Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata 11 - Something About Yudhishthira and Sacrifices

My piece on the curious tendency of yagya's to not go off as planned in the Mahabharta was published in Swarajya on April 5, 2015.

Among the many sacrifices described in the Mahabharata, three stand out. There is the Rajsuya Yagya, performed by Yudhishthira, and described in Sabha Parva. Then there is the Sarpa Satra, the snake sacrifice that became the raison d'être for the first public telling of the story of the Bharata family. The third is the horse sacrifice, performed by Yudhishthira after the Kurukshetra war. There are also other sacrifices - like the sacrifice that resulted in the birth of Droupadi and Dhrishtadyumna - but those are not described in as much details as these three are.

Among the three listed above, the Rajsuya and Ashvamedha sacrifices are very interesting, but not quite for the reasons that would immediately come to mind.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Flipkart - 5 - Focus and Free Advice

I wrote about the obsession of Flipkart (and Myntra) with "mobile-only" without even having an iPad-optimized app! I also talked about the stunning advances being made in voice-search by using machine learning, cognitive learning, natural language processing, even as voice-based search capabilities of e-commerce companies - including Amazon - remain abysmal. Finally, I also included several use-cases that these companies need to work on incorporating into their capabilities.

That piece, Flipkart, Focus and Free Advice, appeared in DNA on June 27th, 2015.


My earlier pieces on the same topic:

  1. Flipkart vs Amazon: Beware the Whispering Death - 20th April '15 (blog, dna)
  2. Mobile Apps: There’s Something (Profitable) About Your Privacy - 18th April '15  (blog, dna)
  3. Mobile advertising and how the numbers game can be misleading - 14th April '15  (blog, dna)
  4. Is Flipkart losing focus - 12th April '15  (blog, dna)

Flipkart, Focus, and Free Advice – Shipping Charges Also Waived!


What is one to make of a statement like this - “India is not mobile-first, but mobile-only country[1]”? Especially so if it is from the co-founder of the largest ecommerce company in India, and it turns out the company does not even have an app for the Apple iPad?

I have written at length on the distractions that seem to have been plaguing Flipkart and why it cannot afford to drop its guard in this fiercely contested space[2] - especially in light of all the noise surrounding its mobile ambitions. Somewhat paradoxically, this post is about offering advice to Flipkart that calls for some diversification!

As a logical next step, I wanted to take a look at Flipkart’s mobile apps – both on the iOS and Android platforms – to see how well they were executing on their very bold ambitions. As an aside, I also wanted to see if these (and competitive) mobile apps were leveraging all the computing power now available on tap inside these tiny devices. After all, apart from the recent – and amazing – advances Google has made in its voice-based search capabilities[3], there was this stunning demo from Hound[4] that gave a glimpse into the huge advances that voice-recognition, search, and machine-learning technologies have made in the last decade.



Monday, June 22, 2015

History (1) Of Frivolous Young Men and Depraved Morals

History repeats ... first as tragedy, then as farce - one of the most repeated quotes of Karl Marx could most political dynasties to a "T". India is no different.

Consider these two paragraphs, that I have partly edited for the sake of dramatic impact: the modified words are highlighted in bold
"He proclaimed his accession at Delhi. Though about fifty years of age, he behaved like a frivolous young man of eighteen. His morals were highly depraved. He drank heavily and passed most of his time in the company of his mistress, whose relations had obtained high posts in government service. Nor could his advisor fill in the void successfully. He had been overtaken with senile decay. He devolved his entire responsibility on his favourite ... With such persons at the helm of affairs, the fate of the administration can better be imagined than described."

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Mahabharata Vol 10 - Review

The Mahabharata, Volume 10

Translated by Bibek Debroy

This review first appeared in DNA India on April 12, 2015.

Where does the Ramayana end? When Sita returns to Ayodhya with Rama? Or is it when she is banished to the forest? Or when Rama is captured by his own sons and Sita returns to Mother Earth? Or when Rama's life on earth finally comes to an end? What about Hanuman? Oh, but he is one of the few immortals.

With the Mahabharata one can ask similar questions - where does it end? For most of us the answer may be - after the eighteenth day of battle. That would be true in many ways, but it is not the complete truth. What about Gandhari's curse? When did that take effect? What happens to the Pandavas after that? What about Dhritarashtra and Gandhari - the now defeated king and queen? With the Mahabharata, one is even tempted to ask - where does the epic begin?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Creepy Dolls - A Technology and Privacy Nightmare!

This post was first published on LinkedIn on 20th May, 2015.

"Hi, I'm Chucky. Wanna play?"[1]  Fans of the horror film genre will surely recall these lines - innocent-sounding on their own, yet bone-chilling in the context of the scene in the movie - that Chucky, the possessed demonic doll, utters in the cult classic, "Child's Play". Called a "cheerfully energetic horror film" by Roger Ebert [2], the movie was released to more than a thousand screens on its debut in November 1988 [3]. It went on to spawn at least five sequels and developed a cult following of sorts over the next two decades [4].

Chucky the doll
(image credit: http://www.shocktillyoudrop.com/)
In "Child's Play", Chucky the killer doll stays quiet around the adults - at least initially - but carries on secret conversations with Andy, and is persuasive enough to convince him to skip school and travel to downtown Chicago. Chucky understands how children think, and can evidently manipulate - or convince, depending on how you frame it - Andy into doing little favours for him. A doll that could speak, hear, see, understand, and have a conversation with a human in the eighties was the stuff out of science fiction, or in the case of "Child's Play" - out of a horror movie.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Flipkart and Focus 4 - Beware the Whispering Death

The fourth part of my series on Flipkart and its apparent loss of Focus and its battle with Amazon appeared in DNA on April 20th, 2015.

Part 4 – Beware the Whispering Death
Monopolies may have the luxury of getting distracted. If you were a Microsoft in the 1990s, you could force computer manufacturers to pay you a MS-DOS royalty for every computer they sold, irrespective of whether the computer had a Microsoft operating system installed on it or not[1]. You dared not go against Microsoft, because if you did, it could snuff you out – “cut off the oxygen supply[2]”, to put it more evocatively. But if you are a monopoly, you do have to keep one eye on the regulator[3], which distracts you. If you are not a monopoly, you have to keep one eye on the competition (despite what Amazon may keep saying to the contrary, that they “just ignore the competition”[4]).

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Flipkart and Focus 3 - There’s Something (Profitable) About Your Privacy

The third in my series on Flipkart and focus appeared in DNA on April 18th, 2015.



Part III – There’s Something (Profitable) About Your Privacy
Why do so many companies hanker after apps? Smartphone apps, tablet apps, iOS apps, Android apps, app-this, app-that….
Leave aside for a moment the techno-pubescent excitement that accompanies the launch of every new technology (if you are not old enough to remember words like “client-server[1]”, then “soa[2]” will surely sound familiar enough). Every Marketing 101 course drills into its students that acquiring a new customer is way costlier than retain an existing. Loyal customers (leaving aside the pejorative connotation the word “loyal” carries, implying that customers who shop elsewhere for a better deal are of dubious moral character) are what you should aspire to – that keep buying from you for a longer period of time[3] – and which allows you to refocus your marketing and advertising dollars towards the acquisition of newer customers, faster. If you spend less on unnecessary discounts and expensive retention schemes then margins from existing customers are automatically higher.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Flipkart and Focus - 2 - Mobile Advertising Numbers Can Be Misleading

The second part of my series of articles on why I believed Flipkart was at losing focus, at the wrong time, when faced with its most serious competition to date. This one focused on why a fascination with mobile advertising numbers could be very misleading.
It was published in DNA on April 14, 2015.


The Numbers Game Can be Very Misleading
According to the Internet Trends report of 2014, mobile internet advertising spend grew 47% year-on-year in 2013 to reach $12.7 billion, or 11% of the total global internet advertising spend. This mobile ad spend number was about 32 per cent of total mobile app revenues of $38 billion. Clearly mobile ad spend has been growing several times faster than non-mobile ad spend.
Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has been stunningly successful in growing its mobile revenues. So much so that “In the final three months of 2014, Facebook served 65% fewer ads than a year earlier, but the average cost of those ads to advertisers was 335% higher.[i]” As much as $2.5 billion in Facebook’s annual revenues came from these mobile ads – shown on smartphones or tablets. So successful has Facebook been in making money from selling these mobile ads that it “launched its in-app mobile ad network” in 2014[ii] to sell ads within other apps,

Friday, May 8, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata - 10 - On Pollution

My post on what the Mahabharata says on pollution appeared in Swarajya Magazine on March 10, 2015.

Here is the original article:

Jayadratha comes across as a rather despicable character in the Mahabharata. He tried to kidnap Droupadi - his sister-in-law - while the Pandavas were in exile, and escaped with his life only because of Yudhishthira's intervention. During the war, on the thirteenth day, he held back the Pandava army from entering the formation - the chakra vyuha - that Drona had formed, and thus preventing help from reaching the beleaguered Abhimanyu. The Kaurava warriors ganged up against the lone teenager and killed him in a battle most unequal and most unfair.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata - 8 - The Most Well Laid of Plans

My eighth story from "Tales from the Mahabharata" - "The Best Laid Plans...", was published in the February 2015 print edition of Swarajya Mag.

Here is the link to the article, and the full article:
The Most Well Laid of Plans...

Failing to plan is planning to fail - so goes a much trite cliche. Karna however can certainly not be accused of failing to plan. He had a plan and a backup plan to take on Arjuna, his lifelong adversary.

That Karna and Arjuna were rivals is well known. That Karna got the chance to defeat four of the Pandavas in battle is also known. Only a promise made to Kunti, his mother, stopped him from finishing off these other Pandavas. "Other" as in all but Arjuna. Karna was clear that in an encounter between the two, only one would come out alive. The hostility between the two brothers was mutual and implacable. That fateful encounter took place on the seventeenth day on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. Karna had prepared and prepared well for that encounter.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed - Review

So You've Been Publicly Shamed

by Jon Ronson (@jonronson)
Buying info:
US: PaperbackHardcoverKindle
India: FlipkartFlipkart e-bookAmazon PaperbackAmazon Kindle

Also published on Amazon.com, Amazon.in, Flipkart, and Goodreads.

Like Having Your ** Electrocuted

"You ought to be ashamed of yourself! What you did was shameful! I am ashamed of you. You have shamed the entire family!"

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" - never has a more false proverb been more convincingly uttered. The power of words has been underestimated; severely, grossly, terribly, massively underestimated. If you don't believe me, ask James Gilligan, described as "about the world's best chronicler of what a shaming can do to our inner lives." In the 1970s, he was a "young psychiatrist at the Harvard Medical School", and was "invited to lead" a group of a "team of investigative psychiatrists" ordered by a "US District Court judge" to "make sense of the chaos" that were Massachusetts prisons and mental hospitals. What was the scene like?
"Inmates were swallowing razor blades and blinding and castrating themselves and each other. ... Prisoners were getting killed, officers were getting killed, visitors were getting killed."

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Case of the Secretive Sister - Review

My review of Nilanjan Choudhary's latest book, "The Case of the Secretive Sister", was published in DNA India on December 1, 2015. I would whole-heartedly recommend the book!

What happens when Mr. Chatterjee, a retired widower, decides to put his ample spare time and girth towards starting a private detective agency, unimaginatively and unsurprisingly christened the "Chatterjee Institute of Detection"? The only worthwhile case he gets is that from Mrs. Pammi Chaddha, a loud Punjabi - but I repeat myself - who wishes desperately for her daughter, named Aisharadhya (no surprises there either, because any other name would sound too down-market), to get into the toniest of schools in town, the Holy Angels Convent School. Mr. Chatterjee finds himself taking the case on, despite his protestations. A substantial retainer helps ease any misgivings he has. Mr Chatterjee's inventiveness does not find a willing partner in his luck, and a hare-brained scheme to convince the convent's headmistress, a stern Ms. D'Souza, to grant admission to Pinky (the home name of Aisharadhya) sees our budding detective losing his shirt - literally, and on the run from a determined Inspector Gowda. Does he get his shirt back, does Pinky get admission, and does Inspector Gowda get the satisfaction of laying his hands on Mr Chatterjee's throat and more? What secret does Sister D'Souza have that could come to Mr Chatterjee's rescue? Could he blackmail her? Or will Inspector Gowda get his sweet revenge before Mr Chatterjee his shirt?

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Is Flipkart Losing Focus - 1

This is the first of a series of articles I wrote for DNA in April on why I believed Flipkart was at losing focus, at the wrong time, when faced with its most serious competition to date.

"Why Flipkart seems to be losing focus", appeared in DNA on Sunday, April 12, 2015.

Part I
Among all start-ups that have emerged from India in recent and not-so recent times, Flipkart is likely to be at the top of most people’s minds. The list is admittedly weighted heavily in favour of newer companies, given that the Indian start-up ecosystem has only in the last decade or so started to pick up steam. But that is changing, and the list is getting longer and diverse, with such names as Urban Ladder, Zomato, Reel, Druva Software, WebEngage, etc…[1] in just the online segment. But today, in 2015, Flipkart is the big daddy of them; with total equity funding of US $2.5 billion and a valuation of a whopping US$11 billion as of April 2015, it was ranked the seventh most valuable start-up in the world[2] (though that was still a far cry from the $178 billion market cap enjoyed by US online retailer Amazon[3] and $220 billion market cap of Chinese online retailer Alibaba[4]).

Yet Flipkart seems to be in trouble.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata - 9 - Shukra

My ninth story in the series, Tales from the Mahabharata, was published in Swarajya Magazine on March 1, 2015.

Here is the article as it appeared.

Let me tell you a tale. Once upon a time the devas were locked in a deadly battle with the asuras. Try as they might, the asuras seemed incapable of being defeated. For the asuras would fall one day, felled by the devas, only to be revived by their preceptor, Kavya Ushanas - also known as Shukra. You see, Shukra knew the knowledge of sanjivani - the secret of bringing the dead back to life. Brihaspati, the guru of the gods, didn't.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mahabharata Vol. 9 (First review)


Mahabharata: Volume 9
Translated by Bibek Debroy

Amazon KindleAmazon IndiaFlipkartFlipkart ebook

The Beginning of the End

After the seventeen day war was over, the battlefield at Kurukshetra littered with the bodies of the millions who had died, Hastinapura under the control of the Pandavas, the survivors no more than what could be counted on one's fingertips, what else was left? When all had been said and done, or so one thought, it turns out that there was still a lot left to be said.  If you believe that the Mahabharata at one point consisted only of a small and relatively short core of approximately twenty-thousand verses, then its current size of a hundred thousand shlokas is sure to baffle (though it must be pointed out that the Critical Edition, including Hari Vamsha, is a shade less than eighty thousand shlokas). Among the many questions that may arise, the principal one is likely to be - "where?!" "Where" as in where did the epic become an epic, in a literal manner of speakingiterally speaking? When did "Jaya" become "Bharata" and then "Mahabharata"? The short answer, and I use the word "short" deliberately, is in the Shanti and Anushasan Parvas - the twelfth and thirteenth parvas respectively. The long answer is nineteen and a half thousand verses. If you take the seventy three thousand shlokas that constitute the Critical Edition of the Mahabharata - as compiled over nearly half a century by the scholars at Pune's Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, and not counting the approximately six and a half thousand shlokas of Hari Vamsha, which is considered a "kheel" (appendix) to the epic -  then twenty six per cent - a full quarter and then some - of the epic is contained in these two parvas.

Mahabharata Vol. 9 (Second review)


Mahabharata: Volume 9
Translated by Bibek Debroy

"A wife must always be honoured and cherished. When women are not honoured, all the rites become unsuccessful. When daughters-in-law grieve, the family is destroyed." Very strong words spoken in defence of women - and pointedly addressed to both the husband and the parents-in-law. The sanctity of marriage not only results from the vows, but also from the "injunction of dharma that a husband must regard his wife as having been given to him by the gods." What about parents who sell their sons - basically yoke a son to the family who will give the maximum dowry? Such a person has to "progressively pass through seven terrible hells known as "Kalasahvya". After death, he feeds on sweat, urine and excrement." An unpalatable fate that still does not seem to deter many.
Forget dowry, even the act of giving to the undeserving can invite such a fate - "the giver remains in hell for ten years - surviving on excrement."

Monday, March 16, 2015

NH3 Thal Ghat

This is the Thal Ghat (also known as Kasara Ghat) section of NH3, near the town of Kasara, and before Igatpuri. This was shot during the monsoons, and the lush greenery and mist made for a memorable drive.

After you cross Kalyan, NH3 opens up, and upto Nashik is one of the better national highways.



© 2014, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Incredible History of India's Geography - Review

The Incredible History of India's Geography, by Sanjeev Sanyal
5 stars


Amazon IndiaAmazon USFlipkart ebookFlipkart

History books come in many flavours. There are the dry tomes that are read by few, yet quoted by many. There are the popular histories - the "pulpy" versions that are written by high-brow intellectuals who dress themselves as socialists yet work their connections at prestigious B-schools to get the sales that deliver impressive royalties. There are however a few notable exceptions here - like the books written by Michel Danino for instance (and Sanjeev Sanyal's "The Land of the Seven Rivers", but more on that later). Then there are the so-called histories written for children - the worst of the lot because not only do they dumb down history to the point of rendering it useless from both an educational and informational perspective, but they also commit the unpardonable sin of perpetuating discredited myths and vile lies about India and her history. The Aryan Invasion myth being the most favoured among them.

Friday, March 6, 2015

For Sir Wiston Churchill Was an Honourable Man

I penned a short article on Sir Winston Churchill that appeared in Swarajya Magazine on Feb 7, 2015. It, to my surprise, went viral and attracted more than one thousand "shares" on social media.

Here is the full article as it appeared:
For Sir Winston Churchill was an Honourable Man

24th January, 2015 was the fiftieth death anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill. While many celebrated the legacy and work of this British statesman there were also others who pointed out Churchill’s other side

Sir Winston Churchill authored the six-volume magnum opus, “The Second World War”, that proved to be a blockbuster bestseller, helped earn the author millions of dollars in today’s value, and even more – earned him a Nobel Prize in Literature. This work was written substantially by a team of ghost writers called The Syndicate – which researched and wrote the drafts for most of the book, as well as pulling material from the war records and archives. Sir Winston Churchill alone would collect the substantial royalties, credit, and the Nobel Prize.While Sir Churchill’s erudition on geography is well known – where he remarked that India was no more a country than the equator, it is his views on Indians that are to be cherished even more. He told his private secretary that ‘the Hindus were a foul race “protected by their mere pullation from the doom that is their due”‘ “He wished that Air Chief Marshall Arthur Harris, the head of British bomber command, could “send some of his surplus bombers to destroy them.”” No opprobrium would come Sir Churchill’s way.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tales from the Mahabharata 7- Of Conditions and Exceptions

Tales from the Mahabharat, Episode 7 - Of Conditions and Exceptions - my seventh installment of "Tales from the Mahabharata" was published in the Swarajya Magazine on January 10, 2015.

This is the full text of the article as it appeared:

The Mahabharata presents many a different face to different people. A story of friendship, filial jealousies, passions run amok, and much more. In between the main story, there are a number of side stories and tales that have found their way into the epic. Even one version of the Ramayana is contained in the Mahabharata! The other fascinating element found frequently enough is one of conditions and exceptions. Ignoring or acting upon these results in unintended consequences, which is the thread that pervades the epic. Like the story of Karna's earrings and armour, and how an anxious Indra came in the guise of a brahmana to ask Karna to give them away.

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