Europe is Getting Less Secular

The latest flap over halal meat served in a restaurant in France

A French fast food chain’s decision to serve only halal meat in eight restaurants with a strong Muslim clientele has sparked a wave of criticism from politicians decrying the step as unacceptable.

Quick, the restaurant chain, is also not serving any pork products in these restaurants.

Right wing politicians are making hay out of the incident. But to anybody not blinkered by religious prejudice, there is absolutely no logical argument that you can make against Quick’s decision. Quick is free to tailor their product to suit individual or group preferences. Customers who don’t like halal meat, even though it tastes identical, are free to go elsewhere for their meals. Customers who would like pork in their meals could also follow suit.

I would spend a little more time on searching for a grain of logic in the arguments of the critics, but that would be a waste of time. What is clearly happening is that Europe is seeing growing pressure against its secular principles. Switzerland’s minaret ban vote is another case in point. France itself is pretty close to banning the burqa, which I have to admit is not as illogical as the tirade against halal only restaurants, but is fueled largely by political calculations and an anti-minority sentiment.

When jobs are scarce, people turn against immigrants. Most of the Muslims in Europe are immigrants from North Africa or South Asia. Add that to the fact that some people can’t separate terrorists from the religion itself and you have a situation ripe for exploitation by politicians like Jean-Marie Le Pen.

This movie still has a few reels left.

Another Ladoo for my Ladla

This trip, for some reason, I have been noticing a lot more obesity in India. From the just overweight to the can’t-get-out-of-their-airline-seat-themselves obese. Sedentary lifestyles have something to do with this, of course, but I sense that there is another major factor at work here – an Indian mother’s love.


Open Letter to the Bollywood Music Industry

Dear Mr./Ms. Music Executive,

First of all, let me compliment you on your pricing strategy so far. You have aced the test on how to price information products. Information products like music are tricky – the content is all in digital form, the fixed costs are high and marginal costs approach zero. How do you price such a thing?

Your current strategy seems to be working well. You have segmented the market according to the listeners’ ability to pay. To each segment you offer a different product (or sometimes the same product) at vastly different prices. I checked prices at different places for the same album – Don. Here’s what I found:


Water, No Ice

Water, No Ice
Indians are known to waiters in restaurants as the “Water, No Ice” people. Most Indians that I know don’t like to order a drink at lunch since the water is free. And no one likes their water with ice cubes in it. Call it racial profiling, if you like, but the Indian position on how they like their water makes sense to me. Given that our ancestral state in the African savannah did not involve any water with ice cubes in restaurants, I suspect that our genes did not prepare us for this daily assault from ice and ice cold water.

On March 1, my wife, Vidya Pradhan and her friend Rohini Mohan started an “online magazine” for Bay Area Indians.


Review: Never Say Goodbye

So you can’t say you never saw a Bollywood movie reviewed on this blog, here’s one.Last night my wife and I went and saw Kabhi Alvida Na Kahna (Never Say Goodbye). We got a baby-sitter for the kids and went and saw the 7pm show at Naaz8, the local Indian cineplex. This was the first day and the shows were all sold out. I haven’t done this in a while and it was great fun.


Salaam Bombay

Last week the dastardly terrorist bombing of Bombay’s suburban trains brought global terrorism another step closer to the largest democracy in the world – India.

Bombay is a city very dear to me and my wife. We started our working life in Bombay and worked there for 5 years. Took the train from Andheri to Churchgate and back everyday. I traveled in the same first class coaches that seem to have been targeted by the terrorists. Life wasn’t all roses – the 3.5 hours total commute didn’t leave us much time to enjoy Bombay. But when we did we fell in love with it. We loved the theatre (Prithvi), restaurants (Samraat, Mahesh lunch home), movie halls (Eros, Regal). The heady mix of high finance and Bollywood. The professionalism at work. They all endeared us to Bombay. But most of all it was the people of Bombay.


Namaste America

Last week Al Gore was a guest on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. He was there of course to talk about the Climate Crisis and his new movie the Inconvenient Truth. Since the audience at the Daily Show is fairly liberal, Gore got a very warm welcome from them. But what was strange was that Gore greeted them with folded hands. Damned if it didn’t look exactly like a Namaste. It was very casually done, no theatrics around it. I suspect he had done the very same thing many times before.

I was of course very tickled about it. I have long held the view that Namaste is a superior greeting to the handshake in the age of the Avian Influenza. Handshakes transfer germs and are a surefire way of spreading the virus when there is an outbreak. The WHO realizes this and has come up with the ‘elbow bump‘ which is just too hokey to work. Asian greetings like Namaste and the Japanese bow are, in this respect, superior. Although in Japan the formal greeting in business is still a bow, while Indian business (though not politicians) has completely adopted the handshake. Pity.

The other thing going for Namaste in the US is that it is closely associated with India and India is hot right now. India is of course in the news because of the nuclear deal still winding its way through Congress. As an investment destination for business it has to be number one or pretty close. Bollywood dancing is all the rage. You can find Kurti inspired women’s fashions all over the place. And Indian food in the grocery stores.

The big news is that from next summer, Indian mangos will be available in the US. Being that they are much superior to the Mexican variety I think that will win us a few more fans state side. Some say that the mangos are a fair trade for nuclear technology. Some say that we’re giving away the mangos too cheap! The mango deal was done during President Bush’s visit to India along with the nuclear technology deal.

The affinity between the two countries is good for both countries and for democracy everywhere.

Indian-Americans and the Spelling Bee conundrum

In the US there is a closely watched annual contest for school kids called the Spelling Bee. Over the years, whenever I have seen the results of a Spelling Bee contest I have always noticed that there were quite a few Indian kids in the final rounds. It seems like other people have also noticed this.

One of my favourite programs on TV is the Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. The program covers current affairs and manages to be both funny and incisive. A few weeks back when President Bush was in India the show covered his trip. Here is a clip from one of those shows (you will need a broadband connection). On the same show there was another segment where Stewart, talking about the US-India nuclear deal, says, "We’ll help India build nuclear reactors if their children stop crushing us in Spelling Bees." He then goes on attribute Indian kids’ spelling prowess to their long names. Sivaramabalamuralikrishnan Aghilandanayagaswami Iyenggar anyone?

I decided to investigate this further. I looked at the top 10 contestants in the Spelling Bee contest from 2001 to 2005. Since the contest has elimination rounds, I had to take more than 10 contestants when they were tied for positions. Of the  59 kids, including repeat participants, who made it to the final rounds in these  years, 12 had Indian names. Or roughly 20%.

So I then went to Wikipedia and looked at their entry on Indian-Americans. According to Wikipedia, there are 2.4 million Indian-Americans in the US, or just 0.8% of the population of the United States. Well that doesn’t compute, I thought. I then normalized for the college educated section of the population. According to the US Census 28% of the US adult population has a college degree. According to the same Wikipedia entry 64% of the Indian-American population is college educated. So college educated Indians are 1.8% of the total college educated population in the US. That is still a far cry from 20%. Clearly demographics don’t even begin to explain the Spelling Bee conundrum.

There are some other reasons that could explain this difference but in my opinion don’t do it adequately. The college educated Indian immigrant population is not a random sample from the college educated population of India. They represent the cream of the crop. I would have said ‘immigrant vigour’ was another contributing factor, but then America is a land of immigrants, so that doesn’t count.

How do you explain this mystery? Do Indian genes or the Indian family environment predispose us to be good at rule-based logical tasks (spelling bee contests are all about spelling rules and not about memorizing wayward English word spellings)? Does that explain the success of the Indian computer programmer as well?

I can’t say that I know the answers to these questions. All I know is that I would like Spelling Bee to be included as an Olympic sport. It would be nice to get a gold medal for a change.

The Competitive Indian

Last week I did some travel within India while on my trip here. On the Mumbai to Bangalore trip I saw something really fascinating. The flight was more or less on time. When it landed in Bangalore, the airplane had barely steadied itself after landing (still taxiing) when about a quarter of the passengers on board stood up and started taking their things out of the overhead compartments. The plane was still taxiing when there had formed a line at the door. The stewardesses repeatedly announced that the plane had not reached the gate and that passengers were required to be in their seats, but to no avail. These were people in a hurry.

On the next leg of my journey from Bangalore to Delhi I did not see this rush for the exit. Which is surprising if you know Dilliwallahs. So I wondered a little about it.

Later, I came to this conclusion – the people who formed the line knew that there was an aerobridge at the Bangalore airport. Therefore, if they got off the plane first they would actually get out of the airport first if they didn’t have checked baggage. In Delhi there was a bus to ferry us to the terminal and so there was no advantage in trampling over old women and children to be first off the plane. If my conclusion is correct, we are in for more stampedes as our airports modernize and have more aerobridges. Sobering thought, that.

In a more serious vein, is all this competitiveness good or bad for us as a nation? (Some of you may contest this conclusion that we are ultra competitive simply by pointing to our cricketing performance). I think that on balance it is good for us. While we do have to put up with the occasional dent in our Honda Accords from aggressive SUVs, it still has its advantages. It is Darwinism at its best. The students coming out of colleges today are tough. They know that if they don’t make it in the job market there is no social security safety net to break their fall. They also know that in the growing private sector the only thing that matters is merit. Hard work will pay. And when they do start making the big bucks, the marginal rate of tax is a moderate 30-35%. Compare this with the European social states where you can maintain a pretty good lifestyle on dole but if you make the mistake of working hard for a decent income, the state can take more than half of that away from you in taxes.

So the next time someone cuts into the check-in line at the airport in front of me, I’m going to think calm thoughts. Here’s someone who wants to get ahead in life, I’ll tell myself. May his tribe increase.


Here’s another one for Things That Don’t Make Sense To Me.

In Indian restaurants, why is the quarter plate kept on the left of the plate? Think about it. We’ve been brought up eating with one hand – the right hand. Assuming the rotis go on the quarter plate shouldn’t they be on the right? Why should the table be set by Western customs?

And while we’re on the subject, should the glass be on the right or the left? My vote is it goes on the left.