Blog Posts by Amit Varma

  • It’s Only Words

    The world is so insane that it is a wonder satirists have a job. I read recently in Hindustan Times -- yes, HT, not an Indian version of The Onion -- that the makers of Golmaal 3 have been sued by The Indian Stammering Association "for mocking people who stammer." Shreyas Talpade stammers in the film, and the other characters reportedly keep making fun of him. (I haven't seen the film.) So this organisation of stammerers is upset about it, and they're going to court. So far, an association of mute people hasn't surfaced to join in the revelry -- Tusshar Kapoor plays a mute character in the film, and ends up landing the heroine, which does not surprise me: which woman can resist a man who just shuts up and listens?

    Seriously, are we a society of eight-year-olds? Even if the explicit intent of the film was to make fun of people who stammer -- and it obviously wasn't -- so what? Such mockery always reflects badly on those doing the mocking, not on those being mocked. Why be so sensitive

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  • No, We Can’t

    Barack Obama's visit to India has made him such a huge celebrity here that it's a wonder he hasn't yet been asked to appear on Bigg Boss. I can imagine the housemates being given a task: 'The President is coming, prepare for the president's visit.' So they get all set to greet Obama: Veena Malik puts on her best make up and pouts in front of the mirror, Dolly Bindra personally supervises the making of special gaajar ka halwa with secret ingredients, Ashmit Patel and Hrishant Goswami trim their eyebrows again, Shweta Tiwari puts on a finely-tailored, figure-hugging anarkali churidar kurta, and choreographs a dance for herself, Manoj Tiwari composes and practises a Bhojpuri song written specially for the occasion, Mahabali Khali practises punching through walls to impress the president, Sara Khan decides that she will try and call Obama 'Pops' so as to cuddle up to him, and they all line up in the garden as the moment nears. The gates swing open. Pratibha Patil walks in.

    Okay, this is

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  • Traffic Lights and Potholes

    It's absolutely freaky, the shit that happens in the USA. A few days ago, my friend (and renowned former blogger) Manish Vij lodged the following complaint online about a traffic signal (reproduced with permission; I've changed road and city names):

    "The traffic signal on [AB-CD] Rd. at [XY] Dr. needs to be adjusted for traffic at night. The last five nights, the signal for through traffic on [AB-CD] has been red for up to 2 minutes when I've hit the signal between 1 and 4 am. It's especially odd because [XY] is a small street which T intersections into [AB-CD], and even during the day rarely has more than a handful of cars turning left onto [AB-CD]."

    Within two hours -- yes, two hours -- he got the following reply in his email inbox:

    "Hi Manish,

    The signalized intersection at [AB-CD] Rd. and [XY] Dr. is on a recall timing because of the recent construction of the new ramps some of the traffic detector loops have been cut. We have scheduled them to be replaced soon after the ramps at

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  • Kindle Your Children

    Growing up, I was a lucky kid. My father was an avid reader, and his collection of books numbered in the thousands. It wasn't a surprise, then, with books all around me, that I became a keen reader as well. At an age when other children dream of being astronauts or movie stars or cricketers, I wanted to be a writer. And I wasn't just reading Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys -- at age ten, I discovered a book called The House of the Dead, thought the title indicated a thrilling read, and embarked on my first foray into serious literature. It happened to be written by a dude named Dostoevsky, and while it didn't contain the ghost stories I expected, it got me hooked. Dostoevsky was my first favourite, and I admit that looking back on it, I find it a bit freaky that I read all the major Russian novelists at age ten, and all of Shakespeare as well. (I liked Titus Andronicus more than Macbeth, so it's fair to say that my tastes weren't all that refined.)

    My reading habit ebbed and flowed over

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  • Politics and Inheritance

    One of the defining images of Indian politics of recent times came a few days ago in Mumbai when Aditya Thackeray stood on a stage at a Shiv Sena rally, drew a sword out of its sheath, and held it aloft. He had just been handed his inheritance -- not the sword, but a political party. His grandfather Balasaheb Thackeray had just launched him in politics, and told the world that the Shiv Sena would now belong to him. (Not in so many words, of course: he asked SS supporters to 'bless' the young man.) And thus, a political party in the world's largest democracy was handed over.

    With a couple of exceptions, this is the fate of almost all Indian political parties. They are feudal and are run by dominant families like family-owned firms -- which some might consider apt because the business of democracy is, after all, a business. The Congress is owned by the Gandhis: Rahul is almost uniformly considered to be a future prime minister, and most of their young leaders are themselves children of

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  • Such a Wrong Journey

    You have to feel sorry for poor Rohinton Mistry. A few years ago he cancelled a book tour in the US because on its first leg, "as a person of colour he was stopped repeatedly and rudely at each airport along the way - to the point where the humiliation of both he and his wife [became] unbearable." This was in the aftermath of 9/11, with racial profiling in full swing and Mistry, brown and bearded, having the wrong kind of looks. Still, he could have consoled himself with the thought that the US isn't where he's from, and he would never be treated that way in Canada, where he lives, or in Mumbai, where he was born. Right?

    Ah well. While Mistry in person hasn't been harrassed, his Booker-nominated book, Such a Long Journey, was recently withdrawn from the Mumbai University syllabus because of a protest spearheaded by Aditya Thackeray, the 20-year-old grandson of Bal Thackeray. Thackeray Jr., who is being launched in politics as the head of the Yuva Sena, a youth wing of the Shiv Sena,

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  • The Pursuit of Friendship

    Money can't buy you love -- but it can rent you friendship. I was taken aback yesterday by an interesting report on the BBC website about how "friend rental services are launching in more and more countries." The report focuses on one such service named Rentafriend, which was originally launched as a "a friendship-cum-social networking site, designed to take advantage of the fact that nowadays people often live far away from where they grew up and work long hours, leaving limited time to meet new people." It is "explicitly stated" on the site that it is "not ... a form of escort or dating service," which the report bears out.

    To use the service, you need to sign up, pay a membership fee, and browse for a friend who you'd like to hang out with. You then rent their time, paying for all expenses incurred while you're spending time with them -- like buying them coffee or tickets to a movie. Then, when the meter runs out, you bid them goodbye -- or maybe take an appointment for another

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  • Let’s Talk About Sex

    Location: A small preview theatre in South Mumbai. Characters: Five members of the Censor Board for Cinema in India, and a young bespectacled man, his brows furrowed, looking younger than his years despite streaks of grey in his hair. They are watching a film called Lunch, Snacks aur Dhokla.

    The film is centred around the instinct to eat, and the desire for food that is an undercurrent in all our social interactions. Through the film, hidden cameras show people engaged in the act of wanting to eat, plotting about eating, dreaming of food and, in a scandalous five-minute scene, two characters actually sitting at a table and eating food. It is a provocative sequence: two people, alone together with their desire, shamelessly, repeatedly, keep thrusting food into their oral orifices, and then chewing, chewing, chewing.

    So far, the censors have been tolerant. Barring the occasional small change, such as asking that a clearly racist putdown of black coffee be chopped, they haven't been

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  • Not My Festive Season

    I write these words in my living room as a cacophony of drumbeats assails me from the streets outside. This is not an accompaniment of my own choosing: for the last hour, I've been listening to my iPod to keep the noise away. Sarah McLachlan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, John Mayer, AR Rahman and Monsters of Folk have all tried their very best, but there's only so much music one can listen to, and I can't take the bloody drumbeats any more. "Go, thee, to the sea," I feel like proclaiming, "and drown thee, just for me."

    It is not that I have anything against Ganesh Chaturthi per se. Ganesh Chaturthi was turned into a mass festival by Lokmanya Tilak for a reason: as Wikipedia puts it, "to bridge the gap between Brahmins and 'non-Brahmins' and [...] generate nationalistic fervor among people in Maharashtra against the British colonial rule." It seems that "the festival facilitated community participation and involvement in the form of intellectual discourses, poetry recitals, performances of

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  • In Order To Live…

    It's 8.30 am on September 5, and I stand up. I am at a poker table in Casino Royale in Goa, and I sat down to play at 9.30pm the previous night. Fifty one players began the main event of the India Poker Championship, and now there are two men still standing. Indeed, these two men are literally standing. We're heads up for the title, and I am all-in with As8s. My opponent has 9h6h. I am favoured to win the hand 60-40, and will have a huge chip lead if I do. But this is poker, the heartless game. There are two hearts on the flop -- and a third on the turn. The new IPC champion, Avinash Rajpal, hugs his friend next to him. I smile and shake his hand, and mean it when I say "Well played." I'm relieved it's over. It was some trip.

    I've written a few pieces in this space about poker before, but they've been theoretical and impersonal. In today's column, I'm going to talk a bit about the practical aspect of playing a tournament, seen through the lens of my second place finish. The main event

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