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


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;

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; or Nalli (100 Usman Road, T. Nagar;

—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.