Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
My first book, My Friend Sancho, was published in May 2009, and went on to become the biggest selling debut novel released that year in India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and had earlier been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.
If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho
Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.
My posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.
The Monday Poem:
TAKING THE HANDS
by Robert Bly
Taking the hands of someone you love,
You see they are delicate cages . . .
Tiny birds are singing
In the secluded prairies
And in the deep valleys of the hand.
Anant Rangaswami tweets:
We need an 'Uber' moment in governance, when the govt is instantly more efficient, responsive and proactive and users are delighted.— Anant Rangaswami (@AnantRangaswami) November 30, 2015
I love Uber, as much for what it is as what it represents. But here’s the thing: Uber functions because its marketplace is competitive. When it comes to most of the services the government provides, though, the government has a monopoly. The greatest incentive for any organisation to function well comes from competition, and the need to excel in order to survive. In areas that the government has a monopoly, I predict, it will fail—as indeed ours has for 68 years. You cannot change the level of service until you change the incentives.
There’s an interesting video that seems to have gone viral on social media showing a bunch of hooligans in a film theatre haranguing (and eventually ejecting) a couple who did not stand when the national anthem was played. Some people on Twitter appear to think that this is an issue of patriotism. Well, no it isn’t. It’s an issue of individual freedom and coercion.
In some jurisdictions in the country, it is compulsory to stand when the national anthem is played. This compulsion by the government is something I object to. People should be free to stand if they feel like; and to not stand if they don’t want to. Your patriotism should not be measured by your empty allegiance to a mere symbol; and in fact, it should be nobody’s business whether you are patriotic or not.
Also, when you watch the video linked to above, consider that the people being unpatriotic are not the ones who didn’t stand for the anthem, but the ones insisting that they should have. The idea of India that I subscribe to is one in which India being a free country means that all its citizens are free from the kind of coercion and goondagardi that we see in that video. The mob in that video pretending to be patriotic—they are traitors in my eyes. Whether they stood for the anthem or not.
In fact, it is a travesty that the theatre management did not intervene on behalf of the two ticket-paying patrons who were forced out of that hall. As for those hooligans, they should have been arrested for creating such a disturbance on someone else’s property.
By and by, I was a panelist on We The People, Barkha Dutt’s show, at the start of 2008 in which the topic for discussion was exactly this: national symbols, and whether there should be any holy cows. Towards the end of the show, Barkha asked each of her panelists for a response on whether India should have holy cows. My response, about 47:50 into the show:
The only kind of holy cow I believe in is one from which you get a divine steak.
My co-panelist Smriti Irani met me backstage after the show and told me that I’d better be careful about making such jokes about an animal that is the object of reverence for Hindus. I think she was educating me about the dangers of blaspheming publicly, and as such, her post as education minister in a BJP government seems quite apt.
In an excellent feature on Magnus Carlsen in the Telegraph, Nigel Farndale writes:
He [Carlsen] has always been interested in the history of chess and has had the chance to play both Karpov and Kasparov, two legends of the game. But if he could play anyone in history who would it be? ‘I think the top ones would be Fischer and Capablanca, maybe Mikhail Tal, but I think I would beat Tal pretty easily. Fischer would be more difficult, but I think I could beat him too.’
Carlsen isn’t being arrogant, just honest. And here’s the thing: he’s unquestionably right. Chess is actually that one sport where the best player of the current generation is likely to be the best ever in objective terms. That is because the body of knowledge expands enormously with every generation, as do the tools of analysis (and therefore preparation). If Fischer at his 1972 peak met the Carlsen of today, he would be bound to lose. Indeed, I believe he would lose to some other top players as well, such as Caruana and Nakamura, simply because they’d be much better prepped. Of course, if Fischer was born in the same year as Carlsen, it could be a different story. But that’s a counterfactual, and all we have to go by is the games they actually played. So Carlsen is right.
I think when he doesn’t speak of Kasparov, he’s just being respectful. Kasparov coached him at one point, and bumps into Carlsen now and then as a grandee in the chess circuit, and Carslen would want to avoid awkwardness. But I have no doubt he believes he can beat Kasparov as well.
We will find out in March which of eight contenders takes on Carlsen for the World Championship later next year. Whoever it is, Carlsen will be favourite to win. But he does, according to me, have one weakness: his tendency, in poker terms, to go on tilt. Here’s an old piece I wrote about it, though Anand sadly could not capitalise.
And ah, Farndale also writes in his piece:
For someone who exhibits phenomenal powers of concentration at the chessboard – he is capable of calculating ‘lines’ that are 30 to 40 moves ahead – Magnus Carlsen is easily bored.
I hate to quibble, but Farndale is wrong here. No human can actually calculate 30 to 40 moves ahead accurately. In fact, as a famous study once demonstrated, experts actually calculate the same number of moves ahead as novices do—but they calculate the right ones. This is not a glib remark: grandmasters have a far wider understanding of recurring patterns on the chess board and motifs than lesser players do, and this knowledge is implicit, their responses to it instinctive. So a top GM would not even consider some lines a lesser IM might, and an IM would instantly see things on the board that would escape me completely. But we’d all see the same number of moves ahead!
I was fortunate a few days ago to win the Bastiat Prize for Journalism for the second time. The prize is given annually to a writer whose work serves to “explain, promote and defend the principles of the free society.” I had also won it in 2007, and became the first person to win it twice.
Here’s the speech I delivered on receiving the award:
These are the pieces I won the award for:
As today is apparently Constitution Day, here’s a thought from the great BR Ambedkar, who is considered the chief architect of our constitution:
We built a temple for a God to come in and reside, but before the God could be installed, if the devil had taken possession of it, what else could we do except destroy the temple? We do not intend that it should be occupied by the Asuras. We intended it to be occupied by the Devas. That is the reason why I said I would rather like to burn it.
These words were spoken in parliament in 1953, if I remember correctly.
I’m surprised that so many smart people I know express reverence for our constitution. Our constitution is deeply flawed: it does not protect freedom of speech or the right to property, and is a sprawling, unwieldy cut-paste job that has constantly been amended over the decades to suit the nefarious purposes of politicians. Ambedkar himself felt this way in 1953—things have only gotten worse since then.
Do watch this great lecture by Shruti Rajagopalan to get a sense of the journey our constitution has travelled.
Munna Kumar Sharma, the national secretary of the Hindu Mahasabha, has said about Aamir Khan:
If not move to Pakistan, he should indulge in ‘ghar wapsi’ to free himself from the crimes of ‘love jihad’ that he has committed.
I love that sentence, for the way in which it combines three Hindutva tropes into one sentiment. There is genius there—or should I say, Hindu Mahagenius?
... an essay about a selfie is itself a selfie of sorts. I wonder here, what would be more narcissistic for the author: to be aware of this, or to be oblivious?
So how has the government reacted to Aamir Khan’s recent comments about the growing intolerance in India? Rediff reports:
The government on Tuesday termed as “misplaced” superstar Aamir Khan’s comments on growing intolerance, saying such statements only bring disrepute to the country as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“His comments on intolerance is completely misplaced. Comments like this only bring the image of country and the Prime Minister Modi down,” Union Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju told reporters on the sidelines of a function in New Delhi when asked to comment on Aamir Khan’s statement on Monday at an award function in the national capital.
The Modi government’s obsession with optics is now getting beyond parody. These guys are more concerned with image than substance. This is understandable during a campaign, but they won the damn election and are actually governing now. Why so insecure?
Meanwhile, bhakts on Twitter have made it quite clear that Aamir’s claims of intolerance won’t be tolerated. What fun.
Surely by now you have read all about Anil Thakraney’s interview of Pahlaj Nihalani, the chief of the censor board:
Speaking of Spectre, surely Bond would kiss beautiful women he encounters, he isn’t going to say Namaste to them.
So why didn’t people object to the earlier Bond films? There was not a single kiss shown in Skyfall. That time no one thought of the sanskaari thing? We have passed the kiss! We only asked them to reduce the duration by 20 seconds.
I don’t get this logic. A kiss is a kiss. Ten seconds or one minute.
(Gets angry). This means you want to do sex in your house with your door open. And show to people the way you are doing sex.
Nihalani is a buffoon, but that is not the point. Nor is it the point whether the censor board has been more ‘liberal’ under the previous government or under this one. The point simply is that the censor board should not exist at all. The existence of the board is a violation of free speech. Period. Protesting against or making fun of Nihalani is besides the point. Even if the most cultured and intelligent and pro-free-speech people on the planet headed the censor board, they would be as deserving of my contempt as Nihalani is.
Forget the man; examine the principle.
And oh, by and by, wtf is ‘do sex’?
Update: In an otherwise excellent column, Mitali Saran writes: ‘It is time to have an adult at the head of the CBFC.’
No it isn’t. It’s time to do away with the CBFC. Individuals aren’t the problem; systems are.
This is surely the headline of the day:
I have friends who would argue that is Narendra Modi and India.
The Monday Poem:
by Lawrence Raab
Years later they find themselves talking
about chances, moments when their lives
might have swerved off
for the smallest reason.
I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?
What if you’d been out,
as you were when I tried three times
the night before?
Then she tells him a secret.
She’d been there all evening, and she knew
he was the one calling, which was why
she hadn’t answered.
Because she felt-
because she was certain-her life would change
if she picked up the phone, said hello,
said, I was just thinking
I was afraid,
she tells him. And in the morning
I also knew it was you, but I just
answered the phone
the way anyone
answers a phone when it starts to ring,
not thinking you have a choice.
The Haryana government took Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swacch Bharat campaign to a new height on Tuesday by deciding to recruit only those people for select jobs who don’t defecate in the open.
Advertisements issued by the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA) Kurukshetra in prominent dailies on Tuesday said for the post of block coordinators, preference will be given to candidates “not defecating in the open”.
I can totally imagine this scene:
A young man walks in to interview for the post. The first question he is asked: ‘Do you defecate in the open, young man?’
‘No sir,’ he says.
Then he climbs up on the desk, lowers his trouser and underpants, squats, and PLOP, out it comes. Then he climbs back down.
‘Young man,’ says the interviewer, ‘congratulations. The job is yours!’
The Monday Poem:
SIX CHEERFUL COUPLETS ON DEATH
by Michael Blumenthal
Most things won’t happen, Larkin said,
But this one will: We will be dead.
The saddest thing, in each context,
Is knowing that we could be next.
Some take the bus, some take the train,
Some die in sleep, the rest in pain
But of one thing we can be sure:
All die imperfect, each impure
Some wishing that they had been better,
Others worse, but no one deader.
Shoes left, like Buddhists, at the door:
Those won’t be needed anymore.
I’m travelling at the moment and haven’t been following the news too closely, so I’m hesitant to comment on the Bihar elections. One thing I can say for sure, though: all simple narratives are wrong. Elections are complex phenomena, and a mix of personal, local and national reasons—in that order—make people vote the way they do in state elections. Any one-line explanation of the elections will always be wrong.
One thing that seems clear to me actually renders the future unclear: the BJP will now consciously veer in one of two opposite directions. They will either sideline the communal elements in the party and continue pushing for ‘development’; or they will go all out appealing to religious nationalism (and caste-based politicking when relevant). I think the time when they could do both credibly is behind us now.
If they go the religious nationalism route, they can be assured of their core vote-share of maybe around 15% that will be loyal to them. Where do they get the rest from? In 2014, people were just fed up and wanted to be rid of the UPA, and the BJP’s development rhetoric was attractive. But this government hasn’t delivered and isn’t doing anything to deliver on the kind of economic growth that lifts all boats, as it were. It is safe to say that many who voted for them on the ‘development’ or ‘change’ planks are disappointed. Many of the votes they lost in Bihar are probably on that account. Plus, of course, the opposition consolidated, as they will continue to do so. Even if the BJP hold that national 31% of the voteshare they got in 2014, they will lose seats next time around because wherever a mahagatbandhan is possible, one will emerge. The paradigm is BJP vs the rest now, not Congress vs the rest.
So here’s the upshot: the only way BJP will be a dominant party in future Indian politics is if it delivers on development and sidelines the nutjobs. But its gains in that case are nebulous and hard to pin down in numbers. Ditching development, increasing communal polarisation and mobilising those core voters, on the other hand, guarantees it a stable base, but has an upper limit. By itself, it is not enough to keep the BJP in power—unless the nutjob constituency grows, a prospect that terrifies me.
I suspect that the BJP will stay in its historical comfort zone. They might talk development but will walk identity politics, as they did in Bihar. Every failure will push them further into that comfort zone. They will growl and periodically lash out from a foetal position.
This is definitely a simplistic analysis. (All topical political analysis is.) I hope I am wrong.
The Monday Poem:
LONG DISTANCE II
by Tony Harrison
Though my mother was already two years dead
Dad kept her slippers warming by the gas,
put hot water bottles her side of the bed
and still went to renew her transport pass.
You couldn’t just drop in. You had to phone.
He’d put you off an hour to give him time
to clear away her things and look alone
as though his still raw love were such a crime.
He couldn’t risk my blight of disbelief
though sure that very soon he’d hear her key
scrape in the rusted lock and end his grief.
He knew she’d just popped out to get the tea.
I believe life ends with death, and that is all.
You haven’t both gone shopping; just the same,
in my new black leather phone book there’s your name
and the disconnected number I still call.
Dibakar Banerjee may have made a bit of a fool of himself by returning an award that wasn’t his to return, but he’s absolutely right that Anupam Kher “has every right to be unhappy.” Kher, the hypocrite who once headed the censor board of India, is not when he says:
Nobody has the right to call India intolerant.
I can’t imagine where his concepts of rights arises from. Everybody has the right to call India anything they damn well please—and he has the right to disagree, as Banerjee pointed out. It is incredibly ironic that his riposte to those complaining about rising intolerance in India actually proves their point. The elite and supposedly cultured Anupam Kher is Exhibit A.
From a fine essay on Vladmir’s Nabokov’s love for Véra Evseevna Slonim :
He could not write a word without hearing it in her pronunciation.
He also called her “his kittykin, his poochums, his mousikins, goosikins, monkeykins, sparrowling, kidlet [...] his skunky, his bird of paradise, his mothling, kitty-cat, roosterkin, mousie, tigercubkin.” He eventually married her; they were together for half a century.
The amazing Maria Popova of Brain Pickings also wrote a great post on this once.
First, Arun Jaitley says that Narendra Modi is a victim of intolerance.
Then, Swarajya magazine writes that India’s ‘educated class’ is fascist.
And today, the BJP accuses Nitish Kumar of ‘vote bank politics’ in Bihar.
There is a term for all this.
(For more on how our government loots us, click here.)
Mid Day carries the following headline:
Tantrik promises to make it rain money, leaves 60-yr-old penniless.
This is Indian politics. Exactly this.
A BJP worker in Shivamogga has warned the Karnataka chief minister S Siddaramaiah of consequences if he dares to eat beef.
Let him eat beef at Gopi Circle in Shivamogga. If he does so, he will be beheaded. We won’t think twice about that. By making such a statement, the Congress leader has hurt the sentiments of Hindus. We have all grown up drinking cow’s milk.
This is standard-issue macho bigotry. I’m not surprised at the talk. I was more taken, actually, by this marvellous piece of logic of a BJP spokerperson from that area:
If he eats beef, then Congress workers will eat dog, fox and so on to appease him and get the posts of chairmen of boards and corporations.
Wow. Should we call this Noah’s Slippery Slope?
I was dining yesterday with some friends at the excellent Bombay Canteen, and I remarked at one point: ‘This kheema bheja ghotala is sub-par today. Too much kheema, not enough bheja.’
And Peter Griffin responded, ‘That’s the state of our political discourse today.’
Such it goes.
For a couple of years, every Monday I’ve been posting a poem on Facebook, with the intent of demonstrating that good poetry is something that can speak to everyone, and need not be abstruse, self-indulgent writing that only a chosen few can engage with. Starting this week, I’m shifting this tradition to India Uncut. Here’s the Monday Poem for today:
THE OLD WOMAN
by Arun Kolatkar
An old woman grabs
hold of your sleeve
and tags along.
She wants a ﬁfty paise coin.
She says she will take you
to the horseshoe shrine.
You’ve seen it already.
She hobbles along anyway
and tightens her grip on your shirt.
She won’t let you go.
You know how old women are.
They stick to you like a burr.
You turn around and face her
with an air of ﬁnality.
You want to end the farce.
When you hear her say,
‘What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?’
You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.
And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.
And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls
with a plateglass clatter
around the shatter proof crone
who stands alone.
And you are reduced
to so much small change
in her hand.
This poem was from Kolatkar’s 1976 masterpiece, Jejuri. The entire book is brilliant, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
In a column that begins by asking why Indians don’t dominate cricket, Aakar Patel writes:
[W]e are the Shahid Kapur of cricket though we think we are Shah Rukh Khan.
This is a clever line, and a provocative one, and Aakar loves to provoke. Even his provocative pieces, though, usually contain some insight. In this one, there is none, and the best answer he can offer to the question he asks is one of culture. (“Perhaps [the answer] lies in the idea of ambition and excellence.”) This is vague; it’s also incorrect. I don’t think one can generalise about Indians that we lack ambition or don’t try hard enough to excel, and even if that were true, there would be enough outliers in such a large population for excellence to emerge anyway.
Let me take a shot at an answer. The clue to where our cricket is lacking lies in the composition of our all-time cricket XI. Try and draw one up. You will find yourself conflicted about batting spots (Merchant or Sehwag to open with SMG; Viswanath or Laxman or Kohli at No. 5) and spinning slots (Prasanna or Harbhajan; Chandra or Kumble), but the bewilderment that comes when you consider the fast bowling slots will be of a different kind: not of who you keep out among some excellent options, but who you pick among some mediocre players. Kapil Dev walks in; who partners him. Whoever you pick—Srinath, Zaheer, maybe Amar Singh in desperation and misplaced nostalgia—would not be a contender for the all-time fourth XI of any other major side. Indeed, no other side would have such a huge problem in any department while picking their all-time XI. (Try West Indies, just for fun.)
This is India’s key weakness. To win abroad, we need to take 20 wickets, and we rarely have the fast bowlers to do it. But why don’t we produce enough fast bowlers? Consider what batting and spin bowling require, and what you need for fast bowling. The former two both come down to skill: strength and endurance don’t matter; physical attributes are irrelevant. Fast bowlers, on the other hand, need to have fast-twitch muscles. This is genetic; you either have them or you don’t; and Indians tend not to have them.
This is why we can’t be world beaters in sports that require either strength or endurance. (Even in hockey, we declined when astroturf became ubiquitous and speed became important, and the dribbling game wasn’t enough.) I do have hope for cricket, though, because fast bowling isn’t everything, and we were the No 1 side in Test cricket for a brief while. To use Aakar’s analogy, I don’t think we’re the Shahid Kapoor of cricket: we’re more like Akshay Kumar, or like Govinda in the 90s.
And oh, I don’t hold that nature is everything and nurture doesn’t matter. Culture is important, and is is true that we are not a country with an outdoor sports culture, the kind Australia has. I’m just not sure which way the causation runs.
Also read: My old piece, ‘Will Cricket Decline in India?’
And a piece by my friend Girish Shahane, ‘Why India Sucks at Football.’
Reading Ram Guha’s excellent piece on Mahatma Gandhi’s attitude towards sport, I was struck by this sentence about Nelson Mandela:
Once, when a friend came to visit him in Robben Island, Mandela asked: “Is Don Bradman still alive?”
I found that incredibly poignant. It gave me a greater sense of Mandela’s sacrifice than a hundred essays could.
Quote of the day:
Experience has shown that you can often do just fine being on the wrong side of history if you are on the right side of a pipeline.
—Garry Kasparov, Winter is Coming.
Rediff carries an interview with a BMC corporator, Parminder Bhamra, who is moving a proposal to “make gaumutra (cow urine) compulsory to clean hospitals in Mumbai.”
What is the reason you are moving this proposal to use cow urine in hospitals?
I feel not only hospitals, but gaumutra must be used everywhere. Diseases like cancer can be cured by gaumutra, so why not use it? You see, gaumutra kills all bacteria.
Do you want phenyl to be replaced with gaumutra?
I am saying we should respect sentiments.
What does your proposal in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation say?
While phenyl is made of chemicals, this (gaumutra) is Ayurvedic, so it must be used.
You must note one thing here: this guy is from the Congress party, not from the BJP or a lunatic fringe outfit.
Will Congress corporators support you?
One hundred percent. Do you know the Congress party symbol was once the Cow and Calf? Other parties have captured our symbol. Originally it was our symbol.
Has the BJP then hijacked the cow from your party?
The BJP’s job is to hijack other people’s ideas. They don’t have their own brains. They only take other people’s ideas and move ahead. They have taken all the ideas of the Congress and some of the Janata Dal and moved ahead.
So you see, there isn’t just a party or a cultural organisation or a handful of fringe groups which believe in this whacko stuff. No, there is a significant constituency out there which thinks like this, and it is perceived to be so large that other political parties are also catering to it now. But is that perception correct? Is there any data on what people believe in this country? Does this man’s support for gaumutra really help his electoral prospects? Who’s got the numbers on all this?
One thing I can tell you for sure is that gaumutra isn’t ever going to cure cancer. Not the literal one; and not the cancer in our society either.
So Anupam Kher gets booed at a literary event and calls the audience a “paid audience.” He follows it up by saying that “people have an agenda and cannot handle a chaiwala becoming a PM.”
This is the precise problem with our discourse. Anytime people disagree with you or oppose you, you attack them instead of their argument or their viewpoint. So they are a “paid audience” or they “have an agenda” or they are “ISI/CIA agents” or they are “sickulars” or “bhakts” or “libtards” or aaptards”. And they say, “your father too,” and we all get caught in an endless cycle of abuse and snark, egged on by the echo chambers we build around us. Messy.
As for Kher, he lost his credibility the day he accepted the chairmanship of the censor board all these years ago. If you’re against free expression, you’re against art. Shame on him.
Scroll has a piece up about how CST was bathed in blue light a couple of days ago and looked ‘hideous’. Well, I was driving past the Ambani Hospital in Andheri a couple of days ago and it was bathed in pink light. I asked my friend with me why that was so. ‘Breast awareness,” she replied.
She misspoke, of course. Indians don’t need breast awareness.
Sita Sings the Blues: The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told
Dev.D doesn't flinch from depicting the individual’s downward spiral
9 across: Van Morrison classic from Moondance (7)
6 down: Order beginning with ‘A’ (12)