More than just intelligence. Here’s why we should embrace AI.

Have you seen a short-film called Sunspring? It’s a rather insipid tale about the future, with three characters mulling about love, revenge, and having to “go to the skull”. The 9-minute odd film has been directed by Oscar Sharp, and was made as part of the Sci-Fi-London film festival’s 48hr Challenge. All in all, if you haven’t seen it till now, you haven’t missed much in life.

So, if the story is nothing to rave about, the acting was no great jigs and the direction was so so, why are we discussing Sunspring?  Well, it is due to Benjamin, who wrote the AI_01screenplay of the movie. And no Benjamin is not some celeb writer or some Pulitzer-prize winner. You see, Benjamin happens to be a rather nondescript piece of technology, which goes by the real name as a recurrent neural network called long short-term memory, or LSTM for short.

Simply speaking, Benjamin is your friendly neighbourhood Artificial Intelligence or AI. It is a bit of technology that is able to learn and create, for instance, in this case, it crawled through 100s of scripts from the 80s and 90s to come up with this one.

It is for the first time ever that a screenplay has been written completely by AI. It is a giant leap in this regards, when AI becomes so intuitive that it can now move into the artistic space, and create content automatically. It is quite unlike say winning a game of chess or even hoping contestants in Jeopardy.

Elementary my dear Watson

Artificial intelligence has been around for quite some time. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the term artificial intelligence is defined as “the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behaviour”. When John McCarthy had coined the term in the AI_31950s, he had meant it a bit different, dubbing it, “It is the science and engineering of making intelligent machines, especially intelligent computer programs. It is related to the similar task of using computers to understand human intelligence, but AI does not have to confine itself to methods that are biologically observable.”

Thus, from the 50s AI has moved from understanding human intelligence to mimicking it. It is no more about software or hardware, but rather more encompassing in that sense. Effectively, AI could now be an intelligent piece of software, a super-computer, a cloud-based system, or even a smart robot.

Yet, even as the definition evolves, there are certain core characteristics of the system that do not really change. We can broadly characterise AI as a system that is able to remember and learn without much external inputs. It is a self-learning system that learns from its successes and failures. Like say, how IBM’s Deep Blue defeated grandmaster Gary AI_02Kasparov in a rematch in 1997, after having decidedly lost to the master in 1996. It seemed to have evolved, learnt from its flaws, analysed its opponent’s strength.

But then, don’t mistake AI to be a costly proposition, the kind that exists in Deep Blue or IBM Watson. It can be much nimble and ubiquitous. So, your input keypad on the mobile device that remembers the colloquial and vernacular terms used and does not auto-correct them is a form of AI. The mobile assistants Siri, Google Now, Cortana, are also AI. Meantime, the self-driving car that uses concurrent data from sensors all over the car and manages to navigate is an example of a rather complex and a bit more advanced form of AI.

Yet, AI is not about remembering words, or navigating roads, it has a much broader approach and depth to it, ranging from deciphering the string-theory of the universe to say splitting the atom. There is no limitation to where AI can be applied or used, from the puny mobile phone to the massive Hubble telescope.  These days, Google Deepmind is defeating AlphaGo champions, IBM Watson is all the time keen to take up challenges for games or discussions, Intel is using deep learning to make machines smarter, GE is using Predix to create brilliant factories or digital twins. Continue reading

The Blueprint of the Saffron Sweep in UP Elections

In the annals of Indian politics, it is often said that the road to Delhi passes through the state of Uttar Pradesh. With 80 MPs, UP accounts for a lion share in the Lok Sabha. And it doesn’t end there, the state also sends 31 members to Rajya Sabha, thus, winning is important in UP, in case you desire to rule India.

Not surprisingly then, UP also accounts for the maximum Prime Ministers who fought from a constituency in the state, namely, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Choudhary Charan Singh, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Chandra Saffron Sweep UP_shashwatdc_1Shekhar, Atal Behari Vajpayee and now even Narendra Modi. In a sense of terms, UP is like the steering-wheel of Indian politics, he (or she) who controls UP, can steer the politics of this nation in his/her wake.

Little wonder then, winning the election in UP was extremely critical for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Coming bang in the middle of his term, he could not afford to be lax about it. Over the past two years, the aura around PM Modi had waned a bit, with his hands tied up in Rajya Sabha; the NDA government was unable to push its reform agenda as it would have wished. The constant chitter-chatter of intolerance was also taking a toll; he was being pulled for all promises. Even allies like Shiv Sena were not missing an opportunity to jibe at him.

In the past, two state elections had exposed BJP’s Achilles Heel. The first one was in Delhi, where an overconfident BJP received a severe drubbing and stoked the ambitions of Arvind Kejriwal. The second one was Bihar elections, where a Nitish-Lalu Mahagatbandhan was able to stall the Modi juggernaut. The losses in Bihar and Delhi emboldened the opposition, and PM Modi was seemingly much weaker than the ‘loh purush‘ image that he projects.

In the midst of this melee came a must-win UP elections. For PM Modi it was almost a battle of survival and of relevance. A loss in UP, would not only give a boost to the opposition but would also have the demurred party-wallahs start questioning the “my way or the highway” approach of the PM. Modi had little option, but to win UP and win it big.

This is the reason, why Amit Shah and his team shifted bag, baggage and bunker to UP, and worked tirelessly for months and months before the elections. The blueprint for UP was constructed on numerous pegs, right from caste arithmetic to development politics; the whole campaign was mounted on a grand scale. Here’s a primer to how story of lotus-blossom unfolded in UP:

The great gamble of demonetization

One of the biggest rallying points for the opposition parties, including Congress and rest was the black money issue. In the run-up to the general election in 2014, the BJP in many ways had overplayed the black-money bogey promising impossible things like 15 lakhs in Saffron Sweep UP_shashwatdc_5each person’s account to give a size of the problem. Yet, while the figure was notional, it was used a baton to whack BJP and especially PM Modi every now and then. “Where’s the black money in my account?” had become a common jibe by the opposition party leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Mamta Banerjee and so on.

Even though the government had put in measures to deal with black money, the public perception was building against them. PM Modi had to do something big and monumental to truly shift this impression. This was especially more critical as in the UP elections, there was nothing significant to showcase to the populace. It was in this regards that the PM brought in the demonetization on November 8, 2016. By presenting the exercise as a war on black money and corruption, the PM was able to create a narrative that worked with the common populace. While the whole nation was troubled by the sudden annulment of 86% of existing currency, the fact that a leader was doing something seemed to have mattered more for the layman. The fact that PM’s personal integrity is rated quite high, helped shaped the narrative well. The opposition were in disarray, knowing not how to react or whom to attack. By turning the demonetization debate personal, politicians like Mamta Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and Rahul Gandhi played into the hands of Modi. No more, were we discussing the logic, rationale or economics, but using exaggerated adjectives to debunk it. This turned the whole discussion into a “Us” versus “Them”, in which the public sympathy was with the man who was taking on all the rich and powerful. Continue reading

Concocting Dissent, Fomenting Despair

At the very onset, before we move even move an inch, here are some current statistics on India for some ready consumption:

  • Real GDP growth – 7.1% (vs. 6.9% year earlier) *link
  •  Inflation – 3.17% in Jan’17 (the lowest ever) *link
  •  Foreign Exchange Reserves – $360 bn (vs. $294 bn in Mar 14) *link
  • Net FDI flows – $46 bn (up by 18%) *link
  • Current account deficit – $22.1 bn (down from -$26.8 bn last year) *link
  • Fiscal deficit (% of GDP) – 3.2% (vs. 3.99% last year) *link
  • Competitive Index – 4.52 points out of 7 (the 2016-2017 Global Competitiveness Report) *link
  • Per capita income – Rs. 103818 (vs. 94178 last year) *link
  • Financial inclusion – 260 million PMJDY accounts in Dec’16 *link
  • LPG for Poor – 5 lakh new connections given to poor  *link

And to top it all, in November 2016, the Indian government undertook a step that not only surprised its own citizen, but flabbergasted the world. It demonetized the high-currency notes (1000 & 500) that accounted for over 80% of total market cuurency circulation. Everything went into a tizzy, there were serpentine queues, there were issues of liquidity, yet, the government kept working on it, and within a span of 90-days, things were all normal. Not to forget, they were normal and Digital. 

Sone ki chidiya?

In fact, after a flurry of global economist debunking demonetization or predicting doom, things have much changed. There is a growing consensus that if the requisite Manufacturing dissent_shashwatdc_2complementary actions towards digitization are undertaken, demonetization could actually accelerate the shift to a cashless — thereby transparent and yes, less corrupt — society. Recently, the Secretary General of Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Angel Gurria came all out in support of demonetization. “India has been a star performer in gloomy times. We do not have many cases of 7% growth (GDP). It is a top reformer among all the G-20 countries he stated at an event.

Even on the foreign policy, India seems to be doing fairly well. China’s all caught up in the South China Sea, in North Korea, or back home, to really bother about us. Pakistan, well, it is there and will be. Russia is busy in the US, Europe is stagnating, so is South Asia, and President Trump is doing wonderful things in the US. Our influence and our equity has improved under the current government’s watch.

Now given all these facts and stats, one would naturally assume that Indians would be smug about themselves, happy, proud, ecstatic if not outright boisterous celebrations with Old Monk and Thumbsup.

Right? Right? RIGHT?

Rather strangely, No! Now imagine, if you were a tourist who’s come down to India, and wants to get a feel of things from news channels, print papers and digital medium about the mood of the nation. Well, in case you did, it would depress the daylights out of you. All that is there to read and watch are things about all these poor students that are being viciously attacked, daughters of martyrs are being threatened with rape, celebs that troll, ministers that patronize, I mean, generally, all things would seem so murky, sad and disconcerting. Suddenly, the India that the stats above extol, and the India that is represented is in absolute contrast to each other. So, while we celebrate the multiplicity of god, have we Indians also discovered the multiplicity of truth?

Chimp sniffer

Of all the strange things that monkeys do, there’s this one trait that still takes the cake, sniffing — you know — sniffing their own bottoms. A lot many monkeys (apes, etc) have been observed with such a deplorable trait, putting their finger in the bum and then sniffing at it. Usually it ends in a disaster or disgust, like it did here. But no one has been able to fathom, why they actually do it. I mean, all is good, hunky-dory, and they’d put the finger there, sniff it and suffer.

Now, I believe, there’s this one trait that a few-many humans are inclined with. After all, we aren’t all that genetically different from our butt-sniffing cousins. There’s this chance that a quite a few of those habituated ones are currently residing in India and by sheer serendipity of life, are now at top positions in the media business, fashioning the outlook and the slant of the society with their morbidity. From their perch on the top, these ravens of despondency, relentlessly croak their views spreading all melancholy around.

And if that wasn’t enough, quite a few of these human-chimp sniffers can also be found on the social media sites, writing poignant messages or tweeting scathing masterpieces. Continue reading

Dear Hollywood, Could you please STOP ‘Lionizing’ India!

First things first; let’s say a small prayer to whatever powers that be — up there and down under — that Lion didn’t win any ‘Oscars’ at the 89th Academy Awards. The Dev Patel starrer had been nominated for 5 of them, namely, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Music, Best Writing, and Best Cinematography. Thankfully it won none.

Had this movie won any awards at the Academy Awards, we would have been badgered with “Indian-ness”, despite the fact that the movie is produced by a foreign studio, directed and helmed by a foreign crew and even the actors (except for a few tit-bits and the chief protagonist) are all foreigners.Lion_film_India_1

Yet, the foreign DNA of the film is not why I wish the film the failed, there’s no pseudo nationalism at work. The reason, I harbour such feelings is, because undoubtedly Lion is a much below-par movie. The whole excitement around it has taken me by surprise. Built largely on the Slumdog Millionaire construct, Lion is purported to be a true-story. Sadly it is little else but a stereotypical production that lacks empathy or understanding on the topic or the people that it portrays.

Ostensibly, Lion is a tale of a 7-year-old boy named Saroo as he gets separated from his family and brother, travels some 1200 kms unknowingly across India before landing in Kolkata, and is finally adopted by a set of parents in Tasmania, Australia. After a gap of 25 years, Saroo Brierley traces back his past on Google Earth and reunites with his family. This is an epic journey that has its bearings in truth.

In real life, Saroo retraced his steps in the sleepy town of Khandwa in 2012, and his story was well covered by the media at large, from BBC to Times of India, everyone featured this extraordinary human tale of emotions and resolution.

Now, as any astute person, Saroo decided to cash on the new-found fame and he quickly penned a book on his own journey, ‘A Long Way Home’. The book was published in 2013, and by 2016, Lion was released. It was all done in a jiffy, so as to speak.

While I have yet to read the book, I did watch the film and it really stuck me as another Schadenfreude Millionaire tale that had appeared on screen some years back. What essentially befuddles me is the manner in which India is still portrayed especially by international film-makers; a shoddy, poor, dirty, degraded place where crime and criminals abound. Continue reading

Dear Uber, do you really ‘love’ the taxi-riders in Mumbai?

Recently, the Maharashtra government put forth a set of draft rules for regulating the taxi industry. These rules have been in the works for some time as various taxi-operators (especially in the city of Mumbai) have been demanding “uniform code” for the industry. The chorus for such rules has come from the lower-end (kaali-peeli taxi-wallas and the autorickshaws) and the upper end (radio-taxi operators like Meru and TabCab) as well. And yet, the funniest part is that there is already a stringent set of laws that regulate the functioning of these operators. So why the hell are they asking for more?shutterstock_345346703

Actually, they are not. These taxi stakeholders are demanding something more mundane, something basic. Something that spells as parity in business. The crux for any business to function normally is that all the players in the sector will be treated same. Simple to say that rules and regulations should be the same for all the players. So, what is good for the goose, should be good for the gander. Right? Apparently not, when the gander is a multi-billion ride share MNC that goes by the name of Uber.

In fact, Uber has raised a stink regarding the Maharashtra government’s draft, opposing it with all the muscle that it can muster. The US-based cab aggregator has decried the rules, calling them restrictive and archaic. It even launched a high-octane public petition, seeking the lay citizen to sign-up and fight against the restrictive norms. The petition paints a rather gloomy picture, namely, if the rules are implemented, it “will mean an end to the Uber I know and love today”.  Rather than talking just logic, or talking about the facts that are hurting competition, the petition tries to tug the emotional chords, love, shove and the works.

Now that seems to be taking things a tad bit-bit too far, like a Karan Johar movie with Anurag Kashyap dialogues. You see, taxi-riders in Mumbai don’t really love Uber or Ola, but yes they do seem to hate the kaali-peelis and autorickshaw-wallas. After decades and decades of suffering the indifferent and condescending attitude of these monopolistic ruffians, they have finally found deliverance at the hand of these cab aggregators. This welcome shift started with start of Meru in the city, and blossomed with Ola and Uber. To put it rather bluntly, the taxi-riders in the city like the convenience of a no-nonsense service that is way cheaper than the kaali-peelis. I mean Rs. 6 per km is even cheaper than taking your own car out. That is secret behind that “love” that Uber claims it receives. Yet, this incentivised love is usually not monogamous, the denizens will shift to anyone that offers a bigger bonanza. I mean, if there was a cab operator that offered Rs. 3 per km ride, of course, more would ‘love’ it than any Uber or Ola. There’s no emotion in economics? Continue reading

Congratulations on winning the Bronze Sakshi. I so wish you had Not!

To be honest, there can hardly be a bigger high on this planet than winning the Olympic Medal. Competing against the very best athletes in the world, it takes a hell lot more from an individual to make it to the podium. In that regards, the dramatic win of a 23-year-old Indian lady from Rohtak is nothing short of spectacular. It was a fabulous treat to have a charged-up Sakshi Malik taken on Kyrgyzstan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova in a dramatic finish in the 58kg freestyle wrestling category, winning the bout and finally opening India’s medal account.Olympic 7

The excitement and buzz that the win generated is fairly understandable, the #SakshiMalik hastag was trending on Twitter, you had all sorts of celebs that were toasting the young lady, right from PM Modi to our Olympic Ambassador Salman Khan (ohh sorry, @BeingSalmanKhan hasn’t found the time yet to congratulate Sakshi, possibly will, after his promotions of Freaky Ali are over). I even heard Sakshi’s mother on radio exploding into how the “bharat ki beti” had brought honour for the nation and Sakshi’s brother was like, this is the best “rakshabandhan gift”, et al.

From here on, the tale as it will unfold is fairly straight. As soon as Sakshi lands in India, there will be a whole lot of jubilation and celebration, she will ride out from the airport to shower of rose-petals, will be hosted by the PM and CM, granted land parcels, would be featured in adverts, and there might even be a film made on her struggle. And then, we also have another medal winner in PV Sindhu, who by the virtue of getting a gold/silver would be as joyously feted, in almost a templatised approach.

The trouble is that in all this euphoria, what will be forgotten is that it took a good fortnight and more for India to win a medal in an event, where you have 207 countries participating with over 11000 athletes in 306 events and 28 sports. A nation that aspires to be a global power; will shortly be the most populous country on the face of the world, cannot even manage to reach the finals of most events, let alone win a medal. If one looks at the performance of the Indian athletes, it will be a very long-list “Did Not Qualify”. The fact, that a Dipa Karmakar had to attempt a death-defying Produnova move to reach the 4th position, speaks volumes of how ill-equipped Indian athletes are. And yet, every 4 years, India continues to send a bigger and more bigger sports contingent to these Olympics. This year, in fact, India had the biggest contingent of all nations. And yet, where do we stand on the medals tally, at 71 right now, with even countries like Kenya, Jamaica, Indonesia and even Mongolia ranked much higher (let’s not even take the name of our neighbour, whose name starts with a C). Continue reading

If it’s FREE, then why is Facebook spending 100 crores over it?

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” was an adage that was popularised by economist Milton Friedman back in the 1960s. The core contention of the advice being that everything in life everything has a cost; be it upfront or hidden. But it is always there. Nothing is available for free.

Hence, when Facebook launched the Free Basics with much fanfare and excitement, presenting it as a do-goody social thingy, not everyone was able to swallow it. Not many, and not someone like me.

To be fair to Facebook, any corporate entity in the world exists only for one single purpose, namely, maximisation of shareholder’s value. This is the primary (and often, the only) reason why most company exists. Thus, if Facebook is trying to hook significant number of users that will join the cyberspace in the years to come, it is not something that we should hold against the company. After all, growing its numbers is the only way it can ensure its profitability in the days to come.

But sadly, that is not the way Free Basics is being promoted or pushed. By talking about the poor and the downtrodden, who can “at least, enjoy the limited and curtailed internet”, Facebook is sounding quite like those proselytising missionaries of yore, that would defend the harvesting of pagan souls, because at least they were better off now than before. By masking the whole program in the garb of philanthropy, Facebook has only put itself in the spot.

And then to make things worse, Facebook is now using its huge financial and marketing muscle to push things through. By some accounts, the “What’s on your mind?” company has earmarked some $20 million to promote (read educate) Free Basics in India. It is using all the mediums that are available for the battle, print, TV, digital, offline. Rather than having an open and fair discussions on finer aspects of net neutrality, Facebook is now seeming like those corrupt politicians who have been proven to be corrupt, but then try to correct their image by glitzy campaigns and doing some charity work.

freebasicsad1The reason that Mark Zuckerberg is going ballistic this time in India, is because of the manner in why Facebook had been splattered with a cake on its face, the last time round. In fact, it had been just some 6 odd months back when Free Basics in its earlier avatar as Internet.org faced immense resistance by the public at large, and thus was stalled by the Telecom Regulators. At that time, Facebook was taken aback by the power of the collective, by the sheer virality of things. So this time, it kind of came prepared, it repackaged the offering (giving it a kinder overtone), gave the offering an emotional spiel, had the creatives in place, and even Zuckerberg, who is on a paternity leave, is now writing blogs defending the offering. Continue reading

Native ADvertising; or should it be Native EDvertising?

To be honest, the term ‘native advertising’ is a tough one to define and explain. From the plethora of definitions that are available, the one most plausible is that it is any sort of content that has been paid for by a corporate entity or even an individual. But yet, native is very much unlike the advertorials that we used to have in the past, which used to specifically peddle a product or service, trying to mask it as an editorial. Remember those “Impact” Features in India Today magazines, the ones that we were attuned not to read or pay any whatsoever attention to?

Thus in a manner of speaking, native advertising are basically advertorials, but not as we know advertorials to be.

So what is this native advertising? Is it more of editorial or advertising? Are there not ethical issues associated with creating such platforms? Is it any more successful than traditional content marketing platforms?

There are many such queries that thrown up, whenever there is a discussion on native advertising. For someone who has been involved in the creation of some of the biggest native advertising platforms at India’s biggest business portal, let me attempt to give an insight on what native advertising is, and essentially what it actually is not. Just a few disclaimer before I begin, since I have much of the last few years in the digital space, so when I say native advertising, I very much mean “digital” native advertising. Secondly, the instances that I use in this piece are my personal choices, not reflective in any manner of the brands they belong to, or the platform they were published on.

So, now that I have the necessary asterisk in place, let me begin with what Native Advertising is actually not?

More than advertising — Native platforms are not pitches for products or services like we see them traditionally

Not about lead generation — Native platforms are essentially not lead-gen or sales platforms that will give you a list of prospective buyers and potential clients

Not about customer servicing — Native platforms cannot be customer servicing or sales, or anything like that. Continue reading

The Future of Content is — Video. And it’s Scary!

Have you noticed off late, how the sheer number of videos that we watch from the Internet has exploded. Thanks to the smart phones in our pocket, and the 3Gs and the 4Gs in the air, we now consume videos as copiously as we drink colas. And this transformation has been fairly recent, because till sometime back watching a video on YouTube was like booking a train ticket on the IRCTC portal; frustrating, exhausting and mind-numbing. Buffering was a term that we all came to hate and live with. It was like bad karma, and watching video was like a punishment, no less.

Funnily, the capability/capacity to watch videos has supposedly been around for quite some time. Does, the broadband tingle a bell? I remember back in the times when NDA was in government, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the Prime Minister, the then telecom minister Pramod Mahajan used to make promises of a ‘videod‘ future, where we will be able to see a Dev Anand or a Sunil Dutt film at a just a click at almost every press conference. That was in around the year 2000. But then even as the bandwidth grew, from 128 Kbps to 512, from 1 Mbps to 2 and then to 5, the video revolution was largely limited because of the ‘Pull‘ factor, namely, one had to visit a website or a portal to pull (or download) a video. So be it a YouTube or a Bit Torrent, we had to go to all these sites in search of something specific. We were searching for videos to watch, and since these portals were just hosting the videos they were not pushing the envelope in terms of technology.

And while we talk about technology, we just cannot ignore the role played by the porn portals that revolutionised the delivery of videos over the WWW. Because of all these portals that had to deliver videos to hundreds of thousands of people (at times even millions) simultaneously, they perfected the art of content delivery. The world owes a big debt to these carnal-delighters for making the magic of seamless video possible. Continue reading

Will someone kick the #StupidBucket

Imagine for a second, what would happen if  someone pours a bucket of ice-cold water over your head? A slight chill runs through the body, the hair gets spoilt, the dress gets wet, and god forbid if you are carrying your wallet or your phone on you, the person with the bucket would possibly be buried in one.

But what if you could have some fun, get publicity, and indulge in friendly ICB11bantering with your colleagues or friends, and finally, the beatific feeling of having contributed to a good cause, all at the same time. If imagine you could get all this by having a bucket of cold water poured over your head, would you not agree to it?

This is what essentially the Ice Bucket Challenge (or as it is known #IceBucketChallenge) is all about. Lots of fun, PR gimmicks, bantering and all this in the name of a charitable cause. Apparently the Ice Bucket Challenge is being taken for spreading awareness on ALS or Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. A neurological disorder affecting the nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Patients suffering from ALS or Lou Gehrig Disease as it is also known suffer from a degenerative loss of control over their bodily functions, leading to total paralysis and subsequent death. Typically, the time-span between the onset of symptoms to death is around 2-5 years. It is a painful and traumatic disease, which leaves the person debilitated and is incurable. Hence, people having fun with cold water in the name of such a traumatic disorder must make you sick. Right?

Not really. In our disjointed world, something as abominable as this is repackaged as a philanthropic and social exercise. SO, the Ice Bucket Challenge has a social side, the participants in the challenge have a choice of donating $100 or having a bucket of ice-water poured over their heads. Ideally, you’d expect folks (especially the uber rich ones) to opt for donation, so that there can be more research on the disease, and the possibility of finding a cure. But no, in a sort of pseudo machismo, people will have water poured over their heads as if it is a very brave and gallant thing to do. The script is similar in almost all the videos posted, the person will ICB2“accept” the challenge, rattle of a few more names, steel himself/herself up, have the bucket emptied over self, smile, shriek or just look bewildered. The length of the video varies from 30 seconds to over 2 minutes, directly proportional to how desperate the person is for publicity. In fact, in many videos the celebs don’t even mention ALS or do it very casually, thereby defeating the whole purpose for taking up the challenge (remember the greater good of spreading awareness). Continue reading

The Legacy of Sultan Manmohan Singh Tughlaq

Time is a rather malleable entity, unpredictable and quite unfathomable. Linear it is, say many, like a fabric all meshed up, say few, heavy like gravity, like a quasar, multi-dimensional, ephemeral, unreal, say the rest. The passage of time, quantified by the circular rotation of two sinewy arms on our clocks, is meant to signify a sort of permanence, a moment that is lost or gone, ceases to exist. There’s nothing that one can do to bring it back, lost in the ever-infinite sea of eternity. Past is past, and present is present, and never the twain shall meet, is good a testament, that could have well been etched in stone on that tablets that were forged at Mount Sinai.

And yet for all its permanence, time sometimes also seems permeable, like a sponge or something. The little circles on one side forming a connection to another side. The connections are unmistakable, inescapable. And while the recorded history of our species only stretches a couple of thousand years, even in this short period we have seen events taking shape in different time, different climate, mirroring each other in a very strange ethereal manner. Separated by a vast ocean of time, yet, these events seem like some sort of cosmic clones of each other. History (which is a product of time) indeed has a very uncanny knack of repeating itself.

To give you an idea, lets flashback to 14th century India, much long before the very idea of India even firuzexisted. The precise time on the dial is set to sometime in the latter half of the century, somewhere say 1380s AD. The place is Firozabad, not very far from modern-day Delhi, and it’s the reign of Malik Feroze ibn Malik Rajab or more renowned as Sultan Feroze Shah Tughlaq. The Sultan is a septuagenarian man, lording over a dominion that is much weaker and lesser than what his pre-decessor had bequeathed to him. He is a sort of weakling, little in control of things around him. He had succeeded the strong-willed and maverick Sultan Muhammad bin Tughluq, who was most famous for his decree to shift the capital from Delhi to Daulatabad or his experiments with token currency that failed spectacularly. But unlike his predecessor, Feroze Shah Tughlaq was a softie, or a little more of fruitcake. When he took over in 1351, the empire was vast but in a mess. There was much confusion as Muhammad bin Tughluq had died without an heir, and in the ensuing unrest, Feroze was enthroned as the new sultan. Continue reading

A billion reasons why India should be scared — really scared!

Years back, when I had a stopover at the Heathrow Airport for a connecting flight to Mumbai, I had noticed something amusing. Over the 8 hours spent there, I spotted more browns than black or white. The whole airport complex was teeming with Indians. Left, right or wherever one could see there were Indians (possibly Pakistanis or Bangladeshis, as they are hardly discernible from us). I have been, ever since, joking about how we are extracting sweet revenge against the ‘Goras’ who colonized us for 200 years, by reverse-colonising them. And this time, there won’t be a battleground or bayonets, say like the Battle of Plassey. Instead, every fertile womb in India is a battleground, and every loaded prick is a bayonet. These ‘teen-gunaa lagaan’ British gentlemen will forever rue the fact as to why they ever came to India. It is now time to pay back ‘teen-gunaa’ (three times) for all those lagaans (taxes).

While India’s teeming story is fairly pervasive everywhere across the globe, from ‘Kaneda’ to Australia, thep-1 demographic boom is most visible in India itself, say in a city like Mumbai. Over the past three decades that I have been around this metropolis, I have seen the city been inundated with numbers far beyond the capacity. Earlier in the city, you had peak hours and non-peak hours for travel, based on the crowds and the absence of it. But now you have peak-hour and hyper-peak hour. There’s no escaping the crowds anywhere, anytime. For instance, I grew up spending very many evenings that turned into starry nights at the Juhu Beach, building castles of sand and digging pits. Nowadays, let alone building castles or forts, if you find yourself sufficient place to even stand, you would count yourself lucky. And no, this isn’t a phenomenon in Mumbai, as a handful of politicians who play migrant-politics would like us to believe. Mumbai is just a snapshot of the bigger illness.

Quite like Mumbai, India is bursting at the seams. There are just too many of us, at any given time. India accounts for a meagre 2.4% of the world surface area of 135.79 million sq km. Yet, it supports and sustains a whopping 17.5% of the world population. The fact of the matter is right there for anyone to see, the population of India is almost equal to the combined population of USA, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Japan. Continue reading