January 30, 2007

India's online revolution: Are we there yet?

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Online advertising may be doing great in India, but I think ecommerce has a long way to go here. Take online retailing. It seems the best of our shopping portals are still struggling with their basics. I have had many unsatisfactory transactions with indiatimes shopping (shopping.indiatimes.com). For one, their books are hardly in stock. It seems that they are only interested in selling gift items, and the books section is just there out of plain neccessity. Once you're transacting online, you expect a certain transparency and responsiveness. Sadly, no one seems to bother at such portals.

I recently received a gift certificate from my bank for indiatimes shopping. Thankfully, the amount of the GC was not substantial, because I havn't been able to use it to date. Initially, I ordered for a book. When I recalled placing the order a week or so later, I logged on to check the status and saw that it was (as usual) 'out of stock'. Strangely, they did not consider informing me of the status of my order. Secondly, they the money was was not refunded to my GC. As a result, it's still unsuable. Obviously, I don't want to waste my time trying to complain to them because their responses are not helpful at all.

Earlier, I had the same experience with the Fabmall website(now, www.indiaplaza.in). I placed an order for a book and there was not option for cash-on-delivery; which I consider the safest option considering the management of these sites. As the book was not easily available, I chose to pay at Reliance World outlet for which I got a receipt. The amount was Rs 180. After that, I never received my book. I tried getting in touch with them but I knew that my efforts would be in vain.

The pathetic manner in which our ecommerce websites, esp. of online retailers, are handled is a shame. We already widely use our credit cards and online banking for ecommerce, but what is lacking are trustworthy options to shop and transact online.

Its even more surprising to see a poorly managed corporate site of a popular brand name. Reliance Communications (www.relianceinfo.com) is not a badly designed website, its even easy to navigate. Yet, what you will not find here is up-to-date information. All the available handsets are not shown online. There is no mention of their prices and as a result, they are sold at different rates at different franchisees. Another personal experience here: I recently bought a handset from Reliance, cheaper than the MRP from a dealer. I used it to send an MMS and immediately received an SMS that I could retreive all my MMSs at the reliance website. When I logged in, I was told that my handset does not support the MMS feature. Wow, Reliance does not even know what handset I am using at present. So much for customer database.

Looks like as far as ecomm is concerned, India is still having teething troubles. One good word here, though - I have never had problems with my online banking accounts and even if I did, they were sorted out. Here's another catch again - after my ICICI internet banking passwords expired for not logging in during the first 15 days, getting another set was a lot like snatching a piece of meat from a hungry tiger. It took to me months on end to get the new passwords - sometimes my identity was not verified, sometimes the courier guy never made it and what not.

Maybe something like foreign investments might do something to help our ecomm industry. Our Indian companies are taking way too long to pull up their socks.

January 25, 2007

'White Mughals': An unspoken history

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William Dalrymple's White Mughals describes the British in India in a way which is different from anything most of us have grown up learning about. These were the 'foreigners' as we now call them, who neither our parents nor our grandparents today can recall. White Mughals speaks of the era in which some Britishers were so impressed by the Indian culture, they adopted it wholeheartedly.

Of course, this was not taken well by those who had come to the country with the intention of colonising it, or at least plundering its rich resources. yet, from what the book suggests, Indians welcomed the 'dissenters' into their lives and their hearts. I believe Dalrymple researched the book for five years and that shows in his details. It is a critically-acclaimed book but what I liked most was the message of tolerance it presents. The most significant lines in the book in this regard are these:

As the story of James Achilles Kirkpatrick and Khair un-Nissa shows, East and West are not irreconcilable, and never have been. Only bigotry, prejudice, racism and fear drive them apart. But they have met and mingled in the past; and they will do so again.

My sincere wish is that this hope of Dalrymple comes true. We desperately need this kind of tolerance in people today. An East India Company servant, James is the perfect example of this reconciliation - he stayed loyal to the Company while winning the hearts of Indians, by adopting their lifestyle and even their religion (he converted to Islam) - especially of one young girl with a respected lineage.

Why don't we see sentiments like this today? I know inter-cultural marriages do take place, probably more often than they did in the 18th century. But where's the interest in other cultures? Instead of looking for differences, why are we not interested in studying the beliefs and values of other communities? We don't necessarily have to practise them, but at least it will teach us to be more tolerant. Many communal riots today occur because people often misinterpret the actions of other communities because they have no knowledge of its nuances. Very often the defenders of a community hardly know anything about it themselves.

The problem is that there are fewer people like James Kirkpatrick in this world and more like Lord Wellesley - the Governer General who disregarded the beauty of India, while trampling its people underfoot. Many avatars of Wellesley exist even today, putting their prejudices and greed between the efforts at peace.

This may appear to be a rather far-fetched interpretation of White Mughals, but a lot has already been spoken about it as a history. I want to interpret it in the light of today. More than ever, today we need messengers of peace like James who set foot in foreign land and died a revered and loved man. We need people like Khair un-Nissa who embraced James as a good human being, rather than a 'foreigner'.

No wonder, people like James, who were many in number at the time, have been erased from history books. The English were embarrassed by it, and the Indians could not justify it after the Freedom Struggle. Maybe if we added historical accounts of situations where people from different nationalities cooperated with each other, we could teach the future generation more of tolerance than they will from stories of bloody wars.

January 23, 2007

It's not about religion...it's human nature

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I have realised that most wars and clashes are not really about religion, they are about an inherent part of human nature to discriminate. Take places like Iraq, Palestine and Kashmir - where people of the same religion are at each other's necks. Islam, one of the most misunderstood religions of the world, is stricken by infighting as well. Instead of at least maintaining the identity of a single religion, it is divided into so many sects. The same was witnessed in the 19th century by Christianity. The breaking up of this religion into sects too was not without its share of bloodshed.

I am sure that if we found a solution to religious differences, we would easily come up with a thousand other reasons to fight - colour, caste, language and choice of music band. There is an unbelievably evil aspect of humanity which rears its head ever so often. It's hard to believe the kind of atrocities that are committed in times of war - as if they are an excuse to behave in an inhuman manner. Take the Gujarat riots in India, the Iraqi war or the Israel-Palestine clashes - they all speak of the same despicable horror which makes you want to give up in humanity altogether.

Though we will never to be able to find a solution to war, I think it is nature's design. An extension of the 'survival of the fittest' if you will. Homo sapiens will probably destroy themselves, making way for a more tolerant species or maybe humans will destroy the earth altogether.

January 19, 2007

Credibility vs Convenience

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I recently had the opportunity of attending the India Digital Summit 2007 held here in New Delhi. One of the fears expressed by speakers was that the youth today has a tendency to believe just about everything they read on the net. This becomes critical when it comes to sensitive information like health, politics and education. Very often, postings on the net intentionally or unintentionally are built on a bias, which often gets transferred to the unknowing reader.

A blogger, for instance, may write about a particular world event while being miles away from it. He (for convenience's sake - 'he') may himself not have enough information to talk about that particular incident and even less, may not even know the other side of the story. Very often in cases of criminal acts, one has to remember that the "accused" is only so until he is proven guilty by court of law. This is just one of the examples where individuals may take liberty to write about something they are not fully aware of.

I am not saying that blogging should be politically correct or even neutral. But the importance that blogs have come to play in our lives, to the extent that they are threatening other news sources, makes it essential for bloggers to at least acknowledge their limitations. For instance, if you are writing down what you heard somewhere, try to cite the source. If not, admit that the information may not be accurate.

I understand that blogging is a very personal activity and a freedom of expression. I agree that it should be left that way, but bloggers should also make sure they don't give rise to biased sentiments and claim all that they write as their personal opinion (unless there's another source's quote).

Again, I reiterate that this precaution has only become necessary due to the growing influence of blogs, especially among the youth. Yet, it would also be wrong to expect people (like me) who look at blogging as a way of expressing themselves, to worry about social factors.

Therefore, the mainstream media will have to become more youth-friendly - not by adopting 'slang' but picking up issues they can relate to. I find the idea of talking to teenagers in affected slang equivalent to 'goo-gooing' a baby. Teenagers are not dumb. They are intelligent enough to comment on world affairs. The internet has given them a voice, so they flock to it. It's about time newspapers, TV and radio did the same.

I would say that internet does have a way of making people jump to conclusions. This is because they get less time to think about what they are writing. I may be wrong in this very post. Maybe bloggers are more responsible that I think. The point is that any individual who publishes on the net should understand that freedom of speech comes at a cost, that is, responsibility. You have to understand that you are not talking to yourself but putting information on a medium that reaches millions of people. Again, freedom of speech should not come at the cost of the liberty of others. Bloggers cannot demean or criticise others just because its easy to do so.

Ultimately, blogging is not subject to any rules. That is the beauty of it. The only saving grace is that if good thoughts exist in an individual, it comes out in his/her expression. So, as long as there's goodness in the world, we can rest easy.

January 16, 2007

Boredom doesn't kill...but comes close!

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I have heard that animals don't get bored. It's purely a human trait. Man, how I wish we could get rid of this cumbersome trait! Who doesn't get bored? Whether its a head of state attending a conference or a kid attending a family get-together - no matter where you are, you can't avoid being bored. I feel that I am particularly susceptible to this disease...nothing catches my attention for long. It's not that I can't focus, it's just that I start yearning for change...any change!

In fact, my worst days in office are not the ones when I am overloaded with work, it's when I have nothing to do. And the funny thing is, when you realise you're getting bored, it just starts gnawing on you...like fungus on a soggy wall.

Well, here's a list of the top 10 things that bore me:
  1. Sitting in office with nothing to do
  2. Watching (by chance) a saas-bahu TV serial
  3. Attending a meeting that no one is interested in
  4. Hearing someone go on & on & on about smtg I already know
  5. Attending a social function where I don't know anyone
  6. Reading a government/public company press release
  7. Standing in a long queue
  8. Receiving a call from the bank/telco to confirm my details
  9. Waiting at an uninteresting spot
  10. During a power-cut, waiting for it to return

Havn't been able to come up with the way out in situations like these, but I am open to ideas!

January 14, 2007

Contamination of language

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'Contamination' is a fate no language can avoid. It has happened to all our ancestral languages like Latin, Nordic and Persian, transforming them into new languages we are more familiar with today. The process of mixing of two languages - often the colonial with the local - led to the creation of a number of new languages that not only helped people understand each other, but evolved new generations of poets and writers who claimed their loyalty to the newly-formed language. In the subcontinent, Urdu and Hindi are the basic examples of languages which were formed through interrelations with many conquerors.

Yet, what worries me is that we must know where to stop. Contamination has proved to be useful and even inevitable in any language, but we must also take a step or two towards preservation. I will take Urdu as the classic case in this regard. Unfortunately, the language which is the result of great dynasties who flourished in India, receives a rather step-motherly treatment today. The government has not done anything for the promotion or even preservation of Urdu on a scale which may be called commendable.

As such, the burden lies with ourselves to give back languages like Urdu their dignity, instead of using them to compose 'item' songs. You could point a finger at me and say: If you are so hung up about Urdu, why are you writing this in English? The reasons are two. One, like it or not, English is the language of the masses. Two, there is no established Blogger in Urdu.

I would particularly call out to the young Indians whose mother tongue is Urdu, to reach out to their roots by at least picking up an Urdu book for a change or conversing with their fellows in the language. For those with kids, why don't they apprise them of their mother tongue before sending them off to French or Spanish classes? Why hasn't any qualified Indian developed an Urdu literature website? Speaking of which, how many notable Urdu websites have been developed by Indians?

I would not be off-mark if I said that language is a the root of a person's culture. To explore other cultures, you need to be aware of your own. To take my own example, I was brought up and educated in the Middle East. In the Indian schools there (at least seven years ago) students could choose only one second language - Hindi, Urdu, Bengali or Malayalam. I had to choose Hindi, being my national language. However, my father had the insight to send me for private Urdu tutions, for which I am eternally grateful to him. I must say that I have always felt easier to express myself in English, but when I started reading some Urdu books and poetry, I was suprised at the beauty of the words.

In fact, I would say even English is suffering from severe contamination today. Hinglish is just one of its results. I am not against this new and convenient language, but I personally think it should be restricted to informal conversations (even blogs, if need be). I know that many will disagree on the grounds that it is a language of expression for certain people, but as I said, it is really up to the teaching fraternity and older generation to inculcate a sense of language and respect for it among the emerging generation.

January 8, 2007

The age of mediocrity

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A thought-provoking article in Spiked Online (Are you the Person of the Year?, Rob Killick) has well, provoked my thoughts. Time Magazine's choosing everyone who has led the internet revolution as Person of the Year has been subject to debate. Truly, new media like the internet and mobile have given people the voice to express their thoughts - but it has not given them the ability to think desirably. How would I find 'desirably'? I would say that it would be to think in a way which is morally or socially acceptable. It is good to question the society, religion, principles, government and what-not as an expression of your thoughts. But how many of us actually suggest a better way of doing things or actively involve ourselves in improving the world around us?

The new media-fed generation according to me is an inert generation, which only likes to talk its mouth off, but does little else. In today's world, mediocrity is applauded. People (like me!) can write anything they want to and get away with it. There's no quality-check and no counter perspective. There's no one to look up to and no ideal. We are content to accept the world with all its evils and merely comment on it.

No. This will not do. Why not leave behind our computers and mobiles and talk....discuss...and learn to listen to others' thoughts? Let's learn to be more tolerant of differences and let's actually teach this to each other, and the younger generation.

The web has only succeeded in creating a bunch of hermits who think they know everything they need to know. It's time they came out and looked around and decided first-hand what this world really needs and what they can do about it.

January 3, 2007

What's happy about the new year?

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I do not want to start the year on a gloomy note, but the above question has been haunting me for the past three days. Here in Delhi, the sun did not shine on the first day of 2007. It was a gloomy, cold day. There was the inherent happiness of the auspicious occasion of Eid-ul-Azha. However, the thoughts that filled my mind were: Is'nt Islam a religion of peace? Don't all religions preach goodwill and tolerance? Don't they demarcate the difference between good and evil? Yet, at the end of the year, all the news we got was that innocent children were brutally killed by some barbarians in UP, people were injured in bombings in Iraq, and passengers were stranded for hours at Indira Gandhi International airport. Children who were "rescued" from exploiting labour, ended up returning to hazardous work due to lack of government support for their poor families.

Not that I sat out the New Year celebrations - I did meet friends for a quiet dinner. Surprisingly, the streets were rather deserted for New Year's Eve. Was it the cold or the overall melancholy? I cannot say. You could turn around and say that 2006 was the year of youth empowerment. Yet, from what I can see, two high-profile murder cases were solved. So what if they were those of Jessica Lal and Priyadarshini Mattoo? Justice is laudable, but every citizan has equal right to it - rich or poor. The judiciary must do its job with or without media glare. What I would applaud is the woes of poor Indians coming to an end. Give them water, give them food and give them justice. That's all they need. They don't want to appear on television.

While the Supreme Court took steps to initiate reforms, politicians obstructed them at every turn. Whether by sponsoring clashes during Delhi's sealings or opposing the development at Singur. Politicians have even gone to the extent of calling the proposed police reforms "unconstitutional" - probably because they can't do away with the idea keeping the police in their pockets.

Hopeful that human nature is, I will dare to hope that 2007 will bring some joy, a glimmer of sunshine even. Evil has always co-existed with good in this world. I want to see the good side more often.