Sunday, 4 May 2008

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unseen dharamsala
Dharamsala, quiet little place that is, has been in the news a lot lately, thanks to its most famous resident, the Dalai Lama. You see, after he made his escape from Tibet, the Indian government shunted him around a bit before giving him a place of residence in Upper Dharamsala, also called McLeodganj. Mcleodganj was a sort of hangout for army officers and their families in British times (there’s a cantonment nearby, in Forsytheganj), but, so I’m told, became pretty much a ghost town after independence. Other Tibetan refugees flocked to the place, and it became the seat of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. Little Tibet, as some call it, also has a library, monasteries, schools and cultural centres that attempt to keep the culture alive. This site is part of a larger photo-project, an ‘international arts project for workers and refugees to describe their lives through photography.’ The site introduces eight Tibetan refugees, and links to their blogs. It’s a look into the live of a dispossessed people through their eyes and words.

Wired How-To Wiki
Wikis epitomise the whole user-generated content revolution. Sites like Wikipedia and its offshoots are abuzz with activity, generating volumes of content, some of it downright dubious, some of it of questionable value, especially for fogies like your columnist. Where we we? Where are my dentures? Ah yes. This wiki has a more specific focus: it’s a how-to site, with a tech slant. Naturally considering that its parent, Wired magazine, is an iconic geek publication, one that has chronicled the rise of the web and grown with it, and features some of the best, most lucid writing on tech topics. The site offers ‘projects, hacks, tricks and tips you can edit.’ It isn’t all geeky though. Amidst advice on adapters for electronic devices and building servers, you’ll also find ways to reset a dislocated shoulder, alternative ways to lace your shoes (there are 43,200 of them, would you believe?), or bar tricks. There’s a bonus: a small section of how-tos written by Wired staff.

Are you a CA?
The ‘CA’ that your columnist uses in the title doesn’t stand for Chartered Accountant. The ‘C’ is for Certified, and the ‘A’ refers to the, um, tail-end of your digestive system. Also known as the the A*****e Rating Self-Exam (ARSE), it is a set of 24 questions set in the work environment, by the writer Bob Sutton, part of his promotion for a book. If you’re enough of a, erm, navel-gazer to be reasonably sure of your own status on this important question, try taking it as if you were someone else: a colleague, perhaps. or your boss.

Clean Journeys
Responsible Travel
It’s summer. You’re off on vacation with the spouse and the brats. But have you thought about the impact of your vacation on the planet? This site has listings for 270 tour operators all over the world, with n array of activities and countries. It’s not just for the well-heeled westerner or the global traveller. We desis and impoverished columnists have some choices too. There are 181 India holidays listed as of this writing. Not solely travel agents, mind you. There are less-known things like self-catered holidays and volunteering opportunities. And there are loads of user reviews of the listed holidays to help you make up your mind. Have a good trip!

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, 4th May, 2008.

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Thursday, 1 May 2008

Siteseeing - 18


When teh interwebs were still young, my webpage proclaimed the intention to get to know people around the world, so that when I finally had enough money to backpack around the world, I’d have places to stay, friends to hang out with who’d point me to the good, cheap food, the cool places to go, and so on. Having the foresight of a new-born puppy, I didn’t start a dot com, and here I am earning my holiday fund, peanut by peanut, writing for this travel mag.. Never mind. This company takes that basic concept and adds a fee to it, to save you the trouble of actually making new friends. It operates in just seven countries in Europe as of this writing: Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and the UK. And you can choose to ‘live’ (€25) ‘eat’ (€15) or ‘go’ (as in ‘go see stuff,’ (€15) like a local by registering on the site and stating your requirements. The site will then link you up with pre-vetted locals. Or you could choose to search for what’s on offer and make up your mind when you see something you like. The company’s also open to people volunteering to sign up as locals, by the way. Though there’s no mention of any plans for this part of the world. Hm. Perhaps it’s not too late..

Published in Outlook Traveller, May 2008.

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A midsummer evening’s dream

Act One
Grizzled narrator ambles in, props butt against large black cube, the only prop on stage.
Narrator: Back in the day, I appeared in a musical, and got to see a few Bombay theatres from what has always been the right side of the proscenium for me. Later, performance put aside, I did reviews, visited pretty much every theatre in the city. And, despite my early pash for stages large enough to swing a cat (or Cats) in, I fell madly in love with little Prithvi, the first of its kind that I’d ever set foot in. One day, I said, one day..
Editor, off-stage: Get on with it, dammit!
Narrator: Enough about me. A little background to, heh, set the stage?
Lights fade.

Act Two
A clock face is projected on to the backdrop, its hands spinning backwards. Dissolve to sepia-tinted vignettes. A rich, warm voice, Naseerbhai for choice, speaks..
Father Time: In the 1940s, Prithviraj Kapoor strode majestically across our silver screens. He was also actor-manager of his touring theatre group, Prithvi Theatres. And he founded a film dynasty: his sons, Raj, and then Shammi, moved quickly from stage to massively successful film careers. As did the youngest, Shashi; but not before falling, hard, for the beauteous Jennifer, lead actress of Shakespeareana, the travelling theatre company led by her father, Geoffrey Kendall. The story goes thus: at the now-defunct Royal Opera House in Bombay, Shashi peeped through the curtains at the audience, and saw “this fabulous looking girl who looked Russian.” Shakespeareana had the next run after Prithvi vacated; so she was at a loose end. Shashi worked up the nerve to first ask Jennifer out, then propose to her, and eventually, despite initial parental disapproval, marry her.
In 1975, the couple set up the Shri Prithviraj Kapoor Memorial Trust (the patriarch’s died in ’72) and then, in ’78, Prithvi Theatre, on land the old gentleman had once leased, intending to set up his own theatre.
A voice from the audience chimes in. Spotlight on pretty lady sitting on the steps near the exit.
Sanjna Kapoor: I remember a peculiar L-shaped building completely unsuitable for theatre. My grandfather eventually used it to store costumes! The trips out to Juhu were wonderful; I played on the beach with my dog while my mother pored over plans with the architect. Prithvi opened when I was ten. I used to fall asleep in the sofas in the last row! I turned sixteen during the first Festival my mother organised.
She ran Prithvi until she died in 1984. Then my brother Kunal, and Feroze Khan, kept it running smoothly. I apprenticed under them, learnt a lot, and in 1990, I joined in.

Act Three
The narrator saunters back into the spotlight like he owns the damn thing.
Narrator: Prithvi is a ‘little’ theatre, seating 200 on three sides of a ‘thrust’ stage that places the action intimately close to the audience. Despite its tucked-away-in-Juhu location, convenient only for residents of the not-too-far-flung western suburbs, almost every actor of consequence who has set foot in the city has passed through its green room, every theatre lover in the city has applauded here at least a few times. Prithvi also hosts workshops, exhibitions, films, music, and poetry. Integral adjuncts are a wee bookshop, and Prithvi Cafe, hang-out not just for the after-theatre crowd and off-duty actors but also for the suburban folk acquiring cool cred over coffee. Sanjna, fortified by two strong theatre bloodlines and a deep love of the stage, has kept it going—and growing—against the depredations of weekend movies on TV, 24/7 channels, video (and VCD, LD and DVD) libraries, and if that wasn’t enough, multiplexes, malls and downloadable entertainment.
The spotlight shifts again, to the last row, where Sanjna sits, smiling..
Sanjna: I don’t fall asleep in the last row anymore. At least not lying down! (She continues, more seriously..) We have kept Prithvi affordable, both for the players (charges go as low as seven rupees per ticket sold, basic lights and sound free) and audiences (you get 50 rupee tickets on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). Sponsorship has kept us going. The Trust, a non-profit, is building up its own corpus. Donations are welcome; you’ll find details at We have great plans for the thirtieth anniversary. I don’t want to let out too much just yet, but it will be a mix of local, national and international theatre, and I wish my days had thirty-six hours!

Curtain Call
The narrator stands on the black cube, beating his chest, Tarzan-style, and simpering coyly. Simultaneously. Obviously we’ll need a virtuoso performer.
Narrator: Recently, an old, secret dream came true: I was centre-stage at Prithvi. Not quite in the way I dreamt of, all those years ago; it wasn’t a play, it was an evening of poetry, and I was the obscure newbie reading with a half-dozen luminaries; and no, it wasn’t packed to the rafters with screaming groupies. But they clapped. And it was sweet, so sweet.

Published in Outlook Traveller, May 2008.


Sunday, 27 April 2008

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One World
Pangea Day
Pangaea (to use the spelling everyone not American uses) is the name scientists give to a supercontinent, one of many in the earth’s history of drifting continental plates, a single landmass that existed some 200 to 300 million years ago, from which the continents we know today broke apart and drifted away. Pangea Day is on May 10th, and will be celebrated with a 4-hour programme (starting 11:30pm, IST) of live music, short films and talks. It will be broadcast live from six locations (Cairo, Kigali, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro) to a worldwide audience via TV, the web and cellphones. (For readers in Bombay, you can apply for a free invitation via the site.) It doesn’t stop after the show, though. The site promises to help people participate in community-building activities around the world, aside from making many of the performances available.

Did the Earth Move for You?
Paleomap Project
While we were researching the first few lines in the previous item, we found this fascinating site. It is a history site with a difference. It’s not about which branch of humanity slaughtered more people than others and hence got to write the books. Nope, this webmaster’s goal is, to put it mildly, huge: ‘to illustrate the plate tectonic development of the ocean basins and continents, as well as the changing distribution of land and sea during the past 1100 million years.’ So you get fascinating full-colour maps, animations showing the continents drifting around like flotsam in a Bombay monsoon flood, and, taking it many millions of years in the future, showing what the world could look like then.

Split Ends
Darn Divorce
Despite the best efforts of the guardians of our Glorious Culture, many in this country are realising that in some circumstances, a divorce, tough as it is on all concerned, is really the best path to choose. Well, as this blog says, it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It is a ‘collection of random thoughts and news on the Dreaded D-Word. Some content may appear silly or cynical, but in no way am I undermining the distressing effects of divorce…’ There’s a lot here that could be useful; links to advice and articles, and some fun stuff too. Worth a look if you’re coming out of a split, or are affected by one.

Off Line
Shutdown Day
Another internet meme landed in your columnist’s inbox this week. The question being asked on this site is whether you can survive a full 24 hours without your computer. The idea is to use the time you normally spend in front of the keyboard for other things, like getting outdoors and communing with nature, playing sports, or just doing things with people you can touch and feel. As the site says, just ‘remind yourself that there still exists a world outside your monitor screen.’ Kind of ironic, that the message is being passed around online, no? When is this happening? It’s on the 3rd May, just around the corner. The day I have to file the next edition of this column. You think the editor will buy it and we’ll get paid leave? Watch this space.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, 27th April, 2008.

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Sunday, 20 April 2008

Mousetrap - 145

As spoken in..
IDEA - The International Dialects Of English Archive
Two weeks ago, this column pointed to a site that served up a menu of common English words with their pronunciations in different parts of the world. This site, an archive that was started just over ten years ago, at the University Of Kansas in the USA, as ‘a repository of primary source recordings for actors and other artists in the performing arts.’ It is a sort of collaboration with the university’s Department of Theatre and Film and a global network of associate editors. It features recordings of one of two passages in English, with ‘both English language dialects and English spoken in the accents of other languages’ covered. You can download and play them for free.

Spare the rod
How Many Five Year Olds Could You Take in a Fight?
Another wee diversion—we need a life, yes?—dedicated to friends who swear they will never, ever, ever have children. Your results ‘are based on physical prowess, training, swarm-combatting experience, and the flexibility of your moral compass.’ But not to worry. All you’ll need to do is answer the questionnaire. But you’ll still need to steel yourself. The reward: a banner to display on your own site, with the number of brats you could take on filled in. (No real five-year-olds were harmed in the writing of this column. Promise. We love kids.)

Human Body and Mind - Sleep
As the good folk who put this page together will testify, your columnist has weird sleep patterns. The poor wee things get their copy in the pre-dawn hours if they’re lucky; otherwise it slides under the door just as the page needs to go to press. And one of the ways we keep tabs on our state of sleep deprivation is a li’l game on this microsite on sleep (part of the Beeb’s excellent Science & Nature section) which lets us shoot tranquilliser darts into virtual sheep as they gambol across the screen. It’s a test of reaction time, one of many tools and tests featured here that are designed to help you improve your sleep and your understanding of it. You can also get a personalised sleep profile, figure out your circadian rhythm, find out what foods keep you awake, read articles and more. See ya next week. We have sheep to put to sleep.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, 20th April, 2008.

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Sunday, 13 April 2008

Mousetrap - 144

The original Yahoo!
Shammi Kapoor
Way before David Filo and Jerry Yang named their ‘Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle,’ this Indian film star had already made the word famous on this side of the world. But a lesser-known facet of the exuberant Mr Kapoor is that he was a net pioneer in this country (I’m told he is a founder and still chairman of Internet Users Community of India). This is probably the earliest personal website from a Hindi film star, certainly predating all the slick, commercially produced sites and allegedly personal blogs of today. He built the site himself, and it is dedicated to the Kapoor family. It hasn’t been updated since the late nineties, as far as I can figure, but it’s a wonderful insider look at that fascinating family, with photos of them in their pomp (and also of some of our current sensations in rather more rotund avatars). For a slightly more up-to-date look at Shammiji’s life, check out this fan site.

This column shares one thing with Amitabh Bachchan (aside from our distinguished good looks, natch). Which is that we don’t like the term ‘Bollywood.’ Well, okay, we can’t vouch for Mr B’s scorn—a vastly more connected friend told us of it—or the reasons thereof, but we dislike it because it is derivative, and we think it shouldn’t need to qualify itself against Hollywood. (End rant.) But we, the tall thespian and I, are in a small and shrinking minority. Because sites like this one (at last he gets to the point!) only institutionalise it the more. This one has no India roots as such. The bloggers are from Austria, the USA, Slovenia, Germany and South Africa and are linked by their transparently genuine affection for the popular Hindi film industry (yeah, okay, it is a mouthful). It’s ‘about International Bollywood Community. We write about difference and same views about indian cinema in different countrie. This place is to make bollywood fandome international.’ Aside from regular posts on films, the team also passes around a Shah Rukh Khan doll, which they photograph in a variety of locations, and track via a Google Map.

The Indian Railways Fan Club
Here’s another fan site, for a rather different Indian institution, the good old railways. With apex fares and budget airlines, many of us haven’t been on a train for yonks. But for your columnist, a rail journey has always been ‘real travelling.’ And these railfans (as they call themselves) think so too. This site grew from a mailing list back in the eighties, started by a group of railfans in Amercian universities (hence the ‘A’ in the URL), the contents of which were later archived by several members before being brought together here. You’ll find ‘anything and everything having to do with trains in India!’ Routes and timetables, technical stuff, history, travelogues, photographs, video and audio, simulations, screensavers and more. Lalooji would be pleased. (But no, it’s not connected with the Indian Railways at all.)

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, 13th April, 2008.

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Sunday, 6 April 2008

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Tomahto / Tomayto
Sound Comparisons
‘England and America are two countries separated by a common language,’ said that caustic wit, George Bernard Shaw. And in My Fair Lady, the Broadway and Hollywood musical version of his Pygmalion, Henry Higgins says, the various accents used just in the UK, ‘One common language I’m afraid we’ll never get.’ American accents also differ widely from region to region, and, now, with English pretty much the world’s connecting language, the accents that come into play are mind-bogglingly diverse. This site has value, then, beyond the fun bit. You get a set of words, with recordings of the way they are pronounced in various parts of the world, which load as small mp3 files which play on mouseover. (There are also phonetic-transcripts of various defunct versions of the language, and sister sites that focus on other languages and their variations.) You’ll need a fairly decent browser and OS, a fastish net connection, and a sound card and speakers or headphones.

Mixed up
Will It Blend?
This site is a classic example of how to use the web to sell a product in a fun, non-intrusive way. The commerce angle is there all right, but the site went viral for its sheer lunacy. Its name tells the story. A gentleman in a lab coat asks the simple question: will it blend? He then tests the hypothesis with a food blender, what we call a mixie in India. And he performs his tests not just with fruit and vegetables, but with things like a garden hose, assorted plumbing hardware, a golf club, action figure toys, even electronic gadgets including—and this broke your columnist’s heart—an iPhone. All this in a section tagged ‘Don’t Try This At Home.’ Of course there’s another section called ‘Try This At Home’ which has more conventional uses of the blender, many of which would be quite easily within the capacity of your average mixie.

Barack Obama Stole Your New Bicycle
A month ago, this column featured a site called ‘Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle,’ which took off on the feel-good vibes the USA presidential candidate seems to exhude. This one works just the same, except in reverse: every page refresh gives you fresh reasons why Obama is a bad idea. Less giggle-worthy then the original, we thought, and the database of ‘reasons’ seems smaller, but it’s worth a few minutes of idle clicking.

And to end, a smile for you. A smiley, to be precise, an emoticon, one of those things that make language purists either cringe or utter grim predictions on our return to the dark ages of illiteracy. The smiley celebrated it’s 25th anniversary last year (19 September, 1982; yes, it’s that old!), and is still going strong. What led to its ‘invention?’ Well, it was the good old days of the BBSes, and, in the words of its creator: ‘if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke.’ Which sometimes led to acrimony, and ‘caused some of us to suggest (only half seriously) that maybe it would be a good idea to explicitly mark posts that were not to be taken seriously. After all, when using text-based online communication, we lack the body language or tone-of-voice cues that convey this information when we talk in person or on the phone.’ Go read the whole story.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, 6th April, 2008.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Siteseeing - 17

ResponsibleTravel & The Responsible Tourism Awards

Responsible Travel is a bit of a thing with us, starting with hikes in the Sahyadris as a college student; the Adventurers and Mountaineers Club walked with a large bag, where all hikers were supposed to dump their garbage, on pain of ostracism. ‘Take nothing by memories, leave nothing but footprints’ and all that. So it was a delight to chance upon these sites. The first claims hand-picked listings for 270 tour operators, and they cover pretty much all of the planet and various preferences, ‘over 160 countries, 250 different types of activities.’ (Yes, 173 India holidays as of this writing.) And it’s not just agents and operators—we would not have bothered with the site if that was it—but a lot of accommodation-only options, even self-catered and volunteering opportunities. The site also features unedited user reviews of listed holidays to help you make your choices, and the ability to book holidays through them. RT also created and runs the awards site, a reflection of the need to honours best practices in responsible travel. The awards ‘recognise individuals, companies and organisations in the travel industry that are making a significant commitment to the culture and economies of local communities and are providing a positive contribution to biodiversity conservation.’ You’re too late to nominate entries to the 2008 awards, but you can check out previous winners and their accomplishments. Go green, my children.

Published in Outlook Traveller, April 2008.

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Paul Theroux

In The Elephanta Suite, you examine the lives of visitors and tourists to India. Why did you choose to look at the outsiders? I chose Americans as the central characters in these stories because I cannot pretend to know much about the inner life of Indians. I have made the dramas of Americans abroad one of my obsessive subjects, and in this sense I am a great fan of the writing of Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky and many other works) and Graham Greene, whose characters are English but in alien surroundings.

You have travelled through India and Asia several times, including long train journeys. Could you tell us about your most unusual, most memorable experiences? I live and travel in the hope that I will meet someone — a trader, a desperate youth, an enigmatic woman, an Ancient Mariner, who will fix me with a glittering eye and say, “A strange thing once happened to me...” My travel books are full of such encounters. A man in Cambodia said to me last year, as an opening, “I did something in Siem Reap that I've never done before in my life...” See my new book, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, for the whole story.

That’s the revisit of your classic The Great Railway Bazaar, retracing your steps through the countries you wrote about then? As I said, the book is called Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, and yes it is a revisiting. It was a tremendously enlightening experience. I was startled by the changes — in many countries, and in myself. I was also startled by the changelessness of — say — Burma. What is most striking is the materialism in India, SE Asia and China — places that, 35 years ago, were traditional societies, scraping along, are now countries full of rapacious consumers; not a happy sight, but perhaps inevitable. Where will it lead? Ask me in 20 years.

Have you seen any great travel writing from India? Vikram Seth’s From Heaven's Lake and Chaudhuri's Autobiography of an Unknown India both have a powerful sense of place and time. But much of Indian writing that I've seen is concerned with family life and seems to me more a sort of anthropology.

And any great travel writing about India? The obvious books are by Naipaul, Forster and others, but these describe surfaces and are probably very irritating to Indians — as irritating as books by Indians on American life, which, to me, are full of howlers.

You're off to lead a workshop with travel-writers-in-the-making at Madras/Chennai. Do you often do that kind of thing? People who conduct workshops often say that they wind up learning as much as the participants. Do you find that true for you? I very seldom do this sort of thing, which is why I volunteered. I wanted to meet unpublished writers and to read what they'd written. A lucky teacher learns from his or her students and when they stop learning it's time to find a new job.

Are you still haunted by Sir Vidia's Shadow? Is the catharsis complete? Not haunted at all. The book remains one of my favorites and I feel blessed that I met Naipaul when I was young, that I knew him well and that the friendship ended, so that I could write about it. I have moved on, and so has he. I look forward to Patrick French's biography — out in the few months.

Published in Outlook Traveller, in a section called 'Fellow Traveller,' April 2008.


Sunday, 30 March 2008

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To help you along to April Fools’ Day, the plan here was to come up with a complete column-full of weird but fictitious websites. But that we rejected partly because that would mean we would have to actually think, which we can manage only once a week or thereabouts, and partly because the web is rather more weird than even your columnist’s imagination.

Dream Holiday
Sans Serriffe
This is a very old joke. It dates back all the way to 1977, when the staff of the Guardian, in the UK, came up with a special supplement in the style of similar things done earlier about real countries. The supplement claimed to commemorate the tenth anniversary of San Serrife’s independence, and even had themed ads (which the advertisers actually paid for!) from major companies. It was one of the most successful public pranks ever, with many readers, who didn’t get the typographical in-jokes (the islands of Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse, the capital city of Bodoni, and other cities like Arial, Baskerville and Port Clarendon), falling for it completely. This page, on the community site Wikitravel, is a kind of ongoing homage to the hoax. In the style of the site, completely deadpan, it lays out a comprehensive traveller’s guide to the island nation, borrowing freely from the original joke, the literature derived from it, and with some new stuff as well. Have a great holiday!

History Lessons
Top 100 April Fool's Day Hoaxes Of All Time
The Museum of Hoaxes is worth a visit on its own, for its Hoaxipedia. But this is a special treat, listing pranks dating back to the 16th century. Some favourites: the BBC radio gag that had people jumping in the air to feel the effect of lower gravity as a result of a planetary alignment; the Swedish TV station back in 1962, that had its viewers pulling nylon stocking over their sets to get a colour picture; the Swiss spaghetti trees; the moving of the Eiffel Tower. Also go see their Top 10 Worst April Fool's Day Hoaxes Of All Time page.

Searching for more?
Since 2000, the search giant has been one of the go-to pages on April 1st. Their Pigeon Rank gag in 2002 was a personal favourite, and last year’s TISP broadband internet service (Toilet Internet Service Provider, which, the page claimed, would give users access through sewage lines). What’s more, they’ve mixed it up a bit, by actually launching real products on the day. Gmail was one; it’s unprecedented 1GB of free storage was unheard of at that time, so many people thought it was a joke. Which, of course, only helped spread the news faster. Worth keeping your eyes open, one way or another.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, 30th March, 2008.

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Sunday, 23 March 2008

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Time out!
SI Vault
A magazine, a global icon, though perhaps some in this country know it best for its swimsuit issue: Sports Illustrated. The magazine is over 50 years old, and just this last week—Thursday to be exact—it opened up its archives online. And, in a sign of the times, where even the most closed-fisted media organisations are discovering the benefit of making their content freely accessible, this little treasure house is totally free. So go browse to your heart’s content. Yes, the magazine’s content is US-centric; only naturally, considering that that was where its audience was, so you’ll see lots on basketball, baseball and American football, and no cricket. But there’s lots of other stuff too, of interest beyond American shores. And yes, there are those swimsuit editions. and brotherhood
Fifty years ago, on the 20th March, several thousand British protestors set off on a 50-mile anti-nuke march organised by the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. And the symbol that they marched under was what we now know as the ‘peace sign,’ a circle with one vertical cross-bar and two others radiating from the centre in a sort of inverted V shape. Its designer, a chap called Holtom (who, one reads, designed it at Bertrand Russell’s request) explained that he has formed it from the semaphore (the language of flag signals) for ‘N’ and ‘D’ superimposed on each other, for ‘Nuclear Disarmament. This site isn’t much—we’ll confess that it was just an excuse to tell you about the peace symbol anniversary—a few image galleries, some photographs, no history or anything. So, well, um, just peace out, bro.

And while we were researching the site above (what, you thought we pulled it all out of a hat?) we found this fascinating site on pictorial images. While its stated focus is Western signs, we did find quite a few from cultures in the Eastern hemisphere. There’s oodles of information here (over 2500 symbols) about origins, cultures, meanings and so on. You can search through the database for particular words or themes, or, if you prefer, find data on a particular symbol by choosing its characteristics (shape, symmetry, open/closed, et cetera) and checking out the results. Random fun and enlightenment—always this column’s preferred method—can be obtained by just searching for arbit words and then checking out the symbols that show up.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 23rd March, 2008.

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Sunday, 16 March 2008

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Damn Interesting
This site does what your columnist tries to do as well: give you something interesting to read; stuff you’ll look at and go, ‘Damn, that was interesting.’ Except that the team of writers here goes much further, with long, witty, well-researched articles on all sorts of interesting topics, ‘facts and ideas, whether they appeared in the past, the present, or the (anticipated) future.’ The mix is amazingly wide; just a random glance through the archives reveals erudite pieces about mutant killer seaweed, could-have-been apocalypses, invisibility, a subglacial freshwater lake in Antarctica that was sealed under the ice at least 500,000 years ago, and, oh, just go see. It’s Damn Interesting. (Be warned, though, that it can be seriously addictive and a major thief of your time.)

Indian Postage Stamps
For our younger reader, let’s recap. Once upon a time, when people wanted to communicate with friends far away, they wrote (with pens, a sort of writing device without a memory) on paper (like what you’re holding just now, only blank), put those sheets of paper into envelopes (which looked like the ‘new mail’ icons in your inbox), sealed them, and then stuck on these small paper rectangles called postage stamps. They then walked over to a device called a postbox, and slipped their ‘letter’ in. A globally-linked entity called the ‘postal service’ then, when it wasn’t losing them, would, via mysterious methods, deliver the letters to the intended recipient. These postage stamps, for some reason, were very popular collectibles (your doddering columnist has a few albums ina shelf somewhere), with hobbyists willing to pay large sums for some of them, due to rarity, or even things like misprints. Well, this site is devoted to those little stamps, with a focus on the ones issued by the Indian postal service since 1947. Lots of enlarged scans, some interesting articles, and links to other sites.

Visual Dictionary
Sure, there are folks like us, who read dictionaries and encyclopaedias for pleasure. But more and more, we’re becoming visually-oriented. This dictionary, with its ‘20,000 terms with contextual definitions, developed by terminology experts; 6,000 full-color images of a wide variety of objects from all aspects of life’ in some 15 or so categories, is a rich resource, and not just for kids. The visuals are beautiful, all labelled neatly, for further study. I’m told it works well as a language-learning tool, since you can see and read, and find stuff based on what you already know. But it’s a darn fun read even with no particular agenda.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 16th March, 2008.

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Sunday, 9 March 2008

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To the roof of the world
Tibetan Uprising Movement
A short while ago, this column featured the Bhopal survivors padyatra to Delhi. This is another such people’s movement. India is host to a large number of Tibetan refugees, including the Dalai Lama himself, and the Tibetan Government in Exile. This year, just after the Beijing Olympics, it will be fifty years since the Dalai Lama escaped from the Chinese army (who claim that Tibet is historically a part of China). This group, a united front for several Tibetan organisations, aims to bring international attention to the Tibetan cause at a time when the world’s eyes are on China, thanks to the Olympics. On the 10th March, they will begin walking from Mcleodganj, in Himachal Pradesh, to Delhi, and from there to the Tibetan border, where they plan to cross over into Tibet. They are soliciting support as well, so, if you’re not Tibetan, you can choose to walk with them part of the way, up to the Tibetan border. Or organise some form of protest elsewhere. All details are on the site. [Link from poet and activist Tenzin Tsundue, via Menka Shivdasani.]

Simple interest
This bank is an Indian NGO that wants your custom. They seek an unusual deposit: toys, used (in good condition) or new, which they make available to deprived children in state-run schools and hospitals, orphanages, NGOs who work with kids, and other areas where one might find families in need, like building sites. They offer to collect from institutions, corporate offices and residential societies, by prior arrangement, so you can organise collections yourself, and get in touch with them to make a pick-up. From the site, I gather that they’re active in Bangalore and Bombay. Details available on the site.

Wear your..
‘Exactitudes’ is a portmanteau of ‘exact’ and ‘attitude.’ It is a photography project, an online exhibition or sorts (though it has also had real-life showings, and been published in a book), which takes a wry look at the way people seek to stand apart from the crowd by literally wearing their attitudes. Of course, what happens turns out to be a conformity to the group, where all members wind up looking much the same. The photographers underscore this by shooting their sets of subjects against similar backgrounds in almost identical poses, thereby ‘an almost scientific, anthropological record.’ They go on to say that ‘The apparent contradiction between individuality and uniformity is, however, taken to such extremes in their arresting objective-looking photographic viewpoint and stylistic analysis that the artistic aspect clearly dominates the purely documentary element.’ Fascinating.

If I were a book
The young man behind this site is a most persevering chap. He sent in a note and several polite reminders, but we had a long backlog, so this is a bit delayed. What the site promises is an avenue for self-expression via a book. It invites members to post original manuscripts (or even the contents of a personal blog) and have them instantly converted into book format. Other members provide feedback and comments. And a few listed publishers (the site claims sixteen publishers and agents, but lists only seven) also have access, and can choose to contact authors, and, if everyone has, in their youths or childhoods, done something good, they could wind up in print formally.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 9th March, 2008.

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Sunday, 2 March 2008

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Flat World
Apartment Therapy
Friends forwarded some cool staircase designs to us a while ago. Living in a rented flat, we could only forward them on to duplex-endowed friends. Then recently someone else sent us some more rad designs and we looked more closely. The site’s mission is ‘Helping people make their homes more beautiful, organized and healthy by connecting them to a wealth of resources, ideas and community online.’ And it has a wealth of cool ideas updated blog-style; focussed on a US homeowner, many of the ideas aren’t doable in the Indian context, but even a random search yielded ideas worth filing away for whenever we can buy our own home. Add to this its sister sites (all linked to from the top panel), re-nest which puts a green slant to the same basic goals, unplggd, which is tech-meets-decor, thekitchn, well d-uh, and ohdeedoh, for the kiddie spaces, and you’re bound to come away with an idea or two even for a Bombay 1BHK.

Uh O
Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle
As the world watches, large parts of the US—or at least the bits who vote Democratic—look like being swept off their feet by a Senator only his home state knew just a year or two ago. Something about him seems to have caught voter fancy, though there isn’t much to him bar some fuzzy words about change. (Or so this column thinks; but then we don’t get the fancy pay cheques the folks on the edit pages do, so ignore us.) Anyhoo, we loved this site, which gives you, with every page-refresh, more reasons why you too should fall into the thrall of BHO. Hilarious.

..and spice.
A young lady we know sent this in with a note that said it was an ‘awesomely addictive portal’ adding, with a smiley that it was for women, ‘but I am sure men can get some tips from it.’ Forewarned, we were not traumatised by assault of that shade of pink prefixed ‘mithai’ when we were young and impressionable. Popsugar is a regularly updated, Hollywood-oriented gossip column, part of a larger network of sites from a company called Sugar Inc, all of which have the word ‘sugar’ in their names. They cover fashion, beauty, entertainment, finance, news, home and hearth, advice, kids, tech, humour, food, even pets. And if all that wasn’t enough, you also have a community site where you go shmooze with the other, erm, sugars. We had to leave. Perhaps its because we’re not target audience. Or maybe it’s because we gave up sugar many years ago. [Courtesy Divya Manian]

Now you see him..
Banksy’s a cult. He (there seems to be consensus that Banksy’s male) is a street artist. Well, actually, perhaps ‘guerrilla artist’ would be better, because his exploits aren’t restricted to the streets: this column first heard of him because of a coup he pulled off in a museum, sneaking in his own subversive works and placing them amidst more, um, famous works. But it’s his street work that’s best known, part art, part social commentary, many of them have been made into prints and sold, though the originals were spray-painted onto urban walls. Banksy, it is said, doesn’t make a penny from these. The site features his art, and it’s as official as you’re likely to get with this artist.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 2nd March, 2008.

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Saturday, 1 March 2008

Indra Sinha

You left India as a young man. How often have you returned? Regularly since my association with the Bhopal survivors began in the mid-nineties, but before that there was a 15-year gap.

Any memorable journeys? From Kathmandu to Nepalganj, an airstrip on the Nepalese side of the border. Our tiny plane whirred into the air like a metal grasshopper; the high Himalayas rose up behind the foothills, white and shining for hundreds of miles. Nepalganj airport was a grass field, the terminal a hut; a small road vanished into fields of sugarcane, not a vehicle in sight, much less the taxi I had promised Vickie. A boy leant his bicycle against a tree, came forward shyly and said, “Indra? I am Shobha. Grandfather sent me to fetch you.” He flagged down a passing bullock cart and negotiated passage to the border. Vickie sat on the luggage, Tara (then aged 2) in her lap, Shobha on his bike, held onto the tail of the cart, I walked alongside, through the thick sugarcane fields into which Nana Saheb and his defeated army had vanished 125 years earlier. At the border, two square brick buildings, stood an amazed Indian customs officer. Ours were the first overseas passports he had seen in six months, he told us. Hearing grandfather’s name he said, “But I know him!” He telephoned Nanpara PO telling them to tell Iqbal Bahadur sahib that his family had arrived safely. Chairs were set in the shade; tea appeared, as did a photo album of his family. We passed a pleasant hour before the bus took us all away to grandfather and new adventures. I want to tell this story properly one day in a book of travel writings.

A busy advertising career, the online addiction you describe in The Cybergypsies; was there time for travel? We never had much money for travel when the children were young, but over the years we’ve seen quite a bit of Europe and of course the dear old UK. I loved living in England and love living in France. Our best family holiday was a six-week tour of France, Switzerland and Italy, with two weeks in the Lot, where we now live. In fact it is directly because of that holiday that we are now there.

You just visited the most touristy destinations in India: Rajasthan and Goa... A lot of people I know in Rajasthan are turning their houses into heritage hotels. There is a sort of build-your-own-haveli emporium where you can buy ancient carved doors, jharokas, silver furniture, rugs and hangings, everything you need for instant Rajasthan. The Jaipur Festival was Disneyworld, complete with elephants and fire-eaters; old Rajputana would have been dancing girls and opium. Goa is wonderful, when you get used to it. From Candolim to Calangute you get the same tourist tack as in Rajasthan; all that’s missing is Goa. Old Goa is still there; an outsider has to work a little to discover and get into it. Having loved John Berendt’s books about Savannah and Venice (and loved being with John too and learning how he came to write them) I keep thinking there is something to be done either on Rajasthan or Goa. Or both. But I have a number of novels to write, so I don't know when I might get time for travel writing.

Have you seen any great writing about India? I am rather sick of books about India. I would rather read books about Brazil, or Cuba, or the Congo, or somewhere I’d like to visit.

Published in Outlook Traveller, in a section called 'Fellow Traveller,' March 2008.


Siteseeing - 16

The Indian Railways Fan Club

In these days of budget airlines and frequent flyer miles, and to hell with carbon footprints, this site is almost like leafing through an old picture album and finding photos of an old flame. Wait, did we say leafing through an album? Jeeze, we almost let on how old we are. ‘Browsing,’ we meant. So there. Like we were saying, this site brought back a rush of soft, fuzzy memories, of coal and steam and lonely whistle-stops in the middle of the night. The IRFCA is ‘a mailing list for discussing all aspects of railways in India.’ Started in the late eighties in the old Usenet days, hosted on various American university servers (the ‘A’ is a relic of its origins in America), became a mailing list, and, later, members consolidated material from personal sites and brought them all together in this domain. You can still join the list, or just have a great time wandering the existing content: maps, passenger services, routes, timetables, technical and seriously geeky stuff, travelogues, historical notes, and a treasure trove of photographs to warm any rail-lover’s heart. (There are also audio and video galleries.) There’s even a set of simulations, and screensavers. And cellphone wallpaper! No ringtones though. What I’d give for the sound of a train horn in the distance on a quiet night...

Published in Outlook Traveller, March 2008.

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Sunday, 24 February 2008

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Bhopal-Delhi Padyatra
Twenty-three years, two months, twenty-one days have passed by. Half a million people were exposed to the gas. 3,800 people died that night, as per the most conservative report (more than the 2974 killed in the 9/11 attacks); the number was closer to 15,000, say others. 20,000 have died to date as a result of that exposure. 120,000 still suffer from the accident and the continued environmental pollution ailments caused by the accident and the subsequent pollution at the plant site. No one has gone to jail. Very little compensation has been paid. Promises have been broken. (See International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal & The Bhopal Medical Appeal for reams of information about that disaster and the terrible, unending aftermath.) Two years ago, our government made promises about economic, social and medical rehabilitation, and simple things we take for granted, like clean drinking water. Those promises haven’t been kept. So, four days ago, on the 20th February, 60 survivors started a padyatra to Delhi, 800km away, to remind the government of those promises. If you can’t join them, you can track their progress on the blog.

If you suffer with vertigo, this is not a site you want to visit. Your columnist has no head for heights, but, ever a slave to duty, he braved this site just for you, dear reader. Put together by a Texan, the tone of voice here is distinctly gawrsh-these-third-world-countries and slightly hysterical to boot; overdone somewhat, because the content is truly scary. He features four of the most treacherous roads in the world, three of them motorable (just about), the fourth a hiking trail. Each section is a collection of pictures culled from all over the web—the quality’s somewhat patchy as a result—accompanied with that overwrought text, and some first person accounts. The Russian road doesn’t look like that bad, but I warn you, don’t eat a heavy meal before checking out the other three.

Hot air
The Balloon Project
A city. A couple of guys. A bunch of balloons. A camera slung under said balloons. Balloons released drift over city. Guys chase balloons. Eventually balloon lands. Guys upload video to YouTube. Guys become latest web meme. Go see. (All the vids are here, by the way.)

Which way is North?
Strange Maps
Among one’s many, many weaknesses, we have a pash for maps. If a book one is reading has maps, one checks them out before one checks out the se.. never mind. This site takes that passion many levels higher, bringing you unusual maps of all descriptions, from marzipan maps to the backdrop to the Larry King show. They’re from old books and documents, from fiction, from designers, sent in by readers and there’s a new one every few days. It’s fascinating to see the many, many ways we represent our planet and, alas, attempt to slice it up and lay claim to it. The site is a mega success, with over five million visitors, and a book deal as well.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 24th February, 2008.

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Indra Sinha

Indra Sinha, legendary copywriter, tireless campaigner for justice for the survivors of the Bhopal gas leak of December 1984, highly-regarded novelist (his Animal’s People was short-listed for the 2007 Man Booker Prize), is holidaying in India with his wife. Fitting in appearances at the recent Jaipur Festival and Kala Ghoda Arts Festival between sojourns in Rajasthan and Goa, he also made time to chat informally with young writers. And to answer a few questions from Peter Griffin.

Tell us about some of your early memories of holidays around the country.
Lots. The beauty of the Western Ghats in the monsoon, visiting the lake palace in Udaipur before it was a hotel, rowing across the lake to the other palace, where Shah Jehan had stayed, to find its empty dome full of pigeons... I miss my grandfather's village in UP near the Nepal border, smells of straw, woodsmoke, an old travelling cinema kept in a hay barn...

All those years in the UK, and now in France. How often has the Colaba boy come back?
[I have been back] regularly since my association with the Bhopal survivors began in the mid-nineties. I love being in India. The pace of change is amazing, but I love to see things I remember still from the old days, like an old-fashioned bullock cart trundling along, and it was good to see that the forest is still thick on the ghats in places along the Goa road. If there is anything I can do, any organisation I can join or support to help protect the Western Ghats, I would like to do it.

Speaking of change, is it good change or bad that you see?
The pace of change is huge and the wealth in the country is enormous. What is sad and in fact sickening is that the well off seem to have closed their eyes to the vast majority of the population, who do not benefit from globalisation, the booming stock market, et cetera. The long-term result of this can only be fascism and repression; it will be the only way to preserve the continuing luxury of the wealthy at the continuing expense of those who have nothing. Writers have a duty to speak out about this and Arundhati [Roy] has recently written an excellent article on this very point.

Two of your books are set in India—well, four, to count Tantra and your Kama Sutra translation. Written, as they were, in Europe, did the distance aid perspective, or did it get in the way? How did you do your research?
When I write, I am in my imagination. It neither helps nor hinders to be in the place I am writing about, however I like to know the places about which I will write, even though the imagination transforms them. One tries to catch a reality, a feeling, that lies just beneath the skin. Lawrence Durrell was a genius at doing this. He was a favourite and formative influence when I was young.

As an expatriate, and a writer to boot, do you find yourself expected to be the font of all information on the country?
I used to be expected to be Encyclopaedia Indica, but that is less true nowadays. People’s knowledge of India varies enormously. Many people have been here and many more have some family connection. I think people’s ideas are formed largely by the television. Don’t forget there is also a huge Indian population in the UK, so Indian culture, Bollywood, “Indian” restaurants, are all pretty much part of everyday life.

Have you seen any great writing from India?
I loved Siddharth Dhanwant Shangvi’s The Last Song of Dusk, it was arch, amusing, knowing, entertaining—and underneath ran a tale of deep sorrow. The writing about sex is some of the finest I have read.

You’re scheduled to speak at the Kitab Festival. What will you be chatting about?
I propose to devote my Kitab event to talking about the Bhopal survivors who even at this moment are trudging the long road to Delhi in an attempt to get politicians to keep their broken promises. [See for the story.]

Indra Sinha will be speaking at Kitab today, 1p.m., Crossword, Kemp’s Corner. More about him at his website, And visit, companion site to Animal’s People.

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 24th February, 2008.

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Sunday, 17 February 2008

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Who’s the most beautiful of them all?
The Mirror Project
Verily I say unto thee, it takes all kinds. I mean, yeah, there are photo sites. And yeah, there are sites that are devoted to narcissism. But a site devoted to pictures taken of the photographers, taken off reflectove surfaces? Who’da thunk? But let’s be fair. These are not just the kind of shots we’ve all taken—y’know, aim at mirror, pretend like you’re not posing—though there are many of those. Some of these are truly imaginative, unusual and very well composed. You could browse by theme and go away happy. But hit the ‘random’ button, or, better, take a look at the link titled ‘galleries’ for user-selected mini-selections. Reflections on reflections, I could have said, but I decided not to be a smart arse today.

Per cent
The Miniature Earth Project
One simple method to simplify complex things dealing with large numbers of things or people is to state them in percentages. And this site takes that to the extreme, looking at the earth and humanity, breaking everything down into a ‘if there were only 100 people on earth’ scenario and puts them together into a short animation you can view online or download. The points the film makes are about poverty and imbalance, and, since 12 of those 100 own a computer and just three have an internet connection, it’s clear who it aims to talk to.

You’ve heard of the Hunger site, I’ll wager, or been sent there. This is an Indian copy. This column doesn’t think kindly of rip-offs that do nothing but clothe themselves in the tri-colour and proclaim that they are novel. But in this case, despite its lack of originality and the exaggerated claims (‘India's first online activism site’), its intentions are good. A click to help feed the hungry in exchange for viewing a sponsor ad; that can’t be a bad thing. Though I must point out that my clicks didn’t throw up any ads. So perhaps the site is dead or lacking sponsorship..

The news in your pocket
A clean, simple site with no frills. I rubbed my eyes. It felt like the mid-nineties! But nay, this isn’t a retro site. It’s an internet portal for mobile phones, with an India focus. I couldn’t give it a real test, seeing as I’m a poor freelance hack with a decrepit cellphone (see how cleverly we work in our semi-annual whine to Editorji?) that makes calls and sends SMSes and freezes every two days, but on a computer, it loaded like lightning, even on my slow connection (see, Respected Editor? no fat-pipe broadband). The navigation is ultra-simple, the content seems pretty decent: bite-sized news, some utilities, listings and guides, with a Bombay focus. Worth a click through. Erm. Beep through? Whatever it is you do with those gizmos I can’t afford. (Your Editorness?)

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 17th February, 2008.

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Sunday, 3 February 2008

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Digital Alexandria
Universal Digital Library: Million Book Collection
This column may have pointed briefly to this project once before, but it bears a revisit. The goals of the project are noble: preserving human knowledge for the future. We had stories first, word of mouth. Then writing came in, and then books became the best way to pass information around, and down the years. But books can deteriorate. This project believes that ‘digital technology can make the works of man permanently accessible to the billions of people all over the world. .. A universal digital library, widely available through free access on the Internet, will improve the global society in ways beyond measurement. The Internet can house a Universal Library that is free to the people.’ Well, here you are. A million books to choose from. And more coming in as we read. There’s an India connection here, by the way. The project’s founder is of desi extraction, and a large chunk of the digitisation has been done in this country.

Speaking ill
Sick Words
Do you think you’re an animal? You zoanthrope, you. Are you perhaps displaying a regrettable tendency to swear at this column for it’s sheer silly waste of your time? Well, your alochezia is showing. Never mind our witzelsucht. You go look at this page full of terms that have something to do with illnesses of some that your average family doctor may not be able to cure. [Link via Amit Varma.]

The A-lists
The List Universe
Cool place for the trivia-obsessed, this. The name gives it away: this is a site devoted to lists. Its slant is fun, with a nice weirdness quotient and plenty of bias. Want to check out who the top ten alcoholic writers were? Or 7 ways to get the best of a zombie? Perhaps you’re more, um, normal, and you’d like to see the top ten unsolved murders? Or the most expensive foods? It’s all here, with regular updates, and neatly categorised. There’s even a forum, where you can go shmooze with other list addicts.

Party time
Kala Ghoda Arts Festival
Once, there stood a statue here, in black stone, of a man on a horse. The statue has been dumped somewhere in the zoo, and no one remembers the name of the horseman (it was King Edward VIII, incidentally), but the area in Bombay continues to be referred to by the locals’ affectionate name for his horse, ‘kala ghoda.’ Since 1999, this heritage quarter has hosted an arts festival. And for nine days in February, the stone fronts of the elderly buildings are lit up with carnival lights and echo the happy sounds of Mumbaikars having a good time. There is a street festival, food stalls, music, films, theatre, installation art on the pavements, literary events, workshops, all for free. Go check out the schedule. Can’t be there? Never mind. Go visit the festival’s official blog, the Kala Ghoda Gazette, where a bunch of local bloggers are ready to bring you all the highlights. And there are some contests you can join in on wherever you are.
[Disclosure: Your columnist helped organise parts of the Festival, and is one of the editors of the Gazette.]

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 3rd February, 2008.

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Friday, 1 February 2008

Siteseeing - 15

travel bookmarking

‘Social bookmarking’ isn’t new. When you share a cool link with friends, that’s what you’re doing. Sites like make it ludicrously easy to do, giving you the added bonus of saving ’em online. (Psst, if you’re on and know of sites you think we should cover, tag them ‘for:zigzackly’) This site goes further. For one, as it’s name indicates, the focus is travel. Secondly, it lets you write your own notes, or import content from free sites like World66 and WikiTravel (which we have covered in this space), or its parent site, So Much World, to make your own custom travel guides. You can share your guides with your pals, and, naturally, go check out guides created by other members. You’ll find this site more useful if you’re travelling abroad—in the west; basically, and more specifically, the USA— than you would if you tried to check out India, which has negligible mention as of this writing. You have some spammers there too, which is worrying, because it makes it more difficult to find good stuff. The wisdom of crowds helps: search for ‘popular’ links. And you can change things yourself; that’s the point. So go sign up and mark out good stuff, hmm? Make sure to mark, and maybe the Ed will give me a bigger cheque. Hah.

Published in Outlook Traveller, January 2008.

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Sunday, 20 January 2008

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Be sharp
No prizes for guessing this is for the music buffs. As the name suggests, it’s a take on the Wikipedia model of collaboration, in this case a searchable, user-editable, and steadily expanding ‘collection of tunes, melodies, and musical themes.’ The entries include sheet music, audio files, and plain-text information. It also features a search engine that helps you find a piece of music—and this is so cool—even of you know nothing about it except the tune, or even the beat. There’s a virtual piano keyboard, or you can tap out a beat on your computer keyboard, or you can hum, whistle or sing to the computer. Being rather tune-challenged, to put it mildly, I had some rather weird results. Others, more musical than your columnist—admittedly a huge category that includes most of humanity, even the baseball-hatted chappie who sings through his nose—have reported better results. Go try it and write in about how you fared, okay?

Words are all I have
Since one is in this musical mood, and the neighbours haven’t complained—yet—here’s another site for you tuneful folks. Unlike the gazillion lyric sites out there, this one gets into what them words really mean. No, wait, that’s inaccurate. It doesn’t have the lyricists expounding on their intent. What this is a forum, where members come in and post what they think song words mean. Much debate and discussion and all that, and you don’t have to sign up to read what they have to say. The site stats, as of this writing, say the database covers 31,878 artists, 14,502 albums and lyrics for 369,577 songs. Most of it is songs sung in English, but I did find a few songs from the Hindi film industry as well. No ‘Eena Meena Dika’ though. One still searches for meaning..

The way we were
Historical Maps of India
One of the things I’ve never liked about our country is the paucity of good maps. That’s partly because of some kind of government regulations, I am told; security risks or summat. Pretty irrelevant, that, in an age where satellite imagery is easily available, and for free at that, on the web. Nothing fancy on this site, no Google Earth zooms and pans and fly-bys. It’s just a collection of links, but what a collection! The owner has painstakingly assembled links from all over the interwebs, pointing to scans and reproductions of maps going back to the 18th century. The area covered extends beyond the ‘India’ in the page title, with much of the neighbourhood that was under European colonisation included. There’s even a world map from 1772!

Self -portrait
10 x 10
Every hour, this the site automatically generates a grid (10 x 10, natch) of 100 words and pictures that ‘matter most on a global scale, and presents them as a single image, taken to encapsulate that moment in time.’ How does it figure out what matters? It scans feeds from several international news providers, and picks out the 100 words that appear most, factoring in some complicated linguistic stuff. What you get is a snapshot in time, a sort of patchwork that reveals much about the world and what we think is important. You can click through, look deeper, muse, fulminate, mourn, rejoice, whatever; that’s up to you. Fascinating way to spend some time, and kind of addictive, I must warn you.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 20th January, 2008.

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Sunday, 13 January 2008

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Identity Crisis
Hell, my friend, is keeping track of IDs and passwords for every darn site you use. If you’re like me, you’ve got a loooong list and you’ve forgotten more of them than you can remember. It wasn’t for my browser storing passwords for me, I’d have no online social life to speak of. But here’s a solution. OpenID lets you wander around the web under one identity. Let’s say you have a WordPress ID, and Wordpress supports OpenID. You can then use that ID as your base, using it to sign in to other sites that support OpenID. What sites? The claim is ‘nearly ten-thousand’ as of this writing (there are a couple of directories the site links to, for reference). Worth checking out, if you’re part of the participatory web. And who isn’t, these days?

I dub thee..
You know how all the good domain names are taken? And how tough it is, if you’re launching something new, to come up with a name for your service / mash-up / bit o’ self-indulgence that isn’t already taken? Well, that explains all those weird site names one comes across these days. And what this site does is generate domain names for you. You can feed it prefixes and/or suffixes (or pick from the ready-made lists) and the generator combines them for you and presents you with a list. If you like something it comes up with, you can check for availability right there. (The scary part is how many of them are already booked! Perhaps it’s not as tongue-in-cheek a site as I thought it was.) There are also useful tips for picking domain names. If that’s all too much work for you, try the Web 2.0 name generator for random names.

She says
Ultra Violet
A new(ish) blog that is pretty much described by it’s URL if not its name. It is a feminist blog, covering the issues and challenges that Indian women face today. Their About page says that the site ‘provides a place to explore and understand the ways in which young women in India are challenging, negotiating and transforming unequal power structures. It is also a space to celebrate women’s histories, wisdom, creativity, laughter and love for life.’ There have been some interesting debates up there, and the contributors list features some well-known writers and bloggers, so it’s worth your time to visit. The only thing is, they’re all women. One can’t but wonder, how come? Can’t a man be a feminist?

Who shall guard the guards?
Mission Safer India
The creation of former supercop Kiran Bedi, the site offers to step in if you have had trouble getting your complaints attended to by the police. It’s terribly badly written, and clumsily designed too, but if you wade through and try not to cringe too much, it’s a genuinely useful service. Just create an ID, and then you can fill in a complaint. The webmaster then makes sure your complaint is forwarded to the correct channels in the police hierarchy, though it’s up to you to then, with your printouts, to follow up on the matter. It deals solely with e-complaints, so no paper submissions will be dealt with. Now if only Ms Bedi would get someone to redo the site decently.

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 13th January, 2008.

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Sunday, 6 January 2008

Mousetrap - 132

So, all hangovers taken care of and messed up your first cheque by writing the wrong year yet? Happy New Year, from the bottom of this little column’s, well, for lack of a better word, heart.

A watched kettle never boils
Kitchen Myths
The web is host to more myths stated as serious fact than any other medium. And many sites specialise in busting those myths with reason, research or just plain scorn. Says this site author: “The same sort of thing happens in the world of food and cooking, although on a much smaller scale. This page is my answer.” So you have the skinny about such stuff as baking soda used to absorb odours in the fridge, the alleged dangers of microwave cooking, and my favourite, how much alcohol is really left in a dish after cooking (not zero, as the conventional wisdom goes, I’m delighted to report), among many others. And should that pall, the site also has recipes. Eat up. [Link courtesy Ashwan Lewis]

You genius, you
The Blog Readability Test
Just a wee bit of frippery. Enter a URL (not necessarily a blog), and the site will tell you what level of education is required to understand its content. You, dear reader, will be glad to know that the site where I archive this column requires a genius reading level. Sheesh. So that’s why I don’t get fan mail.

For the record
Vinyl Sleeve Heads
This column is clearly not in a serious mood today. You want serious? G’wan, go back to the op-ed page. Right, it’s just us chickens now. This page just has.. but wait, I’ll have to explain something to the young ’uns; you old-timers hold on a sec. Now, kids, before mp3 players and CDs, people used to listen to music on things called records, which were discs, much like CDs, but large and black and made of vinyl, which were sold in covers made of thin cardboard. How big? Well, enough to cover your face. Now where we? Yes, It’s a simple page, nothing but pictures of people holding up record covers in front of their faces, usually with album covers that feature a face. And yes, it’s much funnier than it sounds. Go see.

With the grain
Free Rice
I must have had at least a score of friends pointing me to this link over the last couple of months, so perhaps you’ve heard of it by now. Nevertheless, you have a bleary-eyed columnist here, who needs to sleep. And this site’s stated objective is a winner: to give to the needy. Also dear to my heart is the method, a word game, where you get words in increasing degrees of difficulty, and you have to choose the correct meaning from four options. (Rather like the old Reader’s Digest word power games, except that here you don’t get a few lines of explanation and contextual use in the Answers page.) For each right answer, the site donates twenty grains of rice to the UN, paid for by the advertisers whose banners appear on every page. With every three words you get right, you advance one level. For every wrong answer, you drop one level. The site says, ‘This one-to-three ratio is best for keeping you at the “outer fringe” of your vocabulary, where learning can take place.’ My ‘outer fringe’ is now 49. What’s yours?

Reader suggestions welcome, and will be acknowledged. Go to for past columns, and to comment, or mail The writer blogs at

Published in the Times of India, Mumbai edition, 6th January, 2008.

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Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Siteseeing - 14

Travel Greener

Quicker than you can say Pachouri, we’ve suddenly come all over environmentalist. We now talk grimly of recycling, cutting emissions, carbon footprints and more, not just as dippy tree-hugger behaviour, but as something we all need to know more about. More talk than action, it must be said, but at least we’re taking it seriously. And we travellers—yes, you too, dear reader—must do our share too. The buying and selling of ‘carbon credits’ is one of the businesses born of this awareness.
Now I have to admit that I’m just over the clueless line about how exactly this works, but what I understand is this. When you fly, your share of the plane’s emissions significantly increases your personal carbon footprint. (A Bombay-Delhi flight would send 288 kilos of carbon into the air; Bombay-Boston would be 2689kgs.) You can offset the damage to the environment by purchasing carbon offsets, which are used in projects that reduce CO2 emissions elsewhere.
This site lets you make travel bookings (flights, hotels, cars), and uses its commissions to fund its environment-protecting projects. It also has calculators that let you calculate flight or road-trip emissions and then buy offsets directly. (The road-trip calculator only works for US trips, alas.) Cool idea, and a worthy model for someone to emulate in India. And when you do, please send me some free credits for pointing it out to you, okay?

Published in Outlook Traveller, Januray 2008.

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