Friday, April 25, 2008

A new blog

A little news to break. I have started a new blog on wordpress. It is called Techlightenment.

I did not choose the name. The credit goes to one of my creative colleagues.

BTW, I have found wordpress to be quite cool.

The new blog is on technology. You can say it is my official avatar. In that blog, I look at the human and social side of information technology and science in general.

Do check it out. The latest post there is on blogging in Bollywood. Does it interest you?

Also wrote a piece on the blogging boom in Asia:

When Dilbert predicted that everyone will be a reporter in the future, he was not wide off the mark. That was in 1997 when Scot Adam’s The Dilbert Future came out.

Fast forward to 2008. Almost everyone has become a reporter. Look at the number of blogs and micro-blogs (Twitter accounts) today. Or count the number of people making wiki entries.

Not sure? Here are the numbers. Technorati tracks nearly 70 million blogs on a daily basis. 120, 000 blogs are being created every day. Wikipedia recently reached a milestone of 10 million entries, surpassing the 42,000 of its online competitor, Encarta.

All this writing and posting online is not just pure fad. There is some money attached to it too. In 2006, the total revenue for the top 50,000 blogs was US$500 million.


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

A big spot of bother

I came across this brilliant article in the NYT Why Bother? on climate change and what we can do about it.

I think the way the climate is changing (rising temperatures, melting of the polar ice and rising sea levels) and the impact we are seeing on the global food production patterns (droughts causing a food crisis) is nothing short of a calamity. I think we are already into the third world war. An expert recently said in a report in a Singapore paper that the food crisis is more dangerous than terrorism. The Economist calls it the silent tsunami, and it has some figues to support its claim.

The magazine also says that elsewhere, the food crisis of 2008 will test the assertion of Amartya Sen, an Indian economist, that famines do not happen in democracies. Let's not talk about democracies and get distracted here.

But what are we doing about it (compared to what we are doing about terrorism)? Hardly anthing. We are just going on as usual. It's business as usual. People are increasing their carbon footrints. Evermore number of people are travelling in jets (Travelling has become so plebian, Naipaul has said). In the developing economies, as the ranks of the middle class are increasing, people are eating more meat and buying more cars, burning more fossil fuels. Tata's Nano car will contribute to it.

Even developed countries are adding to their energy consumption bills. A small country like Singapore, for example, has increased its electricity consumption by 78% between 1995 and 2007. The reason: Greater ownership of electronic appliances and gadgets. In 1998, about 58% of households owned an air-conditioner compared to 72% in 2003.

The people in the developing countries say, those who had never tasted the pleasure of creature comforts, never owned a car before, never had a lavish lifestyle (conspicuous consumption) will complain that now that it is my turn to have fun, you are talking about climate change to spoil it. I don't give a damn. Let me have my fun. Fair enough, one could say.

But does it mean the onus of bringing the earth temperatures down lies with the people of the developed world alone?

People in the developed countries are aware of this expectation but will this realisation save any trees. The writer of the Why Bother? piece says it succintly:

Let’s say I do bother, big time. I turn my life upside-down, start biking to work, plant a big garden, turn down the thermostat so low I need the Jimmy Carter signature cardigan, forsake the clothes dryer for a laundry line across the yard, trade in the station wagon for a hybrid, get off the beef, go completely local. I could theoretically do all that, but what would be the point when I know full well that halfway around the world there lives my evil twin, some carbon-footprint doppelgänger in Shanghai or Chongqing who has just bought his first car (Chinese car ownership is where ours was back in 1918), is eager to swallow every bite of meat I forswear and who’s positively itching to replace every last pound of CO2 I’m struggling no longer to emit. So what exactly would I have to show for all my trouble?

Gandhi said that there is enough for everyone's need but not enough for everyone's greed in his planet. All faiths teach us the lessons of parsimony and contentment. Greed creates its own problems and we are seeing the outcome now.

Paul Krugman, in his recent column, Running Out of Planet to Exploit, asks:

Last week, oil hit $117. It’s not just oil that has defied the complacency of a few years back. Food prices have also soared, as have the prices of basic metals. And the global surge in commodity prices is reviving a question we haven’t heard much since the 1970s: Will limited supplies of natural resources pose an obstacle to future world economic growth?

Won't it?

So what can be done? While the responsible amongst us can change our light bulbs (thanks to Al Gore), grow our gardens, eat less meat or travel in public transports, the governments need to intervene with rules as they do while tackling terrorism (most people need rules to stay in the queue, for the greater common good). For example, penalise for excess use of energy. Why should petrol be subsidised in poorer countries to enable people to drive cars? In Singapore, petrol is about $2 a litre, nearly same as a 1 litre bottle of packaged drinking water. Does it make any sense? Make things better. For example, make public transport (an unconvenient truth?) convenient and sexier. Better still--encourage telecommuting to work.

One hope is digital nomadism (is it hope or will it be our only choice?). It will cut travel costs. Ensure less need for office spaces. But sure enough, it will need greener gadgets too. So, green IT is good.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The man and the myth

In my office, I ofter discuss Naipaul with one of our editors. He also likes Naipaul's works and we agree that there are very few writers left like him in the world (It was he who sent me this gleefully written I-told-you-so type of piece by Paul Theroux when I was in Sydney. Have you read it?)

What we don't agree with is what he did to his wife and the kind of sexual life he led. On my part, I tend to empathize with what Naupaul has gone through. Could he write as freely and as brilliantly as he did without making those visits to the brothels in London or having a sexual companion or a paramour? Didn't he need a release of his sexual urges when none might have been available to him (remember, his wife was ailing)? These visits apparently, when revealed in a magazine interview, hurt his wife Patricia the most, hurtling her down to the abyss of sadness and early death from cancer.

Everyman fashions his own morality and Naipaul chose his own. Primarily that's his business. But now that it has come into public debate after the biography's publication, we have been forced to discuss it.

This is my theory on the matter.

Naipaul was not a rock star or a film personality. I guess a serious and brooding writer like him wouldn't have attracted a bevy of screaming girls to do whatever he wanted to do with them (If you don't believe me, ask Shekhar Kapoor). And let us say, even if he had a few of them, it would have been taxing and time consuming for him to pursue them for carnal reasons. However abominable it is, Naipaul's visits to the prostitutes would have been less time consuming and emotionally taxing for him, freeing him to devote his time and attention to writing. I guess Marquez also lived in brothels when he was young. And Ghalib was besotted with a domini. Was he doing something new and completely unheard of thing in this case? I guess not.

Another interesting review on the book.

Reviewing Patrick French's biography of Naipaul, THE WORLD IS WHAT IT IS - THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY OF V.S. NAIPAUL, Sunil Khilnani does a great job of analysing the work:

The result is gripping, magnificent—a triumph of the biographer's art. Patrick French's book peers unblinkingly at the dark, destructive energies that have sustained Naipaul's creativity. It counts and counts again the human—womanly—cost of Naipaul's drive to make himself and his work, and yet fully accords him, as a writer, his due.

It is not easy to make sense of Naipaul's life and work. Sprawled across four continents (the Caribbean and South America, England, India, Africa) it spans the eras of colonial rule, the struggle against that rule, the early decades of nationalist hopes and the brutal subsequent betrayals. What is so striking about Naipaul is how, out of this unprecedented diversity of experience, he has created and sustained a cohesive vision of the world—turning himself in the process from a 'regional' novelist of Caribbean street life to a maker of 'global' literature. On what authority did he ground his grand perspective—the fearless dissections of anti-colonialism, the future of Africa, the Muslim world—of civilisation itself? By labouring, in his own version, to be a disciplined writer, he proclaimed his fidelity to one enterprise: pen, pad, desk; nothing else.

French, through mastery over his materials and sources, restores to the purist tableau the messy stirring life—the mess that made the myth, and the books, possible. French weaves his myth-puncturing subtly into the narrative, knocking off Naipaul's poses one by one. Here, more crudely than French would want to note them, are at least half dozen that he addresses.

The conlusion may seem harsh yet it humanizes Naipaul's achievements:

Naipaul came to perfect this stance: controlling a situation by appearing helpless, then getting others to do his bidding—while making them feel that they were doing it inadequately. In this biography, however, this method has failed him. This may be an authorised biography, but it is firmly and in every sense in Patrick French's control—and he has written a superb account of the life, as what it is. Now, knowing the myth, having read the life, one goes back to the work. That is Naipaul's monument. We are many, who lead less than exemplary lives; but very few are able to turn the matter of their lives into great work. Naipaul, as Patrick French lets us still better see, is one of them.


Friday, April 18, 2008

For God's sake

Khuda Ke Liye. For God's Sake. This Pakistani film is making waves in India and abroad:

Of all the flattering headlines that greeted the release this month of the first Pakistani film shown in India in four decades, one stuck in the mind of its director, Shoaib Mansoor.

“We didn’t know that Pakistan had such good houses,” the headline said, Mr. Mansoor recalled in an interview here.

It was a striking reminder of how little people in India know about their neighbors across the border.

For 43 years no Pakistan-made film had been distributed commercially to movie theaters in India until the opening here of Mr. Mansoor’s movie, “Khuda Kay Liye” (“In the Name of God”). That absence has contributed to widespread ignorance in India about contemporary Pakistan, a country set apart by such entrenched political hostility that few Indians have visited it.

The release of the film, which broke all box office records in Pakistan last year, was hailed here as a significant moment in the slowly progressing India-Pakistan peace talks.


Thursday, April 17, 2008

O Kolkata!

Though I always go to my hometown in northern India through Delhi, this time I wanted to chart a different route: I wanted to go via Kolkata. The temptation was to make a brief stopover in that great city before moving on to my final destination, a little known small town in Bihar.

I had been to Kolkata once before. Then, I was just a gawky high school kid and the memories of that visit had faded over the years. More than a decade later, time’s myriad illusions had stirred the desire to see the “City of Joy” once again; the urge to experience this city as an awakened adult was simply overwhelming. I had seen and vicariously experienced the city through so many Hindi and Bengali films.

One night I landed with my wife at the Netaji Subhash Bose International Airport, despite knowing that a madly hot May was not the right season for visiting Kolkata. Its humble airport welcomed the weary travelers who, while fighting off the midnight yawns, were still trying to come to terms with the spartan ambience after having experienced the flashy Changi airport in Singapore. The immigration queue was not very long but the loquacious officers took their own sweet time, asking a number of relevant and irrelevant questions. “Welcome to the land of argumentative Indians!” I told myself. I felt I was home.

As we ambled off to the baggage claim area, a number of people, most probably the airport staff, came forward to help us with the trolleys. They were wearing official identity badges. “You need a trolley, sir?” one of them asked. I got suspicious as I saw trolleys lined up near the carousel. Since when was the airport staff supposed to help passengers with trolleys? Saying “no thanks” with a polite smile, I helped myself with a trolley, and carried on with my luggage. We chose to declare nothing at the customs (green channel) as we were not carrying anything contraband or beyond the prescribed limit, though I was apprehensive if the customs officials would want to see my camcorder or laptop receipts. I was well prepared in any case.

After exiting the arrival hall, I exchanged some dollars at a lousy rate. Moments later, heat and anger began to go north in my head. Since I had booked the hotel room from the next day only, we were supposed to spend the night at the airport. I looked around the airport lounge, bought a bottle of mineral water of a dubious brand, helped myself with a cup of coffee, and got tired all right within half an hour. Morning was still a couple of hours away. Though we had been advised not to venture out of the airport past midnight, I began to think of ways to get out from there to the comfort of a hotel room. My hotel was about an hour’s drive from the airport. Going there now was out of question. I had to find a quick alternative for spending the night comfortably.

When I shared my harmless thoughts with the shopkeeper who had sold me the overpriced water bottle, he pointed me towards the airport manager. A portly man in his late 40s, the manager readily agreed to help me. He made a phone call and asked me if I was ready to pay about a thousand rupees for a night. “How is this place?” I asked him.

“Don’t worry, it is a good place to stay; sometimes, even I stay there,” he said with a wink, assuring me of proper comfort. And I thought I heard him say, “Even I have a stake in there.” While I was lost in the world of indecisiveness, his voice nudged my senses awake. “If you say yes now, they will send you a cab in five minutes,” he added, his betel juice-smeared lips curling into a question mark. Like all good-natured Indian husbands, I demanded a minute from him to confer with my wife.

Ten minutes later we were inside a Maruti van. Unobtrusively, while I conferred with my spouse, the manager had managed to squeeze in one more unfortunate shelter-seeker, an academician from some northeastern state university. We could do nothing but practice tolerance in this matter. Notwithstanding my wife’s protests, I had opted for this deal, and now in the dead of the night while the taxi maneuvered through the deserted roads of Kolkata’s suburbia with a stranger as a co-passenger, I was muttering obscenities to myself. It seemed as if I had invited myself to a nice mugging session in the city of ploy.

After about fifteen minutes of rash driving, the taxi pulled over in front of a three-story building in a godforsaken cul-de-sac. One look at the building and I thought, “Gosh, who would know if we were to be killed here.” However, I reigned in my negativism to face the bellboy–receptionist duo of the hotel. The 20-something bellboy, who surprised me with his Bhojpuri-stained Hindi in the Bengali heartland, picked up our bags. The receptionist, a boy barely out of his teens, made me sign on a register. “You know the rate here, right?” he asked. “Yes, I do,” I said. “The manager told me.”

I got our luggage inside the room. The room was homely with a double bed, a wardrobe, and a dressing table. The attached bathroom had a noisy exit fan. The air-conditioner and the television worked fine. We started preparing to retire for the night. Next morning we had an overpriced breakfast from the hotel’s kitchen. The quality of the food was not better than that of the typical roadside eateries but considering it the taste of India, we gave it our best shot, only hoping that our digestive powers would be strong enough to support this assault. After paying the bill, we hired a taxi and started for the next hotel in Kolkata’s heart.

This journey, from the suburbs of Kolkata to its heart in Park Street, dashed all our romantic dreams about the city. What we had in our mind was the elegance of a city that we had seen in films like Jagte Raho and Do Beegha Zameen. Though we had seen the more contemporary Ronald Joffe’s City of Joy, we believed the city depicted in the film was the inner city, the poverty-ridden slum side of Kolkata. We were sure that there would be a counterpoint to that, a more contemporaneous twenty-first century side of it. But what we saw in those two hours, and later over the next few days, was completely heartbreaking. If one could describe it with a single underpinning motif, the most befitting would be the soot-filled benighted belly of a dilapidated cobweb-infested haveli, crumbling, dying, and in shambles. What we saw was a gut wrenching theater of human and material degradation. Even the Kolkata of my last visit, the fleeting images of the city that I had in my memory, seemed much more attractive than the one I was seeing and experiencing now. In hindsight, years ago the Kolkata I saw was still the big metropolis for me because then I was coming to her from a nondescript mofussil town in northern India. Age, experience, and travel had changed my perspective.

What we saw now was depressing: mad traffic, air pollution, decades-old public transport vehicles in various stages of decay. The majority of the people looked so miserable and tired. We hardly saw anyone smiling. There were tobacco shops every few meters, and at times, I saw many ill-clad minors (child laborers) freely smoking. Huge hoardings could be seen on roadsides. Any available white space had either political slogans written over it or some form of graffiti adorned it. The only uplifting thing visible amid all the chaos and decrepitude was the resilience of the members of the Bengali middle class, especially their womenfolk. They were able to maintain their dignity, which seemed so out of place and miraculous despite being trapped in this dystopia of squalor and despair. One of the images that has stayed with me, even after so many months of the journey, is that of a sari-clad calm young woman who was on her way to somewhere in a rickshaw, while people all around her, on bicycles and motorbikes, and in buses and three-wheelers, were howling and hollering about in a traffic jam. Her placidity, with more signs of cheerfulness than of resignation, was such a jarring sight, but it was enough to uplift our spirits.

The taxi driver dropped us at Hotel Akash Ganga. I had reserved rooms in this hotel online from Singapore. I looked at the hotel and I did not see any reason to regret my decision to stay there.

“Give me twenty rupees extra sir, besides the meter fare,” the taxi driver pleaded, breaking my reverie. When he saw the “what for?” expression in my eyes, he immediately added, “You saw the traffic sir, and you saw how with great difficulty I brought you here.” I was too exasperated to want to pick a fight with him, and so, I handed him the money and checked into the hotel.

In the next few days, to cut a long story short, whatever we saw and wherever we went, our impression about this decaying metropolis did not improve dramatically. No wonder people had been calling Kolkata a dying city. The disappointment was not about the people per se. Many of them, during our interaction, were quite civil, even gentle. The taxi drivers were not rude despite driving their old rickety Ambassador cars, except during the evenings or after nightfall; tired after a day’s work, they might refuse to go to a particular location. But they were not cheats and most charged the fare by the meter. That’s a wonderful mark of discipline and civility.

In fact, the gloom arose more from seeing the crushing poverty all around and seeing the ill-maintained buildings and pathetic civic infrastructure in the city than anything else. It seemed that Kolkata had stopped changing with the times. It felt as if the city existed in a time warp; while other cities had progressed and moved on, Kolkata with its colonial elegance had stopped in its tracks, and whatever beauty it possessed had been washed out of it over the decades.

We went through a harrowing experience in the famous New Market. As soon as we landed there, a posse of dalals (middlemen) landed on us, leading us into shops in the market, promising us to fetch the moon and get us the best bargains. Strangely, they carried empty baskets with them and wore badges. When I asked them, I was told that the empty baskets were symbols of their trade. It was so difficult to get rid of them. Even if you got rid of them, they recognized you and later would taunt you for not engaging them for your shopping.

Apart from shopping and traveling, eating was another area where we exercised caution. Most of the roadside eateries were only poorly maintained and they served passable food. Kolkata has, however, many interesting restaurants that serve excellent Bengali food. Bengali sweets are famous and are found aplenty throughout the city. Every street has plenty of teashops and cafes but sanitation is wanting except in branded cafes such as the Baristas.

The “City of Palaces” also boasts of imposing attractions such as the Howrah Bridge and the Victoria Memorial, a memorial built with Jodhpuri white marble for Queen Victoria. The latter looked so cheerless and desolate that for a moment I thought it had fallen into disuse. When we finally entered its sprawling premises—entry was free—we were not allowed to shoot with our camcorders. Moreover, a signboard announced that carrying “plastic bags inside” was banned. I was carrying two plastic shopping bags but thankfully no one stopped me. We strolled around the monument, marveling at its architectural splendor. We could also spot some young couples, locked in embraces in various poses of intimacy, on the benches by the pond or hiding behind the hedges. Lovers in all cities, be it in Delhi’s Lodi Gardens or in Colombo’s Botanical Gardens, exhibit the same behavior. Love, like death, is a great leveler. It almost always finds for itself the same physical expressions, no matter when or where.

Though Bengalis are known for their humorous banter, I could experience none whatsoever during my stay in Kolkata. Perhaps I would have experienced it had I interacted with Kolkata’s artists, intellectuals, painters, and writers. However, one funny little incident took place just a day before our return. It was early morning and I was standing near the North Eastern Railways reservation office. I was reading and deleting some old SMSes from my mobile phone when a middle-aged man, clad in kurta and dhoti, walked up to me and stood next to me, and began looking down at my mobile phone. I kept doing what I was doing for some time but at the same time this man standing next to me without any care in the world intrigued me. He stood there as if he were my friend. Running out of patience, soon I asked him, “What is the matter, man? What do you want?” He replied, as nonchalantly as one could imagine, “Nothing. I’m just looking.” Even then he did not move. He walked off, maybe disgustedly, only when I angrily pocketed my phone.

For a moment, I was annoyed by this stranger’s intrusion but was also amused at his attitude. This man, most probably a Bihari laborer, found a mobile phone such an object of his attention in this day and age in a metropolis like Kolkata! I hope he did not have any criminal motives, but this incident said a lot about the city. I had never experienced anything like this in any other city—such a thing would be normal in a rural market but not in a city.

On my way back, as I reflected, Kolkata in sweltering May came across as a city whose elites had either deserted it or who lived a secluded life in complete isolation from the city’s hoi polloi. It seemed like a city that was strewn with the half-lived lives of listless laborers and dispirited merchants. It was as if those who carried the cultural legacy of Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray had vanished into the soot-filled benighted belly of this dilapidated cobweb-infested crumbling haveli of a city.

Kolkata Coda: Reasons for Optimism?

“Where were the privileged Kolkatans?” I had wondered during my stay in the city. “Are they mourning for their beloved city? Or, are they busy silently shaping a new city.” I got my answer when, away from the City on the Hoohgly, I began reading newspaper reports about the rise of a new Kolkata. Salt Lake’s Sector V, for example, is bursting with 55,000 people crowding 6.5 million square feet of call centers and BPOs. A new township called Rajarhat is also coming up fast, with gleaming office towers, malls, and apartment blocks. Reports suggest that like Delhi’s fast-developing suburbs of Gurgaon and Noida, this new Kolkata’s citizens, too, have a whole new lifestyle: nightlife, 24-hour bars, and all that jazz.

The prospects look great. The West Bengal government is determined to be India’s third-biggest IT state by 2010. Tata Consultancy Services is going to grow its center in Kolkata from 7000 to 20,000 over the next three years. The government is handing out an “employment generation subsidy” of Rs. 20,000 for each recruit that an employer trains, grooms, and develops. To name just another initiative, The India Design Centre plans to get into making VLSI (very large-scale integration) microprocessors.

Ah, so Kolkata is forever.

I wish I could have also seen this new “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed” Kolkata. However, will Tagore’s rain song (Brishti pore tapur-tupur, Node elo ban, Shib-thakurer biye holo, Tin konya daan?) still sound so romantic in this new city? I doubt it, but who knows? The present-day Bengalis might have gotten tired of all this nostalgia.

Published in Khabar (April 2008), Atlanta, USA

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Surfing Salman

While Salman Rushdie is back in the news for his new nubile girlfriend, a fierce battle has been raging in the lit pages of newspapers, praising or tearing apart his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence.

Here's a lowdown on the reviews so far. Good or bad. Take your pick.

But I want to talk about this particular review.

Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal did a review of the novel in Tehelka. The review was so skewed with wrong historical allusions that it made Salil Tripathi write a counter review. Quite fun:

The problem with Nirpal Singh Dhaliwal's review of Rushdie's new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, is precisely that: he (Dhaliwal, not Rushdie) has trouble with history. In his world, the Mughal dynasty has its origins in the India of the 11th century, after a succession of assaults. This can only be accepted if one accepts a fairly stereotypical view — that all Muslims are alike. Indeed, India was attacked by a wide range of Islamic rulers, from the time of the invasions of Muhammad Ghori — with Iltutmish setting up the first Mamluk dynasty in 1206, followed by Khilji, Tughlaq, Saeed, and Lodhi in 1526, when the Lodhis gave way to Babar. But these rulers were as Mughal as the ones found in Hollywood.

My point here is not to provide a history lesson on the dynasties of Delhi. But it is fair to expect a critic to know beyond a broad-brush Far Pavilions or Bhowani Junction-type view of Indian history that most British students are exposed to. As a British Asian, one suspects that's the exposure Dhaliwal had. (I know a bit about this, being a parent of two boys at a London school).

Read it all here.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Welcome to the make up...

Hi, sorry, I have been away for sometime now. Have been busy working and travelling. I am currently in Sydney. So enjoy the sights with me. Will tell you more when I am back in Singapore. Tell me if you liked the pics.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Books, dating, and the French connection

This article in the NYT is so funny. Apparently, people are breaking up their relationships over Pushkin and Ayn Rand, thanks to the increasing trend of listing their favourite books on social networking sites. Read it yourself:

Some years ago, I was awakened early one morning by a phone call from a friend. She had just broken up with a boyfriend she still loved and was desperate to justify her decision. “Can you believe it!” she shouted into the phone. “He hadn’t even heard of Pushkin!”


And this one on the French is funnier--the kind of stuff you won't find in a travel guide:

It is hard for French merchants to admit they are wrong, and seemingly impossible for them to apologize. Instead, the trick is to somehow get the offended party to feel the mistake was his or her own. I’m convinced the practice was learned in the strict French educational system, in which teachers are allowed to tell pupils they are “zeros” in front of the entire class.

A doctor I know told me he once bought a coat at a small men’s boutique only to discover that it had a rip in the fabric. When he tried to return it, the shopkeeper gave him the address of a tailor who could repair it — for a large fee. They argued, and the doctor reminded the shopkeeper of the French saying, “The customer is king.”

“Sir,” the shopkeeper replied, “We no longer have a king in France.”