February 28, 2007

For better or purse?

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In a commendable decision, the Delhi High Court has stated that people who give dowry should be prosecuted if they go ahead with the marriage despite recieving demands for the same (as reported in The Indian Express). I think this is a path-breaking judgement. No matter how much people brush it under the carpet, dowry in India is as real as cow dung on the roads (and whole cows as well) - you may look the other way, but it doesn't disappear - and it is as shameful.

I really do not understand the logic behind the custom of dowry. Is the man doing a favour to the women by marrying her? Has he been wronged that he is 'compensated' for it through money and other articles of no small value? Shameful...to say the least. And worse, even educated people see nothing wrong with it. Brides happily sell themselves for a bike, car, flat or furniture and grooms happily buy them.

For the sake of argument, I can understand the two families exchanging gifts or the bride taking stuff for her own use, but what's the point in giving a vehicle or house or furniture? If the guy can't afford it, why marry your daughter to him in the first place?

As a result of girls' parents quietly putting up with this, the in-laws have started seeing brides as cash cows, not women. They say education is important for the development of women in this country. But I think destroying the dowry culture is the real key to their uplift. After all, how has education prevented women from giving dowry? It is, after all, the custom of dowry which make girls appear to be a 'liability' to their parents. How would you feel if you planted a tree and had to pay to give the fruits of your labour to someone else? That's the way it is here.

Further, people are not happy just spending their often illegally-acquired money on dowry, they have to spend a visible fortune on the wedding ceremonies. They have to show that they have a lot of money to throw around on importing flowers from Poland, cooks from Paris, fireworks from US or stars from Bollywood. That just makes it worse for others who can't afford it. Why, I ask? What are they trying to prove? It's just a marriage, for God's sake! It's just another occasion to celebrate, and life moves on.

Unfortunately, despite the government ban, Indians continue to revel in this pitiful custom. I don't know when and how this degradation will end, but I hope that the generations to come succeed in eventually making dowry a thing of the past.

February 27, 2007

Culture capital & Capital culture

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I've always had a love-hate relationship with the city I live in. I love Delhi for its beautiful trees, wide roads and the peeping history at every corner. I hate it for other things - which I will elaborate later. Of late, I have been noticing a number of websites which show you just how 'eventful' a city Delhi is (some listed below). Culture has always been the byword in this with a number of art and photo exhibitions, musical performances, plays and social events. It feels good to be here, knowing that there is so much to see, so much to discover and appreciate. It's soothing to spend an evening at the India Habitat Centre which really feels like the cultural nexus of Delhi (for those who havn't been here, it was filmed as Delhi University in Rang De Basanti). I love leafing through books at the cosy and inviting Oxford Book Store in Connaught Place.

Now, as much as I love the city, I still don't feel completely at ease. Travelling is always a nightmare. Haggling with auto drivers is worse than a nightmare. Taxi services are not as accessible as in Mumbai.

That's the reason I can't explore Delhi as much as I would like to. But I try not to let that get in the way. As with everything else in life, Delhi is a win some-lose some city. And I love it! Or do I really? Uhhhhhh....

Check out:
Delhi Events
Delhi Live
Yahoo! Our City
My City Pedia

February 25, 2007

Dr Kalam: The level-headed President of India

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Among the cacophony of dissenting voices in Indian politics is one leading man who speaks with sincerity, and more importantly, practicality. Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam has to be one of the most focused presidents we have ever had. If you notice, he always takes up issues which are actually important. Like other politicians, he doesn't complain about the country going to the dogs and doesn't promise to make it Singapore or Tokyo - he simply offers a solution. Practical man that he is, President Kalam never takes up a problem without also offering a solution.

A scientific man with a humanitarian heart, he has often pointed out that research and development is essential for the economic health of India. As reported in The Indian Express, he spoke about taking technology to the grass roots - to the people who really need it. Basic things like nutritious food and clean water are where we should start, rightly, according to him. And mind you, he is not unaware of the policital mindset of the others in his fraternity, as he was quoted in the same article:

There are two kinds of politics — developmental and political. I tell the politicians to practice developmental politics 70 per cent of the times and the remaining time they can indulge in political politics.
Unfortunately, the office of the President of India, as we all know, is rather limited. 'Mainstream' politicians obviously don't share his vision.

President Kalam has also highlighted the lack of sufficient legal protection to children in India, the importance of external audit for our defence research and independent decision-making for IAS officers. It is impressive to see our President, in all humility, speaking from his heart - laptop in hand, Powerpoint presentation on the screen - truly impressive.

Further, he has proved to be the president of the common man. Today, I read about how he paid a surprise visit to a local military hospital to call upon an injured Field Marshal. If that's not a People's President, I don't know who is.

A lot can be said about President Kalam, but I am ill-equipped for the task - there is so much to say. Dr. Kalam's term in office ends in July 2007. I duly hope he gets a second term. Even otherwise, I am sure he will continue winning the hearts of people.

The President of India website
Online petition for President Kalam's second term

February 21, 2007

Pamuk's 'Istanbul' has a melancholic soul

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Orhan Pamuk beautifully sums up his city in his book Istanbul - Memories of a City in one word: hüzün. As Pamuk describes it, the word is truly descriptive of his Istanbul, a sort of melancholy which is not altogether unwarranted, as he writes:

Istanbul does not carry its hüzün as 'an illness for which there is a cure' or 'an unbidden pain from which we need to be delivered': it carries its hüzün by choice.
What Pamuk has done in this book is captured the essential soul of the city of the great Ottoman Empire of yore. Yes, it is dilipidated, it is tattered and in ruins, it is even Westernising itself to keep pace with the world - but essentially, it is in a state of melancholy. Of the time gone by, taking with it the beauty of a culture that had fermented itself for so long. Yet, what remains now is a sort of rot, as symbolised in the wooden houses falling apart.

Even then, Pamuk professes his solidarity with the city he was born in, grown up and discovered his creative soul. He is at one with the city and accepts it unconditionally:

...I remember that I love this city not for any purity but precisely for the lamentable want of it.
In a style which is an outpouring of years of thoughts, Pamuk describes his exploration of every narrow lane of Istanbul and his attendant emotions with it. So much so, that the city's hüzün becomes his own, a combination of his personal losses and resignation. He describes hüzün as a 'collective melancholy' to which every resident of Istanbul is privy, and accepts as a not altogether unwanted heritage.

The most striking focus of the book, I feel, is how Pamuk so well understands that a city is not just the facade of its buildings or its roads or coffee houses - it is the living soul behind them. This reminds me of Salman Rushdie's Salim (in Midnight's Children) who felt that his fate was intertwined with that of his country. But in the case of Pamuk, it is far more believable (and understandable). His memories are not only straightforward, they are sincere and at times, touching.

Overall, Istanbul is a refreshing read. You get to know the city from its psychographic profile rather than superficial demographics.

Orhan Pamuk links:
Official site
Nobel Prize page

February 18, 2007

Where's my paper, boy?

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The last thing you expect from a newspaper is shoddy logistics. I mean, you can expect an online retailer or mobile service provider to goof up, but...newspapers? And that too, from a renowned media conglomerate. I am talking about Mint, the new business newspaper from the Hindustan Times group. They launched their campaign with a lot of hoopla about how the paper would make business news more readable. I can't comment on whether they are delivering on their promise. That's because I havn't been able to read it. So, what I can comment on is the fact that I have subscribed to it a long time ago (for a daily, every day counts) and I still havn't had the satisfaction of forming an opinion on it. The facts are these: I paid online for a year's subscription of Mint on the 1st of this month, and I still don't have it. There was no other way of subscribing at the time and they were offering free access to the Wall Street Journal for a month. So, I went for it. After repeatedly e-mailing them (as they offer no other route of customer service) I am still waiting for the newspaper to slip through my door. I can understand a start-up going through teething troubles, but isn't timely delivery the backbone of a newspaper? And this is not expected of Hindustan Times either. Worst part is, when I did receive a reply to my nth mail, I was just marked on an internal mail directing someone to "resolve" it. And it's not just me, a few of my colleagues are facing the same situation after having made the payment. It's a shame really.

February 15, 2007

Happy Gooey/Mushy/Lovely/Anti-Indian Valentine's Day!

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Couples in India spent another day in trepidation this Valentine's Day. They weren't sure which of their actions would be interpreted as 'anti-Indian' resulting in humiliation, violence or threats from hooligans. Hooligans who are affiliated to various organisations claiming to protect Indian culture from dangerous Western influences like Valentine's Day.

Marketers, of course, were unperturbed. They tried their loudest to exclaim that your expression of love would not be complete without the big diamond or a satellite radio subscription. Yet others made sure you paid five times or more for a single stem of wilting rose. If you walked into a pizza parlour or a coffee shop, you had to choose from their V-Day special menu consisting of everything edible shaped like a heart.

As for the people, there are two types who celebrate V-Day. One, those who genuinely feel all mushy and can't wait to express it. Two, those who are unwittingly caught in the web and know that it has become de rigeur to offer the bouquet of red roses and the box of imported chocolates. There's no escape, so they might as well enjoy it. Needless to say, this is the majority of people.

Again, there are two types of people who don't celebrate V-Day. One, people who think they are beyond the whole affair and don't need to express their love unconditionally esp. through expensive gifts. This category usually consists of couples who have been together for a long time and are so full of each other they can't stand the thought of a quiet, candle light dinner with each other (or at least, can't imagine it). Two, people who turn up their noses and say they don't believe in the concept of Valentine's Day because it's too gooey for their taste. This usually consists of self-pitying singles who won't admit it.

Having said all this, you would wonder where I stand, because I am expected to have an opinion of my own, after all. Well, I am a little bit of the self-pitying single and a bit of the 'caught in the web' person. As they say, it takes all kinds to make up this world. And a few confused people like me thrown in.

February 12, 2007

Freedom of expression...what's that?!

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And the debate continues...Should Parzania be screened in Gujarat? Should Traffic Signal not be shown in Himachal Pradesh? Should Black Friday have been delayed for as long as it did? The movies are different, but the point is the same - why have they been prohibited from lawful screening? In the case of Parzania, the ban has been dictated by extremist group Bajrang Dal and not the government. Moreover, this is about freedom of expression, which seems to have been redefined in the extreme by Indian authority figures. Now, you are only allowed to say something if it doesn't hurt the sentiments (tsk!) of some people (read extremist groups).

Have the people of India become overly sensitive or does the State think they can't form their own opinions? If a movie like Parzania, based on the Gujarat riots of 2002, can fuel communal clashes, so can our leaders be accused of dividing the people (vote bank) on communal lines? In fact, Bajrang Dal activists have gone to the extent of saying that if the director had portrayed the Godhra incident, they would have a different view. That's clearly saying that what happened to Muslims in the aftermath of Godhra was somehow justified because the lives of the people who were burned alive in Godhra were more important in their eyes. Let's remember that no court of law has proven that Muslims were behind the Godhra attack. From what I see, it was a premeditated political drama in play with everything planned out like a screenplay - the actors being the easily-misled public playing in the hands of politicians.

Coming back to freedom of expression, it's all a sham. Or Water would never had to be shot in Sri Lanka. Deepa Mehta's movie on Hindu widows has even been nominated for the Oscars, but I wonder if Indians will ever be 'allowed' to see it by our patriarchal government. Recently, the state has taken the liberty of deciding what is good and what is not for the Indian masses to watch on the big or small screen. Smoking's not allowed, you know. It might lead our gullible youth astray. "Sexy music videos" are also not allowed, same reason as above. Man, looks like we are a country of gullible morons who don't know right from wrong.

Increasingly, the behaviour of the government has become like a naani (grandmother). But sometimes, even naani used to look the other way...knowing well enough that her admonitions would only be heard by one ear and ejected by the other.

February 9, 2007

Don't rely on Reliance

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Welcome to the telecom revolution in India. Here, mobile subscribers have the best of services at their fingertips - from shopping to banking to railway ticket booking. For God's sake, people can even SMS their prayers to the temple's short code.

Telecom service providers are so upbeat about the revolution that they are giving their subscribers every feature they can think of - even if they don't want it - and also making them pay for it. Reliance Communications (the telecom arm of Reliance ADAG) has never been a devotee of Gandhi's "Consumer is the king" principle. Sometimes it looks like if they could chuck the customer altogether, they would gladly do it. And this is not hearsay, it's personal experience.

True, Reliance offers the best call rates among all operators, but maybe that's why they don't give a damn about customer care. If you have a problem, the last thing you want to do is dial customer care. It was the billing hassles that made me shift to prepaid. Then I suffered with a faulty handset for almost a year, which was never exchanged despite everyone having a problem with it (and it's still in the market - Nokia 2255, if you need to know). I finally bought a new handset at my own expense.

Now, Reliance has tried to pull a fast one on its unsuspecting subscribers. I realised recently that my Call Waiting had been deactivated. Called them up to re-activate it but was told that "Call waiting, call hold and conference facilities have been withdrawn for prepaid subscribers." This struck me as really strange. Firstly, because I was not informed of this. Secondly, I would consider something as basic as call waiting as my fundamental right by using a mobile service.

Then I figured out why they are doing this...they are trying to push their Missed Calls SMS service. Because, for the past few days I have been receiving unsolicited SMSs saying that I have a missed call - presumably when my phone is busy. And I have to pay them to retreive those numbers. Wow, great way to save on advertising costs to promote the service.

Plus, if I was desperate to find out what calls I was missing, I would end up paying them. Now, that they have taken away my call waiting service, they are practically blackmailing me into using it. And I am certainly not going to be blackmailed by my service provider just because it has the cheapest rates and because I have bought an expensive new CDMA handset which is only compatible with Reliance. No way!

Since I am just one of the millions of mobile subscribers in the country, I can only tell my story. Ask others and they will tell you about wrong billing, unsolicited calls, unwanted 'value-added-services', dropped calls and hefty roaming and ringtone download charges.

This is real working of India's telecom machinery. Wonder why no one bothers tightening the bolts.

February 8, 2007

India, watch your step!

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The Economist's cover story ('India on fire', 1 Feb 2007) has brought to light a very important perspective on India's place in the world stage. India's growing importance on the world radar is welcome, but questions are being raised whether it can sustain this momentum without spinning out of control. It's rather like India has its head in the clouds, but if it doesn't see where it's going, it could trip over.

Yet, optimistic as Indians are, they will continue applauding the Great Indian Myth. The one where India has everything it needs to become a power to reckon with. The Times of India has started its India Poised campaign to commemorate the achievement of Indians. While I fully appreciate their effort, it reminds me of BJP's 'India Shining' campaign which was a total disaster. There is a certain class of Indians which may feel fulfilled just by reading these success stories, but it also takes away their attention from problems which need to be addressed. We always blame politicians for ruining the country, but forget that we are the ones who elected them.

Why is it that we always overlook the most basic problems when charting out our future plans? It's almost as if we are bored of discussing poverty, illiteracy and health. Why is it that all our success cannot give our marginalised citizens access to reliable health care and good education? Why do we have to bribe our way through everything?

An article in AsiaMedia highlights India's attitude of turning a blind eye to real issues. And the funny part is - if the change has to come - we don't know where to start. We are so used to things being the way they are, that we see nothing wrong with it. We black out the slums that we pass on our way to work and we ignore the little child coming to collect our garbage ...

Worse, we fight amongst ourselves. We fight over religion, caste and language. We talk of a culture we know nothing about. An article by Francois Gautier in Rediff.com succinctly puts across our gravest problem:

Instead of feeling first Indians, they feel they are first Muslims and then Indians, first Dalits and then Indians, first Christian and then Indians. This is a dangerous trend and it spells the death of the minimum unified nationalistic pride that can take a country forward.
Gautier is so to the point. In fact, the government seems to be constantly reminding people of their divisions in the garb of protecting them.

I am not saying we should not be proud of our country's progress, but we should not be so proud that we overlook its deficiencies.

February 6, 2007

What did you just call me?

Posted By:
Have you heard about the Blank Noise Project? It's a movement against sexual harassment on the streets of India. A lot of people cringe at the word, thinking that it's too harsh a word for being commented on, jeered, leched or worse on the streets. I think it's neither harsh nor overstated. As I stay in Delhi, I can only talk about what I have witnessed here. Ask any girl and she will tell you about her unfortunate run-ins with ordinary men who think it is their fundamental right to lech at women.

The worse part is people don't take this seriously enough. Elders will always advise you to 'ignore it' and very often, there is little else women can do. There are still others who think it is the woman's fault that she was harrased. And not just on the streets - it could happen anywhere, even in places of work. A sexual inneundo is not uncommon in work places - very often women take humour in it, which is ok as long as they don't find it offending. But for the women who do, who can they complain to? And saying what? Very often, there is not enough 'proof' to prosecute a person and companies do their best to brush such cases under the carpet. The HR department is not always equipped to handle such things and some companies don't even have an HR department to speak of.

Coming back to the streets. Who do you turn to there? Once when I was walking in a subway (in broad daylight that too) a man passed a comment. I looked around and asked him what he was talking about. He was visibly scared and murmured that he was speaking to his friend, but I reprimanded him anyway. The point is, no man will take such a step if he knows he will be persecuted. I can understand the mentality of a man who is on good terms with a police officer or a politician, who thinks he can get away with anything. But the fact that any moron on the street thinks he can behave any which way shows a gaping hole in our society and law & order situation.

And mind you, you cannot turn around and say that Indians are like that, or blame it on on socio-economic factors. I recently read about a site called Holla Back and was shocked to find that women are going through the same thing in the United States. It's true that we cannot make people think differently but what we can do is at least formulate laws that make some effort to protect women from this sort of harrasment. If we can formulate the Domestic Violence law where a woman is protected from verbal abuse of her husband or in-laws, why have we left her to suffer the same from complete strangers?

February 5, 2007

So, who's King?

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I promised myself I would NOT write about this...but I can't help myself anymore! I know the KBC 3-Shah Rukh debate has been going on for ages, but I think the whole thing is uncalled for. For the people living in Honolulu, Shah Rukh has replaced Amitabh Bachchan as the new host of popular game show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC). If you look at the debate on media website agencyfaqs.com, you realise that people (including the gossip-sniffing media) have created this whole 'cold war'. There were rumours hanging in the air earlier, but now KBC has become the perfect opportunity to brew the rivalry between Bollywood's biggest icons.

Personally, I think people are being scathing to SRK. Once the unsatisfactory TAM figures were out, they were only too happy to say "Look! We told you. Shah Rukh can never be Big B!" Wait a sec now, what makes them think SRK would want to be Big B? Hasn't he worked all his life to create his own identity, his own style? Shah Rukh is probably the only actor who can get away with being egoistic and ultra-confident. In fact, he makes it look like a style statement. As for the TAM figures, the TV channel has explained that the research techniques used earlier were different and there are other factors like a cricket series which could have affected the ratings.

As far as KBC is concerned, SRK was hired for his persona. And he's doing a great job - if you ask me - because he's not trying to ape Big B, he's being himself. And if you think this is a fan ranting - it's not. I just think it's unfair to compare the two on any grounds. Every star has his personality and he should not be denied that, especially on the grounds that he is unlike some other star.

February 1, 2007

'The Kite Runner': Voice of a shattered nation

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You? You've always been a tourist here, you just didn't know it.
These are the words that sting Amir when a driver says this to him on his return to Kabul after two decades. That's when Amir realises that the Afghanistan he knew, and the one he didn't, are both gone. Written from Amir jan's perspective, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is not only touching, it is a chronicle of how wars can scar lives forever. We always look at wars and violence in terms of numbers - how many people died, how many were maimed, how many rendered homeless and how many orphaned or widowed. We are never in a position to even estimate the devastation that a war can bring into an individual's life. The protagonist is the lucky one - he escapes before he sees his country shrivel and die like an unwatered plant in the scorching summer. Yet, he suffers immensely for his own cowardice, as his alter ego Hassan faces the brunt of the Russian invasion and the Taliban regime.

Hosseini describes the downfall of a nation which was not without its faults, but did have its own soul. An Afghanistan which was discriminating yet tolerant, where blood flowed only when people flew kites on their glass-coated strings. He describes how Hassan suffers for being a Hazara under the Taliban rule, how women are beaten like animals and children robbed of their childhood. This is an Afghanistan which we even see today - where every skeleton of building is swathed with bullet holes if they survive the shelling. After 9/11, what America bombed was this fallen country, already dying a bloody death everyday.

Yet Hosseini does not pass judgement, he just pictures these events through Amir's eyes, sometimes first-hand, sometimes not. People may dispute some of the descriptions of Afghan society - especially the hypocrisy of the Taliban - but it doesn't undermine the message that war in any form is a catastrophe. He writes of how Afghani immigrants try to keep their culture alive, miles away in America, in contrast to the freedom that their brothers lack in their own country.

Yet Amir is full of hope, as he muses:

Zendagi migzara, Afghans like to say: Life goes on, unmindful of beginning, end, kamyab, nah-kam, crisis or catharsis, moving forward like a slow, dusty caravan of kochis.

There is no doubt that the Afghans are a strong people, but its about time they got their country's soul back. Its nang and namoos - its dignity and honour. Hosseini does not preach a message of peace - he does not have to. Through the ordeal of Hassan's son, Sohrab, he paints as a clear picture of human atrocity as can be painted. It's through Sohrab's silence that we realise that he's screaming inside - screaming to have his old life back, screaming to regain his childhood and his country. This child realises at an early age that life is not fair, that your parents can be dragged into the streets and shot. This is the story of a people who are still struggling to piece together their broken identity.

The Kite Runner is a riveting read and I feel one ought to read it, if only to see what's happening on the 'other' side.

There's still hope for Urdu!

Posted By:
I'd written earlier about how languages like Urdu are being neglected on the web. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see an Urdu version of the BBC website. I am not sure how old it is, but this is the kind of thing that is needed to keep the language alive. An Urdu website does not necessarily need to deal with shayari (poems), literature or recipes as we see often on the Urdu websites of our neighbouring country. Very often, the content is laced with an Islamic flavour, which is good only as long as it is relevant to the content. I think an effort needs to be made to separate the language from its Islamic association, at least for the sake of giving it the identity of a language with a rich literary tradition. I can understand that happening to Arabic (which I respect as the language of the Holy Qur'an), but Urdu deserves a different treatment. Contemporary content is what's really required to attract readers to the language. As for the BBC Urdu site, its a great option to get the latest news which at least appears unbiased. The fonts could have been more aesthetic, currently it looks a lot like typewriter Arabic. An interesting section on the site is Fauji ki Dairy which is a journal of a soldier fighting a war. Besides, the site also has versions in Hindi, Persian, Pashtun, Arabic and Bengali. A South Indian language is conspicuously absent.

I tried looking for similar websites in India of the Urdu newspapers published here. The results were not so bad:
  • There's Inquilab which does not look like a news site at first glance. They've even roped in a radio advertiser and the font is legible and looks good.

  • Munsif Daily is bilingual and looks more like a news site. They even have an e-paper.

  • Siasat is bilingual too and looks neat. You also have the option of viewing the site only in English or Urdu.

  • Urdu Times has great legibility. It's a Mumbai paper and I havn't seen it but the site is a good effort, though limited in content.

One paper which is sitting out on the online buzz in Urdu is the Roznama Rashtriya Sahara, which I believe is widely read. They just have a site for their Hindi newspaper, Rashtriya Sahara.

All this makes me optimistic that Urdu will not be sidelined on the web after all. Though I am sure that websites like these could do with some support from the advertising community and high-profile investments wouldn't hurt either.