The Lottery in Babylon

Why did I read this book?

It is a short story recommended as part of introductory course material for an advanced strategic management in Indian business schools. It’s unusual in the context of an academic reading because the of the tone, semantics and writing style

The Plot Summary

It is a metaphorical narrative tale revolving around introduction of risk into the lottery system as a sport in ancient Babylon. The abridged version of the series of events that play out are as follows :

  • General public interest piqued only after the sport (lottery) organised by The Company had elements risk – both win (upside) and lose (risk/downside). Sales and traction increased for the sport.
  • Legitimacy of the game was increased further by enforcing legal action against losers : pay fines or  jailtime, ultimately narrowing it down to only jailtime days. However, this was an unfair apples and oranges comparison because :
    • Happiness = win = silver coins = money
    • Sadness = loss = jailtime = months or days
  • Public outrage led to the closed-door upper caste lottery system being transformed as a free of cost, mass affair (Revolution TAT = 60 days). The reward system was reformed with a win equivalent to access to The Company and loss could mean a death sentence
  • The Lottery grew into an entity which operated in secret, orchestrating all events through complex designs based on the chance drawings, that could redesign one’s fate forever
  • Narrator questions the very existence of Company as all operations are secretive and omnipresent

What are my views on the book?

It’s like a philosophical thought experiment. A wonderful satirical take on religion, fate and destiny. The author does a commendable job in the writing style. Rather than critique, I’ll call out the general learnings :

  1. The use of chance for governing a system is a way of making sense out of non-sense / order out of chaos
  2. The opening line depicts the extent and dependence of life on chance or fate, or the very basis of fatalism: proconsul (Emperor) or slave / omnipotence (win / Company) or opprobrium (censure) or Jail (loss)
  3. There is strategic insight on gaming this ‘fate’ driven system : Lottery game can simply be broken down into infinite game of chances. For example – After priary win / loss i.e. loss resulting in death sentence; there would be succession of lotteries for choice of executioner, style of death, time of death etc. leading to lottery being an infinite game of chance. Concept of infinite divisibility of time

Bottomline: Quick 500 words read presenting a mathematical case under the garb of literature reading    divider3

Name: The lottery in Babylon

Author: Jorge Luis Borges (Published in 1962)

What are some of the best lines from the book?

Like all the men of Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all, I have been a slave. I have known omnipotence, ignominy, imprisonment”


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