Times of India

Cyber Coolies or Cyber Sahibs?

'The World as India' is the title of a lecture that Susan Sontag gave in London last year, which was published in the Times Literary Supplement this June 13.

In it the distinguished writer celebrates the success of Indians in harvesting their legendary English-speaking skills in the global economy through call centres and other services. But Harish Trivedi, the no-less distinguished critic at Delhi University, promptly wrote an angry rejoinder in which he characterised call centres as ''brutally exploitative'' and its employees as ''cyber coolies of our global age, working not on sugar plantations but on flickering screens, and lashed into submission through vigilant and punitive monitoring, each slip in accent or lapse in pretence meaning a cut in wages.''

Capitalism, Indian Style

My niece, Priya, was in town recently. She has been teaching English as a second language in cosmopolitan Vancouver, where every summer Chinese youth flock to learn English. Many are children of the newly rich who have prospered in post-reform China, but it is extraordinary how difficult they find learning English. Of the dozens of nationalities she has taught only the Japanese find it more difficult. The reason is that the languages of East Asia are tonal. The same word in Mandarin can have many meanings depending on the tone; hence, the Chinese have difficulty coping with English grammar and pronunciation, and Japanese children, I am told, have been trying to learn English from kindergarten since 1870, and they still cannot speak it.

Turn of the Wheel

I have an old friend in Mumbai and every once in a while, he will pause, sit back, and ask, how are we doing? How are we changing? A small but visible change, I told him last week, is the rich aroma of coffee in our bazaars. Thanks mainly to Barista, but also to Cafe Coffee Day, Quickies and others, the well-heeled young of a tea-drinking nation have found a fashionable place to hang out, and its women a safe public place to be sociable.

The Sorcer's Enchantment

When our tax refunds arrived in May, within six months of filing our return, we thought we were dreaming. Since it normally took years, something must be afoot we thought, and decided to pay North Block a visit. There we were astonished to learn that computers had already completed 95 per cent of this year's returns.

Why India Matters

On a recent lecture tour of America I found that Indians are regarded with new seriousness. Whether in a Bay Area restaurant or a Wall Street office or a Chicago hospital we are now perceived differently. Indian professionals abroad have succeeded in making India relevant: something our leadership of the non-aligned movement could never achieve.

A Sense of Possibilities

I made a new friend last week. Shashi Kumar is twenty-nine and comes from a tiny village in Bihar, where his grandfather used to be a low caste sharecropper in good times and a day labourer in hard ones. They were so poor that on some nights he didn't get to eat. But his father somehow escaped this bondage and got a job in a transport company in Darbhanga.

Secularism Gone AWRY

Two weeks ago I met an old friend after a longish gap and he asked me what I had been up to. I admitted somewhat reluctantly that I had been wrestling with our ancient Sanskrit texts, but mostly in translation.

Make Money from Trash

Kevin lives in America but he is no different from most Indian nine-year-olds who do their arithmetic homework before dinner. One evening in February he worked diligently on the ratio of birds to worms and gave it the next day to his teacher, who was pleased that he had begun to grasp fractions. That evening Kevin showed his homework to his parents, who taped it on the fridge. On Saturday Kevin's mother casually threw the homework into the paper section of the family garbage, from where it was picked up and taken to Clifton, New Jersey's recycling centre.

Limits of Nationalism

I wrote in my last column about how arbitrary and tenuous are our borders and how we should treat them with a bit of healthy contempt. The right attitude is to think of 'South Asia without Borders', which is the title of a seminar at Harvard, and which is consistent with the cosmopolitan Indian way of the first millennium AD, when Sanskrit was the subcontinent's common language of culture before the vernaculars rose.

Imperial Fault Lines

Whether it is the continuing ugly massacres in Kashmir or this dreadful war in Iraq, the truth is that far too many of the trouble spots in the world are the consequence of the frontiers created ad hoc by Britain's wicked old imperialism and the legacy of its divide and quit policy.