CategoryOpinion

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 So why in the hell of secure payment gateways and ubiquitous Internet access would you hang on to such an outdated concept?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:

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. []

Thoughts on Samsung v. Apple

On Friday, the jury awarded Apple a resounding victory against Samsung in addition to more than a billion in damages for willful copyright infringement and patent violation. The tech world has been abuzz for months now and nearly everyone has an opinion on the validity of the verdict. Personally, I think the jury made the right decision given the blatant copying by Samsung. While most believe that this may result in even greater control by Apple in the marketplace and further strengthening of the already-draconian patent system, the verdict in favor of Samsung would have been far worse. It would have legitimized widespread copying of patented hardware resulting in billions of dollars in losses not just for Apple but other innovative companies as well.

While some may disagree, Apple has been at the forefront of amazing industrial design and highly effective marketing for their products that enabled them to come back from insolvency to becoming the most valuable company in the world in a matter of 15 years. The almost-strict adherence to user-friendly and aesthetic designs and highly efficient customer service made its consumers highly loyal. For once, good design also meant good usability aka form follows function. It may not be as open as people want it to be but in exchange for a little bit of freedom, Apple succeeded in giving their consumers a higher level of user satisfaction. If people didn’t like that, they still had access to more open choices.

This at-times intense feud between Apple loyalists and others remained on the fringes until the iPhone debuted in 2007. Suddenly Apple was so successful that in 2012, the iPhone revenues surpassed all of Microsoft’s revenues. Apple suddenly had a product that was so successful despite its early naysayers, that not following in its path was almost suicidal for a company (ask RIM). Even in this day and age of industrial espionage, others were caught lagging far behind but soon in a couple of years, powered by a free ‘open’ mobile OS Android by Google, several phone manufacturers released their versions of the iPhone i.e. a touchscreen smartphone that leapfrogged its predecessors. But that’s ok. That’s how innovation works. Someone shows the way and others follow. As long as they are not trying to deceive consumers that they are the original thing. That, in my opinion, was Samsung’s mistake.

We all remember how Steve Jobs had claimed that Apple had “patented the hell out of the iPhone” when it was announced in 2007. So obviously, it did have a claim over several technologies that are now claimed as ‘obvious’. But I’m sure, Apple considered that others would replicate some features into their products in order to compete with the iPhone. That is the cost of doing business. However, Samsung took it a step further, heck several steps further. They became the second-most profitable mobile handset company after Apple (some in the tech circles are actually admiring them for making this choice) by blatantly offering the non-Apple iPhone in as many varieties as it could and in as many aspects as it could. I think it crossed Apple’s tolerance threshold when they started even imitating the USB charging cables, adapters, and even packaging boxes. In short, it bordered on deceiving the consumers into thinking that they were actually buying an Apple product or at least one that could be easily mistaken as such. It wasn’t just a question of copy a rectangle or a pinch-to-zoom feature (Update: the pinch-to-zoom patent wasn’t in play but instead these three patents) but in fact, creating this whole package that shamelessly reeked of unoriginality. Even if the ‘rectangle with rounded corners’ that seemed so obvious now, Apple was the one that took a huge risk by coming out with the first original model. It could’ve failed spectacularly (remember the doomsday predictions when the iPad came out in 2010?) but instead it succeeded thus creating a market. To follow in a market thus created is the easiest thing one can do.

In terms of branding, perception is everything and if people who dislike Apple criticize its users for simply buying into the hype and its products just to appear cool, Samsung was tapping into that basic human sentiment and signaling to its potential customers that if not Apple, you could buy our products and perhaps be mistaken for using Apple products. For all the talk of their phones simply being “rectangles with rounded corners”, it was proven decisively in court that Samsung executives and engineers debated and communicated internally on various facets of Apple’s designs before working on their own. This ‘willful’ infringement was the sole reason Apple won such a decisive victory. As Nokia shows with its equally impressive Lumia series phones powered by Windows 8 [1] that it is possible to make equally impressive phones without being mistaken for an iPhone [2]. In short, Samsung wanted to take the easy way out and bring products immediately to the market without investing in original research. This would be tantamount to incorporating J.K. Rowling’s characters in creating a whole new series at the same time her books are in the market. Such a move in fact deters innovation. Samsung wanted it all without putting in the effort and simply tried to ride the wave of negativism against Apple among techies. For example, the Galaxy Note 10.1 released recently tried hard not to be the iPad, stylus and all, but it was panned so badly that you wonder if Samsung was really invested in design, would they ever released such a bad product?

Now it has been established in the court of law that Samsung is a copycat although the extent of the damages hasn’t yet been determined. We don’t know if Samsung will be required to pull the incriminating products off the shelves or will it be asked to pay a ‘licensing fee’ for each product sold henceforth. And its not like Apple has not been at the other side of the fence either. But the damage has been done. It could’ve invested resources in coming up with a truly original phone with equally impressive technologies but it choose short-term profit over long-term respect. It could have even done it before Apple announced the iPhone but that needs foresight. It deserved what it got. Hopefully this will let the genuinely interested original innovators break free [3].

Footnotes:
  1. Naren Balaji rightly points out “Lumia Series is currently powered by WP7 and WP8 Lumia phones aren’t out yet and current phones won’t get WP8.” A bone-headed move by Microsoft but my larger point of design differentiation stands []
  2. This verdict may be a blessing in disguise for Microsoft as Android manufacturers and consumers might flock to its stores for an Apple alternative []
  3. Reforming the patent system is a dead horse everyone keeps beating without suggesting what actually should be changed. Everyone involved currently plays by the same rules however ridiculous so blaming the system is not the core issue here. That perhaps is a topic for a separate post []

What should I use? Whatever works for you

You should use whatever works for you. And I no longer have the patience or hubris to convince you what that should be. All I can offer is one data point: what I use, and how it works for me.

I've been leaning more and more toward such an attitude. I will offer my advice only when asked first and usually will try not to oversell people on making the same choices that I do usually because it will not work the same way. This linked post may be about evangelizing Apple products but I think it applies to all facets of life including personal opinions.

Why do we believe in a particular thing? Because it works for us and makes us feel comfortable. It may not be the case for anyone else no matter how closely you're related to them. Offer your opinion when asked; when vehemently countered, don't persist because nothing is going to make them change their mind so why waste your breath?

[Link to What should I use? Whatever works for you]

Suicide and Abortion: Role of Choice

This post is intended to extend the discussion that Ash and I have been having off and on. I have always considered suicide as the epitome of personal choice and see nothing wrong in ending your own life. Of course, the repercussions may be harsh on the people you leave behind and those people may hate you for it. However, at the end of the day, the person who kills himself acts out personal selfishness, if you may but it is still his personal choice that he chooses to take.

We may argue ad nauseum on how precious life is and how you should not end it for flimsy reasons. First, reasons that may seem flimsy to us may mean the world to the person taking his own life. Second, life is not all that precious considering there are nearly seven billion humans and several other billion life forms on this planet alone. It is not as rare as we like it to think it. Hundreds of people die each day either by accident or deliberately but we like to reserve the precious tag for the lives that end by suicide. I’m not suicidal but I can say that I understand if a person chooses to take his own life and I will not judge that person harshly. I may disagree with the reasons he may or may not have had to take his own life but I will not take the only choice he had in his life. We do not chose to be born but at least we can chose to die. But this may be a maximalist position and I don’t expect many people to understand.

This post, however, is not about just suicide. It is about comparing it to how we feel about it compared to another hard decision taken by thousand of women i.e. of abortion. Relatively, it is not in the same league although some Christians would like us to believe otherwise. Often the right to abortion is portrayed as pro-choice so why isn’t suicide, probably the supreme and maybe the only choice we have, considered through the same lens? The people who uphold individual rights as a holy sacrament hardly ever mention suicide unless it is cloaked under the tag of euthanasia. Euthanasia is considered acceptable because the person chooses to end his physical suffering so why isn’t mental or psychological suffering accorded the same treatment, no pun intended? Most pro-choice proponents wouldn’t dare suggest that the woman who chose abortion is a murderer and is doing so for the sake of her convenience so why are we so quick to revile people who kill themselves? If abortion is emphasizing complete control of your body (and I agree) then why isn’t suicide that is complete control of your life considered equally understandable. You may chose to hate or revile the person who has killed himself but remember that person couldn’t care less about what you think because he isn’t around to be judged. So is that why we chose to judge that person?

No one ever understands what goes on in another person’s head; sometimes even the people closest to that person have no clue. Every pain is relative and you cannot compare your suffering or lack thereof to another person. Pointing out extreme hardships endured by people elsewhere in the world is nothing short of condescending. If you wish to help the suicidal person, do so with tangible actions and do not simply lecture him. Guilting him into not killing himself will only make him do it quicker. And if everything fails, the least you can do is not judge him because you judging him is not bringing him back. He simply chose to leave the world a little early. People die early all the time. People close to him mourn briefly and then move on. The pain may remain but it would be similar to if the person had died in an accident. I wouldn’t blame anyone else other than the person taking his own life.

PS. I was going to blog about this earlier but Ash posed the question on Twitter and an interesting conversation ensued. I would storify the tweets here but all of the people involved – @cgawker, @sampada, and @supremus have private accounts. Request follow and go read.

PPS. I am not suicidal, I repeat, I am not suicidal. Because after reading this if you assume I am then it would be akin to assuming the woman who is pro-choice is going to abort her first pregnancy.

Bookmarks as Posts on the Blog?

It has been couple of months since I started posting my daily bookmarks on my blog. I did it primarily to keep my blog active and also to archive/share my bookmarks. I switched from Delicious to Pinboard and used the Postalicious plugin to give me better flexibility in presenting the bookmarks. Some blogs display their bookmarks on a sidebar or on a separate page [1]. The reason I added the links as posts was to make them available to feed readers. But is anyone clicking on these bookmarks and finding them useful or is it just cluttering the blog? Please vote below:

[poll id=”6″]

Since the bookmark posts are assigned an unique category, you can also subscribe to this feed that excludes bookmark posts, if you don’t like to see those posts in your feed reader. If not as part of the blog’s content, how would you like to access the bookmarks?

[poll id=”7″]

If you are interested in subscribing to the bookmarks directly at Pinboard, use this feed for all bookmarks. But this feed is the firehose that contains all my bookmarks including those imported from Twitter and Google Shared Items. However, I post only selected bookmarks on the blog. You can also subscribe to that filtered feed directly. Thanks.

Footnotes:
  1. Talk about redundancy, I also have a dedicated bookmarks and links page []

What really is wrong?

Written by Aditya – [aditya(at)theindicast.com]

I follow twitter B50 on twitter who has been pushing the Vote Yatra 2009 campaign even before the mumbai attacks ever happened. Vote Yatra 2009 is a campaign to spread voter awareness and voter rights in the upcoming 2009 general elections. I am all for it. In fact, I had a few queries about registering to vote which the Vote Yatra promptly and effectively helped me out with but now the problem of lack of leadership is abundantly evident. I think everybody would agree that India lacks political leadership in the short term. One would argue that the young leaders could bring about a change. But I dont expect them to be the revolutionaries. The young leaders are part of the political monarchy in India where the political reins of India are handed down through generation by select families. It’s a matter of right and not eligibility that Rahul Gandhi will be the PM some day. This hurts India in two ways. First, leading India is taken for granted because there is no sense of achievement to lead India. Second, due to political monarchy, there is no way for a worthy person having no political background to be a leader. Lets take the case of AB Vajpayee, he had no apparent political background and had to climb all the steps of party leadership ladder and hence by the time he became the prime minister he could barely walk. I don’t mean to belittle the young leaders but they haven’t stepped out of the typical political mould as yet and I dont see it happening in the near future either.

Going back to Vote Yatra, the campaign would be effective only if there were a confusion in choosing between leaders. But currently, there is no confusion! Everybody, including the “uneducated” class, knows that the leaders are just not interested in governing. To make this thought more objective, let me trouble you with a few numbers. In the 1953 and 1957, the parliament met for 137 days (almost 6 months). In the 2008, the government recorded the lowest number of parliament sittings with only 32 sittings in the entire year. The decreasing trend has been noticed since 1999, hence the earlier governments were no good better than the one we have. This falling number clearly indicates the reducing importance of parliament and in administration of the country. Another important fact is that 125 out of the 552 members (almost 20%) have criminal backgrounds. So the question I think we really should focus on is how do we ensure that right people are occupying the right position in the countries administration?

There probably isn’t a right answer but here are my recommendations for the above problem. Currently, it is impossible for any party to get a clear majority hence India will always have an alliance government which is acceptable provided that the alliances are formed before the elections and not just to gain majority. Before the elections take place, the various alliances will have to propose their PM candidate and the proposed PM will be nominate and elect his cabinet before the elections take place. How will this help? People will be able to clearly see who will finally be the PM as a result of their vote and the cabinet portfolio allotment will be done more scientifically than the way it is done currently where ministries and cabinet positions are promised in exchange for number of seats in the alliance government.

I am not attacking the Vote Yatra campaign but what we need now are political reforms in the way we choose our leaders and not which leaders we choose. How do we operationalize my recommendations? I have no idea and would like to crowd source is. Also, you are more than welcome to trash my recommendation but only if you have a solution or think that there should be a different issue to focus on.

Rules of Celebration post-Olympic Victory

Olympic athletes train for a long time before it comes down to mere seconds in their respective races. Usain Bolt has been a phenomenon at the Post-Phelps 2008 Beijing Olympics and thanks to his cool Jamaican attitude, is also a crowd favorite. You may remember couple of Chinese fans sneaking into the group hug with Bolt’s family after his amazing 100m victory. Usain Bolt will be remembered not only for winning the 100m and 200m double after 24 years but more importantly for being the first man to do it in world record times. And what world records at that! He almost sauntered in to the finish line during the 100m celebrating and thumping his chest after the 80m mark while his equally celebrated competitors were still struggling hard. In spite of doing that premature celebration, he still smashed the world record with plenty to spare leading commentators to speculate how much more he could have broken it by had he continued his pace. The crowds loved it except for one man – International Olympic Committee (IOC) Chief, Jacques Rogge.

In Rogge’s words, “I think he should show more respect for his competitors and shake hands, give a tap on the shoulder to the other ones immediately after the finish and not make gestures like the one he made in the 100 metres.” He went to say, “You don’t do that. But he’ll learn. He’s still a young man.” Excuse me, what does a sports bureaucrat know about celebrating post-victory? Being an Olympic athlete himself (sailing 1968 – 1976), he should’ve known better. Has he never watched competitive sports and not seen anyone else do it? A sportsman is anything but humble; the world generally excuses arrogance on the sports field and as Mohammad Ali said, it ain’t braggin if it is true. The morally bankrupt Olympic Committee criticized for accepting bribes to host the Olympics and looking away from China’s continued human rights violations is hardly the authority on good behavior let alone moral superiority [image source].

Wild exuberant chest-thumping celebrations are hardly new to sports. Even if we ignore those crazy and wild end zone celebrations in NFL, there are plenty of examples in Olympics itself. Phelps and his teammates screaming and stretching their arms after that fantastic 4×100 relay or Kitajima’s screams after each of his Olympic gold-winning victories, or even that famous Australian swimming team playing the air guitar after their unexpected victory following Gary Hall’s claim that Americans would smash the Aussies like guitars. Bolt’s celebration given his astounding achievements were hardly any different. Heck, Shawn Crawford the person who came in second defended Bolt, “To me, I don’t feel like he’s being disrespectful. If this guy has worked his tail off, every day, on his knees throwing up like I was in practice, he deserves to dance.” So if Bolt’s competitors have no problem, Rogges had little reason. I’ve seen my share of track and field events this Olympics and in no race has the winner gone over to shake hands with others; in fact others have congratulated the winner.

Is it because Bolt hails from a small country that has successfully swept the sprint medals? Or is it because the celebration does not follow Rogges idea of muted ‘sophisticated’ form of behavior? I guess it is somewhat like the reaction some Americans have toward the loud boisterous attitudes of African-Americans (think Punjabis in India) and it makes them look down on such behavior when in fact it is simply a different form of behavior that departs from their preconceived notion of the norm. Asafa Powell minced no words in saying just that after yet another gold for Bolt in the 4x100m, “the US did it all the time and nothing happened.”

We often get caught in the hype they try to sell us that Olympics is “we are the world” kinda mushy stuff but at the end of the day, it is an intensely competitive sports event. Victors are not only excused but in fact entitled to their choice of celebration.

Wrong on the Internet

[source] We just had this moment but I’m resisting. Must sleep first. Details at 11 (am).

Religious Brainwashing

Couple of days back I shared Atanu’s story on religious crackers on this blog. Since then, Atanu known to call a spade a spade has been calling out on a particular commenter’s inane arguments (see comments for an example of some fine online spanking). While I believe religion to be the bane of modern civilization, I also believe that monotheist religions as a subset of all religions, as Atanu eruditely points out, are particularly harmful. I’m a recovering Hindu and an almost-atheist so any stories pertaining to inanity of religion and references to their implementation in brainwashing the gullible populace are particularly interesting in reinforcing my new found (lack of) faith.

According to this article in Slate, religious indoctrination in Saudi Arabia (where else?) reveals the true nature of monotheist religions that I believe separates them from other religions:

In a multiple-choice question that appears in a recent edition of a Saudi fourth-grade textbook, Monotheism and Jurisprudence, in a section that attempts to teach children to distinguish “true” from “false” belief in god:

Q. Is belief true in the following instances:
a) A man prays but hates those who are virtuous.
b) A man professes that there is no deity other than God but loves the unbelievers.
c) A man worships God alone, loves the believers, and hates the unbelievers.

The correct answer, of course, is c).

The problem with monotheist religions is not that they ask you to believe their god but go further and ask you to hate or damn those who choose not to believe. Simply, my god/religion strongest! I’m sure there are plenty of people from monotheist religions who don’t believe in this extremist view but then in a sense they are not adhering to their religion’s diktats and even might be guilty of blasphemy. You may offer hazaar justifications that most of your religious adherents do not believe in the belief that ‘my way or the highway’ or as Bush put it succinctly, either you are with us or against us but at the end of the day, the extremists who tout this viewpoint find justification from no other place but their holy books.

Now I won’t lecture you on changing your religion or the way it attempts to brainwash your innocent children. Heck, if you don’t try to convince me of the so-called superiority of your religion and let me live my atheist life in peace, its fine by me. I won’t hold your religion against you if you don’t hold my lack of faith in it against me. Change for a religion must come from within and will only work when the moderates update their views with the changing times. If moderates remain silent they let the extremists dictate the agenda and in effect the way their religion is perceived. I will not ask you to criticize your religious extremists each time they decide to act crazy but remember, they are maligning your religion that is, the one thing you portend molding your value and hold so dear. I could couldn’t care less.

Where do most startup ideas fail?

Let me give you the essence of this post right away. Most startups ideas fail even before starting up. I have tried to identify the points where startup ideas fail. So far I have 3.

#1 : Holding onto the idea without action

I am one of those people who get a whole lot of ideas sitting on the toilet seat and I must confess that most of them are not that good. I am sure that there are many such people out there. But ideas alone are not enough. In my short stint as a struggling entrepreneur, I have realized that there are no unique idea. You only think that it’s unique. You will only be kidding yourself if you thought that you were the first person in this whole wide world to have thought about it first. A lot of people have good ideas but they don’t share them for the fear of someone else profiting from it. I think, having an idea is only 5% of the job done. You need to execute the idea and execute it well.

#2 : Go – No Go

Let me take back the last sentence for a moment. Even before execution comes the decision to execute the idea. According to me, Once you have decided to execute the idea, 50% of the job is done. The remaining 50% is execution. The reason I stress on the “go-no go” decision is because I strongly believe that it is at this stage where many ideas die.

#3 : Lack of skill

So now let’s say you have an idea and you also have the guts to execute it but many times, you just don’t have the right skill set to execute the entire idea. The first thought that comes to ones mind is to search for those skills within your friend circle. If you find that person in your friend circle then it’s great. There is nothing like working with a friend in a start-up. Most successful companies were started by friends – Microsoft, Google, Apple, Infosys and Baazee.com. There are chances that the friendship might suffer but that rarely holds back the enterpreneurs who have reached this far in the start-up process. But what does one do when you don’t find the required skill set within your friend circle. Earlier people would give out ads in newspapers saying “Associate required”. But then that requires money. Now there is a solution for that as well. I recently read about a service called Partnerup. Partnerup is a service that helps you find people how are willing to work on start up ideas. I like the whole concept but the service still “US-only”. Its only a matter of time that they go global. Businesspundit has a review of the service on its blog.

This post is not intended to be preachy but just an insight. I might have missed out on other points of failure. Please feel free to add them in the comments.

Defining Victory

I love watching the Sunday morning talk shows but more often than not the topic of discussion often veers towards the war in Iraq. Probably rightly so because it is the single most important factor that is on the minds of Americans as they get bombarded by more than a dozen Presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle. By now, the talking points are boringly predictable – the Democrats will reinforce their demand for withdrawal and the Republicans will deride that as a sign of weakness that would give ‘our enemies’ victory. Sadly, the media is merely a bystander in this tamasha and no one is willing to ask tough bipartisan question.

The recent Democratic candidates debate resulted in asking of some tough questions but the 1-minute time allocation for responses was simply to little given the candidates affinity to monotonously repeat their stump speeches. However, the one thing that irks me no end is the Republican stand of no-withdrawal lest it gives ‘them’ victory and results in ‘our’ defeat.

Rudi Guiliani, the current leading candidate from the Republicans was in Texas A&M recently and I got the opportunity to attend his talk. He is considered to be the more liberal amongst Republican candidates given his contrary views on gun control, gay marriage, and abortion but on the war on terror front, he is no different from Bush. Speaking to a largely Republican and conservative audience (whoops for any conservative talk and hisses for any liberal inneuendo), he dwelt largely on the ‘global war on terror’. Upon being questioned as to why we haven’t defeated or mitigated the Al-Qaeda threat or even killed Bin Laden, Guiliani pooh-poohed the contention that 9/11 was just restricted to Al-Qaeda. He emphasized that it was a larger conspiracy by Islamic radicals out to eliminate Americans.

While being partially correct on that, he failed to connect the Iraq mess to the war on terror and dismissed any suggestion of withdrawal as defeat. If I could, I would have asked him one simple question – define victory in Iraq. I fail to see any Republican even remotely suggesting the larger objectives for the war in Iraq. The weapons of mass destruction and threat of Iraqi nuclear capacity led to the war. Slowly it diverged to establishing a democratic government. Later it was modified to establishing peace in the region and now, I guess the acceptable solution would be keep the shit from hitting the fan on a daily basis.

The Bush Administration seems to be averse to external parties such as Congress setting either a timetable or benchmarks for the war but I say, let the administration instead set benchmarks on definition of a victory in Iraq. Let it be anything different from the status quo (or even the status quo on a good day) but no war (if at all this is one) was ever won without knowing what we are expected to achieve. Supporters of the war keep insisting any divergence from the current strategy (again, if there is one) would lead to defeat (as if we are headed away from it now).

Well, then let us at least examine the overarching goals of the war on terror. Define an enemy either rogue states or specific organizations and then delineate how elimininating them will lead to sense of security and peace. If past experience has taught us anything, the current strategy has only made more enemies and isolated the United States from even the erstwhile coalition of the willing. No one likes bullies especially if they transcend all levels of reason and sensibility. Thankfully, at least 70% of Americans are tired of the current administration and it is only the lack of gumption on part of Democrats that is keeping the president from being impeached. So I guess, we have to wait out the next year and a half. But what a long year and a half it is going to be.

PS. Why this rant? Tomorrow is the fourth anniversary of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech. So much for accomplished, eh?

Away and Not Alone

Tehelka’s special issue on Youth & the Internet – Adventures in netistan has published a short article written by yours truly after much prodding from Shivam. I am quoted by my real name and this blog is not mentioned in the credits (DesiPundit is). I’m glad that the article is largely unedited although the title and excerpt is Shivams’ (or the editor). I see articles by other noted bloggers like Dina Mehta, Neha Viswanathan, Rashmi Bansal, etc.

The article is quoted in full below:

Pankaj Udhas is a disappointed man today. His evergreen hit, Chithhi Aaye Hai Watan Se, doesn’t evoke the same response in the diaspora audience as it did a few years ago. Long before Thomas Friedman discovered that the world was flat, it was already shrinking rapidly — so much so that you can be an Indian in every sense of the word even when miles away from the homeland. More than 65,000 students leave Indian shores every year to pursue higher education in countries like the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia. In slang, they are often referred to as ‘FOBs’ (Fresh Off the Boat) — a term reminiscent of an era when people left their homes and loved ones only to see them again after years of disconnect and pent-up nostalgia. A reading of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri will give you precious insights into an era untouched by the magic of the Internet. Yes, I call it magic because not too long ago it was almost unconceivable to even think of the many things that it manages to achieve today.

As Peter DeVries once delightfully said, “Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.” It all started in the late 1980s and early 90s, when the price of an international telephone call dropped from tens of dollars to mere cents. Sons, whose doting mothers had reluctantly sent them away, could finally dutifully write down favourite recipes and make their own mess in the kitchen. If you can afford it, you might fly down almost every year to join your family at the dinner table, but most ‘PIGS’ (Poor Indian Graduate Students) like me rely on the limitless opportunities the Internet affords us to keep in touch with our roots — apart from home-cooked food, of course.

E-mail made letter writing obsolete, but we wanted more speed. Apart from calling home every week using a pin number you buy off the many international calling websites, the other favourite is the chat window. Visit any university computer lab, and you’ll see plenty of desi students hunched over the keyboard typing furiously, often to three or more people at the same time. Humble chat applications like MSN or Yahoo have evolved dramatically from being mere text windows to now being platforms for voice and video. Skypecast lets you indulge in random online conversations as you would at your college canteen via Skype, a VOIP-enabled chat service. Some folks in India set up a ‘livecast’, offering audio commentary for the Indian matches in this year’s World Cup and were joined by Indians from across the world, participating in online banter that you would only hear in living rooms. It was a much better alternative to refreshing your browser window every couple of minutes to check the latest score.

For the nostalgia addict, there is no better destination than YouTube, the online video sharing site. Within its extensive reserves, YouTube has something for everyone; from NFDC animated shorts (remember Ek Chidiya Anek Chidiya?) to the latest remix videos that get the moral police all riled up, to the now-seemingly-distant (I know, it hurts) clips of Sachin blasting Warne all over the park.

Youth outside India can be just as connected to daily happenings in the country as their peers back home. Every non-resident Indian has a favourite news portal that they read with their morning coffee and, what’s more, they even have regional language options. If they wish to rant about certain events in the country or wish to share hopeful news of the booming economy, they post their thoughts on their personal blogs.

Blogging has proven to be a far superior ‘connector’ than any national integration public service advertisement. Mile Sur Mera Tumhara has been replaced with Mile Opinions Hamare Tumhare; sometimes, they don’t, leading to what bloggers call flame-wars. But the explosion of the blog phenomenon has exposed today’s otherwise cloistered youth to a multitude of opinions. They can read and discuss topics of social, economic, and political importance or simply talk about their favourite movies and music.

For the fans of quick communication and Post-It notes, we have an Orkut generation which believes in ‘scrapping’ away to glory. Although sms-ese can be incomprehensible at times, Orkut is a virtual 24/7 school or college hangout where you run into and reconnect with long-lost friends and classmates. I know of many non-resident students who use Orkut to catch up on the latest happenings in the lives of their friends and to interact with them through its virtual communities.

As with all things, even the moon, there is a dark side too. The Internet has made staying in touch with your family, friends, and events in your country so much easier that you’re reluctant to step out and experience the new world that you live in. If you live and work on Devon Avenue (otherwise known as Gandhi or Jinnah Marg depending on the nationality of your neighbours) in Chicago, you can easily go for days without seeing a non-South Asian. Indians sometimes are just as reluctant as any other ghettoised immigrant group to step outside their comfort zone of familiar faces. This often leads to a sequestering of values and feeling trapped in a time warp unchanged from the day they stepped onto the new shores.

The Internet is a wonderful place and offers endless opportunities for individuals to connect with the rest of the world. So why restrict yourself to the boundaries of your geographic region? Step out and explore. You might just experience something that you might want to write about on your blog.

Anti-abortion Images at College Station

College Station is a conservative place typical of small-town America where down-to-earth values of morality and family are central to its ethos. But thanks to the presence of a nationally renowned university that attracts hordes of international students and faculty, the environment on campus is somewhat moderate. I wouldn’t call it as liberal as I have seen in my previous colleges but you have to remember you are in the heart of Texas. In fact, the only Planned Parenthood Clinic in town is always besieged (ok! strong word…picketed) by anti-abortion protesters who stand around with wreaths and heads bowed; most of whom are teenagers and kids. I wonder if they have had the opportunity to make that choice of protesting. But thankfully no abortion clinic bombers in this town.

As I was going to my early morning class, I noticed fencing and scaffolding material on the Rudder Plaza (near MSC]. Signboards saying, Warning: Graphic Images ahead and You may be offended by these images were lying around. I couldn’t wait to get back but Monday is kinda a marathon session in terms of classes and labs i.e. 5 straight hours. When I returned in the afternoon, I was shocked to see graphic images of fetuses and aborted babies displayed on a huge poster wall. When I say huge, I mean a 20-25 foot wall. The images could be seen from over 50 yards. I could see students walking by shocked by the graphic nature of images.

Near the display, they had a writing wall titled, Free Speech Wall or something like that where you could scribble your thoughts. There was the usual rhetoric of abortion is bad and how God is angry with those who do it. But I had expected that in College Station but I was surprised by the amount of pro-choice comments as well including some hilarious ones like, Make abortion not just legal but mandatory. To which someone had replied, yup! we should have told your mom that! There were many comments chiding the organizers for displaying such offensive images which they claimed, offended both sides of the debate. Most of the people stood around reading the comments and no one was writing anything at least when I was there. Exercising free speech in presence of onlookers is a daunting task especially when your views are in the minority.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t hang around much as I could see my bus in the distance. But I did observe plenty of volunteers with cameras and notepads. I am not sure if they were really anti-abortion people or merely conducting an exercise in free speech behavior. Probably tomorrow’s Battalion should answer that question.

Water nominated for the Oscars

So yet again, India’s official entry to the annual Oscars failed to make it to the top five. But in a strange twist of fate, Water, a movie based on the life of Varanasi widows in the 1930s by the Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta is among the five shortlisted movies. Since this movie was financed and produced by Royal Bank of Canada and Canadian Television Fund respectively, it qualifies as the official entry for Canada. The movie was surrounded in controversy when the shooting began in Varanasi. Self-anointed guardians of Hinduism, Bajrang Dal resorted to violent protests against the movie. I guess, they didn’t want everyone to know about the widely known truth of one of Hinduism worst facets in those times. Left with no choice, Deepa Mehta suspended the shooting and resumed it later in Sri Lanka after obtaining financing. Sadly, she lost two of the top actors, Nandita Das and Shabana Azmi and had to resort to badly miscast Lisa Ray and underutilized Seema Biswas. But I guess, it was sufficient to impress the Oscar nominating members. I’m not going to go into examining if the movie was worth the nomination or not. Among the three movies she made, Earth was the only one I liked.

But the selection of Water tells us more about the Western impressions of India rather than the quality of our movies. Clearly, the Oscars are not the standards for movie making and they have honored movies that have clearly not been worth it and ignored others that were subsequently labeled as classics. As I have mentioned on this blog before, India should stop sending ‘official’ entries to the Oscars and instead allow filmmakers to send in their movies if they think they stand a chance.

It is impossible to select a quality product among the thousand-odd movies made in India each year much less select one that would impress the Oscar jury. Hollywood clearly seems biased toward a certain genre of movies and as long as we pander to their impressions of India i.e. compulsory depiction of grinding poverty and grave discrimination (Mother India, Salaam Bombay, Lagaan, and now Water). Of course, movies showing the urban yuppies i.e. Rang De Basanti goes against their sensibilities and they refuse to see India through changed times lenses.

Then why do we even continue to humor them by sending in ‘official’ entries is beyond me. Let us understand that they aren’t going to understand the wide offerings of Indian cinema any time soon. But if you are really hell-bent upon winning the Oscar just for the sake of it, then simply pander to their taste and send in an appropriate movie. But then is it really that important? Otherwise just let us get over this annual ritual of expecting our ‘official’ entry to be nominated and then win only to be disappointed.

On the other hand, I can’t get over the fact that now John Abraham is directly associated with an Oscar nomination which puts him at par with Aamir Khan at least in the eyes of Hollywood. Also, Martin Scorsese will finally win an Oscar for a movie that he least deserves to win for; so will an American Idol wannabe except she might deserve it. Sadly, Children of Men was nominated for Cinematography [apart from editing and adapted screenplay]. And it will undoubtedly win it. Or at least it should. But the nomination of Little Miss Sunshine gladdens my heart.

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Delusions Galore – Dinesh D’Souza

Dinesh D’Souza, author of a new book blaming 9/11 on the cultural values of American liberals, which offended Osama bin Laden, causing him to kill everybody.  So, D’Souza goes on the Colbert Report and specifically blames, of course, Bill Clinton.  And Colbert mocks him by asking, ‘doesn’t some of it lay at FDR’s doorstep?’  And D’Souza doesn’t realize Colbert’s joking.  Indirectly yes, he answers [source]

Sigh! If you read his interview on Salon, the seemingly intelligent dude comes off as a bumbling demagogue who relies on his deep-seated ideological beliefs instead of facts. But that is nothing new for the far-right.

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