India Uncut

This blog has moved to its own domain. Please visit for the all-new India Uncut and bookmark it. The new site has much more content and some new sections, and you can read about them here and here. You can subscribe to full RSS feeds of all the sections from here. This blogspot site will no longer be updated, except in case of emergencies, if the main site suffers a prolonged outage. Thanks - Amit.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Rene and Jacques, meet Deepak

Every book should know its place, and in Indian bookshops, they often don't. I've just returned from Poona, where I spent a satisfying two hours in Crossword Bookstore (the Sohrab Hall branch). The store is large, the attendants are friendly and unintrusive, but books, I am sorry to report, don't know their place there.

I came across The First and Last by Isaiah Berlin in the Fiction section and Dr Mukti by Will Self was displayed under Indian Fiction. (Maybe they thought Dr Mukti was the author and Will Self was the book.) The last time I had been to the Crossword branch at the delightfully named Jungli Maharaj Road, such wanton behaviour by books was rampant, with Peter Carey's The True History of the Kelly Gang displayed in the History shelf, and Adam Thirlwell's Politics sitting smugly under Non Fiction, among many other such cases I've forgotten. And on my last trip to the Nalanda bookshop at the Taj Mahal Hotel, Mumbai, I found The 9/11 Commission report under Fiction. Or maybe that was a political gesture.

As much as books ending up in the wrong category, I am irritated by categories themselves being abused. Most Indian bookshops do not seem to know the difference between Philosophy and Spirituality, or between Psychology and Self Improvement. So Kant often finds himself alongside Krishnamurti, while Deepak Chopra marches in proudly with Descartes and Derrida ambling sheepishly behind him. It makes for rather strange company, and I'm sure they'd all be happier among their own kind. If books could talk, these shelves would be howling.
amit varma, 1:23 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

"Enormous black bats"

There is a whole new genre of first-person writing that has come up in recent years called "Bloggers on Blogging". Yes, terribly self-important, aren't we? Anyway, if your appetite for such writing wasn't quenched by my feeble attempt a few days ago, here's an excellent piece by a fine blogger I had the good fortune to discover recently, Jai Arjun Singh.
amit varma, 12:38 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, January 29, 2005

Sick of movies

Mid Day reports that a controversy is brewing up around Daya Nayak, the Mumbai policeman who has become a bit of a celebrity in recent times because of being an "encounter specialist". So what's the fuss all about? Well, Nayak apparently shot for a Kannada bio-pic being made him on him, and he did so during his sick-leave.

Too ill to shoot a criminal, but healthy enough to shoot for a film? Hmm, incongruous.
amit varma, 10:49 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Friday, January 28, 2005

Louder and louder

Imagine two people, Person A and Person B. No, that's too impersonal – let's call them Chunky and Monkey. Chunky and Monkey stay together – they might even be a couple, but I don't want to speculate – and they are watching TV together one evening. Their favourite show is on.

Then, a phone call comes for Chunky.

Chunky takes the phone, and starts talking. It is an important call, and Chunky cannot ask the person who has called if they can postpone their conversation. So Chunky talks.

As Chunky begins speaking, Monkey, naturally, lowers the volume. But Chunky keeps talking, and the show Monkey is watching reaches an important point, much awaited for weeks. Monkey raises the volume just a little bit to hear what's going on.

Chunky also starts talking just a little louder, out of necessity, because the TV volume just went up.

Because Chunky is now talking louder, Monkey is again unable to follow what's happening on TV. So Monkey raises the volume again.

That forces Chunky to speak louder. The TV volume goes up again, and Chunky talks louder and louder, until the TV volume is on max, Chunky is screaming, and the next door neighbour, an old man named Mr Joshi, gets an aneurism and dies.

Ok, so tell me this: whose fault is it?

Shhh, that was a rhetorical question. Forget Chunky and Monkey now, whose gender, you will note, I deliberately kept indeterminate. (I don't know, to be honest with you. Does it matter?) Instead, think about the phenomenon, of two people's responses to each other spiralling into an unstable situation. Isn't it a common one, that afflicts so many of our daily interactions? So many fights and conflicts I see around me are so unneccessary and – this is my point – nobody's fault.

Either Chunky or Monkey could have stopped the chain somewhere along the way. (No, not by Chunky throwing the phone at Monkey or Monkey hurling the remote at Chunky. You know what I mean.) Neither did. Mr Joshi is dead.
amit varma, 10:43 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Hi, I'm Amit, but I used to be...

It's understandable that there are plenty of people who still believe in rebirth, but it amazes me that scientists from a reputed organisation have now come out and said that rebirth exists, and that they are conducting research on it.

A lady called Satwant Pasricha, the head of clinical psychology, National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), has, according to a report on, presented "scientific evidences of reincarnation from an ongoing study NIMHANS had been doing for the last two decades along with the University of Virginia." The report informs us:
Pasricha is yet to find out why only some children remember their previous birth. Is it always from one human being to another or is also from animals? Why do the children forget the incidents by the time they are ten? How are the dead ones reborn? Do they travel through light? Are they waves?

Meanwhile, in unrelated news, Sting has said that he is "more of a Hindu [than anything else]", and is "addicted to India". Well, he could always be reborn here, couldn't he?
amit varma, 2:57 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

IE slams IE

The Indian Express carries a stern rebuke of the way Parveen Babi's death was reported by, ahem, the Indian Express, among others. Rukmini Pillai argues that the way Babi's schizophrenia was described, especially by "her two former companions", was wrong. Read the full thing.
amit varma, 2:52 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A clarification

Update (May 27, 2005): I'm replacing the protagonist's name in this story with [bleep]. He's moved on, and I don't see why his past should haunt him forever.

I thought the [bleep] affair would be over with his apology, but there are still matters left unresolved. I get emails every day asking, "But what about the credit-card fraud he is alleged to have committed?"

Well, here's the rub: my tone in that post was, I now realise, too harsh. I stand by what I set out to do: bring to public attention a mechanism on [bleep's] site that I thought was suspicious. It offered you any domain you wanted to buy, including, as this screenshot shows, for sale. And I think you would agree that you cannot sell what you do not own, as Ravages points out in this post. However, my tone was too harsh. So let me make amends now:

One, I should not have speculated on what that mechanism could be used for. I should simply have pointed it out and allowed people to come to their own conclusions.

Two, the words. "credit-card fraud", should not, need not, have been used. No credible alternate explanation came to mind or has been offered since, but I overdid my journalistic zeal by speculating on it. What was in the public domain, that mechanism, spoke for itself, and I should have let it.

I do not buy the point that we should not report crime without evidence. As responsible citizens, we should report any suspicious activity that we come across, and I will continue to believe in that. Otherwise, no crime would ever get reported.

However, in my zeal, I went overboard. I am sorry for that.

I stand by everything else. I am delighted that my fellow bloggers and I took collective action to expose a plagiarist and to protect our intellectual property. We will continue taking a zero-tolerance policy towards such theft. And we will continue to report, as responsible journalists and citizens should, any suspicious activity that we come across. But we will put the facts out there, and let those facts speak for themselves. I, and I alone among the group of bloggers who took this action, crossed that line with my zeal. It is a lesson learned.
amit varma, 1:01 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Art is supposed to hold up a mirror to the human condition, and sometimes, a blog can as well. I have had many long arguments in the past with Pradeep Ravikumar, aka seven_times_six, but not now, not today, not after this outstanding post: The Compassionator.
amit varma, 9:09 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |


Maine nahin.
amit varma, 8:49 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Bihar's booming industry

Goa has tourism, Assam has tea and Bihar has … kidnapping. One more schoolboy is feared abducted in Patna, as the Times of India does a story on how kidnapping has become the biggest industry in Bihar. I can well imagine this scene in class:

Teacher: So, Paplu, your turn now. Tell us what you want to do when you grow up.

Paplu: Teacher, teacher, I want to be an industrialist.

Teacher: Oh wonderful, Paplu. And what industry will you start?

Paplu: Teacher, teacher, kidnapping. Hum logo ko utthwa lenge.

Update: One man’s revenue stream is another man’s terrorism. News just broke that the Maoists of Nepal have kidnapped 700 students and 45 teachers in Nepal. This is terrible news. The Nepali Maoists are quite as ruthless as the men behind the Beslan crisis, and should have been crushed long ago. Hopefully, this will end differently.
amit varma, 6:14 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Equality in the akhada

Boy meets girl in wrestling ring, reports Mid Day. Sanjay Nirupam, the Shiv Sena politician, has organised a wrestling match in which Kausalya Wagh, a young lady who has a national sub-junior gold medal to her name, will take on a local wrestler by the mellifluous name of Babloo Yadav. Mid Day describes this encounter as “the main attraction” of the All India Wrestling Championship.

I love the way Nirupam described it. “Never before in the history of wrestling,” he said, “has this happened, and it will provide great entertainment for kushti fans. There will be no fixing.” Nice.
amit varma, 6:11 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

An obscene law

What other windows do you have open as you read this? If any of them is a porn site, and you’re in a cyber café in Uttar Pradesh, then you are, well, indulging in a banned activity.

Wait! Shut that window, not this one.
amit varma, 6:09 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Look ma, no flesh

It is touted as “The Planetary Conference of Shanti-Chanting Skeletons”, and for that reason alone, you must go over to Rohit Gupta’s new venture, Algomantra 2005, and check out what it’s all about. And no, these skeletons aren’t after Shanti Mangala; shanti, for those not in the know, means peace. Now, I’m all for skeletons chanting for peace, but what about the rest of us?
amit varma, 6:07 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

'Bleep's' apology

Update (May 27, 2005): I'm replacing the protagonist's name in this story with [bleep]. He's moved on, and I don't see why his past should haunt him forever.

[Bleep], whom I posted about here, here and here, has just apologised. Here is what he wrote to us:
I apologize for taking content without attribution or linkage to the original posts. I did it unintentionally with no malice. I have pulled my site offline. I truly regret my actions.

I think it would be in my and everybody else's best interests that I offer no explanations or justifications to the actions, as it may cause more havoc since interpretations vary from person to person.

I have also had two long chats with [bleep] over the phone. I would like to add that I and all my fellow bloggers who took this issue up are satisfied with his apology. [Bleep] might have made an honest mistake, and now that he has accepted his error, and removed the offending site, we should all move on. People make mistakes, shit happens, and they should be allowed to make a fresh start.

[Bleep] had the mistaken belief that copyright is not an issue on the internet. Well, it is. Everything that you read on the internet is copyrighted - for more, once again, I offer you this link (courtesy MadMan). The golden rule of thumb, for most bloggers including me, is this: quote or excerpt as you feel like, but attribute (always) and link (whenever available). This applies even when you take something off an RSS feed.
amit varma, 12:20 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Earthquakes don't kill...

... Shoddy buildings do, according to RK Chadha, an expert on Geophysics, who is quoted in a piece on The article says:
He [Chadha] noted that 10,000 Indians died in 1993 when an earthquake measuring 6.3 Richter struck Latur in Maharashtra state. Just one person died in a tremor of greater magnitude that rattled California at roughly the same time.

"The average natural disaster kills more people in India than the developed world because environmentally sound building codes are routinely violated in India. Most builders baulk at putting up earthquake-friendly buildings as they increase construction costs by 10 percent," said Chadha.

Even a natural disaster, thus, is a man-enabled disaster.
amit varma, 5:37 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Script and structure

Michael Douglas pinpoints why Bollywood films don't do well internationally.
amit varma, 5:33 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

'Bleep's' explanation

Update (May 27, 2005): I'm replacing the protagonist's name in this story with [bleep]. He's moved on, and I don't see why his past should haunt him forever.

[Final update: This matter is resolved. Please read [bleep]'s apology.]

By now you’re familiar with the story: first, a group of us Indian bloggers outed a gentleman named [bleep] on plagiarism, when we found that one-and-a-half years’ worth of posts on his blog were lifted; then, we uncovered other shady activities on his other websites, including one possibly involving credit cards.

Well, it was only fair that we heard what [bleep] himself had to say about all this, so one of us duly called him last night ([bleep's] Monday morning), and asked him to write to us if he had any explanation. He did.

About the plagiarism charges, he said that he was utterly unaware that copyright exists on the internet. In his mail, he said, “I was under the impression that blogs were non-copyrighted material !!! [sic]” (All blogs, regardless of whether or not they post a copyright notice, are copyrighted intellectual property; click here for more – link courtesy MadMan.) Ignorance of the law does not hold up in any court, and if he really was ignorant, would he go to the extent of carefully modifying his copied posts to avoid detection, as a fellow blogger pointed out?

By now, of course, his blog had vanished, replaced by a rant on his homepage that called us “bad” and “evil”: here it is [dead link removed; was at http://www.[BLEEP].com/), and in case that changes later, here’s a copy of it on a fellow blogger’s blog.

As for the credit-card mechanism, he did not mention that in the mail, but had said to the friend who called him that it was faulty software, and not a scam. That raised many questions among my fellow bloggers. Why was it accepting credit-card information at all, then? Why was it that you could leave all the fields in that form empty, and fill in a wrong credit-card number, and it would prompt you only to fill in a valid credit-card number? And why was it that in the 12 hours since we called him, I have got mail after phishing mail in my inbox, most purporting to be from Paypal, asking for my credit-card details?

We decided not to delve into that. We had done our job bringing it to wider notice, and our role regarding the credit-card thingie ended there. But one of us, Shanti, was a victim of his plagiarism. So we replied to him and asked him to simply put up an apology on his homepage, to all those people he had stolen content from. I assured him that if he did that, we would all link to the apology and state that as far as we were concerned, it was an honest mistake, and the matter was over. Also, if he had a reasonable explanation for the credit-card affair, we would post that on our blogs as well. End of story, closure.

[Bleep] has asked till the weekend to send us a reply. If he does, we shall post it. As it happens, none of the plagiarised content is online any more, so unless it goes back up, the matter is closed for us anyway. As for those phishing emails – I haven’t got any in all my months with gmail before this – that could well be a coincidence. After all, yesterday was the grimmest day of the year! (Link via Instapundit.)

Update – More from fellow bloggers:
Is ignorance bliss? by Patrix
amit varma, 1:48 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, January 24, 2005

I'm new. And I'm sporty.

I'm glad to announce that India Uncut has won the award for Best New Indiblog at the Indibloggies 2004, and my cricket blog, 23 Yards, has been named Best Sports Indiblog. If you voted for me, thank you, and do check out the other nominees, in all the categories. Blogosphere readers are the real winners of exercises like this, because we can discover so many delightful blogs that we hadn't heard of before, as I certainly did.

The awards were beset by controversy, which was a bit unfortunate because Debashish, the organiser, did the best he could under the circumstances. When you're running a gig like this without any money, you're always going to face limitations along the way. Next year, instead of cribbing, we should help him out with suggestions regarding the nominations process and the voting mechanism.

Congratulations to all the other winners, and a hearty pat on the back to fellow cartel winners, Madman and Ravikiran.
amit varma, 1:53 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Mr Masani

In a lovely tribute in the Indian Express, Jaithirth Rao remembers Minoo Masani. As in all good elegies, Rao's piece talks about more than just the man himself. A sampler:
Minoo, Rajaji, Shenoy, Dandekar, Ranga, Ruthnaswamy, Frank Moraes, Piloo Mody...they all lost the political battle, not just the battle for commemorative postage stamps. Their defeat was our defeat, the nation’s defeat. The discourse shifted leftward with fatal consequences. Country after country which was as poor as us went ahead. We got trapped in a time-warp where all the entrepreneurial instincts of our people were effectively smothered, where the state instead of being a protector of rights and liberties became a vast corrupt rent-seeking vulture feeding off the economic vitals of its citizens. The permit-licence raj and the enormous powers given to our executive branch (ministers as well as officials) became a tyrannical strait-jacket. We are still suffering from its ill-effects.
amit varma, 1:18 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

In life, alone. In death, thronged

Nobody wanted to associate with Parveen Babi during the last years of her life. Now that she's dead, they're all over her.
amit varma, 1:10 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Compassion at the Bloggies

The nominations for the 2005 Bloggies have been announced, and The SEA EAT Blog is the story of the day, with four nominations. For those waking up from hibernation after a month, here's who they are: the SEA EAT blog was started by Peter Griffin, Dina Mehta and Rohit Gupta shortly after the tsunami struck Asia, to act as an emergency clearing house of information. In all the chaos and confusion that prevailed in the aftermath, it quickly became the one place that people went to for information, to find missing people, to figure out how to help, and so on. The number of contributors grew and grew - they were open to anyone who could help - and their motives remained completely selfless. No self-plugging, and no Google Adsense - as Rohit told me when we had breakfast a week ago, "we didn't want to make money off the dead. We just wanted to help."

And no doubt their reward is something quite other than winning a mere Bloggie. But they get my vote, and if you like their work, please vote for them as well.
amit varma, 11:43 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, January 23, 2005

From plagiarism to credit-card fraud?

Update (May 27, 2005): I'm replacing the protagonist's name in this story with [bleep]. He's moved on, and I don't see why his past should haunt him forever.

[Final update: This matter is resolved. Please read [Bleep's] apology.]

[Important: Please also read "A clarification" before you read this post. Thank you]

I thought, when I first outed [Bleep's] plagiarism ("Plagiarism in the Indian blogosphere"), that it was just a case of intellectual theft. But it is now turning out to be far more than that. Once a bunch of us blogged about him, a few of our readers in the blogosphere started doing their own research into this chap, and they uncovered that plagiarism was the tip of the iceberg. So what more is he up to, you ask? Well, go to a site that he owns called nsSwitch.

This is supposedly a domain-name registrar. Well, search for any domain you'd like to have. will do, or, or Being an Instapundit fan, I figured it would be nice to own his domain, and searched for I was told it was available, and I could reserve it if I wanted. (The site will be taken down sooner or later, so here's my screen-grab of the page I got.) I clicked along, and duly reached the page where they asked me for my credit-card details.

Now, you will ask, isn't this a stupid thing to do? Any customer who tries this will soon realise he's been defrauded, and will complain immediately. Well, I'm sure it does not work that way. I bet that after you have submitted your credit card information, you'll get some sort of message saying that your transaction has not been processed because of some error, and you will not be charged. You will forget about it. He will have your credit card details. I can't imagine what he would do with them apart from hawking them, as this gentleman did, and this one.

We have complained to Icann and Internic about the domain-name registry fraud; we have complained to his hosting company (probably these guys), as well, about the credit-card fraud; Blogger has been informed about the plagiarism. But this is clearly a criminal offence now, and the US authorities need to be informed. And most of us, the bloggers on this case, are sitting here in India. So if you are reading this in the US, and this guy's sites are still up and his scams still running, can you help us get this guy to justice?

A gentleman named Kumaraguru pointed the way to the credit-card fraud by commenting at another blog post, here. He had uncovered other details about [Bleep] as well, writing:
[Kumaraguru and I have decided to remove these comments as, after [Bleep's] apology, they no longer seem pertinent.]

Great work, Kumaraguru.

Other bloggers pitch in
How to be the next Instapundit by Ravages
Wrong about plagiarism by Ravikiran Rao

Update: Kumaraguru emails with more. He writes (edited for linking purposes):
[Kumaraguru and I have decided to remove these comments as, after [Bleep's] apology, they no longer seem pertinent.]

Latest update: [Bleep's] explanation.
amit varma, 2:10 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Newspapers and milk packets

Parveen Babi is dead. Mid Day's headline reads, with an extra 's', "Actresss Parveen Babi dead". The article says: "Neighbours found newspapers and milk packets lying outside her flat since the last two days and informed police, which opened the house door with a duplicate key and found her body [many sics]."

So the next couple of days will be days of mourning, as everyone will remember what a fine actress and a beautiful woman she was. But the sad thing is this: that fine actress and that beautiful woman had disappeared long ago, eaten up by a disease of the mind. Those newspapers and milk packets, they've been there for years.
amit varma, 11:44 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Friday, January 21, 2005

Quit India ...

The Press Trust of India reports that villagers in the Mahakalapada block of the coastal Kendrapara district of Orissa have been asked to "quit India". They've been identified as "Bangladeshi infiltrators", and Wednesday is their deadline for leaving. The notices have been served on 1551 people, who duly "lined up before the branch of a nationalised bank to withdraw their savings and close the accounts".

The criteria for the notice was December 16, 1971, the day East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Anyone settled in the area after that was served a notice, although villagers claim that the district administration has messed up in this identification. One villager told the PTI reporter: "I was born and brought up here. My father Upen Baidya had migrated from the Shyamnagar village of Khulna district in the erstwhile East Pakistan to the uninhabited Bahakuda in 1953. As his other family members were killed in the post- partition disturbances, my father remarried here. I was born in 1960 on Indian soil and I am proud to be an Indian."

I don't think it really matters whether these people settled here before 1971 or after. Once they have settled down into the local population and are part of the economy, they should not be ill-treated. Migration is what nations and regions thrive on. The USA is a fine example of this, and so is the Indian city where I live, Mumbai, which is built on the labour of people who, to begin with, were not from here - Gujaratis, Marwaris, Sindhis, Tamilians, Punjabis and so on. The concept of "India" is a relatively new one, and we should not be dogmatic or protectionist about who is "allowed" to be a part of our country. The more people our economy embraces, the more it will flourish, because progress is not a zero-sum game.

... and quit tobacco

Maharastra's deputy chief minister, RR Patil, has given up his habit of chewing tobacco. He has done this after public criticism from Ajit Pawar, Sharad Pawar's nephew and the water-resorces minister of the state. Pawar had announced at a public gathering that he did not like taking Patil with him on trips to foreign countries because his habit of chewing tobacco, and the spitting that inevitably followed, made him an embarrassment. Patil, taking the statement to heart, duly decided to quit.

The best part of the story that I've linked to is the photograph. Patil couldn't just quit privately, it seems. He had to invite photographers over and make a big show of dropping a packet of tobacco on the floor. Nice.
amit varma, 4:20 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Here's the shadow, but where's the light?

Rediff reports that the first shadow cabinet in India is just being created. The opposition in the state of Maharashtra has decided to form one to "keep the Vilasrao Deshmukh government on its toes".

So if you want to get something done, will you have bribe not just the minister concerned to do your work, but also the shadow minister to keep quiet about it? Now, that's what they call a win-win situation.
amit varma, 3:02 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

An Indian in America

Gaurav Sabnis has been travelling through the US over the last few days, and has made a succession of interesting observations on his blog, Vantage Point. Read them here, here, here, here and here.
amit varma, 12:16 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The dream girl and the terrorist

Atal Behari Vajpayee is taking Hema Malini, whom newspapers still keep referring to as "Dream Girl", on the campaign trail in Haryana. Meanwhile, Ram Vilas Paswan is taking an Osama bin Laden clone with him through Bihar to appeal to the Muslim voters there.

Nobody wants bloggers?
amit varma, 8:59 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

"A special bundle"

Quite the best post I've ever read about a sari: 1930, 1965, 2005...

Well, ok, it's the only one. But it's still a lovely post. Can guys have an equivalent experience? Well, maybe finding grandfather's toolkit or something. How boring.
amit varma, 8:54 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Kanchi seer

No. Where is she?
amit varma, 8:30 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Patently controversial

The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday criticising the Indian government for giving in to pharmaceutical lobbyists, and ratifying the WTO agreement that will put an end to the "copycat industry" of generic drugs. The editorial contends: "For the world's poor, this will be a double hit - cutting off the supply of affordable medicines and removing the generic competition that drives down the cost of brand-name drugs."

The Indian Express, meanwhile, has reactions from the government and the opposition.
amit varma, 8:08 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Scattered olives

I went with my wife, Jasmine, and my friend, Rahul, for dinner last night at Pizza Express near Churchgate, and we couldn't finish all our food. Three slices of Jasmine's pizza were left, and she asked for them to be packed. On our way out, a little beggar boy kept running after us, asking us for food. We gave him the packet with the pizza.

A couple of minutes later, as we were driving out of there, we saw the boy sitting on the pavement with the pizza. He had scraped off all the toppings, and was eating what remained.
amit varma, 4:51 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Petrified lovers

Priyadarshini Park is full of young lovers trying to steal a kiss. Half of their attention is on their romantic activities and the other half on scanning the surroundings for a neighbour who might report them to their parents. They are petrified. And so are the terracotta sculptures, which are fired at high temparatures.

From the note explaining the concept behind "Petrified Lovers", installation art by Dr Subodh Kerkar at Priyadarshini Park in Mumbai. If you're around there somewhere, go one evening and check it out, it's quite wonderful.

And while you're at it, you'll surely notice many lovers, most not appearing quite that petrified, making out all over the park. "Like everything else in Mumbai," Dr Kerkar told me, "they come in three shifts. The first shift gets here at 5.30 in the morning."
amit varma, 4:37 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Blogs – The New Journalism

The piece below appeared in the Indian Express as "The world according to me". That headline wasn't mine, though.

Towards the end of December, just after the tsunami struck, I told a journalist friend of mine that I was planning to travel through coastal Tamil Nadu to report on the aftermath of the disaster. “Ah, excellent,” he said, “Which publication you going to write for?”

“I’m not going to write for any publication,” I replied. “I’m going to blog.” He looked at me incredulously.

“Blog” was Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year for 2004, but I bristle at how they have defined the term, and how most people still think of it: as “an online personal journal”. Blogs may have began, in the late 1990s, in that manner, but they have evolved into a powerful new form of journalism, that offers journalists the scope to do things that they cannot do in other media, and that draws discerning readers for just this reason.

I experienced this when I blogged on my journey through Tamil Nadu on my blog, India Uncut. [These posts are now archived at my sub-blog, India Uncut - The Tsunami Posts.] My normal quota of 800 pageviews a day – pretty good for a month-old blog – shot up to over 13,000 a day when I began reporting from the coast, and my 10 days of reporting from there got me over 100,000 pageviews, thus demonstrating the power of word-of-mouth on the internet. And the efficacy of this new form of journalism.

Here are some of the ways in which blogs stand out from other journalistic media:

One, a blogger has flexibility of space. In a magazine or a newspaper, a journalist is constrained by length – he can’t write too much and, in instances where he might want to share a vignette or a telling observation, he can’t write too little. On a blog, that isn’t an issue.

Two, a blog can contain multitudes. Whenever I write about something or someone, I can insert hyperlinks in my text that allow the reader to go deeper into whatever it is I’m talking about. For example, an obituary of MS Subbulakshmi in print allows you to read just what one writer has written, but an obituary on a blog can link the reader to pieces that expand upon different strands of her life. It can link you to audio clips of her singing, to pictures of her online, to profiles written on her, all without breaking the narrative flow of the text. As a reader, I feel empowered by that. A print journalist can tell you about a journey, but a blogger can take you on one.

Three, a blog has immediacy. When I reported on things that I saw in Tamil Nadu, I did not have to file a despatch to some editor somewhere with a time-lag of hours before it appeared. I could post it on my blog as soon as I finished writing it, from where other bloggers linked to it, and quoted from it, around the world, well before the next news cycle began. Even television reporters do not have such freedom – and video-blogs might well be the next wave.

Four, a blogger has the option to adopt a much more personal tone than a journalist can. Most print publications have a house style which journalists have to adhere to, but on a blog, he can express himself as he wishes, which, in turn, increases the degree of familiarity that readers feel towards him.

Five, blogs are often interactive. An article in print is a journalist talking to a reader. A post on a blog, on the other hand, can be the starting point of a discussion. Discussions on sites that have comments enabled, like AnarCapLib and The Examined Life, are often intelligent, informative and enlightening, with the readers adding enormous value to what the blogger has to say. Everybody learns, and grows, in the process.

I find it odd that so many of the news stories on blogs in 2004 focussed on a “Blogs v Big Media” storyline, which makes for an interesting peg, but is misleading. I don’t think that there is a conflict between blogs and any other journalistic medium. Just as TV did not kill print, blogging is no threat to either print or TV. On the contrary, it enhances both the breadth and depth of the coverage that journalism provides and, as one-day cricket did to Test cricket, it might introduce new skills and values to the older forms of journalism. That can only be good for the reader, and that is all that matters.
amit varma, 1:48 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Getting at least one prediction right

This is a sad story: "Chennai astrologer foresees death, commits suicide".

I have spoken contemptuously about astrology before, but my misgivings are against that pseudo-science, not against the individuals concerned. You can't help feeling sorry for the guy when you read this, a victim of his own self-delusion. All humans, I think, suffer from some kind of self-delusion or the other, and often need to. This man's poison was astrology: and our's?
amit varma, 12:42 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Lesbian? What's that?

Because I like the guy, I find this story charming rather than infuriating. Manmohan Singh was asked for his views on same-sex marriage by a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation journalist, and he replied: "I am sorry, I don’t understand your question."

Perfectly harmless. But if LK Advani had given such an answer ...
amit varma, 12:30 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Give it back!

Abuse to BPO workers is quite the rage these days. In a piece titled "How to handle abusive BPO customers", gives suggestions to customer-service executives on how to deal with such abuse.

I rather enjoyed Tip No. 9: "Press the mute button and swear back."
amit varma, 12:22 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Drunk policemen go berserk in dance bar

"Five drunk police inspectors went berserk in a Malad dance bar recently because the bar was playing soft music instead of the racy Hindi number they wanted to hear," says a Mid Day story, "Item mumber bajao". It continues:
They ordered drinks there and after downing 14 pegs of vodka and rum, called the barman and asked him to change the song that was being played. The dance bar’s cashier Jagannath Rai said, “One of the cops kept saying, ‘Patil saab ko slow gana pasand nahin hai; gana change karo’. But the song (Jab koi baat bigad jaaye) was a request, and we told Patil, we’d change it soon after.” But Rai said the explanation angered Patil, who was allegedly drunk.

I particularly like that bit about "14 pegs of vodka and rum". Must remember to try that combination.
amit varma, 12:16 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Salubrious swastika

The swastika is creating a stir all across Europe, and Jug Suraiya is upset. In an article in the Times of India titled "Who's [sic] swastika is it anyway?", he points out that long before the Nazis appropriated it, the swastika stood for a variety of positive things, for a number of different civilisations. He writes:
[I]n India, and in several other parts of the world, the symbol has many shades of more salubrious meaning. Derived from the Sanskrit 'swast', denoting wellness or health, the swastika is an auspicious sign, found in books of accounts as well as on the threshold of homes and on the signboards of pharmacies, symbolising physical, social and economic well-being. Ancient Mesopotamian coins also bear the imprint of the swastika.

Now, why didn't someone tell poor Prince Harry this? "It was a tribute to Mesopotamia," he could have pleaded. "Have you ever tried Mesopotamian food? It is salubrious."
amit varma, 12:10 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Some pasta for Jijabai?

There's a mouth-watering controversy around the corner. A Congress leader, general secretary Satyavrat Chaturvedi, has referred to Sonia Gandhi as Jijabai and her son, Rahul Gandhi, as Jijabai's son, Shivaji.

I'm not sure if Sonia quirmed when she heard of this, but Bal Thackeray, whose party, Shiv Sena, considers itself the guardian of the Shivaji and Jijabai brands, certainly won't be amused. No news of his response yet, but this is going to be fun.
amit varma, 9:08 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

"To think, to reflect, to write ..."

There are times when words seem futile, and to no one more so than a writer. At these moments it seems that nothing is of value other than to act and to intervene in the course of events: to think, to reflect, to write seem trivial and wasteful.

Amitav Ghosh expresses a thought that had struck me as well, time and again, during my journey through Tamil Nadu. Read his wonderful piece, published in three parts, in the Hindu:

Part 1 – Overlapping faults
Part 2 – No aid needed
Part 3 – The town by the sea
amit varma, 1:08 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Veerappan lives on

Robert Wright once speculated that Osama Bin Laden was a meme. Well, now the Indian brigand, Veerappan, might be becoming one as well. Sify reports that a statue of Verappan was found recently on his grave, bearing the inscription, “Nanmaye sai”. (“Do only good.”)

In other words, smuggle only good sandalwood.
amit varma, 12:39 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Setting the bar low

The Times of India headline screams: "Sania Mirza wins, makes history". Instantly I click on it, and the first line begins, "Sania Mirza rewrote Indian tennis history as she registered her first Grand Slam win ..."

My jaw drops open in astonishment (and I yawn while I'm at it). What? Sania Mirza has won the Australian Open? But didn't the darn thing just start? And then I read the rest of the sentence:

"... and stormed into the second round of the women's singles at the Australian Open in Melbourne on Monday."

So that's rewriting "Indian tennis history"? Winning the first round of a Grand Slam tournament? Nice. I can already imagine 10-year-old tennis players across the country reading this and and thinking, "Ah, such is my dream! To step off court 16 a winner! To reach the second round! Oh!"
amit varma, 1:09 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The truth on fire

The "high-level enquiry" into the incident in Godhra has found that the fire was an accident. The chief investigating officer in the case claims that he has found a "terrorist link". What is the truth? It doesn't matter any more.

Godhra has been politicised so much, and has become such a powerful symbol in the battle between the two forces, that what happened there is irrelevant. More than an event, it has become a meme, an idea that makes the facts redundant, a part of the folklore of either side, that stands apart from the place or the burning carriage or the people who died. Much like Gujarat, once a state in India, and now the state of India. The question to ask is not what caused the fire, but what can douse the flames?
amit varma, 12:33 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, January 17, 2005

The liberty to vote

Yazad Jal, whom I had the pleasure of meeting recently, has modified the membership list of the libertarian cartel, and I'm delighted to find that I'm considered worthy of membership. Infighting has already begun, with Kingsley Jegan taking on Ravikiran Rao for the prize of Best Tagline in the 2005 Indibloggies. (Libertarians don't fight over girls.)

Yazad and Madhu Menon are battling each other in the Best Topical Indiblog category, where Madhu's excellent food blog is nominated. Meanwhile, both of Madhu's blogs are nominated for Best Designed Indiblog, and I can't imagine how he sleeps at night. The thought of losing to himself must surely haunt him.

I have no such issues. The Middle Stage is above such trivial concerns, so if you go over to vote for Best New Indiblog, please vote for India Uncut, and stop them splitting my vote. 23 Yards, my cricket blog, is nominated for Best Sports Indiblog, so if you like it, well, clicky.
amit varma, 11:27 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Curtains open at The Middle Stage

I'd stopped blogging at The Middle Stage when I left for Tamil Nadu to report on the devastation that the tsunami had caused, and now that I'm getting back into the rhythm of normal life, I've resumed blogging there.

What's the difference between India Uncut and The Middle Stage? Well, this blog is essentially about India and matters that would concern Indians, resident or non-resident. The Middle Stage is about everything else, except cricket and cows, which have devoted blogs of their own. (The cows are still private, give me a month or so to groom them.) Sometimes stuff overlaps – but you miss nothing if you read all my blogs!

So here it is: The Middle Stage
amit varma, 10:21 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The chicken and egg of Indian bureaucracy

This is how, in theory, the bureaucracy should work: there is work to be done; a post is created to do that work; and a candidate is found to fill that post. But, as Vir Sanghvi explains in his excellent dissection of how India came to have a national security advisor, that process can be reversed sometimes. That post, he says, was created in order to keep Brajesh Mishra involved in foreign affairs after Jaswant Singh became foreign minister in the last government, and was retained by Manmohan Singh because "a job had to be found for [JN] Mani Dixit".

Now that Dixit is dead, Sanghvi wonders, will the government retain the otherwise redundant post? Or will "power-hungry insiders" lobby hard to be named Dixit's successor? I fear the second option, and I wouldn't be surprised if a mini-ministry evolves to support the post. Parkinson's Law, you see.
amit varma, 2:20 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A search for causes

Every natural tragedy is a chance to push your ideological agenda, and this tsunami has been no different.

First, we had Rajeev Srinivasan wondering if the tsunami was “a caveat from Up There about the atrocities being visited on the Kanchi Acharya? About adharma gaining ground?” Then, we had Harkishen Singh Surjeet saying that the tsunami was “the culmination of a legacy of hate and destruction that we, the Indian people, unitedly and finally overcame in the political sphere in 2004.” Vinod Mehta wondered, “Can we blame it on George Bush’s refusal to sign the Kyoto accords?” And in various message boards across the net I saw claims that this was payback for 9/11, God’s message to unbelievers, a prelude to the coming armageddon, and so on.

I was wondering where India’s astrologers were, and that sorry bunch has now entered the discourse. The Press Trust of India quotes a “noted astrologer” named Chander Shekhar as saying: “While Venus is a planet of love and its transit was bound to increase love and affection between people, Saturn is essentially destructive in nature. The astrologers knew that tsunami and legal action against Sankaracharya were due to the coming of Saturn. But fearing legal action, no one spoke about it.”

I am now wondering what explanation I should come up with. What about this one: “The tsunami occurred because two tectonic plates happened to move against each other, causing an earthquake that caused the tsunami.” Nah, I’d just be accused of pushing the rationalistic agenda. Biased me.

(Surjeet link via Varnam.)

Update: The madness continues. Mid Day asks six priests representing different beliefs why they think the tsunami happened, and the majority view is that it was a man-made disaster. One of them says, "Man has always tried to conquer and tamper with nature. Take Cuffe Parade, for instance. Have we not reclaimed land that we live on, there? Have we not encroached upon the sea? The sea, the earth, will now encroach upon us."

Another pipes in, "If we notice, these calamities have struck after Christmas and just around the New Year when people indulge in drinking the most. According to newspaper reports, there were 20,000 prostitutes on one of the beaches where the tsunami struck."

amit varma, 2:09 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Cities like slums

India’s cities are becoming more and more like giant slums, says Tavleen Singh, and Mumbai’s slum-demolition drive could have set an example in correcting this trend. But, she says, it is being done in an unplanned and inept manner. Singh writes:
If Maharashtra’s chief minister has a plan he has kept it a secret. What does he intend to do to house the people whose slum homes he is in the process of demolishing? Are they going to be ordered to leave Mumbai or is the Maharashtra government going to invest in massive amounts of low-cost housing? Is he aware that the reason why more than half the citizens of Mumbai live in slums is because there is no low-cost housing? Is he aware that it is because of stupid rent control and urban land ceiling laws that a real estate market never developed and that mafiosi stepped in where there should have been respectable businessmen?

She continues:
If Mumbai looks bad you only need to drive through the featureless ugliness of small town India to see that it is a beautiful city compared to the small towns that have come up in more recent times … These are towns without a centre, without public buildings of any beauty, without parks, without sanitation, without drainage, without anything that would qualify them to be described as anything but slums. In earlier times, when central planning ordained that only PWD engineers were qualified to design towns and cities, this might have been excusable but today, when we have some of the finest architects in the world, there can be no excuse. Except, perhaps, that eternal Indian reality: the absence of governance.

Um, that isn’t an excuse, actually, but an explanation, but pedantic quibbling aside, she’s dead right. (The governance she refers to, of course, is governance by citizens, not by government. What a bummer that the two aren’t synonymous.) Read the full thing.
amit varma, 12:41 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Incompetent Maharaja

Air India’s not having the best of times. Mid Day reports: “More than 5000 passengers and nearly 700 bags were stranded at Mumbai airport last Sunday evening, as a result of delays of more than seven Air India flights … Worse, when the flights finally took off after the delay, at least 700 bags of the passengers were left at the airport. Passengers were flown without their baggage, allegedly because of lack of loaders and containers to transport the baggage.”

And this was Mumbai. In New Delhi, we had India’s Civil Aviation minister Praful Patel screaming at AI’s general manager Tarun Manilal, “I want to make Air India an airline of international standards and because of you idiots we get a bad name.”

Patel is wasting his time. It is beyond the power of government to produce “an airline of international standards”. Only the free market can do that. Privatise the company, open up the skies, and the pressures of competition will force Air India to shape up. And ship out.
amit varma, 12:05 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Fighting Parkinson's Law?

The Indian Express reports, in an exclusive story, that a committee set up by the Indian government to recommend administrative reforms has come out with some interesting suggestions. The two that stand out: bring the maximum age for recruitment down from 30 to 25; and introduce regular performance reviews to weed our corrupt or incompetent officers, and to reward excellence. The committee is headed by the cabinet secretary himself, and I wonder: is the country’s biggest bureaucrat actually tilting against Parkinson’s Law?

Parkinson’s Law, explicated by C Northcote Parkinson in his classic work with the same title, states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. From this, Parkinson derived two observations about any civil service: "An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals"; and "Officials make work for each other." This is why bureaucracies grow even when their work reduces, in a self-sustaining feedback loop that bears no relation to any external criteria, such as performance or workload. (For a similar phenomenon that determines CEO pay, click here.)

These two recommendations won’t have a drastic impact on the size of the Indian civil service. In fact, reducing the maximum recruitment age from 30 to 25 will actually lead to an increase in the number of civil servants, as new IAS officers, being younger on average, will spend more years in the service on average. But that would, in theory, be more than balanced out by the other recommendations of the committee, of weeding out incompetent officers and rewarding those who excel. (It would address some of the flaws that Jayaprakash Narayan spoke of in “Nature’s fury compounded by human folly”, a wonderful piece on the systemic malaise that was exposed by the tsunami – link via Yazad.)

This process of enforcing accountability is, however, fraught with danger, and it is bound to be politicised and likely to be misused. While the intent of the suggested reforms is wonderful, so is the intent of the civil service itself, and we all know the state that’s in. (Barring stray exceptions, of course, that highlight the rule.) Parkinson’s Law cannot be fought by bringing criteria like performance into play, because they will never be enforced. Downsizing is the only way to fight the redundancies built into the system.
amit varma, 1:01 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

What did you say your name was?

A Romanian couple who met over the internet have named their son Yahoo (without, you will note, the exclamation mark) to celebrate the force that brought them together. So if, a few years from now, you run into a boy called Bharat Matrimony, you will know exactly how his parents met.
amit varma, 11:43 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Friday, January 14, 2005

Marxism – on a T-shirt next?

The Indian Express reports that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the chief minister of West Bengal, recently said to a CII gathering:
Go and tell the world that we are changing. We Marxists are not fools to cling to obsolete ideas. In West Bengal, the Left is right. And this is the right place to invest.

Now, I rather like the pragmatic manner in which Bhattacharjee has been encouraging private investment in his state, and for once, it is not the action but the rhetoric that jars with me.

“We Marxists are not fools to cling to obsolete ideas,” says Bhattacharjee. But Marxism itself is an obsolete idea, and that sentence is self-contradictory. The moment you define yourself as a Marxist, you signal an acceptance of an obsolete, and dangerous, idea.

On the other hand, perhaps what Bhattacharjee’s words signal is that Marxism has been redefined after the end of the cold war. It no longer stands for a set of ideas, an ideology, but functions independent of such meaning, as a brand. So if you want to think of yourself as someone who cares for the poor and believes in an equitable society – all part of Marxist rhetoric but not action – then you are naturally attracted towards that brand – especially if you’re from West Bengal or Kerela, where the brand flourishes, for peer pressure does influence the young in these matters.

So perhaps what Bhattacharjee is really saying is: “Marxism the belief system is dead. Long live Marxism the brand.”
amit varma, 4:45 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Rahu, Ketu and cyclone

In 1999, meteorologists had warned of the impending cyclone three days before it actually hit the coast. Giridhar Gomang, the then chief minister of Orissa, called in three astrologers and kept a personal vigil as they appealed to the gods to deflect the storm. As the mighty winds snapped telecommunication and power lines, Gomang remained unfazed, trusting his astrologers’ prediction that the cyclone would miraculously split into two and fly over Orissa, leaving it unscathed.

An astonishing revelation by Debabrata Mohanty in the Telegraph, in an excellent essay discussing the Orissa cyclone of 1999.
amit varma, 2:50 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Journalist as activist?

Of the dozens of emails I've got in the last few days, while travelling through Tamil Nadu, a handful have asked me to take up some of the issues I've reported on "more seriously", with a couple urging me to file a public interest litigation in the case of the Sipcot companies in Cuddalore. One gentleman wrote, "What is the use of just writing about it and just walk[ing] off to your comfortable homes. YOU must do something about it ... We need more journalists to work for social justice."

Well, I'm one of those who takes the dharma of being a journalist seriously, believing that the vocation brings with it certain responsibilities – but I don't think activism is one of them. The practical argument for that is that if all journalists took up activism for the causes they believed in, the good ones would eventually have no time left to actually write. More importantly, I believe that the function journalists ideally perform, of providing information and insight, is too important to be diluted by anything. A good journalist, when he writes on issues of social importance, should be able to inspire and enable action from others, a task he would not be able to perform if he was to get into the trenches himself. (I do not imply, of course, that I am one, but if you are kind enough to think I am, then please vote for India Uncut here.)

Sometimes, of course, a small piece of activism by a journalist can make for a good story by the same journalist. Mid Day occasionally does stories like that, as Vinod Kumar Menon demonstrates while helping out a “maggot-infected patient”.
amit varma, 2:20 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Your flight is, mmm, delayed

"Cops close in on airport porn", says the Times of India. Last Friday, in the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, two TV sets in the visitors' lounge played a pornographic clip "between 12.10 am and 12.30". The police claim to be close to solving the case. Here's what the report says:
The airport's cable TV operator, who is based in Mahipalpur, about five kilometres from the international airport, "leaves his shop at 8 pm after leaving the operations on automatic," the police official says.

It seems someone else, most likely another cable operator who is well aware of the operations, played the porn video through his connection only to malign him."

But the question is, if the porn video was played through the cable network why did it only appear on two out of the 11 television sets at the airport?

This will clearly require classy detective work, and I have no doubt that the cops in question must be watching that clip over and over again, searching for clues. "Arrey Ram Singh," I can imagine one constable saying to the other, "Zara rewind maar, mujhe dekhna hai us navel pe logo kiska tha?"
amit varma, 11:53 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

"The routine disasters"

Hendrik Hertzberg writes in the New Yorker:
Nearly four million men, women, and children have died as a consequence of the Congo civil war. Seventy thousand have perished in the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. In the year just ended, scores of thousands died in wars and massacres elsewhere in Africa, in Asia, in the archipelagoes of the Pacific, and, of course, in Iraq. Less dramatically, but just as lethally, two million people died of malaria around the world, and another million and a half of diarrhea. Five million children died of hunger. Three million people died of aids, mostly in Africa. The suffering of these untimely and terrible deaths—whether inflicted by deliberate violence, the result of human agency, or by avoidable or treatable malady, the result of human neglect—is multiplied by heartbroken parents and spouses, numbed and abandoned children, and, often, ruined survivors vulnerable to disease and predation and dependent, if they are lucky, on the spotty kindness of strangers.

The giant wave that radiated from western Sumatra on the day after Christmas destroyed the lives of at least a hundred and fifty thousand people and the livelihoods of millions more. A hundred and fifty thousand: fifty times the toll of 9/11, but “only” a few per cent of that of the year’s slower, more diffuse horrors. The routine disasters of war and pestilence do, of course, call forth a measure of relief from public and private agencies (and to note that this relief is almost always inadequate is merely to highlight the dedication of those who deliver it). But the great tsunami has struck a deeper chord of sympathy.

For more on yet another kind of disaster that we ignore, click here.
amit varma, 4:33 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The writer, the voice

Yesterday five bloggers met. I was delighted to have dinner with Yazad Jal, Ravikiran Rao and Gaurav Sabnis, with Dilip D’Souza joining us for a pre-dinner coffee. I was meeting Yazad and Ravikiran for the first time, and had met Gaurav briefly once before, at a quiz. Yet, although they were strangers to me, I had a sense of knowing them well, having read their blogs for months now. Is knowing the writing different from knowing the writer?

In a brilliant essay in the New Yorker, Louis Menand writes:
Writing that has a voice is writing that has something like a personality. But whose personality is it? As with all art, there is no straight road from the product back to the producer. There are writers loved for their humor who are not funny people, and writers admired for their eloquence who swallow their words, never look you in the eye, and can’t seem to finish a sentence. Wisdom on the page correlates with wisdom in the writer about as frequently as a high batting average correlates with a high I.Q.: they just seem to have very little to do with one another. Witty and charming people can produce prose of sneering sententiousness, and fretful neurotics can, to their readers, seem as though they must be delightful to live with. Personal drabness, through some obscure neural kink, can deliver verbal blooms. Readers who meet a writer whose voice they have fallen in love with usually need to make a small adjustment afterward in order to hang on to the infatuation.

The uncertainty about what it means for writing to have a voice arises from the metaphor itself. Writers often claim that they never write something that they would not say. It is hard to know how this could be literally true. Speech is somatic, a bodily function, and it is accompanied by physical inflections—tone of voice, winks, smiles, raised eyebrows, hand gestures—that are not reproducible in writing. Spoken language is repetitive, fragmentary, contradictory, limited in vocabulary, loaded down with space holders (“like,” “um,” “you know”)—all the things writing teachers tell students not to do. And yet people can generally make themselves understood right away. As a medium, writing is a million times weaker than speech. It’s a hieroglyph competing with a symphony.

Being in the business of writing, I meet writers often, and find myself having to shift my perception of the writer after actually meeting him or her. Interestingly, I’ve found that in the case of writers with a distinctive style (or voice), after that initial “small adjustment”, the writer and the writing fit tend to fit together. One of my colleagues in Cricinfo, Dileep Premachandran, turned out to be quite different physically from the imposing figure I expected when I met him, but whenever I read his delightful prose now, I hear his voice in my mind’s ear. And quite the same thing happens with another of my colleagues with a distinctive style, Chandrahas Choudhury. The writing and the writer, in each case, are of a piece, something that is not true of lesser, or less experienced, writers.

So how did my meeting last night change my impressions of the bloggers I was dining with? Well, they did not look as I had expected them to, but as the evening wore on, I found it easy to connect them with what they write. Yazad was intense, passionately answering all the (undoubtedly naïve) questions I put to him about libertarianism, while Ravikiran was thoughtful and softspoken, with not a word out of place – quite as in The Examined Life. Gaurav was candid and straightforward, just as his writing is. I woke up this morning and hopped over to their blogs to see if I could now hear their voices in my mind’s ear as I read them. I found, to my delight, that I could. The people and the writing were now one to me, and it enhances my reading so much.

We really must keep meeting like this.
amit varma, 1:06 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Not just the poor

For those who were cavilling that the demolition of illegal structures in Mumbai targetted only the poor, the Indian Express reports that Koyla, a “plush Colaba eatery” owned by Farhan Azmi, the son of a prominent politician, has been demolished because it was an unauthorised construction. Azmi, of course, is claiming that it is political vendetta, but the report says: “Illegal bungalows at Madh Island in Malad (West) will be targetted next. Notices have also been issued to well-known commercial premises in South Mumbai. The Hilton Towers hotel at Nariman Point, Oxford Bookstore and Samrat Hotel, Churchgate, have all been warned that illegal structures on their premises will be demolished.”

Seems pretty fair to me. On a related note, Dilip D’Souza says that we should feel as much sympathy for these now-homeless slum dwellers as we did for the tsunami victims. I disagree. You can read his post and our discussion in comments here.
amit varma, 1:03 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Remote racism

I made an Indian woman cry and promise to quit her job in 60 seconds. You can do it too!

Quoted from a Times of India piece on how call center employees are increasingly getting abusive calls, often laced with racist remarks, from opponents of oursourcing.
amit varma, 1:01 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Open the window

You know, I was sharing an editing room to save money with Spike Lee, who had just made his first film, She's Gotta Have It. I was saying to Spike that you can open the window because African-Americans are here and you have an audience, I don’t even have that audience as I am making a film on street kids in Bombay. But look at what happened to that film [Salaam Bombay!].

Mira Nair talks to Shekhar Gupta about Indian cinema, and what she sees now when she opens the window.
amit varma, 6:46 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Vote for me

It turns out that India Uncut has been nominated for Best New Indiblog in the 2005 Indibloggies. My other blog, The Middle Stage, has also been nominated in the same category, but you know how it is, they’re trying to split my vote. But we won’t fall for that, shall we? If you like my writing, please do hop over and vote for India Uncut.

My cricket blog, 23 Yards, is also nominated in the Best Sports Indiblog category. Please vote for 23 Yards as well – I suspect this might be my last chance to win that particular award, as my colleague in Cricinfo, Anand Vasu, has just made his blogospheric debut with the rivetting Not Cricinfo.

And who else am I voting for? Well, Yazad Jal’s excellent AnarCapLib gets my vote for Best Topical Indiblog, Ravikiran Rao of The Examined Life gets my endorsement for the rather bizarre category of Best Indiblog Tagline, and MadMan is my pick for Best Designed Indiblog. MadMan’s user interface is outstanding, and my eyes pop out in envy whenever I visit his site. All of these blogs, though, deserve greater honours, and I’m a bit befuddled that they’re getting nominated in specialist areas. The libertarians are being muzzled.

Vote for India Uncut
Vote for 23 Yards
amit varma, 5:50 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The show goes on

I’ve been back a couple of days from my journey through Tamil Nadu, and am just getting back to the rhythms of normal city life. I’m shampooing my hair again, listening to Rabbi, relaxing on the sofa with a good book, planning my next post on 23 Yards – have I put the tsunami behind me already?

I hope not. As I’d written earlier, I intend to return to Tamil Nadu a few months from now to see how things stand in all the places I’ve been to, and if the much-hyped “long-term rehabilitation” is actually taking place. In the meantime I shall get back to writing about my usual melange of things, such as books, cinema, music, politics and, of course, sex. I shall also resume blogging on The Middle Stage in a few hours, so if you patronised that and were wondering where I went, well, I’m back.

In case you ever want to go through my the writing I did while travelling through Tamil Nadu, you need not mess around in my archives: I’ve saved all my posts from that period in a sub-blog titled “India Uncut – The Tsunami Posts”, at If I write more on the subject, that will also be added there. It isn't behind me, it's with me.
amit varma, 5:37 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, January 10, 2005

Post-tsunami thoughts 4: Lessons from a disaster

The hardest part about any tragedy is that it need not have been so bad. Sure, the earthquake in the Indian Ocean was one of the worst ever, and the tsunami was devastatingly powerful – still, thousands of deaths could have been avoided with some basic precautionary measures, and the relief work could have been smoother and more effective.

I’m speaking in hindsight, of course, but before the next event – for no disaster is ever the last one. From my travels through the tsunami-affected regions of Tamil Nadu over the last couple of weeks, a few measures come to mind that need to be taken before the next calamity. Most of these are relevant to disasters other than tsunamis as well – earthquakes and cyclones, for example – and although they are all drawn from my recent experiences in India, I suspect that many of them will be relevant to the other affected countries as well.

Here goes:

One – Do a census: One of the things we found, as we travelled from village to village, was that no list of residents existed for most of them. In the chaos and confusion, it was hard to figure out how many people were dead and how many were missing. Also, many villages had barriers of caste, as in Thevanampattinam, with one caste often refusing to acknowledge the other, and casualty and compensation lists were affected by this.

Two – Enumerate belongings: More than just a headcount, a census should also enumerate the details of each house, with a valuation as thorough as an insurance policy. This would help during the process of compensation in two ways: one, compensation fraud, which, sadly, is commonplace, would be more difficult; and two, government officials would have less scope to be corrupt while giving compensation, as everything would be in black and white. This process is not as cumbersome as it sounds, with most villages not having more than a couple of hundred households, which is easily manageable.

Three – Build a local emergency warning system: There is much talk of an emergency warning system that will let the government know that a tsunami is on the way. But the hard part is disseminating that warning to all the places in danger, most of which would be villages. Television and radio warnings are all very well, but even the handful of people who do possess them may not have them on through the night or early in the morning, when this tsunami struck.

One solution that comes to my mind is of having automated telephone calls, in a time of disaster, with a prerecorded message, to all affected areas, with a loudspeaker system set up in each village to spread that warning further. The loudspeaker system would allow multiple access and, if possible, would include an option for a central broadcast from the district office.

Four – Conduct disaster drills: As the example of Rajendra Ratnoo’s disaster management training in Sasniyarpettai shows, disaster management drills can save lives. People will know what to do in a crisis, and there will be less panic. If Ratnoo, a sub-collector, can implement them in one village, surely all sub-collectors can be instructed to implement them in all the villages on their beat. To maximise the utility of a local emergency warning system, it is important that local people know what to do in a crisis.

Five – Constitute a central relief authority for each district: We found that all through the Tamil Nadu coast, NGOs duplicated work madly, and there was tremendous wastage of aid resources. Such a situation can be avoided if a central authority – logically, the district administration – is made responsible for coordinating all the aid that floods into their area. But what if that authority turns out to be incompetent?

At Cuddalore the authorities did a wonderful job, but at Nagapattinam, they took more than a week to get their act together. So the setting up of a central relief authority for each district needs to be done with two caveats: one, there is a central government complaint line where anybody can file a complaint about the district authorities, with all complaint logs made available to the press; and two, aid agencies should retain the option to deliver aid on their own if they feel that the central authority is not acting fast enough. The central relief authority, thus, should not be a mandatory port of call for every aid agency, though if they are competent, I suspect that aid agencies will go to them first, and make the process more efficient.

Six – Organise a rating system for NGOs: All through my trip, my inbox was flooded with emails from people asking me, in essence, “I want to donate, but I don’t know whom to donate to. Where should my money go?” This is an important question, because, while some NGOs like Aid India did a wonderful, focussed job, there were many others which were wasting time and money, more interested in brand building and filling up their resume for the next funding season than in actually doing relief work. There is, I have found, as much corruption, politics and inefficiency among NGOs as there is among private-sector companies – but while inefficient companies in the private sector are punished by the market, there is no such mechanism to hold NGOs accountable.

Just as there is an ICRA for the private sector, I recommend that someone – not the government – set up a similar efficiency-rating agency for NGOs. This would serve two purposes: one, donors would have some guidance, in a crisis like this, of who would make the best use of their money; and two, foreign aid givers, who donate billions of dollars every year for various causes, would know which agencies actually do useful work, and which are parasites.

What if the agency is biased or inefficient itself, you ask? Well, in that case it would soon suffer a loss of credibility on its own. The respect such an agency would get would be proportional to the efficiency of the work it did. In any case, their findings would not be binding on anybody, but would be an excellent guideline for those who needed one.

Seven – Assess relief needs, and prepare accordingly: Many of the relief supplies that we saw reaching Tamil Nadu were redundant – old clothes being a case in point. To make sure that relief for the next disaster is focussed, it is important to carry out an evaluation of what kind of supplies came in handy here. Take medicines, as an example: if we have a rough break-up of which medicines were required the most here, which we fell short of providing, and which came in too many numbers, we can plan better for next time. The centre should, in fact, have an emergency store of supplies ready at all times, so that even before donors and NGOs can get into the act, the medicines could be on their way to wherever they are required.

This is also true of something as essential as heavy earth-moving equipment. The post-tsunami mess at Nagapattinam could have been avoided if that kind of equipment was available – it wasn’t for over a week, despite Mani Shankar Aiyar’s plea for it on television a day after the tsunami. Earth-moving equipment is invaluable for quick body disposal and for helping clear the rubble after earthquakes, and I am sure there are many such needs that would have been felt during this crisis, and which can be met in future with planning.

Eight – Stick to regulations: If the laws emanating from the Coastal Regulation Zone notifications (Word file) had been adhered to, a vast number of the deaths resulting from the tsunami would have been avoided. (The rules regulate, and in many places prohibit, any construction within 500 metres of the coastline, where most of the lives were lost.) Fishermen used to ignore these laws – if they knew about them at all – and the government did not enforce them. But the fishermen do care now, and will, in most cases, be willing to keep a certain distance from the sea. It is the government I worry about here – despite the tsunami, land by the sea is still valuable real estate, and the land mafias will no doubt try their best to grab it. It is up to citizens' groups and the media to make sure that this does not happen.

Nine – Fight poverty: Most of the victims of the tsunami were poor, living in fragile thatched huts by the sea. The most efficient way to minimise the impact of a future disaster is to fight poverty. For my thoughts on this, click here.
amit varma, 1:45 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Post-tsunami thoughts 3: Selective compassion

The column inches have come down, the news channels are no longer full of it, and less and less people are coming forward to volunteer for relief organisations: the tsunami is being forgotten by most of us. Only level one of the three levels of relief work is over, but already, the focus is shifting away from this catastrophe. And I keep asking myself the same question over and over again: Why does it take a disaster like this to evoke compassion in us? After all, the needs that we are helping to fulfill now – for food, housing, medicine and livelihood – have always existed in all the affected countries?

I had blogged about this a few days ago (“Despatches 36: The broader, continuing disaster”), and I cannot find any answers. When all is “normal” again, and millions of people are back to scrambling for food and jobs and drinking water in sub-human conditions, will we still care?

For most of us, I think the answer to that is: No. We block out all the misery in the world as we go along our daily lives, building a cocoon around ourselves that excludes the little beggar at the traffic lights, the homeless people strewn across the streets at night, the millions swept away by a vast tsunami of indifference. It takes a tragedy like this to burst that cocoon, and perhaps it gives some of us a chance to assuage the guilt that may have built up inside. Now, the Indian Ocean is calm again.

Or has it changed, for good?
amit varma, 9:11 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Post-tsunami thoughts 2: To hell with intent

Too many of us are obsessed with intent. NDTV 24x7 are having a debate, as I type this, on “We The People”, where a few people have protested the publicity that celebrities have got for donating or helping out with the volunteer effort, alleging that they were doing it just to get publicity, and that their contribution should have been anonymous. This is similar to the protest that I had blogged on earlier (“Despatches 26: Separating politics from social work”), by people who alleged that extreme left- and right-wing organisations were doing relief work only to build political capital for later.

My contention is that at a time like this, it is perverse to consider the intent of someone who is helping with relief work. This is because of two reasons. Firstly, in a time of such vast death and destruction, the good that anybody does is too valuable to turn away for silly reasons like intent. Hundreds of thousands of lives need to be rebuilt, tens of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure reconstructed, and any objections to celebrity culture or the politics of people helping out are trivial compared to the need that they are helping to fulfill.

Secondly, can we judge anybody’s intent? Those who seem most noble may well be doing it out of a subconscious desire to feel good about themselves (see despatches 11 and 37), and a celebrity who doesn’t mind collateral publicity may feel genuine compassion. We all live in glass houses, though human nature is such that none of us will admit it to ourselves. So let us not throw stones but help, to whatever extent we can, in the reconstruction.
amit varma, 8:46 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Post-tsunami thoughts 1: Fighting poverty

Disaster shows discretion – it is always the poor who get the worst of it. All through Tamil Nadu we have seen that it is the poor who have suffered most, a fact that has been so commented upon and so amply illustrated that I won’t bother to elaborate upon it. And from this we come to the simple conclusion: a fight to minimise the impact of a future tragedy is essentially a fight against poverty. This is a battle we are supposed to have been fighting for the last 50 years, but our forays have been so half-hearted that we haven’t come close to succeeding. Poverty is a formidable enemy, and you cannot win a war if you’re wondering what’s for breakfast.

So how do we defeat poverty? I have written about this before, and my answer remains the same: free markets, open economy, more accountable government. (Read “The myth about the rich and the poor” for my thoughts on why only free markets can bring about prosperity.) One of the people who accompanied me on some of my travel through Tamil Nadu, Nityanand Jayaraman, will wince when he reads this, but I think his environmental activities are entirely compatible with the kind of globalisation that I would like to see happen.

Companies, and this includes the chemical companies Jayaraman is fighting against, are neither good nor bad – they are amoral. They act solely on the basis of the economic imperitive, and that is as it should be. It is the responsibility of the government to regulate their activities, and that vast self-propagating bureaucratic machine that Nehru set up fails to do so, and that failure is written into its design. We love to rail against how Enron duped the people of India with the Dabhol Power Project, but should we really blame Enron for that? Shouldn’t the blame rest with the corrupt government functionaries who signed those contracts with Enron? India’s problems are problems of governance, and the vast remains of Nehru’s Fabian socialism are actually corrupting the process of globalisation, and giving it a bad name.

So how do we improve governance? The kind of work activists like Jayaraman do is invaluable – if you shout loud enough and long enough, people eventually take notice – but it is equalivalent to a mosquito attacking a slumbersome elephant. That elephant is not just the government – it is us.

To my mind, democracy and free markets must go hand-in-hand to achieve prosperity. But I would venture to say that the way democracy works in India is not the way it should. In theory, people should elect their leaders on the basis of who will govern them the best, and existing governments should be held accountable on that basis. But governance hardly matters in India, and large swathes of the country vote on the basis of caste dynamics and factors that have nothing to do with governance. Identity politics is still the most powerful force in elections.

Obviously the key to changing this is development, which will lead to more education, which will lead to more discretion in voting, shifting the focus to governance. (This is why entities that depend on identity politics, like the radical right, are against this kind of development, with all their swadeshi rhetoric.) But a vicious circle kicks in here. To get an accountable government in the true sense of a democracy, we need development, but to develop as we should, we need governance. The way in which we are moving now, limping along ineptly towards a globalised economy, is taking too long, and the poor are complaining that they don’t see the impact of globalisation, and so it must be bad.

Apart from limping along, with the pains that it involves, is there any other way out? Well, yes. If an enlightened economist could take over the government, he could accelerate the process. But are we evolved enough as a country to elect such a man? Well, no. By a stroke of good fortune, though, we have precisely one such person leading this government. Manmohan Singh could be that seminal prime minister who will turn globalisation from a negative term to a positive one, standing for equitable prosperity. And perhaps when that next tsunami comes, less people will suffer, and those who do lose their houses will have a bank account and an insurance policy.
amit varma, 1:08 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

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