Monthly Archives: February 2009

A tale of two cities – part I (the tourist trap)

Mahabalipuram is an old temple town on the shores of the Indian Ocean, south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu. It’s ancient shore temple is famous for being the first of its architectural type; an architectural format that was widely exported around southeast Asia. It is a beautiful temple. Mahabalipuram also has a fascinating park in the center of town, with rock carvings, cave temples and oddly enough, a giant rock that reminds me of a glacial erratic (giant boulder in a place where it should not be. Usually carried by ice sheets during an ice age). Siva tells me that the carving of the descent of the Ganges (see below) were in one of her history books in school. The rock is a common feature of travel guides. This puzzles me. It is an interesting rock, but there are a lot of really cool things in south India and Tamil Nadu specifically that are much more interesting and photogenic. How about the temples at Tiruvannamalai or Maduri, with their magnificient gopuras? Then again, you see few western tourists in Tiruvannamalai and the few westerners that you do see are there doing the spiritual/ashram thing. So it is not surprising to see no Tiruvannamalai photos in Lonely Planet.

You see many more western tourists in Pondicherry… oh and in Mahabalipuram. The place was an absolute madhouse. We were there with half of France and all of Chennai it seems. It is a holiday week in France. This coincided with a long weekend in south India and an early summer heatwave (yes Virginia, summer has already begun here even though it is only February). There were an oppressive number of tourists. To make matters worse, the touts and beggars were as bad as anything I’ve seen in the tourist traps of Jaipur.

We spent all of three hours in town before we had to retreat back to the quiet of the countryside. It was a pity as without the people, it probably would have been a day well spent wandering about and contemplating history. Perhaps we’ll go again. On a weekday next time!

Shore Temple

Shore Temple

Shore Temple

Cave Temple

Shore Temple

Descent of the Ganges

Shore Temple

The Famous Rock

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Meditating Fishermen

It is dawn on the shores of the Indian Ocean. The eastern sky has developed a deep shade of orange in preparation for the sun to peek above the distant clouds on the horizon. The sea has taken on steel hue of morning twilight. Down the beach, the fishermen stir. In a short while, they will board their boats, surge through the surf and head out to sea for the day. A few squat in a row, looking out to sea. (Westerners and upper class Indian sit cross legged. Working class Indians squat when they wish not to stand) It is a romantic scene in this land of spirituality. Are they praying, meditating, contemplating the day or simply enjoying the sunrise?

Then they leave and you look down…

Why They Meditate

Why They Meditate

Agitating Lawyers

Do you see a well dressed man approaching? Does he look to be of the prosperous upper middle class? Is he wearing a suit or dhoti? Is he soft spoken and Oxford educated? Then he probably means to clobber you with a stick!

I caught something when I turned on the TV today to check the Indian news. Lawyers were “agitating” in Chennai. After that, I found an article about it in the morning paper. I put “agitating” in quotes because it is a euphemism. When Indians agitate, they are not protesting. They are not holding place cards and perhaps shouting slogans. No folks. In India, “agitation” means “rampaging mobs and all hell breaking loose on the streets”.

Just in case I was not clear. Lawyers are rioting in the streets of Chennai and burning effigies of the police. Lawyers!!! Now I’d be concerned if all of the lawyers in the city hated me. I’d sell assets and hide any money I had in a bank in Lichtenstein (ok, not there after the German tax men hacked their banks) Barbados and prepare to have my socks sued off from here to kingdom come. I’d never dream that they’d form a mob and come after me physically before suing me. This shatters one of the certainties I had about life. Students riot. Truckers riot. Anarchists riot. Lawyers sue! Apparently not here. India; the land where even lawyers form bloodthirsty mobs rampaging in the streets… errr agitate.

On a side note, we are off to a three day weekend in that part of Tamil Nadu (Pondicherry and Mamallapuram). I hope we don’t meet any lawyers.

I’m going to go to bed and ponder on the strangeness that is the whole idea of lawyers rioting.

Marketing Lessons

One of the reasons that there were so many foreign fighters at Aero India 2009 was the Indian Air Force Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) Competition. The air show was the coming out party for the Tejas and it was regarded by the hosts as the star of the show; complete with patriotic goose bump fervor. Despite this fact and the fact that it is starting production and due for initial deployment next year; Hindustan Aviation will not be able to meet the total demand for replacing all of the Indian Air Force’s Mig-21s, which are showing their years and developing an alarming habit of turning into lawn darts. So they are planning to buy 126 foreign planes to fill the gap.

These kinds of numbers send the worlds arms manufacturers into a tizzy of avariciousness. With the exception of the Chinese and their J12, everyone who makes current generation fighters is competing for this contract. There were the American firms Lockheed and Boeing with their F16 and F18 Super Hornet respectively. There was Mikoyan with their fancy new Mig-35. The European (but really German) EADS was there with a contingent of half a dozen Luftwaffe Typhoons. (wait! Aren’t the Germans supposed to be kind of pacifistic?) Dassault’s Rafale is in the competition, but did not come. Saab’s Grippen (now wait! I can let the Germans off the hook here, but the Swedes are loudly pacifistic. This is like a militant teetotaler owning a brewery) is also in the running, but came only in the form of billboards plastered all over the highway.

This allowed yours truly to have a ringside seat watching the arms dealer hard sell.

Russian Jet Tricks (RJT) – The Russian companies Sukhoi and Mikoyan are famous for the acrobatic acumen of the aircraft they make. Nothing puts on an airshow display like a Russian jet and the internet is full of rabid Sukhoi and Mikoyan fans who swear up and down that everything else is trash because they can’t do RJT like the real thing. Sukhoi and Mikoyan are not exactly famous for keeping to delivery schedules, sticking to the contract or quality workmanship; but who cares! Airshow tricks are what matters here!

The Mob of Boring Salesmen – EADS seems to really, really, really want this contract, given the number of people they had there. The German government must concur because they allowed a half dozen Luftwaffe Typhoons along with their contingent of support tankers and maintenance personnel (~70 people) to be drug all that way for a week on what amounted to a sales call. The EADS exhibit filled a hangar. The most interesting things in the hangar were not the products on display, but the women there. The female employees of EADS all wore saris; not kurdas and not western dress, but saris.

The Typhoon put on a so-so acrobatic display. Ok, it had all the typical rolls, loops, high G turns, etc that you would expect; but the F16 and Tejas did exactly the same thing. The problem is that when you fly right after an acrobatic display by a Sukhoi performing the full range of RJT and you don’t (or can’t) do these things, you look a little boring; tastefully dressed in your sari, but boring.

The Politician – Boeing wins the best marketing award. They took member of the Indian Parliament, named Naveen Jindal, for a spin in an F18. That’s even better than bribery! The Hornet could do RJT and put on an impressive display. Perhaps an aficionado would point out all the ways that it was inferior to a Sukhoi or Mig, but it certainly close enough for my untrained eyes. Then at the end, they casually announced that that the plane had been carrying two 500 kilo bombs while doing its acrobatics. Now there is slick marketing.

Happy Politician

Happy Politician

The Celebrity Endorsement – Lockheed takes the prize for the most over-the-top marketing there. The F16 is an old design and can’t do RJT. So they corralled up Abhinav Bindra, the Olympic shooting guy, and flew him around for 45 minutes at the air show. Now I can understand letting an MP (member of parliament) who has a private pilot’s license (and presumably a clue) and may have backroom influence tool around in your jet. But no! Lockheed does not go that way! They go for the full on celebrity endorsement!

What really amazed me here was not that one of the American companies involved would think of something as outlandish as a celebrity endorsement for a fighter jet. (though they’d never try such a stunt in the home market) What really amazed me is that instead of rightfully mocking what was obviously a blatant PR stunt, Indian newspapers took it at face value.

Here is a marketing tip for EADS. Next time, leave five of the six planes at home and leave the army of salesmen at home while you are at it. Take Shahrukh Khan for a spin and the contract is yours.

Marketing Tip for EADS

Marketing Tip for EADS

Valentines Day Gift

Valentines Day went off fairly quietly. The police actually went and made preventative arrests of quite a bit of Sri Ram Sena men in Friday, so there were not many about. They did nab a few couples and in one embarrassing case, made a sister and brother tie the knot. Sunday Morning’s Times of India, which is a “pro pub” newspaper (and I never thought I’d see THAT in a newspaper’s editorial stances), gloated about that mistaken forced wedding on the front page. Supposedly, Sri Ram Sena’s publicity actually increased the awareness and mindshare penetration of Valentine’s Day here in South India. Nice own goal guys!

On an amusing side note, there was a campaign launched last week to send pink undies to Pramod Muthalik and it seems that the man’s mailbox was inundated. Siva was planning to buy a pair and send them as well. Sri Ram Sena failed to see the joke.

“Sending these chaddis to the leader of a patriotic organization is like insulting him. We will give a fitting reply by burning them.”

They also plan to send saris back to all those women who sent in undies.

You can’t make this stuff up!

Less amusingly, the railroad police took it upon themselves to fill the vacuum.

Pics of the Day – Aero India 2009

Sammy, Siva and I went to the airshow on Saturday. Dani and Charlotte were not interested and preferred to stay home. We had a good time, took lots of photos, got sunburned and made some funny observations about the international marketing of arms. That is a post for later this week. For now, I have some pics.

UAE Air Force F-16

UAE Air Force F-16

US Navy Super Hornet

US Navy Super Hornet

Sarang Helo Demonstration Team

Sarang Helo Demonstration Team

Indian Air Force SU-30MKI

Indian Air Force SU-30MKI

Luftwaffe Typhoon

Luftwaffe Typhoon

And of course a Tejas

And of course a Tejas

When Saffronization and Valentines Day collide

I know what saffronization means now. Saffron is a shade of orange. This is the color of hindu priest robes. Saffronization is a term for hindu political extremism.

I saw an article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago about Sri Ram Sena and the Mangalore Pub attacks last month. Actually, that little article can’t do this theme justice. It is a big deal here. In a nutshell, a bunch of Hindu religious nuts, from a group called Sri Ram Sena, physically attacked women at a pub in the seaside city of Mangalore a few weeks ago; because they were “prostitutes”. Apparently, there is an element of society that not only does not want to see womene assert themselves and also enjoy a beer as men have for generations; breaking the law and resorting to “vigilantis” (the quotes are deliberate) is their methodology of first, not last resort.

The founder and leader of Sri Ram Sena is a man named Pramod Muthalik. Interestingly, his rap (charge) sheet is a long as that of a two bit LA gangster, but he has only been arrested once; in the wake of the publicity from the pub attack. He is out on bail and I think it is safe to say that he probably won’t be prosecuted. I’ve lived here long enough to know that.

They carried out the pub attack with local news crews in tow. Apparently, this bit of asshattery was calculated for maximum publicity. Since they did generate a great deal of publicity, they are planning to form gangs and go around tomorrow night – Valentines Day – searching for unmarried couples showing affection in public. They plan to force them to marry on the spot. It seems that the chief minister of Karnataka’s ego is too big to allow anyone else to be the biggest clown in the state. His response was that parents had to take care of their children. Not that the state would find such actions intolerable and crack down on such gangs; but what is effectively a wink and a nod.

It gets even better. Our driver told Daniela that he had wanted to talk his wife into going out in public and holding hands. He was going to bring a cricket bat. She refused. Instead, he will be recruiting the local rowdies to go and beat up the Sri Ram Sena gangs. Siva told us that she heard some of the Kannadiga nationalist groups saying similar things.

Oh lovely!

Unless the chief minister comes to his senses and actually does call the police out in force, downtown Bangalore may be an interesting place tomorrow night.