Saturday, February 22, 2014

Billion Dollar Babies

This week Mark Zuckerberg made an announcement which resulted in the collective orgasm of the whole world: no, he did not star alongside Pamela Anderson in Baywatch Reloaded, almost twenty five years after the first episode made waves (no pun intended), but this was even bigger, better and more real than… you get the drift!

He bought whatsapp, for a whopping $19 billion, which is almost half of India’s defence budget. Yes, read that again: half of India’s defence budget for a messenger app on your mobile phone. Granted, only a smartphone, but still, what does it tell you about Facebook or Whatsapp?

Before you go and throw up on your FB wall with all sorts of lame jokes (Why did he pay so much? He could have just downloaded it for free), views/opinions of experts/analysts, valuations (If I wanted to revisit Aswath Damodaran, I would go back to B school, so thanks, but no thanks) or random comparisons with blackberry/Wikipedia/snapchat or any other apps/services, ask yourself one simple question: Is it his American ego at play here or is it really a astute business decision?

Did he pay such an obscene amount, well, because he can? After all, he IS THE Mark Zuckerberg. Or is it more about insecurity, as more people are shifting away from Facebook while Whatsapp is increasingly sweeping the mobile messenger market? Or is it more about recognizing a potential and less about the immediate short-term on-your-face gains? May be it is a combination of all or may be none of the above.

I don’t know. But what I do know is despite being a tech-challenged, social media averse and somewhat uncool person, I do like whatsapp and spend at least an hour every day using it. Despite being overwhelmed with multiple services (text messaging, google hangout, Facebook chat and numerous other interactive options), I prefer whatsapp for three reasons: simplicity, affordability and versatility. You don’t need to be a Mensa member to figure out the functionalities and even a self-confessed technology blonde like me can use it fairly easily (though I do have some issues with the extensive range of smileys). Secondly, it’s free. I don’t have to worry about running a huge phone bill or internet bill to keep in touch with people. Finally, it allows me to share everything from photos to videos to links with people I want to, without compromising on my privacy.

Interestingly, this philosophy of simplicity, affordability and versatility holds true for ANY product/service, be it a public good like education/infrastructure, a gadget like a tablet/phone or a service like banking/hospitality. Ask yourself, as a consumer would you rather have multiple platforms or a single one-stop-shop? As a consumer would you rather have multiple points of contact or a single touch-point? As a consumer would you rather pay a flat fee at one point which is more transparent and economical or have multiple transactions with hidden costs or commissions? It’s this philosophy that makes whatsapp so popular and any shrewd businessman would lap up the concept.

Which now brings me to Facebook. Yes, at first glance, $19 billion sounds obscene and almost smacks of arrogance. But take a look at the breakdown of that $19 billion: $4 billion in cash, $12 billion in Facebook shares and $3 billion in restricted stock units. It’s that figure $12 billion: nicely ensconced in the middle, which tells you that this is as much about Zuckerberg’s confidence in Facebook as it is about his faith in Whatsapp. Is this conviction a misplaced one? Only time will tell, but what this deal does do is make the purchase of Instagram for $1 billion look miniscule (like Orkut)

Now excuse me while I go plan a movie with my friends on Whatsapp.

After all, Facebook is paying $42 for each of us: a price which I doubt any of us can command in the job market in this economy…

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people

India made headlines this week, and again, for the wrong reasons. Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History”, a 2011 book on a different perspective on one of the oldest major religions, will be banned from the country following accusations of offensive, inaccurate and illegal representation of Hinduism. What is probably even more shocking is that Penguin, the revered behemoth in India’s flourishing publishing industry, was quick to strike a settlement deal to avoid any long drawn legal battle, promising to withdraw the book from publication, spurred by India’s archaic defamation laws, which make publishers, not just authors, subject to criminal prosecution.
Now, before we launch into a strident and jarring criticism of the event and plunge into discussions on freedom of speech, constitutional rights and right to information, let’s take a step back and look at the issue in light of history.

Has it happened before, or are we singling Doniger out? The answer is a resounding yes, and if I have learnt anything about my country in recent years, it will happen again! What started way back in 1988, when the Indian finance ministry banned Salman Rushdie's novel “The Satanic Verses” on grounds of hurting religious sentiments of Muslims, has only intensified over the years, with banning of Bangladeshi author Tasleema Nasreen’s autobiography “Dwikhandito” by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's government in West Bengal, Joseph Lelyveld's book “The Great Soul” by the Modi government on the suspicion that it implied a homosexual relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and Hermann Kallenbach or James Laine’s book, “Shivaji, Hindu King in Islamic India”, by the state government in Maharashtra.

There are other instances of intolerance galore: for example, Congress spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi went to court against Spanish writer Javier Moro's novel “The Red Sari”, as it was probably based on Sonia Gandhi's life, the hue and cry over the movies like Aarakshan (banned in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Andhra Pradesh) and Parzania (banned in Gujarat) or the over-reaction to M.F. Husain’s paintings of Hindu deities.

We, as a nation, are a sensitive lot, quick to get offended, but difficult to be placated, especially with pragmatic reasoning. And no, we do not forget easily, nor do we forgive graciously. Salman Rushdie will vouch for that, given that he was asked to stay out of the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012, for something he wrote almost 25 years back!

So what is this that makes us so intolerant, so insecure and so vulnerable, especially when it comes to religion and culture? Paradoxically, we belong to the world’s largest democracy which is far from perfect and we exhibit tremendous patience and tolerance to bigger evils like corruption, bad governance, inflation and unemployment. But try suggesting anything which goes against the accepted norms of religious ideologies, it will unleash the hidden Khap Panchayat in even the most educated of us, even if it’s just fiction or art. Is it our politicians who encourage divisiveness by playing the religion card each time they run out of ideas? Is it our deep-rooted desire to “belong” to a particular group/clan and if anything comes even close to threatening that “bond”, we automatically resort to annihilating it? Or is it simply our apathy to anybody who looks different (remember Nido Taniam, the 18-year old student from Arunachal Pradesh who was murdered in Delhi as we speak about banning a book?) or thinks different?

Then why blame Dina Nath Batra, the activist or his conservative association, the New Delhi-based Shiksha Bachao Andolan (ahh the irony of it) Committee, which lodged the complaint against Doniger?

This is not about a single person or a single association or a single book. This is about our collective need to destroy anything which goes against our narrow social and moral compass. This is about the symbolism which is akin to the Nazi book burning back in 1933.

As Heinrich Heine, whose work was also burned on that fatal night at Bebelplatz in Berlin, wrote in his 1820-1821 play “Almansor” the famous admonition, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen": "Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people."

His prophecy came true a few years later; I can only shudder at the thought of what lies ahead of us…

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Love is in the Air... Till it Vanishes

This being the Valentine week, the sweet nothings have already started flooding social media, television and umm, Times of India. So while we gradually and painstakingly labour through Rose Day, Propose Day, Chocolate Day, Teddy Day, Promise Day, Hug Day, Kiss Day and finally gear up for the grand finale of the extremely romantic Valentines Day, brace yourself for some mushy marketing, celebrity sound bites and Arnab Goswami. There is no love lost, but enough about his troubled relationship with Rahul Gandhi.

So while I don’t much care for this annual circus, I wouldn’t quite go the Shivsena way to register my disapproval of an occasion, which, in my opinion, smacks of hollow consumerism, exploited brilliantly by different industries. And while I am not in favour of either moral policing or vandalism, I would not stop short of subtle peaceful protests against this increasingly divisive social function, which makes most single people (90% of whom are male engineers) resort to pirated copies of Ragini MMS II as they meticulously plan a romantic evening at home with Sunny Leone.

I would repeatedly bombard women and men with pictures of Sharad Pawar and Mayawati respectively which would dilute the last vestiges of any romantic feelings that even the cheesiest of teenagers can have.

I would have a whole day replay of Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell in his last Test match against West Indies. Forget about celebrating Valentines Day, the entire nation would go on mourning, refusing to the leave the house.

I would telecast scary “What If?” shows on TV, with elements like “What if you were stuck in an elevator with Sonam Kapoor” or “What if you were in the front seat with Salman Khan driving a car?” or “What if you went for dinner with a Bengali?”, because, let’s face it, these are situations which can potentially scar you for life, leaving you as romantically challenged as an average IITian.

I would play non-stop music by Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift till you reach for something to puke in.

I would make “Rakhi ka Swamvyar” and “The Bachelorette” compulsory viewing during the Valentine week, till you start getting nightmares about being married to either Rakhi Sawant or Mallika Sherawat or both.

I would send a flurry of Alok Nath jokes to remind all Indians about their sanskaar.

And then again, I would release the Oscar-nominated movie Her as a special Valentines Day screening in India. Without getting into the details, it’s a slightly creepy story which glorifies the relationship of a lonely divorced middle-aged man (brilliantly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix) with an operating system (voiceover by Scarlett Johansson). While many of us would identify with it given that we spend the most amount of time with our laptops/computers/tablets, this movie takes it a step further, attributing emotions to a machine. As an idea that a piece of equipment can effectively replace a human being, it challenges the very core of the conventional romantic relationship and eliminates all the frivolities associated with it: flowers, chocolates, jewelry, gifts or money while solely focusing on emotional companionship only. I am not endorsing the man-machine relationship, but it does open up a whole new perspective of the fundamentals of love, stripping it of the facades of commercialism.

If romantic comedies perpetrated the notion that love is synonymous to candlelit dinners, exotic vacations, lavish surprise parties, mushy Facebook posts and long-stemmed red roses, try the less extravagant alternative of telling your loved one that they are beautiful when they are wearing pajamas and glasses, or that you are proud of them when they are reading The Economic Times and trying to explain to you the difference between bank rate and CRR or by eating the burnt rice they cooked simply because they made it.

While you don’t need a particular day to do any of this, let this Valentines Day be the beginning.

Let this Valentine Day be more about celebrating the small pleasures and less about the fleeting sensations.

Let this Valentine Day be just another day of appreciating your loved ones.

Let this Valentine Day be more about love and less about clichés...