Jun 19, 2016

Sticks and Stones, by Emily Bazelon


Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, by Emily Bazelon
The Name of the Game
(AmazonKindle, Flipkart, Kindle India, Amazon India)

It's the appearance of difference that leads to bullying. The three cases the author follows in great detail make that much clear; tragically so in one case. The book is a fairly engrossing account of the sometimes very disturbing specifics and details of bullying.

Words give expression to thoughts, making them tangible and real. Words have a power that is rarely wielded responsibly by those who do not realize the power that words have. Words, barbs, insults, innuendo, gossip, all mixed in the cauldron of malice and apathy results in a toxic mix. Bullying is as much about individual power as it is about societal attitudes towards the weak.

Bazelon's book is divided into basically three parts. The first is more or less detailed reporting and investigative journalism into three cases of bullying - two of girls and one of a boy. One resulted in a suicide. The other two had less tragic endings. The second part, "Escalation", is the weakest part of the book, where reporting mixes with opinion, philosophy, and deft jabs at the conservative right.

Where the book excels is in the reporting of the three different cases of bullying. When transitioning from the descriptive to the analytical and prescriptive, something however gets lost in the book.

May 29, 2016

Rama and Ayodhya, by Meenakshi Jain

Rama and Ayodhya, by Meenakshi Jain
Aryan Books International; 2013 edition
(ISBN: 8173054517, 978-8173054518)

Rama and Ayodhya, by Meenakshi Jain

An indispensable, though brief, compendium to understand the past and present of Ayodhya.

The diffusion of propaganda requires repetition. In the words of someone many leftists have secretly admired for long, repetition is what makes propaganda successful (the full quote is (bold-emphasis mine), "The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over".

This was a strategy used to brilliant success by militant Islamists, communist historians, and Indologists of dubious integrity in the west during the Ayodhya movement in the 1980s and 90s.

Diana Eck is a faculty member of The Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard University (which was established as a result of a $20 million grant by the Saudi prince, Alwaleed Bin Talal). In her 2012 book, "India: A Sacred Geography" (my review), she had very bluntly and pointedly argued against the evidence of a temple at the disputed site, citing "Indian historians and archaeologists, both Hindu and Muslim." The sole archaeologist she cited in her section on Ayodhya had this to say in her book - "There is not a single piece of evidence for the existence of a temple of brick, stone, or both." For reasons that should become clear very soon, Diana Eck chose to bury the archaeologist's name in the references section of her book. That archaeologist's name is D. Mandal, from the University of Allahabad.

Apr 30, 2016

Flipkart: Million-Dollar Hiring Mistakes Translate Into Billion-Dollar Valuation Erosions

As the week drew to a close, a story that broke headlines in the world of Indian e-commerce was the departure of Flipkart’s Chief Product Officer, Punit Soni. Rumours had started swirling about Punit Soni’s impending exit since the beginning of the year (link), almost immediately after Mukesh Bansal had taken over from Binny Bansal as Flipkart’s CEO (link).

Punit Soni's LinkedIn profile
Punit Soni was among a clutch of high-profile hires made by Flipkart in 2015, rumoured to have been paid a million dollar salary (amounting to 6.2 crores at then prevailing currency exchange rates — see this and this). This was in addition to any stock options he and other similar high-profile hires earned.
One decision that Punit Soni was most closely associated with was the neutering of Flipkart’s mobile-web execution, where he killed Flipkart’s mobile site, forcing users to download the app on smartphones. The mobile app itself was poorly designed, had a mostly unusable interface, and was riddled with bugs to the point of crashing every few minutes. I had written in detail on its mobile app’s state in 2015 (see this article in dna, or from my blog). At the time I had expressed my astonishment that Myntra, the fashion e-tailer that Flipkart acquired and which had gone app-only, had a mobile app that was NOT optimized for the iPad. The same was the story with the Flipkart app — no iPad-optimized app, but a “universal” app that ran on both the iPhone and iPad devices. Even today, the Flipkart iPad app does not support landscape-mode orientation, even as Amazon’s iPad app has grown from strength to strength.

Apr 16, 2016

Twitter, Saudi Billions, and India

His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud is a member of the Saudi royal family. Per Wikipedia, he is a "nephew of the late Saudi King Abdullah, a grandson of Ibn Saud, the first Saudi king, and a grandson of Riad Al Solh, Lebanon's first Prime Minister." To say he is an influential person would be an understatement.

Oh, and he is also the largest individual shareholder in Citigroup. He bought more than half a billion dollars ($590 million to be precise) in a preferred-stock issue. (link). This investment "represents the largest proportion of" Alwaleed Bin Talal's person wealth.(link). Citi has paid fines almost every year to different regulatory authorities the world over for violating perhaps every single regulation there is in the book - in 2005, it agreed to pay the US SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) $20 million for failing to provide its customers with "material information." Two months later, the same year, it agreed to pay more than $200 million to settle more charges. The same year, the UK's FSA (Financial Services Authority) fined Citi more than ten million pounds for "violations of bond trading regulations."  Citi paid fines in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012 over various violations.

But this post is not about Citi. It is about Alwaleed Bin Talal. Actually, it is not even about him, but it is important to look at Talal's past to understand the present.

Mar 23, 2016

Female Infanticide and Western Institutions

The Ford Foundation’s Quest to Fix the World - this New Yorker piece in the January, 2016 issue of the magazine, by someone named Larissa MacFarquhar caught my eye. The Ford Foundation is a highly controversial organization with an unsavory past in India (and I suspect in many other third-world countries), and I was therefore keen to know what the insufferably long and at-times rambling piece had to say about the Ford Foundation and India. To be honest, I suspected at the onset this was a puff piece done to massage the egos of the high-and-mighty at the Ford Foundation, and by the time I had read through it, my suspicions had been confirmed, and worse.
New Yorker piece on the Ford Foundation
There were two bits that caught my attention in particular.

The first was the following sentence - "In April, the government froze the bank accounts of Greenpeace India, and in the same month cancelled the registration of nearly nine thousand N.G.O.s that received money from abroad."
While true in itself, this sentence failed the basic smell-test of journalistic ethics. Why? Because the sentence presented facts selectively to present a manifestly one-sided version of what actually transpired.

Mar 12, 2016

Satire - Establishing a Secular Era

200-year old Hindu Temple in Jaipur, 2015
[image credit: unknown]
Whilst on the one hand the ruination wrought by Hindoo regressiveness on Indian society as a whole was recognized as an uncontestable truth, on the other hand, half-hearted efforts by successive governments playing to the Hindoo vote-bank had yielded at best temporary relief. Although some visible progress had been made in states like Kashmir, West Bengal, Kerala, and for a brief period along the coastal belt of the state of Andhra Pradesh, it was unanimously agreed by policy wonks, think-tank mavens, and public intellectuals of the nation that the time had come for a final solution to be implemented to deal once and for all with the lingering, festering problem. Hindoo orthodoxy posed grave threats to peace and tolerance not just in India, but the world over.

Feb 28, 2016

The Chakravarti Adarsh Lieberal

The Chakravarti Adarsh Lieberal rules over the circle of a dharma where it is but child’s play for to step in and step out of any of the seven steps below. It is what characterizes his or her greatness, and holds lessons for posterity for all.

1. The Harvest of Golden Silence
To be employed when the Adarsh Lieberal’s “own” are hollowing the moral fibre of the nation, gutting the economy, bludgeoning (to be applied literally, liberally, as well as metaphorically) the upright into submission. Preach forbearance. Practice silence. Pray for tolerance. Silence is golden. Silence is also the golden goose that lays golden eggs. The gold is mined by the honest people of the country. They will only hoard it as gold to be used for their false gods. Unless such gold is harvested, by the Adarsh Lieberal, whose silence yields a golden harvest, and while it’s not golden wheat, it does bring in the bacon, or beef – to be politically correct – a pink harvest, to be enjoyed over gin, rum, and all other manners of sophisticated intoxicants. Power, of course, is the biggest intoxicant, but it needs to be supplemented from time to time with the good stuff.

Feb 18, 2016

Being Hindu, by Hindol Sengupta - Review


Being Hindu: Old Faith, New World and You, by Hindol Sengupta

A thought-provoking and breezy account. Hindol hits the right points and notes. Informs and provokes in equal measure. Add this one to your year-end holiday reading list.

Being Hindu can be an amalgamation of many different things to many different people, at different times. Whatever being Hindu may be, it however - we need to be clear - cannot be about "discussing for years whether we should drink a glass of water with the right hand or the left, whether the hand should be washed three times or four times, whether we should gargle five or six times." But this was what discourse on Hinduism had been reduced to in the nineteenth century, in the words of none other than a young, thirty-something ascetic, Vivekananda, speaking to "an inherently orthodox populace in nineteenth-century, British-ruled India."

Jan 29, 2016

Heretic, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali - Review


Heretic - Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
(@Ayaan)

Good start, but runs out of steam early on, and gallops mostly on hot air after that.

That Islam needs a reformation, and urgently, is not in debate, for most. The unfolding tragedy of the civil war Syria, where an estimated forty per cent of its population (yes, two of every five people) has been displaced as a result of the largely Shia-Sunni conflict is just one example. Islam is often said to be in the same state as where Christianity was a few hundred years ago. "Reformation" helped bring in a gradual moderation of the more violent and extremist facets of Christianity - especially the Church. While the zealous streak of "soul-harvesting" and proselytization by missionaries still threatens serious unrest wherever it rears its ugly head, it is nonetheless an undeniable fact that Christianity of the twenty-first century looks little like the Christianity of the medieval ages. Ali calls for a similar "reformation" in Islam. This book however does not succeed in making a cogent case for such a reformation, nor does it get down to specifics in any coherent way that could provide a basis for serious discussion - beyond what can be found by a quick reading of Wikipedia or even Twitter. What little usefulness the book offered is however drowned out by an uncritical adulation of everything western and a blind faith in western social mores as a panacea to all ills of the Muslim world. This book is perhaps targeted at the western reader who is looking for comforting validation of existing stereotypes about the Arab and Muslim world - it may provide a comforting cocoon, but will not shed light on the vexing issue that is in crying need of serious debate.

Long review:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali's rise from a Somalian refugee escaping a forced marriage, to seeking asylum in the Netherlands, to becoming an elected member of the Dutch parliament, to her landing at the Harvard Kennedy School, and becoming a target for jihadis and the recipient of endless death threats, evokes admiration for the single-minded courage that she has shown in the face of such unremitting intimidation from fundamentalists over the years.

Jan 17, 2016

Tales from the Mahabharata 17 - Charity

When trying to opine on an epic like the Mahabharata, perhaps the most appropriate way to keep one’s ego in check to be reminded of a verse from Ch 279 of the Shanti Parva, Moksha Dharma, that describes among the reasons for grief being "a foolish person who is eloquent." I pray that I avoid the curse that otherwise may befall the eloquent but foolish person!

Yudhishthira, Bhisma
[credit: Mahabharata, Gita Press]
The festival of lights is with us. There is talk of giving and charity and receiving and wanting and wishing in this time of Diwali. It is only appropriate that we take a look at a story about Lakshmi, found in Ch 218 of Shanti Parva, Moksha Dharma. Indra saw Shri emerge from Bali. Bali had seen better days; he now roamed the earth in the form of an ass, bereft of all his riches, his power, his glory. Indra, never one to let go of an opportunity to gloat, approached Bali, taunting him. In-between their dialogue, Indra saw Shri emerge from Bali. Intrigued, he approached her. She replied, "I am known as Duhsaha and also known as Shri, Lakshmi. … Dhata and Vidhata cannot control me. Time determines my movement." Shri then asked Indra to bear her; i.e. she had left Bali because he had left the path of dharma, had become intoxicated with power. She wanted to reside elsewhere. Much as Indra was a jealous god, even he knew his limitations. And by the way, we know that Indra is to blame (or should take at least substantial credit) for the start of the Bharata dynasty, for wasn’t it on his bidding that Menaka, the celestial apsara, descended down on earth to tempt Viswamitra from his tapasya. Wasn’t the union of that distraction the birth of Shakuntala, who would become the mother of Sarvadamana. Sarvadamana - who would go on to be known better as Bharata? Indra replied to Shri’s request, "There is no single man amongst gods, humans, or amongst all beings, who is capable of bearing you forever." Shri then asked Indra to divide her into four equal parts. And thus Shri was vested one quarter on earth, one quarter in clear water, one quarter in the fire, and one quarter in the virtuous

Jan 3, 2016

India A Sacred Geography, by Diana Eck - Review



India: A Sacred Geography, by Diana L Eck

Diana L. Eck "is professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University and is Master of Lowell House and Director of the Pluralism Project." She has written an atlas of sorts of the connectedness and shared mythology that binds the people of the Indian subcontinent with Hinduism.

While I have not yet completed reading the book, I did want to pen down and share my thoughts based on what she has written about two sacred places that are associated with Lord Krishna and Lord Rama. These are Dwarka and Ayodhya.

Dec 18, 2015

E-Commerce in India - A tide lifting many boats

India, with an estimated population of 1.2 billion, had more than 900 million mobile subscribers in 2014. Of these, about 150 million were smartphone subscribers. As more and more people get connected to high-speed Internet, mostly via smartphones, it is estimated that there will be more than 400 million smartphone subscribers in India by 2018. India has already gained the attention of the world's leading Internet companies. India is Facebook's second largest market in terms of monthly active users, the largest market for WhatsApp, the fastest growing market for Twitter, and so on. The implications on e-commerce are even more significant. The e-commerce market in India, which is expected to cross $25 billion in 2015, has attracted billions of dollars in venture capital funding, giving rise to a second e-commerce boom in the country. Unlike the dot-com boom at the turn of the century, that was driven almost wholly on the illusory metrics of and "page-views", with little to no real revenue behind those "clicks", the story this time is different. The e-commerce boom in India is a tide that is lifting many boats.

Dec 4, 2015

Rearming Hinduism, by Vamsee Juluri - Review

Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia and the Return of Indian Intelligence Paperback, by Vamsee Juluri (@VamseeJuluri)

Who controls the history of a people controls the people. Colonization of the land is easier to fight than colonization of the mind. Who gets to define Hinduism today? Should they? For those who have, what's their agenda, their motives? For those who support, what drives them?

Academia in the United States has a well-deserved reputation for independence, and exercises far greater intellectual honesty - for the most part - than compared to, say, many of the leftist-controlled institutions in India. This streak of honesty breaks down, however, when it comes to Indology, and especially Hinduism studies. Almost without exception, Hinduism as a subject in US academia has for decades been in the control of the racists, the xenophobes, the bigots, the supremacists, and at times the outright insane! Like the person who insisted in an "acclaimed" book that "most of India" lay in the Northern Hemisphere (for the record, and this is not a matter of opinion - all of India is entirely within the Northern Hemisphere; not "most", but every square-inch. In fact, the southernmost tip of India - Kanyakumari - is a good 800 kilometers north of the Equator, and has been that way for at least the last 15 million years)!!!

Nov 25, 2015

Rise of the Robots - 3

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Martin Ford

Part 3 of 3 (part 1, part 2)

As 2014 drew to a close, the Indian IT industry was rocked by rumours that TCS (the largest Indian IT company by annual revenues) had completed an internal review and had initiated lay offs of thousands of employees - mostly in middle management. Some stories talked about a number as high as 30,000. The saga finally ended with a round of clarifications and denials by TCS and some well-deserved opprobrium over its inept handling of the needless controversy. What the fracas however served to highlight was a stark truth that's been staring at the Indian IT industry for some time now - the skills that the typical Indian IT worker possesses are mostly undifferentiated and prime candidates for automation.
What is worse, from at least one perspective, is the fact that (smart) humans have built technology that has becoming adept at "engineering the labor out of the product." One will need to be particularly myopic to not also recognize that "the machines are coming for the higher-skill jobs as well." This much should have been clear in part two of this series, through the examples I cited from Martin Ford's book.

Nov 24, 2015

Rise of the Robots - 2

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Martin Ford

Part 2 of 3 (part 1)

Machines have been able to do mechanical jobs faster than humans, with greater precision, and for longer periods of time - the cotton gin invented in the eighteenth century for example. The inevitable loss of jobs called for a re-skilling of the people affected, and the mantra went that you had to pull yourself up by your socks, learn a new skill, and get productive again. Martin Ford's book shatters that illusion. There is not a single profession left - whether unskilled or skilled, whether in technology or medicine or liberal arts, whether one that can be performed remotely or requires direct human interaction - that is not at threat from the machines. Whichever way you slice and dice it, you are left facing one or the other variation of a dystopian future, with stark income inequalities, a substantial population that will require doles on a permanent doles, and the concomitant social upheavals.

Nov 23, 2015

Rise of the Robots - 1

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Martin Ford

Part 1 of 3

"I'm smart; you're dumb. I'm big; you're small. I'm right; you're wrong. And there's nothing you can do about it."

Thus spake Harry Wormwood in the movie "Matilda". This well could be the message that robots will have for us in the not too distant future. The dramatic improvements in the speed, the accuracy, and the areas in which computers have begun to comprehensively outperform humans leads one to believe that while a so-called singularity may well be some ways off, the more immediate effects of this automation are already being felt in permanent job losses. In a country like India, which has used digital technologies quite effectively in the last decade and a half to grow a $150 billion IT-BPM industry, the impact could be devastating - especially where an estimated 10 million people are employed.

Nov 12, 2015

Deepavali 2015

Deepavali (also called Diwali in much of North India) came this year on the 11th of November, 2015. The date, as per the Gregorian calendar, is quite meaningless. But if you look at this tithi (date) according to the Hindu calendar, light strikes! It was Ashwin amavasya, of Krishna paksha. Which means it was a moonless night. As Rama and Sita, along with Lakshman, returned to Ayodhya, the stars were the only heavenly bodies that provided light.  Thus the residents of Ayodhya, having waited for more than fourteen years for their prince, lit lamps to light the way. In more ways than one, they were dispelling the darkness that had persisted in Ayodhya for many years. 

Yugas have passed, but the thought and tradition lives on.

Nov 6, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata - 15 - When Bhima Was At a Loss of Words

Bhima throws an elephant at Karna
(credit: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
That Bhima was a man of action is not in dispute. One could write an epic in itself on Bhima's love for letting his actions do the talking. But do not think his words lacked a punch either! Far from it. Bhima was never short of strong words either. Let us examine a few instances.

Yudhishthira's weakness for gambling combined with his ineptness at the game to hand over his kingdom, liberty, his brothers and wife to the Kauravas. Bhima had watched quietly as Yudhishthira had gambled away - losing round after round - everything, but Droupadi's insult in the assembly hall was too much for him to bear. He turned to his elder brother and spoke - "O Yudhishthira! Gamblers have many courtesans in their country. But they are kind even towards those, and do not stake them in gambling. ... I think you committed a most improper act in staking Droupadi. She did not deserve this. ... It is because of her that my anger descends on you. I will burn your hands. O Sahadeva! Bring the fire." [Dyuta Parva]

Oct 27, 2015

Vamsee Juluri - Hinduism and Its Culture Wars

Hinduism and its culture wars

Vamsee Juluri's essay in 2012 has been published as an e-book, "Hinduism and its culture wars", and I would recommend it whole-heartedly for all. In some ways, it can also serve as a short primer for his longer, and more recent, book - "Rearming Hinduism".

For those unaware, there has been a raging battle being fought for more than two decades for the soul of Hindu academia. On one side have been the liberals, the orientalist academia, the Hinduphobes - all of whom have had a stranglehold on the mainstream narrative of Hinduism. On the other side have been a section of Hindus who have risen up to challenge this bigoted and jaundiced view of their faith.


Oct 16, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata - 14 - Playing By the Book? I Don’t Think So!

Playing by the book to win is a myth that has cost us dear. We should know better, but we're probably poor learners! Among several arguments put forth to explain Indians’ losses against foreign invaders, one of the more commonly heard one is that Indians could not – or refused to – adapt to the new rules of warfare and insisted on fighting by the more traditional, dharmic, rules of war. But is that really the case?

Let’s use the Mahabharata to evaluate this assumption more closely. Was this war at Kurukshetra fought as a dharmic war? The Pandavas certainly believed theirs to be a just war, yes. But the means? Most would disagree, I hope. Women were not supposed to take part in the war – at least one did. There was not supposed to be any fighting at night – there was. The unarmed were not to be attacked – they were. A warrior was not to be engaged in battle without warning – he was. Warriors were not to be attacked when sleeping - they were. And so on… Every single rule was broken, by both sides.

Kripa and Shikhandi fight
(credit: Wikpedia, the free encyclopedia)
Shikhandi had been born Shikhandini – a woman. You could also see her as Amba reborn. A yaksha gave Shikhandini his male form, and she thus became Shikhandi. Bhishma looked at Shikhandi as a woman and refused to engage him in a duel. The Pandavas used this to shield Arjuna from Bhishma. Thus was brought down the first commander of the Kaurava army. Rules of engagement were clearly asymmetric. The Pandavas adapted when faced with rules that put them at a disadvantage.