Articles

Articles

I’ve written for various publications, on topics including utopia, technology, literature, tennis, travel, and much more.
You’ll find some of this work below

BBC Radio 3: Sunday Feature, May 24 2020 BBC Radio 3 asked six writers to record a chain letter in which we talked about our experiences living–and writing–during the pandemic. I wrote and spoke about a silver lining of calm and solitude; and also about the joys of my lockdown. BBC Radio 3 asked six writers to record a chain letter in which we talked about our experiences living–and writing–during the pandemic. I wrote and spoke about a silver lining of calm and solitude; and also about the joys of my lockdown BBC Radio 3 asked six writers to record a chain letter in which we talked about our experiences living–and writing–during the pandemic. I wrote and spoke about a silver lining of calm and solitude; and also about the joys of my lockdownv BBC Radio

From the Wall Street Journal, lead story in the Review As the internet turns 50, the global vision that animated it is under attack. What can be done? Fifty years ago this week, at 10:30 on a warm night at the University of California, Los Angeles, the first email was sent. It was a decidedly local affair. A man sat in front of a teleprinter connected to an early precursor of the internet known as Arpanet and transmitted the message “login” to a colleague in Palo Alto. The system crashed; all that arrived at the Stanford Research Institute, some 350 miles away, was a truncated “lo.” The network has moved on dramatically from those parochial—and stuttering—origins. Now more than 200 billion emails flow around the world every day. The internet has come to represent the very embod

My article on Brutalist architecture in Poland and its link to communism, from T Magazine, The New York Times Long derided as relics of an oppressive regime, the country’s Communist-era buildings are being given a second look, and a new life. THE BUILDING SITS there like an abandoned ship. Broad, squat and jarring, the Unitra Telpod, a former electronic equipment factory in the Polish city of Krakow, is a depressing sight. Less than two decades ago, the building hummed with activity, and its rectilinear facade, all concrete and glass and steel, dominated the landscape, imposing itself on Krakow’s far more elegant medieval core. Now the offices are closed, shattered glass litters a dusty courtyard and the steel is rusted. It still retains a certain dignity, even majesty, but of a distin

A review in the New York Times Book Review of Bitwise: A Life in Code by David Auerbach What began as a vague apprehension — unease over the amount of time we spend on our devices, a sense that our children are growing up distracted — has, since the presidential election of 2016, transformed into something like outright panic. Pundits and politicians debate the perils of social media; technology is vilified as an instigator of our social ills, rather than a symptom. Something about our digital life seems to inspire extremes: all that early enthusiasm, the utopian fervor over the internet, now collapsed into fear and recriminations. “Bitwise: A Life in Code,” David Auerbach’s thoughtful meditation on technology and its place in society, is a welcome effort to reclaim the middle gr

An essay review on the case and evidence for a universal basic income, from The Financial Times.   We live in implausible times. Robots may take our jobs. The Arctic might disappear. A new wave of strongmen is pushing back against what only yesterday seemed like an unstoppable tide of liberal democracy. As the New York Times recently reported, media references to that menacing line from Yeats — “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” — have spiked to a 30-year high. It’s only natural, amid all this uncertainty, to cast about for alternatives. Conventional wisdom and expertise are at a dead end. Our policy toolkit seems woefully empty. Into this void steps Rutger Bregman, a 28-year-old Dutch writer and thinker whose four books and writing in the media have received considerab

From The New Yorker: What today’s movements for social and economic reform can learn from the intentional communities of the nineteenth century.   Five hundred years ago, a man who condoned torture, religious persecution, and burning at the stake wrote a book about the perfect world. In “On the Best Kind of a Republic and About the New Island of Utopia” (the book’s full title, translated from Latin), Sir Thomas More envisaged a paradise where men and women could choose their religion, without fear of violence or coercion. In practice, as Lord Chancellor of England, More oversaw the burning of at least six Protestants and the jailing of some forty. One merchant was tortured in More’s own home, and tied so tightly to a tree that blood reportedly flowed from his eyes. More referred

A family journey to “the happiest country in the world,” from Conde Nast Traveller It was only September, but I was standing in front of one of Europe’s biggest Christmas trees. A giant sequoia, over 100 years old, it stood majestically in a park under wooded hills in the spa town of Bad Ragaz,in northeastern Switzerland. Kathrin Bechtold, the director of business development at the Grand Resort Bad Ragaz, had just shown me around her hotel. She took me to the spa baths, filled with thermal waters naturally heated to 36.5°C degrees and piped from the Tamina Gorge up in the hills. She also showed me the resort’s well-appointed health facilities, designed for wealthy patients recuperating from surgery or illness. Now in front of the sequoia, its trunk lined with years, its l

My review, from The New York Times Book Review, of Gregory David Roberts’ The Mountain Shadow Gregory David Roberts’s “Shantaram” was an unlikely publishing sensation. Literary purists scoffed at its purple prose; Indian (and many other) readers bristled at its stereotypes and cultural simplifications. The book nonetheless possessed a grittiness and vividness that helped Roberts sell four million copies around the world. Hollywood rights were scooped up (though a film has yet to be made). The book has gone on to occupy a distinctive — and deserving — place in an emerging genre of Bombay noir. “The Mountain Shadow,” Roberts’s second novel, appears more than a decade later. A sequel in a planned tetralogy of novels, it is likely to please many “Shantaram” fans. The

Another piece on tennis for The New Yorker (online)–this one on Federer’s remarkable longevity There he was again: Roger Federer at thirty-four, an age when tennis players are typically being put out to pasture, winning yet another major tournament. The tournament in question was the Western & Southern Open, in Cincinnati; it is one of nine Masters 1000 tournaments on the men’s tour, an élite series that sits just below the Grand Slams in prestige (and in ranking points). Federer’s opponent in the final last Sunday was Novak Djokovic, the top-ranked Serbian who has been virtually unbeatable all year. With this victory, Federer moves back into second place in the rankings, a position he had ceded to Andy Murray just a week earlier. Heading into the U.S. Open, which star

My piece for The New Yorker online on the International Premier Tennis League and what it means for the future of the sport. It’s late on a New Delhi evening, and the Singapore Slammers are in a tough spot. They’re already at the bottom of their league, and now they’re down 4-0 against the Indian Aces. In a desperate bid to salvage their standing, they make a substitution. The Aces counter by calling a Happiness Power Point, which counts for double. The Aces win the point. The crowd erupts, the cheerleaders take their positions, and the stadium reverberates with loud bhangra. Readers would be forgiven for thinking I was at a cricket or soccer—or maybe boxing—contest. In fact, I was at the third leg of the inaugural edition of the International Premier Tennis League (I.P.T.L.), a

Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing Sunil Amrith’s book on the Bay of Bengal for The New York Times Book Review.I recently met Amrith in Pondicherry. We drove up the coast and talked about his research and the fascinating–if often overlooked–history of this part of the world. I wrote about our afternoon together for The Hindu. First glimpses are not encouraging. Broken beer bottles strewn across a littered field. A group of gamblers — their eyes red, hostile — in a dusty clearing. A lonely looking dog, his coat mangy, wandering forlornly. But push through the dust and the stray dogs, past a grove of cashew and neem trees, and a far more impressive sight reveals itself: the ruins of a 2000-year old Roman trading outpost, the battered brick walls and archways of w

My article from Bloomberg Businessweek on a new technology that has the potential to solve (or at least alleviate) two of India’s biggest problems: garbage and infrastructure. For as far as the eye can see, there’s stinking, smoking, untreated garbage. It’s concentrated in the municipal dump, in the South Indian city of Madurai, but not contained by it. The surrounding fields are also piled with trash. Stray dogs nibble at mounds of rotting food. The trees are denuded and covered with shredded plastic, the blue and pink and yellow bags like some kind of sinister confetti. The road to the dump, and beyond it to Madurai’s airport, is like a Hollywood vision of dystopian ruin: lifeless, black, choked with human refuse. And that’s why Rajagopalan Vasudevan’s enthusiasm is so ja

A short written and recorded segment from National Public Radio, All Things Considered: India’s election through the prism of literature. I chose V S Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now to talk about the significance of Modi’s election. Audio clip here  On Monday, Narendra Modi will be sworn in as India’s prime minister. His rise to power is a remarkable story. A former tea vendor who speaks poor English, Modi is a distinct outsider to India’s political and cultural establishment. His election signals the extent to which India is shedding its old hierarchies and class barriers, becoming a more meritocratic society. When I think of what just happened in Indian politics, I think about a book I first read some 24 years ago. That book was India: A Million Mut

An article from Bloomberg Businessweek, on the upcoming elections in India. Indian elections aren’t known for their clarity. Messy, cacophonous affairs, they stretch across months and almost invariably result in fragmented verdicts. Political groupings are opportunistic, driven by personality rather than issues; competing party platforms are often indistinguishable. This year’s parliamentary elections—the nation’s 16th since independence, running from April 7 to May 12—are proving an exception. The distinctions between India’s leading parties are unusually sharp; the race is shaping up as a genuine battle of ideas, a real debate over the direction of the nation. India’s two main parties are led by men who in many ways couldn’t be more different. Rahul Gandhi, the standard-b

A belated post of my article on Typhoon Haiyan, and possible lessons from the Asian Tsunami. Published in Bloomberg View. The reports coming out of the Philippines are all too familiar. Shattered villages, corpses strewn across battered beaches, dazed survivors picking through the wreckage of their former lives. As I write, Typhoon Haiyan (described in some news reports as a “supertyphoon”) appears to be the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history, and one of the worst ever in Asia — a region that has known no shortage of calamities. Many of the survivors are talking about a “wall of water” — most of the damage was caused not by rain or winds, but by a massive storm surge that followed. Nine years ago, on Dec. 26, 2004, I heard precisely the same description f

Article from The New Yorker online about coastal erosion in South India. An accompaniment to the print article from the previous week. Be sure to also check out the accompanying slide show. S. Manavalan, the South Indian postman I wrote about for this week’s issue, has a thing for fish. He grew up by the sea, in the village of Kadapakkam, and as far back as he can remember he’s eaten fish nearly every day for lunch. Unusually for a man of his generation (he is sixty-two years old), Manavalan does much of the cooking at home; he specializes in fried fish and fish curry. He says he learned the dishes from his mother, and that he cooks them in what he calls “the old-fashioned ways.” Most mornings, Manavalan can be found at the village fish market, down on a stretch of yellow sand bord

My article on the East Coast Road and the changes it has brought, published in The New Yorker (behind a paywall) What happens when a big road meets a small village? It was early on a summer day, the sun was still soft, and traffic was thick on the East Coast Road, in the South Indian village of Kadapakkam. In the center of the village, trucks and auto-rickshaws and taxis coalesced into a mess of diesel fumes and honking horns. Two buses met at a right angle at an intersection; each refused to yield, vehicles piled up, and for a moment this agricultural and fishing hamlet of some three thousand people was witness to the unlikely spectacle of a traffic jam. K. Ganesh, a twenty-seven-year-old photographer from the village, stood outside his studio and grimaced. Ganesh was born and reared in

My review, in The New York Times Book Review, of Crossing the Bay of Bengal, Sunil Amrith’s excellent new book. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in migration, environmental history, the Tamil diaspora, or the multicultural worlds that border the Bay. CROSSING THE BAY OF BENGAL: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of MigrantsBy Sunil S. Amrith353 pp. Harvard University Press. $29.95. A few miles up the road from my home, on a sandy beach in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, there is a crumbling fort that extends into the Bay of Bengal. The fort was built in the 17th century; over the years, it has been controlled by Mughal rulers from the north, by the French and by the British. Farther down the coast, past a string of fishing villages, sits the former French colony o

My article in Bloomberg Businessweek, on India’s economic crisis–its worst in over two decades. For Manmohan Singh, India’s octogenarian prime minister, the summer of 2013 must seem depressingly familiar. In June 1991, as the nation’s newly installed finance minister, Singh found himself staring down the worst economic crisis to hit India since independence. The nation’s foreign exchange holdings were reduced to just a few weeks’ worth of imports; its gold reserves were airlifted to London, collateral for an International Monetary Fund loan. Singh was brought in by a minority government to rescue the faltering economy. Although many others played a part, he’s widely credited as the architect of reforms that transformed the nation. By Independence Day in 2006, Prime Mi

My article in the Wall Street Journal on the feud between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati–and what it signifies for India’s economic development. Go for growth or social change? A feud between economists boils over Indian politics isn’t generally known for its intellectual bent, so it was a curious sight last week when two Ivy League professors were thrust into the political limelight here. Harvard’s Amartya Sen and Columbia’s Jagdish Bhagwati are two of India’s most eminent economists. Mr. Sen is a Nobel laureate and former master of Trinity College, Cambridge; Mr. Bhagwati is a much-decorated scholar of international trade. Both are highly respected, both have recently published books on Indian development—and both have been engaged in a long-simmer

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