Sunday, October 17, 2004

Brand Jaipur: Truly global or simply local

It weaves several tales. It breathes heritage. It plays with colour. And if marketed well, it would stifle any competition. We are talking about the brand potential of Jaipur, the word.

For long, Boucheron, from the Gucci fold, has branded a successful perfume under the name of Jaipur and crafted the bottles with inspiration from monuments here, including the Jantar Mantar. The city’s name also is the obvious choice – perhaps, by now hackneyed – for naming restaurants and boutiques abroad. Whether it is the one in Athens or the one in Milton Keynes, among several others.

Because worldwide Jaipur, despite urbanisation, still throws up instant images of royalty, jewellery, polo and colourful turbans. “These don’t go out of fashion and our minds. It’s a city where the past is still alive,” says Ajay Chopra, who runs Crayons, a city-based ad agency.

Then there is the subtle and pleasing phonetics of the word Jaipur. Add to that the city’s extant architectural splendour and its living legend – the perennially beautiful Gayatri Devi. “With legends like her, a feeling of royalty creeps in with the name of Jaipur, a certain finesse that I would associate with a product that’s not meant for all. Something definitely upper crust,” Chopra adds.

Like exquisite watches, given Jantar Mantar’s presence here. “But one needs to spend money and promote the brand to signify the speciality of the name. The product needs complete detailing, including the font size and type,” he says. For aren’t there boutiques and showrooms that share Jaipur’s name but which don’t have a recall value beyond the street they are on.

Terming Jaipur as a “vibrant and fantastic brand”, Piyush Pandey, the Executive Chairman of O&M India, asks why should the name be restricted to just a product. “Why not services like tourism that’s the biggest brand based on the place,” he adds.

Acknowledging that Jaipur hadn’t been exploited well enough, Pandey stresses that the “real strength” of the brand needs to be developed. “And it is the destination itself. The rest can be derivatives,” he adds. Pandey also cautions the concerned authorities to wake up lest it be another “Basmati case”. “Were we sleeping all this while,” he asks, referring to Gucci’s usage of the name. “Unless you value what you own, other’s are going to use it,” he adds.

One of my reports from Hindustan Times

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Using literature to further the cause of sexual minorities

Dominique Fernandez’s calm disposition veils a man of courage and hope. Described as someone who “embodies the contemporary literary scene in France”, the writer breezed through his eventful and often controversial career at an informal interaction with a handful from the city on Thursday.

After publicly proclaiming his homosexuality in 1971, he divorced his wife with whom he was married for 10 years and with whom he even fathered two children. “I realised that homosexuality was in me and I wanted to be honest to my wife and children. But I still have very friendly relationships with them,” he said. Ever since then he has centred much of his literary work on themes of alternative sexuality and exploring sexual identities. For him a “real novel” is iconoclastic, is a transgression that challenges the society’s beliefs.

“Porporino or the Secret of Naples”, perhaps his magnum opus that was published in 1974, has been released in English in India by Rupa & Co. It is a book that examines intimately the sexual identity of a castrato in Naples. Castrato is a term that refers to boys who were then castrated before they attained their puberty to retain, and in many cases develop, a “unique voice” required for an opera-crazy Italy.

As a writer, Fernandez has fearlessly used his pages to campaign for the rights of homosexuals in France and worldwide. His book “The Pink Star” (based on the discriminatory symbol the Nazis used for homosexuals) fired a debate about the subject in France following which Francois Mitterand abolished discriminatory laws against homosexuals in 1981. An alumni of the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris, he is also the recipient of Prix Medicis and Prix Goncourt, two of France’s most respected literary awards.

Writers, he said, have always been at the forefront of progressive movements in France, which he termed as “one of the most liberal democracies in the western world”. “The politicians are always late and that is why I consider it my responsibility to speak for those like me,” Fernandez added. Homophobia, he felt, is a preconceived notion like anti-semitism. “It’s perfectly natural to be a homosexual and its better to live life they way you are rather than in a false façade,” he said.

Friday, October 08, 2004

William Dalrymple's comments on travel writing

The sunshine was perfect for a game of cricket. And in those circumstances a lecture would have been the last thing on the mind. Even William Dalrymple acknowledged that at the opening of his talk. “Thank you so much for coming here on a brilliantly sunny day when you could have done something more interesting,” he remarked.

The critically acclaimed and, more importantly, popular author shared his thoughts on travel writing as a genre of literature at the Centre for Gandhian Studies on Saturday. Despite the absence of proper indicators to the venue, a fair number of Dalrymple fans gathered to listen to the witty scholar. And they did not return disheartened.

Terming travel writing as one of the oldest forms of literature, he traced it back to writers-cum-explorers like Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta and Hieun Tsang. “Even the Odyssey is a fictional travel book that documents Ulysses’ return and the pilgrims’ journey,” he said. “It is only in the 18th century Europe that the novel emerged as a dominant form of literature,” Dalrymple added.

He trifurcated the progress of travel writing into medieval, colonial and the period onward from the 1930s. “The first was characterised by myths and accounts of pilgrimages by saints, like the book Voyage of St Brendan,” he informed. “Whereas the second period was dominated by colonialism where British writers travelled to places like Africa and wrote about spots where bauxite and slaves could be found,” Dalrymple added.

But things changed beginning from the 1930s. “There were a few places left to explore and the writer was no longer gathering facts. He was not the National Geographic, neither the Internet,” he said. “They became more interested in human beings. The writer became the narrator and the people he met the subjects,” Dalrymple added. “The Road to Oxiana” by Robert Byron, which is one of Dalrymple’s favourite travel books, was written in this period.

According to him, the travel writer today has to “lift the sheet from the veneer of globalisation and point out the enormous differences”. “The Devarala Sati case where an educated girl burnt herself should be of interest to the travel writer today. It is fissures like these in the trough of globalisation that he has to bring out,” Dalrymple concluded.

The White Indian

I have always admired William Dalrymple and had interviewed him on email from Bangalore but when I heard that he was going to be in Jaipur, I told myself that I had to speak to him. Here is a report that appeared in the paper based on our coversation:

William Dalrymple seems a little pensive when asked if it would be fair to call him a “white” Indian. “By blood only 1/8th but by adoption… yes,” he soon replies, without second thoughts. The Scottish writer does have a bit of India in his veins. His great-great grandmother Sophia Pattle was a Calcutta-born Hindu Bengali who later converted to Catholicism and married a French officer. Quite like the cross-culture plot in “White Mughals”.

However, that faint Indian connection was destined to blow up into a romance for the award-winning author, rather a “hate and love” relationship. “It is definitely more of love than hate,” he reassures. Probably that is why three of his five books are based on the Indian subcontinent and the Dalrymples are as comfortable in the grubby streets of Delhi as they are in the propriety of London.

Not surprisingly, Dalrymple’s next book is also based here and talks about the last days of Bahadur Shah Zafar and Mughal Delhi. “It is a sad story but they are the best ones,” he says. His deep interest, however, continues to be how Islam fused and mingled with the local traditions in India. “My gambit,” he told a gathering on Saturday, “is anything between Constantinople and Calcutta.”

The writer has been working on the book for a year now but it is not expected to be on the shelf before three years from now. Research for historical documents in India continues to be a daunting task. “By some strange quirk of fate the Delhi Residency records ended up in Patiala,” Dalrymple says. According to him, they were dumped into a cold cellar and a lot of them were lost forever. “It is difficult but you must know your way around,” he adds. Translators are working on the available Urdu and Persian documents at the National Archives in New Delhi.

Worried about the “galloping corruption and criminalisation of politics” in India, Rajasthan has featured in his writings, but for grim reasons. “The Age of Kali”, a collection of essays, dealt with the Devrala Sati case and the rape of Bhanwari Devi.

Asked if readers could expect another freewheeling and “frothing student’s yarn” like “In Xanadu” from him, Dalrymple declines politely. “For better or for worse, you lose a little of your youthful ebullience with age but also gain depths of wisdom,” he says. Thankfully for many he still dons his scholarship lightly.

Thursday, October 07, 2004

Making camel's milk popular

With an aim to sustain the camel’s utility, scientists at the Bikaner-based National Research Centre on Camel (NRCC) have developed conventional milk products like curd, soft cheese and flavoured milk. These products have already received encouraging response in their field trials.

“With increased mechanisation, the draft utility of camels has decreased. So we are aiming at sustaining its utility by telling people that its milk can also be used for conventional purposes,” said MS Sahani, the director of NRCC. Research is on, he informed, to make ice-cream and kulfi out of camel milk.

The centre has begun training women in pockets where females camel population is largely available. “The only disadvantage of its milk is that it needs special handling,” said Sahani. To make curd, the milk needs to be boiled for about 20 minutes and then cooled to about 40 degrees centigrade after which jaman is added. However, it takes about double the time than normal to curdle.

“We have tested it according to the standards set by the International Dairy Federation and it is indeed curd. However, the consistency is thinner,” the director said. It, he added, has purgative properties and can help in constipation. He informed that camel milk, so far, was only used in certain households for drinking purposes. “The acceptability of these properties should help maintain the camel’s utility,” he said.

A female camel gives about four litres of milk daily and in its peak it delivers about seven litres. Meanwhile, increased mechanisation and lack of fodder has managed to decrease the camel population in the state by eight per cent each year. A 1996-97 survey had put the population of camels in Rajasthan at 6,69,443.

Sahani also highlighted many health benefits of camel milk over cattle milk. Trials on rats and humans have shown that camel milk is very useful because of its therapeutic properties in Diabetes (Type I), especially in children below the age of 10. Besides, it is useful in TB patients as a supplement to routine therapy. “Regular intake may also eradicate the need for routine therapy,” Sahani said. Camel milk is also richer in Vitamin C, “insulin-like” proteins, micro minerals such as copper, zinc and iron. It also contains lesser unsaturated fatty acids and is easily digestible.

One of my reports from Hindustan Times

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Malaysian ties knot for the 53rd time. Only this time it's his first wife

A Malaysian man has married for the 53rd time - and has gone back to his original choice, wife number one. "I am not a playboy. I just love seeing beautiful women," Kamarudin Mohammed, 72, told the New Straits Times.

Kamarudin, who was married to one woman for just two days, said all his marriages ended in divorce, except his last, which ended when his wife died. As a Muslim he could marry more than one woman at a time, but said he did not believe in that, or in flings.

His new wife, 74-year-old Khadijah Udin, said she agreed to remarry him after he agreed to give up his flighty ways. "Kamarudin... promised to look after me until the end of our lives and said he did not want to continue his habit of remarrying repeatedly," she said.

The groom said he was happy with his choice. "(My daughter) was right when she said I had never forgotten my first wife after all these years. I am pleased to be united with Khadijah again," he said.

The BBC report

Using IT to change rural India

It is a dream that is gradually materialising - one that dares “making access to information ubiquitous”. And spearheading that drive is Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a professor at IIT Chennai, and his brainchild, n-Logue Communications Private Limited. The firm, one of the 14 incubated by a group of like-minded faculty members at IIT Chennai, is determined to “significantly enhance the quality of life of every rural Indian by driving the digital revolution profitably”.

Central to the drive is a Rs 50,000-kiosk that offers a gamut of services like Internet, telephone, multimedia with web cameras, vernacular software and video conferencing. The amount even includes training for the kiosk owners, who are usually people who have studied till Class X, and maintenance. There are around 1,500 such kiosks running in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat.

“We expect it to touch 10,000 by the end of this year,” said Jhunjhunwala, who was in town on Saturday for a seminar on mobile technology. The kiosks have transformed villages by taking on flexible roles like a photo studio, a movie theatre, a communication-cum-computer training centre and even e-governance booths, among other things. Initiatives like Vet on the Net, online agricultural advice and web durbars also have been a hit. The latest addition to that is a Rs 10,000-wireless device that monitors the blood pressure, temperature of a person, and even carries out an ECG for a distant doctor to analyse.

But that is not the final frontier. Jhunjhunwala and his team have now designed a low-cost ATM that uses fingerprints instead of a PIN to identify customers. Smart cards are also planned. Expected to cost around Rs 40,000 – a normal ATM costs around Rs 8 lakh – it is in the prototype stage. The ICICI bank is working on the project too but other banks are already making a beeline for the model to be replicated for urban areas. “We don’t want to do that because once you get caught, it becomes very demanding. We want to focus on rural areas,” said Jhunjhunwala. It is expected to be ready for the market by August.

The dream initially was to get India 200 million telephone lines and the bars are now being raised further. “We want to take broadband into rural areas and see if we can produce a few billion dollar companies from India,” Jhunjhunwala said. Asked if n-Logue would make a foray into Rajasthan, Jhunjhunwala said that he was “very keen” to work in the rural areas here. He had a brief interaction with some government officials and said that the initial feelers were “positive”. Rajasthan is waiting!

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

When nomads want a sedantry life...

Ramesh Sharma gave up his surname for Katyayani because the latter, a synonym for Durga, has no “casteist overtones”. He even pushed aside his law practice to find time for the nomads and his campaign for their citizenship rights. Declared as the “Man of the Year” in 2000 by The Week, Katyayani, through Muktidhara, his NGO, has helped 37,000 nomads settle.

Rajasthan has about 40 communities that have been traditionally nomadic, most of them centred around the Aravalli Range. Nationally, there are almost 200 such communities and number upto 5 crore. In an interview to Debarshi Dasgupta, Katyayani speaks about his mission for these people and the bumpy road ahead.

How do you ensure that their nomadic culture is retained when you get these people to settle at one place?

That is a big question. As far as possible, we try not to interfere with their traditions. But what do you do when so many people are without the basic constitutional rights even 56 years after Independence? For me that is the bigger and more important question.

What is your mission and your demands from the government?

To ensure that the nomads get what is due to them. Development has bypassed them and their condition today is worse that that of SCs and STs. Few of them have ration cards and voter identity cards and the government, till date, has not formulated a policy for the rehabilitation of the nomads. We want unoccupied land under the government to be redistributed to these people according to the Land Revenue Act (1956).

How do you think that these nomads can support themselves and adapt to their sedentary lives?

Each nomadic tribe had a certain specific function. We are looking at how their traditional skills can be used today. We plan to use the Saperas, who worked with snakes, to develop the first venom bank. Venom, used in developing medicines, sells for nearly Rs 25,000 lakh for a kg. Also the Lohars, traditional ironsmiths, can be taught how to make decorative pieces for your drawing room.

But how do you think that the nomads need to change themselves if they have to join the mainstream?

They need to move on from their parochial outlook, develop an affinity for education and understand the forces that have kept them out of the picture for long. Also different nomadic communities must stop the practice of untouchability amongst themselves and give up their practices like selling their girl children and alcoholism.

Iran's hardliners crack down on musical concerts

A number of jazz and classical music concerts in Iran have been cancelled by the authorities because of their "corrupting" influence, diplomats say. The concerts had been arranged by foreign embassies in Tehran.

Two jazz performances organised by the Italian mission were called off last week only hours before they were due to start. Diplomats say the reform-minded culture ministry is being squeezed by anti-Western hardliners. "The culture ministry cancelled the concerts fearing there may be some attacks on the concert hall by hardliners," a foreign embassy official told Reuters.


Monday, October 04, 2004

When journalism could be like "canned processed food"

A recent interview with P Sainath, author of the well-received book Everybody Loves A Good Drought. He spoke on the growing gap between the media and reality and his current project on freedom fighters:

You have always maintained that there is a growing disconnect between mass media and mass reality. But you mentioned yesterday that reality will eventually put the mainstream media back on track?

I hope that is achieved because reality is very stubborn. And when that happens the mainstream media will suffer a loss of credibility. Because people will realise that reality is not exactly what they have been informed. Look at the tech stocks… the media played it up and several middle class investors put in their savings and then they went bust. There are people in my colony who hate the media because of that.

But do you think that the coming of foreign direct investment in the media will change things for good or for worse?

The way it seems now, it will be for worse. With people like Murdoch, we will see a monopoly of a kind never experienced before. There will be total control. Look at the average small town American newspaper. If you just pick up the edits, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. There is zero individual character. In India we still have individualism. I can identify a piece written by different writers like Praful Bidwai, Vir Sanghvi, Tavleen Singh. With FDI it is going to be like canned processed food.

But where does a professional draw a line between journalism and activism?

My answer to that is that there are two kinds of journalism. One that is active journalism that picks up societal issues and the other is passive journalism that is like a stenographer’s job. I am an active journalist. It’s funny when you praise Anil Ambani like a corporate pimp, you are called a professional. But when you take up the society’s problems, you are labelled an activist.

You are currently working on a project on the living freedom fighters in the country. How is that coming up?

It is complex because I am producing it in several media and it requires a lot of money. I am not funding it with the help of corporate funds but newspaper funds. But it has also been simply a very moving experience. The sheer idealism of these 80 or 90 year olds… they don’t see that they have done anything great. They are just quite happy to have done what they did.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

"Anti-Semitism was and still is an unknown concept to India"

A piece that I recently wrote for the paper on visiting Israeli ambassador to India Daniel Danieli:

One of the lofty dream’s of Israel’s founders, as mentioned by its first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, was to make the Negev Desert bloom. Ever since it came into being in 1948, Israel has sought to inch closer to that dream – trying to make the semi-arid region, which comprises nearly 60 per cent of the tiny country, more of an asset than a liability.

With innovative projects like growing edible cacti that require less water compared to traditional crops such as cotton, Israel is now looking forward to share its agricultural successes with Rajasthan. “Israel and Rajasthan have many similar climatic and geographical conditions,” said David Danieli, the Israeli ambassador to India. He returned to Delhi on Tuesday after a two-day official visit to the state to explore opportunities to develop agricultural practice here with Israeli support.

Some of the areas that Israel seeks to help Rajasthan include drip irrigation, water management and agro-genetic research. “Post harvesting aspects such as storage, packaging and marketing will also feature. It is a holistic and more productive agricultural approach,” the ambassador said. He extended invitations to certain agricultural experts to visit Israel and study their success stories, some of which include drip irrigation and recycling sewage water for irrigation.

Israel is also keen to tap further the potential of tourism in Rajasthan. “Coming from a semi-arid region, Israelis instinctively travel to places like Goa, Manali and Kerala but Rajasthan has a lot to offer too,” Danieli said. “The idea is not to make it in a single shot. One visit cannot bring about the results that we are working for,” he added. Jaipur already features as an important destination in the gem trade between Indian and Israel.

Praising India for never persecuting the Jews, Danieli said that it is “relatively more difficult to an Israeli diplomat anywhere else in the world”. “Anti-Semitism was and still is an unknown concept to India,” he added. Israel currently has around 70,000 Jews of Indian descent. Most of them were from Bombay, Cochin and Calcutta and emigrated to Israel in the 1960s. He informed that migrations still continue but are few at around 10 each year.

Commenting on the controversial West Bank barrier that Israel is building, Danieli stressed it was not, as perceived by some, an attempt to delineate political borders. “It is a temporary and removable security line. Were it to be built precisely on the pre-June 1967 borders, then it could have been a political line. The exclusive logic of the wall is to counter terror,” he said.

The ambassador also criticised the recent International Court of Justice ruling that termed the barrier a breach of international law. “Not a single sentence of the extensive 62-page report mentions the term terrorism,” he said. “The idea that Palestinian property is more important than Israeli lives is absurd,” Danieli added. “Moreover, the wall has brought down terror attacks by nearly 90 per cent,” he claimed.

Jaipur's healing touch for Kabul

Jaipur has helped thousands of Afghan amputees stand up and begin life anew with its internationally acclaimed prosthetic limb. Taking that relationship further, the Jaipur-based Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR) is now working in Kabul, trying to get the war-battered and non-existent health system there back on its feet and running.

The IIHMR partnership is part of a $ 3.9 million project awarded to the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to set up a national evaluation system to monitor and assess Afghanistan’s health care system. The team has been in Kabul for over a month working on a project that will help the Afghan Ministry of Health (MoH) create a pool of trained personnel to oversee and manage its health care programmes.

These persons will be involved in using and managing available data to create health programmes and understand the needs of the system. They will also be trained in generating necessary toolkits, such as questionnaires, and handling them. The incessant strife in Afghanistan has left the people there devoid of many of the basic skills and facilities required to manage health programmes.

The project will also try and get the numerous NGOs and the government to work together. “It is essential to assess the NGOs so that there is coordination amongst them and with the government,” said SD Gupta, the IIHMR director. “The trained persons should be able to help the two work in an integrated approach so that they can achieve common goals,” he added.

“The work is about managerial intervention and capacity building, not infrastructure building,” Gupta clarified. “Because of the long conflict in Afghanistan, the health system there has degenerated and trained manpower has become scarce,” he added. The team has already worked out a plan with the MoH and developed training modules. “We have even started training people there,” said Gupta.

Acknowledging the long haul, the project is expected, at the moment, to last over three years. Currently LP Singh, an associate professor at IIHMR, is there. Eventually, around eight persons from IIHMR are expected to take up responsibilities there. “You can have the best of the equipments but you need to have the required and trained manpower to get the system working,” said Gupta.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

The web of digital literature

A list of online literature sites from The New York Times. Words Without Borders is my favourite...

Words Without Borders (
Web del Sol (
The Underground Literary Alliance (
Publishers Lunch (
Poetry Daily (
MobyLives (
The London News Review -- Books Diary (
The Literary Dick (
Identity Theory (
Godawful Fan Fiction (
Foetry (
FanFiction.Net (
Everyone Who's Anyone in Adult Trade Publishing (
Cosmoetica (
The Complete Review (
Bookslut (
Beatrice (

One for the road: Safe sex at the slip of a coin

His mouth remains hidden behind his palms. Yet, a bashful smile manages to break from his grip. “I began to use one about four years ago when I realised how dangerous AIDS can be,” begins Vikram Singh, one of the thousands of truck drivers that pass through Jaipur each day and night. He is talking about condoms. “Earlier, sexual intercourse took place without protection. These days I always have one or two spare ones in the truck,” he adds.

Notching up several hundred miles each week, drivers like Singh, are now in the spotlight as the government finishes installing over a 100 condom vending machines across the city. Seven of these are to be stationed at Transport Nagar, the main hub in the city for nearly 5,000 trucks each day. Often out of homes for several weeks in a row, this group is considered especially vulnerable to contracting and transmitting the HIV virus through the sex workers they come in contact with while on the move.

“Like food, even truck drivers have hunger for sex,” says Gopal Singh Rathore, the General Secretary of the Jaipur Transport Operators Association (JTOA), which is managing the machines in the area. “A condom remains the best protection against AIDS,” he adds. Rathore claims that the two machines installed so far, each with a capacity for 100 packets, have already dispensed around half of their stock. They were inaugurated on Monday this week.

But truck drivers have a different story to tell. While some hide behind claims of chastity, others say that the machines have come late. “Now the sex workers come with condoms and they insist on us wearing them,” says Mahaveer Prasad, another truck driver. “Had these machines come six years before, it would have helped much more,” adds Singh.

Earlier, condoms were generically just known as Nirodh, the pioneering government-sponsored brand. Today, there are more names floating around. “A person who has to buy condoms today will buy it from the shops,” chips in Ashok Kumar Mahto, the JTOA assistant office secretary.

Others have different viewpoints. “Instead of these machines, a subsidised or free camp for HIV testing would have helped much more,” says Jaspal Singh, a former JTOA treasurer. "These machines are part of a sporadic campaign. We need a continuous approach," adds Ram Prakash, the spokesperson of the Rajasthan Truck Transport Union.

Then there are apprehensions that these machines, if not properly attended to, could become another coin-swallowing monster like those numerous yellow telephone boxes.