll be watching this. It’s icky and disturbing.

That said, if art aims to reveal the human condition, then this is all reality shows had left to do. You’re only really taking on life after you come to terms with death. Mostly, we ignore it—and now it’ll be on reality TV. I predict millions will watch, fascinated, unable to switch the TV off, seeing themselves in the sad, pathetic figure of Jade Goody—as sad and pathetic as our species itself.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 February, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Media | Small thoughts


The Cost Of Failure

I don’t quite know what to make of this headline:

Man falls to death while hanging self.

When he was falling, I wonder, did he want to live or die?

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 February, 2009 in India | News | Small thoughts | WTF


Keep On Playing

In a sense, we are all playing hockey.

(HT: Sanjeev.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 February, 2009 in News | Small thoughts


Dalit Child

Here’s an interesting headline:

Policeman sacked for beating up Dalit child

If you read the piece, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that those cops deserved to be sacked. No one should beat up a kid in that manner. But I’m curious about one thing: Nothing in the story indicates that the girl’s caste had anything to do with the beating she got. So why does the headline find it important to specify that she is Dalit?

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 February, 2009 in India | Journalism | Media | News | Politics | Small thoughts


Chetan Bhagat’s Achievement

Jai Arjun Singh has a superb post on Chetan Bhagat, in which he quotes Bhagat as saying:

See, reactions to any book take place on so many different levels. Literary critics think my books are so safe, and that they don’t challenge anyone at all, but the fact is that these books often shock the middle-class people who are their primary readers. Whether you like it or not, you have to take into account the responses and feelings of even naïve readers. In Five Point Someone, when I had the two lovers engage in pre-marital sex, I got so many responses from people who said they liked the book but felt that Neha should not have “given up” her virginity. There have even been readers who know so little about novels that they don’t realise this is fiction: I get letters reproaching me for ruining Neha’s life by telling this story. ‘Tumne Neha ki zindagi barbaad kar di, ab uss se shaadi kaun karegaa?’ (‘You’ve spoilt Neha’s chances of getting married.’) I don’t know how to explain to them that this is a made-up story.

This illustrates the enormity of what Bhagat has achieved: he has got lakhs of people who do not read books to try their hand at reading a novel in English. There is a family friend of mine who probably hasn’t read a book in the last five years—he went out and bought all of Bhagat’s three novels when the latest one was released. I once used to know a chap who boasted to me that he had only read 10 books in his life, and they were all “for studies”—I can totally imagine him buying a Bhagat book at some point. In a market where an English-language novel that sells 10,000 copies is considered a bestseller, Bhagat has sold lakhs, by writing books that people who do not read books have bought and enjoyed.

How has he done this? I have no clue. It is possible that he has captured the zeitgeist of middle-class India in a way that we elite readers of literary books simply can’t fathom. It is also possible that this is less a writing success than the success of a meme, and he happened to be in the right place at the right time. Perhaps he shall write many more successful books, and sell in crores; or maybe the fashion will wear off, and other writers will take the spotlight. Whatever the case may be, he has shown one thing: there are lakhs of people out there willing to pick up an English novel and give it a chance. That is a big deal, and well done Chetan Bhagat for that.

Do read the rest of Jai’s piece, by the way. On the subject of criticism, I’m on Jai’s side, but Bhagat’s thoughts on the subject obviously reflect how many people feel. He comes across as honest and unpretentious, and he has my respect for that.

As for what I feel about his writing, well, I’m not a fan. But as my friend Chandrahas once pointed out in conversation, most of the people who pile on to Bhagat are making a category error—he is not trying to produce great literature that reveals the human condition, but to tell interesting stories that lots of people want to read. The first demands a subjective assessment; the second has an objective measure: the sales of the books. Bhagat is succeeding at what he wishes to do, and more power to him for that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 January, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | India | Small thoughts


“The Systematic Use Of Terror”

Reader Ila Bhat writes in:

I don’t know if this comment will ever make it to your blog but I’m writing it anyway in the hope more of your readers will understand that terrorism is not just that which comes from Kasab’s gun.

Someone I know was ill-fated to be at both the Oberoi on 26/11 and the Intercontinental last week, when the SS attacked the hotel. He recalled breaking out in a sweat thinking it was happening all over again. he thought he was the ultimate resilient Mumbaikar and was most gung-ho after 26/11, but after this latest incident landed up having to visit a shrink. He recounted the horrors of those first minutes when the Sainiks started their assault. He is a 3rd generation Marathi Mumbaikar and has voted in the past for the SS. Never again, says he.

In a city still scarred by 26/11, the Thackeray cousins have been granted taxpaid security to wreak havoc and terrorise. How different are they from Kasab?

On the one hand, I’d be wary of drawing a moral equivalence between the Shiv Sena and the Lashkar: The Sena doesn’t go around shooting people with machine guns, or setting off bombs in crowded marketplaces. (Well, not yet.)

On the other hand, let’s look at the definition of terrorism according to Merriam-Webster: “The systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.”

What else do these loony right-wing groups, the Shiv Sena and the Bajrang Dal and their offshoots, do if not this? In the last few days, we have had:

1] Women beaten up in a Mangalore lounge-bar because drinking and spending time with boys was considered un-Hindu.

2] Vandalism on the Mumbai University campus “over a perceived injustice to the Marathi language.”

3] An attack on a Pune theatre for showing a Kannada film.

4] An attack on North Indians in Nashik for daring to sing Bhojpuri songs.

5] The forced changing of a shop’s name from Karachi Sweets to Jai Shri Krishna Sweets.

Is this not “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion”? And in all these cases, some of the accused might get arrested, but are released in no time and are back in business. As I’d once written, mobs in India have the license to do as they please if they do it under the banner of politics or religion. If you and I go and vandalize a hotel lobby or beat up women in a lounge bar, you can bet we’ll be thrown into jail, and rightfully so. But if we do it under the pretext of defending our culture or our religion, then anything goes. The rule of law, in such situations, is a joke.

It has become clichéd to talk of the ‘Resilience’ of Mumbaikars. I think that’s the wrong quality to speak of. Shall we talk ‘Apathy’ instead?

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 January, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | Politics | Small thoughts


Slumdog Context

I just watched Slumdog Millionaire and enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s an entertaining yarn, and really should be seen only from that prism. It rocks in the way a good pulp bestseller rocks, with a propulsive storyline that keeps you hooked, and requires a suspension of disbelief. To judge it by the standards of high art, and declare it a failure on grounds of plausibility or authenticity, is, in my book, a category error. It’s an airport paperback, not a Booker nominee.

Also, I’m a fan of AR Rahman, and to see him get such attention is wonderful. I hope he wins at least one Oscar, and foreign listeners seek out his Indian work because of that.

Now, here’s a question: If this film was made by a local director and not by a Western biggie, would our reaction to the film have been the same? Would we have so readily forgiven the clichés and other lapses of this film? Or would we have said, Saala, b*st*rd’s making a movie for the foreign audience. Sellout. Would we have been jealous of its achievement, or less forgiving of its flaws? Would we have liked the film more or less if Sunil Tandon of Juhu had directed this film instead of Danny Boyle of Lancashire?

That’s a question, not an accusation. I think I would have viewed the film differently if that were so—and I’m slightly perturbed by that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 January, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | India | Personal | Small thoughts


Hidden Prejudices

The Economist carries a report on a couple of fascinating studies carried out by a group of researchers from the University of Chicago that use conjoint analysis “to study implicit biases in more realistic situations,” and quantifies “what has been dubbed the ‘stereotype tax’—the price that the person doing the stereotyping pays for his preconceived notions.”

In their first study, Dr Caruso and his team recruited 101 students and asked them to imagine they were taking part in a team trivia game with a cash prize. Each student was presented with profiles of potential team-mates and asked to rate them on their desirability.

The putative team-mates varied in several ways. Three of these were meant to correlate with success at trivia: educational level, IQ and previous experience with the game. In addition, each profile had a photo which showed whether the team-mate was slim or fat. After rating the profiles, the participants were asked to say how important they thought each attribute was in their decisions.

Not surprisingly, they reported that weight was the least important factor in their choice. However, their actual decisions revealed that no other attribute counted more heavily. In fact, they were willing to sacrifice quite a bit to have a thin team-mate. They would trade 11 IQ points—about 50% of the range of IQs available—for a colleague who was suitably slender.

In a second study the team asked another group, this time of students who were about to graduate, to consider hypothetical job opportunities at consulting firms. The positions varied in starting salary, location, holiday time and the sex of the potential boss.

When it came to salary, location and holiday, the students’ decisions matched their stated preferences. However, the boss’s sex turned out to be far more important than they said it was (this was true whether a student was male or female). In effect, they were willing to pay a 22% tax on their starting salary to have a male boss.

I’m guessing that if you do a similar study among Hindu landlords in Mumbai, giving them criteria like age, salary, marital status and religion, their stated preferences would match their actions for the first three of those—but not the fourth. My friend Manu Joseph had done a superb story for Outlook many years ago, about how he pretended to be a Muslim looking for a place on rent in Mumbai, and was continuously turned away. Another friend recently told me about a Muslim pal of hers who came to the city, tried unsuccessfully to find a good place on rent, and left in disgust when brokers kept recommending that he try looking for places in Muslim-dominated areas. (“Forget Worli, sir, why don’t you try Mahim?”)

Many of these landlords turning away Muslims would no doubt consider themselves secular and non-prejudiced. And really, if a friend of mine who owns a flat tells me that he’s got two equally attractive prospective tenants, one of whom is Muslim, and he’s going to give the flat to the Hindu just to be on the safe side, I’m not going to condemn him as a bigot. That is a preference he has a right to act upon when it comes to his own property. But thousands of such reasonable decisions, in the aggregate, ghettoize a city and polarize its people—and that vicious circle gets worse and worse. Sadly, that’s exactly what is happening in Mumbai.

(Link via email from Ravikiran.)

PS: Javed Akhtar, who keeps announcing on Indian Idol that there is a bias against women among viewers of the show, might want a similar study on a few sample viewers. But here’s the dilemma—every individual who sends a vote has a right to his or her preferences, and if he or she likes male voices more than female ones, that’s fair enough. (My favourites this time are both women—does that mean I’m prejudiced against men?) I’d consider it churlish to pass judgment on individual voters for their preferences—so is it fair to generalise and pass judgment on a larger group of people?

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 January, 2009 in Freedom | India | News | Small thoughts


The Celebrity Vampires Of Bombay

I bet you never knew about this particular underbelly. See this picture. And this. The celebrities of Bombay are clearly turning this city into a city of vampires, Page 3 party by Page 3 party. They go mua, you go mua, what’s that on my neck, bye bye humanhood.

Just look at these dudes scoping out victims, mouths firmly closed. Pure evil.

There’s a delightfully trashy, pure timepass book in this. One of you writers reading this should really write it over a weekend or something.

(First pic via email from Aditya.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 January, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Small thoughts


The Business Of Terror

The line of the day comes via email from Neelakantan, who, reacting to this, says:

Clearly, setting up a terror attack in India is a lot easier than setting up a business.

There are immense satirical possibilities in the government introducing licensing for terror attacks. I can imagine a short story named “A License For Terror” in which a dude named Hari applies to the Department of Terrorism for a license to set up a terror attack. “But you’re not Muslim,” the bureaucrat tells him. “We can’t give you a license.” So Hari, desperate to blow something up, goes and converts, and comes back as Mufeed. But Mufeed now finds that the previous reason given by the bureaucrat was an excuse, the chap just wanted chai-pani. The conversion was in vain. So Mufeed…

But I’m not going to tell you how it ends. What if I end up writing it?

Update: “India terrorizes fedayeen,” reports Manish Vij.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 January, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | India | News | Small thoughts


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