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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

Front-Loading in T20 Cricket

I have a piece up on Cricinfo today about a tactical innovation whose time has come.

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 June, 2014 in Small thoughts | Sport


The Bombzooka Question

I have three hypothetical questions for you guys. Humour me and try and read all the way through.

One. Knives can be used to kill people. They can also be used to cut vegetables. But because they enable murder, to users so inclined, should they be banned? Or is that an abrogation of individual freedom?

Two. Guns can be used to kill people. They can also be used for self defence. Should they be banned, or is that a violation of your rights?

Three. Bombzookas are a new invention of mine. I’ve created an easily mass-produced semi-nuclear device that can be sold over the counter in retail outlets everywhere, like knives. A Bombzooka destroys everything within 20 square km of it. It’s easy to use—you can place it somewhere and activate it via mobile phone—and obviously lethal. Like knives and guns, it can be used to kill people. Should Bombzookas be banned, or is that a violation of your rights?

The answers to my first and third questions should be uniform, regardless of what ideology you believe in. Even the most ardent libertarian would surely agree that Bombzookas should be banned. The strongest supporter of gun control would agree that knives should be legal. The inevitable dispute over the second question, of gun control, thus seems to me to simply be about where we draw the line between a knife and a bombzooka? It hinges on the quantum of damage the instrument can cause. In other words, it isn’t about principle at all, provided we accept that Bombzookas should not be sold over the counter.

No?

*  *  *

As for where I personally stand on gun control, well, I’m a libertarian but I’m happy that guns aren’t sold over the counter in India. If they were, someone would have put a bullet through my head in some underground poker game or the other at some point in time. ‘You busted my aces again. Blam!’ Or suchlike.

I can probably construct an elaborate argument for my position, but I’m feeling too lazy right now. So shoot me.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 December, 2012 in Freedom | Small thoughts


The Sadness of Dogs

The New York Times reports:

A video of a dog apparently mourning the death of his owner at a funeral has gone viral, prompting an outpouring from viewers around the world.

The footage was captured by a woman whose cousin Jon Tumilson, a member of a Navy Seal team, was killed in Afghanistan when his Chinook helicopter was hit by enemy fire on Aug. 6. A funeral service was held for Mr. Tumilson in Rockford, Iowa, last week and attended by 1,500 people.

But also in attendance was Mr. Tumilson’s loyal Labrador retriever, Hawkeye. The dog wandered over to his owner’s flag-draped casket and lay beside it throughout the service. [Link in original.]

Humans have ways of coming to terms with death. We rationalise, divert our minds to other things, and find different ways to move on. But a dog can’t do many of these things. So how does it cope?

From later in the piece:

“There are famous stories of dogs returning to a grave site every day for five years, and you can’t account for that by saying he can smell the body there,” she said. “In fact, dogs return to the grave sites of their companion dogs and animals that they grow up with.”

It must be hell.

*  *  *  *

Here’s the video:

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 August, 2011 in Miscellaneous | Small thoughts


Dead Rats and Incense Sticks

So here’s the story: 15 dead rats land up in the drains of St George’s Hospital in Mumbai. A massive stink ensues (literally), and the hospital staff can’t figure out where the smell is coming from. So:

The hospital’s staff tried different methods - burning incense sticks, spraying room refreshers - to ‘clear the air’, but to little avail.

And this is exactly the way in which the Indian government deals with our country’s poverty. Every single government measure to tackle poverty is equivalent to incense sticks and room fresheners—it smells good for a while, and then the stink is back. The rats remain.

And yeah, if you read this blog regularly, you know what I think the root cause is: the lack of economic freedom. If only Rajaji, Patel and Prasad had their way 60 years ago instead of Nehru...

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 August, 2011 in Economics | India | News | Politics | Small thoughts


Cows vs Jawans

The Times of India reports:

Animal rights activist Maneka Gandhi has come in the way of our soldiers getting trendy and comfortable leather sports shoes. She says thousands of cows will have to be slaughtered to make sneakers for 1.1 million jawans. But the Army believes that Maneka’s objection is a ploy to “derail the process of procurement”.

Some weeks ago, the central government announced the decision to award contracts for eight lakh pairs of high-quality sneakers replacing the no-frills brown canvas PT shoes that jawans use. [...]

Maneka told TOI that defence minister A K Antony had confirmed in writing that the contract was being cancelled. “It is illegal to use cow leather. Army should be the beacon of law in this country. About four lakh cows could be slaughtered to make eight lakh pairs,” she said.

Our soldiers put themselves in harm’s way to look after our country, and I’d really like them to have the best shoes possible. From what I can make out from this article, it seems to be a choice between leather shoes that are “tough and ideal for the difficult terrains soldiers operate in,” and “old brown canvas PT shoes.” Which would you rather have our soldiers wear?

This does not mean that I do not care about cows. I care about cows very deeply. But I also love beef, from which we can draw the conclusion that I care about cows in the abstract and not in the concrete. My compassion is contingent on convenience, but at least I’m open about this hypocrisy.

Anyway, watch this funky video featuring my favourite kind of cows: the animated ones. I like the whole spider effect—imagine tiny SpiderCows crawling all over the walls of your living room. Life would be so exciting then, even for the lactose intolerant.

(YouTube link via @sanjeevnaik. 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, 112, 113, 114.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 July, 2011 in India | News | Old memes | Cows | Politics | Small thoughts


Room Service

The Times of India reports:

There is a storm brewing in the students’ dorm at Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. Students on this high-profile campus were surprised when authorities stopped cleaning their rooms and did not allow them to have food delivered.

The students’ activity council (SAC) at IIM-A fumed at the move apparently aimed at teaching the future CEOs the realities of life.

For an IIM student, I’d have thought “the realities of life” include room service. My guess is that the authorities who made this rule are just jealous. Back in the day, they never had it so good. It’s like Erapalli Prasanna feeling bad when he looks at the swank car that Harbhajan Singh drives. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 July, 2011 in India | News | Small thoughts


Political Tweeters

The quote of the day comes from a David Brooks piece on the Republican Party:

Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann produce tweets, not laws.

This is true. But isn’t this what all constituencies want from all politicians everywhere? Sound bytes to keep the self deception going?

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 July, 2011 in Politics | Small thoughts


Does Sturgeon’s Law Apply To Human Beings?

Sturgeon’s Law states that “ninety percent of everything is crud”. This is certainly true in many fields, and I myself have invoked it in the context of blogging, but today I’m wondering, is this true also of human beings? Are 90% of us stupid? Like, really stupid? Consider this news story by Reuters in Istanbul:

Turkish police donned white coats and stethoscopes to disguise themselves as doctors, then knocked on people’s doors to see how easily they would fall for a confidence scam.

The undercover police officers told residents of the southeastern city of Gaziantep they were screening for high blood pressure and handed out pills, according to Turkish media.

They were alarmed when residents at 86 out of 100 households visited on Tuesday swallowed the pills immediately.

Apparently this was the actual modus operandi of a gang that got people to pop sedatives and then robbed them. But this isn’t all.

Officers in Adana in southern Turkey last week called at houses, announcing through the intercom: “I am a burglar, please open the door.”

Police said they were stunned at the number of people who opened the door, the Radikal daily newspaper reported.

Brings a certain Godrej commercial to mind, doesn’t it? But to get back to the question of general intelligence levels, just take a look sometime at comments left in any random Rediff article or YouTube video, and a depressing picture emerges. It’s the reverse of the Lake Wobegon Effect: Everyone appears stupider than average—which is, of course, not possible.

*  *  *  *

In case you need a bigger pen1s or a million dollars deposited in your account by a buddy of mine in Nigeria, please leave your email in the feedback section of my site. Thank you.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 April, 2011 in News | Small thoughts | WTF


Cellphones, Brain Damage and Furious Copulation

Do cellphones cause brain damage? The evidence is far from conclusive, but Alex Tabarrok writes:

[T]he fact of the matter is that cell phones do cause brain damage. Cell phones cause brain (and body) damage when people use them while driving. Cell phones distract, whether we measure in the lab or on the road, and they distract enough to make cell phone use not all that different from driving under the influence of alcohol (at the illegal level). In marked contrast to the studies on cell phones and brain cancer the studies on cell phones and driving are broadly consistent and suggestive of a small but significant increase in death (your own and that of others). [Links in the original.]

Men are worse at multi-tasking than women, for evolutionary reasons, but it’s certainly true that anyone who speaks on the phone while driving is doing something profoundly stupid. But leave that aside, here’s a thought I have: if speaking on the phone impairs a driver’s facilities in the same way that alcohol does, then would it also be the case that it has the same effect on other activities? Is multi-tasking, thus, as potentially hazardous in the short term as alcohol?

To take just one random activity as an example, would a man having sex while talking on the phone perform as poorly as a very drunk man? This is certainly an experiment worth carrying out, and I encourage you to go for it. In the interests of science.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 April, 2011 in Miscellaneous | Science and Technology | Small thoughts


This Terrible Process

In a lovely little profile of James Taylor in the New Yorker, he is quoted as saying, about his wife Kim:

If I went online and tried to find the perfect mate—and I think that that is probably an excellent use of the internet—I couldn’t have done it better. That’s such a smart way to do it, by the way. I think that a couples therapist and a computer geek should form a company and shepherd people through it. For so long, there’s been this terrible process where we find a mate through our worst instincts and our reiteration of all our family mistakes. We always become one parent and marry the other one.

That sounds like a fabulous little insight to me, though I think that it is also true that some people do it the other way around, and find a mate who is nothing like their parents, so that they don’t end up like one of them. Who can say who is making the greater mistake?

*  *  *  *

I am reminded of Philip Larkin’s great poem, “This be the Verse”, and even though it has appeared on this blog before, I shall reproduce it again:

This be the Verse—Philip Larkin

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2011 in Arts and entertainment | Small thoughts


Miyamoto’s Fish

Nick Paumgarten’s fantastic profile of Shigeru Miyamoto in The New Yorker has this wonderful quote by Miyamoto about his childhood:

I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish. That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation. I wish that children nowadays could have similar experiences, but it’s not very easy.

I think Miyamoto’s lament holds true not just for kids but for all of us. We are desensitized and apathetic, and there is no sense of wonder in our lives anymore. How does one recapture it? I don’t think going back to nature and escaping from the urban grind is an answer in itself. Those of us who do that do it as an anaesthetic or a balm. There has to be something more.

When was the last time you noticed a fish?

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 January, 2011 in Arts and entertainment | Personal | Science and Technology | Small thoughts


Garbage In

image

There is something terribly poignant about a man trying to commit suicide by jumping off a ninth-floor window but being saved by an uncollected heap of garbage that lies below. His self esteem is obviously low, he feels discarded by the world, but, like the garbage that eventually saves him, not yet dispatched. So he jumps, and wakes up not in an afterlife like heaven or hell or suchlike, but in a hospital, all bandaged up, tubes entering and exiting his body like the world refusing to let go. It makes me wonder what is the greater tragedy for him: feeling the need to let go, or not being able to do so.

There’s the seed of a short story here, but I feel too lazy to write it. Such it goes.

*  *  *

On another note, if someone asked me to guess where this happened, I’d think of garbage and I’d immediately rule out New York. Instead, my guess would be Andheri East.

*  *  *

(Pic courtesy Reuters.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 January, 2011 in News | Small thoughts


The Mystery of the Lewd SMS

From Shane Warne to PSR Anjaneyulu (allegedly), the sending of lewd SMSs is a common complaint against many high-profile men, especially those intoxicated by power. Now, here are two contradictory notions I am wrestling with:

1. Most women are turned off by lewd SMSs.

2. No rational man would indulge in an act again and again unless it paid off at least some of the time, thus compensating for the many times it didn’t.

I have never sent a lewd SMS in my life, and thus have a sample size of zero to attempt to resolve this from personal experience. So I wonder: Are lewd SMSes positive EV? Or, in non poker terms, do lewd SMSs work often enough to justify their downside?

My theory is that sending a lewd SMS in either like surfing porn—gratification from a distance, without the slightest chance of actual contact—or a form of release, and that a man doesn’t need to find takers for his lewd SMSes to keep sending them. It is also possible that a lewd SMS would work with women already interested in you. But then, any SMS would work with those women. If you send a lewd one, though, and the woman responds, you could mistake correlation for causation. Maybe that’s why…

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 January, 2011 in Miscellaneous | News | Small thoughts


The Wire

I thought I’m inured to shock and horror, but this story made even me gasp:

In a hair-raising incident, a husband stitched the private parts of his wife with wire in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad city after her request to visit her parents enraged him, police said Friday.

[...]

Munda became angry when Sabitri said Wednesday that she wanted to go to her parents’ home and charged her with having an extra-marital relationship, Dhanbad Deputy Superintendent of Police Rajiv Ranjan said.

Their quarrel took a vicious turn when Munda tied his 21-year-old wife’s hands and legs and stitched her private parts with “iron wire”, Ranjan said. After committing the ghastly act, he locked her up in a room.

From one point of view, this guy is an outlier, a complete freak show, a madman.

From another, he’s the typical Indian male. He treats his wife as his property, and is sexually insecure. The manifestation of that is unusual—but the sentiment, alas, all too common.

Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 May, 2010 in India | News | Small thoughts


On Allrounders (and All-Time XIs)

There are three kinds of allrounders in cricket.

No. 1: The player who can command his place as a specialist in the side in both batting and bowling. This kind of allrounder is hugely rare. Garry Sobers was one; maybe Keith Miller at his peak; among Indians, Vinoo Mankad qualifies.  Of the quartet of the 1980s, Kapil Dev, Ian Botham and Richard Hadlee would not have got in as specialist batsman; and while Imran Khan was good enough to be a specialist in either discipline, his batting peak came after he had declined considerably as a bowler. In recent times, Jacques Kallis was one, but his bowling has declined since.

No. 2: The player who can command his place as a specialist batsman or bowler, but while he’s a worthy part-timer in the other discipline, would not command his place for that alone. Most people you call allrounders today fall in this category. Kallis has slipped into this category, and Shane Watson also fits in here. Shahid Afridi was one, though his bowling seems to have gotten worse. Among Indians, Irfan Pathan was one, till his bowling fell away just as his batting improved.

No. 3: The player who would not get in the side as either a specialist batsman or bowler, but who does both well enough for their combined value to get him into a weak side. India had some such ‘bits-and-pieces’ players in the 1980s (remember Kirti Azad?) and New Zealand had some in the 1990s. But against top-quality opposition, the bits-and-pieces allrounder will usually deliver in neither discipline, and will be a liability to the side.

Well, the reason I’m going over this is that in the current side, India have one player in the third category. I don’t believe Ravindra Jadeja would be in the Indian side as either a specialist batsman or a specialist bowler. We saw his limitations as a batsman when MS Dhoni sent him out to bat earlier than he should have in the game against England in the 2009 T20 World Cup, and the balls he ate up cost India the game. (He made 25 off 35.) We saw his limitations as a bowler today, when he was hit for six off six consecutive balls—Watson pumping the last three of his first over, and David Warner laying into him on the first three of his next. To add to this, he got himself run out with a ridiculously lazy piece of running between the wickets, ambling diagonally across the pitch. Like, really.

Jadeja is good enough to play in the IPL, where the standard of cricket is not so high and he will add value to any team. But I don’t believe he is international material, and it is shocking that he kept out a player like Rohit Sharma in the earlier games of this World Cup. We may just have learnt an important lesson today—but is it already too late?

*

The question can be asked, which category does Yusuf Pathan fall into? He is not good enough to play as a specialist bowler, but does he cut it as a batsman? I think the jury’s out on that. He is a phenomenal striker of spin bowling and medium-pace bowling—but has yet to prove himself against quality fast bowling. He had a good chance to get set in today and establish himself in the side—and he muffed it.

*

If we consider a wicketkeeper-batsman an allrounder by virtue of his performing in two disciplines, then we are fortunate to have seen Adam Gilchrist play in our lifetimes. He was both a great batsman and a top-flight wicketkeeper, and walks into my all time XI. In recent years, Mark Boucher, at his peak, could have played as either a specialist batsman or a specialist wicketkeeper. And I believe Mahendra Singh Dhoni also falls in that category. Yes, even in Test cricket, where the captaincy seems to have done him much good—he averages 71.8 as captain, in 13 Tests. That’s off the charts.

*

Since I mentioned my all-time XI, just for kicks, here it is: 1. Hobbs, 2. Gavaskar, 3. Bradman*, 4.Viv Richards, 5 Headley, 6. Sobers, 7. Gilchrist+, 8. Akram, 9. Warne, 10. Lillee, 11. Muralitharan.

On a different day, I’d probably give you a different XI. Nos. 5 and 10 are the ones always in question, and I’m also tempted to push Sobers one spot up and play five freakin’ specialist bowlers. Just imagine. Even Martians with eight hands and four bats would have a tough time against the Earth XI then.

*

I know you’re complaining Sachin isn’t there. How could I leave God out? Alright, then, here’s an all-time India XI, and God walks into this one: 1. Gavaskar, 2. Sehwag, 3. Dravid, 4. Tendulkar, 5. Laxman, 6. V Mankad, 7. Dhoni*+, 8. Kapil, 9. Amar Singh, 10. Kumble, 11. Harbhajan.

Why not Bedi, you ask? For balance. We already have a left-armer there in Mankad. Why not Prasanna instead of Bhajji? Because that damn spin quartet is too freakin’ romanticised. See their records carefully. Filter for matches won; filter for matches played overseas; that’ll tell you the story.

And yeah, we also romanticise Vishy, and don’t give Laxman his due. Compare their records also.

*

Enough cricket for the day. Good night.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 May, 2010 in India | Small thoughts | Sport


Play the Specialists

Among our commentators, Sanjay Manjrekar can be reliably banal, but rarely says something outright ridiculous, unlike some of his colleagues. Well, today he did. As India were headed out to chase Australia’s 184 in the T20 game today, he praised India’s strategy of playing the extra batsman, since the total they were chasing was so big, and said, ‘In hindsight, that’s proved to be a very good move by MS Dhoni.’

Duh, no. India lost precisely because they played that extra batsman. It meant that they played one specialist bowler less, and had to rely on part-timers to bowl 8 of the 20 overs in the innings. Against a quality batting side like Australia, that was asking to be pumped. That was exactly what happened, and Australia got a total that, given their pace attack and India’s problems against pace, was way too high for India.

Some people suggest that in T20 cricket, a side is best off playing as many batsmen as they can, and part-timers can do the bowling. This is nonsense. Bowlers win T20 games, as we saw in the IPL recently, and every team must have at least four specialist bowlers in the XI. Those that don’t will lose—and sometimes get pumped, as India did today.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 May, 2010 in India | Small thoughts | Sport


The Trials of Khushboo

ToI reports that the Supreme Court has “quashed 22 criminal cases filed against South Indian actress Khushboo for her remarks in various magazines allegedly endorsing pre-marital sex.” This is an encouraging judgement—especially the following words from the bench:

When two adults want to live together, what is the offence? Does it amount to an offence? Living together is not an offence. It cannot be an offence.

Well put. And extending that further, if two adults want to do anything together, by mutual consent, without harming or involving anyone else, what is the offence? Should there be an offence? No freaking way.

And yet, such “offences” are to be found all over the Indian Penal Code. I hope one day they are scrapped.

*

The cases against Khushboo were filed in 2005. It took five years for this trivial matter to be sorted out. Imagine the state of someone spending years living through the tension of more serious cases. In our legal system, the process can be the punishment.

And oh, while confirming when the cases against Khushboo were filed, I came across this masterful headline:

‘Kushboo enlarged on bail’

One can only presume she had a really good meal when she was released.

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 April, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | News | Small thoughts


Wash Your Hands

In the book “My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic”, the following Q&A takes place:

Question: Do you wash your hands after you have had a wee?

Saatchi: I have an acute sense of hygiene so I wash my hands before I have a wee.

I love this because it so succinctly hints at what I have always believed: that we are dirty, not our sexual organs.

I do not recommend, of course, that you leave your hands unwashed after having a wee. Wash your hands as often as you can, out of courtesy for others if not concern for yourself. Indeed, wash your hands every time you read India Uncut—or you could catch my disease.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 April, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | India | Small thoughts


It All Evens Out

Much to my surprise, quite a few people were surprised when King’s XI Punjab beat the Mumbai Indians yesterday in the IPL. They shouldn’t have been. At the halfway stage of the tournament, I predicted to a friend that Mumbai, then leading the league, would do worse in the second half than in the first, and Punjab, then at the bottom, would do better. And so it’s turned out. My reason for believing this had nothing to do with any deep cricketing insight, but with a simple statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean.”

The teams in the IPL are more or less evenly matched: they have a similar mix of overseas players, national stars and domestic players. (The salary caps ensure that this will continue.) And the format, being just 20 overs a side, that ensures that chance events play a much greater role than in other formats. For these reasons, I don’t believe that any team can ever truly dominate the league—unless they have a phenomenally lucky season, which will even out in the long run—or be too far below the rest. While in the short run the game is unpredictable, in the long run everyone’s going to be bunched around the mean.

So while I’m wary of predictions about specific results in the IPL, I’ll be glad to make a general wager on IPL 4. I’m willing to bet that the team that tops the league at the end of the first half will do worse in the second; and the other way around for the team that comes last. I have absolutely no idea, of course, which those teams might be.

As it happens, I would not make a similar bet for the EPL, where neither of my two conditions apply. (ie, teams are not evenly matched, and there is a far greater premium on sheer skill.) Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the IPL?

*

Regression to the mean also explains the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx, by the way.

*

I don’t mean to say that matches at the IPL are decided purely by chance. There is immense skill involved, and I love the contest between bat and ball that we get to see every day. But the skill is so evenly distributed among the teams that in the long run, it evens out. The X factor that a captain like Shane Warne brings to the game does count for something—but while the Rajasthan Royals won IPL 1 under him resoundingly, in IPL 2 they won six out of 14 games. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 April, 2010 in India | Small thoughts | Sport


Marriage and Rape

HT reports that a couple of army jawans have been arrested in Pune for gangraping a woman. At the end of that report is the following line:

The incident comes days after a married woman was gangraped in the city.

Why does that sentence need to have the word ‘married’ in it? Does the inclusion of that word change either the impact on the reader or the perceived gravity of the crime?

If so, isn’t that disturbing?

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 April, 2010 in India | Journalism | Media | News | Small thoughts | WTF


A Swelling in Her Brain

So the doorbell rings and it’s the cook. She walks into the kitchen and asks what I’d like today. I tell her, and then ask, ‘How’s your daughter?’ She hadn’t come yesterday because her daughter had a fall.

‘She’s not conscious yet,’ she says. ‘She’s got a swelling in her brain.’

‘What? She’s in hospital?’

‘Yes, but the doctor says that if she isn’t conscious by this evening, she’ll have to be shifted to another hospital. Chicken or mutton?’

Her tone is perfectly normal, like she’s telling me about her daughter’s school results or something. You’d never guess there was something wrong.

And that’s the life. Another maid, her husband was a drunkard who beat her everyday. You’d never guess there was something wrong.

We’re spoilt, and weak, the urban elite with household help. When life knocks us down we won’t have the fight in us. If someone close to me was unconscious with a swelling in her brain, I’d show it.

‘Chicken or mutton?’

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2010 in Personal | Small thoughts


Self-Esteem (and a Puddle)

In a marvellous essay on self-esteem, Theodore Dalrymple writes:

Self-esteem is, of course, a term in the modern lexicon of psychobabble, and psychobabble is itself the verbal expression of self-absorption without self-examination. The former is a pleasurable vice, the latter a painful discipline.

Indeed, that might also be one distinction between bad and good novelists. The bad ones just do the self-absorption, while the good ones begin their journey towards producing good work with self-examination.

I’d imagine, though, that any honest self-examination would necessarily erode self-esteem. In his essay, Dalrymple defines self-esteem as ‘the appreciation of one’s own worth and importance.’ When I look at the larger scheme of things, it is clear to me that we have no worth or importance, except perhaps to ourselves, which is circular and temporary. We are just one species in one tiny planet in one small solar system in a universe that has galaxies without end. And a short life span that ends when it ends, despite widespread irrational belief in souls and suchlike.

Despite that, most of us see humans as being the center of the universe. For example, we speak of global warming as endangering the earth. But we forget one thing: we are not the earth. Even if the most alarmist claims about global warming are true, then all that it endangers is humankind. The earth has been much hotter and much colder than it is now, and will go on merrily without us.

Our foolish collective self-esteem reminds me of this great quote by Douglas Adams:

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

Indeed. And how absurd is the notion of the self-esteem of a puddle?

(Dalrymple link via @tunkuv. The Adams quote is from Richard Dawkins’s book, A Devil’s Chaplain.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 March, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Personal | Small thoughts


The Provocative Sherlyn Chopra

Aarushi points me via email to a couple of blog posts by Sherlyn Chopra. In one, Sherlyn says:

For quite sometime, I’ve secretly wished for a bigger butt.  Guess, my mind strongly believes that my bum is petite. Hopefully, in early 2010 I shall fly to the US and meet some highly skilled surgeons and get their first hand opinion about whether or not butt implants are safe to acquire my desired result.

And in the other:

All through my teenage life, I’ve had a flat chest. Sometimes, I wondered if God had forgotten to give me breasts. It was only recently, a couple of years ago, that I had decided to get surgically enhanced breasts.

I know readers who would find this funny; and others who would say that Sherlyn is just trying to be provocative. But consider where the provocation lies—in honesty. She is sharing desires that many, many women have; she actually has the courage to act on those desires; and she is telling a repressed readership, which has been programmed into believing that talking openly about sexual matters is somehow wrong, about her boobs and her butt. I admire that.

But what does it say about us that such honesty can seem so scandalous?

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 March, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | India | Small thoughts


Feudal India

Check out this headline:

Karunanidhi praises Stalin, doesn’t mention Azagiri

What does it say about the state of our country that petty family politics is national news? And it’s not one state, it’s the whole damn country. We are ruled by families.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2010 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


Geopolitical Irony

AP reports:

For nearly 30 years, India and Bangladesh have argued over control of a tiny rock island in the Bay of Bengal. Now rising sea levels have resolved the dispute for them: the island’s gone.

There is a lesson in this for all disputes, not just geopolitical ones: One day, that island will disappear. So just chill, no.

(Link via email from Godhuli.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 March, 2010 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts


The Drain

In Thomas Friedman’s latest column, I come across the following names:

Sunanda Sharma, Arjun Ranganath Puranik, Raman Venkat Nelakant, Akhil Mathew, Paul Masih Das, Namrata Anand.

And a thought strikes me: They could have been Indian—but we fucked up.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 March, 2010 in Freedom | India | Small thoughts


Until Death Etc Etc

The WTF opening sentence of the day comes from a Rediff report:

According to the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) one married man commits suicide every nine minutes in India.

That sentence makes it sound as if marriage is the cause of these suicides, which is surely unjust to the 57,639 wives whose husbands offed themselves. Causation is often complex and not easy to pin down when it comes to suicide, and the following sentence would make quite as much sense: “According to Cricinfo, 13 married men have made scores of 250+ in Test cricket in the last 10 years.” Huh, no?

Given that life is a fatal disease, it’s not unnatural for some of us to want to get it over with quickly. Marriage, like most of what we seek in life, is a palliative. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it can’t cure nothin’, and it ain’t the cause.

(Link via email from Poornima.)

Update: Here’s the NCRB report (pdf link).

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 March, 2010 in News | Small thoughts | WTF


Prodigy

I feel hugely sorry for this kid. In her world, it might be a huge deal to become “the youngest girl to ever write the Intermediate or plus two examination in Andhra Pradesh.” (She’s nine or ten; the article states both.) But the pressure on her must be immense, and such ‘achievements’ are not the stuff of life. She’s obviously enormously smart and talented, but I’m sure there’s much parental expectation pushing her, and that isn’t good. Childhood should be chilled out and as stress-free as possible.

I hope she’s doing okay 15 years from now.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2010 in India | News | Small thoughts


The Philosophical Cow

Alex Tabarrok writes:

Suppose that you are a cow philosopher contemplating the welfare of cows.  In the world today there are about 1.3 billion of your compatriots.  It would be a fine thing for cows if all cows were well treated and if none were slaughtered for food.  Nevertheless, being a clever cow, you understand that it’s the demand for beef that brings cows to life.  How do you regard such a trade off?

I predict that any philosophical cow will consider its self-interest first. It might be in the interest of the species for cows to continue to be slaughtered, but it would certainly not be in the interest of this particular cow—so it would be against killing cows. Unless, of course, our philosophical cow is guaranteed immunity from slaughter, which its human overlords might well consider given how few cows tend to be philosophers. In that case our bovine thinker, freed from concerns about its own welfare, might well take the broader view.

Doesn’t this happen with humans as well? I know ‘intellectuals’ who rail against urbanisation and romanticise village life, while themselves living comfortably in cities. I know women who condone the way other women are treated in some cultures by resorting to moral relativism, while themselves enjoying their full human rights. (For instance...) It’s easy to pontificate about matters that don’t immediately concern us—and most pontification is exactly like that. Such it goes.

*

I can imagine a philosophical cow deep in thought near an unsuspecting farmer. Suddenly, the cow starts jumping up and down, shouting ‘Eureka, Eureka!’

‘What happened?’ says the farmer. ‘Why’re you so excited?’

‘I just formulated the Cowtegorical Imperative,’ says our philosophical cow.

‘That’s impossible,’ says the farmer. ‘You’re just a cow. You can’t do something like that. You can’t!’

‘That’s right,’ says the philosophical cow. ‘I Kant. But you can call me Immanuel.’

*

(Link via email from Prachi Parekh. 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, 112.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 March, 2010 in Old memes | Cows | Small thoughts


The Exploding Donkey

In his brilliant book, The Forever War, Dexter Filkins informs us that DBIED can stand for either Dog-Borne Improvised Explosive Device or Donkey-Borne Improvised Explosive Device. In a passage that I feel provides a perfect metaphor for the War on Terror, he writes:

In the fall of 2005 some marines discovered a donkey walking around Ramadi [in Iraq] with a suicide belt on. They didn’t want to kill it, of course, but every time they tried to get close enough to remove the suicide belt, the donkey scampered away. They they tried using a robot, one of those bomb-disposal things, which tried to waddle up to the donkey and defuse the payload, but the robot, too, kept scaring the donkey away. Finally the marines shot the donkey. It exploded.

And so it goes…

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 February, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Small thoughts


Waving to Nobody

The wonderful excerpt below from “Trail Fever” by Michael Lewis illustrates beautifully the nature of politics and public life. In it, Lewis recounts his experience of travelling with then-vice president Dan Quayle during the election campaign of 1992:

It wasn’t so much what Quayle had said that hooked me. It was what he had done—what the conventions of the campaign trail required him to do. Every few hours of every day, to take a tiny example, the vice president’s campaign plane, Air Force Two, came to rest on the tarmac of a military base on the outskirts of some medium-sized city, and Quayle appeared in the open door. He waved. It was not a natural gesture of greeting but a painfully enthusiastic window-washing motion. Like everyone else in America I had watched politicians do this on the evening news a thousand times. But I had always assumed there must be someone down below to wave at. Not so! Every few hours our vice president stood there at the top of the steps of Air Force Two waving to… nobody; waving, in fact, to a field in the middle distance over the heads of the cameramen, so that the people back home in their living rooms remained comfortably assured that a crowd had turned up to celebrate his arrival.

It is my case that most politics consists of waving to nobody. Someday, as the waving is going on, I’d love to see the cameras turn around and show the empty field. But nah, that won’t happen.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 February, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Politics | Small thoughts


Boredom

A friend’s status message on Facebook leads me to wonder: If you are bored, does that not mean that you are boring?

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 February, 2010 in Small thoughts


‘There Is No Quit’

Bob Herbert writes about Haiti in The New York Times:

Just when you think the ultimate has happened, the absolute worst, something even more dire, comes along.

And yet. No matter how overwhelming the tragedy, how bleak the outlook, no matter what malevolent forces the fates see fit to hurl at this tiny, beleaguered, mountainous, sun-splashed portion of the planet, there is no quit in the Haitian people.

They rose up against the French and defeated the forces of Napoleon to become the only nation to grow out of a slave revolt. They rose up against the despotic Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier and sent him packing. Despite ruthless exploitation by more powerful nations, including the United States, and many long years of crippling civil strife, corruption, terror and chronic poverty, the Haitian people have endured.

They will not be defeated by this earthquake.

The overwrought prose and dubious insight here is more suited to a schoolboy’s essay than an NYT column. No quit in the Haitian people? That sounds just like the patronising remarks about Mumbai’s ‘resilience’ after each terrorist attack that we go through. Mumbaikars went to work on 27/11 not because they were resilient or especially brave but because they had no choice. They continued commuting in trains after the train blasts of 2006 because of the same reason. From outside it might look brave, but here, we see it as just getting on with our lives. Is there an option?

The people of Haiti, I’d imagine, are like people everywhere else—they make do with what there is, and respond to circumstances as they arise. That is a human quality, not a Haitian one. There is no quit across the world.

*

And while on NYT columns, I’m increasingly surprised by the kind of writing Gail Collins gets away with. Writing about Scott Brown, the Republican candidate in the Massachusetts senate elections, she says:

When he was 22, he [Brown] won an “America’s Sexiest Man” contest, the prize for which was $1,000 and a chance to pose naked in a Cosmopolitan magazine centerfold. One of his daughters — this is perhaps the best-known factoid in the campaign — came in somewhere between 13th and 16th on “American Idol.”

“For our family, especially me being on ‘Idol’ but my dad being in politics, there are always so many people who have something negative to say,” Ayla Brown told The Boston Herald this week. Her talent was singing, not sentence construction.

Now, how crass is that last sentence? When she’s writing about politics in these polarised times, one can expect her to get snarky and personal about the candidate from the party she opposes. But his daughter? I can imagine a tabloid going there, but an NYT columnist should surely consider it out of bounds.

I wonder, if Herbert and Collins left the awesome platform of the NYT and started independent blogs, how many readers would they have? That would be the real test, and I’m sure they’d be resilient if it went wrong.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 January, 2010 in Journalism | Media | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


A Dress Code For Mannequins

The WTF statement of the day is the warning given by Chandra Shekhar, a politician in Bhopal, to local shopkeepers:

Your mannequins should wear sarees, not underwear. From now on, keep all undergarments inside. Show it to the customer when he or she asks for it. Five days from now if undergarments are still hanging outside, we will light a bonfire of the lingerie.

Yes, the culture police is protesting against the public display of lingerie now. In a country in which there are so many serious issues to tackle, this is getting surreal. But why, it must be asked, are they doing this? Is there actually a constituency that approves of this kind of behaviour?

My answer: Yes, there is. We are a country that contains around half-a-billion sexually repressed men. Many of these dudes, who don’t get the kind of action they desire, resent anything that reminds them of this. Like lingerie on mannequins. Like advertisements for coffee-flavoured condoms (another target of these thugs). Like the ubiquitous bogeyman of ‘Western Culture.’

And where there is widespread resentment, there will be a political party tapping into it. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 January, 2010 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts | WTF


Five Monkeys

On a mailing list I’m part of, I came across this wonderful excerpt from a book called Thinkertoys:

Imagine a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb toward the banana. As soon as he touches the stair, spray all the monkeys with ice-cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result - all the monkeys are sprayed with ice-cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, turn off the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and will want to climb the stairs. To his surprise, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.

Again, replace a third monkey with new one. The new one goes to the stairs and is attacked. Two of the four monkeys that beat him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs, or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing the fourth and fifth monkeys with new ones, all the monkeys that have been sprayed with ice-cold water have been replaced. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs. Why not? Because as far as they know that’s the way it’s always been around here.

I have a feeling that this is the problem with Indian television programming and Indian newspapers. Hardly anyone thinks outside the box. And the box is old. There’s a great opportunity not being taken here because no one has courage and imagination. Pity.

*

On a related note, check out Michael Kinsley’s recent essay on what’s wrong with newspapers today. (Link via Peter Griffin.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 January, 2010 in Arts and entertainment | India | Journalism | Media | Small thoughts


Bulls and Bears

The Sensex has just touched “a 23-month high.” This will, I have no doubt, make many investors feel bullish. And yet, that is an absolutely inappropriate response. If I had money in the stock market, I’d be bearish right now.

Call me a fool—but watch that space.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 January, 2010 in Economics | India | Small thoughts


The Difference Between ‘IMO’ and ‘IMHO’...

... is that ‘imho’ inevitably carries far more arrogance with it. When humility has to be claimed it is generally absent.

In a similar vein, there is ‘I don’t mean to interrupt but…’. Like, duh, if you don’t mean to interrupt—don’t.

Also, ‘With all due respect…’. That’s like a slap.

And, in the course of a TV discussion, calling another panelist an ‘azeez dost’. Dude, he may be ‘azeez’ if his name is Aziz, but there’s no fricking way that guy is a dost. You want him to die. You want to personally torture him using an iron maiden while blasting Himesh music into his eardrums.

A list of such casual semantic hypocrisies could no doubt fill an encyclopedia. And it’s apparent, even as we say what we do not mean, that we do not mean it. Then why say it?

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 December, 2009 in Small thoughts


Bald and Toothless

Mumbai Mirror reports:

When Byculla girl Afasha Sheikh first met her fiancé Abdullah Sayed, it didn’t take her long to agree to the marriage. By all accounts Sayed was a good catch-he was young, with average if unexceptional looks and to boot, he was an NRI who worked with Emirates Airlines.

But the image of her groom unravelled-quite literally-on the wedding night. As Afasha, 25, waited with breathless anxiety turn to and anticipation, she saw her husband leisurely sit on the bed and proceed to take off his wig and then to her utter horror, his dentures.

Confronted with this metamorphosis, she did a quick transformation herself from coy bride to avenging angel: she packed her bags and then lodged a complaint against Sayed for cheating and impersonation.

This story seems incomplete to me. What should have happened is this: after Sayed takes off his dentures, Afasha should stand up, shocked, ready to storm out. Then Sayed says, through his toothless mouth, “Wait, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

He takes off one arm and puts it on the table. Then he takes of his legs and folds them away. Finally, with his only functioning limb, he removes his head and puts it on the bed. Then his head says:

“What are you so pissed about? From this whole damn planet, I picked you. You should be so proud.”

*

No, but really, this right here is the story of all relationships. We can never completely know another human being—and whenever we go into a relationship, we generally do so with an idealised version of this person in our heads. Our expectations are based, out of necessity, on a sort of fiction. And generally, as new facts come to light, we fit them into the narrative in our heads, and we get by. Most people, in terms of what their new romantic partners know about them, are far worse than bald and toothless. Afasha is shocked because these revelations came upon her so suddenly. Poor girl.

And also, stupid girl. Marriage is a huge commitment, and it’s foolish to get married without knowing your partner well enough. Would you buy a new car without taking it for a test drive? Isn’t marriage a far bigger deal than a new car? Does it make any damn sense to get married to someone without living with that person for a year or two first, giving it a spin to see if it can work?

Of course it doesn’t. But people do it nevertheless, and then expect others to feel sorry for them when it doesn’t work out. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 December, 2009 in India | News | Small thoughts


Fasting Unto Death

Mahatma Gandhi’s use of this particular tactic might have sanctified it, but in my opinion, threatening to fast unto death until your demand is met is a crude form of blackmail. Take K Chandrasekhar Rao, for example, the president of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, who recently announced that he would fast until he was given a separate Telengana state. In a democracy, there are constitutional ways to raise such issues—fasting unto death is just crude blackmail, and one that the state should not give in to. Rao was administered saline forcibly at a government hospital, an action that I consider a violation of his rights. If the man wants to fast unto death, let him fast unto death. It’s his life, his choice.

The TRS isn’t just about blackmail, of course—they’re also using standard political gundagardi. I find it delightfully ironical that after Rao broke his fast by having orange juice for health reasons, the “students who had attacked policemen and public and private property for two days to support Mr Rao did not take kindly to this sudden decision.” They might have suspected that Rao was not sufficiently dedicated to their cause, to which I’d respond that no politician is devoted to any cause other than himself. That’s human nature. Orange juice zindabad.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 December, 2009 in India | News | Politics | Small thoughts


How Firm Are Your Buttocks?

ToI has a report today on a former Miss Argentina who died “from complications after undergoing cosmetic surgery on her buttocks.” A close friend of hers remarked:

A woman who had everything lost her life to have a slightly firmer behind.

She could have used a stepmill instead, which I can attest does wonders for the butt. But really, whether we find Solange Magnano’s story poignant or absurd, most of us are no different. Every day, in a hundred ways, we give more importance to trivial things than they deserve. So the next time you’re stressed out about something, think of how insignificant that particular problem will seem to you ten years later—and chill.

Or find a stepmill.

(Link via email from my buddy with an iron posterior, Manish Vij.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 December, 2009 in News | Small thoughts


Casinos and Temples

PTI reports on an interesting little controversy in Goa, where some police officers visited an offshore casino. This drew criticism, and Goa’s police chief BS Bassi duly defended his men:

Offshore casinos are not illegal here. What is the problem with police officers going to offshore casinos when they are not on duty? Many people go to temples, churches, on fishing trips…

As you’d expect, the religious loons jumped on Bassi, whose statement “drew strong criticism from officials of churches, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the main opposition BJP.”

“I was very much shocked to see the statement coming from a person who is supposed to be the guardian of law and order,” Father Francisco Caldeira, director of the Diocesan Centre for Social Communications Media of the archdiocese of Goa and Daman, said. “It is a blasphemous statement to compare casino with temples and churches.” He said that Bassi does not understand what religion is and what casino is.

I agree with Caldeira that comparing a casino to a temple or a church is pointless. But I come to that view from a different perspective.

Consider this: In a casino, a gambler looks at the odds available to him, figures out the amount of risk he is willing to take, and makes his investments accordingly. He takes his chances; and takes responsibility for the consequences. That is the stuff of life itself.

In a temple or a church or any other place of worship, on the other hand, the worshipper engages in an escapist fantasy, that there is a greater power out there that can solve his problems. He nurtures delusion and often avoids responsibility. He tries to evade the inescapable truths of the human condition: especially our mortality and ultimate helplessness. He is living a fantasy.

Which man would I trust more: the gambling man or the religious man? (FSM forbid they are the same man, for then he is truly fucked.) You know my answer.

*

On a tangent, not every game in a casino is a game of chance. Poker, for example, is a magnificent game of skill—even more so, in my opinion, than bridge.  It requires not just a mathematical ability to work out odds and suchlike, but also the ability to read human nature. I was a competitive chess player in my youth, but I consider poker a far greater game. In chess, there is always a right answer, and it is always on the board in front of you. In poker, the variables that determine the right way to act are the people in the game with you, and not just the cards on the table. This makes it a far richer game than any I have played.

*

On another tangent, every decision we make in our lives is essentially a gamble. There is some risk involved, a subconscious weighing of odds, a decision taken. From an investment at the stock market to a real estate purchase to the decision to ask someone out on a date to taking the stairs instead of the elevator. There are different levels of risk attached to each of these, but fundamentally, whenever we make a choice, we are gambling. The world is a casino.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 November, 2009 in India | News | Small thoughts


Solid Waste Management

This is quite the quote of the day:

The accidents are not my responsibility as I am not in charge of solid waste management.

Here’s the context.

I’m not trying to make a point here—the quote, by itself, just seems to capture something of our zeitgeist. Doesn’t it?

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 November, 2009 in India | News | Small thoughts


Naxalism and the Jagannath Turtle

Reuters reports:

Hundreds of poor Hindu villagers in eastern India have refused to hand over a rare turtle to authorities, saying it is an incarnation of God, officials said on Tuesday.

Villagers chanting hymns and carrying garlands, bowls of rice and fruits are pouring in from remote villages to a temple in Kendrapara, a coastal district in eastern Orissa state.

[...]

“Lord Jagannath has visited our village in the form of a turtle. We will not allow anybody to take the turtle away,” said Ramesh Mishra, a priest of the temple.

Ok, my question to you: What does the Jagannath Turtle have in common with Naxalism?

Answer: They are both indicators of the fucked-up lives of so many of the people of rural India. There is no development, there is little chance of upward mobility, there is often no law and order. Their lives are so screwed that they actually derive hope from a turtle that they think is Lord Jagannath. How sad is that?

And Naxalism is born in that same well of despair and anger.

Needless to say, the state of these people justifies neither Naxalism (or Maoism, or whatever you want to call it) or such stupid superstition. Anyone who resorts to the kind of violence the Maoists have taken up must be crushed. Equally, a belief that a turtle is a reincarnation of a deity should be given no respect whatsoever. (Leave the turtle aside, anyone who believes in a deity to begin with… never mind.)

But while we crush the Naxalites and go WTF over the turtle worship, it makes sense to remember why people give in to such madness. It is because of how abject their lives are. And if we don’t sort that out, we’ll have more batches of Naxalites after this one is dealt with, and more turtle gods. (A leech deity makes much more symbolic sense, actually.) There’s no point boasting of our ‘soft power’ and our IT revolution while 60% of the population survives on agriculture. (The figure in developed countries is around 5%.) It’s like showing off a gym-toned body with much muscle while there’s a cancer in the liver and a farm of worms in the intestines. That’s fool’s vanity.

No?

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 November, 2009 in Economics | India | Politics | Small thoughts


Why Ayn Rand was a ‘Genuine Capitalist’

I am not a fan of Ayn Rand’s work: Her prose is mediocre and her novels are cheesy. Even though I agree with many of her beliefs, that is neither here nor there, as they weren’t original to her, and the brand of classical liberalism (or minarchist libertarianism) I believe in took off at least a century earlier than her. So I am never quick to defend Rand when she is being criticized. I’ll make an exception, though, for a recent piece on her in The New York Times by Adam Kirsch.

In his piece, a review of a biography by Anne C Heller, Kirsch relates how Bennett Cerf, the head of Random House, wanted to edit out Galt’s speech from Atlas Shrugged. Rand refused. Then:

Cerf offered Rand an alternative: if she gave up 7 cents per copy in royalties, she could have the extra paper needed to print Galt’s oration. That she agreed is a sign of the great contradiction that haunts her writing and especially her life. Politically, Rand was committed to the idea that capitalism is the best form of social organization invented or conceivable. [...]

Yet while Rand took to wearing a dollar-sign pin to advertise her love of capitalism, Heller makes clear that the author had no real affection for dollars themselves. Giving up her royalties to preserve her vision is something that no genuine capitalist, and few popular novelists, would have done. It is the act of an intellectual, of someone who believes that ideas matter more than lucre.

This is a strange comment, and I have two points to make:

One: Rand might well have agreed to the chop on commercial considerations alone. She might have calculated that the book would sell more copies if it included the speech, and that the extra royalties from those extra sales might offset the 7 cents per copy that she gave up.

Two: “Genuine capitalists” would look to serving their self interest as much as possible. But they need not view this in purely monetary terms. Rand might have placed a higher value on spreading her ideas in the world than on merely making money. It would then be entirely rational for her to accept a notional monetary loss for the sake of keeping a speech that many of her supporters today regard very highly. This is entirely consistent with being a capitalist.

The deal between Rand and Cerf was one between two private parties that involved no coercion. Both of them got what they wanted. It might even have ended in a double ‘thank you’ moment. How on earth could it non-capitalistic?

*

On a personal note, I regard myself as a capitalist as well. And pretty much all the important decisions I’ve made in the last few years have reduced my income vastly. First, I opted to give up a senior job in journalism to become a freelancer; and then, I opted to give up freelancing to focus on writing novels. In the short run,  this has decimated my bank balance. And yet, I have no regrets over these decisions—and they are not noble in any way. They arise out of sheer self-interest. I’m a greedy capitalist pig.

But Heller and Kirsch would probably think otherwise.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 November, 2009 in Economics | Freedom | Small thoughts | WTF


Capital Gains

Ashok Malik writes in The Hindustan Times that the BJP has hurt itself by chasing “straightforward capital gains” in a few states. He is right—but this is true of all parties in all states. People join the pursuit of power because they want the spoils of power. I would wager that not a single prominent politician in the country today gives a damn about public service.

This is not a problem by itself. We are all driven by self-interest, and that’s worked well for us. Human progress is based on individuals serving the needs of others for their own profit. In politics, this would work just fine if we held our politicians accountable for not serving us.

Sadly, in India we have retained the feudal mindset that our governments are there to rule us, not to serve us. With our apathy, we allow them to loot us—for their capital gains are really our capital to begin with. Our political parties are nothing more than competing mafia clans. If the BJP is down right now, it’s not because they are crooked, but because they’re not as smart as the other crooked players in the game. Such it goes.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 October, 2009 in Economics | India | Politics | Small thoughts


‘The Epics are For Everyone’

So says Amitava Kumar in his Rave Out of Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues.

The wonderful thing about our epics is how open-source they are. Over the centuries, people have been free to remix them and interpret them as they like. Indeed, Hinduism itself has been open-source, to the extent that you can be an atheist and still be a Hindu. Pwnage, no?

Sadly, in recent times, pseudo-fundamentalist forces have tried to reshape Hinduism as a static, puritanical religion—the same kind of people who protest at Paley’s film, and who object to all kinds of things in the name of Hinduism. They have been strident and militant, and their claims to standing for Hinduism are taken more and more seriously because the counter-claims are too muted. Indeed, the finest counter to the likes of the BJP and the RSS is perhaps not from a standpoint of liberalism or secularism or anything like that, but from a standpoint of Hinduism itself. The intolerance of Hindutva is anti-Hindu—that is a potent case to make, because it strikes at their very raison d’etre.

Having said that, if recent election results are anything to go by, most people get that intuitively anyway.

In related reading, check out this superb interview of Wendy Doniger, on similar lines to the subject of this post. And also my friend Prem Panicker‘s Bhimsen (pdf link), a retelling of the Mahabharata from Bhim’s point of view.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Small thoughts


‘Like a Poppy-Head on the Shaft’

If you’re in the mood for action-packed, pulpy writing, I offer you the following extract from The Iliad by Homer:

But the Argives rose in grief to avenge that boast—skilled Peneleos most of all. He charged Acamas—Acamas could not stand the attack, he ran—and Peneleos stabbed at Ilioneus instead, a son of the Herdsman Phorbas rich in flocks, Hermes’ favourite Trojan: Hermes gave him wealth but Ilioneus’s mother gave him just one son… the one Peneleos lanced out beneath the brows, down to the eyes’ roots and scooped an eyeball out—the spear cut clean through the socket, out behind the nape and backward down he sat, both hands stretched wide as Peneleos, quickly drawing his whetted sword, hacked him square in the neck and lopped his head and down on the ground it tumbled, helmet and all. But the big spear’s point still stuck in the eye socket—hoisting the head high like a poppy-head on the shaft he flourished it in the eyes of all the Trojans…

This is from the Robert Fagles translation. Homer, I submit, was the Eli Roth of his time—just as William Shakespeare was the David Dhawan of his time. Classic-schmlassic, it’s just fun to read these guys!

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Small thoughts


Education

Another superb quote I just came across:

When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’

—Quentin Tarantino

It’s the same with books and writing, I’d say. You learn first by reading for pleasure—and then by writing. I’m not sure what you could learn in a classroom.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Small thoughts


‘The Most Unutterable Scoundrels’

I love this quote:

I am the most courteous man in the world. I pride myself on never once having been rude, in this land full of the most unutterable scoundrels, who will come and sit down next to you and tell you their woes and even declaim their poetry to you.

—Heinrich Heine, Reisebilder

For those lacking the patience for such courtesies, I have the following advice: Tell your tormentor to go start a blog. The internet is the finest refuge for unutterable scoundrels.

Is it not?

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2009 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | Small thoughts


Progress

Here’s the difference between a backward country and a developed country. In a backward country, kids skip meals because they don’t have a choice. In a developed country, kids skip meals out of choice.

India, for what it’s worth, is both these countries. Just yesterday, a friend was telling me about how weight-conscious his school-going niece has become because of peer pressure. Their maidservant’s kid, I could bet, is the weight she aspires to be—by default. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?

(NYT link via email from Sunil Laxman.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 October, 2009 in India | Small thoughts


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