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, April 30, 2006

Butter chicken in Islamabad

"Ah, welcome, Hamid," General Musharraf tells Hamid Karzai. He escorts Karzai into the dining room, where they sit on opposite ends of a long table. (Musharraf hears a noise under the table, peeps below, and sees Osama Bin Laden. He ignores him.)

"So what will you have, Hamid?" he asks.

"I would like some butter chicken," says Karzai, "and some Hula girls. It gets lonely down in Kabul."

A pregnant pause ensues, and then delivers a clarification from Karzai.

"I was joking about the Hula girls," he says. "Just seeing if it would work on you. The last time I joked like this with the Americans, they actually sent me Hula girls. I make them chant 'Hu-La Hu-La' all day. They are most confused. Anyway, a butter chicken will do just fine."

Musharraf rings a bell on his table and a corps commander enters. "One butter chicken for Hamid," says Musharraf, "and Kashmir, I mean, a mango souffle for me. Jump to it."

"Yes sir," barks the corps commander, and jumps.

"Jump to it," Musharraf repeats. The corps commander jumps again. Musharraf sighs. "Get the food quickly, and stop jumping" he says. The corps commander, in mid-air when he comprehends the order, tries to stop jumping, but fails, and falls down. Then he gets up and troops off.

"So Hamid, how are your warlords treating you?" asks Musharraf.

"They don't treat me, we go dutch. Ha ha." Silence again. "It's a joke, a joke. The Americans get all my jokes. And they laugh, and go 'Hu-La Hu-La.' So how's Baluchistan treating you."

Musharraf snorts, and Osama also snorts under the table. Musharraf kicks him. Osama stops snorting and bites Musharraf's ankle. Musharraf kicks him with the other foot. Osama bites his other ankle. Then they both stop as they hear footsteps. The corps commander enters the room and jumps. Then he places a mango souffle in front of Musharraf.

"Delectable," says Musharraf. "These mangoes are imported all the way from Ratnagiri in India. Of course, they go to Dubai first and then they come here. It costs me a lot more, but happiness isn't free."

The corps commander then marches over to where Karzai is sitting, and puts a slab of butter in front of him.

"Hey," says Karzai, "I asked for butter chicken. What is this?"

"It's butter, sir," says the corps commander. "No chicken in this house. Here, read this."

As their conversation is a spoken one, of course, Karzai can't click on the link. So he just looks at the butter, which begins to melt under his fierce gaze. Musharraf meanwhile, is digging into his mango souffle. At least some part of India he gets.
amit varma, 1:58 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Look ma, no teacher

ANI reports that a teacher was sacked by her school in Kent because she posed topless for Cosmopolitan. The report says that she had been hired "after a previous male teacher left over allegations he downloaded adult porn on school computers."

While I can understand there being an issue if the porn the chap downloaded was on school computers the kids also used, I can't see why, per se, either surfing porn or posing topless should disqualify anyone from being a teacher (as long as they don't do it in class). We're all humans -- no chimps read my blogs, contrary to onetime rumours -- and, consequently, have human desires and flaws. As long as they don't affect other people, they should be nobody's business.
amit varma, 1:41 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A little less pressure

It's interesting that the top two one-day batsmen in the world, according to the latest ICC Ratings, are both wicketkeepers. I'm a huge fan of both Adam Gilchrist and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and I can't help wondering if their being wicketkeepers actually helps them maximise their batting potential. After all, they're already guaranteed a place in the side because their primary job is to keep wicket, and the pressure on them when they bat is less than that on specialist batsmen. Surely that relative lack of pressure helps?

On the other hand, they're both such special players anyway. Gilchrist has been one for a sustained period of time, and I'm waiting eagerly to see how Dhoni fares in the West Indies. He's more than just a subcontinent bully, I believe.
amit varma, 1:27 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, April 29, 2006

'Hasmukh' Popular and 'Pataka' Cool

Those are just two of the five kinds of Urban Indian married women, as branded by Lowe India in their study of Indian women. There is also Mrs. ‘Hey Bhagwan’ Moaner, which applies to 12% of these ladies according to the study.

I rather suspect that many more than 12% of them will look at this study, clap their foreheads and say "Hey Bhagwan!" What to say and suchlike.

(Link via Media Musings via email from Sanjeev.)
amit varma, 10:13 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Friday, April 28, 2006

And how many Bookers has Sean Bean won?

No doubt that's what Salman Rushdie must have thought when he heard about this.
amit varma, 7:39 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Gu Ge or Gou Gou

Oh, come come, gou le already.
amit varma, 7:35 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Perhaps life itself is like "The Gong Show"

Pamela Anderson writes in the Wall Street Journal:
This issue [of cruelty to animals] has been on my mind a lot lately. It started when my kids went on a field trip to what was billed as an exotic animal refuge in Malibu. I excitedly tagged along only to find that it was like a shabby petting zoo that rents lions, tigers and a fascinating pair of chimpanzees to productions like "The Gong Show" to perform pathetic tricks under lights in front of loud crowds--conditions that are very stressful. I chose to have that kind of life; these animals didn't.
Well put, and more power to her. As a lapsed vegetarian, I know where she's coming from, and one part of me is all for expanding our moral universe to include animals. But the other part of me wants a meaty dinner.

I put it flippantly, but it's a conflict I've agonised over a lot, and do not have the strength to resolve the way I should. My heart and my mind say the same thing, for once; my stomach, and the instincts I've got from my timeless genes, rumble otherwise.
amit varma, 7:20 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The Neanderthal Party

All politicians who share the sensibilities of this Malaysian gentleman should come together and form one global political party, with the sole aim of preventing social progress and reducing individual freedoms. I am sure many Indian politicians will join in.

The sad part is that they'll probably be in power everywhere. Sigh and suchlike.
amit varma, 7:08 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

It's a book, not homework!

Kaavya Viswanathan's long-titled book has been withdrawn from bookstores by its publisher, and rightly so.

Bizarrely, though, the publishers have said that "the book will be revised as quickly as possible." Revised? Well, well. I guess the schmucks who buy the 'revised' book deserve to read it.

My take on the whole controversy: looking at the many passages produced as evidence, it's clear that blatant copying took place, and Viswanathan's defence of it being "unintentional and unconscious" seems implausible. But this isn't all that is unpalatable in this episode. Apparently a 'book-packager' called Alloy Entertainment helped put this book together, as also many others in its genre. The more I read about them, the more the lines blur between the author and her 'consultants,' whose role seems similar, as Manish Vij speculates here, to the music industry guys who manufacture boy bands.

That doesn't absolve Viswanathan, of course: it's her name on the jacket and she has to take responsibility for what she got herself into. And as for what these packaging factories churn out, well, there are people who read that kind of stuff, and they're welcome to it. Just as long as they don't commit patent, I mean copyright (just remembered we're talking about a book!) infringement.

Other links: Falstaff 1 and 2, Sepia Mutiny 1 and 2. (CNN link via email from Sanjeev.)

Update: Reader Shrabonti Bagchi writes in:
What you've written about 'book packaging'... well it's hardly a new phenomenon and has been happening for almost a century now. It goes by the name of Mills and Boon. The only difference is, these new 'young adult' books are conferred a certain individuality, you know the authors' names and they sometimes get big advances. Otherwise, the recurrence of similar themes, characters, mass production, assembly line books -- Mills and Boon have done it all.
amit varma, 6:11 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Deol confectionery

Bobby Deol now has a cake named after him.

Suggested Dharmendra dialogue for the next film he does:
Agar tune apne maa ka doodh piya hai... tho mere bete ka cake bhi kha le!
amit varma, 6:08 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A blog meet, and a quiz

There is no better way to spend one's time than to meet old friends and to make new ones. And so I point you to two events I'm looking forward to this weekend, which you're welcome to hop along to if you're interested and in town:

1] The Bombay Bloggers Meet that will take place on Saturday, April 29, at 4 pm at the Regal Barista on Colaba Causeway. Yazad (who warned me when I met him two days ago that fun must come, and that I must therefore bring fun with me) has the details here. If you blog and happen to be in Mumbai, drop in. (And bring fun with you; I'm having trouble getting through.)

2] The First Bombay Quiz Club Open quiz will begin at 10.30 am on Sunday, April 30, at the far-right corner of the food court in In Orbit Mall, Malad. Dhoomketu has posted the details here. If you enjoy quizzing, come.

If you are either a quizzer or a blogger, but not the other, you are invited to mix up these two events. Try something new this weekend. Enjoy and suchlike.
amit varma, 3:34 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Morbid jealousy...

... is a "mental disorder," according to some lawyer chappies in Singalore, who have used that tack to argue that their client, a man who hacked his wife to death, be let off because his 'disorder' "diminished his mental responsibility for the killing."

This reminds of an email conversation I had with some friends a few days ago, where Ravikiran Rao shared what I think is a fascinating insight. (I quote with permission, of course.) He wrote:
I am increasingly coming around to the idea that all mental disorders are just extreme cases of perfectly normal and "healthy" emotional states.

I mean, something like depression is an extreme case of sadness - something which we all feel and which is actually helpful, as it enables us to do something about it, and reduce our future expectations if necessary. (But depression is not helpful.)

Paranoia is an extreme case of the normal suspiciousness that we all feel. Delusion is an extreme case of imaginativeness and fantasy - things that are actually helpful.

I think that this applies even to things that look utterly strange to us, like the Stockholm syndrome. I think that the Stockholm syndrome is something completely normal, and to an extent, healthy. It is the normal process by which people get socialised into any group.
Ravi went on to write that this might mean that it becomes difficult to "draw a sharp dividing line between the case where a person is fully responsible for his actions and where he is considered to be not in possession of his faculties." Well, fair enough. But I'd hold that even if what Ravi says holds true, it is, to paraphrase Steven Pinker in "The Blank Slate," valid only as explanation, not as exculpation.

In fact, even if we are to find that some of us are predisposed, either genetically or because of our environment, towards certain behavioural patterns, as long as we have some sense of volition, and are capable of comprehending the consequences of our actions, we must be held responsible for them. The killer in the story I linked to has been convicted, and I agree entirely with the judge. The kind of 'morbid jealousy' he displayed deserves a morbid sentence.

Also read: "Mental disorders are not diseases" by Thomas Szasz. (Hat tip: Naveen Mandava.)
amit varma, 2:18 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Safe sex in a bottle

What I simply can't picture is how the damn thing got inside in the first place.

Update: Reader Sriram Sankaran points out that the protagonist of the story started "suffering from severe dysPEPSIa and headache" after drinking a Pepsi. Heh, figures!

Update (April 28): Arun Simha writes in:
The name PEPSI originated because its creator Caleb Bradham thought that it could cure dyspepsia. So the irony is doubled in this case."
amit varma, 2:16 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

From Air Deccan to Southwest

My post mentioning Air Deccan's free-seating policy has got many responses, a couple of which I mentioned within updates to that post. Some more here:

Both Vimalanand Prabhu and Falstaff write in to point out that Southwest Airlines, in the US, may not assign seating but it does have a boarding order. Falstaff writes:
Notice that in Southwest at least there are no assigned seats but there is a (strictly followed) boarding order. Depending on when you check in, you get assigned to seating category A, B or C, with A getting first dibs at the seats and so on. So a) the crowding isn't anywhere near as bad as you describe (I guess the fact that there are actual lines helps, plus the fact that there are no coaches, just walkways) b) there's an incentive to either check in early or check in online. If you try and arrive last minute for a crowded flight you're almost certainly going to get a crappy seat, but the fact that people will tend to check in earlier helps avoid crowding from last minute check-ins and may help the airline to better manage overbooked flights, etc.
And how much saving does this result in? Arun Simha writes in:
This ability gives it a turnaround time of 15 minutes, which enables it to generate more than twice (10.5 versus an industry average of 4.5) the average number of flights per gate each day. The average turnaround time for other aircraft at each gate is 30 minutes.
Nancy Bohrer points out that "Southwest has been about the only US airline making money in the past few years," and Krishna Moorthy writes in:
I am of the opinion that 99% of the airlines should not even attempt to mimic Southwest's practice of no-seating assignment because only Southwest can pull off such business practices successfully (and profitably. Just look at the bloody red-ink trail left behind by most low-cost competitors of SouthWest in the US.)
And finally, getting back to Air Deccan, Devender Mallya is upset that they don't have reservations for OBCs. Tut tut.
amit varma, 5:28 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

They're no longer starving down in China

The evidence is in their busts.

(Link via email from Varun, who does not refrain from pointing out the pun in "pressing demand." Heh.)
amit varma, 5:18 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Froggy and Surdy

This is a really bad joke.

Just bad enough to be pretty good, actually. You know what I mean!
amit varma, 5:10 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Free speech in India

Here's yet another example of why it's becoming increasingly difficult to even speak your mind in India these days.

Dia Mirza should blog, perhaps?
amit varma, 4:21 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

A sense of destiny?

I'm not a believer in destiny. (I was when I was younger, but you could say I was destined to change my mind.) I am a big believer in democracy, though, while being quite aware that the frailties of men are often reflected in the results it shows up. The need to take comfort from the familiar, for example. Is that why the Gandhi family rules India almost by default?

The Telegraph reports that Rahul Gandhi "is apparently willing to dirty his hands in Uttar Pradesh but his party thinks the country needs him more." The state unit recently got excited at what they perceived as an offer from him to take a more active part in the state's politics, but "the central leadership trod with caution, indicating that it would not like Rahul to be tied up in Uttar Pradesh as it is 'more or less decided' he would lead the Congress in the 2009 general elections."

And who can blame them? Regardless of Gandhi's political acumen or administrative competence or intellectual ability -- and I'm not suggesting that he doesn't possess any of those -- he is an inevitable leader of the country, purely because of the resonance that his family name carries with the masses. (So although I don't believe in destiny, I'm effectively saying he is destined to lead. Such confusion! This predestination isn't supernatural in origin, though, but all too human.)

And will he be a wise leader? One can only hope so. If he ends up like his grandmomma, or that venal uncle of his, I will be most miffed. Like it matters!
amit varma, 3:56 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Money down the drain

Mumbai Mirror reports:
Choked drains, sewage water on roads that are dug up for repairs — this seems like a familiar sight in Mumbai. However, there is one difference. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) refuses to concede that these problems exist. It says it has spent Rs 1.5 crore to resolve these problems and that these issues have been effectively dealt with.

However, Mumbai Mirror conducted a survey of the area and found that the BMC’s claims were unfounded.
Here's the story, and they have photographs as well, to show that most of the work supposed to have been done with this money -- the hard-earned money we pay as taxes, dear readers -- hasn't been done, and I'm sure you can guess what's happened to it. Disgraceful.

One of the corporators involved is a gentleman named Babban who was out of town when MM did this story. I hope he gets voted out in the next elections. What's the point of democracy if you don't hold these knaves accountable? Huh? Huh?
amit varma, 3:40 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Otherwise he'd shoot the principal?

A headline in today's Mumbai Mirror: Pravin Mahajan finally gets some good news.

And what is that good news? The report begins:
On Monday, Pravin Mahajan’s daughter Vrushali learnt that she had passed her First Year Junior College (FYJC) with distinction.
I just love the media, I do. And this is just the print media. I wouldn't be surprised if some news channel thrust a mike at the poor girl and asked her how much she got in English. Anything goes.
amit varma, 3:07 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Cattle class is luxury

So it will seem after standing-only seats are introduced in airlines, as this article discusses.

I've been travelling a lot recently by low-cost airlines -- I'm so glad air travel has become so affordable in India -- and one policy I've seen Air Deccan follow befuddles me: they often have free-seating. This means that you're not assigned a seat at the time of checking in, and everyone is, thus, scrambling to get in the plane first. This leads to frantic scenes at the time of boarding, where, once the gate number is announced, people battle to get through as if it's a Virar Fast. Many queues form -- certainly more than two! -- and break into a mob, as people rush across to the coach that will take them to the plane.

The trick, of course, is not to get to the coach first, but to get out of it first, because that's how you get to the plane first. So once the mob reaches the coach, you have an ironic situation where they brake to a halt at the door, and refuse to go too far inside. A bottleneck of people suddenly forms, as everyone tries to look dignified while refusing to give way to fellow passengers, hanging on to their place near the door.

Somehow the coach fills up, and when it reaches the plane passengers spill out like boiling milk and rush across the few yards of tarmac between them and the "larderlarder!" as one rotund lady shrieked at this stage of my last flight.

The best part, of course, is that most of these lovely gentlefolk don't even know which seats to take. They dive into window seats near the entrance, leaving me to expertly manouver past the detritus to the emergency-exit-row seats further down the plane, where the legroom is ample and the reading light is always on.

What I find bizarre is that I don't think there's any cost-saving in having free seating. Strange. Why then? To entertain bloggers?

Update: Heh, do check out this old post by Prabhu in which he introduces us to concepts like "Floor Class" and "Standing Class." Such joy.

Update 2: Ashwin writes in:
A lot of low-cost airlines do not have assigned seating. American Airlines like Southwest and AirTran also follow the same procedure. One of the most important reasons being time saving, which leads to cost saving by improving efficiency. This occurs by allowing for a faster turnaround of planes on the tarmac.

When people are assigned seats they are generally much slower to board the plane, as they know have a seat. So they spend more time at a bookstore or restaurant. On the other hand, with no assigned seating, people have no assurance of getting the seat they like. Hence, they waste no time in boarding the plane. Generally savings in time are in the order of 10-30 minutes depending on the size of the plane. If an airline had a 100 flights a day the savings in time (and cost) are enormous.
Yep, that makes perfect sense.

Update 3: Blogger DNA writes in:
Regarding "no seat assignment" policy, more than what Ashwin had pointed out, the real cost opportunity lies in the seat inventory management. Most of the airlines pay an outside vendor for ticket database management where costs are computed on a "per transaction" basis. By eliminating seat assignment, they are also eliminating any kind of seat change/upgrade possibilities which helps airlines reduce cost in maintiaing ticket inventory. Also, this reduces the work load for Customer service agents at the gate thereby adding efficiency to the turn around. With respect to boarding time, the difference between the two system of seat management are not due to the "passenger" behavior. It is more due to the passenger processing at the gates.
Fair point. I wonder how large these savings are, though.
amit varma, 3:35 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The many Cruises to come

From this report I find that Tom Cruise has named his daughter Suri.

I hope his next five kids are named Sharma, Gupta, Manchanda, Bhatnagar and Shastri.
amit varma, 3:18 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Yesterday's links, today

Blogger wasn't publishing for much of yesterday, so posts waited, circling eagerly around me, while a typo I had been unable to correct in time from my last published post wailed from my computer, and then just whimpered. The problem got solved late last night, and I removed the typo from an unfamiliar place. The unposted posts no longer hovered, but slept. Now I shall let them troop past, reduced by time and circumstance to mere links. "Once we were posts with paragraphs/ Now just a line; then a full stop."

First up, the banal everyday is shown to us from a different angle, and it's bloody hilarious. Here, check out how Indians drive. (Link via separate emails from Kanak Ji and Sun-Ki Chai.

Chandrahas has a charming post up on Alberto Manguel and Jorge Luis Borges: I especially enjoyed the eighth comment, by Hash himself, where he writes about "Chronicles of Bustos Domecq." (Update: That comment is a post now!)

Venu, after reading my post on atheism, sends me a link to a hilarious comic strip, Jesus and Mo. (With good reason, Venu recommends some personal favourites: 1, 2, 3.) Exceptional stuff, I wish I'd come across it earlier!

Meanwhile, Indian students are on protest in Armenia because of the manner in which one of them died recently. More details: 1, 2, 3. (Links, separately, via email from Namit and Varun. Varun's posts on the subject: 1, 2, 3.)

In more cheerful news, reader Sharath Rao points me to an innovative new form of advertising that, um, makes me a bit uneasy. I'm sure the gentleman who proposed this idea had a sheepish grin on his face when he first proposed it.

Meanwhile, oceans away, Sepia Mutiny links to and discusses the story about Kaavya Viswanathan getting busted for plagiarism. And back in India, The Unknown Indian describes how he came across a book that copies with impunity from various websites.
amit varma, 12:38 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, April 24, 2006

Imagine there's no suckers

Who, then, would be taken by something as exploitative as this rubbish? A "pay-per-view seance," as a gentleman quoted in the story puts it, of John Lennon. Pfaw!
amit varma, 1:57 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Some clues to understanding Indian Idol

Having followed Indian Idol fairly closely over the last two years -- heck, everyone's got some bad habits -- I pride myself on having a reasonably good feel of audience voting patterns. This year, from the stage when there were seven people left, I accurately predicted who was going to get voted out every week. Singing ability had little, though not nothing, to do with it. Some of the trends I noted:

1] The girls have it tough. This year, like last year, no girl made it to the last three. Last year two of the girls were certainly good enough singers to contend for the big prize -- Prajakta Shukre and Aditi Paul -- and this year a couple of them were certainly better than third-placed Anuj Sharma -- Antara Mitra and Meenal Jain. This trend was visible in the voting of the Sa Re Ga Ma Pa challenge earlier this year, where Himani and Twinkle were voted out rather too early.

I'm not sure why this should be so, and different conflicting reasons can explain it. One possible explanation: guys tend to vote more for guys, while women vote for both sexes; and guys are more likely to get carried away and send many SMSes, while women are more conservative in voting. This explanation might well be wrong, of course, but the trend is unmistakable, and unique to India: the ladies do okay in American Idol.

2] Early impressions last long. Both last year and this year, the winner of the show was also the winner of an early Piano Round. Abhijit Sawant sang "Tadap Tadap" in last year's piano round and topped the voting; Sandeep Acharya topped the voting of the second boy's piano round this year, despite the judges praising Amey Date and Anuj Sharma very highly.

This would also explain why Ravinder Ravi, who topped a piano round last year but was consistently besura after that, reached the last five, much to the judges' annoyance. He began with his best performance by far, and once the audience had categorized him as a remarkable untrained talent, with all the romance that label contains, they were loath to recategorise him.

This year's runner-up, NC Karunya, also won a piano round, but last year's runner-up, Amit Sana, just sneaked into the next round, so that's where this trend doesn't seem to hold up. But different trends conflict, and people do like underdogs, as Sana certainly was at the time.

3] Voters like underdogs. If the judges give a contestant a really hard time, it's a sign that all those who already support him will vote extra hard, and he'll arouse the sympathies of others who may not have voted for him. Last year, despite the judges justifiably laying into Ravinder Ravi for a number of rounds, he survived, often not even being in the final three. This year, at around the last-six stage, Sandeep delivered an out-of-tune performance, and was strongly berated by the judges. I knew instantly that was a turning point for him, and he was never in danger after that. Of course, he wasn't just an underdog, but was a competent singer and, most important, extremely likable.

4] Likeability is the most important thing. You have to be personable to win this contest. Singing ability is like a hygience factor: necessary, but not the key differentiator. Both the winners so far, Abhijit Sawant and Sandeep Acharya, are competent singers, but not as good as some of their competitors. But they have pleasant personalities, sweet smiles and are immensely likable.

Karunya is, by a long way, the best singer I've seen on an Indian talent show, but his ambition was perhaps too naked, and he didn't have that boy-next-door feel that Sandeep had about him. He'll clearly go far in his career, and we'll be listening to him decades after Sandeep has vanished from the public eye -- but he was clearly not going to win this one.

There are many factors that go into determining the winner, of course, and none of these, on their own, is enough. A likeable person may not sing well enough, an underdog may not be likable enough, and so on.

My liking for the show, by and by, is not diminished by the fact that the best singer hasn't won in either of the first two years. This is an incredible platform for talented singers, one that they wouldn't have had recourse to 10 years ago, and once its structure is made dependent on public voting, one really can't complain about the results. In a way, it is revealing about the people who watch it, and seeing voting patterns shift from episode to episode, especially as captive voters of voted-out participants reassign their loyalties, is great fun.

One sometimes gets to hear very good singing as well, which is a pleasant bonus.
amit varma, 12:50 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

The absence of a sandwich

I'd written earlier about how atheism is not an act of faith, but an absence of faith. Well, those critics who would contend that even that absence is a sort of faith should check out this post by PZ Myers, in which he writes:
[T]he absence of faith is not faith, any more than the absence of a sandwich is also a kind of tasty snack between two slices of bread.
Heh. Let me clarify, at this point, that I do believe in sandwiches. But when there ain't a sandwich around, there ain't a sandwich around. So there.

(Link via email from Patrix.)
amit varma, 12:22 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Pramod Mahajan wounded by brother

Pramod Mahajan has been shot by his brother, and is reported to be in critical condition. I'm no supporter of the BJP, but I hope Mahajan recovers soon: it is in the hustings that one would like to see him defeated, not here.

His brother has a license for the gun he shot Mahajan with, despite his being allegedly mentally ill. I wonder whose influence got him the gun. I suspect there might be some irony there.

One line of the PTI report is somewhat odd:
[Mukhtar Abbas] Naqvi told PTI that party units across the country have been asked to organise prayer meetings for Mahajan's safe and speedy recovery.
As a token gesture of affection, organising prayer meetings for him is quite okay, but I wonder how many of these chaps actually think that the prayers will have an impact on Mahajan's medical condition. I suspect it might be a worryingly large number. Still, if it makes them feel good...

In other bad news, Aishwarya Rai has fallen off a cycle.

Update: AN Roy, Mumbai's police commissioner, says that the crime was premeditated and that Mahajan's brother "sounded normal and of sound mind when he was interrogated."

Also, Aishwarya Rai is apparently upset at the inclusion of steamy scenes featuring her in the forthcoming film, The Mistress Of Spices. Why did she shoot for them then?
amit varma, 5:23 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Writing for posterity

Man walks into a bar where a bunch of journalists are sitting. Orders a drink, notices that the guy next to him is looking at him, turns and says, "Hi, I'm gay."

Instantly they all whip out their autograph books.

Yes, I rather like the work of Gay Talese myself: there are few men who have written about sport -- in particular boxing -- than this legendary feature writer, who abhors deadlines, has "one of the great wardrobes in American journalism," and describes himself as a "perennial outsider." In a feature on Talese, Jason Horowitz lets him narrate a story about his early days in the New York Times, in the 1950s:
“Though I was doing daily journalism, I thought it would be a reference point for the future,” said Mr. Talese, remembering a day in which he was taking a characteristically long, long time to tinker with a story. That’s when a “third-string labor reporter” began badgering him.

“He was saying, ‘Come on, young man—you are not writing for posterity, you know,’” recalled Mr. Talese, dressed now in a sand-colored three-piece worsted suit that kept the crease well for its 25 years. “It was a revelation, and not a welcome one.”
Ah, well. Blogs, typically, aren't for posterity either, especially filter-and-comment blogs like mine. It is ephemeral, here today, gone tomorrow, permalinked firmly to the past. And satisfying as it is, many of us have other ambitions too, as writers. And there's only so much time. Blogger Sarah Hepola, who recently shut down her blog, explains why in Slate:
Blogging wasn't helping me write; it was keeping me from it.
I know what that feeling is like. And someday I might be faced with the same decision as her. Not fun, not something I'm looking forward to, but this doesn't make me any money, and sometimes one has to choose between passions.

While on the subject of writing, I had a long and fascinating exchange of emails recently with my friend Prem Panicker, where he spoke about the way he wrote and the lessons he learnt from Chaim Potok's "My Name Is Asher Lev." At the end, he pointed me to this beautiful piece he wrote in 1997, about writing and other things. It's old, but age and posterity go well together, and this is a piece you can read 50 years from now and still be moved.

(Talese link via email from Chandrahas, Hepola link via email from, uh, a kind friend.)
amit varma, 12:05 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Friday, April 21, 2006

A monopoly reappears

The Telegraph reports:
The next time you need to send an urgent letter, you may have to depend on snail mail.

The government today proposed amendments to the Indian Post Office Act, 1898, banning private courier companies from carrying letters weighing less than 300 gm.

The private courier industry is livid, but the government’s defence is that it needs this monopoly to be able to fund cheap postal services in remote areas.
Well, I googled for and found the text of the Indian Post Office Act, 1898, and I think it is a monstrosity: It establishes a monopoly, deprives us all of choice as to how we want to send our mail, and prevents would-be entrepreneurs from setting up shop in this area.

Indeed, I believe that if the act was entirely scrapped, the objective that the government cites -- cheap postal services in remote areas -- would be far more quickly achieved. Enabling private enterprise will achieve far more than stifling it, and I know -- duh! -- that's stating the obvious. But too many people still don't get it.

Cross-posted on The Indian Economy Blog.
amit varma, 5:53 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |


Vandana Singh is dead. How did she die? The Times of India reports:
Vandana had told her in-laws and parents, who live in Himachal Pradesh, that last week she had been raped by Darshan Singh, the husband of her sister-in-law. She insisted that she would report the rape to police to get Darshan Singh behind bars.

Her husband and other in-laws discouraged and warned her against reporting the rape. But when she persisted, Manjit Singh [her husband] strangulated her to death, police said.
There are two acts here. One, the rape which harmed the woman. Two, the threatened reporting of the rape, which would harm family honour. And in house upon house, village upon village, city upon city in this large country of ours, there are people who would be more concerned about the honour than the woman.

And as I keep hearing, in the rhetoric that passes for public discourse, phrases like 'family honour,' 'national pride' and 'the common good,' and even terms like 'society' and 'culture,' I get less and less hopeful about the future. All these are so often used to justify the stifling of the rights of individuals, and there is nothing that I consider more sacred. (In fact, nothing else that I consider sacred.)

Er, am I boring you? Sorry!
amit varma, 5:18 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

How to mellow down a high-testosterone man

Show him a pretty picture.

(Link via Mahalanobis via Marginal Revolution. Links probably NSFW.)
amit varma, 5:06 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |


Reuters reports:
A 76-year-old man claiming to be a doctor went door-to-door in a Florida neighborhood offering free breast exams, and was charged with sexually assaulting two women who accepted the offer, police said on Thursday.

One woman became suspicious after the man asked her to remove all her clothes and began conducting a purported genital exam without donning rubber gloves, investigators said.
The gentleman concerned isn't a doctor, of course, but "a shuttle driver for an auto dealership."

There are many ways to react to this, of course. At first sight, it's outrageously funny, especially when one sees the picture that accompanies the article. It's also funnily outrageous, this neighbourhood perv fooling unsuspecting women like this. But most of all, I think it's sad.

What kind of loneliness and desperation would drive a man to do something so self-evidently stupid, so guaranteed to not satisfy, and so certain to backfire? The story has few details, and I wonder what kind of a man he was in the 76 years before we came to hear of him. I don't think we will ever know, for this is all his humanity is reduced to now. And what will the rest of us be reduced to, I wonder.

(Link via email from Varun.)
amit varma, 4:34 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Little to lose and lots to gain

In response to this post of mine, wasted_pseude writes in:
Interesting comment - that coalitions are why the Left is powerful. There is a subject called 'Political Economy' that discusses this at length.

In coalition politics the weaker or the smaller parties always have the maximum power because these parties have little to lose and lots to gain by holding the larger party to ransom. Look at how Jayalalitha toppled the BJP government sometime back.

Always the NGOs and the special interest groups flourish. The funda is very simple. For example what the Narmanda Bachao Andolan wants, they are more passionate about getting that than the mass which would benefit from more electricity.

The groups of goons who go about professing reservations in the private sector want it more than the general public who will lose jobs but since they are larger and there wont be a direct impact it is tough to mobilise the general public to fight back

So in the end the majority are not who make the policy or win in a democratic or political setup but the minority who can mobilise and have the intent to fight battle.
Fair point. The problem would not be so acute if individual freedoms, in both an economic and social sense, were protected by the constitution, and if there was an understanding that taxpayers' money can only be spent on a few essential things. But special interests groups abound, and so does pork.

Oink oink, they cried. Then the thugs came to my larder to steal my food and feed the pigs. Tell me, is it fair?
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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Kissing, frogs and colonial relics

Large quantities of work and movement have kept me from blogging the last three days, and my email has also piled up: if each unread email could manifest itself as a thin envelope under my rugged but sensuous backside, I would be at least six feet above sea level. (I have painstakingly measured this.) I will, thus, blog with more frequency from tomorrow, and will narrate many wonderful adventures to you, such as my vicarious brush with "urban Delhi monkeys." Until then, a few links.

First up, Rediff informs us of a fine for kissing in public that amounts to Rs 500. Much to my dismay, it does not mention what the fine for kissing in private is, so I am uncertain of my plans for this evening. (Link via email from MadMan.)

However, I am pleased to inform you that if you are a frog, the Shiv Sena has a job for you. Read.

If, on the other hand, you happen to be a duck, you will be more valued in China. (And personally, I'm very impressed that you can read.) (Link via email from Ani.)

The Times of India informs us that the Bar Council of India has ruled that the phrases 'My Lord' and 'Your Lordship' will no longer be used in court because they are "relics of the colonial past." Instead, 'Your Honour' and 'Honourable Court' will be used, presumably because they are not relics.

Some friends of mine keep ribbing me about how well my blog is supposedly doing, and I take this opportunity to point them to a story about a Mumbai-based blogger who is scaling much higher heights. (Link via email from Nikhil.)

On a serious note, Shilpa Bhatnagar is rightly upset that some jerkacious blogger has been copying posts from her blog and many others. Plagiarism isn't unusual in the blogosphere, but because of tools like Copyscape, it is inevitably uncovered. No place to hide, and suchlike.
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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Of Salim's kababs and Bappida's mudpie

"No better tourist guide doth walk upon this earth than a youthful blogger," Samuel Johnson once said (ok, he didn't, but he could have), and I found out the truth in this bit of ancient wisdom while walking around Khan Market in Delhi with Jabberwock a couple of evenings ago. We were going to an ice-cream joint called the Big Chill (more on it later), inside a gully on the side of the marketplace. On the way, he pointed to what looked like a mechanic's shop and exhorted me to try the kabab rolls there sometime.

"As you command sire," I replied with characteristic humility.

So the next day I felt hungry and returned to the gully. Most great kabab joints can be identified from far away. There is a look that goes with them: large ovens with many skewers, sidey characters all around, smoke rising gently, and the smell, such aroma! All of these were entirely missing from the utterly nondescript Salim Kabab Corner.

And yet, what food! Their Mutton Seek Roomali Roll [sic], especially with a double portion of seekh, is highly recommended (by me, though Mr Johnson would certainly have approved as well), with the juicy taste and chewy texture of meat cooked fresh and just right coming through unhindered by the taste of too much masala, which spoils many kababs. Yummacious.

Here's a picture of the place: say hi to Khurshid, Javed and Kamruddin when you go there.

And then, of course, there's The Big Chill. A friend in Mumbai -- stand up, George -- had effusively gushed (as opposed to non-effusively gushed; such a bad writer I am becoming) about the Mississippi Mudpie there, which is pictured below, and which I thoroughly enjoyed. Anything with chocolate sauce is divine, frankly.

While travelling through Pakistan earlier this year, I'd gone to dessert joints in both Lahore and Karachi that were just like this in terms of menu and decor: vintage Hollywood posters, especially of noir and B-Grade horror films, all around the walls. It's an interesting restomeme, if I may coin a neologism, but why not try an Indian theme? Mithun posters on the wall, Laluji ke samosay on the menu, and Bappi Lahiri imitation gold necklaces available as merchandise. Such fun would result, and I'm sure it would be a hit.

As Bill Shakepeare once said, "Heaven hath no fun like Bappida in a thong." Well, ok, never mind!

Update: Here's an interesting comparison of food in Delhi and Mumbai on the blog of a new friend of mine, who divides his time between these two cities.
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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Mr Navalkar, Mr Sethi and the sundar aunty

I'm madly busy today (like yesterday and tomorrow) running around in Delhi, so blogging has been light. To cover up for the lack of frequent posting, let me leave you with a few quick links.

First up, here's a succinct biography of Pramod Navalkar that dinosaurs, if they existed, would be profoundly disturbed and offended by. Neat. (Link via 'Indian Idiot' via email from Yazad.)

Meanwhile, bar owners in Mumbai are pissed because the president of the "Fight for Rights of Bar Owners' Association," Manjit Singh Sethi, has been sent to jail "for allegedly making disparaging remarks against ministers' wives."

I wonder if Mr Sethi was also in action at The War For News, where the comments are generating a fair bit of heat, notably from visualscribe. (Link via email from, um, a kind friend.)

One thing is for sure: Mr Sethi will get no Awadhi food in jail. Mmm.

Down South, J Jayalalitha has offered rice to her subjects at 25p a KG cheaper than her rival, M Karunanidhi. You do realise, don't you, that the promises of both these noble personalities will be subsidised by our hard-earned taxes?

Slightly less South, in Mumbai in fact, Gaurav Sabnis has pointed out that the real benefits of privatisation and liberalisation always go to the little guy. People who worry about big multinationals running amok are hereby urged to read and reflect on the third paragraph of his post.

Reader Ravneet, after reading my post about my flight from Mumbai to Delhi, shares with me his her first experience of flying:
I remember, my first time on a plane, I was 14 I think and my younger brother all of 6, and we were flying Delhi-Bombay. Much to my chagrin, and at the behest of my parents, I had to let him have the window seat. As the plane lifted above the clouds, and we were flying over them, my brother turned around and asked in the befuddlest(!) possible voice "How come I dont see God around anywhere?"

Yes, it manages to bring a smile to my face even today.

On an aside, in the same flight, when served chicken(living upto the reputation of airline food) by the airhostess, this punjabi-cuisine-pampered brat had remarked aloud "Ye aunty to sundar hai, par inko khana banana nahi aata."
Such fun. And having remarked thuslike, I can't resist the temptation of leaving you with these three fine headlines from, who else, Mid Day:

One month jail for blocking train doors
Parsi triplets offer hope to the community
'JJ docs have stomach upset, not gastro'

Ba now.
amit varma, 3:27 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, April 17, 2006

See the clouds!

After waiting 20 minutes in an Air Deccan queue early this morning, I had just reached the check-in counter and was about to ask for my usual emergency row seat -- more legroom and suchlike -- when a lady jumped the queue and slammed her reservation printout on the counter.

"Um, excuse me," I said, "there is a queue."

"There are two queues," she remarked forcefully.

"Er, what?" I said.

"Yes, there are two queues. You are in one queue and I am in the other."

I asked the girl behind the counter if there were two queues. "No," she replied, befuddled. "There's only one queue."

"No," insisted the lady. "There are two queues. There are always two queues!"

I looked her with profound pathos. "I regret to announce, Madam," I said, "that this is not Churchgate station."

Then I added, "And although it is not relevant, let me add that you have the build of an exceedingly unattractive hippo."

Ok, ok, I didn't say that last line. But I could have!

* * *

On the flight I didn't have either window or aisle, but a middle seat. An elderly gentleman came and sat next to me on the aisle seat. I realised that he was a first-time flier when he asked me how to fasten the seatbelt, which I duly showed him. Then, as the plane began motoring down the runaway, I heard something that sounded like a chant. He was sitting upright, completely stiff, and his hands were folded. "Jai Shree Ram," he said, not with fear but in awe.

As the plane took off and the ground left us, he stared past me out the window and chanted, "Jai Shree Ram. Jai Shree Raam. Jai Shree Raaaam."

I narrate this not to make fun of him: I was immensely excited the first time I got on a plane, as a kid, and I'm sure you were too. But as we travel and travel and travel, we get jaded and bored and used to it all. But now, thanks to this gentleman besides me, I felt that shiver, and a bit of that excitement. How fast this plane was going! How small all the houses looked! See the clouds!

And then at one point over the sea the plane dipped slightly and changed direction, and Mumbai's skyline was visible in the distance, beyond an expanse of water which glistened with sunlight. It was a wow! moment.

Then back to jadedness and inflight magazines.

* * *

At Delhi airport, as we queued up for prepaid cabs, I saw a Lufthansa sign which said, "Fly twice daily from Delhi to Frankfurt and Munich." And I thought, cool, I'll fly once, but how will I get back in time to fly the second time?
amit varma, 12:34 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

OP Nayyar found

So says Mid Day.

I didn't even know he was lost. Anyway, relief comes.
amit varma, 12:35 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Look ma, no dhoklas

Narendra Modi has threatened to go on a fast.

Sadly, it's only for 51 hours. As the marvellous sidebar on that article points out, it won't do him much harm. It could make him irritable, though, and that can't be a good thing.
amit varma, 12:26 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Economics as a guide to human behaviour

A version of this review, of "The Undercover Economist" by Tim Harford, was published today in the Indian Express.

Art aims to reveal the human condition, but there is no better way to understand human behaviour than through the tools of economics. After all, we live in a world of scarcity, none more so than of time, and are buffetted constantly by incentives of various kinds to do various things. Thinking like an economist helps us to understand the complex web of interactions that exist between us, and to make clear choices.

For decades, though, economics has been regarded as a ‘dismal science’, an arcane subject with no relevance to common life. But that is a mistaken belief, and just as popular science books gave science a wider audience from the 1970s onwards, a series of books and websites are performing the same service for economics. Blogs like Marginal Revolution, Café Hayek, Asymmetrical Information and EconLog have made econo-junkies out of tens of thousands of people in the online world, an audience reflected in meatspace by the success of “Freakonomics” last year. The latest in that list is “The Undercover Economist” by Tim Harford, a book that turns the jargon of economics into the lingo of cool kids, and is enlightening and fun at the same time. About how many books can you say that?

If you head out to your local outlet of Barista, you will notice that a cappucino costs Rs 33 while a Café Mocha costs Rs 47. Both cost approximately the same to make, so why this difference in price? Why are economy lounges in airports across the world so uniformly shabby? Why are books first released in hardcover and later in paperback? Why is popcorn so expensive in movie halls? Harford draws on examples from our daily lives and uses them to illustrate basic concepts of economics, such as marginal cost, information asymmetry, price targeting and externality pricing.

Some of the truths that economics teaches us are commonsensical, but other are deeply unintuitive: the fact that the world is non-zero-sum, for example, and that everyone can benefit at the same time, or that markets don’t need central planners, and prosperity is caused by “human action but not human design”, as the economist Friedrich Hayek would have put it. Harford illustrates this well, likening a well-functioning free market to a ‘World of Truth’, with prices acting as the spies that reveal valuable information about the world. Interfering with this ‘World of Truth’, as subsidies and tariffs and taxes inevitably do, harms all of us and destroys value. Special-interest groups do this in some countries, dictators in others, and Harford writes about it with such lucidity that many such pernicious examples from India will no doubt pop up in your mind.

“The Undercover Economist” is no weighty tome, though, pontificating grandly on the world. Instead, it’s a book with utility, which will help you decipher the world around you a little better, and will even save you a few rupees every time you go to the supermarket. Also, it’s out in paperback in India, which indicates exactly what the publisher thinks of you. Buy it nevertheless: you will both benefit.
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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Amartya Sen for president

Ram Guha makes the case here.

Sen would certainly be a vast improvement on some of the gentlemen who have held this ceremonial post, and that reason -- Guha's first one -- is enough for me. His four other reasons seem contrived.

His second reason is that Sen as president would "be good for India’s image abroad." Come, come, I think India's large markets and strategic positioning in South Asia are attractive enough for the outside world, we really don't need softsell.

Guha's third reason is that Sen would "be the perfect bridge between the two most important forces currently in Indian politics — the Congress and the parliamentary left." Well, the Left has just 60 out of 543 seats in the 14th Lok Sabha, and its importance comes about because of the way the coalitions have formed themselves. They've held up crucial reforms at the centre, and are a largely destructive force, except in the state of West Bengal, where being in power has led them to behave fairly responsibly. One hopes that their importance will diminish to reflect their popular support (or rather, the relative lack of it) by the next elections. What the country needs is not a bridge between the Congress and the Left, but a break.

Guha's fourth reason isn't clearly stated in the article, and I couldn't figure out what it was, unless he's saying that the presidentship would be good for Sen personally. Why should that be a concern of ours?

The fifth reason is that it would be good for Bengal. As a half-Bengali (and therefore a quarter-wit, as I like to joke), let me say that any self-respecting Bengali would be affronted by that statement. Bengal doesn't need Amartya Sen to do well for itself. (And no, we are not going to discuss Sourav Ganguly now. Shoo!)

But I support Guha's assertion that Sen would make an ideal president. One reason is good enough for that, and there's no need to find four more.
amit varma, 3:49 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Arguing about Indian cricket

I'm editing a cricket discussion over at Wicket to Wicket on "The two Indias", examining why India's doing so well in one-day internationals of late while not performing quite as well in Test matches. My introduction to the discussion is here, and Ashok Malik begins off by lambasting Greg Chappell, and holding him responsible. Dileep Premachandran gives a strong reply here, and Prem Panicker backs him up here. Fine writers, good fun.

My take: well, briefly, I think that the resources needed to win Tests and ODIs are entirely different, and while we're brimming with good ODI resources, we haven't got enough in the bag in Tests -- yet. Even there, though, it takes time to build a team, and I think the sample size of Tests under Chappell is too small to comment. Also, we risk confusing correlation with causation if we hold Chappell responsible for the recent Test defeats at Karachi and Mumbai -- and if we do insist on giving him the blame for that, surely we should give him credit, then, for India's remarkable resurgance in one-day cricket?

I think we need to wait somewhat longer before passing judgement one way or another.
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Friday, April 14, 2006

Off to the Sangeet!

All my life, I've seen Hindi films in which inevitably a sangeet happens and boys and girls split the room in two and dance in beautifully choreographed steps in ornate clothes and immaculate makeup. Well, today I go to my first-ever real-life sangeet. One of my very best buddies gets married tomorrow, and despite the ignominy of not being able to arrange a bachelor party with Russian strippers for him -- bhabhiji would have disapproved -- I've been invited to the sangeet.

Much fear comes as I step into the unknown: will my paunch show through my kurta? How will I manouver my churidar if I need to pee? What if there is bhangra music playing and I am asked to dance by people I can't turn down? Well, what to do, for the pleasure of seeing a dear friend in great happiness, no sacrifice is too much. Off I go!
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Law and order

The most important function of a government, by far, is to maintain law and order. It is, thus, terribly disappointing to see that our massively bloated government, which is quite efficient in stifling private enterprise and wasting taxpayers' money on thousands of things it has no business doing, can't fulfil its most important function efficiently. I don't need to point to Bihar or the Jessica Lal case to show you examples: just take the last couple of days.

First, some idiots in Bangalore start rioting because a film-star they like is dead. Immense destruction of property takes place, a policeman is beaten to death, others also die in the violence. A psychiatrist gives soundbytes about this is "a deviant way of expressing love and affection" and "a kind of competitive destruction."(This link via Richa.)

Meanwhile, we learn that after the fire in Meerut, "miscreants and criminals" came to the venue of the tragedy "like vultures and took out bangles, mangalsutras, nose rings and finger rings from dead bodies," and "many purses were collected from the dead bodies and those seriously injured [my emphasis] ... Even the petticoats and bras of the dead or the injured were searched as ladies often keep money inside the lining of their petticoats or under the bras."

The report, in the Hindustan Times, continues:
Meanwhile, the BJP and the Congress have alleged that many counter girls are untraceable.

The services of these counter girls were requisitioned from New Delhi, NOIDA and Ghaziabad to manage counters and boost sales, according to Vajpayee only four counter girls are admitted to hospitals in Meerut.

There were more than 100 counter girls who had been appointed to give fillip to sales and to explain to customers vividly about the products on display. It is learnt that in great hurry the bulldozers were ordered to remove the debris from the Victoria Park and many bodies were removed in the name of debris removal.

This was done to lower the figures of the tragedy at the instance of the chief minister the BJP alleged.
If it so happens that you are the victim of a crime, and need to file an FIR, well, I hope you're not in Raipur, where a district official has been quoted as admitting that "It's very common ... that police personnel seek cash for FIRs, mainly from poor people."

The rich can buy their own protection, of course, or subvert the system. What about the rest of us? We merely pay the salaries of those who are supposed to protect us. Heh.

PS: Do read Jane Galt's explanation of last year's Paris riots, which go some way towards explaning these. I'd earlier linked to it here.
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Maybe they should have cooked a convict

One Anee gets together with some other Anees and they cook a fellow who's been arrested. Well, that's one way of reading this headline.

amit varma, 3:14 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

"I'd like to have an argument please"

This is outrageously funny. Such relevance...

(Link via Gaurav in the comments of this post.)
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Mera Bharat mahan (lekin janta pareshan)

That's just one among many entertaining slogans found on the backs of rickshaws across the subcontinent, as reported on a blog set up to document just such fun: Rickshaw!.

(Link via email from Quizman.)
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Oops, we got the wrong guy

AP reports on a school in Utah that booked Jon Stewart for a show, advertised that fact, sold tickets, and then realised that they'd booked not Jon Stewart the comedian but "Jon A. Stewart, a former motivational speaker, businessman and part-time professional wrestler from Chicago."

Immense joy. I have also heard a similar story involving Bishan Singh Bedi and the genial sports journalist Harpal Singh Bedi, but as that might well be apocryphal, I won't repeat it here. But, tee hee, it makes me smile.
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Why rapists shouldn't get the death sentence

Sometime last year, I was discussing crime and punishment with my good buddy Yazad Jal. "If you introduce the death penalty for rapists," Yazad told me, "you will give rapists incentive to murder." It struck me then as an excellent insight, and Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek now elaborates in an article in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
Put yourself in the place of a man who is a threat to rape women. If you learn that rapists will no longer merely be locked in prison for years but, instead, executed, you're a bit less likely than before to rape. That's good. But suppose that this higher "marginal" cost of committing a rape isn't sufficient to prevent you from raping a woman. So you rape a woman. Once you commit the rape, you are subject to being executed if you're caught and convicted.

What will you now lose by becoming also a murderer? Nothing. In fact, you have everything to gain by killing your rape victim. If you let her live, you run a real risk of being identified, captured and convicted -- and then executed. But if you murder the woman after you rape her, you reduce your chances of being caught and convicted. (The chief eyewitness to your heinous crime, after all, will be in her grave.) So with nothing to lose and much to gain by killing your rape victim, you're more likely to kill her than you would be if the penalty for rape were lower than is the penalty for murder.

Punishing rape less severely than murder ensures that rapists still have something more to lose if they kill their victims. [Emphasis in the original.]
Quite. You might argue that such crimes are committed by people when they are not in the grip of reason, but are slave to their passions. Do consider, though, that just as the passions are sometimes rationalised to sound reasonable, so too does reason sometimes keep a check on emotion. We are all, after all, creatures of volition.

Darn, that last para was too verbose. I must go and read some Dr Seuss now. Ta.

Update: Here's an old post by Naveen Mandava on the subject.
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Thursday, April 13, 2006


Alex Tabarrok wants a change of name. Heh.

Being a mere blogger, I don't have his problem. In The Indian Economy Blog, we go by alphabetic order of first name. Muhahaha.
amit varma, 11:34 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |


There's a "mystery hero" in town.
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US$ 218 trillion

Some people do spend too much time on the phone, but even then...

(Link via an anonymous reader.)
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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

It's the thought that counts, right?

Once when I was a kid I went to a friend's birthday party and handed over a gift. She opened the wrapping and told me that she already had a copy of the book I'd painstakingly picked, but hell, it was the thought that counted and all that. Have some cake and suchlike, she said. I did.

Unfortunately, for too many of our policy-makers, it's only the thought that counts. If certain policies are meant to counter poverty, it hardly matters if they don't work in practice, as long as the gents pushing them can, on the basis of their intentions, project themselves as wise and compassionate. (I'd once written about this disconnect between intention and outcome here.) Most poverty alleviation schemes in India fall in this category: they rely on redistribution, which inevitably fails, and anyone who opposes the policies on the grounds that they do not work is attacked as not caring for the poor.

Ditto for social inequities. No one disputes that there is a serious problem of caste discrimination in India, and that this is not something that happened in the past, but continues to this day. But are reservations the right way to counter this? If so, are reservations in higher education the way forward? Too often, people who raise these questions are shouted down and accused of having a vested interest, especially if they happen to be, for no fault of their own, from a higher caste. Ask what reservations have achieved in the 50 years we've had them, and you'll be given a dose of self-righteous contempt, as if you are the one discriminating between castes. But these questions need to be raised, no?

One also sees too many ludicrous arguments raised defending the reservations recently proposed by Arjun Singh, some of which Dhoomketu takes on here (Update: Also see his post here). Falstaff also has excellent posts on the subject here and here, while Naveen gets tongue-in-cheek here. I thought I'd try to write a sarcy post arguing for 49% reservations in the Indian cricket team and in all domestic flights in India, which would hopefully illustrate the long-term effects of such pernicious policies, but I'm too jaded to argue on this subject, and don't want to get into silly little blog wars in which my motives will be questioned and I'll be subjected to personal abuse and so on, as inevitably happens on such issues.

But where do I stand? Very briefly, I agree with those who say that by focussing on reservations in higher education, the government is treating the symptoms and not the disease. Focussing on strengthening primary education would make much more sense, and we need to empower the poorer people in our country instead of throwing them crumbs they can't use. For that, we need more reforms, mostly to policies that claim to benefit the poor but do not. Sadly, with the primacy that is given to intentions over outcome in our country, change seems a long, long way away.

And ah, haven't you yet read the government ruling that 49% of all blogs read by Indians must be written by 'previously disadvantaged' bloggers? If you don't read your quota today, they'll redistribute my traffic tomorrow, so as to end this elite-blogger hegemony. Rush, rush...

Update: Neha has a nice post here, Rashmi expresses herself here, and Bhavya has some things to say here. Evenstar is collating anti-reservation posts here. If you're so inclined, you can also sign a petition against the reservations here.

Update 2: Here's another fine post by Falstaff.

Update 3 (April 13): Do read all the comments on Dhoomketu's post: priceless.
amit varma, 4:55 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Dance dance dance

What's the High Court doing ruling for freedom? Don't give me hope, yer honour, because we all know it leads to disappointment.

(Link via email from MadMan.)
amit varma, 4:32 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Glad to meet ya, Willa

Chandrahas completes one year at The Middle Stage and invites us all to a party.

Pardy, pardy, pardy! Such fun.
amit varma, 3:42 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Would Mr Karunakaran like to enlarge his party?

Given how he's named it, I'm afraid that's an inevitable question from spammers.

Update: Ramanand writes in to point me to the last line of this article, where said organ meets 'hand'. Obviously pleasure results. (Ramanand got the link via George.)

Update 2 (April 13): Reader Rahul Nair writes in to point me to this piece, where the following three priceless lines are written:
He said it was weak forces in the LDF which were opposed to the entry of DIC(K). "The strong force has no objection [to the entry]."
...those who came in contact with the DIC(K) would have to take bath...
Asked about the reported statements of Congress leaders, including Ramesh Chennithala and Vayalar Ravi, inviting DIC(K) workers back into the Congress, Mr. Karunakaran said: "They have nothing else in hand..."
Needless to say, my heart is filled with joy.
amit varma, 3:28 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

An MBA lesson from a taxi driver

This is such fun -- a fine example of what dynamic thinking can achieve even in a seemingly mundane profession.

(Link via Simon World, via email from Aadisht Khanna, who discovers the futility of regulation here. Heh. I'm loving it.)
amit varma, 2:24 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Devaluing Test cricket?

Alex Bowden writes in:
Should Australia really be playing Test cricket? I think they're devaluing the game with their incompetence. It's just cheap wickets and easy runs for the Bangladeshis.
Heh. Regardless of whether or not Bangladesh win this Test, they've come a long way and they'll go much further. More power to them and their coach, Dav Whatmore.
amit varma, 2:08 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

"The diet made me popular"

Romano Prodi has won the elections in Italy. And this headline indicates that he's lost weight. I love exercise, especially when other people do it and they allow me to watch.
amit varma, 6:12 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

"Mandal's biggest victims have been Dalits"

So says Gaurav Sabnis in his latest post, which glances underneath the rhetoric around reservations and takes a deeper look at its repurcussions. Do read.
amit varma, 4:53 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Me, I'm sorry for the chinkara

There seems to be an outpouring of sympathy for Salman Khan today, now that he's been given a five-year sentence in a case of poaching. There are stories focussing on the hardship he is undergoing in prison, while waiting for his bail application to be heard. "Like other convicts, Salman will have only jail food, and will sleep on the floor without a pillow," reports Mid Day. The Telegraph documents his typical meal: "[A] dinner of 375 gm of chapati (two-three) and 450 gm of vegetable curry."

Bollywood is speaking out on his behalf, of course, with Anubhav Sinha making the case that as some crimes are not punished, none should be. He is quoted in the Times of India as saying: "I want to know why the man who killed Jessica Lall walked away free? A celebrity is a sitting duck."

Tsk tsk. I don't know the law in question -- and none of the papers have quoted the exact law that covers this crime -- but if a five-year sentence is allowed within that, then well, what grounds does anyone have of saying that the sentence is "unusually harsh," as ToI does?

Such talk is common around Salman. This is a man who is involved in multiple poaching cases, though they pale before the incident when he allegedly ran over some pavement dwellers. He has been known to physically abuse his girlfriends, and he famously stalked Aishwarya Rai for a while after they broke up. And yet, Bollywood people, many of whom no doubt have vested interests, are always rushing to praise him.

"He has a heart of gold and has always helped the needy," Pahlaj Nihalini once said to Rediff, while his official website proclaims that he "[c]an be very caring, very protective, very loving, and also childishly petulant." Heck, I've met a lot of people who pout and say things like "But Sallu is such a sweetheart, I don't know why everyone says such bad things about the poor darling." And suchlike.

People used to say similar things about Sanjay Dutt as well, that he was "just an overgrown boy" and so on, but Dutt, at least, didn't go around breaking the law as if he owned the country. I would expect Salman's family and friends to support him, but I'm surprised that a lot of the media coverage is on the same lines. Maybe I shouldn't be. After all, we're a country that's crazy about celebrity, as the rehabilitation of Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja proves. The glitter is everything, little else matters.

Now wait for the feature stories tomorrow on how much damage this will do to the industry, and how much money rides on his films. Heck, with so much at stake, what's a chinkara or a pavement dweller or two? No?

Update: Had this truck started...
amit varma, 4:01 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Bandra through fresh eyes

All ye jaded Bandra boys, watch out, Manish Vij is in town, and he's going to show you your suburb in an entirely new light. Yep, the Sepia Mutiny man is in Mumbai for a few months, and he brings with him a pair of (for now) fresh eyes, and a very keen sense of culture. Here are some nice pictures by him of Bandra, with pithy commentary that I rather enjoyed. Fun comes.

I had a couple of meals with Manish over the weekend, and although he likes Devdas -- we all have our quirks, I suppose -- a mighty fine time was had by all. Er, at least by me.
amit varma, 2:58 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Monday, April 10, 2006

Commercialising editorial space

The Daily News reports:
A New York Post Page Six staffer solicited $220,000 from a high-profile billionaire in return for a year's "protection" against inaccurate and unflattering items about him in the gossip page, the Daily News has learned.

In two 90-minute meetings, characterized by a shocking breach of ethics, Jared Paul Stern, a fixture on the city's gossip scene who also edited Page Six The Magazine, asked for a series of payments from Ron Burkle, the managing partner of Yucaipa Cos., a conglomerate with interests in supermarkets, celebrity clothing lines, and media.

It was all a setup, a sting monitored by law enforcement, including the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI, who are now investigating the extortion attempt.
Yes, outrageous, and I'm delighted that the gentleman is question faces public disgrace. Many in the Times of India, of course, would be wondering what the fuss is all about -- after all, they sold the sanctity of editorial space ages ago.

(DN link via Fine On Media.)
amit varma, 11:46 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

In love with cricket...

... and married to baseball! Do read about Amartya 'Marty' Ray, cricket fan from Kolkata who now works for the Red Sox in Boston. I love the story, because it's such an apt illustration of worlds coming together, which I hope the age we are living through will be remembered for.

It could also be remembered for being a time of worlds in collision, but I do not wish to discuss that on a Monday morning. Where's my caffeine?

(Link via email from Manish Vij.)
amit varma, 11:45 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Should you, like, drown...

BG Verghese, arguing for work on the Narmada Dam to continue, comes up with this remarkable line:
Special provision can be made, including a compensation package for those — if any — eligible for R&R but inadequately provided for, or not at all, should they suffer submergence.
So if your property has been stolen by the state for the "greater good," and if you have subsequently suffered submergence, kindly contact the relevant ministry and they will give you a form to fill in triplicate. What's that? You want to breathe? How insensitive!
amit varma, 10:18 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

What people want

Two headlines come together in DNA:

Thousands brave rain to vote in Assam
Bong bombshell raises temperatures

amit varma, 9:57 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Want to start a campus radio station?

You'll have to take permission from four ministries. That is one of many revelations by Gurcharan Das in this almost-inspiring story about an electronics repairman who started a community radio station "from his thatched roof shop by slinging a transmitter on a bamboo pole with a total investment of Rs 50." Naturally, he didn't last long: his audience loved it, but the government shut his station down, for obvious reasons.

People often assume that my being libertarian implies that I want an India with no government at all. Not true. I understand what it is realistic to hope for in the short-to-medium term, and I'm quite okay with paying taxes and with the government using my money for all kinds of harebrained social-upliftment programs and poverty-alleviation schemes and suchlike (which are fine in intent but never achieved the desired results in practice), but all I ask is that the government get out of the way of private enterprise, such as that of the gentleman in Das's story. Once that happens, I think people will eventually realise by themselves that many of the things they look to governments to do are far more easily achieved by individuals empowered with the freedom to pursue their dreams.

And in case those words raise your hackles, by private enterprise I don't mean Microsoft and Coke and MacDonald's, but the millions of enterprising young people who can create wealth for themselves and the people around them if our oppressive government would just let them. As long as the rule of law is well applied, no further regulation is needed. India needs to enourage value-creation, not rent-seeking.

I'd written earlier on this topic here. Hell, thank god the invisible pink unicorn that one doesn't need a license to start a blog. You wouldn't be reading this then.
amit varma, 5:40 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Protectionism and xenophobia...

... often go hand in hand.

The sad part is, there's a market, if I may use that term in entirely intended irony, for both.
amit varma, 5:32 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Who's going to get taken in by this?

This is like the Nazi Party starting an outreach program for Jews. Ah, the hypocrisy that democracy demands!
amit varma, 5:09 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Policemen with stopwatches

Isn't that a natural consequence of this?

Sigh. I wouldn't be linking to this if I thought the likes of RR Patil and Pramod Navalkar read my blog. Don't want to give them ideas...
amit varma, 3:23 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Elevator music can transform a life

What the... ? This is one dissident artist whose performances I don't ever want to see.

(Link via km.)
amit varma, 2:21 AM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Boredom hath no cure like...

... Mid Day. Such headlines they come up with. Here's a sampling from today:

Cheaters prosper at Malad school
Magnetic More draws lawyers for appeal...
Eunuch dodges cops in late night pursuit
Schoolboys-turned-bike chors nabbed
Three-year-old swallows whistle

Much to my dismay, the last story wasn't about youthful swallows whistling for the benefit of Mid Day reporters. Still...
amit varma, 10:22 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage |

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