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.
Welcome to Viewfinder. This is my new weekly column on Yahoo India, one of ten columns that will start appearing on Yahoo from this week. In this piece, I shall tell you a bit about these columns, and what we hope to do differently. Let me begin, however, by telling you about a common problem that all columnists face, which we will also have to deal with: the problem of arrogance.
The act of writing for an audience is an act of hubris. When you set out to fill an empty page, you assume that the words you write will have some value, that your thoughts will move readers from one paragraph to the next, and keep them turning the pages (or scrolling down). How presumptuous is this? What leads me to imagine that my thoughts are worth your time?
Reporters who write for the news pages can plausibly claim that their writing has value because they are setting out, as is often said, the first draft of history. The facts that they report are the essential raw material from which we manufacture the story of the world. But columnists make claims on your time with nothing to offer but opinions; perhaps an argument for this or that; a worldview they want you to share. Why should their opinions be worth more than yours?
One conceit that a columnist might have is that his calling is to help you make sense of the world. Reality is complicated and confusing, and no one has the time or resources to figure it out on their own. To construct narratives that make it all simple and explicable, the columnist might say, does you a service—and it’s damn hard to do.
Well—yes and no.
There are a number of traps inherent in creating such narratives, and most of the opinion columns I see in the daily papers fall into them. They have implacable opinions on whatever they write about; they exude certainty; contributing to a public discourse that is severely polarized, they choose black or white. They construct simple narratives of a complex world—and when the columnist gets lazy, simple can fast become simplistic.
A couple of years ago I gave up writing my column for Mint, Thinking it Through, to pursue what was pretty much my life’s only serious ambition: of writing novels. I instantly felt much more comfortable—and honest—there. In literature, one embraces complexity and ambiguity and can eschew certainty. Good or bad don’t have to be distinct entities. The cause of everything need not be clear. Even in a whodunnit, these days, guilt need not be assigned. Most importantly, one need not pretend to have all the answers.
Literature is my natural habitat and I remain primarily a novelist. But given the chance to set up a section of columns for Yahoo India, and to write one of my own, I decided to take it up as a challenge to produce work that does not fall into these familiar traps. Here, then, are some of the things we’ll keep in mind to make sure that your time spent reading us is worth it.
One: We will not simplify needlessly. Too much of the journalism we see around us is driven by the hunt for narrative. What’s the story? Complex narratives do not sell; simple ones are easier to create and sensationalize.
Take the last general elections in India, for example. The narrative that the media has sold us is that the Congress made massive strides and that the BJP was decimated. But take a deeper look at the numbers and you’ll realize that how flawed that story is. As Devangshu Datta wrote in Business Standard, the vote share of the Congress went from 26.5% to 28.6%; the BJP dipped from 22.2 to 18.8: not a seismic shift at all. That the UPA gained so many seats is because of a number of diverse reasons, such as the changing pattern of local alliances that split the opposition vote in many places, such as in Maharashtra.
This happens in every election. Politics in India is now essentially local, and the people of India do not vote as one. And yet, after every general elections, the media talks of a national ‘mandate’ and so on. There are no mandates in national politics – except in the mind of the lazy reporter.
We will watch ourselves for this tendency to take relief in simple storylines. In a complex world we will set out, with a deep breath, to examine that complexity.
Two: We will not talk down to you. Many columnists, high on the power of their megaphones, tend to condescend to the reader. We will watch out for this. We will not treat you like a student in a classroom or the faithful attending our sermon, but as equals sitting across us in our living rooms. Accordingly, we shall feel free to adopt a more personal tone. The columns I like reading the most are those in which I get a sense of a person behind the column, not just a worldview or a body of opinions. That is what we will try to give you.
Every alternate Friday, for example, Jai Arjun Singh will write a column on cinema, Persistence of Vision. But this won’t be the typical film column: He will be writing on his journey as a film-lover, how he fell in love with different kinds of movies, and so on. It will be a personal narrative, and to me, that is what will set it apart. The book critic Sanjay Sipahimalani alternates with him on Fridays with his column, Dead Tree Diaries. Sanjay won’t be writing just about the world of books, but his world of books: how he became a serious reader, his moments of illumination regarding voice and point of view and other such things in literature, the different stages in his reading and so on. If you love books, I promise that you will find it more worth your while than the standard round-up of what’s been happening in the world of books.
Three: We will aim to be timeless, not just topical. Most newspaper opinions pieces are purely topical; and therefore, ephemeral. We will aim to write pieces that you can read five years later and still enjoy. Sure, as most columnists do, we will address current affairs. But while doing so, we will also try and examine bigger ideas and greater truths.
For example, Nitin Pai, known for his sharp analysis of foreign affairs, will set out every alternate Tuesday to demystify international relations for you in a column named Pax Indica. Rather than just comment from on high about current affairs, he will explain the different schools of thought in the field, and talk about the prism through which he views geopolitics. Whether or not you agree with him, it will at least be clear to you what his belief system is, and which first principles he draws them from.
Similarly, Deepak Shenoy will set out every Wednesday to demystify the seemingly complex world of money. It is his contention that complex acronyms like ULIP and CDO and BRIC and OECD embody simple concepts that anyone can master, and he will set out to make every reader of his columns an expert in this world. As ULIPs and CDOs will always be with us, I suspect his column archives will always be worth a read.
Among other things, we will also use the flexibility the internet gives us, a luxury newspaper columnists do not have. One of its unique features is the absence of a word limit. However, even though this is an introductory column, I suspect I might be pushing that limit a bit too far right now. So I shall let the columns speak for themselves over the next few days. Meanwhile, with much excitement, let me share the lineup we have for you:
Anything That Moves—Girish Shahane links culture and politics (fortnightly, Mondays)
Minority of One—Mohit Satyanand’s private take on public affairs (fortnightly, Mondays)
Corner Plot—Ashok Malik on that great Indian obsession—politics (fortnightly, Tuesdays)
Pax Indica—Nitin Pai demystifies the anarchy of international relations (fortnightly, Tuesdays)
Atlas Invested: Deepak Shenoy on the world of money (weekly, Wednesdays)
Viewfinder—Amit Varma plays around with frames of reference (weekly, Thursdays)
Dead Tree Diaries—Sanjay Sipahimalani on the three Rs: reading, writing and Reality. (fortnightly, Fridays)
Persistence of Vision—Jai Arjun Singh takes you on a night out to the movies. (fortnightly, Fridays)
Mirth Vader—Anand Ramachandran discovers the power of the light side. (fortnightly, Saturdays)
Stereotypist—Aadisht Khanna plays the boom box of absurdity (fortnightly, Saturdays)
Saturday is the comic relief day, lest you wonder what the boom box of absurdity is all about. All of us, though, will guard against taking ourselves too seriously. Tune in!
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9 across: Van Morrison classic from Moondance (7)
6 down: Order beginning with ‘A’ (12)