Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Technology marries Religion, and India cheers

Have you noticed how neatly religion is wedded to technology in India? Like hot water and noodles, we've cleverly mixed the two to serve up God in an instant.
Take this advert for cell phone ringtones in the Hindustan Times this morning. "Devotional Special", it says, in a font that is inspired by the Sanskrit Devnagiri script. You can download mantras and chants on your cell phone for under 20 rupees, and when someone calls you, you can play them a little piece of the mantra. In the process, you dispense instant punya across the telecom network.
In addition to dispensing punya to people who call you, you can also earn punya for yourself. How? For 5 rupees, just download a religious wall paper as the background for your cell phone. The payoff? It lights up every time someone calls you, giving you small doses of darshan throughout the day. There's even a cartoon wall paper version of Lord Ram and his wife, for the young at heart. Or maybe it is meant for kids, to give them an early start in the lifelong process of acquiring merit.
I tell you, the gods must be pretty pleased with how well technology is working for them. And going by the number of prayers and chants I hear on people's phones these days, I'm sure the telecom companies are happy too.
But it's not just the mobile phone companies that have understood the marriage of technology and religion. Here's an advert on a popular website for online pujas. For $25 paid online, a priest will conduct a full-fledged puja on your behalf. All kinds of prayers and rituals are available, but what looks most popular is this one, a prayer to Kali that neutralizes any potential scheming enemies.

Astrologers have gone online as well. The simple road-side jyotish now has competition from "Ask Pandit" services, where for a fee paid online, you get horoscope consultation and religious advice via email. Advice is provided on everything under the sun, ranging from marriage, career, infertility and education. It is a tiered price structure, starting at $2 for a basic reading, and progressively becoming more expensive as you ask for more specific information. Oh and there's a shopping cart, where you can pay by credit card.

The big temples have understood technology too. The richest, Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, offers e-Darshan, a facility where you can buy tokens online so you don't have to queue up to see the Lord. The Tirupati website proudly explains that they're now using biometrics to regulate entry at the temple gates. Tirupati also has branded their other offerings - they have e-Seva, e-Hundi, e-Donation and e-Sales (whatever that is!). The website is a smoothly functioning e-Commerce centre, where you can engage with the Lord from the comfort of your home.

But if you really want to see technology working hand-in-hand with religion, you should go see Akshardham in Delhi. It's a sort of cross between a hi-tech Disneyland and a traditional temple. There is a boat ride though an artificial tunnel, a yagna-kund that is also a synchronised colourful fountain, an "audio-animatronics" show, and a giant movie screen that shows a special movie filmed in over 100 locations in India, with a cast of 45000 people.

Akshardham has welcomed technology, dreamt large dreams in technicolour using technology, and moulded technology with a confident hand to fit the special needs of its faithful. The scale and drama of Akshardham make me wish it were a metaphor for modern India - eager to accept new learning, but at the same time, vibrant and self-confident enough to convert it into something uniquely Indian. Do you think that will happen?

In any case, to me it looks like Technology is quite permanently wedded to Religion in India, and this is going to be a long and fruitful marriage. All I can say is - Jiyo mere dulha dulhan. May you prosper and produce interesting offspring!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The choices women make - an Indian viewpoint

When my sis and I were growing up, the kitchen clearly seemed to be the arch-enemy of self-respecting women.

Around me, there appeared to be only two types of women: nondescript mousy housewives who did nothing but cook, and gloriously glamorous ones who went to that exciting place called "office".

Housewives. Sweaty slaves of the kitchen fires! They woke up at unearthly hours, muttered ancient prayers, and produced breakfasts, lunches and dinners in endless succession. They wore faded cotton sarees, their blouses damp with sweat. They chased and scolded and cajoled children. "Home makers" they might be - but when their husbands summoned them by name...Kamalaaaaaaa...they dropped everything else, and jumped to attention. Perhaps it was time for the next round of coffee. Perhaps there was a visitor who needed to be fed. Whatever. Clearly once the household woke up, the housewife's time was not her own.

But the women who worked - ah. They seemed to live in a separate world. Their sarees were crisp, pinned neatly at the shoulder with little golden pins. Their blouses actually matched the colour of the saree. They powdered their faces. Their bindis were neat stick-ons, not streaky sindoor that ran when you sweated. One of my earliest memories is of visiting an aunt who worked in a bank. How wonderful the bank was! Several women sat at desks, with important looking files around them. The fans whirled high above their heads; everything was cool and pleasant. Outside, customers sat on wooden seats, patiently waiting their turn. Inside, competent looking women counted money, totalled cheques and wrote in ledgers. Tringgg! The ringing of a bell would summon a peon. "Give Rekha madam this file", he would be told in an authoritative voice. Surely this was the good life! So much better than the kitchen!

There were other examples. At school, the Teachers Room was filled with all-powerful women. Since my mother was a teacher, I was witness to their camaraderie. I saw women sharing jokes, laughing over school politics, and debating what the annual day program should showcase. How much more interesting than housewifely discussions of rasam and sambaar at the local temple!

Clearly, those who wanted to be anything at all, had to forsake the kitchen. They had to study. They had to go to college, and make a place for themselves in the world of career women. My mum dreamt this dream for us, and kept us out of the kitchen. While other girls my age were chopping vegetables and learning to tell tuar dal from lal moong, I grew up with my head buried in books. I drew and painted and played marbles and flew kites. I got my MBA. I travelled. I earned money. But somewhere along the way, I also learnt to cook.

It was motherhood, of course, that forced me to learn. Starting from simple "koozhu" and boiled vegetables, I graduated to complex delicacies. I had a child who loved good food. At the age of 10 she could tell one subtle flavour from another. As my skills grew, so did my desire to entertain. All of a sudden, visits by family members became opportunities for me to experiment with food. I discovered and was totally trapped in the atavistic pleasures of feeding an appreciative audience. In the process, I came to understand that those glamorous working women of my childhood - the ones with the crisp sarees - woke up at unearthly hours too. They too cajoled their children, they too pandered to demanding husbands and in-laws. But their kitchens were not always hateful prisons to them. While their worklife provided them with independence and confidence, cooking and feeding people gave them deep satisfaction too.

Today my kitchen is home to several recipe books. My spice box is rich and inviting, and tempts me often to create new dishes. When I travel abroad on my consulting assignments, I raid speciality stores for delicacies. I've launched bazaar walks and cuisine tours in Mumbai and Delhi. Great-aunts and old female relatives have become a source of inspiration, and mum and I have conversations around food. Cooking has become a truly creative, rewarding part of my life.

Life is funny, I tell you. Ten years ago, I would have laughed at the very thought of cooking. Today, I'm watching Kylie Kwong's magic cooking on TV with my daughter. And we're both fascinated by it.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Understanding the Rain Gods!

The Southwest Monsoon will be upon us next month. Delhi is baking-hot right now (88 °F / 31 °C), but the blessed rains will bring cheer to everyone, especially farmers and traders. The Southwest monsoon represents more than 80% of India's annual rainfall. Indian agriculture is still largely rain-fed, and produces 20% of our gross domestic product.
For those of you who are planning to travel to India between May to September this year, let's look at what the Rain Gods did last year, shall we?
In 2007, the Southwest monsoon arrived over the south Andaman Sea, Nicobar Islands and parts of southeast Bay of Bengal on May 10. It was 5 days ahead of its normal date.
There were some disruptions, after which the monsoon revived gradually and arrived over Kerala on 28th May (again about a week earlier than its usual June first week arrival).

It advanced further up the country on 8th June, after a hiatus of 9 days. It covered the north-eastern states by 10th June, Peninsular and Central India by 25th June and subsequently the entire country on 4th July, nearly 11 days ahead of normal date.

We had good rains last year - overall 5% more than normal. Click on the image to see the rainfall distribution pattern across different states. The red states are the ones that didn't get enough rainfall last year. The blue ones got more than average, and the green ones are those that had normal rainfall.
Last year there was an unusual delay in the withdrawal of monsoon from extreme west Rajasthan (cyclonic circulations, said the Met, whatever that means!). The southwest monsoon withdrew from western parts of Rajasthan and some parts of Punjab and Haryana on 30th September (normal date of withdrawal from west Rajasthan is 15th September).
I'm waiting to see the forecast for 2008. There was one report that said it would be early this year. We had unseasonal rains in Kerala and Andhra Pradesh in March this year. I haven't yet seen the forecast for 2008, I'll look for it online and update this post in a couple of days.