Thursday, January 31, 2008

Interesting Articles - January 2008

Face Value: Physiognomy & Success (The Economist, 24 Jan. 2008)

"Psychologists spent much of the 20th century denigrating the work of 19th-century physiognomists and phrenologists who thought the shapes of faces and skulls carry information about personality. However, recent work (Dr. Nalini Ambadi, Tufts University) has shown that such traits can, indeed, be assessed from photographs of faces with a reasonable accuracy."

Market ups and downs are normal for capitalism - Meghnad Desai (Times of India p20, 31 Jan. 2008)

"...we do not like stories which are dominated by random events. We see a conspiracy unless there is an elaborate causal story of who did what and when...Something similar happens when we encounter theories of who runs the world, who controls global capitalism...It is hard for people to believe, as Karl Marx did, that societies and even modes of production are self-organizing systems which no one ‘runs’ but which are run by a sum total of infinitely many decisions we all take. Some of the actors are big and others small but no one is big enough to buck the system or small enough not to make an impact."

"Last fortnight has proved the truth of that insight. On the one hand, American multinationals admitted that they goofed up big time. Merrill Lynch, Citibank, Bear Stearns and others lost billions of dollars in a market which they thought they knew and dominated. They have gone cap in hand to various sovereign wealth funds, which are by and large Asian. So the Kuwait, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Chinese funds will own large slices of American multinational banks."

Sovereign-wealth funds: Asset-backed Insecurity (The Economist, Jan 17th 2008)

"Sapped by the subprime crisis, rich-world financial-services groups have been administered nearly $69 billion-worth of infusions from the savings of the developing world in the past ten months...sovereign-wealth funds...are now worth about $2.9 trillion...they will be worth $10 trillion by 2012...Although sovereign-wealth funds make up only 2% of the world's $165 trillion-worth of traded securities, they have a lot of firepower: more equity than private equity and more funds than hedge funds."

"Kiribati, a Pacific island country that mined guano for fertiliser, set up the Kiribati Revenue Equalisation Reserve Fund in 1956. Today the guano is long gone, but the pile of money remains. If it manages a yield of 10% a year, the $400m fund stands to boost the islands'GDP by a sixth.

"A broad, politicised hostility to foreign direct investment would come at a high cost. Such investment spreads financial capital, know-how and technology. It helps the world economy adjust to imbalances and gives countries stakes in each other's prosperity."

Mumbai Morning

A quick, one-day visit to Mumbai after a long time. At 6:00AM the city was still waking up...

Friday, January 18, 2008


Yakult was launched in India a few weeks ago and my Japanese colleagues are all excited about it. On D-day, the company sent us all some free samples - tiny plastic bottles filled with thin, sour liquid with a slightly synthetic taste.

A few days later their direct marketing network was in place and two young girls started making their sales calls thrice a week. My first surprise was that the tiny 'sample' bottles were were no different from the actual bottles -- these were the standard size! It contained no more than 65ml of the liquid, and yet, this was exactly what my colleagues were so ga-ga about.

At first the Yakult-lady had the unprecedented privilege of selling her bottles inside the office. When this was rolled back to the reception desk, the Japs would drop whatever they were doing, head to the reception and come back gleefully with a few five-packs cradling in their arms

What's so great about this fermented milk drink? It is supposed to contain the Shirola strain of Lactobacillus casei which is allegedly good for your digestive system. But I guess conditioning is the key. It is something like our notions about Horlicks or Boost, neither of which has any significant nutritional value, but then nostalgia is a fine marketing tool.

NK recalls his childhood in Hiroshima and of times when the family could not afford to buy this drink (Yen 35 now), so it used to be a great treat to receive it while visiting friends in the neighborhood. Now he buys about 20 bottles a week and his kids are likely to grow up with fond memories of "Yakuruto" in India. The cycle continues, and the company prospers.

Yakult is sold in 28 countries and has diversified into pharmaceuticals (Campto anti-cancer injection). It is listed on the Nekkei and the company owns one of Japan's major baseball franchises, the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. In India the drink is manufactured by Yakult Danone India PL at HSIDC Food Park, Rajasthan.

I am not sure if the product will succeed here. Indian consumer's like me would rather have a Mishti-Doi - at Rs.8 its a lot more filling than three gulps of Yakult. If only Mother Dairy would send them around with young girls in bright uniforms...

Monday, January 14, 2008

NSD Theatre Utsav 2008

Yesterday we saw a wonderful play directed by I.G. Mini.

NSD is celebrating its 50th Anniversary and it has been a bonanza week for theater lovers in Delhi. Since kids are not permitted inside, we had been waiting for weekends and for help from baby-sitting friends to be able to be able to catch at least a few of the performances.

On Saturday we discovered to our dismay that most of the plays had already been sold out, except for few in regional languages. One of them was a Malayalam play directed by I.G. Mini titled, “Life, Festival and Death”. A play based on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s short story “The Trail Of Your Blood In Snow”, about a stormy mallu love affair that blew over in Paris. An affair scrutinized to death by the TV news-journalists, gossip mongers and movie directors.

The venue was “Bahumukh” which is perhaps one of the most intimate theater spaces within the NSD campus. Intimate because the hall is small (~60-seater) and the audience sits on floor-level seating at the periphery, within touching distance of the performers.

When we entered the darkened hall, the stage had been marked into three sections. On the right side, a temple soothsayer (a Theyyam artist) sat with his assistants in an area lit by oil-lamps; the center was occupied by a rowdy, garrulous bunch of card players and on the left, a simple bamboo frame had been raised to represent space of two lovers.

The narrative moved with the spotlights – starting with the card players and their irreverent banter, and as the focus shifted to the lovers and the soothsayers, the rowdies transformed themselves – in the same hall, with their backs to the audience – first into purveyors of the New Media – over-enthusiastic TV reporters in formal suits, shooting of their mouths off and then turning up at a wedding function dressed in spotless mundu-shirts. The soothsayers groups would magically transform themselves into a parody of a TV-request-show in which the hosts dressed in loud clothes spoke in anglicized Malayalam accents, flirting absurdly with an unseen audience.

The acting and set-coordination was brilliant. Only the ending was rather too open-ended – the ‘movie crew’ introduced themselves, sought some talk-show type feedback from the audience and then disappeared into a door marked “Bar is closed” for a wild dance party.

The audience waited for while, and shuffled out when there was no sign of the actors returning. We too left left wondering if the memorable performance could had a less enigmatic ending.

Production: Host-O-Theatre, Nayyattukunnummal, Mm Paramba PO, Calicut, Kerala
Cast: Rajan, Balan, Pushpa, Haridasan, Hareesh, Lalu, Hareendranath, Prabhat, Kabani, Mini
Scenography: NG Roshan
Direction: IG Mini

Friday, January 11, 2008

New Year In East India

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Memories a train journey to Puri, Konark, Chilika Lagoon and Kolkata: 29 Dec., 2007 - 7 Jan. 2008 -


I was bored of sanitized airplanes and curtained AC trains. They robbed me of the joys of traveling - the smell of earth, window panes clear of tinted glass , of the wind rushing through your hair and of the unique camaraderie of train-travellers.

When an opportunity presented itself for long-distance, second-class travel, I grabbed it with both hands. Last fortnight , finally, I found myself in S2 compartment, upper-berth no.64 of Delhi-Puri Purushottam Express. I thought the 1866km rail journey would be simpler than the 3010km-3-day ride to Trivandrum. But I had really underestimated the crowds, and the hazards of traveling during the peak of winters, next to rattly windows that were no match for cold winds.

My coupe had eight berths for eight persons but it was occupied by about 20 passengers who kept shuffling in and out with bribes for the TTE's. I had also forgotten to carry a shawl or a blanket so I spent my nights chattering my teeth, and my waking hours combating free-riders pouring in from eastern UP and Bihar.

Since a human wall prevented me from moving away from my berth, I spend most of my time with a Le Carre (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and by trying to keep track of the steady stream of vendors, hawkers and beggars who kept walking up and down the busy aisle. Here is a sample of the sales-pitches:

  • गरम समोसे बोलिए!! (Samosa vendor)
  • दोनो हाथ कटे है बाबूजी, एक रुपिया गिरा दीजिए! -- आप लोगों से भीक मांग-मांग के खा रहे है!! (beggar)
  • आ...Dip चाय!! (tea vendor with sachets)
  • आ...गरम-गरम गुलाब-जामुन! Tasty रस्गोल्ले!! (Vendor - gulabjamun, rasgollas)
  • ....गोरी-गोरी राम प्यारी चाय!! (spicy milk-tea, served in clay cups -- very common from eastern UP onwards, till Orissa border)
  • नए साल का कलेंडर, मेंहदी बुक, SMS jokes, कहानी, चुटकुले!! (book seller)
  • पैदा-वाला मथुरा का पैदा!! आगरे का मशहूर pettha !! (sweet vendor)
  • आ-ई- Miranda! 7-up! Fruity! पानी बोत्तले! अमुल कूल! (soft drinks)
  • आया lemontee!! (Lemon-tea)
  • Aaa-- सौप, सौप बोलिए!! (Soup seller)

But the first prize certainly went to an enterprising tea-vendor who went about loudly proclaiming that he was selling Bilkul बेकार चाय!! (absolutely useless tea!). People were charmed by his spunk and cheerfully reached out for their purses to buy an honest cup of train-chai!


This place is unique. It is one beach along the eastern coast where you can see the sunrise and sunset into the Bay of Bengal. The Golden Beach is one long, congested promenade lined with strangely named hotels (Hotel Swimming, Hotel SUV!); hundreds of vendors (seashells, handicraft, balloons), and stalls (fish fry, peanuts, chops, chaat, alcohol, chowmein and candyfloss).

The skyline is dominated by a ferris wheel, located next to a large cremation ground. So, as you ride the wheel at dusk, you also get to see the metaphorical wheel of life -- thousands of people enjoying themselves on the beach; old folks sitting silently, listening to crashing waves and children playing in the sand while dead bodies burn at Swargadwar cremation grounds just across the road. Eerie.

One evening we rode a cycle-rickshaw to the Jagannath Temple. Winding through the narrow lanes was like rolling back a thousand years through a time-machine. Once inside, I stood gaping at the stupendous shikhara, trying to differentiate the thousands of stone sculptures from the Rhesus monkeys that had made it their home.

Inside the main temple, crowds took a life of their own, surging and swirling like whirlpool, pausing to catch a glimpse of the famous saucer-eyed, abstract wooden statues of Krishna, Balarama and Subadhra. The large images seemed a good 30m away and I wondered why they were spaced so widely that you could see only one full figure at a time. Were these the same images that were carried in the famous Juggernaut - rath yatra?

Was it true that the temple originally was a Buddhist stupa housing the relic which is now in Kandy, Sri Lanka? Was there a link between the eight-spoked sreechakra perched atop the temple, and the buddhist dharmachakra?

Memories that linger those of old ladies selling lamp-wicks; lovely rounded clay vessels full of gleaming white rice being sold as prasad along with other curries from the massive temple kitchen; young security personnel directing the crowds, sometime with a whack from folded palm-fronds, and of tiny shops outside the temple, selling fresh mounds of Jeebe Goja sweets.


This place is as touristy as you could get. I always thought the sun temple was among the oldest in India. Not so. It was built only during 1238-1264 after the Jaggannath temple in Puri. During this period, Angkor Wat was already ready; it was less than a century after the destruction of the great university at Nalanda; Genghis Khan had just overrun most of Asia and Marco Polo was on his way to China. And yet, nobody really knows much about how Konark was built or why it was abandoned to sand dunes.

Emperor Akbar's courtier, Abul Fazal (1556-1605) visited Konark during his travels and noted - "Even those whose judgment is critical and are difficult to please stand astonished at its sight". That point is still valid today.

The surviving structure is only the porch of the temple - the Jagamohana. The tower or shikhara was over 60m high - almost as high as the older one at Jaggannath but it had been built of poor quality Khondalite, so by the time Europeans had marked it as the "black pagoda" - a landmark for merchant ships sailing the shallow Orissa waters in the 17oo's - it had already collapsed.

The sculptures are a completely uninhibited portrayal of the daily wonders of everyday life - amorous couples, war elephants, capital punishment, fond farewells, formal portraits, sexy babes, elephants, a giraffe(!), foreign emissaries, flowers & trees.

I found it rather strange that there was not a single sculpture of a turtle or a sea fish among the thousands of figures. For a temple so close to the beach, how could the artists ignore thousands of turtles that have been nesting along the Orissa coastline for millions of years ?


It was a lovely drive to Chilika, about 40km from Puri. Migratory birds, quaint villages, sprawling paddy fields, a shop selling south-Indian "Itili-Dosa" and the fringes of a 100-sqkm lagoon.

We made the mistake of hiring a tourist boat from Orissa tourism (Rs.900 for 3 hours), which had such a noisy outboard engine that we barely got back with our eardrums intact. The sight of a few Irrawady Dolphins and Fresh masala-prawns at Sea-Mouth compensated for this but the private boats are a better option any day. They are cheaper, more spacious and far less noisy.


The only new thing I did this time was to visit the Kalibari Temple. Finally, after I got past the crowds and queues, it was a major disappointment.

For a temple that gives its name to Kolkata city, it was rather poorly maintained. The sanctum was like a garbage bin strewn with all kinds of trash - rotten flowers and leaves, plastic packets, broken coconuts and glitzy paper; the walls had been caked with grime and cobwebs hung on the fans.

The Kali idol was larger than I had imagined, with red eyes and a long gold-plated tongue. It was barricaded inside an ugly metal cage and presided over by fat, loud priests who apportioned darshan-time according to the size of currency notes they received. It is certainly not a place I would visit willingly again to reach out to the almighty within. Give me a village temple in Kerala any day. Or better still, a few moments on a beach, a mountain or by a forest stream.

Movies - 2008

  1. Taare Zameen Par (Hindi, Priya-Kolkata, 020108) - Amazing movie, wonderful performance by Darsheel Daftary
  2. Manorama Six Feet Under (Hindi, 080108) - Vague movie, pathetic acting
  3. Salsa (090108) - certainly a lot better than Manorama...
  4. Volver (Spanish, 020208) - Penelope Cruz as single mom, Raimunda
  5. Mithya (Hindi, 160208) - a damp squib
  6. Rendition (JL-471, 250208 - Arab American terror suspect & distraught wife
  7. Koi-Sora (Japanese, 050408) - love story interrupted by cancer - very bollywood
  8. Always-2 (Japanese, 050308) - a great sequel
  9. Chalti ka Naam Gaadi (Hindi, 190308)
  10. Sunday (Hindi, 200308) - Ayesha Takia date-rape-drugged (Rohypnol)
  11. Oceans Eleven (Eng., 210308) - Interesting...
  12. Black & White (Hindi, 220308) - Prof. Gilani's story? suicide bomber in Shahjahanabad
  13. Oceans Twelve (Eng., 220308) - Dubious sequel...
  14. No Country For Old Men (Eng.) - the many uses of a captive bolt pistol..
  15. Bhoot Nath (Hindi) - kids loved it
  16. Vantage Point (Eng., 150608) - shades of Kurosawa's 'Rashomon'
  17. American Gangster (Eng., 200608) - Amazing Dzl Wsgtn
  18. Omohide poro poro (Jap., __0608) - My first Anime by Miyazaki / Gibili Collection
  19. Iwo-Jima kara no tegami (Jap. - "Letters from Iwo Jima," __ 0608)
  20. The Happenin (Eng., ) - MN Shyamalan overdone..
  21. Shaurya (Hin., )
  22. Amir (Hin.) - Incredulous but good...
  23. The Bong Connection (Ben-glish, 180708)
  24. Michael Clayton - (Eng., 250708) - 'the truth can be adjusted'
  25. Kaze No Tani No Nausicaa (Jap. 260708) - 'Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind' - Amazing anime
  26. Chi to Chihiro no Kamikakushi - "Spirited Away" (Jap. 020808); Miyazaki's best so far...
  27. Tonari no Totoro - "My Friend Totoro" (Jap. 090808) - Brilliant! No wonder many of Miyazaki's (Gibiri Collection's) mascots come from this production.
  28. Turn of The River (Eng.) - Didn't understand much...
  29. Company (Hindi, RGV) - An ex-commando infiltrates the underworld and freely communes with the police on his mobile...a big let-down.
  30. Tenku no Shiro Raputa - "Laputa - The Castle in The Sky" (Jap. 160808) - More of Miyazaki's facination with quaint European towns, pirates and flight (this time, a whole kingdom)
  31. Rock On!! (Hin-glish 060808) - another good one by Farhan Akhtar
  32. Mononoke Hime - "Princess Mononoke" (Jap. 130809, Miyazaki) - now this was tiresome...
  33. Hauru no Ugoku Shiro - "Howl's Moving Castle" (Jap. 200809, Miyazaki) - Very original - the very idea of a castle with bird's feet! :)
  34. A Wednesday - (Hindi, 210809) - Solace to the "आम आदमी" angered by terrorist strikes...damn good.
  35. Kurenai No Buta (Jap. 041008, Miyazaki) - "The Crimson Pig / Porco Rosso" - Like Porco's crimson seaplane, the story too sputters to a start, cruises some distance and then out of ideas towards the end. Disappointing.
  36. Quantum of Solace (English, 08112008) - Well, a Bond movie has to be seen. So what it doesn't make any sense whatsoever?
  37. Dostana (Hindi, 06122008) - Yuk.
  38. Ghajini (Hindi, 27122008) - Somehow, all the heroes & villains seemed completely unaware of the existence of a weapon called the Gun...

Books - 2008

The list so far...
  1. Nihon No Tsubete - (Japanese-English)
  2. Freakonomics - Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner - Curiosity and the hidden side of everything... I particularly liked Sudhir Venkatesh's research on the drug-mafia.
  3. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky - Inside the mind of a murderer... amazing book.
  4. The World is Flat - Thomas Friedman - Lots of interesting observations but does not match up to the hype.
  5. Discussion on Youth (Vol.2)- Daisaku Ikeda (Soka Gakkai) - It's worth reading just for the first chapter, were Ikeda discusses his love for books.
  6. Sea of Poppies - Amitav Ghosh - I love the way he weaves history into his stories. But how long can I wait for the rest of the alleged "Trilogy"? What will happen to Jodu, Kalua, Raja Halder, Ah Fatt and Serang Ali?
  7. India's New Capitalists - Harish Damodaran - Despite having seen this book evolve from ideas and rough drafts to a hardback, it is amazing to learn how different communities have coped with the changing times, and of the long shadow of British colonial policy over the current socio-economic landscape in India. Meticulous piece of work.
  8. Corelli's Mandolin - Louis de Bernieres - I'd never heard of a Greek Island called Cephallonia and now, after seeing it through the eyes of Dr. Iannis and Kyria Pegalia (and Google Earth) it seems such a familiar place. A beautifully written story that weaves together mythology, romance, history (WW2, civil wars) and music. And yet, the ending seems pathetic and out of tune. The movie version is apparently much worse.
  9. Foreign Devil - 30 years of reporting in the Far East - Richard Hughes
  10. The White Tiger - Aravind Adiga -
  11. Norwegian Wood - Harui Murakami -

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Khybar Tabesh

Dr. Khyber Tabesh, a colleague & friend got killed today morning in Kabul.

Bad news has a way of catching you completely off-guard. This one popped up on my screen as an email from Ali Khan Yousafzai. "SAD NEWS" warned the subject-line and the brief message went on to say that we could post our condolences to Khybar's office in Afghanistan.

The matter-of-fact, almost routine tone of the message was as shocking as the news itself. Benazir Bhutto had been assassinated last week in Rawalpindi. Today another 25 people had been killed outside Lahore High Court. Was this yet another explosion, yet another futile death in Kabul? It was as if the fundamental questions had ceased to matter - how did this happen? when? why would anybody want to kill a gentle doctor??

Sitting here is Delhi, all I know for a fact is that at this moment, there is a cold room somewhere in Kabul where corpse awaits burial. It is of a person I knew just a few months ago - I had shared meals with him, cracked jokes and walked with him the colorful lanes of Sukhumvit Soi in Bangkok.

It is also the frame of a man who broke down in tears the day he passed out of Kabul Medical University, grateful for being spared the fate of those who opposed the Taliban. He had worked as an interpreter during the bleak years, helping visiting journalists with their horror stories.

When I asked him if things were looking up back home, he had said, "Well, things are improving...I guess its better to be a slave (to America) rather than be the slave of a slave".

He loved to tell everybody about how he helped Kabir Khan with the bollywood movie, Kabul Express and of his rapport with the Indian actor John Abraham.

He reminded me of characters in Khaled Hosseini's "Kite Runner"and of everything that could once again be grand and glorious about Afghanistan.

It is a pity he is no more with us. I have no idea who or what killed him. But his death certainly diminishes hope for a sad country.