Oct 13, 2016

Ocean of Churn by Sanjeev Sanyal - Review

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.

The span of attention and detail for Indian historians has tended to wane the further one goes away from Delhi - which explains why entire chapters in school history texts are devoted to Mughal kings, the Lodhis, the Khiljis, and what not, while a paragraph or two is deemed sufficient for grander and greater empires like the Cholas, Pallavas, or the Marathas. The empire of Vijayanagar, that was perhaps the largest and grandest empire in medieval India, is done away in a paragraph or two in most academic textbooks. In doing so, Indian historians have followed the template set for them by their colonial and ideological masters. Prominent characters in Indian history are either diminished or even erased completely from official histories. Therefore, Kanhoji Angre, a formidable naval commander is dismissed as a "pirate" by English historians, and barely talked about by Indian historians. Angre was a "Surkhail" or "Grand Admiral" of the Marathas, and for almost half a century, till 1756, the Marathas would be a major naval power on the Konkan coast, challenging and defeating on several occasions the English and Portuguese navies. In 1718 the East India Company would sail to Angre's main base at Vijaydurg, only to retreat in just four days. Four years later, the East India Company would seek the help of the Royal Navy and the Dutch, only to be defeated yet again. Yet this great Maratha naval legend merits not even one line in many school history texts.

Kanhoji Angre is but one example of how the Indian Ocean has shaped human history for thousands of years, and in ways one may not have imagined - trade, martial, even marital, cultural, and later imperialist! The marital part is quite fascinating, and Sanyal opens his book with the story of how, in 731 CE, the death of the Pallava king, Parameswara Varman II, without leaving an heir, necessitated a journey across the oceans. From across the oceans, to a distant land today called Cambodia, a "delegation of Brahmin scholars" traveled and got back an heir that traced his roots to the Pallava family from five generations ago! Thus started the reign of Nandi Varman II! Equally fascinating is the story of how the Sinhalese came to Sri Lanka - the great-grandson of the king of Vanga (Bengal) was banished because of his errant ways. Vijaya, the great-grandson, took 700 of his followers, sailed south, landed in Sri Lanka, mended his ways, and ruled for many years. Truly a case of truth being stranger than fiction!

But if we have to talk of truly truth-stranger-than-fiction tales, my favourite from the book is that of how in the 17th century, a father named Naruttam not only saved his daughter from the lecherous demands of Periera, the Portugese commander at Oman, but also orchestrated a series of events that led to the eviction of the Portuguese from Oman!

"The Ocean of Churn" traces a near-linear temporal arc, beginning with dinosaurs (not exactly!) - but from the time before the Indian Ocean existed - that would be about 270 million years ago - to the formation of Gondwana (the name is derived from the Gond tribe of central India) and then on to the formation of the Himalayas. The Himalayas were formed by the collision of India with the Eurasian plate. This tells us that "the seabed that had existed between India and Asia was thrust into the sky. This explans why fossils of marine animals can be found high up in the mountain range." As you read on, more fascinating nuggets come tumbling out. The rise of the oceans after the last ice-age meant that Kutch was an island, and that it would have also meant that "the Saurashtra peninsula was an island. Thus ships could comfortably sail through what are now the salt flats of the Rann of Kutchh and then make their way out to the Gulf of Khambat." It is therefore no surprise that "two large settlements" were discovered in 2001 in the Gulf of Khambat.

Perhaps the most striking part of the book is how economics and geo-politics have stayed strong over millennia.

Geography played a strong role in determining how history evolved.

For several centuries, the Arabs very successfully managed to conceal from the Europeans the secrets of their trade with India. To directly trade with India, and cut out the Arabs, the Europeans had to find a sea route to India. Geography meant they would have to sail around Africa to get to India. When Vasco da Gama finally managed to find his way to India, he landed at Calicut. The brutality and sadism of the Portuguese seems to be quite something. The Portuguese under Vasco da Gama captured 10 ships and burned their crew in full view of the people ashore. On his second second voyage to Calicut, he captured 800 sailors and had them killed by hacking off their arms, noses, and ears. All so the Indians would agree to trade directly with the Portuguese. If India had thought the Arabs and Turks were the last of the savages to ravage India, they were mistaken - the Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English savages were only starting to make their way to India. Events today are little different from five hundred years ago - regimes are overthrown and hundreds of thousands of civilians butchered, all in the name of regime change, all for the sake of commerce.

History, in turn, was determined by commerce.

From Harappan times (that would be more than five thousand years ago), Indians were trading with places thousands of miles away. One of the largest and most powerful empires of south Asia would be the Chola empire, and we have the example of Rajendra Chola, who launched a major naval attack on the Sri Vijaya kingdom of Sumatra and Java in 1025. But it was not the pursuit of military conquests that motivated this naval battle. This was one heck of a major geo-economic-political game going on, involving the Indians, Chinese, and the Sri Vijaya kingdom. The Sri Vijaya were using the Chinese to strengthen not only their own position, but also gain control over both the shipping routes there. This, therefore, affected the Cholas, who had a robust maritime trade going on in that part of the Indian Ocean. A diplomatic mission by the Cholas to the Chinese in 1015 was followed by a massive Chola naval fleet that sailed in 1025. Commerce and geo-political interests decided history and geography - little different from geo-politics today, a thousand years later, as recent developments in the South China Sea eloquently attest.

Commerce was (partly) organized and financed by temples.

India’s maritime leadership slowly lost out to the Chinese and Arabs. This happened because of the systematic destruction of temples by the Turks, starting in the 11th century. Finance, which was conducted from temples, was destroyed, as was the money looted. A visit to Mahabalipuram near Chennai is strongly encouraged. Why Indians withdrew and ceded ground, almost completely, is still somewhat of a mystery, and Sanjeev writes he has been unable to find a satisfactory answer.

Commerce influenced the evolution of the cultural mores of the society.

How come matrilineal genealogies are so strong in some places like Kerala? It is because of the long sea-faring tradition of those places. Therefore, with the menfolk out on the seas for long periods of time, the women ran the families. Matrilineal linkages were important there - whether it was the Nairs in Kerala or the Bunt of Karnataka. The first Indianized kingdom of South East Asia - the Funan kingdom in the Mekong delta - itself has a surreal story where a Naga princess (who was also a pirate!) has an encounter with a ship that has a handsome Brahmin boy, and thus we have the founding of a dynasty! And why were those ships on the high seas? Because India had a long and strong maritime tradition.

History has been written by the victors.

Victors do not like to be reminded of the people who had the better of them - the example of the wiping out of Kanhoji Angre from history texts is but one example. Nor do victors like their subjects to be reminded that it is possible to fight back against the colonials. Therefore, while there is no end to paeans penned on the effortless, almost bloodless victory that Robert Clive secured against Siraj ud Daulah, establishing the English rule and loot of Bengal, the Indians learned almost next to nothing about the Dutch, who were as active in South Asia as the English. Is it because it was not the English but an Indian who delivered a crushing blow to the Dutch, sixteen years before the battle of Plassey? That person was Martand Varma.

History continues to be written by the mentally enslaved for the mentally enslaved. "The Ocean of Churn" is Sanjeev Sanyal's continuing and gentle attempt to shake Indians from their stupor and look at history afresh. It is breathtaking when one surveys how history, geography, and the history of arthashastra (economics) in India have been taught - each divorced from the other.

Kindle: US, India
Paperback: Amazon India, Flipkart

This review first appeared in IndiaFacts on Sep 20, 2016.

 2016, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

Oct 1, 2016

Eventful Travel Travails

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.
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.
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."

So the remote clicker is not working. OK. No worry. What if I manually unlock the car and try the ignition? Perhaps the car's central locking takes its power from some other place than the battery. I take the key and insert it into the lock. Except there is no lock. There is a thick black plastic cover, similar to the handle, where the keyhole should have been.

Just the slightest bead of sweat has started to form.
On my forehead.
It's cold outside.

Never mind. There's still more than two hours for the flight. The drive to the airport is 15 minutes. A maximum of ten minutes to return the car. Ten minutes to get to the airport. Domestic flight. Lots of time. A quick dash inside to pull out the rental car agency's helpline. Lady answers that they can send a towtruck in about 40 minutes. There was a thunderstorm a couple of days before, so there are a lot of service calls to be attended to. I weigh my options. Agree. And start to wait.

Time is relative. It is neither your friend nor your relative when it comes to crunch situations.

A little over an hour left for the flight. Hope has started to recede, like my hair over the years. Only, hope has receded faster. I call the tow-truck person. He answers that he is on the way. I scout every incoming car, truck, pickup with increasing desperation. The guy arrived at about 6:50AM. Hope starts to unrecede. My hair does not. If he can get my car unlocked and jump-started, I can perhaps, still make it. I calculate the odds. We Indians invented math. But the only number flashing in my head at this point is zero - again, an Indian invention. My heart refuses to see what my brain is showing me.

The person pulls the truck over, gets out of the truck, with a case with him. It is a portable battery and jumper cables. He knows what he is doing, and he has done it hundreds of times before.
My heart floats.
It flits.
It almost flies. Before my flight does, I hope. The car battery's dead. My hope is taking a little longer.

He asks for my car keys. Which I gladly thrust into his hands. He clicks the remote. It doesn't do anything. Of course. He then takes the key and tries to insert it into the lock. Except there is no lock. There is a black plastic, similar to the handle, where the keyhole should have been.

Déjà vu.

He is puzzled.
I am panicky.
An old Hindi song starts to play inside my head.
On repeat.
Out of tune.
It's not even a song I like.

He goes around to the passenger side. Ditto.

He calls up his friend. His friend and he talk.

The clock ticks. In my head. The song plays. In my head. The number zero flashes, like a bright neon sign outside a 7-11 at night. In my head.

He hangs up. He takes a photo of the door handle and WhatsApps it to his friend. He calls back after a few minutes. The tow-truck person converses. He goes back to his toolkit and takes out a screwdriver. He inserts it to the side of the handle, and pulls. The black cap pops off, revealing a keyhole. We both exchange smiles. He inserts the key, unlocks the car, pops the hood, uses the jumper cable to jump-start the car.
We shake hands.
I could hug him.
But I have a flight to catch.
Or so I think.

I drive to the airport, as fast as respect for traffic rules will permit me. I pull into the rental car's parking lot. The fuel gauge reads full. Good. I get out of the car. Take my bags. And walk to the lobby where the bus is waiting. I am halfway there when the bus leaves. That is a sign.

I finally get to the airport. At the check-in kiosk, I swipe my card. It tells me my flight is closed. And asks me to see the ticketing agent. She is helpful enough to put me on the next flight out. It leaves in three hours. I will take that. I will take that.

This is only the first leg of my journey.

(... to be continued)

A Bridge Too Far

Flight of Dreams

Between the Rocky Mountains and a Hard Place

© 2016, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

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."
Karna by this time knew about the truth of his birth. He would also have guessed that Kunti would be the next to come and meet him, and the reason behind such a visit. Thus, when Kunti came to Karna, Karna's salutation to Kunti was that much more poignant as well as pointed - "I am Karna, the son of Radha and Adhiratha, and I salute you. Tell me. Why have you come here? What can I do for you?”

Kunti, touched to the quick, told Karna the truth of his birth - "You are the son of Kunti, not of Radha. And Adhiratha is not your father." She then asked him to leave Duryodhana and come join the Pandavas. She ended her entreaty to Karna with these words - "The words ‘son of a suta’ will no longer be used for you. You will be a valiant Partha."

The pejoration of a "suta" is what had been used to deprive Karna from participating in Droupadi's swyamvar (according to some retellings of the Mahabharata, though not the Critical Edition's), what had been used by Kripa to deny Karna the chance to duel with Arjuna many years ago, by asking these pointed questions - "You should also tell us your mother, father and lineage and the royal dynasty of which you are the ornament." Kunti had by that time come to know the truth of Karna's birth. But she had felt helpless then. Krishna had not tried to tempt Karna over to the Pandava side by telling him he would no longer be referred to as the "son of a suta," Kunti did.

Karna's remonstration with Kunti was different. It focused first on what Karna had lost through Kunti abandoning him after birth - "By casting me out, you have destroyed the fame and renown that I could have possessed. I have been born a kshatriya, but I did not obtain the rites that were due to a kshatriya. All this was because of you."

Karna then asked Kunti "How can I abandon them?" "Them" referred to the Kauravas.

Towards the end of his exchange with Kunti, Karna could not refuse his mother. He acceded to Kunti's request, her real request, not the one that she told Karna about though. Karna told Kunti, "However, your appeal to me will not be fruitless. Though I can counter and kill them, I will not kill all of your sons in battle... The number of your sons will not be less than five. You will either be without Arjuna and with Karna, or if I am killed, you will be with Arjuna."

Kunti then left Karna with these words - "But you must promise about the safety of four of your brothers. You have given me that pledge and you must discharge that promise."

Here is one question. Did Karna refuse Kunti because of all the pent-up resentment against his mother? Or did he believe that Kunti had come to Karna not out of love for him, but more out of concern for her five sons? Possibly this is the reason, because Karna made the promise to Kunti of not killing four of her sons. In a way, Karna sealed the fate of the war through what was possibly his last act of charity.

Here is another question. Why did Kunti, or Krishna also for that matter, not tell the Pandavas the truth about Karna, that he was one of them, that he was the eldest Pandava? Would that not have stopped the war? Yes, most probably yes. But the Pandavas would have lost, without shooting a single arrow. This was not so much about avoiding war as winning against the Kauravas. Victory against the enemy could be had only by weakening the enemy. That Karna did not go over to the Pandava camp was certainly a setback, but the second meeting in particular did yield dividends. Karna did not forget his promise to his mother, and spared the lives of the four Pandavas during the course of the war. Had Karna killed either Bheema or Yudhishthira, would the course of the battle been different? Many will be inclined to think so. It remains in the realm of conjecture; a fascinating conjecture like so many other incidents in the Mahabharata.

When did Kunti break the truth to her sons? It happened after the war was over, and when Yudhishthira, Dhritarashtra, and others went to the Ganga to offer oblations to those killed in the war. This is recounted in the Jala-pradanika Parva (which, at 24 shlokas is the second shortest Parva in the Mahabharata). Kunti broke down and said this in a soft voice - [bold emphasis mine]
"There was a brave and great archer. He was a leader of leaders of rathas. He was marked with the auspicious signs of a hero and was killed by Arjuna in the battle. O Pandavas! You thought of him as the son of a suta and as Radheya. In the midst of the formations, the lord was as radiant as the sun. Staying at the front, he fought against all of you and your followers. He roamed around, gathering all of Duryodhana's troops behind him. There was no one on earth who was his equal in valour. He was devoted to the truth. He was brave. He did not retreat from a battle. The one with unblemished deeds was your brother. Perform the water-rites for him. He was your eldest brother, born from the sun god. He possessed earrings and armour. He was brave. He was like the sun in his radiance."
This began a tumult of emotions in Yudhishthira. The grief over the death of so many near and dear ones was compounded by the knowledge that they had ended up killing even one of their brothers - their eldest brother. Yudhishtira's grief knew no bounds, and thoughts of renouncing his kingdom entered his mind. Thus began the Shanti Parva - an aptly named parva. Here is a third question - why did Kunti finally break her silence when she did? I confess I do not know the answer to that one. I have thought, but no satisfactory answers come to mind.

Kunti had abandoned her first-born son years ago. She could not claim him back. Perhaps she did not want to claim him, at least not before the war. She would acknowledge Karna as his son publicly only after his death. Karna had been abandoned by Kunti years ago, given a name and identify by his foster parents, and a place in society by Duryodhana. He could not abandon them. He chose to abandon Narayana, who had come to him.

Note: I have used Dr. Bibek Debroy's unabridged English translation of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute's Critical Edition of the Mahabharata, published by Penguin, as my reference.

This post first appeared in IndiaFacts on Aug 13, 2016

© 2016, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

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

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.

And this is a photo from about the same place, from 2009 (from my post on Yercaud)

© 2016, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.

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

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.