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About Amit Varma

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.

Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

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25 October, 2007

Look Who’s Won the Bastiat Prize


I pinched myself when I was nominated. And I’m still pinching.

I’m rushing off to celebrate now. More details will follow in a few hours.

*  *  *

More details: I went out and celebrated, came back and slept a bit, and woke up to find, to my surprise, that it was the 25th morning, not the 24th, and it hadn’t all been a dream. There stands the candlestick I got as my prize, a homage to Frédéric Bastiat’s magnificent Candlemakers’ Petition (pdf link).

It was evident from the fact that the organisers flew me here and put me up in style that I was going to be one of the first three. I just didn’t know what position. I got passes to the event for a bunch of my friends: Yazad, Manish and Prashant and wife. Reuben was also there with his partner. We formed a desi table at the dinner and made jokes about Gujjus, which always helps break the tension.

My default mode is cynical, and I had been convinced for a few days that I didn’t deserve to win. My three nominated pieces were Where’s the Freedom Party?, A Beast Called Government and The Devil’s Compassion. They were all written fairly early in my stint as columnist at Mint, when I was still getting a handle on tone and suchlike. The first of those pieces was clumsily written, even if the content was close to my heart. The second was fairly basic for a sophisticated audience, even if it might have seemed radical to some readers in India. The third, I thought, worked well for me—it was satire, and Bastiat did satire, so that could help.

I told a friend of mine a few days ago (Rahul, I think, or Chandrahas) that I’d probably have a better crack at it next year, and had grown considerably as a columnist since these pieces were written. He gave me a cricketing analogy that now seems quite apt. “Sometimes you’re bowling really well, beating the bat constantly, but not getting any wickets,” he said. “Sometimes you bowl full tosses and long hops, and pick up a five-fer.” And indeed, I’ve bowled well often, especially on my blog, where every day I work hard to find interesting things to write about. I’d paid my dues in other ways, and I didn’t mind the wickets now.

My main source of stress on the final day was the speech I thought I might have to give if I won a prize. I’m socially awkward, most comfortable alone in a room with my laptop, and was terrified at the thought of having to speak in front of so many people—some of them writers I admire a lot, like John Stossel and Tom Palmer. I wrote to last year’s winner, Tim Harford, for advice. Tim advised me to keep it under a minute. That sounded like 60 seconds too much to me—still, I thought of things I could say, but didn’t have the courage to actually sit and script it.

The first hint I had that I might win was when the event photographer kept taking pictures of me, more so than of anyone else. “Damn,” I thought, “does this mean I’ll have to give a speech?” The evening passed slowly, with one of the high points being a charming and witty keynote speech by Anne Applebaum. “I will be such a contrast if I have to speak,” I thought. Perhaps I wouldn’t win any prize. My pessimism was suddenly wishful thinking.

After dinner, the prizes were announced in reverse order. Third place—Jonah Goldberg. Jonah went up, took his candlestick, and walked off without having to speak. “Ah,” I thought, “I hope I come second then. I won’t have to speak either.” In any case, I’d told my friends earlier in the day that my money was on Clive Crook winning. I’d read his entries during dinner—they gave out a booklet with all the nominated pieces—and my belief that he would win was strengthened by his wonderful essays. If I was a judge, I’d have voted for Clive. (Indeed, all the entries were excellent, and I’d probably have marked myself sixth.)

Then they announced the second prize. Clive Crook.

Two thoughts went through my mind. One: “This means I’ve won!” Two: “Shit, shit, shit, I might have to speak!”

Then, like in a reality show, they waited, and lingered, and delayed. I was dying inside, of excitement (“Win!”) and fear (“Speech!”). They said that one of the things that stood out about the winner was an essay that reminded them of Bastiat’s satirical style. They were talking about The Devil’s Compassion, I realised. I had won!

Then they announced my name. My table roared. I went up, shook hands, all in a daze, and collected my candlestick. And my cheque. And then I was walking off, safe and sound, when members of the crowd demanded a speech. So I turned around, walked back, banged the candlestick on my head to ease my tension, and began with a joke about how a few days ago I’d read a headline that reminded me of Frédéric Bastiat. To my amazement, everybody laughed. Some people clapped. Emboldened, I continued. They laughed at all the right moments, and suddenly I was sailing. A roomful of people was paying attention to me, and laughing at my jokes, and clapping loudly for me. There are few experiences in my admittedly uneventful life that can match that feeling. I came off stage, and even though I hate the way I smile, I couldn’t stop grinning.

The other nominees were gracious, and came and congratulated me. I felt a little guilty, as if I’d stolen a toy that belonged to some other child. Then some of us went out drinking, after which some of us hung out till 3 am, and then I slept, terrified that I’d wake up and it would be the 24th and there would no candlestick. But there is.

As I mentioned in my post about being nominated, it all began with India Uncut. The blog led to the column, and made me grow as a writer. And I wouldn’t have bothered if no one was reading me. So thank you—you are more a part of this than you realise!

*  *  *

Note: My entourage took a video of the proceedings. If it comes out okay, I’ll upload it for you to see.

*  *  *

Update: Here’s the official press release announcing my win.

Also, you can now download all the shortlisted entries (pdf link; right-click and select ‘save link as’).

*  *  *

Update 2: Many bloggers have blogged about this and congratulated me—my thanks to all of them. Gaurav was the first to break the news: Yazad texted him while I was giving my acceptance speech. Manish then blogged about it after we went to my room to change. He added the picture, of me and the partner, later. Sonia and Arzan, old buddy and new buddy, used the picture in their posts, as did Vinod at Sepia Mutiny. Reuben used another picture by Manish in his eyewitness account. (Manish should demand royalties.) There were also kind posts from Prem, Jai, Ravi & Prashant, Nitin, Ash at Desi Pundit, and last year’s winner, Tim. (Apologies if I’ve missed anyone!)

I’ve also got tons of email congratulating me. I’m touched that so many people, most of whom I’ve never met, would take the trouble to write. Thank you!

Posted by Amit Varma in Personal

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