Sunday, 30 March 2008

Mousetrap - 142

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

Mousetrap - 141

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

Mousetrap - 140

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

Mousetrap - 139

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

Mousetrap - 138

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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