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. These days, he makes his living playing poker as he works on his second novel.
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.
I have just started a monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line, called Lighthouse. This is the first installment.
A few days ago, a curious thing happened at a friend’s place. Seven of us were sitting around a dining table enjoying the postprandial bliss that inevitably follows copious consumption of Coorg Dry Pork and Hanumantu Mutton Pulao, when somebody asked the question, ‘So, when did you first realise you were an atheist?’ We traded stories, and realised at the end of it that every one of us was a non-believer, thus making us surely the most godless dinner congregation that evening in Mumbai. A full table, and not one deity between us. How unusual – and how very strange that in the second decade of the 21st century, such a gathering should be unusual to begin with.
Let’s not talk about science and modernity – we still live in primitive times. There are 13 countries where people who admit to atheism face execution under the law – and even in the supposedly modern USA, being an atheist pretty much finishes your prospects as a politician. The Huffington Post recently reported that there are no self-declared atheists in the US Congress, and a study by the Universities of British Columbia and Oregon found that ‘atheists are among society’s most distrusted groups, comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances.’ This is no doubt true of India as well, where Arvind Kejriwal, once an atheist, rediscovered religion as he ran for public office, and breathlessly thanked ‘the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru’ when he became chief minister of Delhi. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and put those ravings down to cynical roleplay rather than to genuine self-delusion.
I was an atheist long before I knew I was one. Back in the day, I shared the common misconception that atheists are people who believe that there is no god. But this is a faulty definition. The dictionary will tell you that atheists are actually people who do not believe that there is a god. Consider the subtle difference: atheism is the absence of belief. Until something has been proven to exist, it is rational not to believe in it – and the burden of proof always lies with the believer. An absence of belief does not always correspond to a belief in absence, which explains why most nonbelievers are non-militant about their nonbelief. As a correspondent to the Economist put it a few years ago, atheism is no more a belief system or a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.
When I realised this, it struck me that I had never collected stamps. And as I grew older, the nonbelief that existed perhaps out of laziness was reinforced by learning about science and examining my own deepest fears. All these millennia, god had needed to exist for two reasons: one, to explain everything about the world that we cannot. (The God of the Gaps.) Two, to provide consolation for our deepest existential fears. Over time, and especially in the last century-and-a-half, the gaps in our knowledge have shrunk drastically, and we no longer need a divine explanation for natural phenomena. As Douglas Adams once said about the theory of evolution, ‘The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.’
A deeper reason for why god must exist, however, is to mask our own cosmic insignificance. We are tiny, temporary fragments of a universe far larger than our inadequate brains are capable of imagining – and we’re too scared and arrogant to accept this simple fact. No, we must build narratives of our centrality to the universe, and devise potential afterlives that help us stay in denial of the one simple fact that we will be dead one day, with no greater meaning or purpose to it all. It is said that humans are set apart from other species by our self-awareness – you could also call it self-delusion, perhaps?
It is easy to be a fount of rationality and say these things, of course – but beyond the chatter, we actually have to come to terms with it. It eats me up, knowing that I am just a speck of dust in the larger scheme of things, and that soon I’ll be gone, poof, just like that. What good is my existence if I won’t be around after the fact to reflect on it? As loved ones die and I grow older, I can’t help but envy those around me for their false consolations, their anesthesia: they cope, they thrive, they manufacture meaning in their lives. Our job is harder.
But that is a private matter, and I overstate the angst. Atheists don’t live their lives tormented by the absence of a man in the sky with a beard – and most of us, if I may use the collective noun for non-stamp collectors with little else in common, aren’t even militant about our atheism. Why, then, are atheists held in such poor regard by believers everywhere?
One possible reason is that this has nothing to do with religion per se, and more to do with how we construct our identities with the belief systems we follow. Liberals abhor conservatives and vice versa, and clashes of ideology can get deeply personal. Perhaps it is the same with believers and nonbelievers. Every atheist is, in a sense, a personified slap on the face of all believers, a walking, talking reminder of their weakness and their delusions. It is natural to react viscerally to this, is it not?
Believers sometimes rationalise their distaste for atheists by arguing that religion is the source of morality, and that atheists can’t possible have any incentive to behave ethically. Let’s leave aside the historical issue of the staggering amount of violence committed in the name of religion – there is also a case to be made that codes of conduct existed before religions did, and that religions merely codified what already existed, and might even have been hardwired into us. Ultimately, we behave the way we behave, do the things we do, out of regard for our fellow human beings, and for our own humanity. And if that is all we ever believe in, well, it’s good enough.
The sentence of the day comes from ‘Gulp’ by Mary Roach. Here it is, after a brief setup:
Yes, men and women eat meals. But they also ingest nutrients. They grind and sculpt them into a moistened bolus that is delivered, via a stadium wave of sequential contractions, into a self-kneading sack of hydrochloric acid and then dumped into a tubular leach field, where it is then converted into the most powerful taboo in human history.
So the other day, a friend asked me if I was a fox or a hedgehog. And I replied, ‘Neither.’
It has been 364 days since I last blogged. I cannot let a year pass. Hence this post. But I assume that by now, this blog has lost all its regular readers. If there is no one to read this, does this post exist?
If not, I suppose a year has passed. But if there is no blog, can it pass?
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ps. The plan is to get back to regular blogging, just for my own sake. So I will starting now. (Which is when?)
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.
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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.
I was on a CNN-IBN show earlier this evening, where the topic under discussion was the arrest of two girls over a Facebook post one of them made (and the other one ‘liked’) about how the city should not be shut down just because Bal Thackeray had died. The channel seemed to be treating it as if the event was out of the ordinary. It wasn’t. It was same-old, same-old, in two distinct ways.
One, it illustrates the legacy that Thackeray has left behind. In my mind, Bombay and Mumbai are two separate entities: Bombay is a thriving cosmopolitan city which embraces immigrants and the entrepreneurial energy they bring with them, and is a harmonious melting pot of cultures. Mumbai is an intellectually repressed place, the creation of a divisive demagogue that thrives on intolerance. These two girls were arrested in Mumbai, the city that Thackeray built. Bombay is the city some of us cherish and are trying to save. And even though Thackeray might himself now be dead, his dangerous legacy clearly lives on.
Two, while in the studio they kept discussing Section 66 of the IT Act, the truth is that the problem is a broader one than just social media and the IT Act. The Indian Penal Code contains sections that are just as draconian, such as Sections 295 (a), 153 (a) and 124 (a), and Article 19 (2) of the Indian constitution lays down caveats to free speech, such as “public order” and “decency and morality”, which are open to interpretation and, thus, to misuse. It’s sad, but our constitution does not give free speech the same kind of protection that, say, the First Amendment of the US constitution does, and our laws, many of them framed in colonial times, allow authorities to clamp down on free speech whenever they so desire. (For more, read: ‘Don’t Insult Pasta.’) It’s not just the IT Act that is a problem here.
So Thackeray is dead, and free speech is ailing. Such it goes.
Bal Thackeray’s Poisonous Legacies—Rohit Chopra
Fear and Loathing in Mumbai—Vinay Sitapati
Why I can’t pay tribute to Thackeray—Markandey Katju
Thackeray could have done so much more for Marathis—Aroon Tikekar
I suppose I should display some empathy here, but I can’t help but be a little amused by the plight of the residents of a swank society in Santa Cruz, who have “filed a police complaint and a consumer case against a developer who, they say, installed car lifts too small to accommodate their large, swanky sedans and SUVs, forcing them to park their cars on the road despite paying astronomical prices for their posh homes.” One such gentleman, who “owns a Toyota Corolla and a 3-BHK flat in the building,” has apparently been stuck in the lift multiple times. On one such occasion, he says:
I struggled to get out of the car. There was no way that I could open the door, so I had to force myself out of the window, climb on to the roof of the car, somehow open the lift door and jump down a level.
There’s a JG Ballard novel in this somewhere.
‘Before anyone else was interested in the ornithology of terror he saw the gathering birds,’ Salman Rushdie writes about himself in Joseph Anton.
Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance. It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know. A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot. A phobic person was extreme and irrational in his views, and so the fault lay with such persons and not with the belief system that boasted over one billion followers worldwide. One billion believers could not be wrong, therefore the critics must be the ones foaming at the mouth. When, he wanted to know, did it become irrational to dislike religion, any religion, even to dislike it vehemently? When did reason get redescribed as unreason? When were the fairy stories of the superstitious placed above criticism, beyond satire? A religion was not a race. It was an idea, and ideas stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it. Strong ideas welcomed dissent. “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill,” wrote Edmund Burke. “Our antagonist is our helper.” Only the weak and the authoritarian turned away from their opponents and called them names and sometimes wished to do them harm.
It was Islam that had changed, not people like himself, it was Islam that had become phobic of a very wide range of ideas, behaviors, and things.
Read the full thing. I know people who are turned off by the stylistic flourishes of his novels, but Joseph Anton brims with clarity and insight, and is well worth your time.
Check out this TED Talk by Tony Porter on how men get trapped in a ‘Manbox’—and women bear the consequences of that. It’s quite excellent, and I especially recommend you watch it if you’re a parent.
The quote of the day comes from Thomas Sowell:
The first lesson of economics is scarcity: There is never enough of anything to satisfy all those who want it. The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics.
I got the quote from an excellent piece by David Boaz on the fallacies in many arguments for a bigger role for the state: The Empty Case for Big Government. Read the full thing.
Some people demonize CCTV as something as a threat to our privacy, as a tool for ostensible Big Brothers everywhere to potentially be watching us. But in many ways, I think they can do just the opposite: they can empower common people, and act as a check on oppressors, who thrive on controlling the flow of information. As an example, check out this video below, which compiles CCTV footage to show the following sequence of events:
1] Rabia Imran, daughter of Shahbaz Sharif, visits a bakery in Lahore on a Sunday morning. The bakery is closed.
2] One of her minions gets it opened. There’s a sweeper inside, who informs Rabia that the shop will open in the afternoon, and he obviously can’t sell her anything right away.
3] But Rabia needs her sugar kick. She needs it now.
4] She calls another minion. The two minions take the sweeper aside and slap him around. They leave.
5] A few hours later, three more minions, accompanied by uniformed cops, come to the bakery.
6] They take the sweeper outside and thrash him.
7] Then, with the police watching, they bundle him into a van. A few hours later, we are informed, he is dropped off bearing marks of severe assault.
And all this is on CCTV, undeniably there. They can’t even deny it.
Of course, you could argue, so what, we all know this happens, this is hardly a revelation. True. But I think there is a possibility that if Big Brother knows that Small Brother is watching, he might be inclined to behave just a little better. So thank goodness for all the tools of surveillance and of spreading information that empower all of us.
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I hardly need to add that even though this particular footage is from Pakistan, this kind of attitude and behaviour is endemic in India as well. We’re also a developing nation with a feudal mindset. No?
In an interview with Abheek Bhattacharya, the Chinese economist Zhang Weiying says:
We human beings always seek happiness. Now there are two ways. You make yourself happy by making other people unhappy—I call that the logic of robbery. The other way, you make yourself happy by making other people happy—that’s the logic of the market. Which way do you prefer?
Or what John Stossel once called ‘The Double “Thank You” Moment’. It’s a ridiculously simple insight, which makes it all the more amazing that so many people just don’t get it.
So it’s about 10.45pm, and we’re headed in a tourist taxi to Siena Village, a resort a few kilometres from Munnar. We’ve already driven about three hours from Kochi airport, I haven’t slept in 48 hours, the fast, winding journey through the ghats has made me feel a little sick, and I’m kind of testy. Our overly talkative driver tells me that road from Munnar to Siena winds through a hilly jungle, and ‘sometimes at night, elephants attack cars.’ We begin that leg of the journey.
Halfway through, we find that an autorickshaw and another car have stopped in the middle of the road, and the rickshaw guy is gesticulating wildly at us to stop. He babbles something in Malayalam, and I assume his auto has broken down and he wants help or suchlike. I’m desperate to get to the hotel and crash. ‘Just drive, dude,’ I tell my driver. ‘Let’s get going.’
‘We can’t go,’ he says. ‘There are elephants charging down the road.’
Along with the rickshaw and the other car, we park our car at a clearing at the side of the road. ‘So what do we do now?’ I ask. ‘Elephant, elephant,’ the driver mumbles, and jumps out of the car to join the others to peer down the road. I’m about to get off when he comes back, gets in the car, and drives about 30 meters back down the road, towards Munnar. There he stops and waits, as we turn around to see what’s happening. The other car also moves away. The rickshaw remains.
Then the elephant lumbers in.
This massive grey beast saunters down the road, stops at the clearing, and stares at the auto, right besides where we had been a minute ago. Then it goes over and gives us a masterclass of how to obliterate an autorickshaw in 40 seconds flat. It uses its trunk to swing it around in the air and bash it on the ground. It uses its legs. It uses its fury. In less than a minute, what was once a vehicle is now mangled bits of metal and plastic. Satisfied at a job well done, the elephant gets back on the road, and looks at us. Or rather, I am sure of it, at me. Our eyes meet.
All this time, our driver is telling us, ‘Take picture, take picture. Get off and take picture.’ We’ve already told him to get on back to Munnar, obviously we’ll find a hotel there for the night. But he doesn’t listen. ‘Take picture, take picture.’
‘Drive,’ I tell him again. ‘Let’s go to Munnar.’
He doesn’t budge. The elephant takes a step towards us. It maintains eye contact. I think it knows my name.
The driver doesn’t budge. The elephant does.
‘Drive boss, drive us back to fuckin’ Munnar, what are you waiting for?’
He snaps to life and starts driving. Then he says, ‘Sir, no need to be rude. I have studied engineering, you know.’
The simultaneous urges to sleep, puke and get away from an elephant have made me lose it by now. ‘So why are you driving a tourist taxi then?’ I ask.
‘Because this is Kerala.’
Update: The elephant’s name is Padiappa. It turns out that he had a traumatised childhood, and has killed eight people in the last few years. He’s undergoing
counselling treatment, and was apparently given an injection three months ago after which he calmed down somewhat. However, he got restless again a couple of days ago. He destroyed some crops two nights ago, and then the auto last night.
All this was told to me by the Mallu driver Bipin, who is no longer mad at me. I can’t be sure about Padiappa, though, and am avoiding casual social encounters with him.
I don’t know why, but I find this kind of funny.
And what’s with the quote marks in that ToI headline? Succinct editorial comment, you think?
Jonah Lehrer writes in Wired:
Here’s a brain teaser: Your task is to move a single line so that the false arithmetic statement below becomes true.
IV = III + III
Did you get it? In this case, the solution is rather obvious – you should move the first “I” to the right side of the “V,” so that the statement now reads: VI = III + III. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people (92 percent) quickly solve this problem, as it requires a standard problem-solving approach in which only the answer is altered. What’s perhaps a bit more surprising is that nearly 90 percent of patients with brain damage to the prefrontal lobes — this leaves them with severe attentional deficits, unable to control their mental spotlight — are also able to find the answer.
Here’s a much more challenging equation to fix:
III = III + III
In this case, only 43 percent of normal subjects were able to solve the problem. Most stared at the Roman numerals for a few minutes and then surrendered. The patients who couldn’t pay attention, however, had an 82 percent success rate. What accounts for this bizarre result?
The piece is titled ‘Why Being Sleepy and Drunk Are Great for Creativity’, and is about “the unexpected benefits of not being able to focus.” (The next time your loved one asks you to pay attention, just snap back at her that you’re busy being creative.) That might just explain absent-minded geniuses—their absent-mindedness is part of the reason they’re geniuses, and not some regrettable offshoot of their abilities.
Um, what was I saying?
So while everyone’s celebrating the arrival of Akhilesh Yadav and how he’s revitalised the Samajwadi Party and UP Politics, take a look at this news report, about how Mulayam Singh Yadav managed to persuade his party veterans to allow his son to be chief minister:
Earlier during the day, when Akhilesh’s name was thrown up for discussion at the informal meet, the response was overwhelming. Only a few feeble voices of dissent were raised.
But an astute Mulayam did not take much time to dilute these voices. Sources said that Mulayam managed to placate both his younger brother Shiv Pal Yadav and close confidante Azam Khan by making an offer that they could not refuse.
While Shiv Pal was assured the most lucrative of portfolios in the new cabinet, Khan was promised the prestigious slot of assembly speaker.
Note the phrasing: the most lucrative of portfolios. And that, in a nutshell, is politics in India. Bring in the new, long live the old…
... is done. The next time India walk out to play a Test match, my favourite sportsman of all time won’t be there, and I’m not even sure I’ll feel like watching. India with someone else at No. 3 will seem like Led Zeppelin without Jimmy Page—and yeah, so what if Robert Plant does get that 100th hundred?
As you’d expect, there have been quite a few moving tributes to him, and I think this wonderful piece by Sambit Bal captured the man’s essence really well. An excerpt:
When we spoke a couple of weeks ago, I asked if he regretted not having retired in England. His response was a further revelation of character. He would certainly have retired if he hadn’t had a good series, he said, but after doing so well, retiring would have been selfish. There was a series to be won in Australia, and he owed it to the team to make the trip. And no, there were no regrets. He would do it no other way, even if offered a second chance.
I’d written a bunch of pieces on Dravid back in my days as a cricket writer, the last of which, I think, was this: ‘Rahul Dravid: Transcending History’. Many of the pieces celebrating him today and yesterday, unfortunately, seek to reinforce a bunch of entirely untrue cliches about him. No, Dravid was not just a dour technician with loads of patience—he was a beautiful, attractive strokeplayer at his best, who combined elegance and grace with a sense of purpose. No, he was not a misfit in one-day cricket: for a period of maybe four years, he was possibly even the best ODI finisher in the world, batting at Nos. 5 and 6. And no, despite the debacle of the 2007 World Cup, he wasn’t a failed captain: he led us to memorable series victories outside the subcontinent, in West Indies and England, something we hadn’t managed for a decade before he took over.
Bloody hell, I’m going to hate cricket for the rest of this week. Sob.
Update: And here’s a fine piece by Mukul Kesavan: ‘Stylish in the Trenches’. The money quote:
It is a retirement freighted with more meaning than merely the end of an individual career. Rahul Dravid was an old-fashioned cricketer: he was a Test match batsman who was great without being glamorous, brave without being brash. He was, if you like, the polar opposite of Virat Kohli, Indian cricket’s new poster boy. When this honourable man called it a day, middle-aged fans across the subcontinent shivered: they felt a goose walk over Test cricket’s grave.
Update 2: Here’s a wonderful piece by Vijeeta Dravid on Rahul: ‘My Husband, the Perfectionist.’ I was touched by this bit:
When I began to understand the kind of politics there are in the game, he only said one thing: that this game has given me so much in life that I will never be bitter. There is so much to be thankful for, no matter what else happens, that never goes away.
Contrast that with some of the bitterness you see in some former and current cricketers.
Also, here’s a fine piece by Tanya Aldred.
According to the Times of India, the five things men need to do to attract women are 1] grow old, 2] hang around in a hot place, 3] get beaten up, 4] wear spectacles and 5] carry a plant around. Apparently, “it takes a patient, affectionate man to grow healthy plants.” Also,“experts say that if you can take care of your garden for only 30 minutes a week, it can improve your health and performance in bed.” Not just that, “fertile women are subconsciously drawn to men who are good at gardening.”
Well, ok, I made that last quote up. But would you be surprised if I hadn’t?
In an attempt to prevent animal abuse, the state government has instructed petroleum giants Indian Oil, Hindustan Petroleum and Bharat Petroleum to not transport oil using animal power.
I’m blogging this only because of the delicious irony of Petroleum companies transporting their fuel in bullock carts. I have no comment to make on the animal rights angle here— though it’s not as bizarre as the report about the five killer whales in San Diego who “have been named in a slavery case that argues they should have the same constitutional rights as humans.” I mean, if whales have rights, it could be argued that chickens and cows do as well, and then your food could start suing you posthumously. If PETA ever sues me on behalf of a chicken that I ate the previous night, I will snap produce a legal document with an illegible scrawl on it, and say, “The chicken signed this waiver of its rights before I cooked it. Choke on that.”
(Photo courtesy Mid Day.)
Check out this piece by Shikha Dalmia on the role that market forces play in perpetuating the caste system. Quite fascinating; though I wish her editors had thought of a better headline…
Our right-wing lunatics are so funny sometimes that it’s hard to hate them. Balbir Punj has a bizarre (but typical, so maybe not so bizarre) rant up on the New Indian Express about how Western values are ruining our country. His arguments are so priceless that you have the read the whole thing, I can’t just excerpt for WTFness. Among other things, he thinks that ‘nudity’ and ‘nightlife’ are “Western aberrations”, and rants against same-sex unions on the grounds that they only take place for ‘pleasure’, which, in his opinion, is a bad thing. Punj has it exactly the wrong way around: the rising divorce rates he rails against are, in my opinion, something to celebrate, and the decline of family values is a damn good thing.
Ooh, I can imagine Punj choking on his coffee if he reads this. But wait, coffee must surely also be a Western aberration, no?
Having resumed blogging, it was natural for me to head over to the ToI site for the potential double WTFness of 1. what’s happening and 2. what the ToI is reporting. Not much gratification there, though their ‘city’ section did provide some food for thought. Here are the four headlines on that section:
* * *
I actually clicked on one of them. Apparently Ayesha Takia complained on Twitter about Kingfisher Airlines, and Siddharth Mallya responded: “Not too sure who she is, an actor of some sorts?? [sic]” Well, I’m not sure who Siddharth Mallya is. Someone or the other’s son and boyfriend? Is there anything else he’s famous for?
The Hindustan Times reports that two Karnataka ministers were caught watching pornographic videos “when the house was in session.” The camera crew of a TV channel apparently “filmed cooperation minister Lakshmana V Savadi watching porn clips on his cellphone and women and child development minister CC Patil peeping in during a discussion in the House.” Savadi’s explanation:
I was watching the video clip of how a woman was raped by four people to know about the incident and prepare for a discussion on the ill-effects of a rave party in Udupi recently. I do not have the cheap mentality to see pornographic visuals.
I’m gratified that our ministers do so much research for their work. What, however, is a ‘cooperation minister’? Ah well.
This personal essay by me appears in the winter edition of Forbes Life India.
I feel the ground sway under my feet as I get up. I gather my chips and walk unsteadily to the cashier’s cage. I’ve been playing poker for 40 hours now, and I’m up by the amount I used to earn in a month in my last job. But it’s been a swingy session, and I was down by a lot at one point till I fought back, and I was up by more than I am now till I lost a couple of hands. I’ve faced euphoria and devastation within 40 seconds of each other in the same hand, when I flopped the nuts—the best possible hand—on the flop, and my opponent, after going all-in on the turn, out-nutted me on the river. I’ve been on a high fueled by four Red Bulls and the excitement of winning, and now the ground is shaking and I wonder if I am about to faint and finally be punished for this brutal lifestyle. Then I realize, with some relief, why the earth is moving so gently under my feet: we are on a boat, after all—a floating casino in Goa, solidly anchored but still on water. I do not know what time it is, or what day, or whether I have missed my flight back to Mumbai. What I do know is that this session is over, I need sleep, and once I have rested I’ll be back for more.
I am a poker obsessive. This is a problem because it is difficult to state whether it is a problem or not. If someone is obsessed with tennis or chess or cricket, it becomes apparent soon enough whether they’re any good at it, and whether they have a future in it, because there are clear metrics to measure performance. If someone is obsessed with roulette or teen patti, it is equally clear that they are addicted to gambling, which can only be harmful in the long run. But poker exists in a twilight zone: it is both a game of skill, and a gamble. You could play it as a card game involving chance, and do it for the dopamine rushes that keeps addicts addicted; or you could study it as a science, bringing probability, game theory and psychology to bear on each carefully weighed decision. In the long run, a mathematical approach makes you money: If you keep getting your money in when the odds favour you, you will end up profitable. But in the short run, luck plays a huge role in the game. (The management of luck is the key skill in the game.) And in this short run, the wild gambler, the compulsive addict, can win huge amounts, while the skillful player can lose, and lose, and lose, despite constantly making the correct decisions, till he is emotionally imbalanced enough to actually start playing badly. Because this is a game that fosters self-delusion, that universal (and necessary) quality in human beings, it is impossible for me to say whether I am here as a gambling addict or as a serious sportsman. I know that I have both in me, and they battle every second that I am on the table.
I was drawn to poker, I suppose, for the same reasons that I was drawn to chess or scrabble: the intellectual challenge that it presented, and the competitive instinct that it fueled. I started playing the game three years ago, on the world’s biggest poker site, Pokerstars. Because of the difficulty in depositing money onto the site through Indian credit cards, which are barred by the RBI from depositing money on gambling sites, I used to play freeroll tournaments, that required no entry fee and had small guaranteed prizes. It was a good way to learn the basics of the game, and I followed it up by reading all the great instructional books in poker literature: the Sklanskys, the Harringtons, the Millers, the Brunsons, the Gordons. But this was all theoretical stuff, and I was itching to play live poker, with real people, who would give off tells when they bluffed me so I could make hero calls, like they do on television. None of my friends played poker, but early last year, I managed to get myself into The Sunday Game, a weekend gathering of poker enthusiasts in a suburban hotel in Mumbai. They’d book a room, organise a tournament, maybe two, with a Rs 3000 or 5000 buy-in, with 10% going to the rake to pay for the room, and the rest forming a prizepool for the top three or four players. Sometimes they’d play a cash game afterwards with a buy-in of Rs 1000. Looking back at the time, I realise that I was ridiculously bad: but playing with better players helped me, as did the fact that, being an obsessive with a steep learning curve, I worked hard on my game and got better really fast.
I still needed validation, though, and I got some when I went to Goa in June 2010 for the India Poker Championship, an event in which there were three tournaments held over the weekend at Casino Royale, a floating casino. Playing ABC poker, sticking to basics, I reached the final table of the main tournament, and got a modest payout for coming fifth. What was more thrilling, though, was how my cash-game sessions ended up. On the last day, I made a hero call against two all-in players on the turn, with one card to come, and won a pot worth Rs 1.5 lakhs. At the time, it seemed enormous to me, and I went home from that trip with a tidy profit.
Believing that mastery of the game was inevitable, I sought out cash games to play in Mumbai, and found one in a flat in Lokhandwala where I spent probably 100 of the next 120 nights. The apartment belonged to a player I shall refer to as Hunter, a savvy model and entrepreneur who conducted a home game every night, charging 2% of each pot as rake, and providing food and non-alcoholic drinks on the house. The first time I went there, the game had a modest Rs 5000 buy-in, with blinds of Rs 25 and 50. There was a raised platform on one side of the room, on which Hunter put a mattress, and we sat on that and by its side and played our game. Within three months, the blinds had increased to Rs 100 and 200, and the standard buy-in was Rs 20,000. Earlier, winning or losing 20 grand in a day was noteworthy: now, there could be three lakhs on the table at any given point, and you could win or lose a lakh in a day.
Naturally, Hunter had the platform demolished, and a new table and swank new chairs were purchased for us. My routine for about six months was this: wake up in the evening, pass time impatiently, and head off to Hunter’s place in time for the game to begin at 8 or 9 pm. The game would then go on till around 8 in the morning. I’d have a Red Bull while playing, and there would be chips and biscuits and fruits and other snacks. We could also order from any restaurant in the area, and ordering dal khichdi from Rhythm restuarant at 1am was, I recall, a common occurrence. At one point, Hunter decided that his players deserved healthier food. So a cook was hired for us, and though he was appallingly bad, at least we got home-cooked food in the middle of the night.
It was here that I discovered that the most important part of the game is the mental part: not in terms of calculating equity against opponent’s ranges and all that, which is of course essential, but in keeping your mental equilibrium through the inevitable swings of a poker session. I was given to steaming if someone gave me a bad beat after playing badly himself, and by allowing myself to feel angry or frustrated, I’d play worse than normal. I’d get bored and lose discipline and play more hands than I should, or passively chase draws even when the odds weren’t right for it. I’d lose more money playing badly than I won when I was playing well. The essential attribute of a poker player is that he must not be results-oriented, for good play is rewarded only in the long run, but must instead always focus on doing the right thing, making the correct play, regardless of its immediate consequence. (A la what Krishna said in the Bhagwad Gita.) It took time for me to cultivate that detachment in myself. (Having my iPod and Kindle with me helped conquer impatience.) Luckily, through that whole process, I remained a profitable player.
I also grew close to some of the other poker obsessives I played with. There is a strange dissonance at play here: on one hand, I wanted nothing more than to take the money of these people I played with, and I knew they wanted to empty my pockets as well; on the other, some of them became close friends, far more so than colleagues in an office would. Perhaps that is not quite so surprising: this was not an ordinary workplace where we met every day, but an emotionally fraught battlefield, such an unusual one that none of our non-poker playing friends could ever understand what it was truly like.
I also spent a while playing at a nearby club where some informal poker tables ran, and between these two places, met a wider cross-section of people than I would in any conventional job. Any writer would cherish meeting so many unusual characters: S, the government contractor who did not understand the game, was a true addict, and would mechanically push chips to the middle, pot after pot, every night, until his sources of funding, a probable by-product of Nehruvian socialism, dried up and he disappeared; P, the Delhi businessman who reportedly dropped around 75 lakhs over six months, and had to take a large loan from M, a player-cum-moneylender, who lent money at exorbitant rates (M was barred from Hunter’s game, though, which was relatively clean); B, the 20-year-old whose parents thought he was away nights because he worked in a call center, and who is now a full-time bookie; R, a reckless young gambler who called himself the Tom Dwan of Lokhandwala, and got into debts that he paid off by selling seats to a college where his father was a trustee; and others such as a couple of Bollywood actors and a cricketer who was as fearless on the poker table as on the field. (I say this in a good way.) They were fascinating people by themselves, but even more so in the context of this dramatic game, where emotional upheaval is routine.
The swings had a huge impact on us. On a day when I won a lot, I’d walk out with a lilt to my step, on top of the world, filled with self esteem and confidence, and women on the street would turn to look at me. When I lost, I’d be deflated and depressed, asking myself metaphysical questions not just about the point of this pursuit but of any pursuit. Eventually we got used to these fluctuations, as we needed to in order to stay sane. Our approach to money changed as well. Quite often, we’d have breakfast at the nearby Lokhandwala MacDonald’s; but equally often, a couple of us would head to the Juhu Marriott for the excellent breakfast buffet there. Earlier, in my middle-class way, I’d consider a Marriott breakfast an occasional extravagance. But now, when we were winning or losing over 30k in a day, we felt entitled to it. It cost, after all, no more than six big blinds. Or three straddles. Half a c-bet. Looking at the world through this prism made everything seem cheaper—though while at the tables, we never thought of the chips in terms of their real value, or we’d have been paralysed into inaction. (‘I can buy two iPads with the money I’m about to bet. OMG!’)
All this while, I kept going to Goa regularly. Last year, there was at least one tournament series every month; this year, one can easily spend four weekends there playing tournies continuously. I ended 2010 well, reaching seven final tables out of 14 tournaments played, including a second-place finish. But as I spent the first half of 2010 running bad in tournaments, I would put down both my good streak and my bad one to variance: these were short-term results, and the sample size was so small that it would be foolish to read too much into them. My focus remained cash games—until May this year.
By May, I’d overcome a downswing in the first part of the year—January was my only losing month—and had arrived at a healthy daily rate of profitability. But my game had stagnated, and I felt I needed to up it a notch. I decided to give up the potential earnings of the live games I played, and instead focus in a direction where immediate payouts weren’t likely: online poker.
Online poker is far tougher than live poker. The world’s best players play online, multi-tabling furiously, using complex tools that analyse their opponents’ historical betting patterns and raising frequencies. It is an evolved, highly technical battlefield, and most local players I played with had, like me, been small net losers online—despite a good streak here or there. Unlike many of them, I did not want to rationalise this away by cribbing that online poker was rigged. I wanted to conquer the beast.
Around the middle of this year, I joined a team put together by Adi Agarwal, a 26-year-old from Kolkata who has won more than US$ 3 million online in the last four years. (This is a matter of public record, by the way: there are websites that compile online results across all major sites, and everyone’s results, provided you know their username, are publicly available.) He had also finished in the top 100 of the main event of the World Series of Poker, the de facto world championship. (He declares his poker income and pays his taxes, for what it’s worth.) Adi wanted to stake us to play online and local tournaments with his money: in return, he’d get 50% of all winnings. Most importantly, he would go through our hand histories and actively coach us, taking care of leaks in our games. This was a win-win arrangement: it was risk-free in terms of investment for me, and a top player would share his insights on the game with me—almost akin to a tennis rookie being coached for free by an elite pro. And if his team played well, Adi would also stand to make more money than he could just playing on his own. (Such staking arrangements are very common, and most top players, to reduce variance, are part of such staking stables.)
For the last three months, thus, I’ve been playing at home. I’ve invested in a giant screen for my desktop, on which I can tile 20 tables at the same time. At 9pm, I start my online grind. At peak frequency, around midnight, I’m playing around 12 tables. By the time the night winds up, at around 8 in the morning, I’ve played over 30 tournaments. There is a five-minute break every hour, in which I have to pee/make coffee/get Red Bull from the fridge/make my ham-and-salami sandwich and so on. I also have the team on Skype, and we discuss poker, and how we could have played certain hands differently, and so on.
There is a method to this madness. Luck, or variance, plays a big role in poker in the short run, and the best way to counter this is to bring the long run closer by playing a lot. Online, you play many more hands per hour than you do live, and you can play multiple tables at the same time. The volume of play you put it, thus, could make a night of online poker equal to two months of live poker. If you play correctly, you are much more likely to be profitable—and the fields in online tournaments are so large that the occasional huge payout is likely for a good player. Just a month ago, I was chip leader in the biggest weekly tournament, the Sunday Million, with 25 people left. The first prize was over US$ 200,000; I ended up 18th for a fraction of that. An online grinder can make a healthy living stringing together smaller wins; but when the big one comes, it can be life-changing.
I still play live tournaments in Goa, though, and have won two in the last month. Hunter’s game in Mumbai has shut down for a host of reasons, one of them being a comical raid by the Anti-Terrorist Squad—a surreal story for another day. As many as four of the other regulars from that game have turned pro, and two of them regularly play high-stakes games in Goa, and speak of winning or losing five lakhs in a session as they used to speak of 50k swings six months earlier. The poker boom has only just started in India, and despite pending legal issues, hinging around poker’s acceptance as a game of skill, poker seems almost certain to become one of the country’s most popular sports.
And what about the way poker has consumed my life? I write a blog named India Uncut, which at its peak, when I wrote five posts a day, got 10,000 pageviews a day and had 17,000 RSS feed subscribers. Recently, I went two months without a post. My first novel, My Friend Sancho, was well received and sold well, but I just haven’t made enough progress on another one. (Among other projects, I’m planning a crime novel featuring a poker-playing detective who uses the cognitive tools he’s refined through playing the game to solve cases in the real world. A good way to bring my passions together, you think?)
When I gave up the corporate life to be a full-time writer, I had decided that I would only have one yardstick to judge my life: Do I wake up every morning looking forward to a day at work? And hell, I certainly do begin every day just waiting to being dealt in. I even played through an entire session in a dream one day, figuring out ranges and calculating equity in hand after hand after hand. And while I’ve given myself a deadline to start writing seriously again, until then, I will give myself up to this obsession. My chips are in the middle—I’m all in.
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And here’s a box that accompanied the piece:
There is an old saying that poker is the easiest game to learn and the hardest to master. Luckily, there are plenty of resources online you could use for either purpose. There are many sites where you could learn the basics of the game, but for a pithy explanation of the rules of the game, you could just start with Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Texas_hold_%27em
The best site to play online is Pokerstars, at http://www.pokerstars.com. It’s the world’s biggest poker platform, is reliable and trustworthy, and while it doesn’t accept deposits from Indian credit cards, there are other deposit options that could help you get around that.
The best poker forums are on http://www.twoplustwo.com, and I highly recommend them. You could also check out http://www.cardplayer.com, the online face of the poker magazine. A good site to follow live coverage of events and news is http://www.pokernews.com. And to get the latest dope on Indian poker, there’s http://www.Pokerguru.in. (Disclosure: I’m part of their pro team.)
Finally, here are some great poker books. To understand the fundamentals of poker, there is no better place to start than ‘The Theory of Poker’ by David Sklansky. To improve your live cash-game skills, check out ‘No Limit Hold ‘em: Theory and Practice’ by Sklansky and Ed Miller. To understand the basics of tournament play, read the highly influential ‘Harrington on Hold ‘Em’ series by Dan Harrington. Some online players find its concepts outdated, and two recent books that are closer to the cutting edge when it comes to online tournament play are ‘The Raiser’s Edge’ by Bertrand ‘Elky’ Grospellier and others, and ‘Secrets of Professional Tournament Poker’ by Jonathan Little. To get an insight into the thinking behind high-stakes online cash games, check out the cult classic ‘Let There Be Range’ by Cole South and Tri Nguyen. And finally, to master the mental aspect of poker, read ‘The Elements of Poker’ by Tommy Angelo.
Good luck at the tables!
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I’m amazed that India hasn’t yet woken up to the fact that Himesh Reshammiya is the new Govinda. I mean, check out the awesome video below of ‘Umrao Jaan’, a song from his forthcoming film Damadamm. It’s WTF, yes, but it is brilliant in its WTFness, which is quite deliberate and over-the-top, much as Govinda was at his best. There are just so many kickass moments in this. I especially love the end…
(Link via Mudra Mehta.)
If you thought Ponytail’s speech the other day was funny, wait till you see this: Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, former IT officer, explaining, among other things, why cloud computing is a problem:
I love how clueless the interviewer looks. On second viewing, his reactions are the funniest part of the video. Insanely good.
(Link via Arun Simha.)
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:
Glenn Beck called Hurricane Irene a “blessing” on his Friday radio show, saying it would teach people to be prepared for disasters.
By that logic, it would be a blessing if Beck gets cancer—it will teach him to be prepared for cancer.
Of course, I wish cancer on no one. But that’s where Beck’s logic leads us. What a clown.
(Link via Arzan Sam Wadia.)
This is truly an August month in the history of Indian WTFness. Check out this insane speech by Arindam Chaudhuri in support of Anna Hazare:
Humaare desh mein kuchh do so million log hai jo chaalis saal ke umad se pehle mar jaate hai, aur isi liye hum jaise log sattar-assi saal jeete hai. Hum sattar-assi saal isliye jeete hai kyunki hum apne desh ke kuchh do so million logo ko chaalis saal se pehle maar daalte hai.
(There are some two hundred million people in our country who die before the age of 40, and this is why people like us live to the age of 70-80. People like us live to the age of 70-80 because we murder some two hundred million people of our country before the age of 40.)
I mean, this is beyond priceless. It’s also beyond parody, for that matter—when life itself serves up such absurdities, what’s a satirist to do? Just watch in awe, that’s what.
* * * *
And check out the shot in the middle when the camera zooms in towards Anna’s impassive face. I can almost hear the guy thinking, ‘Who’s that clown with the oiled ponytail? I haven’t eaten for so many days, and I have to put up with this shit? Bring me some poha and let’s call it off already.’
That would be an an excellent idea.
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If you haven’t already read it, make sure you go through Siddhartha Deb’s wonderful feature on Chaudhuri, ‘Gatsby in New Delhi’ (pdf link). Chaudhuri’s already gone to court over it, as you might expect from his past shenanigans. Such it goes.
In times of strife, it is heartening to know that such help exists:
(Via Joy Bhattacharjya on Facebook.)