Sunday, 24 February 2008

Mousetrap - 137

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

Mousetrap - 136

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

Mousetrap - 135

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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