CategoryIndia

Dhanyawaad

In India, people—especially when they are your elders, relatives, or close friends—tend to feel that by thanking them, you’re violating your intimacy with them and creating formality and distance that shouldn’t exist. They may think that you’re closing off the possibility of relying on each other in the future.

[Source: The Atlantic]

A few outrage cycles ago, this story on Atlantic made the rounds on Twitter. Obviously, Indians were pissed off at the implication that we’re not thankful or express our gratitude to people. However, I think people misinterpreted the article and I can see the point that the author was trying to make.

In India, most informal transactions that do not involve money rely on the implicit and often unsaid understanding that if I do a favor for you, I can count on you in the future to return the favor. Also, you do favors only for people that you consider your friends so introducing any formality often clouds that interaction. This is true especially within a family.

As much as it is obvious to say that you are thankful and yet you will be there for them in the future, saying ‘Thank You’ and especially in English, suddenly makes it sound like a deal that’s concluded. The person whom you say thanks, interprets it as if you’re no longer in their debt. Additionally, people often consider it their duty to help others out and if you thank them in explicit terms, it diminishes their help at least in their eyes. You’ve suddenly robbed them of the joy it gives them when they help others even though like giving for charity, it is for a ‘selfish’ reason.

That said, not thanking anyone for the help they provide is very different from not actually appreciating their help. At times, even saying thanks may help. But cultural differences help you understand why continuously thanking others, like it sometimes happens in the U.S., may not go over so well in the desh.

Common Machiavellian Sense

If the India government really wants everyone to experience something be it a movie or a book, however crappy it may be, it bans it. No wonder India is primarily a nation of bans. I’ve stayed away from outrage blogging but this is more of an exasperated ‘C’mon! You can’t be this stupid‘ blogging. Lately, governments in India have banned sale and consumption of beef (in Maharashtra), the movie Fifty Shades of Grey, and the documentary on the Dec.16 rape incident ‘India’s Daughter’ – all in one week. After YouTube pulled it down, torrents must’ve been firing all night long because nothing stops Indians from doing something that they’ve been asked not to do. Heck, I’m sure some Hindus may even be tempted to try beef. In fact, if beef could be streamed online, I’m sure some people would be tempted.

From a pure Francis Underwoodian perspective, regardless of what they truly believe is the right thing to do, why would the Indian government bring attention to something they want people to forget? People in India seemingly had moved on from the horrific rape incident more than a year ago and the documentary would’ve scarcely made a dent in the public consciousness. Surely, the rapists’ reprehensible comments would’ve sparked outrage on Twitter for a week and after that, every social media guru would’ve moved on to the next outrage; perhaps Deepika Padukone’s shoes or something.

From my experience during the blogging days, I would like to remind the Indian government that no one really gives a shit. Everyone is simply trying to survive the next day. Forget about offended sensibilities and focus on actual physical harm; that’s really the job of any government. As for Twitter, don’t pay attention to the noise. Nearly everyone mostly seeks attention and people care more about RTs and Favorites the minute after they tweet out a brilliant opinion.

If you’re going to be Machiavellian, at least do a good job at being that. Focus on the ends and not on the means. Next time, you don’t want a documentarian running amok showcasing what most Indians believe anyway, deny them access to a convicted rapist. I’m sure other totalitarian regimes even the ones with a billion people know that basic fact. Jeez!

It’s for the women, silly

Sometime last year, Bic had a brilliant idea of offering ballpens specially designed for women. The Internet got hold of that flimsy attempt and the reviews and customer questions and answers turned into Internet gold. Somehow Bic’s marketing team was so tone deaf that they never envisioned why this was so wrong.

Today morning, I saw this tweet on my timeline:

Equally clueless, right? So I retweeted it thusly:

Continue reading

Perception v. Reality

Economic Growth PMs

Interesting how perception can distort reality. The previous Congress government went down to its biggest defeat largely due to stagnant or falling economic growth. It turns out that Manmohan Singh led India to the second-highest rate of economic growth (averaged over 10 years). Deve Gowda, known for his love of sleep, was at the top with 7.9%. MMS rate of growth is better because it’s averaged over ten years whereas Deve Gowda’s is just for that year. But it may be due to the lagged effect post-Narsimha Rao government. The chart also underscores the tremendous harm the previous Congress governments did prior to Rao’s tenure. Remember those tenures include the seven larger-than-Modi mandates.

Of course, MMS was blamed not just for falling economic growth but rather a plethora of governing problems including national security and financial malfeasance. In spite of this chart, no one is losing sleep over his loss.

Modi-fied India

May 16th, 2014 was the day when India gave a clear mandate to Modi’s BJP. I say, Modi’s BJP and not just BJP because it’s abundantly clear that this is his achievement, whether you agree with him or not. BJP is the first non-Congress party to gain an absolute majority[1] in the Indian parliament (282 seats). The enormity of this result can only be felt after two and half decades of coalition governments.

My experience of witnessing Indian politics, as far as I remember, has always been that of coalition governments. Witnessing the frequent fall of governments especially of the Vajpayee government in 1998 by a single vote after Jayalalitha’s AIADMK pulled support, was a particular low point. In that respect, I’m glad some party has won a clear mandate and doesn’t have to indulge in horse trading with minor regional parties just to govern. Better still, it’s not Congress. It also puts the onus and responsibility on the BJP to govern and own responsibility followed by credit or blame depending on the outcome. Coalitions sometimes act like an effective checks and balances within the government although progress on legislation is slower. But this time around, BJP doesn’t even need to rely on its pre-poll partners like Shiv Sena and TDP which received the second-highest and third-highest seats within the NDA. Basically, it has the mandate to do whatever it believes in; Rajya Sabha dissent notwithstanding.

However, more than the joy about BJP winning an absolute majority, I think almost everyone is overjoyed that the Congress has been dealt such a humiliating blow. It won only 44 seats, the lowest it has ever since India won independence. Personally, more than Modi or the BJP winning, I am more glad about Rahul Gandhi and his sycophantic ilk been booted out. Congress has been responsible for untold economic damage for India. Seven times, it won more seats than BJP did this time, including Rajiv Gandhi’s thumping 404-seat majority in 1984 but India’s economic growth was perennially stagnant. Imagine having that mandate seven times and doing almost nothing to grow India’s economy!

So is it all joy and happiness? Unfortunately nope. This was how I felt after hearing the result:

What problem do I have with Modi? Well, of course, there is that whole post-Godra thing but that’s not the only thing. If it was, then I would have a problem with almost every politician/party in India. My fears are generally more about the tolerance for dissent and respect for democratic values. More on that later. But first on the most obvious and talked-about criticism. His lack of respect for India’s largest minority i.e. the Muslims seems to derive from the few extremist and violent representatives/incidents. Most Muslims I know or even the ones you know have been extremely distrustful of any government because of institutional discrimination. So for any politician to openly neglect them, makes them even more fearful.

It’s akin to Republicans in the U.S. exhorting African Americans to work harder when in fact the things that are holding them back are systemic poverty and institutional discrimination that needs to be addressed first. Modi may not have been directly responsible for the post-Godra riots but his stubborn refusal to even address much less apologize for the horrific incidents that occurred on his watch speaks volumes. You may argue that the Gandhis never apologized for the 1984 riots. Well, that’s one of the reason why we and most of all, Sikhs still hate them. Do we really want to excuse Modi’s behavior by comparing him with the Gandhis when in fact, his stature is based on being everything that the Gandhis are not? Moreover, Modi’s control over Gujarat is considered complete. Almost nothing happens without his consent or rather nothing happens if he doesn’t permit it to happen. This has worked great when it comes to ensuring good governance and strict adherence to rules. But on the flip side, to keep the base happy, he may have let them run amok for a few days just so that “Muslims could be taught a lesson”.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. – Edmund Burke.

It’s a very primal power move. Bal Thackeray used it adroitly in Mumbai so that’s why he is either revered or passionately hated in Mumbai (I’m belong to the latter, if you had any doubts). Anyway, I remain suspicious but I will not brand him guilty because the courts haven’t found him as such. It’s just like, I wouldn’t trust a black teenage male to be around George Zimmerman.

For the long term, all I ask is for a honest and open debate on addressing the numerous inequalities in Indian society and making opportunity equal across all strata of society. But of course, for that to happen, the deep-rooted bigotry and distrust for Muslims among most Hindus must be addressed. Otherwise they’ll continue voting in people who send out religion-based dog whistles. Dissent is something that’s not easily tolerated in India and even more so among right-wing groups like the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

In Maharashtra, we’ve had more experience with the Shiv Sena. If you agree with all their views, you’re their best friend and they’ll pull all stops to ensure you get your way. But express dissent or even disagree a little, they’ll make your life hell. That’s why even Shekhar Suman during the height of his ‘Movers and Shakers’ popularity never dared mock Bal Thackeray. Nikhil Wagle got his offices burnt for publishing dissent in his newspaper. So you can imagine the state of the common citizen. After all can we blame people if they value their life and property over political opinion.

Similarly for people who hold views similar to Modi, he’s the perfect solution for India. But a little criticism and you can see him bristle and his online hordes, most of them who ironically live in the U.S. are more than willing to rip you a new one. For me, more than him, it’s his impassioned supporters who see him do no wrong that scare me[2].

But that may be the worst case scenario and Modi may simply choose to act in his self-interest, like most politicians do, and focus on development and rein in his supporters on the religion aspect. For India’s sake, let’s hope he focuses on fixing the various economic problems that plague India and hopefully work with the U.S. on raising India’s profile on the world stage.

Footnotes:
  1. Some say that absolute majority implies 2/3rds majority so this qualifies as a simple majority. I used the general definition of an absolute majority that states “a number of votes totalling over 50 per cent, such as the total number of votes or seats obtained by a party that beats the combined opposition.” So in terms of seats, BJP has an absolute majority but in terms of votes, a simple majority []
  2. The lack of humility and gloating is all over the Internet []

Election Season in India

In a week’s time, election season will finally end in India although that doesn’t always mean we’ll soon have a government. India’s had a history of hung parliaments and more stuff happens behind the scenes post-elections than in the election campaign itself. That may probably shake your belief in the whole ‘world’s largest democracy’ but don’t let it. That’s how it is and probably will be even in many developed countries. That’s a well known bug in Democracy 4.21 and until someone comes up with a patch, it’s not gonna change. You could change to any other system but let’s be honest, there’s nothing out there half as good. Your choices are communism (Cuba, China, etc.), monarchy (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Brunei, etc.), dictatorship (North Korea, etc.), or pure chaos and anarchy (Pakistan, Somalia, etc.). Democracy or at least the way it is practiced in India or even the U.S. is the least worst option.

Anyway, after the mother of all segues there (not surprising, right?), whatever happens in India, it is almost assured via opinion polls that the Congress won’t be forming the government. For a change, I have been largely disengaged this time from the election fever. I remember the time in mid- and late-90s, when I used to stay up late night listening to the news and waiting for election results feverishly tracking my eyes on the rapidly-scrolling news ticker. This time, the people contesting the elections have not impressed. The three primary candidates – Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, and Arvind Kejriwal – have been lackluster, threatening, and disappointing respectively. It may eventually turn out that we may have someone else as a Prime Minister in the end. Remember Deve Gowda, Chandrashekhar, and IK Gujral? Did anyone envision them to be Prime Ministers? But now, after their brief stint, they get all the perks of ex-PMs in their retirement. Man, what a con!

Just because I’ve been disinterested doesn’t mean everyone else is. In fact, everyone else is super gung-ho this time or maybe Twitter and Facebook has given them the illusion that people actually give a shit about what they think. Criticize Modi and hordes of his followers will drag your mother-sister through the muck. Support Gandhi and people laugh at you for being a brown-nose (let’s admit it, everyone criticizes Gandhi. He’s so easy to.) Support Kejriwal and…wait, why is anyone still buying his BS?

Anyway, whatever happens in a week, it will be definitely exciting. I just hope Modi doesn’t celebrate by doing what he does best (you know what I mean). Ab ki baar…Gujarat may get a bar?

Brown Traitors

The Devyani Khobragade incident is almost forgotten now and people have moved on to outraging about other things. But I’ve always wondered what about the incident prompted such visceral reactions from folks in India. The tweet above by actress and now-avid Twitterer/activist, Gul Panag [1] unwittingly encapsulates why the issue made Indians reflexively hate the United States.

At the heart of the issue, it was a very simple law and order problem. Khobragade lied on her visa application, underpaid her maid, and implored the maid to lie about it, all of which are serious crimes in the United States. However, the ensuing hullaballoo failed to highlight these issues and instead chose to dwell on conspiracy theories and debates on diplomatic immunity. If diplomatic immunity was in fact valid, India should’ve clamped down on the noise and keep repeating diplomatic immunity ad naseum and whisk Khobrgade out of the country. Other countries go to extreme lengths to protect their citizens charged with crimes in foreign lands but never is the crime excused. Debates on Twitter and the media pontificated on the differences in wages in the two country for both the maid and the consulate staff.

However, the most ridiculous theory thrown out even by prominent journalists and TV anchors in India was how Preet Bharara, the prosecuting U.S. Attorney was conducting a witch-hunt to prove his “American-ness” by punishing “fellow Indians”. Even otherwise educated and aware Indians subscribed to this view and brushed it off as not trusting politicians. The thinly veiled racism was evident but was shrouded in subtleties unlike Gul Panag’s tweet above. Why would a U.S. citizen albeit a brown person be deliberately prosecuting other brown people to prove his “Indianness”? Are all brown people always Indian regardless of what their passport says? Isn’t that similar to likening the norm of being American as being an Anglo Saxon White Protestant (WASP)?

In the history of the United States, the norm has never been more different. It is the ultimate melting pot and although the corridors of power are still dominated by white men, increasingly people of other races and backgrounds have been making their way in there. People like Preet Bharara who otherwise would be lauded on India Shining slideshows on Rediff and Times of India have worked their asses off often in face of still-prevalent institutional discrimination to get to their position.

There were other socioeconomic issues [2] at play too but this painting of Bharara as a “brown traitor” troubled me the most. I fail to understand the underlying sentiment (resentment?) that leads to such reactions. At what point is a brown person no longer an Indian? Does it take 3-4 generations? Any person is free to hold on to his or her ethnic or cultural background as long as they want but is it the right of others to claim such people as their own?

When other brown people who have lived outside India dare to point out inefficiencies in India, it is mostly because they’ve had the opportunity to see better. They’ve had the opportunity to witness a well-functioning government which for the most part takes care of its citizens and provides the basic amenities without much hassle. In today’s globalized age, most urban Indians also seem to be aware of these shortcomings so why the reflexive anger when an NRI points them out? Improvements start with criticisms and that’s how political change comes through e.g. Aam Aadmi Party’s electoral success. So next time, when your cousin from the U.S. come visiting and dares to utter a barely negative remark about India, don’t label him a traitor and ask him to go back to “his” country.

Footnotes:
  1. This post is not intended to target Gul Panag specifically but in fact, just to point out how otherwise sensible people harbor deep rooted resentment []
  2. underage and underpaid labor class in India and at times, among Indians outside of India []

Freedom to create discomfort

ARTICLE 19 (A) of the Constitution enshrines our right to free speech. But Article 19.2 restricts it on the grounds of public order, morality and decency, security of the State, sedition, friendly relations with foreign countries, defamation, contempt of court and incitement to an offence. Unfortunately, these clauses are very loosely worded and have become a baggy hideout for weak governments. If we are to preserve our precious right to freedom of speech, then, we must debate 19.2 and narrow its meaning more precisely. Or insist governments emerge from its shadows.

Source: Tehelka.

The above-quoted paragraph highlights what is the key issue in rampant and often random restrictions on free speech in India. I have written on this in the past. The other reason is the reluctance to charge the ones acting on the speech with violence. It needs to be inculcated that no matter how gravely you’re offended, if you resort to violence or issue a actionable threat to do so, you will be dealt with first. There should be no tolerance for violence regardless of the incitement. Start enforcing this law strictly and uniformly and you’ll see how quickly people will stop being offended. Most offenses taken are purely for publicity sake which in turn they use for political gain. Clamp down on this behavior and we may have a semblance of reasonable discussion in the country. One of my ex-professors suggested this:

And I agree.

Loss of Urban Life

On Twitter today, I spotted this image that epitomizes the problems women face in Delhi.

At first glance, most will agree with the sentiments expressed by the person sharing the image. But then you think beyond the rage that certain current events in Delhi have wrought upon the nation and you begin to understand the gradual yet unmistakable tearing of the urban fabric. Looking past the misguided message that the sign implies (why should the leecher go home and stare at his sister?), it indicates problems that may soon be the undoing of a great city like Delhi. No longer do people perceive it safe for anyone let alone women to be out in the streets. I have always thought the situation to be a bit overblown but as Gone Native suggests, it might not be so:

The situation in Delhi now assumes all men are lecherous. If you even happen to look at a woman for a second longer, you might be a potential rapist. There is no way any settlement will remain amicable if you view your fellow denizens suspiciously. If safety is the first thought that pops in your head after a simple and innocent act of simply looking at a person then any further contact is automatically voided. We live in dense cities because we value human companionship and being social animals, we thrive by being around people, even the ones we know nothing about. It is this unspoken camaraderie that defines any city’s social fabric and attracts people from other places. At times, these relationships are economic, and at times, they are cultural but nevertheless social interaction is what keeps people living next to each other in close quarters. Otherwise, this earth is large enough to have more than a dozen acres for each one of Earth’s seven billion people.

But when half of the population i.e. the women are compelled to view the other half i.e. men suspiciously all the time, like it seems to be in Delhi right now, there is an unmistakable tear in the invisible ties that bind us. If safety is our only motive then security check-points at every public square or cops swarming any public park would be considered optimal but would we want to hang out in such a public square or amble along in such a pubic park? Soon the city will wither away and die a slow and sad death.

I have no definite solution for this problem and for the sake of Delhi, I hope they find one soon. Perhaps the answer lies in strict and reliable law enforcement that will win back the confidence of the people. Ensuring safety and well-being without having to look over your shoulder is the primary responsibility of the state. It is why we pay taxes and obey laws. But when the state fails at this basic duty, society begins to unravel. Delhi has always been a resilient city and has withstood worse problems but mostly, those threats have been external. These problems fester within and the responsibility of regaining Delhi’s spirit lies with its people as much as it does with the state governing it. I hope they succeed.

Same Yet Different

We spent a relaxing three weeks in India. I say relaxing because this is the first time I have not had a major life event during my India trip. Those who have followed my blog over the years will know what those were. We mostly spent all our time in Panvel, my hometown with a short visit to Orissa to visit Ash’s grandparents. I recounted my horrible first impressions after a five-year gap but as soon as we exited the airport, it was all good.

If I had to describe my experience it would be thus, more things have changed but just as many things have remained the same. It may sound cliched but after you’ve visited India several times over the last decade, you get over the rapid change that is at display in form of more malls and increased cell phone usage. These, in fact, are the cliched metrics now. The most significant and noticeable change is the boom in real estate in and around Bombay. New Bombay, or Navi Mumbai is virtually unrecognizable. When I used to go to junior college in Vashi from Panvel, the only structures between Kalamboli and Kharghar was the Khanda village. Now the village is lost in a sea of apartment buildings that almost encroach on the precious mangroves along the creek inlets. Thirty-story apartment complexes in the middle of nowhere off the Mumbai-Pune Expressway (no access) are built purely for investment purposes.

Of course, malls are still ubiquitous but their presence has been tempered by an overabundant supply. The Center One mall in Vashi, once the premier mall, is now near-deserted due to the new InOrbit Mall next door. Inflation is astronomical but wage increases have increased at a greater rate keeping most people content with the occasional grumbling about uncertainty. It is not unusual to ask and get a 30% annual raise on a seven-figure salary. People change jobs frequently and don’t bargain as much while shopping. Newer opportunities are explored and non-traditional careers are pursued. People seem genuinely happy and are kept busy in their daily lives. Of course, this is all anecdotal evidence so don’t quote me to The Economist.

Yet under the optimism and hope, lies a sea of disconent and helplessness at things that have never changed in India. Rampant corruption, nepotism, lack of moral fibre, reckless pursuit of material goods at the expense of basic humanity. Even medical profession are no longer sacrosanct and viewed with suspicion (more on that later). You get astronomical salaries but lack of professionalism still ails Indian businesses; even the ones you hear about as prime examples of India Shining. People in India are just as uncertain about their personal and professional life as we living outside India are except but about different things. Basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and water are still reminiscent of the socialism era. It might be easy to point fingers and criticize India for not yet providing basic needs found in comparative advanced developing countries.

As I tweeted, it is simply not possible to write about India while not living in India. Why? And this might not be necessarily a compliment as some had construed. It helps to understand the high level of tolerance of Indians for things as they are. We may exhibit ‘competitive intolerance’ when it comes to social and religious issues but in terms of day-to-day life, we do put up with a lot and at times, are fine with it. This might be considered as resilience but I have to only point toward the example of ‘Spirit of Mumbai’ to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. Coping and adjusting is fine but unless you demand change, you will not get it. You first have to expect more to get more. Gurcharan Das’ ‘Elephant Paradigm’ is apt as that’s how slow things change in India. Perhaps it is a good thing because just as good change is kept at bay, so is bad. But after a while, something’s gotta give.

I had promised myself that I will go to India with a blank slate of expectations this time and although some doubted the ability to do so, I think I was successful. Yes, roads were bad but not that bad. It was crowded and humid but then India always has been. Food was still great. We experienced no illness thanks to a steadfast tendency to stick to mineral water wherever we went. Ruan gave us the cover to demand it if we were not at home. In our zeal to show Ruan different sights and experiences in India, we got the opportunity to look at them anew and found it also to be equally fascinating. Barring couple of exceptions, people were warm and hospitable. We didn’t put on the airs of being NRI and people didn’t treat us as any different. Conversations were easier and there was no ‘one-upmanship’ among either.

Overall, it was a peaceful, relaxing, and content vacation. My parents, brother, and sister-in-law got to spend ample time with Ruan and he warmed up to them to the extent that he seemed genuinely distraught while leaving. Of course, he will remember little of this vacation but we hope to return more often; accompanied again with our blank slate of expectations. Three weeks seem short in retrospect but everyone needs to get on with their lives and vacations always end sooner than we want them to.

Off to India

We leave for India this weekend. It has been five long and eventful years since we’ve been there. Last time we visited we got married. Since then, I graduated with my PhD, got a job, got a dog, bought a house, shut down a major website I ran, and had a kid. So yes, things have changed. Strangely, we are experiencing just as much trepidation as excitement.

This feeling is not just because of certain uncertainties in our life due to visa and immigration issues but also due to changed feelings of attachments. No longer can I fess up to feeling that I’m returning home when in fact, I have spent nearly a third of my life outside India. The U.S. is just as much if not more than home for us. We first experienced independence, built our life here, and started our family in this country. By buying a house, we are as much invested in America’s economic future as much as it should be in ours (it isn’t always). It has progressively become harder to envision uprooting ourselves and moving lock, stock, and barrel to another country. But at the same time, we haven’t put down solid enough roots to call this our permanent home although in this age of globalizations, economically- and professional-driven ‘refugees’ like us hardly ever do. By experiencing different cultures and work environments by crossing geographical borders, we have become attuned to a certain quality of life and a certain level of professionalism. Add to that, the age factor, change is far more difficult.

All these factors whirl in our heads as we embark on the long journey back to our homeland (or is it motherland?) Friends that we once saw several times a day and spent hours with are now mere acquaintances ending up as mere likes and comments on our Facebook timelines. The virtual contact is maintained with those who choose to be online. I have couple of friends who aren’t even on Facebook. I have missed the birth of their kids and various momentous occasions in their lives just as they have missed the ones in mine. A perfunctory phone call on the occasion was all that we shared. Unless one is courting the other person, no one cares to stay up late into the night chatting or as Google would want us to call it, ‘hanging-out’. They don’t relate to our lives in the U.S. just as we no longer relate to their changed lives in India. We were friends as teenagers but are strangers as adults. We might get together and drink to the days past but I doubt we will talk about our present or our future because they wouldn’t understand our uncertainties or professional challenges just as I wouldn’t theirs. I would like to think they have it easy by having their family around for all the joyous occasions and tumultuous times but I think they may envy our independence and solitude from the family for other reasons.

We have been told to use mineral water or boiled water for any of the kids needs lest he fall ill. We’ve been told by people who have visited India with kids that this is not a joke. We’re blown away by the (literal) vulnerability of being in India. We are way past being impressed by ubiquitous malls and cell phones. Heck, this time we even shopped for clothes and other essentials before going to India instead of shopping there because clothes, as we realized last time around, were just as, if not more, expensive in India. Thanks to rising inflation matched by growing wages, no one in India seems to notice but we do. I asked my brother if I can get only my debit card instead of cash since Bank Simple doesn’t levy international transaction charges, he snarkily replied that Indians use credit cards and have phones, TV, and malls too. That may be true but can I use my credit/debit card as ubiquitously as I do it here? India is way past that for us to understand now especially at a distance. We are aware although just barely of the political tussles and pop culture thanks to Twitter but not to the extent we are tuned in to the world in the U.S. We are afraid that we will simply not relate to the people or things in India. On one hand, I have to fight against picking faults by the way things are done in India (because I’ve seen it done better elsewhere) and on the other, I have to avoid gawking in wonderment at changes lest I come across as a wide-eyed tourist as seen in an inde-Hollywood movie. India still is the land where I spent two-thirds of my life, right?

Personally, I think I’m just going to return with a blank slate of expectations and the sole purpose of spending time with my family. More importantly, being a silent spectator to the wonder of seeing my parents and brother with my one-year-old son. I’m sure that will not disappoint.

Bon voyage to us and we’ll see you on the other side of the world (and hopefully back here in three weeks).

Cash-on-Delivery and India

I have been away from India for more than 12 years now and have totally missed experiencing the rapid economic growth that has been dominating Western media. Although I have seen bits and pieces of the evidence for this growth like rising incomes matched with rising prices, proliferation of malls and cell phones, etc., I have never been a part of this growth. However, one thing that has always baffled me is the behavior of online retail. While Amazon has had great success in the U.S., only recently have we seen the rise of Flipkart in India. Portals like Rediff and IndiaTimes often doubled up as shopping sites and I shopped on there a few times to have stuff sent to Indian addresses, the experience was so horrible that I haven’t tried it in the past 6-7 years. So why hasn’t online commerce taken off as rapidly as it did in the West?

One of the most widely believed facts about the Indian e-commerce story is that Flipkart.com’s 2010 decision to start offering “Cash on Delivery” (COD)—a payment option that allows buyers to pay for goods at the time of receipt—catalysed the entire sector and set the stage for fantastic growth rates thereafter.

Source: Forbes India Magazine .

This article in Forbes gave me a little idea and elaborated on something that I have never seen in the West – cash-on-delivery. This is basically how it worked even earlier before the Internet. You call your local Chinese eatery with your order and thirty minutes later, a Nepali guy showed up at your door with the food and collected money from you. If you ordered enough times, you didn’t even have to pay him everytime but instead maintained a tab that you settled at the end of the month. So why in the hell of secure payment gateways and ubiquitous Internet access would you hang on to such an outdated concept? I had my preconceived notions but I asked my followers on Twitter and received the following responses:

http://storify.com/patrix/cod-and-india

My top two preconceived notions were lack of sufficient credit/debit cards among consumers and prolificacy of black money in form of cash. However, based on my brief interaction, the problem seems to be more systemic than individualistic – lack of trust in institutions rather than lack of infrastructure or any devious intent. People are still not comfortable sharing their credit card information with online retailers; in fact, people are still not yet reliant on using credit cards unlike the West where you are less likely to have more than $20 in cash on you at any given time. But where does this lack of trust arise from? Fear of technology? Or fear of not getting the things you ordered from a place that you can’t physically inhabit. Vikas (in the last tweet highlighted), perhaps mentions, in my opinion, one of the top reasons that drives this lack of trust. You are less or not likely to be taken care of if there is something amiss with your order. You may not have access to a dispute redressal mechanism that is effective and timely and as Nik says, you rather click on COD and wait till you get the item in hand instead of worrying incessantly about it.

Now undoubtedly, retailers like Flipkart are much better at customer service and I have heard nothing but great things about it. Add to that, the gradual entry of Amazon, known for its stellar customer service, in the Indian market will significantly increase the level of trust. However, at the same time, instilling trust in legal and judicial institutions and strengthening incentives to live up to your contractual obligations or rather in India’s case, cracking down hard on contract violations, are key to opening up the market. COD, with all its advantages, is a colossal waste of time and human resources when instead technology backed by trust would be far more efficient. Not every startup can afford to offer the COD option due to significant investment in resources that are not directly related to the product [1].

Abhishek Kumar from IndiCast writing for the Economist:

To secure repeat business, most portals offer incredibly low prices, payment by cash on delivery and, nearly always, free shipping. Consumers love it but companies are scratching around for ways to shed the operational burden. Ironically, the very things that have propelled e-commerce in India could lead to its downfall. When Mahesh Murthy, the boss of Pinstorm, a digital marketing firm, and investor in a few e-commerce companies, purchased a mobile phone online recently, he discovered two invoices in the parcel: one for 28,000 rupees ($530), which is what he paid, and another for 30,500 rupees, which is what the seller apparently paid to his supplier. Such price competition takes its toll.

People might say change is slow and gradual in India but I have seen the rapid deployment of STD/PCO booths and we all know how cellphones became ubiquitous in a short period of time. This was simply due to liberalization in the telecom sector. People talk about eliminating corruption while offering bribes to get ahead in line when instead you can achieve far more dramatic results if you beef up enforcement of contractual obligations (The question of ‘how’ I will leave to the experts). Developing trust among the consumers and the businesses while allowing for a transparent grievance addressal system will go a long way in expanding online businesses on the Internet. If India needs to call itself an IT superpower, it needs to first invest in institutions and policies that will foster such consumer-business relationship. As long as consumers are even relatively convinced that they will not be cheated, they will learn to trust businesses.

I may have oversimplified the issue without offering any concrete solutions but if any of you are aware of any progress being done on this front, please let me know.

Footnotes:
  1. Personally I know of at least one example when the founders had to shut shop only to see their idea picked up few years later by a startup in the U.S. []

Twitter Handles Blocked in India

There is much anguish in progress right now on Indian Twitter over a government order that lists several YouTube, Facebook, and blog URLs to be blocked. Also included are several Twitter handles. Presumably this blocking has been done to prevent ‘hate speech’ on the Internet from inciting violence that has affected Assam and Mumbai. Without getting into the whole muddle of ‘speech isn’t hateful, actions are’ argument, this government order begs the question whether it is legal or not.

The Constitution of India states freedom of speech as one of the rights granted to its citizens (the government cannot ‘grant’ but merely ‘affirm’ but whatever). But..but, there are certain caveats to this whole freedom of speech thing in India. What are those caveats?

“These rights are limited so as not to effect – the integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

Ever see a more succinct yet all-encompassing list? So on constitutional grounds, you really don’t have any freedom of speech rights since your rights can easily be infringed upon using any of these restrictions. ‘Decency or morality’ and ‘defamation or incitement to an offence’ are my favorites. If I was a government babu, I bet I can classify anything you say as under those exceptions.

So however angry we are, let us not be mistaken that our Constitution is in anyway protecting us. On legal grounds, we have violated this ‘right’ many times. All it boils down to is begging the government to not block our URLs or Twitter handles. The government can start by, say pretty please. I have been to this dance before where then-bloggers took up arms against a flimsy third-grade management institute. Ultimately in the long run, the management institute prevailed. This is the government of India. There is no winning here; especially if it has the Constitution on its side.

End of the Brown Era

Sepia Mutiny is shutting down. Whether you liked them or not, the blog was a prolific and informed source of opinions on everything brown-related on this side of the pond. Admittedly, I too rarely read it nowadays but back in its heydays, it was the place to be. The comments section was a great place, even for a lurker, for thought-provoking discussions and dare I say, sometimes better than the original post itself. Many people wrongly compared DesiPundit as a FOB-version to Sepia Mutiny’s ABCD roots. DesiPundit linked to content but Sepia Mutiny created content which in my opinion is at least slightly higher in the hierarchy of blogs.

But as Abhi points on in the post announcing the shutdown, the discussions have moved elsewhere; mostly to Facebook and Twitter. While this may be more convenient and quick, it has restricted access for everyone who wished to follow such discussions. When it happened in the comments section of a blog, anyone whether they read the blog regularly or not, could browse to and start reading. But with Facebook and Twitter, you either have to be as on Facebook, ‘friends’ with the person on whose ‘wall’ the discussions are taking place or as on Twitter, be ‘following’ all the discussants. This is not ideal but complaining about it is not going to change things and it’s what we got now.

One of the primary complaints about Sepia Mutiny that I had to sometimes defend them against was, they use the term ‘South Asian’ to encompass people from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc. when in fact there is no such thing as South Asia, SAARC notwithstanding. Largely true but as Amardeep, one of the more erudite and interesting bloggers on Sepia Mutiny, in this post says explicitly:

South Asian vs. Indian. Sepia Mutiny was always somewhat divided over its function and focus. On the one hand, the directive from Abhi and the other founders was quite clear: the point was to create a space for a South Asian American perspective. The “South Asian” part was important and essential (and we had many fights, mainly with skeptical readers, about whether it wasn’t after all just an “Indian American” blog). Also important was the “American” part of the equation; Sepia Mutiny was never intended to be an “Indian subcontinent” forum.

I’m afraid most readers from the subcontinent or even FOBs never could wrap their heads around this fact. Of course, at times, Sepia Mutiny didn’t help its cause by often over-analyzing current affairs in India but last I checked, many of us are hardly qualified to either but that never stopped us from posting angry blog posts each time there was a terror attack (we’ve had plenty of opportunities to over the years, unfortunately). Just like in Bombay, we don’t care if our friends are Maharashtrian, Tamilian, or Bihari (Ok, Raj Thackeray does but he’s an ass), ABCDs perhaps don’t care if their friends are Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc.

From what I read, Sepia Mutiny was always an American blog that posted from the perspective of brown people in America. Even the opinions of brown people in England might not match with theirs let alone the billion-plus in India. I don’t suppose the objective was to create a South Asian lobbying group to argue for the interests of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, etc. But in fact, they were writing about shared experiences of brown people whose parents came from those countries. ABCDs, as we call them, often have other brown friends from India’s neighboring countries and they are often more similar in culture than their white peers and hence are easily to be friends with. These ABCDs have never grown up with the intense India-Pakistan, cricket and otherwise, rivalries that we know in India. Most of ABCDs haven’t even visited their ‘home’ countries until their late teens or early adulthood. From what I have heard, they are as confused as any other white tourist when they see hordes of people upon landing. We make the mistake of assuming that just because they look like us, they are expected to have similar identities when in fact, they are Americans. Even Czech Catholics in College Station, Texas seek out other Czech Catholics so why wouldn’t ‘South Asians’ seek out other ‘South Asians’? In fact, these identity-sleeking instincts are a function of supply and demand too. When there are too many desis in the region they live, people narrow down and start seeking out people from the same region hence all the statewise associations.

Well, now that they are shutting down, all these tensions seem moot. Heck, the arguments stopped long time ago as commenters and linkers that made Sepia Mutiny and DesiPundit interesting left for more convenient pastures. All we can do is be thankful for the tons of content they created over the years and gave brown people all over something that they love to do most – argue.

Documentation of Jejuri

[Photoset on Flickr] These are the moments when Facebook comes in handy. I got a notification that one of my undergrad juniors had tagged me on a photo album. Generally when this happens my heart sinks as my retro ugly mug is broadcast to everyone on my current friends list (that’s why Tag Review rocks) but this time it was a pleasant surprise. Back in, what seems another lifetime, architecture college I led a team of my classmates in the Louis Kahn Trophy for the National Association of Schools of Architecture (NASA) annual conference. The brief is to document a historical structure in its entireity notably from the perspective of architectural drawings. This was seen as a way of creating architectural records for structures that potentially didn’t have any including laying them out from perspective of their historical, social, and cultural context.

Although Jejuri has tremendous significance among those living in Maharashtra, even the Wikipedia doesn’t have much information online let alone detailed architectural drawings. So you can imagine the enormity of our task when we picked Jejuri…in early 1998. As we expected, there were no drawings on record so we made couple of visits to the temple town, stayed for a week each time, and literally measured every square inch of the temple complex. We were the source of puzzlement and wonder among devotees who often mistook us for a film crew thanks to our large circular measuring tape and hippie-like tattered jeans. We brought those measurements along with thousands of sketches back to our college where, with the help of a large team of classmates, stayed overnight after college hours for more than a month creating these drawings. Of course, we receive no college credit for this work and was done purely for altruistic and architectural cred reasons.

There are many memories associated with this project that made me friends among my college mates that I wasn’t close to before and helped me learn many things about architecture and historic preservation. More importantly, the camaraderie that we enjoyed either during the visits to this rural part of Maharashtra or the long sleepless nights we spent in our studios listening to hard rock and old Hindi songs in equal measure crouched over the drawing boards was the thing I remember the most. Now, I regret being a teetotaler at the time.

Our efforts were rewarded in part that we won a special mention at the national level for our work; the first accolade for our 8-year-old college that led to several national trophies at subsequent NASA competitions.