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Indian Blogosphere == Bitchy Wannabes, says Outlook Magazine

Outlook magazine has a rather astonishing aside in a story covering IIPM: TR Vivek writes (screenshot)

The Indian blogging community (or blogosphere, as it likes to call itself) is essentially a bitchy, self-indulgent and an almost incestuous network comprising journalists, wannabe-writers and a massive army of geeks who give vent to their creative ambitions on the internet. Given that the average blogger-age is 25 years, it’s clear bloggers love to indulge in hearty name-calling and taking college-style potshots at others. This is probably why some of them get into trouble.

Of course, Outlook would never indulge in self-indulgent cheap potshots. Oh no.

Thankfully for Outlook, the average Indian is still far too deferential to authority and India far too unwired for it to really get hit where it hurts — on the bottom line — the way the US media is. However the gratuitous name calling is likely to do Outlook little good because ultimately the vocal, articulate, well-to-do urbanites who comprise India’s blogosphere are ultimately its best customers, and instead of working with them it is clear some writers within the magazine have chosen to take an adversarial, condescending stance.

The outcome of that — a battle between a weekly magazine versus an always-on network increasingly reaching the most well-heeled of that magazine’s customers in an increasingly wired country — is foregone; it is a question of when not if. And given Mr Vivek’s snarkiness, I am not sure many would shed tears for him and the magazine he writes for.


23 October 2005 6:29 pm

India in Regress

JK over at varnam.org has a great post asking ‘What Argumentative Indian?’ to Amartya Sen’s new book. I wasn’t very happy with the book either because it seemed to me while it did a good job of supporting his thesis that many ‘Western’ notions were in fact not so Western after all, it did not do a good job of explaining why despite these ideals much of the West ended up with secular democracies while India ended up first a rag-tag bunch of kingdoms that was easy pickings for the British (who then through their education system created a new generation of educated Indians who re-introduced concepts of civic democracy and nationalism back to the country).

It seems to me that the prodigious intellectual output of India during the Vedic period had given way to near-intellectual bankruptcy around 10BC. The chief culprit that destroyed India’s intellectual depth, I would say, was an increasingly rigid and unforgiving caste system, which had a side-effect of compartmentalizing knowledge and denying a first-class education to all (incidentally making Sanskrit effectively a court language and sealing its fate by making it incomprehensible to the masses, and as a third-order effect creating India’s modern tower of Babel). A rise in superstition and ritual mirrored the decline in education, as cows became ‘holy,’ temples became richer and rituals more elaborate. Brave and occasionally successful attempts to present alternatives to this dysfunctional society would abound in the next 500 years (starting with the Siddhartha Gautama and leading up to the Bhakti Movement and the Sikh gurus) but they had little impact on the majority of India’s Hindus who returned to worshipping rats and snakes, believing in Karma and generally accepting their lot in life.

And in a few hundred years much of India would come under Mughal rule, and (Akbar’s catholicism in religious matters notwithstanding) her history would roughly mirror those of other Islamic empires: people-rich empires (rich enough in people and uncaring enough of talent, it is said, that Shah Jahan had the hands of the creators of the Taj Mahal cut off that they may never recreate its wonder again) turning out intricate works of art, craft and clothing; but ignorant of the European renaissance and the rumblings of scientific enquiry emanating from the West, blissfully unaware that their ignorance of these would soon prove their downfall.

Yes, as the good Professor argues, Indian had achieved a high level of intellectual achievement at a time when most Europeans were in bearskins. What to me matters more is that Europe came out of her dark ages and saw a continent-wide Renaissance that it followed up with a scientific and industrial revolution. Whereas India never thought of herself as being in one and as a result various renaissance movements (Mahatma Phule, the Brahmo Samaj, Periyar) had extremely limited effect, even socially.

It is no wonder the Vedic period is unfailingly eulogised by traditionalists who then blithely ignore the rot that set into India in subsequent years. Perhaps the most telling fact about this loss is that it became necessary for Amartya Sen to write his essays to help his countrymen ‘rediscover’ these ideals in the first place.


21 October 2005 5:26 pm

IIPM Needs a New PR Officer

It’s the cover-up that gets you, not the screw-up. IIPM are about to find that out first-hand. Overselling (or tooting one’s horn for that matter) isn’t a crime, but the fine b-school academics over at the sue-happy institute should perhaps have been new-age enough to read The Cluetrain Manifesto and realize that rubbish threats (like these fine bits of public discourse involving toilets and molotov cocktails, archived here) do more harm than good.

I’m sorry I didn’t find out about this sooner, because I really have little to add to the sea of posts this has already generated. All I’ll say is IIPM’s antics were excellent entertainment (and fodder for many jokes) up to the point that people started quitting their jobs because of threats of portable computer immolation (!). I’m still waiting to see how this’ll pan out — and when someone at IIPM will realize that a high-profile court case involving a ridiculous sum of money will give them far more of the spotlight than they really wanted.

Updated 15 Oct: The Indian media continues to maintain radio silence on this, barring NDTV and a city edition of the Indian Express. Of course, this has nothing to do with the fact that IIPM is one of its largest advertisers. No sirree.

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14 October 2005 7:11 pm

Non-proliferation vs Realpolitik

A while back Madhoo wrote about people who refuse to live in the present:

…Does it make any sense whatsoever to react to decades-old stuff just because it has just been declassified? Nixon is no more, Indira Gandhi is not alive and Kissinger is in no way involved with the current administration - what is the point on making a big deal about this now?

I think this is what is the problem is with us - living in the past. We refuse to let go of the demons of the past and refuse to look ahead. Every time there is a remote chance of us getting anywhere better, we go into a self-destructive mode and shoot ourselves in the foot. Idiots!

On the other hand, it seems living in the past isn’t the exclusive preserve of the Rediff webmasters but also senior American policymakers:

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) condemned the agreement as a “dangerous proposition and bad nonproliferation policy” and said he will introduce legislation to block it. “We cannot play favorites, breaking the rules of the nonproliferation treaty, to favor one nation at the risk of undermining critical international treaties on nuclear weapons,” he said in a statement. “What will Russia say when they want to supply more nuclear materials or technology to Iran? You can be sure that Pakistan will demand equal treatment.”

Bolton, Bush’s nominee to become U.N. ambassador, argued that such cooperation would mean rewarding a country that built a nuclear weapon in secret, using technology it obtained under the guise of civilian power. Both North Korea and Iran are believed to have tried the same route to develop nuclear weapons. Some within the administration said the deal would be damaging at a time when the United States is trying to ratchet up international pressure on both those countries to give up their nuclear-weapons ambitions.

Non-proliferation made sense in a world where few nations had access to nuclear weapons. In a changed world where ‘responsible’ superpowers ship fissile material to irresponsible anarchies (which then scatter the lethal technology amongst the world’s worst), proliferation is a fait accompli and non-proliferation is a lame duck. Yet the policymakers for whom non-proliferation is an end, not a means to peace continue their sad, irrelevant dance on the DC stage.

What is interesting about non-proliferation is that it has worked for as long as it has: countries like Brazil and South Africa which signed up for the NPT did not do so primarily for the carrot of civilian nuclear tech, rather their national threat perception did not indicate the need for a nuclear deterrent. In the shadow of nuclear China and belligerent Pakistan, India obviously saw things differently.

The fact that the non-proliferation hawks in DC can still talk about ‘favorites’ and ‘breaking the rules [for India]’, can still equate India with Pakistan and North Korea indicates that they are far more out of touch than the tactless webmasters at Rediff. For the rules have already been broken and the nuclear genie is out of the bottle, and the posession of the genie must today be predicated on a nation’s record rather than its level of technological accomplishment in 1968.


19 July 2005 2:28 pm

Bobby Bedi plans the Mahabharata

The Slime of India (I know, I know) is running an article about Bobby Bedi’s (of Bandit Queen, Fire and Saathiya fame) plans for his next project after The Rising
: an ambitious three-film retelling of the Mahabharata.

Now, I’m sure Bedi can pile on the creative talent — Maniratnam, arguably one of India’s finest directors, will apparently be at the helm — but what interests me at this stage is the budget for the trilogy (Rupees 300 crores, approximately US $70 million) and his stated desire to create a ‘historic’ epic with production values similar to that of The Lord of the Rings.

Interestingly, $70M would make this the most expensive Indian movie venture ever, with Devdas at $10M a distant second. Bedi obviously hopes for a long and lucrative run in foreign theatres and in DVD sales, because the biggest Indian hit so far — Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (HAHK) — made not more than $30M after a marathon year-long stint at the box office. Of course, in Bedi’s favour is the fact that the Mahabharata will find a ready market when dubbed into various Indian languages, as also in DVD collections across the country. Obviously the producer will be hoping for a HAHK-style blowout in the very first film that’ll ensure audiences can’t stay away from the other two. On the other hand, sequels have never done well in India.

Of course, an open question would be how well the scriptwriters and the director balance Indian tastes in drama (which tends towards the melodramatic) with Bedi’s goal of taking the epic to the ‘American, British [and] Japanese’.

A bigger question is about production values. One reason Bollywood films look relatively unpolished is because a greater chunk of the budget goes into paying off the stars without who no big-budget Bollywood feature is complete. As the article says, Bedi is looking at casting not one but two A-list actors (Shahrukh and Aamir Khan) and an A-list actress, who together will eat into at least 10% of the budget. The question is therefore: can Bedi get LoTR-level gloss into three films for the money it took to make the Matrix?

As I’ve written before, great effects on small budgets have been done before: Crouching Tiger took $12M to make, for example, and 28 Days Later took $8M. But the limitations of those movies compared to the big FX films are apparent, and so are the budgets. The Titanic sank in $300M, The Matrix weighed in at a relative shoestring $65M and LoTR, made in New Zealand to cut cost and making use of extensive digital technology for its FX, needed $270M to recreate Middle-Earth on the silver screen.

Can diminishing digital costs, the availability of Massive and Massive-like packages, filming in India and using Indian post-production staff create the same FX quality for a third of the cost? As an FX geek I’m not holding my breath, but it would be great if good FX let Indian filmmakers think outside the boy-meets-girl box. And I’m sure Hollywood would love to add India to Mexico, Australia and now New Zealand as a low-cost destination for making movies.


4 July 2005 8:21 am

Blog Mela 2005, Issue 3

Blog Mela - tour the Indian blogosphere Hello and welcome to the 3rd mela of the year! Without much ado –

The Philadelphia radio jockeys who dialed and harassed an Indian call centre worker got a lot of ink from many Indian bloggers this week. Shanti wondered why many Indians cried foul about racism when the jockeys should really have been excoriated for extremely poor judgement and taste. Psybaba posits that the complainers are too touchy by half and that Indians are not blameless when it comes to racial stereotyping.

On the other hand, even as radio jockeys are bad-mouthing call centre workers, JK notes that globalization affects more than IT and auto-parts — IT enabled services now include teaching.

Amit Varma’s posts on the tsunami were predictably nominated, but instead of pointing to the individual posts I’ll direct you to indiauncut-tsunami.blogspot.com where he’s helpfully compiled all his despatches from the tsunami affected areas of Tamil Nadu. Read it all.

Ravikiran, meanwhile, has been wondering why the government of India is intent on destroying the traditional livelihood of the thousands of fishermen who dot India’s long coastline with its new Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) measure. Yazadjal notes that the CRZ is a classic top-down bureaucratic response and offers an alternative.

Yazad also has a set of interesting posts (part 1, part 2) that touch upon the nature of capitalism as demonstrated by the rise in prices of staple goods has been a second disaster for the already-suffering tsunami victims. Pradeep has had similar thoughts and concludes that no-holds-barred capitalism cannot be the answer.

The tsunami could not break Madras/Chennai’s stride though — it was business as usual in the city. Vinod G notes the ATP Chennai Open finished a few days ago to good crowds, even if the highlight of the match for certain sections of the audience seemed to be a certain shirt-changing player.

India signed an agreement this week to build a oil and gas pipeline into the country from Burma through Bangladesh as well as, interestingly, Iran. Given that any Iranian pipeline has to travel through Pakistan (especially troublesome Balochistan), JK notes that this is an excellent opportunity for India to boost its image and build relations in a traditionally volatile part of the world.

The other issue that got a lot of ink was a little too meta, but considering it went right under the radar of most Indian English blogs, I felt it was worth covering. Madhu’s decision to exclude Hindi blogs in the last blog mela (based, as he notes, on very pragmatic reasons) sparked off a lively (and not always very friendly) discussion in the Hindi blog world, one of the first results of which was Chittha-charcha (blog review), a weblog devoted to a monthly roundup of Hindi blogdom, with other Indic languages to follow. I hope they do well, but as I’ve noted before, it’d be great if Indian bloggers used the distributed intelligence inherent in the blogosphere to minimize linguistic differences instead of exacerbating them.

On the other hand, in a post that surely is (fair) fuel for the language wars, Patrix asks why Indians pre-judge other Indians based on their command over English. Even though English receives equal standing with approximately 23 other languages, it is somehow more equal than others.

The petition currently before India’s Supreme Court to remove ‘Sindh’ from the national anthem was received with disbelief and derision from many bloggers. I just hope no one tells the plaintiff about the German anthem, which has Deutschland über alles stretching all the way from Holland to the Baltic.

Praveen submitted a well-written post about the bearded thief, which stood out by not really fitting in anywhere. But I’m guessing every Indian town and village has its characters, and thaadi kallan here could really be from anywhere in the country.

Food-blogging (or should that be food-and-beverages blogging?): Madhu Menon in his avatar as chef-incardinate at Shiok Food leads us to steamed rice nirvana, and even presents a lovely dish to go along with it — orange-lemon chicken, mmm… and Ravishankar Shrivastava has a paean to tea, the lubricant that keeps most Indians moving throughout the day. Then again, Inkspillz writes about life at college with a beverage of another kind.

Finally, food for the soul: Jitendra Chaudhary is out to create an easily accessible Ramayana in Devanagri on the web. So far, he’s got Part I — “baalkaand” — online. Blogger’s group-blogging capabilities could come in useful here, so go volunteer if stuff like this interests you.

That’s all for this week, folks. Thanks to all who nominated entries, and apologies to those whose entries I could not include. The next mela will be held on January 21 at selectiveamnesia.org. You can view the schedule (and volunteer) here.

Update 15 Jan 9:45pm: Updated post in response to this.


15 January 2005 3:22 am

Tower of Babel

2005’s 2nd Blog Mela might have fizzled, but the Hindi Blog Mela equivalent, चिट्ठाचर्चा (BlogReview), has got off the ground with a link-rich collection of Hindi and English links. Good going!

On the other hand, I am not sure who’re behind this site, but I do wish that they’d consider a simultaneously translating their posts to English (like Merde in France). There are many Indians who cannot read Hindi (and even for those who can there are several challenges, but that’s the subject of another post). Also, if चिट्ठाचर्चा’s plans for other language blog reviews get off the ground, these other-language blogs would find a much wider pan-Indian audience if translations were available (and on blogs, poster/commenters’ distributed intelligence ensures that the cost of translations is low).

India is unique in being divided by language like no other nation in the world. It would be a shame if the Indian blogosphere added to this division instead of minimizing it.


12 January 2005 10:09 pm

Shooting the Common Carrier

If you mail a bomb through the post, the law doesn’t hold the post responsible. However, if you sell porn on Baazee (now Ebay’s Indian arm), Baazee’s CEO Avnish Bajaj goes to jail.

For those who don’t know about the Delhi MMS scandal, here’s coverage. This ‘unexpected consequence’ was triggered by a college kid using Baazee to sell VCDs of that clip — apparently innocuously labeled “Delhi girls having fun” — on Baazee. For those who want to know why Baazee’s CEO’s arrest was brain-dead, there’s a great thread now running on India-GII.

All over the world, and indeed even in India, network service providers are given “common carrier” exemptions as long as they cooperate with the authorities. The ‘arrest first, look up the law later’ attitude the Indian police have displayed here do them no credit.

Update: several news outlets, including Rediff and the Indian Express, reported Friday Dec 17 that “anyone who transmitted [will] face action.” Considering the video made the rounds in Delhi on MMS far before it got sold on VCDs in Palika Bazaar, I wonder when Airtel and Hutch (Delhi’s leading MMS providers) will be taken to task (hint: never).

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20 December 2004 2:54 pm

Strategic Nationalism

I missed this, but thanks to the wonders of the Bharatiya Blogger’s Digest er, Blog Mela, I was able to find Madhu’s screed on Indian-ness. He asks how he can strongly identify with India when on many points (go read them all) he is clearly out of the Indian mainstream.

Not surprisingly, his comments have attracted (besides the usual accusations of brown-sahibbery) a lot of people who feel the same as he does. I must add here that as little as two years back, I would probably have been firmly in the “me too, Madhu” camp. These days, I’m happy to be at ease about it.

The problem begins with the way Madhu states the problem: just how “Indian” am I?. As we will see, ‘how’ is the wrong question: ‘what kind of’ is a much better one.

Attempts to measure Indianness by counting the number of national stereotypes conformed to is not only misguided but dangerous. Nationalism, except in hate-mongering hands, is an instrument of inclusion, not exclusion. Measured by Madhu’s criteria, Pandit Nehru with his perennial Anglophilia or the pre-South-Africa Gandhi would not have been very Indian either.

Madhu goes on to call himself a cultural misfit. To my mind, this is a good thing: cultural misfits create progress. It is because of cultural misfits that most people don’t think of Sati, or child-marriage, or widow-remarriage-prohibitions, or treating wives like chattel as terribly important Indian values. Conflating the idea of cultural “fits” with Indian-ness is therefore misguided.

The key phrase that underlies Madhu’s thinking seems to be Ravi Kiran’s quote: Every generation finds things we have in common, things that we share, things that we value and things that we can be proud of, and builds a nationalism out of it. This is a classic clarion call to what I call ‘cultural nationalism’: in the early 1900s it was Vande Mataram, khadi and the tricolor; today it’s cricket, B(|T|K)ollywood and Indipop. Easy.

Or maybe not. Cultural nationalism is a great tool to get a nation together where none existed before. It appeals to the masses who then see unity where previously there was diversity. In a nation that already exists, cultural nationalism is a sure road to disaster simply because every special-interest group has slightly different and often conflicting ideas about what the shared ‘culture’ represents. Look no further than the VHP/RSS’ brand of values to see how even majority values can be divisive. Even seemingly harmless values like Bollywood become objects of dispute, as in the recent Karnataka cinema fraças. Most tellingly, the last German experiment with shared cultural values and nationalism left 55 million dead around the world.

Perhaps in response to this, some commenters have suggested that in this interconnected world nationalism is passé, that all it means is a passport, nothing more. This “citizen of the world” thinking has struck me as wooly-headed before, and this is what this post is really about.

Of course, the world is highly interconnected today. 16 year olds in Brazil can contribute to the development of an OS kernel that’ll be used around the world. Teens in Bangalore can buy Evanescence albums almost as soon as they’re out in New York. There is an entire spectrum of global and local experiences that one can be — given the inclination and ability — exposed to.

Let us assume a ‘national average’ of exposure that lies somewhere between completely local and completely global. A typical autorickshaw driver would be skewed towards the local end of the scale. Madhu, on the other hand, is highly skewed towards global end of the scale, much more than the national average. Madhu and others like him are the leading edge of India’s ‘globalization’, and they pay for it with anomie towards the society they inhabit.

Europe is a more balanced example. Today, shared cultural experience in Europe (which was never low to begin with) is at all time high, thanks especially to the common market and free interborder movement for citizens. By the ‘cultural nationalism’ touchstone, then, nationalism must also be at an all time high. Surprisingly, this is not the case. Fervour for nationalism in Europe is low, hindering the progress of the European superstate. The reason is a lack of common strategic interest. Lower-cost Ireland has prospered under the Euro regime where Germany has suffered. France indignantly chastises a resurgent Poland for not ‘knowing its place’ even as it suffers low growth and rise in pensioners.

Nationalism — first and foremost — is shared economic and strategic interest. Everything else, cultural symbolism included, is window dressing.

What kind of Indian is Madhu? An excellent one. Far better, I would argue, than the IAS officer who’s blasé about his district’s poor roads. Far better than the politician who knows that keeping his poor constituency hooked to handouts is the ticket to his own success. Madhu is an excellent Indian because he has a very personal stake in India’s success. He wants his restaurant to do well. For that, Bangalore has to do well. If Bangalore does well, so will Indian IT, and (given IT’s role in the economy) so will India. And while all the macroeconomics flies thick and fast, Madhu goes back to delivering great food and service and creating jobs.

Anyone who’s labour is directed towards making India thrive is an Indian, even if he doesn’t have a passport that says so. Even indirect labour from those offshore counts: those who invest in India, often simply by sending money home; those who by their very lives offshore create goodwill for India; those who, despite feeling like misfits, like India enough to blog about it. Of course, these days we recognize some of these Indians by giving them PIO cards.

Of course, apart from that there is also the little matter of accepting the framework of Indian law and all the obligations that brings about, which is what legally makes you a citizen in the first place (some of us are born into it). However, it is only shared economic and strategic interest that can truly make one a citizen, as opposed to a mere accident of birth.


1 November 2004 12:03 pm

New Broadband Policy

India’s new Broadband Policy is finally out. NIXI (it says) will finally mandate proper intra-India routing. Outdoor Wifi is allowed ‘in principle’. A basic minimum defintion of broadband has been made — a 256kbps always-on connection. Access providers can partner to utilize and improve available copper for DSL-grade lines. Cable TV providers can provide broadband. DTH providers can provide ‘receive-only’ Internet service (whatever that means). Good progress. The only question in my mind is–

How the hell can Indian citizens demonstrate technological leadership when it needs to look at its government in askance to implement something as non-earth-shaking as broadband-based business plans? Why do we need a Soviet-era policy document that prescribes 256kbps when we have huge amounts of unlit fiber capacity in this country? Why does the government have to mandate basic technical measures like the NIXI?

In my mind, the answer is, we’re too used to following to see the opportunity to lead.

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16 October 2004 9:03 pm

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