A Hindu’s impression of the United States in 1917.

One of the benefits of having the archives of the New York Times available for downloading from the convenience of a home is that there is a vast collection of news articles of cultural and historical significance easily available.

Today, I came across a book review of Lajpat Rai’s The United States of America: A Hindu’s Impressions and a Study which was published in the newspaper on January 21, 1917. It is a fascinating account of a major American newspaper’s critique of a famous Indian’s account of the United States. I haven’t read the book, but if the New York Times was as stingy with praise then as it is now, then the review is remarkably sympathetic.

“The Hindu scholar has no purpose of writing a book for the purpose of contrasting the East and the West. What he does is to see the United States, a great and growing nation, on the threshold of imperialism, to find her problems unique and difficult, to behold her as something complex and interesting in the present and full of strange promise and portent for the future, to study her thus as a thing worth studying.”

Lajpat Rai summarizes up the challenges and opportunities as he sees them:

To sum up: the United States stands today with the promise (or curse) of imperialism ahead of her, with the tremendous problems of Government ownership of public utilities, with an imminent war between capitalism and labor, with race problems, and with the question of women’s suffrage. It is truly “the melting pot” of the different nations of the world, of its social, political, and economic problems, and its past and future history is well worth watching.

A reader today immediately sees the strides made in certain spheres nearly a century later, especially with respect to the rights of women and minorities. But some of the economic problems outlined such as the disparity between workers and management are still unresolved.

Rai also commends the United States on putting emphasis on education and creating coeducational facilities and it is with this facet that he is most full of praise go so far as to say of America that “her educational system is her saving… Well might the other communities of the world take a leaf out of her book if they want to improve the intelligence, the morals, and the physique of their people.”

The New York Times is somewhat ambivalent on Rai not sharing the irrational exuberance (to use a phrase coined by a modern-day pundit) for unbridled free-market capitalism. It states:

The Hindu’s observations on civilization remain Oriental, and somewhat depressing for Occidental readers. He finds the world, in this country and in Europe, given over to the pursuit of material things, conquering natural obstacles, it is true, but struggling for vanities. The majority lives to provide the pleasures of the few. Hankering after the good things of the world is the ruling passion of life. And is the world better, or happier?

But this is trivial. I share that ambivalence and so do most others reading on their iPads in “India Shining”.

How to eat at an Indian buffet

There is a proper way to eat at an Indian buffet which those who are not desi may not appreciate. Being desi myself, I feel that I’m qualified to advise others. But my qualifications to pontificate on this topic don’t end with a blanket ethnic designation. In an earlier era, I was a graduate student who subsisted solely on a fellowship. Back then most of what I ate in my apartment fell into three food groups – chicken, rice and spices.

As a non-vegetarian desi, I’ve always preferred chicken drumsticks to the drumsticks that come from trees, and so this guide primarily deals with the non-vegetarian Indian (or Pakistani or Bangladeshi) buffets that serve the common generic dishes.

Your preparation for eating at a buffet should always start much before you actually go to the restaurant (which hopefully you’ve selected after extensive research). You should also decide on an optimum day to go to the restaurant. If the restaurant has a buffet for both lunch and dinner, go for lunch. Meals for lunch are almost always cheaper. Also try to avoid going on a weekend or a holiday, since many restaurants charge more on those days.

Once you’ve made long-term preparations by deciding on a day you’ll go for lunch, you need to prepare for the meal itself. The day you plan on eating at the buffet for lunch, you must skip breakfast. This is essential to making it count. Expert buffet-eaters are also adept at timing their lunch buffet to just before the close of lunch so that they don’t need to eat dinner either. A little secret is that drinking cups of black coffee or another caffeinated beverage approximately two hours before the first morsel is ingested is helpful for eating more food. Caffeine stimulates acid secretion in the stomach which if timed properly has the effect of making you feel hungrier than you would otherwise.  And don’t worry about the long -term effects of stomach acid; if you’re a graduate student, your stomach is probably already non-stick from all the teflon you’ve ingested cooking your meals with cheap pots and pans anyway.

Now, once you’re at the restaurant and have been seated here, follow a game-plan. Stick to the water; don’t order any beverages off the menu. Scan the buffet area and commit all the dishes to memory. Then go back to your table, look at the menu and identify which entrées are the most expensive to order à la carte. It is inconsequential whether you like these entrées or not. The purpose of eating at a buffet is to get the most value for money by selectively feeding the face with the most expensive dishes. As a general rule, avoid the rice, samosas (and other fried food), raita, and dal. Gulab jamuns are usually microwaved straight out of cans, so don’t go near them. Paneer dishes never have any paneer, so you can avoid those too. At a quality buffet, there will at the least be a lamb, goat, or shrimp entrée. You should be good at fishing out only the high-value bits from the curry with an elegant, clean Azharuddin-worthy flick of the wrist. If a cooked-to-order masala dosa is offered, you are permitted to eat the dosa, but not the potato-based masala. The rationale behind this is that even though the dosa is made from cheap ingredients, it is a value-added product because of the specialized expertise and time required to make it properly. If you eat the tandoori chicken remember not to pick off all the meat from the bone as you would at home. As a rule of thumb, round up 0.5 or greater of consumed food-unit to higher whole number. If others stare at you, it is their problem, not yours.

Like magicians, most competitive eaters have techniques which they will not share with others. One fail-safe trick of gluttony is to eat rapidly before metabolism catches up. But, remember that you are pitted against desi restaurateurs who will try to thwart your noble objectives by making curries as oily, creamy, and hot as possible. So, tactically it is to your advantage to avoid the gravy altogether.  And don’t let the heat get to you. If your face is on fire, don’t stop. Pain is the new pleasure.

Leave as soon as you’re done eating and before you feel nauseous. Don’t add a tip to the bill. As you leave, fill your pockets and palms with as much saunf as you possibly can.

With practice you’ll be good at inflicting the maximum amount of damage for your own basal metabolic rate. Until then, bon apetit!

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Diplomacy in the age of glacial relations

Today, I saw a column in the Sunday Times of India on Indian foreign policy by none other than Indian novelist, Chetan Bhagat.  Mr Bhagat takes a very hawkish line in a whiny tone after the collapse of the India-Pakistan peace talks between SM Krishna and Shah Mahmood Qureshi. If it now acceptable for non-experts to write on international affairs, then I’m happy to oblige. I know next to nothing about the topic, but I do know a thing or two about human nature.

So, what options are really available in responding to a crisis through the proper use of diplomacy? Sir Humphrey Appleby gave the most brilliant exposition on diplomacy in the second episode of Yes, Minister that I’ve ever come across:

Sir Humphrey: Well, Minister, in practical terms we have the usual six options:

One: do nothing.
Two: issue a statement deploring the speech.
Three: lodge an official protest.
Four: cut off aid.
Five: break off diplomatic relations.
And six: declare war.

Hacker: Which should be it?

Sir Humphrey: Well:

If we do nothing, that means we implicitly agree with the speech.
If we issue a statement, we’ll just look foolish.
If we lodge a protest, it’ll be ignored.
We can’t cut off aid, because we don’t give them any.
If we break off diplomatic relations, then we can’t negotiate the oil rig contracts.
And if we declare war, it might just look as though we were over-reacting!

In the episode, these option were laid out with respect to a crisis created by the head of the fictitious African state of Buranda, but with a little imagination they can be made to fit most international crises.

But even this fictitious scenario can’t hold a candle to the most surreal event in the history of India-Pakistan relations. Siachen Glacier holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s highest battlefield -where more soldiers are lost on either side to the elements than to enemy fire. While reading up on how both sides got involved in this intractable conflict, I came across the following passage in the New York Times:

By the early 80’s, both armies were sending expeditions into the area, and suspicions accumulated like fresh snow. In late 1983, the Indians became convinced the Pakistanis were about to seize the glacier, [India’s] General [M.L.] Chibber said. This was inferred from intercepted communiques. If further evidence was needed, he said, it came when India sent procurers to Europe to buy cold-weather gear. They ran into Pakistanis doing the same shopping.

In other words, Indian and Pakistani military officers were shopping for high-altitude gear at the same shop at around the same time and this may have contributed to the outcome of future events.

Now, I know both countries have creative writers. I challenge them to come up with fiction resembling our warped reality.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Are Indians Asians?

Well, are Indians Asians?

You’re thinking what kind of idiot poses this silly question. You look at a map or globe and point out India smack in the middle of a humongous landmass marked Asia. Indians are Asians and that is all there is to it. Or is there more?

You’re mileage may vary, Dear Reader, but I’ve come across at least three different notions of what constitutes an  “Asian”. The first and most obvious is the geographic argument that anyone hailing from the largest continent on the planet is an Asian. The second  is the close approximation of those who are politically-aligned to the major  cultural powers within geographical Asia. Finally, there are those who are considered to be ethnically Asian. These notions are neither clear, discrete, or completely overlapping.

Let us look at who is an Asian in greater detail. Is someone from Russia an Asian? Most of Russia is in Asia, but politically Russians can be considered aligned to the the rest of Europe. If a white Russian is born in Moscow the geographical argument would dictate that she should be considered a European, but this is also in line with popular political and racial notions. Now, what if this Russian is been born in Vladivostok, which is geographically in East Asia and thousands of miles closer to Tokyo than it is to Moscow? Or take the case of white Israelis born within geographic Asia. Do they fit the common political and ethnic notions of “Asians”?

The question of whether Indians are Asians is an interesting one. I’ve been told by many highly-educated individuals in the United States that I am  “an Indian and not an Asian.” When asked to elaborate, I’ve been informed that Asians have physical characteristics that resemble individuals belonging to the predominant ethnicities of South-East Asia and East Asia. On a related note, I have also heard Pakistanis referred to as “Middle-Eastern, not Asian”, and  that one clearly makes no  sense at all, even to me. Indian Americans are a subset of Asian Americans according to the US government, but the person on the street often does agree with this nuanced hierarchy.

Curiously, all I need to become an Asian is to take a flight across the Atlantic. In the United Kingdom, British Asians include desis from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh who form the predominant “Asian” community. East Asians are called “Chinese”. Also the word “oriental” does not have the racially charged connotations it does in most of North America. In short, if you believe popular definitions,  East Asians are either Asians or Chinese; and South Asians are either Indian or Asians depending on which side of the pond you ask the question.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

A marketing primer for Indians

Are you currently interested in marketing products? Then this primer is for you.

You may enjoy marketing products that customers are already interested in. You may have done your homework and identified the need for a product. Marketing a product in which there customer interest is fine, but where is the challenge? The real challenge is in creating customer interest where there is none. Often, the key is to fabricate a need that the customer is comfortable with. In this way it becomes possible to market unnecessary products, old products packaged as new products, and inferior products as things to be desired.

1) Repurposing an existing product:

This one takes a bit of creativity, but that is part of the game, isn’t it? Take for example chewable antacid tablets. The cheapest antacids consist of calcium carbonate, essentially the same compound present in limestone. From high school chemistry, you know that calcium carbonate reacts with hydrochloric acid to give out calcium chloride, carbon dioxide, and water. It is a cheap and effective way to neutralize acid in the stomach. But marketing an antacid as only an antacid doesn’t give you a marketing edge. You need to sell it as something else.

The easy way to repurpose an calcium carbonate antacid is to market it as an effective source of dietary calcium. Now, you’ve got two uses for the same product, when there was essentially one. You’ve created a new market with your existing product.

2) Creating a market for an inferior product:

Suppose your company is in the business of making plastic straws. What happens if your manufacturing department messes up the specifications for the straws. You could throw them out and start over again. Or if you’re good at marketing, then you could try to sell them as inexpensive disposable stirrers for coffee and tea. You’ve taken the initiative and marketed an inferior product as something that it was not originally meant to be used for.

Let me give you another example. Desi dairymen are notorious for adding water to milk, or rather milk to water before distributing to customers. When confronted with the truth, they usually protest or blame it on ‘the rains’. That is the wrong business model, since it puts the business on the defensive. A way to create a market for milky water is to market it as “diet milk” to appeal to an affluent, health and weight-conscious segment of the market. Don’t laugh it off. These tricks work. How many people actually have the capability to make informed decisions about what they purchase?

3) Creating a market for an unnecessary product:

It is one thing to create a market for an unknown, product for which there is a tangible need. It is completely another to fabricate a need. Fabricating needs are deceptively easy. A celebrated example is the amplifier knob in This is Spinal Tap that goes up to eleven instead of the standard calibration based on the ten system. Think about it: do you really need ten devices that perform redundant functions? Sure, you do, because the advertisement tells  you so. The used-car salesman uses knowledge of psychology to pitch unnecessary products to great effect, but you can train yourself in this art too.

A good way to market an unnecessary product is to point out the inferiority of an existing one with which the customer is familiar. Say for example, you want to market the edible flesh of sea scallops to vegetarians. How would you go about it? One way would be to create an image of scallops as a “new and improved” version of something the vegetarian customer is familiar with. You could go about by saying that scallops are the milder, more flavorful version of radishes or that they are the diced potatoes of the sea. By building a bridge to something the customer is familiar with, you’ve taken a first step in passing off an unnecessary product as something that is an improvement.

Here, I’ve given you three challenging scenarios, but this list isn’t exhaustive. You may call this sort of marketing deceitful, but I call it creative. It is also more common than you think. One day, I believe that the Great Indian Civil War will start over the eternal chakri versus murukku question: essentially a pointless debate over one snack-food called two different names by people from different parts of India. If people can do it to themselves, corporations have every right to do it to them too. After all corporations are people too.

And if you’re still confused, answer this question: why is selling a whole-wheat Mexican tortilla as a desi chapati wrong if you can satisfy the customer? They both taste equally disgusting out of the plastic wrapper.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

A desi take on corporate English

Do you use any of the terms below? I know I use many of them, but  I thought it would be fun to poke fun at the way we talk and write in a professional environment.

  1. Business casual: Explain this to me please. A collared shirt is “casual”. Now, add a man with a stick riding a horse and a 90 dollar price-tag. You now have “business casual”.
  2. Stakeholders: Is anyone physically holding a stake? Avoid this term unless you are in the business of supplying stakes to vampire-killers.
  3. Complimentary: Just call it a booby prize instead. Complimentary is a patronizing euphemism for minor frills that the client has already paid for, such as complimentary nuts with a 1000 dollar registration fee.
  4. Different timezones: This is usually a valid reason to miss a teleconference. India needs different timezones. We usually miss or are late for meetings, but this would give us a consistent excuse.
  5. Great men think alike: What a meaningless meme! Idiots think alike too. How else would you explain the Holocaust? The only reason to say “great men think alike” in a corporate setting is to steal credit for an idea.
  6. Leverage: Unless you lift heavy objects with a crowbar, you should not use leverage at work. Use “exploit” “bribe” or “blackmail”.
  7. Living document: You almost expect a living document to start flapping. Always keep a can of insecticide in your office. Spray anyone holding one.
  8. Moving forward: Moving forward, moving forward will not be necessary. Smart people will just use future tense. Now you decide.
  9. Networking: Something we are all expected to do, but which isn’t fun at all if you forget to bring your needle and thread.
  10. Office climate control: Air-conditioning controls temperature.  If you’re going to call it climate control there should at least be a monsoon setting.
  11. Season change: At any time of the year when someone says they have a cold, you should feign sympathy and say that it is due to season change. This is the polite yet uninterested answer.
  12. Testimonial: This one is unavoidable these days, I’m afraid. Ten years ago it was enough to tell someone that he or she was a good person. Now everyone expects a testimonial on Orkut or Linkedin.
  13. Witch-hunt: The use of this term in everyday conversation is unfortunate. Usually used in the search for a scape-goat. On a related note, I’m really glad we don’t use “bride-burning” idiomatically in India.
  14. Work-life balance: Whoever came up with work-life balance made sure both were distinct and that one came before the other.
  15. Turnkey solutions: If you use this unfortunate phrase make sure you leave out the “n” in the first word and that you just call it a typo.

Disclaimer: I’ve posted many of these on Twitter. This living document is a joke of course. My intention is not to offend anyone here, and the thoughts here are solely my own. Moving forward I hope to leverage existing synergies to create even sillier posts!

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban

Robin Ghosh and cross-border “infiltration” in South Asia

If you are from India you may have heard of Robin Chattopadhyay and Robin Majumdar, both exceptionally talented contributors to the Golden Age of Bangla Cinema in Kolkata. I’ll wager that very few people in India have heard of a versatile music director by the name of Robin Ghosh.  I was intrigued to find out more about him because I could guess at his Bengali ethnicity from his last name.

Robin Ghosh is the music director who composed the songs for Aina, a 1977 Urdu movie which shattered all records to become the biggest box-office hit in Pakistan. Ghosh also composed the songs in Harano Din which was released in 1961 and was one of the earliest Bangla films made in Pakistan. His style of composition in Harano Din reminded me a lot of music directors across the border who were composing songs for Bangla films in Calcutta. For example, “Ae je nijhum raat” sung by Firdausi Begum in Harano Din reminded me of Hemanta Mukhopadhyay’s compositions, especially “Ae purnima raat” in Nayika Sangbad (1967) even though both tunes are distinct.

However, I am told that Robin Ghosh is best known in Pakistan for the lilting songs in Aina. The story revolves around the trite  misunderstandings in love that unnecessarily permeate South Asian cinema, but the music is brilliant. Take for example the song Mujhe dil se na bhulana featuring Mehnaaz and Alamgir:

Does it sound familiar? Think twice if it doesn’t, because if you’ve watched Bollywood movies it should.

Exactly! It is the centerpiece of Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s soundtrack for the Bollywood hit Pyar Jhukta Nahin (1985) featuring Mithun Chakraborty and Padmini Kohlapure.

Maybe, like me, you were already familiar with Robin Ghosh’s compositions, but you just didn’t know it?

My point is a simple one. Even before My Name is Khan took Pakistan by storm, this sort of cultural “inflitration” had been going on from both sides. Before the age of Himesh and Pritam, before Adnan Sami and Atif Aslam, there were the likes of Nadeem-Shravan who ruled the roost and were particularly fond of Pakistani music.

I take your leave with one of my favorite songs from my childhood and the original which not only has a similar tune, but similar lyrics too! The song Tu meri zindagi hai was a bit hit in Aashiqui, a Bollywood movie featuring the expressionless visages of Rahul Roy and Anu Agarwal. That a romantic movie with a couple from matchmaking hell could do well at the box-office attests to the popularity of  the Nadeem-Shravan soundtrack. Arguably, the movie also launched the careers of singer Kumar Sanu and lyricist Sameer.

Now listen to the Pakistani counterpart by Tasavvur Khanum also called Tu meri zindagi hai.

To be completely fair to Sameer, he didn’t lift the entire lyrics. I actually prefer his version even though bandagi rhymes better with zindagi than aashiqui does. Now Kumar Sanu’s nasal twang… that I could do without.

Let us keep the discussion civil folks.

© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban