Nov 12, 2016

Sati, Evangelicals, and Atrocity Literature


Sati: Evangelicals, Baptist Missionaries, and the Changing Colonial Discourse
by Meenakshi Jain

(Amazon India, Amazon)

I
n many ways this book documents the birth of atrocity literature and its first application in India on Hindus. The successful template of manufacturing atrocities, hyping them, and then using the resulting public opinion to further an evangelical agenda may appear new, but it is one that was honed more than two centuries ago. This is yet another stunning book from Meenakshi Jain, coming after her 2013 tour-de-force, "Rama and Ayodhya."

What was the evidence and prevalence of Sati in ancient and medieval India? Did it have religious sanction? Was it mandatory? Was there coercion? Was it confined to certain regions and castes or widespread? Did it change over time? Did it increase or reduce over time? Did the English or the East India Company ban it? Did they want to ban it? What were their motivations in banning it? Were they driven by the need to put a stop to a widespread evil? How did Indians react to the ban? When talking of Sati, these are some of the questions that should spring to mind. These are the questions that the book asks, and answers.

Nov 1, 2016

Diwali 2016 Photos

D
eepavali (Diwali) 2016 is over. It is time therefore to post the photos.
And here they are.

Oct 13, 2016

Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal - Review


I
f history is to be written to make it accessible to the lay reader, the student, and make it interesting, Sanjeev Sanyal is one author I would pick. I say "one", because I would also pick Michel Danino, but that is a different story and for a different book! Sanjeev Sanyal's previous book, "The Land of the Seven Rivers", was a grand, sweeping, and ambitious narrative of India's history that tied it to the equally fascinating geography of Bharatvarsha. His 2016 book, "The Ocean of Churn", goes one better in both scope and sweep. This time Sanyal takes the reader on a ride along the Indian Ocean, and ties together the histories of the lands touched by the mighty ocean. In doing so, he sheds light on several fascinating episodes that deserve a wider audience.

Oct 1, 2016

Eventful Travel Travails

T
here are travels that begin on a note that tell you to prepare for the worst. Of course, as a rational person you do not believe in omens, signs, or any such irrational nonsense. Till all such omens, signs, and irrational nonsense turns into events. Real events. That happen to you.

Earlier this year I had to travel to the United States on business. This meant traveling to several cities, taking several flights, with several layovers, meeting customers, the team, friends, family, and then flying back. In less than ten days, I had to transit via or fly-in to the airports at Washington DC, Newark, Chicago O'Hare, Milwaukee, Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco - basically an airport almost every day. With such a travel itinerary, the best you can hope for is an uneventful journey.
Sometimes it is bad to hope.

The Canary that Wouldn't Sing

The door handle of the VW Beetle (it was black on the car I had rented)
The first call of business was at San Antonio. I would need to come back to San Antonio the next week, and that was another story, but the first port of call was San Antonio. After twenty-four hours or so of traveling in cattle-class, eating as little food and as many fluids as possible (because it is more convenient to do the 'little' thing than the 'big' thing while traveling), all I had energy to do was to pick the car from the rental agency - a nice, canary-yellow, Beetle at that - and find my way to the hotel. After meetings the next day, I packed and was ready to leave for the airport the next morning. An early rise, an early breakfast, and I was in the parking lot, ready to drive the shiny, new Beetle rental car to the airport, and be on my way to San Francisco. Click - went the car remote to unlock the car.

I click, expecting to hear a reciprocal click that would be the unlocking of the car.
No click, no unlock.
I check the clicker.
I check the car.
Nothing.
I circumambulate the car, in an ancient pagan ritual, my nails digging deeper and deeper into the clicker. Again, the dead silence of the clicker greets me in return.
Hmm...
A lady walks by. "Is that your car?"
"Uh huh."
"Someone left the headlights on the last night. I think the battery's drained."
"Oh. Thank you ma'am."

Sep 10, 2016

Tales from the Mahabharata - 20 - Abetment or Abandonment

The second meeting Karna had was with Kunti. Kunti, the mother who had abandoned her first-born son and Karna, the son who could not bring himself to abandon the friend who gave him a kingdom. Karna-Upanivada Parva (an upa-Parva in Udyoga Parva) describes both these meetings, and captures brilliantly the complexity of human relations and emotions at work.

After Krishna returned to the Pandavas after his meeting with Karna, Vidura had provided an update to Kunti of Krishna's unsuccessful entreaties to the Kauravas. Kunti started thinking of the looming battle, and her mind naturally went to the warriors in the Kaurava army who would pose the biggest threat to her sons - her five sons. Kunti correctly thought that Bhishma would be "kindly disposed towards the Pandavas" and that Drona would "never willingly wish to fight with his disciples." This left Karna, who Kunti saw as the pivot around whom the war could turn.

I wrote in the earlier post that Krishna had approached Karna with as open and generous an offer as could have been made, by man or god. Krishna had made one last attempt at averting war.

Kunti was at this point in time more interested in the preservation of her five sons. With Karna fighting on the other side, there was no guarantee of the safety of any of her five sons. One way of ensuring their safety was to turn Karna over to the side of the Pandavas.
"Karna has always been against the Pandavas and I am now tormented by that. Today, I hope to turn Karna’s mind towards the Pandavas. I will meet him, tell him the truth and seek to obtain his favours."

Aug 15, 2016

Tales from the Mahabharata - 19 - Karna and the fear of abandonment

Kunti abandoning Karna
(image credit: http://www.dollsofindia.com/)
I will stay with Karna for this post also (the previous post was also about Karna and how his life can also be viewed as a cautionary tale against distractions).

Karna was abandoned almost immediately after his birth. His mother, Kunti, "flung" (ch 104, Adi Parva) him into the river, where he was found by Adhiratha, adopted by his wife Radha, and grew up the son of a charioteer. He later became the lifelong friend of Duryodhana, the king of Anga, and a mortal enemy of Arjuna.

A question comes to mind - why did Kunti need to fling her first-born son into the water? It was because of a boon granted by the "fearsome" sage, Durvasa. His boon to Kunti was thus - "Whichever gods you summon through the use of this mantra, will grant you sons through their grace." Durvasa had granted this boon to Kunti because "he knew that she would face the dharma that is indicated for times of distress." Once Kunti had this boon, she became "curious." Curiosity led her to invoke the boon, summon Arka (the sun god), who placed an embryo in her womb. Thus Karna was born, and almost immediately thereafter, abandoned by his mother.

Aug 11, 2016

Dalits, Muslims, Gurkhas, Chambal, and more. Growth of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India - KS Lal

T
he myth of Dalit-Islam unity has been doing the rounds for a few decades now, despite a copious amount of evidence to the contrary and a near-complete absence of historical evidence to support the premise of any such unity. The primary causal factors for the persistence of this myth are poor scholarship among modern historians (which in turn can be blamed on the cabal of leftist historians who have a vice-like control on almost all institutions of historical research in India), the resurgence of radical ideologies that seek to warp facts to force-fit their worldview, and above all a general apathy towards the study of history in India. Dalits have found themselves at the receiving end of communal violence at the hands of Muslims in riots - whether it was the horrendous violence during Partition, or the equally horrific riots following the burning of 59 Hindu men, women, and children in a train near Godhra in Gujarat in 2002. Yet the myth of "Dalit-Muslim unity" lives on. To then say that the credit for the growth of India's tribal population (sometimes also referred to as Dalits) goes to the centuries-long Muslim rule in India between 712-1707 CE would be a surprise to most. Yet it is the proposition made and proven by distinguished historian, K.S. Lal, in his book, "Growth of Scheduled Tribes and Castes in Medieval India."

Jul 30, 2016

Tales from the Mahabharata - 18 - First Things First, A Lesson Karna Forgot

It is not without reason that the character of Karna has attracted so much fascination and attention from readers of the Mahabharata. People have seen and identified in him an ideal friend, an ideal giver, and above all - the fatally wronged son who never got his due from either his brothers or his mother. The right warrior who fought on the the wrong side.

But among all that has been written in the Mahabharata, is there an underlying narrative, hiding between the pages, that that may tell us something more about Karna, and therefore, about human nature itself? To do that, it is instructional to revisit some of the pivotal moments in Karna's life.

Parashurama sleeping on Karna's lap
[image credit: Wikipedia]
A young Karna had convinced Parashurama to train him in the use of weapons. So desperate had Karna been to receive this knowledge that he had described himself as a brahmana, and not as the kshatriya he was (a suta perhaps, but certainly a brahmana he wasn't). Parashurama would teach no kshatriya. One day, as Parashurama slept on Karna's lap, a bee stung Karna. Not wanting to disturb his guru, Karna bore the pain. When Parashurama woke up and saw the blood, he accused Karna of having deceived him. No brahmana - or so Parashurama believed - could have withstood so much pain. Parashurama cursed Karna that he would forget the knowledge of his weapons when he would need them most. This is well known. The question is - why did Karna not get up or otherwise take some step to swat the bee away? Why was it so important to show that he could withstand huge amounts of pain, if only to not displease his guru?

Jul 17, 2016

Hosur Road, NH7 - Past and present

Sometime between 2013 and 2015 a considerable stretch of NH7 got six-laned - from Hosur to Krishnagiri. This is also one of the busiest stretches on this national highway, that runs through Bangalore, and all the way down to the southernmost point in India - Kanyakumari.

Jul 9, 2016

InMobi, Privacy, and Penalties

image credit: WDnet Agency, pexels.com
In 2015 I had written a series of articles on the e-commerce battle between Flipkart and Amazon, one of which focused on why companies are so obsessed with apps Mobile Apps: There’s Something (Profitable) About Your Privacy. Now it turns out that InMobi has agreed to pay a US$950,000 in civil penalties to "settle charges it violated federal law." InMobi is described by the US Federal Trade Commission complaint thus: "describes itself as the “world’s largest independent mobile advertising company.” In February 2015, Defendant reported its advertising network had reached over one billion unique mobile devices, with 19% of those devices located in North America, and had served 6 billion ad requests per day." According to the FTC complaint [bold emphasis mine], "Even if the consumer had restricted an application’s access to the location API, until December 2015, Defendant still tracked the consumer’s location and, in many instances, served geo-targeted ads, by collecting information about the WiFi networks that the consumer’s device connected to or that were in-range of the consumer’s device. "

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