On Annotating Your ebooks

June 9, 2018

For almost a week, the people I follow (and the ones whom the algorithm shows me anyway) on Twitter have been polarised about this tweet:

and the reply to it:

The responses I have seen to this have ranged all the way from people who run book clubs or discussion groups and think that these sort of features would be very welcome; to outraged readers who don’t want yet more Silicon Valley algorithmic social feeds messing up something that has been quite joyous for them right now.

I myself fall more towards the outraged end of the scale than the enthusiastic end. The reasons for this might be boring, but in the process of discussing them, I will end up sharing what I think is the best way to annotate books and share them; and that might be useful to the public at large. So, here we go.

My first reactions to the original tweets were:

  1. Good lord, this already existed eight years ago. It was called a book blog.
  2. Existing apps already do this! What more do you want?

That was then. Now, I am trying to write out a less snarky, more useful, response. The problem is, I don’t know what the original posters want to do with either their or other people’s annotations and marginalia. So I will list out the reasons highlight things in books, and take things from there. I went through the past few months of highlights, and counted the following reasons I might have highlighted a passage:

  1. In sheer appreciation of the language or how well a sentence or paragraph was constructed. For example: “Call me Jimmy. Your mother’s brother’s wife’s sister’s second husband is my father. Blood is thicker than water.”
  2. I read something interesting and decided to set a quiz question around it.
  3. I read something that somebody else (one person, multiple people, a group of people, or multiple groups of people) would enjoy reading, and want to share it with them, with or without context.
  4. I find it intriguing and would like to blog my thoughts about it.
  5. It’s a reference to another book, and I want to make a note to get that book as well.
  6. As a slight variant to #5, it references say a movie or a piece of music, or even a product or something to eat, and I want to make a note to watch, listen to, or buy it later on.

Other people will have their own reasons, of course. There’s an important point to make here though. Except for #1, all these reasons require me to perform some mindful action beyond simply highlighting the passage.

  • Setting the quiz question will need me to actually rewrite the factoid in the highlight (along with perhaps two or three others), or download related photos or media; and then save the final question somewhere
  • Blogging my thoughts about what I’ve highlighted means I have to clear my head, put my thoughts together, and write the blogpost out
  • Getting the book means searching my libraries and reserving it; or adding it to a shopping website wishlist
  • For listening to a referenced piece of music; or watching a referenced movie, or buying something, I would have to search for it and add it to a queue to get to when I have the time to devote

What about the case of sharing it with somebody who might be interested? It sort of dovetails with what the original tweets were talking about, but the thing is, this sort of sharing is best when I am providing some context to what I am sharing. For example, “Remember when we were talking about how terrible and scary the street lighting in Delhi is? This is what Jane Jacobs wrote about safe streets.” Yes, there are going to be times when I share something without context, if the passage is just intrinsically funny, or touches upon an injoke or shared experience so close that it needs no context, but without the ability to provide context – by typing it out, or adding a voice note, or in any other way, sharing is going to be quite useless. In fact, by adding to the stream of notifications which the recipient is already receiving through the day, it might even be a hostile act.

Compared to all the actions I listed above, actually retrieving the highlights is a very quick and painless procedure with existing technology. The difficult part isn’t retrieving highlights, but being disciplined enough to do things with them.

If you have the discipline, the existing Kindle app for Android already lets you do all this with a few taps. If I could build up the discipline, this is how I would do it:

  1. Read the book on a Kindle, so that my device wouldn’t interrupt me with other notifications while I was reading.
  2. Highlight along the way.
  3. Before starting the next book, sync my Kindle, and download the read book to the Kindle app on my phone as well.
  4. The copy on my phone has all my highlights. I can open the highlight view, and then deal with each highlight one at a time, using the relevant Android share method, as follows:
    1. If I had highlighted something for a quiz question, share it to an Evernote notebook or Trello board of quiz questions; and then consult that notebook or board whenever I was sitting down to set questions
    2. If I wanted to share it with somebody, share it to my email, or messaging app, and forward the highlight, with necessary context
    3. If I wanted to write about it, share the highlight to an Evernote notebook or Trello board of writing ideas
    4. If I wanted to buy something, open goodreads, or amazon, or any relevant shopping website on my laptop at the same time, and add it to the relevant wishlist
    5. If I wanted to listen to, or watch, something, add it to a queue on youtube, or a todo list where I was saving things to look for

I’m reasonably sure non-Kindle ebooks let you do this easily enough as well; and for that matter, if you come across something interesting even in a paper book, you can take a photo and let OCR do the initial work before sending it on the relevant app.

For now, I’m still mystified at what the original tweeters wanted to do with their friends’ highlights, marginilia, or even summaries that they couldn’t have done by reading reviews or notes from somewhere else. And though I touched upon it before, I’ll mention again that without knowing just how these highlights are shared, there are real problems of noise and spam in this sort of indiscriminate sharing of what somebody has highlighted.

  1. What are the privacy settings on what I’ve highlighted? I don’t want the public to know if I’ve highlighted something to set a quiz question on it. But I might also want exactly one other person to see the highlight if we’re setting the quiz together.
  2. In this hypothetical service where my highlights are open to the public, just how does the public see what I’ve highlighted? Are they going to see everything? Or is a Facebook News Feed type algorithm going to decide what is worth seeing?
  3. In this hypothetical service where I get to see everybody’s highlights, am I able to receive a highlight that has been picked out by my friend for me? Or am I only getting a firehose of notes and marginilia, with no way to decide what is relevant?
  4. And is this feed of my “social reading” going to be filled with ads?

In conclusion, I personally would not pay extra for books if I could see what my friends had highlighted. But if I really trusted my friends’ books recommendations and ability to pick out amazing passages, I would encourage them to do this with thought, word, deed, and cake; and if I really trusted strangers’ book recommendations, I might well encourage them to blog a lot more by contributing to their Patreon. I just hope that more people do the same before reading recommendations go the way of Facebook.

Christmas Tree Whataboutery is the Stupidest Whataboutery

October 12, 2017

For the last few years, Delhi in Diwali seemed to be getting better and worse simultaneously. Better, because as the campaign against firecrackers in schools continued, and as the police started enforcing the midnight (was it 10 pm?) limit on bursting crackers, cracker use was dropping, and crackers themselves became less noisy. Worse, because despite dropping cracker use, Diwali getting more and more commercialised meant that traffic kept getting more nightmarish and costumes got more garish.

In the last two Diwalis, though, the shift away from crackers, which until now just had to overcome force of habit, ran up into sudden, vicious pushback of “How dare people tell us not to burn crackers! This is a threat to Hinduism!”

The idea that burning crackers is related to Hinduism on any level beyond sixty years of habit is stupid, but I won’t go into that right now.

The idea that Hinduism is under threat is even more stupid, but I won’t even go into that right now.

No, what I will write about in this post is one particular brand of whataboutery that is trotted out in dubious support of the original ‘threat to Hinduism’ argument. Because there are multiple whatabouteries which people are pushing in defence of crackers. Including:

  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using cars first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you stop using air conditioners first?
  • If you love the environment so much, why don’t you fix crop burning first?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when millions of goats are slaughtered on Eid, huh?
  • Where’s your love for the environment when thousands of Christmas trees are chopped down on Christmas?

All of these except the crop burning one have nothing to do with firecracker pollution. Cars and air conditioners are admittedly greenhouse gas emitters, but don’t directly fill the air with unburnt sulphur and toxic gases. Neither does goat slaugher, and nor does chopping down Christmas trees.

But the Christmas tree whataboutery is such a special kind of stupid that I will now devote the rest of the post to debunking it. In a vast universe of stupid statements, this manages to be simultaneously ordinarily stupid, and, Pratchett-character-like, so stupid that it goes around into the other side to be sensible.

First, the ordinary stupidity. Worldwide, Christmas trees are not chopped down from virgin forests, you idiots! They are cultivated on farms and fresh ones are planted every year. Christmas tree decoration is not causing deforestation or denudation. Meanwhile, while they are growing, they are happily acting as carbon sinks.

Does that mean that they are completely environmentally benign? Probably not, because wherever they were planted was once a diverse forest or grassland rather than a single-species plantation. To that extent, a Christmas tree farm is a bad idea. But then, so is every other intensive farm on the planet, including wheat, rice, and marigold and chrysanthemum.

And on to the bit where the argument is so stupid and wrong, that it turns into something that actually makes sense.

Accusing Indians of choppping down trees for Christmas is stupid because most Christmas trees sold in India are not Christmas trees at all, but metal or plastic rods with green plastic leaves. So no actual trees are getting chopped down.

Why the argument still makes sense at some level despite being so wrong is because all that plastic is ultimately coming from petroleum or wood pulp extraction. If it’s from wood pulp, again, it would in all likelihood be coming from a managed forest and not from denudation; and if it’s coming from petroleum, that’s your carbon footprint right there.

Fortunately, there is a very simple, and environmentally friendly way to have a Christmas tree in India that involves neither plastic trees nor cutting down a tree from a forest, nor cutting down a tree at a tree farm. It was advised to me by Nilanjana Roy last year: get a potted plant, decorate it for Christmas, and then look after it for the rest of the year. Your garden gets an extra plant, and your Christmas decorations look all that nicer. So that is just what I did last Christmas.



It was fantastic.

Android R

March 21, 2015

Google names major Android versions after desserts. Which is why, two and a half years ago, when the ‘K’ version of Android was scheduled to be released, Indians started campaigning for Android Kaju Katli. In a great blow to deliciousness, Google named Android 4.4 KitKat instead.

The year after that, Laddoo was bypassed for Lollipop. We now face a situation where at one major release a year, there could be a few years before another Indian sweet is in the running. Consider:

  • This year should be Android M, where the best contender from India is Mysore Pak. It faces fierce competition like marshmallows, macarons, macaroons, marzipan, and marble cake. Its prospects are not good.
  • After M comes N, and I can’t think of a single Indian dessert that begins with n. Whereas the west has nougat. Which is disgusting, but at least it has a name beginning with n.
  • Next we have O, where again I can’t think of a single Indian dessert. Even Asian desserts, which I thought might have a chance, because apparently the preferred spelling is Umm Ali, not Om Ali, which is just Indian caterer spelling. So… Android Orange Marmalade?
  • Android P next. We could potentially have Android Pedha, Android Petha, or Android Piste ki lauj. But if you can’t get Android Laddoo, no way are you getting Android Pedha.
  • I can’t think of anything, Indian or Western, that starts with Q and is also a dessert.

Which brings us to R, where for the first time India has a serious contender: Rasmalai.

It would be wrong to call Rasmalai the king of desserts. For starters, it’s feminine in Hindi. But more than that, it has no monarchical pretensions, so you couldn’t even call it the queen of desserts. Go to a sweet shop – particularly Evergreen Sweet House if you want to have the greatest rasmalai in India – and you’ll find rasmalai lying placidly (in plain or kesar form) among the gulab jamuns, kala jamuns, and cham cham, not at all suggesting that it tastes better than anything else around. The laddoos may occupy the top shelf, the anjeer ki barfi may come at the beginning on an alphabetical listing, but the rasmalai is content to maintain a low profile until it comes to the crucial question of how it tastes. It is, therefore, the primus inter pares of desserts. It is a dessert for republics, not decadent monarchies. For reasons of deliciousness as well as reasons of politics and philosophy, we should therefore devote all our energy to campaigning for Android Rasmalai, even if this means taking away our chances for an Android Mysore Pak.

At one Android release a year, there are five years to go. This gives us enough time to build up our campaign. You might say it is too much time. You would be wrong, because we have to defeat the enemy within: Rasgulla/ Rosogolla.

There is a grave threat that by the time Android’s R release is coming up, the insidious Bengalee lobby will try to promote Rosogolla as an alternative contender for the name. This is all the more sinister, because if they succeed, not only will they have scuppered the chances of the more delicious Rasmalai, they will have further succeeded in promoting the originally Oriya Rosogolla as something Bengali. For the sake of both deliciousness and Oriya pride, we must not let this happen. It will be a matter of great shame for all Indians if the first Indian dessert to make it to an Android codename is an abominable, oversugary mess instead of a perfectly balanced, nutty and spicy rasmalai. Besides, the Bongs can always try for Sondesh.

Join me to promote R for Rasmalai my comrades!

The long and short of ‘hair’

June 25, 2010

I realize that being hung over makes writing even more interesting, though I am not sure if I can say it’s interesting for the readers!

As I sit in the salon while my hair stylist works his magic on my hair, I think about the time  I spent shampooing, conditioning, getting my hair styled, ironed, colored, etc, etc. Do I think it’s a waste of time? – nah, not at all, as I love long hair. This leads me to thinking that though I hate generalizations, most successful women in the corporate world have short hair!

Let’s take Fortune’s list of most powerful women in the world and you will see what I mean:

1. Indra Nooyi – Chairman and CEO, Pepsico
2. Irene Rosenfeld – Chairman and CEO, Kraft foods
3. Pat Woertz – Chairman, CEO and President, Archer Daniels Midland
4. Angela Braly – President and CEO, Wellpoint
5. Ellen Kullman – CEO, DuPont
6. Carol Bartz – CEO, Yahoo
7. Ursula Burns – CEO, Xerox
8. Brenda Barnes – Chairman and CEO, Sara Lee
9. Safra Catz – Co-President, Oracle
10. Ann Livermore – EVP, Technology Solutions, Hewlett-Packard
11. Sheri McCoy – Worldwide Chairman, Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson
12. Melanie Healey – Group president, Global feminine and health care, P & G
13. Anne Sweeney – Co-Chair, Disney Media Networks and president, Disney/ABC Television Group, Walt Disney
14. Heidi Miller – CEO, Treasury & Securities Services, JPMorgan Chase
15. Colleen Goggins – Worldwide chairman, Consumer Group, Johnson & Johnson

Each of the above listed powerful women has short hair. Even Hillary Clinton and Australia’s first woman Prime Minister Julia Gillard have short hair. Now let’s take a look closer home: Vinita Bali, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, Naina Lal Kidwai, Anu Aga, Shikha Sharma, Kalpana Morparia, Lalita Gupte are the ones that come to mind immediately and each one of them again has short hair.

Notable exceptions are Andrea Jung, Chairman and CEO, Avon (being a cosmetics company) Chanda Kocchhar and Renuka Ramnath. Even the ones I see climbing up the corporate ladder have short hair – I mentioned this to one of the senior managers I work with (she has very short hair) and she said my observation was not completely off the mark.

Let us understand how hair can play truant when one is trying to create a serious impression – if in a meeting, while thinking about something, you absent mindedly play with your hair, chances are you wont be taken very seriously, specially by your male colleagues – not to forget getting disapproving glances from female colleagues who may think you are using your “looks”. Playing with hair is the one of the signs of flirting and sometimes women touch their hair subconsciously without even realizing it. Besides the risk of appearing overtly feminine, one also has to maintain hair – the time and effort spent is worth the final result – but successful and busy high flying women may not have the time, patience and inclination to style long hair when they could be making millions for the company. It is estimated that women spend 2.5 years and USD 50,000 caring for hair during their lifetime. Hair is something that ranks right up their with waist-to-hip ratio when it comes to men getting attracted to women. Hair is something that makes women feel feminine and can even help change personalities, depending on hair cut and hair color (as banked on by Loreal).

Of course, nowadays men too spend more time in grooming and getting dressed. So sometimes, for the women, more than saving time, it’s all about exuding power or trying to appear more masculine – to be more accepted in a largely male dominated corporate world – which may explain how pant suits may also find more favor with such women than dresses.

Also if your male colleague goes bald, you may hardly give it a thought but just imagine if your female colleague went bald – you would find that shocking, wouldn’t you? Women are sometimes under tremendous pressure to look a certain way; men can get away with a lot – though times are changing.

The age of the Asian woman

June 25, 2010

The UK census for the first time in 2001 included a “mixed” category to account for people with mixed parentage (1.4% of total population and expected to be UK’s largest ethnic minority group by 2020). Anyone in China today, more so in the big cities would be familiar with white babies with Chinese eyes – in most cases children of an Asian mother and Caucasian/ White father. If the China census included a “mixed” category, I am certain it would be a sizable number, though it may be negligible when compared to overall population. While “Mulatto” is a term used for person with one black and one white parent, we may very soon see a similar term for children of Asian-Caucasian/ Asian-White parents.

It is said that one of the ways to ensure that your partner is not cheating on you is to look out for someone with say, similar color of eyes – for example, blue eyed people will subconsciously go in for partners with blue eyes. This is also a way to ensure that your child gets certain genetic characteristics, like blue eyes in above example. Now while it may be easy to understand blondes getting attracted to blondes or those with light eyes getting attracted to someone with light eyes as well; lets explore what attracts the white man to the Chinese woman or vice versa.

As more and more foreigners (men), come to China for work, get married to a Chinese woman and settle down here, we see more and more babies of Asian-Caucasian mixed parentage. The examples of Chinese men and foreign women are very few and far between. This is partly due to the fact that Chinese men are very shy and would not be able to approach a foreign woman as easily as a Caucasian guy would approach an Asian woman. And if they did, they still lack the charm required to engage the foreign women. Most Chinese/ Asian women are smitten with the idea of being with/ marrying a “white” guy. For them it’s a passport to a “supposedly” better life and change of nationality. In fact a lot of Chinese women look down upon other Chinese after marrying a foreigner. An article that stirred up quite a controversy here recently  talks about this craze Chinese women have for foreigners that makes them marry white men double or sometimes triple their age! White men think Asian women make fantastic homemakers – also the effort they need to put in to charm/ seduce an Asian woman is zilch when compared to trying to charm a white woman! Because while the white woman may need wining, dining, the works; the Chinese woman here is just happy to be with someone who has white skin, behaves like a gentleman and is probably better on hygiene than some local Chinese men, even if he is her father’s age. Also they are not so hung up on making nice conversation – they prefer action to words! In fact in most cases, there is no communication between them or communication where the white guy is trying to explain some basic things while the Chinese girl looks at him in awe. Chinese women also make it much more convenient for men to approach them or sometimes may even make the first move. I am not saying all Chinese/ Asian women are like this, but most are really fascinated by the idea of being on the arm of a white guy! Of course there are strong exceptions and I have some white friends who say that don’t find Asian women particularly attractive. One of my friends pointed out that while he feels happy to see white men marrying Asian woman and starting a family, what is truly detestable is when a white guy leaves his wife and kids to be with an Asian woman his daughter’s age. Also there is a trend of having a Chinese “girlfriend” even if one is married. Also not all Asian/ Chinese women want to be with a foreigner. I have some very good Chinese friends and these girls say they are very happy with their Chinese boyfriends/ husbands.

Now interesting to note here is that somehow Indian women just don’t feel the same about white men – in spite of the fact that most white men consider Indian women to be extremely attractive. Guess Indian women are very happy with Indian men or simply look for stability and think that the white men are not marriage material given the high divorce rates in the west (Indians marrying foreigners can be a separate post altogether). While there are quite a lot of Indian men who have married Asian women but I don’t know any Indian woman married to an Asian guy. Again it’s much easier for Caucasian men to marry Asian women who may be looking at domestic roles compared to their ambitious Caucasian counterparts. It’s a similar case in Singapore and most of South East Asia and this article is actually about white women complaining about how all the white men are going after Asian women. Even Japanese women are quite in demand as they are known to be “submissive” – the popular saying is ‘Heaven is an American salary, a Chinese cook, an English (country) house, and a Japanese wife. Hell is defined as having a Chinese salary, an English cook, a Japanese house, and an American wife.’ (To digress a bit; in the current context with the RMB appreciation, a Chinese salary may not be all that bad and an American salary is no longer as glamorous as it used to be).

Now where does all this leave the Chinese/Asian guy – he is in quite an unenviable position really. In fact, as one my friends rightly pointed out, some Shanghainese men do the dishes, cleaning, cooking, all housework, carry their wife/ girlfriend’s handbag just to compete with the white men vying for the Shanghainese women. A TV advert here for “Nivea for men – oil control” shows a Chinese guy with a very oily face giving a presentation in the boardroom and a white woman (portrayed as his boss) giving him disapproving looks – then it shows a Chinese guy with very good skin and the same white woman smiling and nodding in appreciation. Loreal and Nivea say that China is the biggest market for male grooming products – the Chinese man is trying his best!

Let’s also look at the state of black women in the US. 70% of working African American women are single and 45% of African American never marry. Here is an interesting blog from Economist on the black woman’s quandary. It says black women are in an awful spot when it comes to dating. But clearly white, brown, black women prefer to be single than to be with Chinese men for example (yours truly included) – no offence to the Chinese guys, they are nice and sweet but most foreign women would not view them as husband material.

15-20 years from now, when all these Asian-White children grow up, they may just have it easier to find mates among themselves as there will be loads and loads of them….

*Caucasian stands for populations of Europe, North Africa, West Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia – when I use Caucasian above it means Europeans and (few) South Asians. Hence I use Caucasian/ White to indicate I mean all “White” largely in the context of the above post. Asian above refers to people from Asia except South Asia.

p.s. I have not written this for a long time as I am worried that by mentioning this, this site will get blocked in China (much to Aadisht’s delight) just like blogger, blogspot, wordpress are all blocked here and it will be even more difficult to post views for people like me.

Also – I have very good Chinese women friends and I mean no offence to any Chinese women.

India and China: A comparison

June 25, 2010

This is first in series of comparisons that could be done between the two countries. For all the non-inspiring traits I mentioned about us Indians, there is one that surely is commendable; as Swami tried to point out – and that is freedom of speech; which is how I am able to write this so freely and you are able to comment so freely (Thanks for your comments). It’s true that I always took this freedom of speech for granted and never realized its value till I got to China – which is at the other extreme.

When we are outside our country we become even more strongly aware of our nationality as we are representatives of our country outside. Let me further explain what it means to me today in an international setting, with people from different nationalities. When a westerner asks about some problems in India, we normally tell them it’s because of the population and they wouldn’t understand as they don’t come from a populated country. But this answer cannot be given to a Chinese person, as after all this is the only country with a population that matches ours (although the population density is lower). Of late, on my trips to India, I have ended up accompanying Chinese on their first trip to India (including a senior Chinese delegation once) and I can tell you they are appalled; mostly by the infrastructure, rather the lack of it. This is compounded by the fact that Chinese government’s answer to all woes is the infrastructure stimulus package. The rate at which the infrastructure is being developed here needs to be seen to be believed. So when the Chinese person comes to India and sees lack of good wide roads, highways, metro system and so on, they can’t believe that this country (which lacks basic infrastructure) will compete with China. Of course, Prof Gupta and his Chinese wife put it very aptly when they say though China is clearly ahead of India, the former looks stronger than it is while the latter is stronger than it looks.

An incident that comes to mind is when I accompanied the delegation to the Taj Mahal from Delhi and the highway was blocked by the villagers who were protesting against a murder – so we ended up taking a kuccha road which increased travel time substantially. The woes didn’t end there. In spite of being put up at the best luxury hotel within 500 metres of the Taj, the golf cart ride to the Taj proved to be a pain for them with urchins trying to climb onto the cart and ask for money – a scene straight out of slumdog millionaire! And then we have the likes of Amitabh Bachchan saying Slumdog is ruining the image of India – but that is the real India! If we/ the Indian government are so concerned about the “image” of India, then the road leading to the Taj Mahal should be cleared of illegal hawkers, urchins, and the likes. In fact given that the Taj Mahal is among the wonders of the world and one of top tourist destinations in India this is the least we can do.

Last night while posting the comments in response to Swami I talked about how we in India have the freedom to move to any city and if I don’t have  place to live there, I can live on the road creating a slum. While slums are clearly not an Indian phenomenon alone, mention must be made here of China’s ‘hukou’ system (system of residence permits, which makes it difficult to move across cities, thereby limiting mass movement of people from rural areas to cities). India, being a democracy doesn’t impose any restrictions on movement of people within the country and as an Indian I am free to go to any part of India. But they think it’s better to restrict movement than to have slums. Now, China’s hukou system has been criticized a lot as explained in this article which is blocked here (an example of the internet restrictions here). But to the Chinese, India’s problem are the slums and also the fact that our government does nothing to control the population growth – again an issue of democratic right of deciding how many children one wants to have. Now an important point as far as beautification of cities is concerned is that in China; the face is Shanghai and it’s very well decorated/ prepped up…but West China (which is the rural China) is the ugly underbelly that China doesn’t want to show. Whereas in India, it is what it is – all out in the open (we really don’t try to showcase only some places which make us feel good about our country). Which I would think is truly commendable and something to feel proud of as an Indian.

Also, lest I be accused of only drawing attention to annoying habits of Indians, I must say the Chinese have their own idiosyncrasies, what with the government in Shanghai trying its best to convince people not to spit, not to wear pyjamas during the expo. And for Deepesh’s comments, would say that the mainland Chinese will surely not read this due to their aversion towards reading English (manifested by the education system). Also, important to note here is that when we Indians feel superior because we know English, we tend to forget that it’s in a way thanks to the British colonization legacy! As for Arvind’s comments; most Indians would become more concerned about country’s image when outside as that’s when you are truly a representative/ ambassador of your country! So if and when I don’t conform to the stereotype image foreigners have of India (after seeing movies like slumdog millionaire); I do tell the story of the elephant and seven blind men and try to explain what being Indian means (which is how the previos post came about). I try to explain how our country is a melting pot of so many different cultures, languages, religions, customs, rituals, and so on.

In the coming weeks, I shall attempt to compare the two countries on food, language, outlook towards progress, outlook towards the west, internet freedom, and so on.


June 14, 2010

Recently in Shanghai, I had the (mis)fortune of attending a lecture addressed to MDP batch of senior executives from India’s public sector companies who were here to “understand” China; a study trip arranged by a leading management association in India. My incentive to attend this was that the speaker was an Indian origin strategy professor from one of the best global business schools. However, I was completely unprepared for the kind of audience I ended up being seated with.

For starters, I was the only woman in the entire room and got some stares that made me hope the ground would just split open right there and I be swallowed in (a-la Sita in Ramayana). The purpose of their trip and of this session was to “understand” China – but seems none of these leaders of our PSUs had an open mind and attitude to do so. It ended up being a case of them laughing over any positive thing pointed out about China. And they thought the few other Indians and I who work in China are mad and we have become Chinese and lost our sense of Indianness (WTF). They just kept saying that this entire amazing infrastructure is just a façade; there is nothing good about China or nothing that they can learn from here. I am quite certain, that these guys were upset that they were sent to China in the name of “Videsh”; as for these guys, Videsh still largely means the UK and US.

Now contrast this with a conference I attended organized by a Chinese trade council and one of the provincial governments in South China – this conference aimed at the Chinese “learning” from one of India’s best IT companies about how to develop China’s IT sector! The attitude of the Chinese when it comes to learning/ emulating/ copying is brilliant – if they think you have something to offer, something they can learn; they will want to learn that and implement it in their own country! Everyone says China is known for its “fakes”; in other words for “copying” – but even that requires its own skills. While in India, copying is largely restricted to bollywood lifting stories/ getting inspired from Hollywood/ other world cinema or music; in China, they copy everything from the concept & design of magnetic levitation train to airport terminal designs to designer bags/ shoes – and they are damn good at it. At the end; it all leads to taking the best from everywhere and replicating it here – it’s a system which works, and works brilliantly at that. For all the painful history between Japan and China, today the fact is that the tallest building in China – Shanghai World Financial Centre (SWFC – 101 floors), located in the heart of Shanghai’s financial district is made by the Japanese group Mori. The Chinese have an open attitude about learning, from absolutely anyone.

Our home grown PSUs, on the other hand, are still living in their own “well” – like the frogs who live in a well oblivious to world outside! They still want to function in their age old bureaucratic ways, leading to nothing short of a disaster at times. A classic example is our national carrier. Hope the leading global consulting firm they are working with is able to save them. The general manager of one of the best private airlines in India once told me how he is feeling bad about the state of the national carrier – I asked him shouldn’t he be happy that they are less of a competition for his company – to which he made a very valid point saying he feels let down as an Indian as at the end of day, it’s the national carrier and it doesn’t understand the responsibility of being one!

I am not saying that the Chinese SOEs (State Owned Enterprises) are shining examples of successful corporations; however their management approach is becoming increasingly like that of an MNC! Of course, there are strong links to the government in case of Chinese SOEs and the ambition level (which often gets stimulus from the fact that the government always tries to go out of the way to protect the local companies and discourage outside competition) is not be missed. While I will write a separate post on ambitions of Chinese companies and how China is in a race to own the world’s natural resources today; point to be noted is that the attitude here is much more open than that of our babus back home!

What does it mean to be Indian?

June 13, 2010

(This is a controversial post)

It happens almost every day. I get into a taxi to get to work or return from work and once I have explained my destination in Chinese; the taxi driver will ask “ni shenme guo jia de ren?” (Where are you from/ which is your home country?) And nowadays I have started asking the drivers to guess (“ni cai”) and in most cases the drivers never guess I am Indian and on knowing I am Indian, they want to know why I don’t wear a bindi, or how come I work (yes, people here have a strange notion about Indian women). Now this takes me back to a conversation I once had with an American who asked me if I go to office on an elephant! And an African who once told me I must feel so “free” to wear shorts (this conversation was taking place in Kuala Lumpur) as I might be wearing saris all the time back home! And a Korean who thinks that western outfits are not sold in India at all.

Now most of the above reflects lack of knowledge about India/ Indians. But what strikes me most if that they all have a certain stereotypical image of India. The number of people who have mentioned slumdog millionaire to me within 3 minutes of a first encounter on knowing that I am from India is not funny! To my mind, the challenge is that there is actually no definition/ stereotype of an average Indian – except probably that most Indians like cricket (no wonder it’s called the common religion of India). While the average Joe (American) is described age 25 or older, made roughly $32,000 per year, does not have a college degree, has been, is, or will be married as well as divorced at least once during his or her lifetime, lives in his or her own home in a suburban setting, and holds a white-collar office job (according to Wikipedia); there is no definition of an average Indian – even if we try to attempt one, it would be difficult to come up with an accurate one! Most of my conversations with friends/ acquaintances from across different countries/ cultures take place in this way:
Are most Indian vegetarians? – well, largely yes
Is it because of religion? – largely yes, but depends as many are vegetarian out of choice and many are religious but eat meat or don’t eat meat but drink alcohol (difficult to explain, right!)
Do most Indians live with their parents? – yes, but it depends – people do move out to different cities to work/ study
Are all marriages in India arranged? – largely yes, but depends really on the individual/ family.
Are there any good looking men in India? (question most often asked by Asian women who think the typical Indian man is short, fat, balding and one who doesn’t care about personal grooming!) – Well, yes, I can show you some of my friends who are good looking!
Do women in India work? – if they want to, like anywhere else (but yes, not like China where almost all women work!)
Is the bindi a sign of marriage? – largely yes among Hindus, but even single women wear it and many married women don’t – so it depends! (Also interesting to note here that unlike other countries, a lot of married Indian men do not wear a ring, actually giving out signals that they are single and available :P)
What is staple diet in India? – depends on which region you are talking about
What is the common language in India? – hmmmm, English!

Well, you get the drift… So I always tell the story of the seven blind men and the elephant to my firang friends – Each one touches a different part and comes up with his own description of the elephant. Similarly depending on which part of India one visits or meets an Indian from which part of India, one is bound to come up with one’s own stereotype images of typical Indian! And the fact is that these images will vary greatly from one another.

Of course a lot of these differences (including the differences in physical characteristics) can be attributed to the Aryan-Dravidian divide, the different religions, customs, languages and the caste system. So while there cannot be a common physical characteristic (except that most Indians are increasingly leading unhealthy lifestyles leading to obesity and heart diseases); based on observations of Indians back home and in a global/ international scenario I thought of similarities in behavioral characteristics and came up with the below:

  • Indian Stretchable Time (IST) – An utter disregard for time, one’s time as well as other’s time. Turning up late for meeting/ appointments, dialing in late for conference calls, turning up to meet people without appointments, making people wait – we just don’t respect time! In most countries, for a 9 am appointment people would reach by 8.50 whereas Indians most likely will make it by 9.15/ 9.30 and walk in without bothering to apologize for being late! (probably the only notable exception here is people in Bombay whose lives depend on that Virar fast/ Churchgate fast – but then they too may not respect time in other aspects of life)
  • Sense of superiority – its very interesting to note that how we as a race have a certain false sense of being superior. We just assume we are smarter than the rest. While it’s good to have confidence, a know-it-all attitude just spells doom and makes us come across as arrogant. Just saying that you don’t know something opens up a world of learning/ opportunity. The Indian way may not be the best way for everything and there is a lot we can learn from others by keeping an open mind.
  • Aggression/ Competitiveness – While some may argue that aggression is more in northern parts of India than Southern, overall as Individuals, we are very aggressive. Sometimes in cultures where direct confrontation in front of others is considered rude, an Indian manager often ends up offending his/ her subordinate. The difference to be noted here is that this aggression in sadly missing at a country level. So while China is aggressive as a country today we are aggressive/ ambitious as individuals resulting in Indians as individuals outshining at global levels but the country failing to do so, as compared to China
  • Self over team – Continuing from point above, we are excellent when it comes to working individually; but find it difficult to work as part of a team. And everyone wants to be the manager, not the worker. A story that comes to mind here about rowing competition between India and Japan. How Japan team won easily as they had 7 rowers and 1 captain but the Indian team had 7 captains but 1 rower. And they attributed the loss to the rower not doing his work properly! We generally find it difficult to be open to “listening” to others point of view and working together with them. It’s generally my way or the highway.
  • General disregard for other cultures – As part of my job, I am always on conference calls involving India, China and most times these calls have Indians, Chinese, and people belonging to other nationalities. Most times, Indians due to “sense of superiority” and “aggression” mentioned above will completely disregard other cultures, not taking efforts to slow down while talking to make it easier for other person to understand, talking without listening, shouting, etc. Again a point to be noted here is that the same Indian will go out of his/ her way to speak in a British/ American accent if required but won’t slow down when talking to people from non-English speaking countries. This is because the superiority complex we have as compared to many other nationalities also leads to an inferiority complex when it comes to some countries, largely UK, US. Also, the disregard for time zones and calling people on their hand phone after work hours, marking every mail important/ urgent even if it’s not all leads to irritation/ confusion in a global scenario. I am not saying all other cultures understand India, but to exemplify, it’s a fact that an average Indian in China (as compared to say a Westerner here) would not be comfortable eating with chopsticks or even try to understand cultural things like clocks and mirrors are not appropriate gifts for Chinese.
  • Equating job/ work with oneself – An equation that most Indians don’t understand is that life > work. I would be very scared if someone would not be able to think of me beyond the work I do. But the fact remains that power, position, status, job are so important to the average Indian that some even print their designation and company name on their wedding cards! Marriage is for lifetime (ideally) and I can’t understand for the life of me why anyone would want to have their wedding invitation look like a CV!
  • Moral policing/ crab mentality – We want to always have a say on what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s acceptable and what’s not. The moment someone tries to do something different, like a bucket of crabs we start pulling that person down/ back in. The numbers of examples that come to mind warrant a post in itself!
  • Attitude towards children – A friend of mine put it very nicely recently when he said that for most Indians, their dreams/ aspirations end the day their children are born and they start inflicting their unfulfilled dreams/ aspirations on their children. Compared with many other countries and cultures, there is a higher sense of protectionism around children and higher expectation levels as well. Go to a school open house and you will see parents busy comparing why their child lost that 1 mark in the history paper! The focus is not so much on overall development but on academics, though that is changing as parents realize alternative careers thanks to the likes of Dhoni being successful. Also, unlike western mothers, Indian mothers are just not comfortable letting their children be while they get some “me-time”. This is more so the case with infants – while it’s a common sight to see western mothers with infants/ toddlers traveling, meeting up for lunch, going shopping or treating themselves to a spa; for Indian mothers, having a baby in many ways makes them confined to their houses – they are just not comfortable taking their babies out! Even when it comes to traveling in cars, most Indians refuse to have a child car seat and will make their baby sit on the laps in the front seat which is actually more dangerous! I will elaborate on this more in travel point next.
  • Attitude towards travel – This is one of my favorite ones. Go to any airport in the world and it will be easy to spot an Indian family – most likely a family of 4-6, all on the healthy/ overweight side with lots and lots of luggage (we never learnt how to travel light!) and bringing out one packet after another of snacks. If there is an infant with the family, it will be crying loudly and the parents just look helpless. On the other hand, westerners travel a lot (even on leisure) and with infants – it is a common sight to see them traveling to tourist spots (including beaches) with infants/ kids – and a point to be noted here is that their babies in most cases are not crying out aloud thanks to the pacifier. Maybe Indian mothers have some kind of an aversion to pacifiers, but just think about it – most Indians who start a family just stop taking holidays until the kid grows to a certain age! Now this is quite a common Indian phenomenon which in inexplicable to me! Another thing about travel is that while the average western couple in their retirement may want to go on a world tour, the Indian has just started getting there.
  • “Chalta hai” attitude – No social welfare, a painstakingly slow judiciary (leading to murderers freely roaming about and partying), political leaders who cant run to save their lives (literally), lack of basic civil infrastructure, lack of safety for women (sometimes even inside their own houses), the Bombay drainage system not prepared for the monsoon and the same story being repeated year after year – and what do we do – shrug it off, say “chalta hai” and do not bother to know where our hard-earned money paid as taxes is going. In fact, in most cases our attitude towards it is one of apathy at best – we have become experts at turning a blind eye to all the crap going on around us. And a few years ago, we were also fooled into believing that “India is shining”. While the best people in China join the biggest political party in the world, the best people in India are working on Wall Street, Silicon Valley, teaching in universities abroad, making money in the stock markets while politics remains a “family business”. We need to be in the system to change the system – but we just don’t want to be. In most cases, an IIT/ IIM degree is the passport to “better life” outside the country. And even if it’s within the country that we choose to work, do we really care about the above mentioned points – nah, we are more interested in FIFA world cup (where we are not even represented as a country) or in the latest I phone. After studying “business leadership and strategy” one of the most coveted jobs is that of a trader in a bank – I still don’t understand what “leadership skills” are required there! There is a saying the Chinese believe in – “community over self and country over community”; in India it’s often the reverse, community over country and self over community!

I know its sounds pessimistic but I could not think of a single very inspiring/ positive common trait across whole of contemporary India – something that the world can learn from/ hope to emulate. Would love to hear about your definitions of a typical Indian!

Women are biggest hurdles to women’s progress; more so in India

May 19, 2010

Two of my Indian friends are expecting a baby – both of them are women who have “chosen” not to work after marrying men who are better qualified then them – what shocked me was the blatant way in which both of them said they want a baby boy (they have not used any tests to determine the gender of the baby). I asked one of them why she wouldn’t want a baby girl; she pondered and then said “I don’t mind having a second child as a girl so that I have something to decorate” – I was aghast at hearing this, was she talking about a human being or a Christmas tree (sorry about the bad joke while I am trying to write a serious piece, but well, you get the point). I really wanted to ask these women if they feel so inferior/ worthless about being women that they don’t want to be responsible for bringing a girl child into the world – but there are some boundaries one doesn’t cross while dealing with not-so-close-friends! If these women would have a baby girl, they would surely try again for a boy. This incident took me back to the conversation I had with my domestic help who never had the privilege to go to school and had 5 children (all girls) in her quest to have a baby boy to please her husband – I was explaining to her to not have any more children and send her girls to school – what is the difference between this domestic help and these friends of mine who want a baby boy! Doesn’t it prove that the education that these friends of mine underwent was a waste if they think in such a manner, which is regressive according to me?

We are no longer living in an age when we need to hunt to feed ourselves – in which case it still makes some sense that men being physically stronger would go out and hunt while the women stayed at home to take care of other chores. In today’s world, the weapon is education and it is gender neutral! Let me exemplify what I am saying. I have another friend who married her boyfriend right after graduation – her then boyfriend and now husband is a qualified chartered accountant. He is an ambitious guy and moved geographies to progress in his career. My friend found it difficult to get a job outside India so she requested her husband to move back to India and this is what her husband had to say “If you can find a job in India that will pay you as much as I make here and I will gladly move back and also become a house husband”. He said this knowing very well that this would not be possible at all. I would have given this guy one tight slap and walked out of the marriage. But my friend didn’t have the “weapon”, i.e. professional education to be able to stand on her feet confidently and has given up on all her aspirations, dreams and hopes or as the MCPs would like to put it; made her husband’s dream her dream!

The biggest challenge we are facing today (not only in India, globally) is the lack of equal number of women in higher/ professional/ specialised education. In India, it’s a bigger problem with the girl child not treated at par with her brothers! If I visit someone and they make their daughter get water, make tea, help in the kitchen while the son gets to sit around playing computer games; I never like to revisit them – as this says a lot about their thinking and most of them are quite open about it; the women of the household will say they are “grooming” the girl for marriage and sending the son for education abroad. In some cases I have also seen that they encourage the girl to study so that she gets an even better qualified husband, in this case the educational qualification of the girl being of greater importance on her marital CV. The easiest way to control women is to not allow them any financial/ economic freedom; i.e. not allow them to earn money. To ensure that not too many women go out and hunt, i.e. earn money, our society does a fantastic job of not giving them the required weapons, i.e. education. Of course it would be wrong to paint all Indian families with the same brush, but unfortunately majority do fall into the stereotype I mentioned above. I admire and respect families where they don’t differentiate among siblings on basis on gender. I came across an interesting article recently written by a Canadian journalist who lives in Delhi (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/sunday-toi/special-report/Free-societies-like-respect-free-women/articleshow/5908488.cms) she has described how “Critics say the family has gone haywire in the western world because of the feminist revolution. Women’s rights and their increasing economic power has seen divorce rates shoot up drastically”. This is very true as most of the times I come across women at work who are divorcees; being financially independent helped them to step out of a bad marriage unlike some others I know who suffer silently as they are completely dependent on their husbands. Walking out of the marriage to them would mean going to their aging parents and they think it’s not right to stress their parents at this age with their marital woes! Often my guy friends have told me “it’s different for you, you are a girl; tomorrow you can just choose to stay at home” – this is where the problem lies, working should not be a choice. Women should work; whatever work they like to do and be financially independent ALL their lives. On a separate note, I would be very interested in carrying out a survey of batches of 1988-1992 from the top b-schools in India and check how many of the women from the prestigious b-schools of our country have given up their career for the larger good of the family – as this is another problem, but at least these women have the education and can work again if they want to. Just think of how many atrocities against women would decrease if more and more women would pursue higher education and work thereafter. In some cases, I have friends who were threatened by their parents that they would commit suicide if she doesn’t marry. This comes from a stupid belief of some Indian parents, more so mothers, that if one is getting a “good match” then one should not let go of it even if it means that the guy’s family expects the girl to discontinue her education and not work.

A lot of the women in the lower classes of society in India actually work; but the work they do is not white-collar work. Most women in the upper classes are business women or high flying socialites; in any case they are a very small number when compared to the overall population of India. So when I say women are creating hurdles to progress of other women, I largely mean the great Indian middle class. Amidst all the IPL controversy recently, a journalist wrote that “we should not forget we live in the times of sunanda pushkar and sania mirza” – while these 2 women are strong headed, rebellious and hence the target of gossip columnists, what we should really not forget is that we live in the country of Rani Laksmibai and Indira Gandhi! So while we talk of women’s reservation in the parliament and in the IIMs, we should walk the talk as women, as mothers, by not differentiating between genders!

In the meantime; I pray that the two friends of mine whom I mentioned at the beginning do NOT have baby girls – not for their sake, but for the sake of the girl child!

From Shanghai to the world!

May 16, 2010

Yesterday the Japanese retailer Uniqlo opened its flagship store (39,000 sq. ft.) on West Nanjing Road in Shanghai which will be its largest store in the world – the tagline thus appropriately; From Shanghai to the world. The opening was to coincide with the world expo that kicked off in Shanghai this month.

Shanghai has been undergoing a facelift in the last few months – for the green expo. From new metro lines (which have now made the Shanghai Metro the longest in the world) to a new airport terminal to trees replete with lights that have sprouted overnight to viewing galleries in shanghai’s business district to the newly done up bund on the pudong side to new expo taxis with English speaking drivers; shanghai has had more than a lift and a tuck to look like a glittering diamond. Imagine driving to work on a Monday morning to find the road you take everyday suddenly looking completely different with trees on both sides (literally overnight) or taking a taxi one day and not having to explain the address/ give directions in Chinese! It’s almost surreal – but if anyone can do it; it’s the Chinese! In fact; even in normal taxis  (the expo taxis are bigger and better); a sticker has been put with a number to call on in case of problems communicating with the driver – Shanghai has gone all out to make it convenient for the visitor; though how many will visit only because of the expo remains to be seen. But one has to see it to believe it! Most Indians who visit Shanghai for the first time are completely in awe of what the city has to offer in terms of infrastructure and then admit rather sheepishly that they never thought China would be like this!

Let’s take a look at some of the statistics:

  • Size of expo site – 5.28 sq. km. (20 times bigger than the last world expo in Spain)
  • No of visitors expected over 6 months of expo – 70 million (most of them Chinese)
  • Participating countries and organizations – >240
  • Expense to host the event – USD 4.2 billion
  • Amount spent on infrastructure overhaul – USD 45 billion
  • Number of new taxis – 4,000 (in addition to 50,000 existing ones)

The government has spent more on the shanghai expo than they did on Beijing Olympics. A look at the fantastic pavilions put up by various countries today and one is convinced that no country wants to say no to China today! In fact; they want to go all out to use this opportunity to strengthen their ties with China. World leaders were present for the opening ceremony. This is China’s way of asserting its place in the world today by showcasing how no one can do it bigger and better than them. This is also a way for China to tell its own people about its position in the world today. Most importantly, this is the first time the world expo is being hosted by a developing country! If the Beijing Olympics made the world sit up and notice China, then there is no doubt that the Shanghai expo will go all out to make a big statement about China’s position in the world today!

Of course, all this has not been without its share of controversies; people have been relocated to make space for the expo site and the new metro lines; there have been protests which have been curtailed. The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has been brought in to beef up security.

Everyone who has been living in Shanghai for last 6 months; has been given a free ticket to the expo; 33 million tickets have already been sold and along with the free tickets 40 million visitors are confirmed – and the expo has just begun. Keeping aside the issue of relocating the locals or causing inconvenience to some of them; one has to agree that what Shanghai has been able to do is spectacular – I have not seen so much infrastructure development in last 15 years in Bombay as I have seen in Shanghai in last 2 years. In that sense; it does live up to the “better city, better life” theme. All this infrastructure development is very futuristic and will benefit Shanghai for a long time to come. The critics say that there will be the problem of overcapacity but with the kind of growth China is seeing; most don’t see that as a big issue. Convenience and ease is top priority as Shanghai has managed to now link both the airports by metro (old airport in Hongqiao and the new one at Pudong). They have also connected Shanghai to cities like Nanjing by high speed trains and plan to do the same for Shanghai and Beijing. In addition; a 165 metre expo thermometer has been put up in the expo park in Puxi along the Huang Pu river to give real time weather information – this is the highest meteorological signal tower in the world! From low carbon consumption to odorless toilets, the expo has it all.

Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh – you said in 2005 that you want to make Mumbai like Shanghai; its 2010 and Shanghai seems to have gone ahead by light years whereas Mumbai is nowhere close to where Shanghai was in 2005 – in fact the only infrastructure development that Mumbai is proud of; the Bandra-Worli sea link (which took ten years to complete; the same time it took Shanghai to turn whole of Pudong from grasslands to a world class business district complete with a new airport and metro lines) also needed Chinese help (one of the contractors for the sea link was a Chinese infrastructure company)! So while we Indians pride ourselves on our software; when it comes to hardware we really need to keep our egos aside and take some serious help from China as they really know their stuff as showcased by the expo! Being a realist; though I am a proud Indian I would say that Mumbai cannot dream of hosting such an event at a similar scale for the next 100 years! Sigh!