Thursday, December 27, 2007

5:30 am - the annoying righteous

As I am once again driven from bed by a mob of drum-toting chanters intent on proving to the neighborhood how devout they are, I can't help but think (once again) god must be hard of hearing. Why else is such volume necessary? To wake me up? To get revenge on all the non-religious folks who don't crawl out of bed before the sun comes up? Nope. Apparently, although he/she is all powerful, all knowing and all seeing, god is not all hearing. It explains a lot, actually. Otherwise he/she really isn't much on the ball.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

cashless in the hinterlands

Here's my latest article from Newsweek. Old news for some people, I know. But maybe a few new tidbits in there....

Cashless in the Hinterlands
By Jason Overdorf
Mobile banking might save the government and banks money and reduce fraud that plagues the public-distribution system.

Newsweek Dec. 8

Mobile phones are making life better for people in remote, underserved areas of India. They no longer have to walk kilometers to public call offices to use a telephone—an essential tool for buying and selling goods based on the latest market data, getting credit from lenders and other commonplace activities. So far, most of the benefits have come from one of the phone's simplest features: voice calls.

With more than 250 million mobile users and 6 million new ones added each month, India now has the "teledensity" to support more-sophisticated mobile technologies, which could have a big impact on Indian society and the economy in the next few years. (An extra 10 mobile phones per 100 people in a typical developing country leads to an additional 0.59 percentage points of growth in GDP per person, according to a London Business School study.) These include "voice broadcast" services that would let a truck owner inform residents of a village about a scheduled trip to the city, or doctors announce the availability of polio vaccinations. A more complex system would allow a small business, say, to keep track of shipments. What's holding up these services is the lack of mobile banking.

With urban markets nearing saturation, global giants like Nokia are now looking to appeal to the hinterlands. Reliance Communications, which has offered Internet service over its mobile phones since 2002, is sponsoring a contest this year for developers to invent new rural services. "We want to really take advantage of our mobile platform, our data network, and our ability to provide the mobile Internet experience to bridge the digital divide," says Mahesh Prasad, president of applications and development.

Several small companies are at work on mobile banking for small businesses. New Delhi-based ekgaon technologies has developed a system for tracking transactions made by so-called Self Help Groups, which pool members' money and offer small loans to poor people. The system uses a camera-equipped mobile phone to scan forms and a voice-recognition system. A.Little.World, a mobile software business in Mumbai, has developed a microfinance and payment system that lets customers perform banking transactions through a local agent affiliated with a bank (a practice allowed for the first time in January 2006). Customers get a secure electronic identity via phone or smart card; agents take deposits and dispense cash. Biometric data, such as fingerprints, make the phones and smart cards more secure than paper-based banking. A.Little.World has extended such services to about 400 local businesses acting as agents. And it's now working on a national rollout with the State Bank of India—the biggest player in the rural market. Meanwhile, ekgaon, whose partners include CARE, WorldVision and the World Bank, has a pilot transaction-management system for 10,000 Self Help Groups, with plans to extend it to 14 Indian states.

Mobile banking services can reduce the cost of transactions for loans and other services—the main obstacle to providing banking for the poor—by as much as three quarters, according to ekgaon's chief operating officer Rohit Magotra. Mobile transactions could have an even broader effect applied to India's social-security payments and public-distribution system, which sells essential goods to the poor at subsidized rates. By March 2008, people in 8,000 villages in Andhra Pradesh will get their benefits zapped via mobile phone to their smart cards, which they may eventually use instead of cash to buy goods at the ration shop. A.Little.World, which is building the system, says a nationwide service could help reduce fraud in the public-distribution system. It would also mean going from a bankless world to a cashless one, maybe even faster than America or Europe.
URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/74440

new best beer candidate

And the winner is.... Kingfisher Draft in the ugly yellow can! Yep, that's right folks. It's better than the original (by a mile) and even better than the export variety packaged in the little pint bottles. Pricewise it's nice, too. Rs. 35 for 500 ml, compared with Rs. 20 for 330 ml for the pints (last year's winner).

Now: Who represents Paulaner over here, anyway? I want that stuff down below Rs. 100 a pint pronto!

what to do for xmas and new year's?

Readers:
What the hell is going on in Delhi for Christmas and New Year's Eve? So far, I've read about a couple buffet dinners for Christmas, some church services (of course), and that's it! Aren't there supposed to be legions of turkey roasts at the various five stars? Which one is the best (and cheapest?)

As for New Year's Eve, do I HAVE to go to Mumbai and watch one of those floor shows with Rakhi Sawant (see earlier post). Or can I get my groove on here, even though I have no posh friends with luxurious farmhouses?

Where to go? What to do?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

no sex for the poor

Yet another slam on Rakhi Sawant in the paper the other day, this time by some fifth-tier would-be star who's doing a sexploitation flick and trying to spin it as highbrow stuff. (Why, why, why do Bollywood people try to do this? High brow talk and Bollywood don't mix any better than high brow movies and Bollywood. Maybe it's because they're such "vorashous" readers?)

Anyway, on to my point. She said something like "It's not tarty like Rakhi Sawant," and I immediately thought here it is again: the upper / upper middle class suggesting that you can't be sexy (only slutty) if you come from a family of modest means. First it was Mallika Sherawat, who was hammered for wearing revealing clothes that were far less revealing than Malaika Arora's. Now it's Rakhi Sawant.

Seems to me it's not what they wear, or what they say (though the fact that they're outspoken appears to be a bigger offense). It's who they are. "Regular" folks who dare to challenge the upper crust's monopoly on moral transgression. The implicit argument appears to run: If they don't remember their "place" as women, next thing you know, they'll be forgetting their "place" as poor provincials. And it's amazing the amount of firepower that's brought into play to try to keep that from happening. All the stars bring out the knives on the chat shows. The newspapers jump on the bandwagon. And on and on.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

India blowing its big chance...

In case you haven't seen this week's Newsweek, the cover story is "Why India is blowing its big chance" and the subject is (you guessed it) the nuclear deal with the US. Read below for my contribution: a tidbit on why the economy keeps trundling along despite Mr. Singh's recent woes.

I also wrote my own bit on the nuclear deal for Newsweek Japan (in Japanese, of course). I don't speak it or write it, but apparently I am infinitely translatable.

Those of you who hate long blog posts can stop reading now.

As for the rest of you... Imagine the following is in Japanese.

Deal or No Deal

By Jason Overdorf/New Delhi

Not long back, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told a group of executives that his fractured mandate has made it difficult for his government to do “what is manifestly obvious” to maintain his country's impressive economic growth. For Singh, who is renowned, and sometimes even criticized, for his humility, that was as acerbic as it gets. But the message hidden between the lines is the one that international observers should heed: If doing the obvious is difficult, then achieving the unexpected and controversial is well-nigh impossible. And unfortunately, by pushing forward a nuclear deal with the United States, that is exactly what the man often called India's weakest prime minister in history has set out to do.

To many, the nuclear pact, which was clinched between the two governments in August, does indeed seem obvious. For India, it is essentially an invitation to come in from the cold without substantially altering its nuclear policies. The pact would finalize the rollback of sanctions imposed when India tested its first nuclear device in 1974, allowing for the free transfer of technologies classified as “dual use” because they can be used for both peaceful and military projects. That in turn would spark a boom in the construction of nuclear power plants in a country which desperately needs more electrical power to meet its future targets for economic growth. For the US, the deal would provide a measure of international oversight for India's nuclear program by requiring international inspections of some of its facilities, even though it would not bring India under the ambit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It would facilitate billions of dollars worth of business agreements. And, perhaps most importantly, it would put an official stamp of sorts on India's gradual alignment of its foreign policy objectives with America's, making the one-time leader of the Cold War's Non-Aligned Movement into a full-fledged, bankable US ally.

But there's the rub, according to policy analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of New Delhi's Centre for Policy Research. India's left sees the deal as the first step in a major overhaul of India's foreign policy that will force it to take a strong position against Iran—which some see as a natural regional ally; reorient its military spending from Russia and other former principal allies toward the US; and take on a pre-scripted role as the US-friendly counterbalance to China in Asia. “Part of it is a trust deficit,” says Mehta. “The prime minister wants to say, 'Trust me, I'm not going to sell India out to the US. And the others are saying, 'Well.... you sort of are.'” Many in the left, in fact, believe it was only their opposition that prevented India from sending troops into Iraq. As a result, India's communists--who hold 59 seats in the parliament and thus have the power to bring down Singh's United Progressive Alliance coalition government if they choose—said in no uncertain terms that they will withdraw support for the UPA and force new elections if Singh moves to implement the pact. This week, the deal received a new lease on life as the left relented and agreed to allow the government to send negotiators to talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on a nuclear safeguards agreement that needs to be signed before the pact can be implemented. But many observers suggest the move is designed to allow Singh to save face by conveniently letting the IAEA talks fail.

Because the question of a strategic alignment with the US is a sticky one, Singh, who has yet to give up, has of late begun to emphasize the economic benefits of the deal. India desperately needs more electrical power, the argument runs, and foreign-built nuclear plants will help meet that need while decreasing India's reliance on oil and gas imports and improving carbon emissions. "It's imperative for India to diversify its energy portfolio and enhance the share of nuclear energy because its heavy and growing reliance on [imported oil and natural gas] is going to be expensive and inflationary," argues Professor Anupam Srivastava, director of the Asia Program at the University of Georgia's Center for International Trade & Security. "The government cannot subsidize energy imports beyond a point, which makes 8-10 percent economic growth simply unaffordable. And as this growth slows down to around 5%, foreign capital and technology investment will also slow down, and in turn reduce India's ability to leverage economic gains in other strategic sectors."

To avert that problem, India plans through the pact with the US to increase the share of nuclear power in its energy mix from around three percent to as high as 20 percent by 2050—a goal that would involve building more than 40 new nuclear facilities. For US nuclear suppliers, but also for French, Canadian and Russian firms, this could mean orders running into many billions of dollars over the next several years. However, the deal's opponents argue that India's nuclear power targets may be overly ambitious, and may not even be necessary. In one recent study, for instance, the international development consultancy Dalberg found that even though India will need to increase its power generation capacity from today's 127 gigawatts to around 960 gigawatts by 2032 to meet its GDP growth target of 9%, that increase can be achieved without a dramatic increase in nuclear power production and the biggest gains in emissions will come through the use of clean coal technologies. “[The government's] projections are essentially doubling what they have done historically, so there are big questions about whether they'll be able to hit these numbers,” says John Stephenson, a senior consultant at Dalberg. “And even if they do hit these numbers, it [nuclear power] is a marginal energy source.”

However, focusing on the energy aspect of the agreement—whether to insist it is necessary or to denigrate it as trivial—is to ignore its real significance. And assuming, as do many pundits in India, that the ever closer political and economic relationship between India and the United States has attained an inevitable momentum may be a mistake. “India above all wanted to end its status as a 'nuclear outcaste,'” explains Teresita C. Schaffer, director for South Asia at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The deal would accomplish this.” On the other hand, if Singh fails to push it through after the US has agreed to virtually all of India's demands, it could have serious consequences for India's future ability to conduct bilateral negotiations with the US and other nations. “It [India] will start to look like a country that can't take yes for an answer,” Schaffer says.

Meanwhile, this deal could be a “now or never” proposition. President George W. Bush's status as a conservative hawk who was willing to invade Iraq over the perceived threat of the proliferation of nuclear weapons grant him an authority to revisit the usefulness of the NPT in much the same way that former President Richard Nixon's anti-communist credentials made rapprochement with Mao Zedong politically feasible. If India blinks now, the deal will run into next year's American electoral campaign—guaranteed to put it on hold—and whatever president succeeds Bush will likely have neither the desire nor the mandate to put it back on the table. “I genuinely doubt that any successor, whether Republican or Democratic, would be in a position to make the same offer,” says Sumit Ganguly, a professor of political science at the University of Indiana.

Likely, that's music to the ears of India's communists.

clear skies ahead?

India's economy reaches the "takeoff" point. But will tumultuous politics put it in a holding pattern?

By Jason Overdorf/New Delhi
(Newsweek Web extra - November 24, 2007)

India's politics may be in turmoil, but so far the chaos hasn't put a crimp in the country's economy. Last quarter, GDP grew by more than 9 percent, a huge improvement over the 3.5 percent the country averaged in its first 30 years.

The explanation for the disconnect, according to a recent report by Lehman Brothers, is that India's economy has reached what experts call a "takeoff" point where the "old blocks and resistances to steady growth [have been] finally overcome." The report predicts that India's economic momentum has become virtually unstoppable, thanks to two main factors: an average 6.9 growth rate in per capita GDP since 2003, and a trade-to-GDP ratio that has doubled over the past seven years.

The surge in per capita GDP to about $800—from less than $350 in 1995—has more than doubled the size of India's middle class to about 50 million, increasing demand for consumer goods and stimulating manufacturing. The increase in the trade-to-GDP ratio shows that India's economy has finally opened up to the world as dramatically as China's and South Korea's did before it. Meanwhile, a boom has boosted India's investment-to-GDP ratio into the 30 to 40 percent range, from about 15 percent in the early 1990s—hitting the level many analysts believe was essential to the rapid growth experienced in other parts of Asia. And the trends, according to Lehman Brothers, suggest that India is just getting started. If it continues to make economic reforms, such as simplifying taxes, loosening labor laws and changing the pension system to help build a healthy corporate bond market, the economy could soon hit China's mythic 10 percent annual growth rate.

But that's a big if. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's reforms—most of which he made as finance minister between 1991 and 1996 (one reason he doesn't get credit for them now)—succeeded so well that they eliminated any sense of urgency. In this sense, the prime minister may be a victim of his own achievements. The problem, says Subir Gokarn, chief economist at Crisil, a credit-rating agency, is that "when the economy is doing so well, you cannot create a constituency for reform." The ability to make big changes, he explains, is "independent of the individual, independent of the party, independent of the system. When there's a widespread perception of crisis, then reform happens. When there isn't, it doesn't." In 1991, such a crisis atmosphere came from an exchange-rate drop that nearly depleted India's foreign-exchange reserves. But the country has faced no similar threat since 2004.

Thus reform has slowed dramatically. Singh's government has failed to take steps like relaxing India's stringent labor laws and selling off state-owned industries. That said, it has managed to make some important improvements in recent years—despite fractures within the governing coalition and the lack of an outside prod. For instance, after becoming prime minister in 2004, Singh, despite local opposition, began measures to allow foreign direct investment in the retail sector and to facilitate the creation of large domestic retail chains. He also moved to encourage public-private partnerships in infrastructure projects—potentially bringing more money and better management to one of India's biggest laggards. And he unleashed what could be the biggest stimulus for India's manufacturing sector since 1991, setting up a huge number (386) of special economic zones last year, where industry will enjoy preferential tax policies and government assistance in acquiring land. (Between 1965 and 2004, by contrast, India established only eight.)

The alignment of economic agendas between India's two largest political parties—Congress and the BJP--is perhaps the best sign of all for the country's economic future. Politics in India can prove unstable; four different governments ruled during the 1990s; the BJP-led alliance held sway from 1998 to 2003, and a coalition led by the Congress Party has ruled since 2004. But as the politicians have traded seats, economic reforms have continued apace. This suggests that despite some resistance and reluctance to make further changes, both of the major parties believe there's no going back on reforms already undertaken. Moreover, as the Lehman Brothers report points out, "The general pattern in democracies worldwide is that governments find it easier to push through reforms—and other potentially controversial legislation—earlier in their term of office." That means the 2009 general elections might give the Indian snowball another push, bringing 10 percent growth into view at last.
URL: http://www.newsweek.com/id/72071

Friday, November 16, 2007

travel, wedding season, and general laziness

I must apologize for my long absence from this space.... The truth is that, in what is a rare occurrence, I've actually been busy. First my good school friend (yes, practically chaddi buddies, if I'm spelling that correctly) came to visit and we went off to Udaipur and then, somewhat randomly, to Leh. Then I started to get a bunch of unexpected writing assignments.

I don't know how I feel about the latter. I need the money, I like the the idea that people want me to work for them. But somehow the work itself never seems as fun as the stuff I do on my own initiative. Nevertheless, it seems to be the role of the freelancer never to say no, like some actor trapped forever in an improvisational sketch.

At the same time, we suddenly have started meeting people again, after many months spent in despair over the exodus of all our friends. It's almost funny, as in recent weeks it seems like *everybody* we meet is someone that we like so well (I know, I'm talking like we're a psychological unit, but on this score we are agreed) that we have to scheme ways to meet them again and again. Having friends, or trying to have friends, can be such a chore.

Anyway, between actually making enough money to live on, seeing a little of the country, and meeting people that I like, I've hardly had any time to complain about Delhi, fantasize about the book I'm supposed to be writing, fight with Shailaja, surf the property ads for apartments in Ghaziabad, or to ramble on existentially here, my regular access to The Void.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

another newsweek article on india's economy

In case you weren't bored enough by the plethora of articles on India's economy, here Newsweek superstar George Wehrfritz and I do a little channeling of Thomas Friedman to pump up India a little before the stock market tanks. The premise: India doesn't have much of an export economy, so it will be safer in a US recession than China.

BTW: Can anybody say "bubble?"

Read on at http://www.newsweek.com/id/43340

new newsweek article on cricket

I finally convinced Newsweek to write about cricket. It wasn't easy, and along the way there was some confusion. For instance, at one point, an edit came back that suggested that a World Cup played in the one-day format instead of five-day test cricket was a brilliant new innovation. (They were talking about Twenty20 of course). But in the end, it turned out OK. It also appeared in Enterprise, a magazine for so-called "high net worth individuals," where I believe they used my complete, and therefore slightly funnier, lead paragraph.

Read on at http://www.newsweek.com/id/43341

Saturday, October 13, 2007

shailaja says....

"I can't believe all these so-called experts on Indian movies keep buying into the claim that Bhool Bhulaiyya is India's first psychological thriller, when it's a remake of the Malayalam film Manichithra Thazhu!"

Saturday, October 06, 2007

i'm no expat

This is a little piece I wrote for Time Out Delhi. Hopefully people took it in the spirit in which it was intended.

White Indian

I'm not an expat. I'm a white Indian. I don't brunch at the Hyatt. I don't skip town every June. I don't have kids enrolled in the American school. I don't have a housing allowance, driver or a cook. I don't say, “India is a difficult place to live, but frankly I don't know how I'm going to survive without all the help when we go back.”

It's not a point of pride. I'm just broke. I drive an eight-year-old white Maruti 800 with a massive dent in the driver's side door (don't get me started). I fly Air Deccan. I drink IMFL. I pay a little more than 10,000 a month in rent. I wobble and say yaar. I know a shameful percentage of the lyrics to “Mindblowing Mahiya.” I even have the Person of Indian Origin card. Designed for non-resident Indians, it's made me a resident non-Indian. Sometimes, in the depths of despair, I contemplate buy property in some wasteland on the road to Faridabad or beyond Ghaziabad or Rohini—places I've never been. I may never leave.

I don't know how this happened. It had something to do with quitting my job as a drone at a “financial newswire” (I used to dream of inventing a computer program to replace myself—it seemed so obvious). I was in Hong Kong, which was too expensive a place to be unemployed. I spoke Chinese, but my fiancee (now wife) did not, and China's notoriously inhospitable stance toward journalists made the simple crossover into the mainland seem much more difficult than migrating to India. Here, I've discovered as a white Indian (and freelancer), the rules are flexible. You don't comply; you do jugaad.

I don't want to complain about the country that embraced me. But it's not easy being a white Indian. Most people think I'm rich and don't know what anything costs, that I have a direct line (like the Bat phone) to the visa officers at the US embassy, that I must be finding Indian food too spicy, or that we have a deep personal bond because they have a cousin who is working in Houston. These things are trying. My neighbors know better. They think I'm a bum, or a shamelessly overgrown trust fund kid. I don't leave the house; ergo, I don't work. I'm always carrying crates of Kingfisher up the four flights of stairs to my rooftop lair. There's loud music and doors slamming at odd times of night (3 a.m., 4 a.m.--even when the puja hour begins and the guys show up for the laughing club).

And I do love the place, albeit in a repressed, white Indian kind of way. There is something wonderful about the smell of Delhi's burnt air in the summer, something inspiring about the street kids who laugh and smile when they see my newly shaven head. Indians are much wittier than Americans, whose humor relies on a sarcasm that belies an essentially naive view of the world. I revel in snatches of overheard conversations: “He is a sportsman... but only at night!” TK, TK. I like running red lights, driving like a prick and cursing at the other drivers for driving like pricks. I enjoy Delhi passtimes like drinking late night whisky in a car parked outside Salim's and booking future drinks at happy hour prices just before deadline. I “white guy” my way into things—a variation on the old Delhi version of the “do you know who I am?” I earn in dollars and spend in rupees. I ask you: For a hack, what could be better?

cricket commentary

Despite all the new activity in cricket -- new channels, two new leagues, a new world cup -- it appears to me that the sports reporting from India, and the commentary on the Indian matches, remains behind the times.

The biggest weakness, as far as I'm concerned, is not the commentators but the number crunchers "in the truck" (i.e. the guys who produce the broadcast on site). Though they do a great job of tracking the performances on the day, and the technology is great for stuff like the Hawkeye etc, their use of historical stats is very poor in comparison with the broadcasts for professional baseball, football and basketball. This is especially notable because cricket, like baseball, should be a game that lives and breathes stats.

One small example: Consider Sehwag, who stunk out the joint for match after match before he was dropped. I can't recall any substantial discussion of his stats, looking at his performances over, say, his last ten and twenty matches and taking into account the quality of the opposition. This allowed him to be selected for the World Cup when he was playing quite badly, and the same stat-ignorance allowed people to conclude that all was well after he blasted a few runs against Bermuda. Runs against bad bowling was never his problem. Consistency was. Armed with the right stats, the commentators should take the selectors to task for their poor decisions.

Which brings me to another point: Stats from domestic cricket should be picked over, analyzed and re-analyzed for hidden stories when the team brings in new players. What are the selectors using to make their decisions, if not numbers? Are they just looking at the guys and saying, "Hmmm. He looks good, and he's from Maharashtra?" Presumably, they have some basis for their arguments. But one gets the idea that they only wake up when a player has a breakout performance on a big stage--such as when Irfan Pathan blew away the opposition in the under 19 world cup a few years back. And that's a big problem for the team. Why else does a Mahendra Singh Dhoni "burst onto the scene" at such a late stage in his career? Did he suddenly become good at 27? I don't think so. He must have been doing great things in obscurity before. What were his stats? Where was he playing? Why was Patel selected and he overlooked? These are questions that should be part of the cricket coverage on an ongoing basis.

Maybe I'm wrong about the players I'm using as examples. I don't know. But if I was constantly bombarded with statistical comparisons--the way I'd be in a US sports broadcast--I'd know for sure.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

surfing india

Thought you folks might want to see me catch my first wave. This was my third day on the board. Surfers: Check out www.surfingindia.net.

video

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

bonded labor - not just in bihar

I'm doing a little reporting on bonded labor this week, so my translator and I made the short hop to Faridabad to visit a stone quarry that employs "freed" bonded laborers -- following intercession on their behalf by Swami Agnivesh. I was intrigued to learn that the conditions of their present contracts are hardly more liberal than the original bonds. The only difference, essentially, is that now they receive cash wages, the terms of their debts are written down and nominally at least they can eventually pay off what they owe. When I first met them, they identified themselves as "former" bonded laborers for this reason, and because they are allowed to move from one employer to another provided they can get a second loan with which to pay off the first guy.

Frankly, I was shocked--not to find bonded labor still exists, but to find out that it was practiced so blatantly so close to the Parliament and that the victims don't even consider themselves to be bonded laborers anymore. The guys I spoke to had all taken loans of 15,000-20,000 from their employer over the years because they receive very low wages and they are required to supply their own equipment, dynamite etc. They're convinced that the employer (who supplies the gear) overcharges them, but they have no other recourse, since they don't have trucks to transport their own dynamite, etc. They're also convinced that the boss downgrades the rock they produce unfairly so he can underpay them. And -- in classic bonded labor fashion -- they have no idea of the rate of interest they're paying on their loans, how long it will take them to pay them off, or any of the financial terms.

And these are the "freed" guys!

Friday, September 14, 2007

any boxing fans out there?

I met my first Delhi boxing fan last night.... Correction: I met my first fan of professional boxing last night, and amid furious planning to share my coveted collection of recorded fights it occurred to me that I've never put out the call: Are there any other boxing fans in Delhi? Anybody else who recognizes the names of Manny Pacquiao, Miguel Cotto, Israel Vazquez or even Floyd Mayweather or Ricky Hatton?

Being the lone fan in the wilderness--especially with all the work I go through to see the fights--is a bit like cooking and eating gourmet meals for one.

'new' delhi nightlife leaves a hole in your pocket

For awhile I was pretty excited about all the new bars, clubs and restaurants opening up around town. But now I've decided that it's all a conspiracy to make me feel underpaid and tight-fisted. As far as I can tell, all the new joints have formed a tacit agreement to boost the going rate for beer at "posh" bars from Rs.150-200 for a large bottle of domestic to Rs.150-200 for the 330 ml bottle that in Delhi is erroneously identified as a pint. (Folks, a pint is about 475 milliliters--40% larger than the small beer bottle).

What is behind this disturbing trend? I've always believed that Delhi bar owners operate under the mistaken impression that well-heeled patrons cause less trouble than regular folks. But the only bar squabbles I've witnessed or heard about have been in the upscale joints, and the most famous such incident (the murder of Jessica Lal) occurred at a chic-chic bar and was allegedly perpetrated by one of the city's rich and powerful.

At the same time, it appears to me that the steady stream of business at the previous generation of reasonably priced nightspots--Buzz, Flames and (formerly) Turquoise Cottage, to name a few that are full of patrons seven days a week--must be more lucrative than posh places that are half-empty many nights and never have many patrons until the end of the night.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

new grocery for gk2?

Since the demise of FoodPlus -- which had a good selection but a foolish insistence on a computerized checkout that took eons -- there's no longer any source of "foreign" supplies in GK2. This is a market waiting to be tapped. Now, creative cooks have to fight the parking nightmare at GKI M-block market or drive all the way to Defence Colony if they want items like olives, jalapenos, gerkins, tortillas, mozzarella, etc. Back in the days of FoodPlus, I used to make pasta once or twice a week and my patented burritos, salsa & guacamole once a month or so. But now I hardly ever bother....

Speaking of which, a friend who's new in town suggested that I should share more of my wisdom on matters like where to find inexpensive cheese, how to make guacamole in Delhi, how to get a gas connection, etc. I'm not sure whether or not I'm going to bother--basically it's just the product of living here too long and reading CityLimits, SimplyDelhi and (now) Time Out. But I agree that somebody should do so. How about the folks at DelhiExpat.com? Right now, the site is pretty much a party planner--for people with v. deep pockets....

Saturday, September 01, 2007

suddenly burma is in the news....

As some of my foreign correspondent buddies head off to Myanmar/Burma to report on the crackdown on protesters demonstrating against high petrol prices, I'm wondering why this is the moment to resume coverage of Burma.... OK, maybe that's putting it wrong. It makes sense to bring attention to this protest and its suppression regardless of its likelihood of toppling the junta. But why so little attention to the impotence of American/Western action against the regime? (A boycott that means nothing, and a lot of empty lip-service). Why so little attention to India's -- once basically the only regional power that actively criticized the junta -- final abandonment of Aung Sun Kyi to her fate? I hate to say it, but these protests seem like a non-event to me. Just another blip on the graph of what promises to be a long, grim reign of the military dictators... I mean: NOW Bush plans to bring up Burma at the Asian summit? The junta wasn't doing anything wrong over the last decade?

A statement from Laura Bush's office said, according to the IHT, "Mrs. Bush noted that by staying quiet, the United Nations — and all nations — condone these abuses."

And this kind of "harsh condemnation" does what, exactly?

Friday, August 31, 2007

again with the mindblowing mahiya....

BTW: Thought readers would like to know that I got the chance to demonstrate my deeply disturbing knowledge of Mindblowing Mahiya at Buzz on Wednesday. Hadn't been there in forever due to the new parking hassles at Saket. But after two obscenely priced beers at Tabula Rasa (Rs.200 for a 12-oz bottle?), Buzz did me right once again. Good co-ed crowd, terrible food, ridiculous music. Maybe even displaced Flames--where the crowd has really gone downhill; now mostly red-eyed and paunchy whiskey drinkers-- on my "best bar" list. Only problem is that happy hour ends at 7. And of course the hell of driving to Saket with the construction of the purported "high speed" bus lane on Tito Marg.

Speaking of which: Somebody should start a pool on how that thing will pan out. My prediction is that the pedestrian/bicycle path will be thronged with motorcycles & scooters, the bus lane will be jammed with cars, and everything will go to hell at the big traffic lights where Tito Marg meets the Ring Roads.... Any reason this should work better than the pedestrian tunnels that everyone ignores, or the speed governors on the Blueline Buses??

peter temple & peter ho davies

I've been slogging away (sort of) so I haven't been up to my usual railing about what ails Delhi... However, I have had time to keep up my reading.

The latest:
The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies -- quite amazing literary novel set in WWII in Wales.
The Broken Shore by Peter Temple - quite amazing police procedural set in the outback of Australia

Maybe the best two books I've read this year, though the bar has been set pretty high....

Saturday, August 25, 2007

jim thompson

I was talking about my obsession with crime novels last night at Flames, and I realized that I haven't written much about books in awhile. As usual, I've been clipping along at about a book a week, of course, alternating between "literary" novels and crime books, with a few notables like Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn and Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men edging their way onto my mental catalogue of favorites. Yesterday, however, I dug out our last remaining unread novel by noir-king Jim Thompson--The Grifters--and read it cover to cover, finishing the last chapter or so at the Ear, Nose and Throat specialist's.

Among crime writers, Thompson stands out because his characters are so decidedly small-time, and the picture of America that he paints is so low-rent--dismal boardwalks and pathetic barflies and, of course, sadistic small town sheriffs. The Grifters, far better, like all Thompson works that have attracted Hollywood attention, than the Angelica Huston starrer based on the book, is no exception. It made me want to revisit The Killer Inside Me, a book that is still high up on my mental favorites list, but that I was foolish enough to lend out (never to see it again). I should have known better, of course. The only possible course of action when somebody lends you a Thompson book is to steal it.

Friday, August 24, 2007

more popculture confessions...

I know all the words to Mindblowing Mahiya. AND most of the dance moves.

get gorgeous

I'm not a fan of reality television. All those ludicrous games and senseless posturing--and the pure stupidity of the contestants--just make me bored and depressed.

Which is why I love Channel V's "Get Gorgeous". I know what you're thinking (It's the teenage models) but you're only half right. I'll cop to catching a few episodes of America's Next Top Model (Tyra Banks) but it was utterly unwatchable in the way of most reality TV. These endless rambling monologues, everybody taking herself WAY too seriously, etc. But the girls on GG (yes, I call it GG! I have slipped that far!) are really funny and clever in their bitchiness, and V does a much better job of editing on this show than any of the others I've surfed over.

If I didn't know that it wouldn't work, I'd be tempted to force all the folks in the US who keep asking me about India (snakecharmers, elephants, eunuchs) to watch a few episodes. I'm not sure some of them would be able to define all the words in these bimbos' vocabularies.

There. I've outed myself. As low brow as you get.

oh my stars...

I have to confess I feel sorry for Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan. To begin with, Sanju is sortof my favorite Bollywood star. I like other folks, like Om Puri, Saif Ali Khan and Irfan Khan better--but only because they act in non-mainstream movies that are more to my taste. In both that Reservoir Dogs ripoff (Kaante?) and Munnabhai, though, Sanju impressed me with naturalness on camera and charmed me with his easily recognized charisma. He's no genius. But he's damn likable.

With Salman, the talent is harder to see, as his acting in the movies I've seen has been truly horrible. But the charisma is there. I used to dismiss him out of hand as a lout (girlfriend-beater, poacher, drunk driver--there wasn't a lot to like). But in the past few weeks of watching interviews with him, I started thinking of him in much the same way I think of Sanju: OK, he's an idiot, but....

It's sad that the Indian courts operate so slowly that by the time these guys--and millions of others whose problems are not followed with bated breath--actually get punished for their crimes, they've already repented and turned over a new leaf, and we've already forgiven them. There's no easy answer, of course. They can't be let off just because the courts have been so shamefully slow that we've all had time to decide they are genial idiots rather than thugs and criminals. But it is undeniably terrible that this is the way it is, and it's likely to remain this way for many years to come.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

voluntary affirmative action

Today the papers are reporting that Bharti became the second big corporate to embrace "voluntary affirmative action" -- India Inc's rearguard action to prevent the government from stepping in and mandating quotas or some other scheme to create equal employment opportunities for Dalits. While this is a laudable move by Bharti and Infosys (the first company to make the move), I can't help but feel that voluntary actions alone won't do the trick.

I doubt that the large mass of "anonymous" Indian companies will find the same incentive (and spare cash) to start training/employment programs for Dalits and other historically disadvantaged groups. It's good PR for Infosys. But for X Generic Autoparts, which never gets in the newspaper, it's just another cost burden. Also, there remain serious concerns about prejudicial hiring practices, and the voluntary system means that there's no oversight. How do we know what progress is being made if nobody is keeping track? Just as it was ludicrous for the government to start defining quotas without a recent and accurate estimate of the number of people making up the so-called Other Backward Classes, it's absurd to think of an affirmative action program that is based entirely on an abstraction. Good will, even if it exists, is simply not enough. (Consider the surprise which greeted the Sachar report on the socio-economic condition of India's Muslims).

I'm not sure quotas are the answer, either, of course, though it's hard to deny that quotas in the government sector have been responsible for much of the progress that Dalits have made so far. Yes, quotas work--though some on both sides of the debate will argue they don't work as well as they should. But India cannot legislate a job for everybody, as they have sought to do in education, both for the practical reasons related to competitiveness that industry claims and for expedient reasons related to the political and social fallout that such a move would engender. Again, there's plenty of learning to be gained from the debate on quotas in education, especially where related to dealing with all the various groups in India that face discrimination/disadvantage that doesn't stem from caste.

But rather than to fall into the usual trap of doing nothing because we can't think of a plan that is absolutely perfect, I suggest that the government can develop its own mandatory affirmative action plan that isn't based on quotas. It could start with Dalits and be expanded to include OBCs and religious minorities as needed. Essentially, this would be a very simple system. All companies would be encouraged to employ X% of Dalits in their organizations, with some kind of weighting system to give greater credit for those who employ Dalits at senior levels. If the company meets the requirement--say it's 13%--it gets a significant tax break (maybe the tax break could be tied to the percentage of Dalits the company employs). On the other hand, if it doesn't meet some minimum, the company would have to pay a penalty tax, from which 100% of the revenue would go to supplement existing funds devoted to scholarships, improving primary education, job training, and other programs for the advancement of the Dalits (or, later, other concerned groups).

This would mean three things. First, we'd have an accurate count of the number of Dalits employed in the private sector (or the organized sector, anyway). Second, industry would have an incentive to employ Dalits that goes beyond good will or PR. Third, there would be some allowance for industry to avoid hiring Dalits where they weren't qualified--but at the same time ensure that they were funding programs to alleviate that problem.

Under this scheme, Bharti & Infosys would benefit -- although I'm guessing the amount of money they've devoted to their voluntary affirmative action is considerably smaller than the tax penalty they'd have to pay under any realistic mandatory plan -- and those companies without the will to work toward social equality would lose.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

india needs more liberal gun laws?

A bizarre full-page spread in today's Hindustan Times actually argues that India's gun laws are too restrictive, and it should be easier to get gun licenses and buy imported weapons. The weirdest part is the way the piece cites the dropoff in license applications over the past few years as though it's the worst imaginable crisis. Oh my God, fewer people are packing heat! How will we protect ourselves from the marauding hordes?! (OK, they do make the argument that all the crooks get their guns from the black market, but we've heard that line before from America's National Rifle Association, which boils it down into a facile maxim: "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.")

Here's a good example of the tone the HT takes: "Given the obsolete gun laws and the government’s monopoly over the sector, licence-holders say they have no choice but to make do with these outdated, crude-finish weapons." Gasp! They can't get the cutting edge assault rifles and automatic pistols they need! Whatever will they do?

It's not April Fool's Day, is it?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

five minute blues song

OK, it took me a little longer than five minutes. But you get the idea. BTW: This is the world's first "open source" blues song, so feel free to contribute verses, set it to music, steal the title, turn it into rockabilly or whatever. The Man did it to black artists for years, after all.

The Hindutva Blues

I woke up one morning,
went into politics.
I gathered up a mob.
They gathered up some sticks.

We hit the streets!
We closed the stores!
“Down with the rich!
Up with the poor!”

We held a vote.
And captured booths.
They told lies.
We told the truth.
There was more of us;
what we said was true.
But they had the loot,
They had thrishuls.

We lost the vote!
My deposit's gone!
My Baby left me
for Advani's son.

I got the Hindutva blues.
I got the Kashmir frustration.
These damn politicians
Need assassination!
I got the Hindutva blues.
I got the Godhra confusion.
This democracy blows.
We need a revolution!

I woke up the next day.
The world upside down.
Amitabh lost his wig,
Sachin lost his crown.

Couldn't beat Bangladesh,
Maybe both should retire.
Now Abhi's got a wife....
But hey, what do I care?

They flail around bats!
and dance around trees!
Mera naam bhi joker.
They got nothin on me.

Why they so rich,
when everybody's poor?
These socialites,
the rabble adores.
They's a billion of us,
And two of them.
I don't like 'em.
Let's do 'em in!

I got the Hindutva blues.
That NDTV sensation!
Turnin' gossip into news,
Ignoring starvation.
I got the Hindutva blues.
I got the Stardust obsession.
I don't wanna know.
About my oppression.

That night it was dark,
They was shedding the load.
Didn't have my Baby,
So I lay down in the road.

I went to sleep!
I dreamt in prose!
Didn't sing no songs,
Didn't fight no foes.

A horse came along,
a brass band besides.
But I didn't wake up.
Though they tried and tried.

The groom had Black Label!
The bharat Cutty Sark!
But all that I could do,
was snore there in the dark.

My Baby stole my heart.
And took my booze.
She run off with another man.
I got nothin left to lose.

I got the Hindutva blues.
I got heart palpitations.
My Baby only knows
How to treat my condition.

I got the Kingfisher blues.
I got the IMFL affliction.
I can't brew my own,
Can't afford my addiction.

(repeat until you pass out drunk or the stoning begins)

attn: foreign press - india's highest leader is called the prime minister

With all the domestic flap over the selection of Pratibha Patil as president, readers of this space may have missed the fact that all the Big Foreign Press (with the exception of Newsweek--hooray) have made much of the "election" of India's first female president.

Why is this notable? India has already had a female prime minister--the highest post in the land, with real political power. And three of the most powerful people in politics today, Sonia Gandhi, Jayalalitha and Mayawati, are women. The presidency, in contrast, is a wholly ceremonial post with little importance--less, even, than the US vice presidency.

To me, this news should get about the same amount of coverage (at least as a "victory for women"--that is, apart from the other political wranglgin) as what America's first woman vice president would receive 20 years after the first female president served two terms and became one of the most important political figures of the century (like Indira Gandhi). In other words: Very little.

the history boys

I finally watched The History Boys last night, and I can't stop thinking about it. Sort of a Tom Stoppard with soul, it was one of those very rare pieces of fiction that is actually able to say something (a lot of things, actually) interesting and intelligent about literature. Far from the faff spouted by Robin Williams in The Dead Poets' Society (which bears a passing resemblance to THB in setting and structure), the stuff that the masters in THB say strikes one as just that *bit* better (because it's funny as well as brilliant) than what your college professors said, if they were as clever as Edward Tayler, Wallace Gray and Edward Said. It's full of poignant moments, too, of course. But the worst one, for me, was when the ringer brought in from Oxford to make sure the boys all get places admits that he never thinks about going "back up," because, he says: "I'm not clever enough. I'm not anything really." God, I feel like that ALL the time. Oh, yes, and THB uses "journalism" in the just the right pejorative sense. They really do need to start making more plays into movies.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

who needs decent roads and a working sewer when we can have F1 and the commonwealth games?

The mixed up priorities of Delhi's government (and India's, for that matter) never cease to amaze me. We don't have a decent road -- ok, maybe the drive up to the parliament house or something. Half the city gets polluted water out of the taps (or no water, or no taps). Three-quarters of the buildings are illegal or falling down or both. There's no sewer system deserving the name, so everybody's shit goes straight into the river untreated (and much of it right back into the drinking water, I suppose). The garbage pickup is a joke, so half the streets look like part of some municipal dump and the drains are clogged by refuse every year (the good citizens who throw their rubbish on the ground deserve as much blame as the MCD, by the way). But these problems hardly see even a tiny spark of action--certainly not any results. Nope, instead Delhi goes off and bids for the Commonwealth Games. And WINS! Wins? Did the selection committee SEE the airport progress report? Then, high on that dubious success, the next step is a natural -- go after a Formula One race. The Delhi Grand Prix. It sounds good, doesn't it?

Just for a laugh, go down and check out the sports facilities at Nehru stadium or some of the various "modernities" constructed for the Asian Games a decade or so back. I don't know that they've boosted tourism or improved India's sportsmen or created valuable infrastructure. They look like a bunch of neglected, badly constructed junk to my jaundiced eye. Then, if you want to stop laughing, take a gander at one of Delhi's countless slums or (worse) jhuggi clusters. Maybe you think your tax money would be put to good use just obliterating these people, humanely as possible, of course, and bulldozing their houses so India can build some stadium or glass skyscraper. I don't. But even if I did, I'd at least insist that the stadium or skyscraper in question be designed by a competent architect, built with decent materials, and, what the heck, I'd even like it hooked up to a functioning sewage system. See, rich folks like clean water and stink-free air, too.

Here's something you can do. Don't vote. You're right. All the politicians are the same. But don't just continue with your present apathetic, I-can't-be-bothered lack of participation. This time, don't vote as part of a general boycott. I humbly submit that the first issue should be as follows: Nobody votes until every neighborhood has a functioning sewer and drinking water system. If the politicians don't listen when you DO voice your opinion, maybe they'll start when the capital of India's fabulous democracy sees voter turnout fall below 10 percent.

road rage

This morning's papers are reporting that five young guys beat a dude to death for bumping one of their motorcycles in Delhi's usual traffic. It's not the first time I've read such a story. I recall a couple incidents where a motorist blew somebody away, Charles Bronson style, for such an offense. But this was the first time I actually had to admit some mixed feelings. Along with the horror, outrage and fear -- de rigeur for a whiney, liberal, dimestore-psycholanalyzed git like myself -- I found myself identifying a teensy bit with the bludgeoners. Same goes for the Blueline bus killers. In a very dark, Stalinesque moment deep in my alcohol-soaked synapses, something arced over and I thought: Well, you know, sometimes people DO drive like complete assholes. This is why I have to rehang my heavy bag.

genre fiction

I still get annoyed when critics write that this or that author has "broken through the limitations of the genre" or whatever. It's not that I'm one of these guys who insists detective stories or the space opera or the bodice ripper don't have limitations. It's more that the claims for the boundary breaking always seem to be exaggerated. In every case -- Elmore Leonard to Raymond Chandler to Stanislaw Lem to Iain Banks -- what you have is a very good example of the genre, not a breaking of its conventions or limitations.

But here's a more interesting question: Who are some writers who can do both -- write a best-seller AND write a literary novel. And I'm not talking about the oxymoronic "literary potboiler," by which reviewers mean "literate potboiler/thriller/etc." (Please don't say Graham Greene).

My candidate of the month is Kate Atkinson, who's written at least one decent literary novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, and two cracking detective stories (actually, the best I've read in a long time), in Case Histories and A Good Turn.

Monday, July 09, 2007

two observations about the namesake

(1) Overrated.
(2) To quote the world-renowned Dan Mendelsohn, "Isn't a character named Gogol precious and pretentious at the same time?"

(Saw the flick yesterday).

bheja fry

Our good friend Vinay Pathak is hilarious in the low-budget hit Bheja Fry. Apparently he's looking at a lot of scripts now, but as seems to always be the case in Bollywood, most of them are copycats of his last outing. The brilliant part about Vinay's performance in Bheja Fry is that he brought back the essential note of realism to Hindi-film comedy--unlike his buddy Ranvir, who delivered the usual outsized performance that we've seen in the past with Javed Jaffrey's goof in Salaam Namaste or Boman Irani's roles in Munnabhai and Main Hoon Na. So writers should be looking to feed Vinay scripts like the original Gol Maal, which require terrific comic timing and charisma, but also the ability to portray a real character. Bollywood needs to remember that the audience shouldn't be constantly made painfully aware that it is watching a performance.

Here are my suggestions:

(1) Remake Gol Maal - Why not? Remakes are hot. Vinay is hot. And the guy could play that role with his eyebrows and (fake) mustache alone.

(2) A detective sequel to Bheja Fry - Take the phone gags Bharat Bhushan used to "help" reunite the couple in Bheja Fry to the next level, as his income tax inspector position leads him into a real sleuth mystery a la Inspector Clouseau.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

off the wall prediction

OK, Ram Gopal Varma / Subash Ghai / somebody should hire me as their idea man. Seriously. I know I don't know jack about Bollywood, but.... Case in point: I'll lay odds that serial kisser guy Emraan Hashmi is going to be a big star. If Ramu had taken him on instead of that dufus in James, people would be talking about him like the did about Tarantino after he resurrected Travolta. No. I AM serious. Yes. I know he can't act. That's the director's job. Come ON, dude.

brunch at sakura

You gotta try it. OK, it's about $100 for two people, but if you have a hearty appetite, you get your money's worth of sushi, tepanyaki (bata chapal sized prawns!) and beef medallions. Plus there's unlimitied beer or wine, etc. I have to say I regret all those times (ok, a few) that I went to Olive.

Friday, June 29, 2007

old media: build some brick and mortar libraries

The other day I read a piece in the Express about a library in CP that has 700 employees.... I was shocked, SHOCKED to discover that there was a library in CP.

That it had 700 employees seemed a minor matter.

Seriously - Why are there no decent libraries in India? Even the top universities have woefully inadequate collections. Aren't there any philanthropists who want their names on big buildings? Once upon a time I wrote about the powerful Indian diaspora.... Come on guys: Pony up.

In Delhi, at least, there should be one public library that bears some similarity to the New York Public Library--that should be the goal, anyway. If necessary, it could be a multi-university library shared by the students / faculty of DU, JNU, IIT, etc and open to the public for a fee. No doubt most of the big publishing houses would donate their "classics" to get good PR in one of the few countries where the book business is booming. And the guys on the Forbes list of the richest folks in the world might even toss in a few bucks.

Who knows, it could help with all that "knowledge economy" crapola everybody keeps rabbitting on about.

the continuing beer saga

If I have any readers out there, they must be getting tired of me going on and on about beer. But to show that I'm not beholden to any foreign or domestic interests, that I am not "motivated" as is sometimes said in the Indian press, I am going to keep writing about it anyway. My latest findings RE Kingfisher -- Some of the big bottles are loaded with glycerine and some aren't, even though all the bottles that I get say they're made in Ludhiana. If no one explains this mystery I may have to write something about Dr. (of what?) Mallya so I can ask him in person.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

which is india's most unpleasant state?

My impressions: Bihar isn't any worse than MP or UP, and a case can be made that Orissa may be nicer than all three (certainly Bhubaneswar is loads nicer than Patna). This leads me to believe that much of the stuff we read about these places is wrong.

Which leads me to my question: Where's the place you'd wish upon your worst enemy? Give me your grim stinkholes, your disgusting deathtraps, your loud, polluted, rude, poverty-stricken, 52 degree Celsius top three. IAS officers welcome.

And, what the heck, give me a couple dream postings, too. Someplace where it's never too humid and you can pick mangoes from your terrace.

leaving seventymm

A few months back we were really excited about seventymm, one of India's several Netflix copycats. Then we tried it out. Over about six months, they've sent us the wrong movie twice, only one of two vcds twice, and once an unwatchable "bonus disk" instead of the actual film. Each time, customer service has been less than helpful--endless forwarding of requests and assurances that we'll be "compensated" for the mistake, and still no sign of any compensation.

To be honest, I'm not the one who gets on the phone with them and goes insane, and I could probably even tolerate getting the wrong movie (or half a movie, or no movie) once in awhile. My gripe is that the movies suck--at least the English ones. Apart from the obvious (Hitchcock, everything involving Michael Caine, etc) it's a selection along the lines of the "classics" they show on AMC / TNT / TMC in the USA. Over and over.

Worse still, I seem to have an uncanny knack for picking out bad films from the 1981 and before period, sometimes for a laugh, admittedly, and those are the ones that wind up getting delivered to the house even though they are numbers 53 and 45 in my "queue." (Is this an Indian queue? It operates back to front?).

Guys. Enough. I want my money back.

Friday, June 15, 2007

rain!

I am dancing nanga sadhu style on my rooftop as I write this! Yes, folks, rain has come to Delhi. Be it pre-monsoon showers or (can it be?) the beginning of the monsoon, it calls for celebration. By the thermo on my window, the temperature has dropped from 40 plus Centrigrade (i.e. 105 degrees F) to 25C/80F! It's downright comfy. As soon as I finish my rain dance, I'm going to turn off all the A/Cs, open up the windows, and breathe some well-deserved fresh air. Too many weeks inhaling my own exhalings! Too long cooped up with the stink of sweat! Too much, in short, of Delhi summer. I won't say it's over. But, as is often said about Bollywood films: "At least it has an intermission!"

more support for atheistfest 2008

Ever since I moved to Chittaranjan Park -- in a choice location atop a vacant lot used for Durga Puja -- I've been hatching a scheme for a massive blowout AtheistFest that would run all night for weeks at a time, keep everybody awake with loud, depraved music and guys shouting TEST, TEST over a bad public address system, and generally disrupt middle class life as we know it. So far, it hasn't gotten past the "yeah and we could serve free beer" stage in terms of actual planning. But in spirit at least I have lots of international support, according to a recent piece in the New Yorker.

Here's a summary of what my pal Chris could contribute:

Hitchens is nothing if not provocative. Creationists are “yokels,” Pascal’s theology is “not far short of sordid,” the reasoning of the Christian writer C. S. Lewis is “so pathetic as to defy description,” Calvin was a “sadist and torturer and killer,” Buddhist sayings are “almost too easy to parody,” most Eastern spiritual discourse is “not even wrong,” Islam is “a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms,” Hanukkah is a “vapid and annoying holiday,” and the psalmist King David was an “unscrupulous bandit.”

Now, I'd say those are a number of dudes who could make AtheistFest 2008 a truly rocking party. Sordid sadists, torturers, bandits, plagiarists (OK, I got that covered).... Infidels of the world, UNITE! (Donations and scheduling suggestions welcome).

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

is it just me?

Is it just me, or has Kingfisher taken notice of my letter writing campaign against glycerine (see "you can stop the madness" dec. '06)?

Here's the back story: The other day we stooped to visiting the new Ruby Tuesdays in GKII and all they had to offer us was Royal Challenge beer-- OK, I know, I know, Ruby Tuesdays? That dismal airport bar? But this is India, where, apparently, Jagermeister is the epitome of "posh" . We dithered, considered relocating to Flames, but decided that we can only go there so many times per week. Royal Challenge it was. Then it arrived, ice cold. And, if my taste buds, numbed from excessive consumption of hoppy IPAs in the good old US of A, were not deceiving me, there was not a drop of glycerine in the stuff. It tasted, in fact, like a halfway decent Pilsner.

Immediately, I regretted spending my money on a case of big bottles of Kingfisher a few minutes earlier at the booze shop. They hadn't had the small bottles (see "you can stop the madness" post), and they were out of Fosters and Castle. I hadn't even considered Royal Challenge. However, the next day when I cracked the first one open (ok, maybe it was later that night), I couldn't taste any glycerine in it either. The next one, too. A fluke? Had I lost my ability to taste the disgusting honey-flavored gunk? Maybe it was just a magic case? I don't know. But I'm still hoping that our letters have actually paid off.

Monday, June 11, 2007

pankaj mishra in the NYRB

Pankaj Mishra's review of Martha Nussbaum's new book The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future appeared this week in the New York Review of Books. It's one of those reviews that endeavor to make reading the book unnecessary, rather than passing judgment on it, but from the looks of things the ground it covers is too well-trodden for the book to be of much interest to Indians. Here are some of the main points:

Nussbaum, who is engaged in a passionate attempt to end "American ignorance of India's history and current situation," makes the "genocidal violence" against Muslims in Gujarat the "focal point" of her troubled reflections on democracy in India. She points to forensic evidence which indicates that the fire in the train was most likely caused by a kerosene cooking stove carried by one of the Hindu pilgrims. In any case, as Nussbaum points out, there is "copious evidence that the violent retaliation was planned by Hindu extremist organizations before the precipitating event."
...
Describing the BJP's quest for a culturally homogeneous Hindu nation-state, Nussbaum wishes to introduce her Western readers to "a complex and chilling case of religious violence that does not fit some common stereotypes about the sources of religious violence in today's world." Nussbaum claims that "most Americans are still inclined to believe that religious extremism in the developing world is entirely a Muslim matter." She hints that at least part of this myopia must be blamed on Samuel Huntington's hugely influential "clash of civilizations" argument, which led many to believe that the world is "currently polarized between a Muslim monolith, bent on violence, and the democratic cultures of Europe and North America."

Nussbaum points out that India, a democracy with the third-largest Muslim population in the world, doesn't fit Huntington's theory of a clash between civilizations. The real clash exists

within virtually all modern nations —between people who are prepared to live with others who are different, on terms of equal respect, and those who seek the... domination of a single religious and ethnic tradition.
...
Nussbaum thus casts India's experience of democracy in an unfamiliar role: as a source of important lessons for Americans. Such brisk overturning of conventional perspective has distinguished Nussbaum's varied writings, which move easily from the ideas of Stoic philosophers to international development. Few contemporary philosophers in the West have reckoned with India's complex experience of democracy; and even fewer have engaged with it as vigorously as she does in The Clash Within.
....
However, Nussbaum's strongly felt and stimulating book deepens rather than answers the question: How did India's democracy, commonly described as the biggest in the world, become so vulnerable to religious extremism?

Ideological fanaticism stemming from personal inadequacies, such as the one Nussbaum identifies in Arun Shourie, is certainly to blame. But as Nussbaum herself outlines in her chapter on Gujarat, religious violence in India today cannot be separated from the recent dramatic changes in the country's economy and politics. The individual defects of Indian politicians only partly explain the great and probably insuperable social and economic conflicts that give India's democracy its particular momentum and anarchic vitality.
...
Fortunately, a large majority of poor and religious Indians do not live within the modern culture of materialism; they are invulnerable to the glamour of the CEO, the investment banker, the PR executive, the copywriter, and other gurus of the West's fully organized consumer societies. Traditional attitudes toward the natural environment make Indians, like the Japanese, more disposed than Americans to pursue happiness modestly.[15] And almost six decades after his assassination, Gandhi's traditionalist emphasis on austerity and self-abnegation remains a powerful part of Indian identity.
....

Sunday, June 10, 2007

the critic

Newsweek asked me to do a funny feature this week called "Correspondent's Picks." To some degree, I pointed out the obvious. But it was cool to see a piece called "Jason Overdorf's favorite restaurants in Chennai." Eat your heart out Anthony Bourdain. Check it out in the post below.

jason overdorf's favorite restaurants in chennai

Newsweek Web Exclusive

June 10, 2007 - Jason Overdorf has reported from India for NEWSWEEK and other publications since 2002. With his in-laws based in Chennai (formerly known as Madras), he’s had the insider’s introduction to the unofficial capital of southern India many times over. Forget fine dining, he says. The good news for foodies is that the best joints to tuck in are dirt cheap. One place near the railway station even sells dosas, idlis, lemon rice and tamarind rice for 6 rupees—20 cents—a plate. Here are some places way off the five-star tourist’s beaten path.

Sarvana Bhavan (77 Usman Road T. Nagar, Phone 2434-5577). Locals swear by this no-nonsense, diner-style restaurant, which offers the full list of vegetarian Tamil staples and has opened branches as far away as California. Traditional South Indian grub comes in two basic categories in Chennai, “tiffin” and “meals,” and Sarvana Bhavan offers both. For tiffin, try a combo of idli, dosa and vada, all of which come with a spicy tamarind-lentil curry called sambar and coconut, tomato and mint chutneys. Idlis are fluffy steamed rice cakes, dosas are slightly sour pancakes made from a fermented mixture of rice and lentil flour, and vadas are tiny, spicy doughnuts. For “meals” (i.e., curry and rice), your best bet is the thali or “dish.” It comes with four different vegetables, sambar, rasam, rice and puffed fried bread called puri. For full style points, eat with your fingers—right hand only!—from a banana-leaf plate.

Anjappar (#7/2, J.P. Towers, Nungambakkam High Road, Phone : 825 6662, 8217200). Founded as the Anjappar Chettinadu Military Hotel in 1965 (“military” because it serves the meat soldiers crave), Anjappar has risen to the top among Chennai’s many restaurants specializing in food from the Chettinad region of southern Tamil Nadu. There’s a veg and nonveg side to the place, but only a Brahmin would eschew the incredible spicy meat gravy and delicacies like “country chicken” (pheasant). Make things easy on yourself and order the all-you-can-eat nonveg “meals” (don’t worry, it arrives in the singular despite being ordered in the plural). If you come in a crowd, order one “meals” each and ask your waiter to recommend some interesting side dishes. He won’t suggest veggies. Not for the chili-impaired.

Kumarakom (AB 105 4th Avenue, Shanti Colony, Anna Nagar; 4261-1877). This restaurant serves food from the neighboring state of Kerala, which you must not leave India without sampling. Your best bet here is to order a la carte. Try the karimeen pollichathu (pearl spot fish that is stuffed with spices and grilled in a banana leaf). This dish is to Kerala what crawfish etoufee is to Louisiana or chili crabs to Singapore. Don’t miss it. Other good bets include the prawn fry (which isn’t what you expect) and beef olarthiyathu (yes, beef!). For veggies, get an order of avial—a melange of root vegetables and green beans cooked in a coconut and green chili paste.

Zara’s (74 Cathedral Road, Mylapore; 2811-1462). Pretty much the only bar worth visiting in Chennai, Zara’s serves Spanish-style tapas with an international twist. Depending on the whims of government, you may or may not be able to order imported booze. But the bartenders can mix a good cocktail even when forced to resort to I.M.F.L. (Indian-made foreign liquor), the crowd is as chic as Chennai gets and noticeably short on red-eyed mustachioed marauders glowering over their whiskeys. And if you go heavy on seafood, the tapas are as good as any you’d find in, say, Cleveland. A few tapas and a couple drinks may run you $25-$40, so carry more cash than you needed at the other joints.

4 hours in Chennai....

Newsweek International

June 18, 2007 Issue - Once known as Madras, India's fourth largest city is known as the unofficial capital of the jasmine-and-sandalwood-scented south.

VISIT the ancient Kapa-leeswarar temple, devoted to the Hindu god Shiva (Kutchery Road, Mylapore; 4 a.m.-noon and 4-8 p.m.).

EAT tiffin, the all-purpose south Indian meal of idlis (fluffy steamed rice cakes), dosas (slightly sour pancakes made from fermented rice and lentil flour) and vadas (tiny, spicy doughnuts) at Saravana Bhavan (77 Usman Road, T. Nagar; saravanabhavan.com).

STROLL through the botanical gardens of the Theosophical Society, which include a 400-year-old banyan tree once thought to be the largest in the world (Adyar Bridge Road; 9:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 2-4 p.m., Monday-Saturday).

SHOP for silk saris at Sri Kumaran Stores (45 Usman Road, T. Nagar; srikumaransilk.com) or Nalli (100 Usman Road, T. Nagar; nallisilk.com).

—Jason Overdorf

nepali restaurant in delhi?

Ever since my first trip to Kathmandu, in 2002, I've been looking for a Nepali restaurant in Delhi. Shailaja even picked up a Nepali cookbook. But the key ingredient -- fermented bamboo -- for our favorite dish, aloo tama, so far can't be found.

Now, I realize that the Nepalese don't enjoy very high status in India, where they are looked upon with a sort of patronizing attitude. But I still can't comprehend why "Tibetan" momos (which in most places are more like Chinese jaozi than the yak meat dumplings you get in Tibet and its environs) are ubiquitous, yet you can't find a single joint that serves aloo tama and the other specialties of Nepal.

Ok, ok, I know, there are only three or so Keralite and one Goan (relocated to Gurgaon of all places) and most of the states/cuisines are hardly represented at all, outside their respective government-house canteens. But there are so many Nepalis IN Delhi, many with, as Indians say, "donkey's years" of experience as cooks. I just don't see why nobody's taken a flier on a few Nepali dishes at one of the momo joints or Indo-Chinese restaurants. And folks: I just KNOW there's a guy waiting in the wings at Flames who can knock out Nepali dishes like nobody's business if they just give him a chance. Beer and fermented bamboo... Mmmmm.

Somebody, please, prove me wrong. Any Nepali joints in town?

Saturday, June 09, 2007

damn it's hot

I can't think about anything else. All I do is look at Google weather and quake in fear. 47 degrees Centigrade. Today I admitted defeat on the living room (where I'd put up styrofoam to try to block the heat). There are just too many doors and windows for the A/C to compete. My new strategy is to retreat to the bedroom, which is on the "shady" side of the house--such as it is--and only has two doors. I've moved the TV and laptop in here, and I think I've managed to get the room temperature down to around 30-32. What are people doing that don't even have electricity? Or the guys who I see spreading tar on the road? I think I would be dead in a matter of hours.

Friday, June 08, 2007

i'm not a farmer, i play one on tv

Back in the day, an advertisement for some hemmorhoid ointment or headache medicine used to feature a guy in a white labcoat who started his pitch with the line, "I'm not a doctor. I play one on TV." Then he'd go on to give his non-medical opinion about why you should buy the product. I don't know why the ad guys thought this would work. Maybe it was some "People hate know-it-alls so they're more likely to listen to an idiot with newscaster hair" thing.

But as far as I know the guy never actually started trying to write prescriptions or perform surgeries. Unlike Amatabh Bachchan and Amir Khan, who are now claiming not only to play farmers on TV, but to be farmers who deserve the right to buy agricultural land. Apparently, they ARE good at spreading manure.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

the best salesman in the world

Those of you who remember the pedestrian horn and the refrigerator snorkel, two inventions that failed to make me a crorepati--yet!--should get a kick out of this. A couple months back I noticed that my gym had (madly) agreed to market a kind of personal home sauna device to its members. According to the brochure tacked up on the bulletin board, the thing is a kind of rubber/canvas box coated with some kind of sun-multiplying material. From the picture, it looks like you park it out in your garden or on your balcony and sit on a chair inside with your head sticking out through a hole like those old steamers that appeared in Three Stooges movies and such. Then the sun cooks you into a raisin.

Now, I know what you're thinking. The best salesman in the world couldn't sell this thing in Delhi, right?

Even with my A/C running, my living room has sauna-like characteristics, and I've already spoiled my feng shui by duct-taping the french doors (in Delhi! french doors!) with aluminum-foil-covered styrofoam (aka thermocol). Now that was an invention! Takes me back to the days when I thought the pedestrian horn would make me a two-hundred-thousand-aire.

back in delhi

Had to make an unscheduled trip to the US for six weeks, and couldn't muster the energy/enthusiasm to write of trivial matters here. Never fear, though. You can expect useless and trivial information at greater frequency for the foreseeable future.

Monday, April 02, 2007

achieve instant calm

This Slate article on the New Age conquest of Yoga is the funniest thing I've read in a LONG time. Be sure to read all the way through for the account of the v. flexible "yoga stalker." A favorite tidbit:

It all adds up to what a friend recently called the "hostile New Age takeover of yoga." "New Age" culture being those scented-candle shrines to self-worship, the love-oneself lit of The Secret, the "applied kinesiology"-type medical and metaphysical quackery used to support a vast array of alternative-this or alternative-that magical-thinking workshops and spa weekends. At its best, it's harmless mental self-massage. At its worst, it's the kind of thinking that blames cancer victims for their disease because they didn't "manifest" enough positive vibes.

One "manifestation" of this takeover is the shameless enlistment of yoga and elevated Eastern yogic philosophy for shamelessly material Western goals. Rather than an alternative, it's become an enabler. "Power yoga"! Yoga for success! Yoga for regime change! (Kidding.)

And then there's what you might call "Yoga for Supermarket Checkout Line Goals." Or as the cover story of Rodale's downmarket magazine YogaLife put it, yoga to: "BURN FAT FASTER!" (Subsidiary stories bannered on the YogaLife cover: "4 WAYS TO LOSE 5 POUNDS"; "ZEN SECRETS TO: HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS ... INSTANT CALM.")

Friday, March 30, 2007

an "old" one refurbished

Here's one that was finally published after an editor returned from a long vacation....

Indian state gets ready for an onslaught of rats
Rare species of flowering bamboo puts rodents in a feeding and breeding frenzy

JASON OVERDORF

From Friday's Globe and Mail

NEW DELHI — At nightfall in the remote state of Mizoram in northeast India, villagers listen with apprehension to the rustling of thousands of rats foraging and breeding in the jungle. For now, the rodents are gorging themselves on flowering bamboo. But when the bamboo dies and the rice harvesting season begins, a scurrying plague will descend on their paddy fields.

An unusual species of bamboo blankets Mizoram, a remote state with an ethnically distinct tribal population. Melocanna baccifera flowers only once every 50 years or so, generating millions of high-protein seeds that turn the local rats into incredibly prolific breeders. But when the seeds disappear, the huge number of rats left over invade the rice paddies of the area's farmers, destroying the crops the villagers depend on for survival.

In a single night, the legion of rodents can clip the ears from every rice stalk in a field, says James Lalsiamliana, the Mizoram Agriculture Department official who heads the state's rodent control cell. During last year's harvest -- when the bamboo flowering began in the eastern part of the state -- more than 40 villages lost their entire crop. And this year, the flowering has peaked across all of Mizoram.

"They depend on this paddy for subsistence," Mr. Lalsiamliana said. "The state will now have to arrange financial support for these areas."

Local villagers call the once-in-50-years phenomenon mautam, or "bamboo death." And the last time it hit, in 1959, it was indeed deadly. The central government dismissed local forecasts as superstitious raving, and was unprepared to fight off the rodents or provide adequate relief for the massive food shortages that followed. The famine spawned a revolt against Indian rule by the Mizo National Front that lasted until 1986 and took more than 3,000 lives. Now, one of the movement's leaders, Pu Zoramthanga, is Mizoram's chief minister.

This time around, the government has released more than $125-million to fight the problem. And as much as five years back, Mizoram began tapping experts to develop a co-ordinated plan to limit the effects of the flowering and control the rodent population. The Ministry of Environment and Forests drew on experts from the International Bamboo and Rattan Network (INBAR) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) to help find new ways to utilize the bamboo and thus encourage local villagers to harvest it before it flowers. The ministry also called in Canada's John Bourne, a 30-year veteran of Alberta's rat patrol who helped make the Canadian province rat free, to study the local rodents and develop a plan for killing rats. Last season, the program Mr. Bourne helped develop allowed villagers to kill hundreds of thousands of rodents using homemade traps and poison supplied by the state.

Mr. Lalsiamliana says the state paid villagers 100 rupees (about $2.50) for every 50 traps they set and distributed more than 15,000 kilograms of rodenticide.

T.P. Subramony, head of INBAR's Delhi office, says India now has a comprehensive plan that covers extraction and management of the bamboo, how to regenerate the forest cover, controlling the rodent population and dealing with health hazards that may arise with the proliferation of the vermin. But he says the key to a solution lies in realizing the value of the bamboo itself.

Although locals cut down and burn bamboo to collect ash that they use as fertilizer, experts from the state's Bamboo Development Agency estimate that less than 1 per cent of the 850,000 hectares of bamboo gets harvested, which is why a panel of researchers from UNIDO and India's Rain Forest Research Institute has recommended the promotion of cottage industries such as the manufacture of tooth picks and bamboo mats and a temporary ban on harvesting bamboo in other parts of the country for the paper industry, along with a host of other economic stimuli.

"One issue is the dying bamboo," Mr. Subramony said. "Then there is the question of how to utilize it. There is a threat, but there is an opportunity also."

Nevertheless, this flowering season, averting a food shortage depends on killing rats. And that may not be enough.

"There will likely be a food shortage, and that may lead to famine," said S.N. Kalita, formerly the principal secretary of forests and head of the environment and forest department of Mizoram. "But the situation cannot be compared with 1959. Now our communication by road and air transport are improved, so transporting in food will not be a problem. Already, some reserve stock has been created. All I can say is that the state government and the government of India is fully prepared."

Special to The Globe and Mail

the us attorney snafu

This is a story that most readers abroad--like me--probably ignored. It sounds like so much American arcana. All that checks and balances rubbish that we yanks are always yanking on about. Of course Bush wanted his own ringers in the office, you probably figured, that's the way of the world.

Well, consider this article in Salon that explains how Bush's moves brought Christian fundamentalists into the Department of Justice to stymie civil rights cases that protect black voters, instead setting the dogs on supposedly thornier issues like allowing Bible-thumpers to proselytize in schools and setting up the whole "intelligent design" thing.

election preview

I don't know, guys. I'm no future White House correspondent. But I can't help thinking that it's going to come down to Hillary & Obama (or Obama & Hillary) vs. Giuliani and Condi Rice. Black and female vs. White and black female. History vs. history. And that's a showdown that scares me, no matter how much Bush has managed to alienate my fellow Americans. I like to recall the days when Giuliani was the guy Wyclef sang about as "the beast"--who "cleaned up" NYC by issuing poorly trained, inexperienced cops with rapid-fire weapons.... Sounds like just the guy to appeal to America's frightened heartland, even if he does come from the big city.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

the worst lede i've read in a long time

The "color lede" sinks to new lows. Check out this badly overwritten bit of weepy Orientalism from Canada's Walrus magazine:

"The trees are almost all gone, cut for fuel long ago, and Kabul, once described by the Mughal Emperor Babur as a city of gardens and promenades, is, like its occupants, the dull, dun colour of dust. Christopher Alexander watches as men in shalwar kameez jostle through the crowds or drink sweet tea sold from roadside stands as they chatter with friends, adding their voices to the endless din. Street vendors hawk fried pastries, cellphone plans, and Pringles chips, while limbless children and destitute women in sky-blue burkas beg for coins."

Aghgah ahh ack. Whoops. Sorry. The sound of vomiting is hard to spell.

Friday, March 23, 2007

i don't know about you, but i could use a raise

When did the media become so uniformly anti-union, free-trade, and pro-business? Maybe I'm waxing nostalgic, but it seems to me that there was a day when at least a few of the world's magazines didn't read like dumbed down, slapdash versions of The Economist. Anyway, if that day ever existed, it's gone now. The irony is that journalists are among the worst paid white collar workers in the world, and their jobs are under as great a threat as any. Look at me: I'm working for Newsweek and other magazines without a contract, so they don't have to pay any health benefits or a salary, instead paying only for my work product. And despite the wide-eyed statements on various freelancers web sites and in "Writers' Market" type publications, there's no way to extort pay rates that cover extras like insurance and your equipment & utilities (e.g. Internet fees). The guys who have a full-time job are getting paid a little better, but the more people that newspapers and magazines fire, the more freelancers they create, making the guys on staff more and more superfluous. Does that give editors any sympathy for organized labor? Hell, no. Unions are still demonized for demanding $50 an hour to pull levers and refusing to work during breaktime. And even for a country like India, where perhaps 1 in 10 workers is even employed in the "organized sector" (which as I understand it does not necessarily mean a union shop, simply, more or less, an outfit that operates on the books), where the minimum wage is shockingly low and rarely enforced, and where working conditions range from lax to frighteningly inhumane and dangerous, unions are still trotted out as one of the biggest forces holding back so-called "development." It wasn't the good will of the Carnegies and Rockefellers that brought America's workers along for the ride during the great rise of the 20th Century. On the same lines, I find it hard to believe that the "voluntary efforts" to erase caste discrimination and provide decent wages and working conditions often touted by India's leading capitalists will be enough to do the job here.

Folks, you can have it one way or the other. Either India has a huge, unskilled, unorganized labor force. Or it has a small, skilled, unionized labor force. But Goldman Sachs and company--i.e. those of the "India's demographics will make it the world's second largest economy by 2050 blah de blah" school--can't have it both ways. Can they?

i'm not THAT stupid

At an SEZ protest yesterday a fat, light-skinned bloke in white kurta pajamas, about 5 foot 8 inches tall and wearing two gold rings, tried to pass himself off in an interview as a landless laborer. "We make 100 rupees per day, plus we're allowed to take vegetables from the fields and we get a portion of the grain at harvest time," he told me, throwing in a few English phrases of his owne, via an interpreter. I'm pretty sure that the substance of what he told me was true, but how the heck did he think he was going to fool me into believing he was a landless agricultural laborer? I think I'd have been skeptical even on my first day in India! And having seen a few landless folks--usually, because of poor nutrition, less than 5 foot tall and so slight that they seem part of some lost tribe of pygmies--there was just no way. I almost busted out laughing. I'd have sooner believe that the guy had just swallowed a landless laborer.

remember dinesh d'souza? he's back

Back in the nineties, when I was in college, Dinesh D'Souza became something of a literary star--at least among policy wonks--with his book Illiberal Education, one of the big cultural documents in the era of obsession with political correctness. I fortunately managed to avoid reading it, but all the crap I read about it may have been worse. Now it looks like history may be set to repeat itself, if The New Republic's Andrew Sullivan is right. Shudder.

Here's an excerpt from Sullivan's review:

What is that path? At its core is a deepening rejection of cultural and philosophical modernity. D'Souza believes that the defining new distinction in American politics is no longer between the economic right and the economic left. The size of government and its role as a guardian of the public welfare are increasingly dead issues, or issues where no vital energy crackles. D'Souza rightly holds that the real divide in the new century is between authority and autonomy, between faith-based politics and individual freedom. And in this struggle at the level of first principles, D'Souza chooses his own side. He is at war with the modern West. If forced to choose between a theocratic order that upheld traditional morality and a secular order that saw such morality marginalized, D'Souza is with the former. He puts it more graphically himself: "Yes, I would rather go to a baseball game or have a drink with Michael Moore than with the grand mufti of Egypt. But when it comes to core beliefs, I'd have to confess that I'm closer to the dignified fellow in the long robe and prayer beads than to the slovenly fellow with the baseball cap."
....
The Enemy at Home is essentially an unpacking of that extraordinary confession. D'Souza argues that there are only two choices for a human being to make in the twenty-first century with respect to "core beliefs": "traditional morality" and what he calls "liberal morality." Traditional morality, in D'Souza's view, "is based on the notion that there is a moral order in the universe, which establishes an enduring standard of right and wrong. All the major religions of the world agree on the existence of this moral order. There is also a surprising degree of unanimity about the content of this moral order." Liberal morality, by contrast, consists first of all in the right of the individual to choose for him- or herself what morality is. It is about "autonomy, individuality, and self-fulfillment as moral ideals." Its essence is the notion that "each person must decide for himself or herself what is right in a particular situation." D'Souza argues that the shift in America over the past few decades from traditional morality to liberal morality is "the most important fact of the past half-century."

don king drapes the pope with title belts

In a rare audience, Don King presented Pope Benedict XVI specially made championship boxing belts from the WBC, WBA, IBF, Italian Boxing Federation and French Boxing Federation this week, occasioning the following comment from maxboxing.com's Bernard Fernandez:

"Will the WBA pronounce [Benedict] a “super” pope, and mandate a box-off of the two highest-ranked cardinals for designation as the “regular” pope? Will he have to sign a promotional contract (no expiration date, of course) with King to remain in the eternal good graces of WBC president Jose Sulaiman, who has a similar lifetime gig? And is the IBF even now plotting to strip him of his papacy for refusal to throw down with some Middle Eastern ayatollah ranked No. 1 by that dubious organization’s ratings committee?"

We'll have to wait and see. But if the Vatican does hold a box-off, I for one am hoping that the competitors keep on their robes and pointy hats.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

blast from the past - the homestead strike

I ran across an interesting Wikipedia entry today as I was thinking about parallels in American history with India's current developmental phase. Check out this article on the 1892 Homestead Strike for some interesting parallels with what's going on in India today.

Friday, March 16, 2007

metro chief rues lack of 'passenger etiquette'

Welcome to delhibelly, E. Sreedharan.

"I would like to appeal to the citizens of Delhi to allow passengers to first alight from trains before boarding," says the Metro chief in a public appeal quoted in the Express. "I assure you that the trains will not leave before all those on the platforms are aboard or the trains become full."

The appeal comes within days of the Metro experimenting with a brilliant new crowd management scheme that apparently works wonderfully in Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo. They painted yellow lines on the floor that indicate where boarding passengers should queue up, and more yellow lines where space should be left for passengers to get off the train. Says the Express: "The plan, however, was not very successful."

Up next: An appeal from cinema halls, elevator operators, traffic policemen, subzi wallahs, cashiers, bouncers, and parking lot attendants.

shoot to kill

As India investigates the police firing in Nandigram, New York has indicted three police officers for firing 50 rounds into a carful of unarmed men. Naturally, the police spokesman tells the press that the indictment sends a dangerous message to policeman, saying, “The message that’s being sent now is that even though you’re acting in good faith, in pursuit of your lawful duties, there is no room, no margin for error.”

But consider the facts of the case. After a black officer fired the first shot, a white officer emptied his magazine into the car, reloaded, and emptied another magazine, firing a total of 31 bullets at the unarmed "suspects"--all of whom were black. Fortunately, only one of them was killed. Three shots is a margin of error. But 31 from one guy, and 50 in all? I don't think so.

This goes to an important aspect of policing that is all too often ignored. The job of the police is to maintain law and order, yes, but too often the struggle to do so becomes an ego trip. You don't get out of the car when I say, you must be made to submit--whether that means being frightened, humiliated, beaten down, or, in this case shot. A whole lot of stupid policies are enacted in support of this attitude. For instance, the police are issued semi-automatic weapons (allowing them to fire 50 shots in the course of a minute or two) because they supposedly should not be outgunned by criminals. But why is that the case, when a firefight in an open street endangers far more people than would letting the criminals escape? Even more egregious are the high-speed chases (a favorite on those awful real-life video shows) in which the cops put ten or fifteen careening vehicles on the road supposedly to stop one reckless driver--making him drive much more recklessly, and for a much longer time. Meanwhile, they have the guy's description and license number, through which they can get his address. Why not just let him drive off and pick him up at six in the morning when he's sleeping off his hangover? Because that would be a blow to the ego.

Sometimes, you have to think with your brain and not your balls, folks. Let 'em go, if it's smarter and safer. Pick 'em up later. England has the right idea, with its unarmed police. That way, if the coppers are scared of black folks, their mistakes are less costly and they have to get really close to bludgeon somebody to death.