In Tune with Holi Memories

It’s rainy and cloudy in NYC, and quiet in my apartment, but I’m determined to transform my morning into a Holi celebration anyway. How? By listening to this awesome playlist of Bollywood Holi songs. holinyc1.jpg

The music is bringing back vivid, colorful memories of my childhood in Pune where I could hear music blaring over LOUDspeakers from the early morning hours to late at night. I’d stand in the balcony of our apartment with my sister and cousins and we’d fill up balloons with color water and drop them down on passersby. That was tame, believe me. In the opposite balcony, teenage boys would fill up buckets and pour out steady streams of red, yellow, green, and orange water! Below, people dressed in white shrieked in delight and emerged from the surprise bath with their hair, clothes, and faces completely soaked in all the colors of the rainbow. And, of course, there was the powder that, if you weren’t careful, would be smeared all over your face when you least expected it, getting into your nose, mouth, and ears. (Yes, bathing at the end of the day was always an ordeal!)

I’m not sure about Holi celebrations in the US, but in India, sales of the colored powder–which are mixed with starch and topia before perfumes and scents are added to give them a fragrance–are in the six-figure digits and grow at the rate of 15 percent per year, according to Reuters. In recent years, manufacturers have been responding to concerns about their safety (some contain lead) and expanding into the business of producing organic colors made out of fruits and vegetables.

During my college days, I helped organize a few Holi celebrations on campus. There was something immensely empowering about seeing a whole bunch of brown folks taking over one of the main quad lawns, playing loud Bollywood music (we even had a dhol player one year), dancing, and throwing colored powder all over each other. Sure, it attracted attention, but in those days (the mid 90s) when Indian students had less of a visible and active presence on the college campus, it was also an opportunity to share a unique cultural festival that transgresses religion with our peers and professors. By the end of the afternoon, the lawn would be packed with desis and non-desis alike and it was nearly impossible to recognize one another!

Although I don’t play much Holi these days (my celebration is limited to a few smears of color rubbed gently and affectionately on my cheeks by family members and vice-versa), I do miss the days of carefree abandon, masti, and rang. And to fill that gap, I turn to music which helps me relive my memories (until I figure out how to make new and better ones).

Even the Big B, who is not celebrating Holi in memory of the recent attacks on Mumbai, is aware of how closely the holiday is associated with “Rang Barse,” his signature dance and song from the film Silsila. Without it, this day is somehow not complete.

The Hindustan Times has a nice feature on musical Holi memories of various Bollywood music figures. What kinds of Holi memories do you have? Was it a festival you celebrated during your childhood or that you somehow celebrate today? Continue reading

Contest: Write a Six-Word Memoir of Love or Heartbreak for V-Day (and win a free book)

It’s almost that time of the year when big pink hearts take over storefronts, over 190 million cards are exchanged, and the average U.S. consumer will spend $103 on gifts, meals, and entertainment,. Yup, St. Valentine’s Day. The day of L-O-V-E.

I’m not one to make a big hoopla about this holiday – I’m one of those people who prefers to receive flowers or a gift on random days rather than on a day when there are such high expectations. But, a handwritten card or a poem, ah, that I will never turn away. swm_love.jpg

This year, my Valentine’s Day gift to my husband is a copy of SMITH magazine/Harper Perennial’s Six Word Memoirs of Love and Heartbreak: By Writers Famous and Obscure. It’s a pocket-sized paperback (4X6, a little smaller in size than your average Valentine’s Day Card, but chock full of so many more wishes and reflections on matters of the heart).

This book is the second offering from SMITH Magazine whose initial invite to writers two years ago was a simple one (inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn): Everyone has a story. Can you tell yours in six words? The submissions poured in like crazy and soon enough they had published the NYT bestselling Not Quite What I Was Planning. (

The book features my very own six word memoir on page 13:

Sleeping, our foreheads touch. Fates mingle.

As I was flipping through the book, I came across another one-liner by our very own mutineer V.V. on page 70:

My book title makes dating awkward.

There were several more six-word desi memoirs that made it into the book:

Girl beautiful. No Mercedes. No love. – Sujoy Kumar Chowdhury
I fixed him but broke myself. – Amal Khairul
Proposal. Dowry. Bethrothal. Marriage. Children. Love. – Mitali Perkins
Arranged marriage now sounding pretty good. – Saleem Reshamwala

Add your own six word memoir (consider it your Valentine’s day greeting to the world) in the comments section before midnight on Sunday, February 15th. V.V. (author of the Washington Post choice for one of the best books of 2008, Love Marriage will pick two winners who will each receive a free copy of Six Word Memoirs of Love and Heartbreak. And, that’s our V-Day gift to you.

Below the fold, check out a book trailer for inspiration. Continue reading

Beating a Brazilian Path to India

Last summer, I posted about my experiences Desi Spotting in Brazil and observed that “despite my lack of desi human spottings, there was no dearth of Indian influence—mostly of the exotic India variety—to be found in Brazil.”

I’m revisiting this topic today, thanks to Sepia reader Vijay, who shot me an email from Rio a couple of weeks ago. “Omg–have you heard of this Brazilian soap opera about an indian family?” he wrote. “A sepia investigation is in order.”

It certainly was! And, here’s what I dug up, with a little help from Vijay.indias.jpg

Since January 19th, Brazilian TVs (approximately 60,000 households just in Sao Paulo) evenings have been tuned to a new telenovela six nights a week. Camhino das Indias (Path of India) “examines beliefs and values that differentiate the Eastern and Western world” and follows the story of a forbidden love between a Brazilan man (whom I understand to be a yoga instructor) and an Indian woman from a conservative family. The drama was filmed with a budget with a mostly Brazilian cast on a budget of $80 million in Jaipur, Agra, Dubai, and Rio (where two Indian towns were constructed for production purposes!).

Backpacking Ninja, a desi blogger traveling through India describes it thus:

With Portuguese actors all dressed in extremely jatak (gaudy) Indian clothes (looking thoroughly North Indian), speaking Portuguese, it’s a total riot. I laughed so much watching one episode. The episode was a wedding….. the background music that was playing in the wedding as they did the saath phere (sacred walk around the fire symbolizing marriage) was Kajra re (one of the most popular songs to play in dance bars in India). It’s almost like playing Shakiras ‘Hips dont lie’ when someone is walking down the aisle in a church. In another scene, the heroine Maya (Juliana Paes) walked over to the buffet table and made eye contact with the hero Bahuan (Marcio Garcia, and trying to be Indian in all ways possible, they showed a dream sequence of them holding hands… not in person.

The opener features Sukhwinder Singh’s “Beedi” and is intended to show off the “cultural diversity that exists in the country,” according to creative director Roberto Stein. I’ll let you be the judge of that. Whatever your opinion (“this exoticizes India yet again” or “this is great for Indian tourism” or “wtf?”), I think that you’ll agree that your eyes will stay glued to it.

For those who want more (I certainly did!), beneath the fold, I’ve added clips from episode one. Continue reading

Devotional Obama

Here are two Obama tunes to get you humming as you drink your Sunday morning coffee or chai.

We’ve blogged here about Bollywood Obama and I’ve written about the Japanese town of Obama’s boppy theme song “Obama is beautiful world.” Now, a couple of young musicians in Surat–Chirag Thakker, Jayesh Gandhi and Anita Sharma–have welcomed Obama into their hearts with this catchy song that praises our new president.

We have dedicated this song to Obama and uploaded it on Youtube, so that the world could see our attempts to honor him. His down-to-earth personality, faith in Lord Ganesha and great respect for Mahatma Gandhi made us feel that he is very close to us,” said Chirag, adding that they have used names of Lord Ganesha and Gandhi in the song. [full story]

The song has elements of a bhajan (the lyrics have devotionalism), but also features the djembe, which the artists chose to include in honor of Obama’s African heritage! The video is granted, a bit amateur, but it also has subtitles (so that Obama can understand it) and was shot in various parts of Surat, including the banks of the Tapi river and the city’s municipal gardens. Overall, the three artists devoted three months to it from start to finish.

I was going to wrap up this entry, but then found this Punjabi poem by California based poet and singer Pashaura Singh Dhillon. I was moved. But then again, I get weepy pretty easily these days.

Continue reading

If You Could Turn Back Time …

A break from politics and world news (and my crazy workday) to share this short, sweet video that I just caught wind of via my daily VSL fix.

It’s called “Rewind City” and is a French TV ad currently airing for Orange’s DVR service in France. Watch as the unexpressed wish of a tearful backpacker comes true when the traffic and people in a Goan village conspire to reverse direction.

Filmed in village of Assonora, 15km east of the town of Mapusa (a hub for bus travel) in North Goa, it’s directed by British director Ringan Ledwidge. The main characters came from Paris, the 250 extras came from Mumbai, and the other backpacker types came from Anjuna, home to the famous Goa hippie flea market.

The ad asks the question, “What if you could rewind a memorable moment in your life?” Not a bad question to ask of oneself every now and then.

Continue reading

“Catalist” for Change: Q& A with Vijay Ravindran

A few weeks ago, I posted “Data Crunching for Obama,” a look at the Democratic campaign’s microtargeting strategies led by Vijay Ravindran, chief technology officer at Catalist, Harold Icke’s start-up political technology company that built a national voter database of information on more than 260 million people for progressive groups, including the Obama campaign. vijayr.jpg

At Catalist, Ravindran led all the technology aspects of developing the company’s software products and services. The data banks and web-based tools he helped develop could answer questions such as: “How many Indian-Americans gave money to me, said they were an Obama supporter, voted in the last general election, own their home and live in Baltimore?”

Below the fold is a Q&A with Vijay Ravindran, where he talks about his engagement with politics, the 2008 election efforts, Catalist’s role in it, and what South Asian voter data tells us about the “brown” community.

Incidentally, the 34 year old is on a roll. Just yesterday, it was announced that as of February ’09, Ravindran will be the senior vice president and chief digital officer of The Washington Post Company. Per the press release that went out:

“We are fortunate to have Vijay join the Company as we focus increasingly on electronic media,” said Donald E. Graham, chairman and chief executive officer of The Washington Post Company. “Vijay is widely recognized as one of the top innovators in the field. I am delighted that he will bring his extraordinary skills, talent and experience to our efforts to expand our digital business.”

Continue reading

Great Expectations for Slumdog Millionaire

The Oscar buzz has already started and it’s only been one day since “Slumdog Millionaire” was released. So far, the new offering from British director Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting fame) has been referred to by The New York Times as a film that “could be the breakthrough work that leads the world to focus on the genre …of Parallel Cinema, a more personal narrative type of film like Mira Nair’s art house hit “Monsoon Wedding.” slumdog2.jpg

And, Roger Ebert predicts the film will win an Best Picture Oscar nomination, calling it “a breathless, exciting story, heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time [whose] universal appeal will present the real India to millions of moviegoers for the first time.”

When you read gushing reviews like Ebert’s, you can’t help but walk into the movie hall with high expectations, wondering whether a film can really live up to all the hype. The answer is: Yes.

“Slumdog Millionaire” is being billed as a film about “first love, determination, and realizing your destiny.” Not quite the pitch that you’d expect from a mainstream film about a kid from an Indian slum. This is a film that will surprise viewers who think they’re going in to watch a movie about India’s tremendous poverty and rich-poor gap. It switches swiftly between scenes that take you into an India that is at once poor and wealthy, moral and crime-ridden, developed and undeveloped, hopeful and disappointing. And, though the story is laced with a trace of Bollywood romance, goondas, and some implausability, it is for the most part, as Roger Ebert says, “real.” Add to that a soundtrack by A.R. Rahman and Danny Boyle’s directorial talent for bringing India’s sensory overload and motion to life without the typical exoticism or “oh those poor things” mentality and you have a winner.

More of my review below the fold. Continue reading

Rushdie on Religion and the Imagination

Last Wednesday night, I had the chance to sit in on a fascinating conversation on “Religion and the Imagination” with Salman Rushdie. The author of Midnight’s Children [soon to be adapted for film by Deepa Mehta], The Satanic Verses, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and East, West was, of course, the perfect person to launch Columbia University’s newly founded Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life. The Institute’s mission is to “bring together scholars and students in various fields to reflect and respond to the issues brought about by the “resurgence of religion and, with it, religious and cultural intolerance and conflict [that] are emerging as powerful forces in the new century.” Rushdie2.jpg

Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Laureate in Literature, introduced Rushdie as someone who has been “fighting religious intolerance with humor, proving that we can fight moral seriousness with humor.”

The stage in Columbia’s always inspiring (and very crowded) Low Library Rotunda was set simply with two arm chairs–one for Rushdie, who was was all suited up, and the other for his “interviewer” Gauri Viswanathan, Professor of Religion and Comparative Literature, dressed as always, in a sari. The conversation was an intellectual one peppered with doses of Rushdie’s subtle (and sometimes pointed) humor and the topics of conversation ranged from everything to his relationship with religion and his hopes for robust religious debate to his thoughts on Obama’s win earlier that week.

“We don’t live in a world of drama, dance, and love… We live in a world of death, destruction, and bombs… I’m hoping something happened on Tuesday that will change that,” Rushdie said, referring to the election of Barack Obama. “I have no utopian tendencies. I’m good at seeing what I don’t like. But this week, I do feel optimistic,” Rushdie laughed. “It’s an odd feeling, one I’m not familiar with. The last time I felt like this was after the election of Tony Blair and look what happened!” Rushdie paused as the audience chuckled at his dark skepticism, then added, “ I hope it’s not that way this time. Actually … I don’t think it is.”

More on the evening’s highlights below the fold. Continue reading

Data Crunching for Obama

This article buried in the Saturday’s New York Times reports that the Obama campaign has invested heavily in microtargeting.

Microtargeting uses computers and mathematical models to take disparate bits of information about voters — the cars they own, the groups they belong to, the magazines they read — and analyze it in a way to predict how likely a person is to vote and what issues and values are most important to him. Often these analyses turn up surprising results; for instance, Democrats have taken advantage of the fact that many evangelical Christians are open to hearing a pro-environmental message.

Though this is technique has long been favored by the Republican party, especially during the 2000 Bush campaign, even Republicans agree that he “Obama campaign has appropriated it and taken it to a new level.”vijay.jpg

One of the largest data banks is Catalist, a for-profit company that specializes in providing data for the Obama campaign. Turns out its chief technology officer is 34 year old Vijay Ravindran, former director of the ordering-services group at, where he led a team of about 130 engineers who built and maintained the site’s “shopping cart.

From the Washington Post:

The work being done in Catalist’s McPherson Square offices—which, with its multiscreen computer terminals, resembles a Silicon Valley start-up—is helping revolutionize the fields known as data mining and microtargeting. … Catalist was founded in August 2005 by Harold Ickes, the longtime Clinton deputy White House chief of staff, after the 2004 campaign to address the Democrats’ inability to harness data. One of the first hires was a young engineer, Vijay Ravindran. … “With my hiring, he made a decision that this was going to be a real company,” Ravindran says. As the chief data-architecture guy at Catalist, he’s part of a new trend in political technology: As data become more important in campaigning, candidates are increasingly turning to the tech industry for business-level expertise.

In a feature on political strategists and microtargeting, from [via the newstab, thanks brijo1], Ravindran says:

“In the political space, I felt it was very important to build a computing architecture that would take in real-time data, get them into a standardized format, and then load them into a place where they could be snapshotted out for particular purposes. That didn’t exist before. Now we have an architecture that scales more than 15 terabytes of data while providing an interface for users to work with. We expect to leave this election cycle with a piece of permanent infrastructure that enables groups to do microtargeting more efficiently than ever before. It all boils down to one principle: Leave no data behind.”

Below the fold is a video where Ravindran talks a little bit about what he does. Continue reading

What’s in a President’s Name? Ask a Wordsmith

Election fever is on the rise. (I don’t know about you, but none of my favorite TV shows quite have the same appeal these days and anytime I pick up a newspaper or hop on a website or facebook, I’m more likely to click on a election story or link than anything else.) It’s even hitting Anu Garg, the software engineer turned wordsmith and the brain behind the immensely popular (600,000 people in some 200 countries) A.Word.A.Day newsletter.

Garg is asking a simple question this week: What’s in a name (of those whom we call our presidential hopefuls)? obambulate.jpg

“The effect of the actions of a president last for years and eponyms (words coined after someone’s name) enter the language that reflect their legacy, such as Reaganomics and teddy bear (after Theodore Roosevelt),” Garg wrote earlier today in his daily newsletter. And, although the five words for this week’s A.Word.A.Day all appear to have been coined after this year’s presidential candidates (Obama, Biden, McCain, and Palin). they have been in the language even before these candidates were born.

The first word for this week: obambulate

(o-BAM-byuh-layt) MEANING:
verb tr.: To walk about.
From Latin ob- (towards, against) + ambulare (to walk). Ultimately from the Indo-European root ambhi- (around) that is also the source of ambulance, alley, preamble, and bivouac. The first print citation of the word is from 1614.
“We have often seen noble statesmen obambulating (as Dr. Johnson would say) the silent engraving-room, obviously rehearsing their orations.”
The Year’s Art; J.S. Virtue & Co.; 1917.

[In case you’re wondering, the image to your right was generated using the above definition, courtesy of Wordle, a wonderfully obsessive site that generates word clouds for a chunk of text, url, or RSS feed.]

The remaining presidential words will be posted here everyday for the rest of this week. And, a Q&A with Anu Garg follows below the fold. Continue reading