Thursday, October 29, 2015

Red Hot in Chennai

In the start-up race among Indian cities, Bengaluru looks like the Usain Bolt and every other metro seems like a languid laggard. Chennai, in particular, appears to be the also-ran who won the wooden spoon.

The picture might be very different when you stop viewing start-ups as venture capital funded e-commerce black holes that will never see the light of profit. A little birdie tells me that such money-guzzling outfits reside primarily in Koramangala. Fortunately, the new vanguards of hope in Chennai have a lot more meat in their curry. Let me showcase eight scalding hot ventures of tomorrow to give you an inkling of their sizzle.

‘34 Cross’ is my first exhibit. Located at 34th Cross Street in Besant Nagar, the company is self-confessedly into ‘product development for next-gen web & mobile applications’. Founded by some young guns who studied at IIT Madras, 34 Cross has many aces up its short sleeve. Their cleverly-named Hasura (Haskell Asura) is a piping hot app-development platform built using the advanced Haskell programming language. Also from their stable is SearchMyDB (customized search engine) and FindaKadai (app to discover best food joints in the city).

‘Mad Street Den’ is one of a handful of crazy companies operating in the AI (Artificial Intelligence) domain in the world. They’re into developing smarter apps that leverage gaze tracking, emotion-expression detection, facial gestures and object recognition. ‘Invention Labs’ is another ‘road less taken’ company operating in the realm of building tools for communication among children with disabilities. Their Avaz App uses picture cards digitally to let autistic kids express themselves.

The thing with these pioneers is they’ve consciously chosen fields that require path breaking work. ‘Inthree’ (Inner India Initiative) is one such enterprise. When everyone is talking e-commerce, they’re focusing on r-commerce (rural commerce) by using an ingenious mix of home-grown networks and the mobile phone.

Then there’s: ‘Nimble Wireless’, an Internet of Things (IOT) vanguard helping businesses to monitor the location and temperature of their assets distributed in remote places; ‘Pi Beam’ (meaning: infinite energy), an automobile trailblazer that has designed a super-affordable solar electric 3-wheeler for rural areas that can even power a home, when idle; ‘Twenty19’, India’s largest portal for student internship that’s managed to sew up a vast network of 8000 odd colleges; and ‘EdSix’, an educational gaming company that’s launched a suite of 500 games to enhance employable skills. Still think Chennai is the proverbial slow coach?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

China in your hand

When AT&T employee Pamela Savage coined the term ‘Smart Phone’ in 1995, little did she know that in less than 20 years, nearly 1.2 billion smartphones would be shipped annually!

The ensuing iPhone and Android revolutions have catapulted Apple and Samsung into pole positions and understandably, they’ve raced away with all the honours, thanks to a combined market share of approximately 45%. But some smarter, sleeker, and seriously cooler Chinese brands are turning the heat on, and are scorching the tarmac with sensational growth.

Being copycats par excellence, they are able to beat the Americans and Koreans with supersonic speed and super human economies of scale. Huawei, the world’s largest telecom equipment manufacturer, was the first to spot the opportunity. Founded by a former engineer from the Chinese Army, Huawei (meaning: Chinese Achievement) is legendary for launching the copy, weeks before the original can hit the racks!

Xiaomi (pronounced shee-ow-me) is the other brand that’s making waves. The Beijing-based electronics company got into the business of smartphones in August 2011 and by 2014, the company had sold a mindboggling 60 million smartphones. To put that number in perspective, Xiaomi sold 12 times more phones than Micromax!

Xiaomi, interestingly, is the Chinese word for ‘millets’ (the English equivalent of Bajra). Apparently the inspiration for it was the Buddhist philosophy of doing big things, grain by grain. The odd name, gave another Chinese brand Meizu a golden marketing opportunity. They distributed free millets with their phones and claimed, “Xiaomi now free with every Meizu phone!” Cheeky, no?

The success of Xiaomi has spawned many more Chinese brands and they are all pouring into India. Gionee was among the first to set up shop with their Elife series. For the curious-minded, Gionee, supposedly, is an anglicised form of Chinese ‘Jin Li’ and it means ‘Golden & Beautiful’. Zopo (acronym for Zealous Open Perfect Outstanding) has thrown in its hat too - perhaps following the footsteps of Oppo (short for ‘opportunity), a mobile brand that’s been quite visible in the national media.

OnePlusTwo, the phone that sounds like a student who’s flunked his 12th board exam, is the hot cake Chinese mobile that’s getting heaps of fan-following in our metros, largely due to their innovative strategy of phones-by-invitation-only. OnePlusTwo is from a company named OnePlus (speculated to be a secret subsidiary of Oppo). Another big player is Vivo (Latin for ‘alive). You’ll get to hear a lot about them as they’ve snagged the IPL title rights for two years. With so many brands jostling for space, it’ll be interesting to see who wins the Chinese checkers!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Mulling Over Malabar

Before 1989, the ‘God’s Own Country’ just didn’t exist. The famed slogan that’s come to typify Kerala, was channelized first by an adman named Walter Mendez - then Creative Director of Mudra - and that’s how the land that we all love, successfully appropriated the evocative phrase, imagined way back in 1807, by the English writer Edward Dubois.

That brings us to the next question: What does Malabar mean? No, it’s not a toddy joint. It’s derived from the Tamil words ‘Malai Vaaram’ or ‘Hilly Region’. Before you bristle at the mention of Tamil and not Malayalam, please bear in mind that Kerala or Keralam owes its origins to Cheralam, the land of the Cheras, who happen to be a Dravidian dynasty.

Let’s explore the Tamil-Malayalam angle further. For ease of remembrance, let’s refer to this twin-root as the ‘Chera touch’. Many town names in Kerala display the ‘Chera touch’.

Ernakulam flows from ‘Iraiyankulam’ (Tamil for ‘Lord Shiva’s tank’). Kumarakom, now renowned for its resorts, is actually Kumaran Agam. That’s again Tamil for ‘Home of Lord Muruga’ – a reference to an ancient temple there. Idukki, the second largest district of the state, comes from the Tamil ‘Idukku’, which in turn cues a narrow gorge. There’s also this theory that Palakkad is ‘Paalai Kaadu’ (senthamizh for barren forest). And Kozhikode is supposed to have sprung from Kalli Kottai (Cactus Fort). Meenachil river (an ode to Madurai Meenakshi), Munnar (Moonu aaru or confluence of three rivers), Wayanad (from Vayal Nadu) and Cannanore (Kannan Ur) are more examples of the Tamilian nexus.

Lest you suspect me to be a Tamil supremacist, let’s allay your fears by sharing many pure play Malayalam town names. Cochin or Kochi is widely believed to have evolved from ‘Kochu Azhi’ (meaning: small lagoon). Alapuzha can be broken down into Ala (deep/broad) and Puzha (river). Likewise Thodupuzha (the setting of Drishyam movie) means ‘a town touching a river’.

Kollam can be traced to the Sanskrit side of Malayalam. Apparently in the olden days, it was a hilly terrain laden with Kaulam trees (Indian Long Pepper). Trivandrum and Trissur have a divine connect though. Trivandrum is the anglicised form of Thiru Anantha Puram or Lord Anantha’s abode – an allusion to the gold-rich Padmanabha temple. Trissur’s source word is Tirusivaperur (Home of Lord Shiva).

Continuing on the divine trail, I think someday, we’ll have towns named after movie gods – Mammooty, and Mohan Lal. In anticipation, I propose Mamootiur and Lalettanpuram. That will truly make it a god’s own country, don’t you think?

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Losing My Religion

Friedrich Nietzsche, the poster boy of atheists, once trenchantly quipped, “After coming into contact with a religious man I always feel I must wash my hands.” Such was the high regard, the German philosopher had for the concept of the almighty. Coming from someone who was nicknamed ’the little pastor’ in his schooldays for his prowess in effortless recital of Biblical verses, it’s indeed ironical.

But irony has been a recurring theme with non-believers. Take Periyar, the respected Tamil rationalist. He was born as EV Ramasamy Naicker and all his life he railed against Rama the Swami and Ramayan the epic. Kamal Hassan, the outspoken thespian and atheist, did his schooling – of all the secular places - in Hindu Higher Secondary School! Even his name in Sanskrit means ‘Beholder of the Lotus’ which in turn is a sobriquet for Lord Vishnu. One must add here though that the official story is that he was named after his dad’s friend Yakoob Hassan as a tribute to the protection he offered his father during his prison days.

Christopher Hitchens, the celebrated British author, who felt ‘antitheist’ describes him better than the limp ‘atheist’, did nothing to change his first name which literally means ‘bearing Christ’. Sam Harris, the other famed irreligionist, also carries the cross of a religious first name. For the uninformed, Sam is the diminutive for Samuel, the Hebrew word that signifies ‘name of god’.

To eliminate this apparent irony, atheists have started adopting names with zero religious connotations. Numbers are sometimes favoured – especially the Greek ones like Primus (one) and Quintus (five). God names are being dumped in favour of first names of famous iconoclasts – Charles (Darwin), Karl (Marx), Richard (Dawkins) and Bertrand (Russell) are in vogue now. If it’s a baby girl, parents prefer neutral floral or colour names. Something like - Rose, Daisy, Violet, Camelia, Iris, or Turquoise.

Month names come in handy too. March, April, May, June, July and August are quite popular. Verbs are very much in circulation. Stuff such as Hope, Rock, Sparkle, Mark, Hunt and Glow. Sometimes science provides the fodder: Tesla, Quark, Lumen, Gene, Lycra, Curie, Symmetry, Benzene, Hawking, and Newton. Some dive into comic books to fish out pearls (Flash, Kal El, Tarzan, Jughead, Charlie Brown). And the wacko types who don’t mind spoofing religions choose Saint Stupid, Pastafarian, Alwarpettai Aandava, Flying Spaghetti Monster, Beefbiter, Invisible Pink Unicorn, Ceiling Cat, Sub Genuis and things that will make you go, ‘Oh my god!’

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Pride of Lions

There are less than 22,000 lions in this world and yet, they evoke more awe than Vladimir Putin or Barack Obama. I learnt why when I discovered that the wild cats sleep up to 20 hours a day. And sometimes when they have a big meal, the resting might stretch to 24 slumberous hours. How royal is that!

Another fact to put things in perspective: It seems the lion’s roar is audible from a distance of 8 kilometres. With such a booming voice, it’s understandable why nearly 13 countries have opted for this majestic being as their National Animal.

Surprisingly though, there are only 523 lions in India. Despite this, the Panthera leo persica has had a disproportionate influence on our culture.

For centuries, Rajputs proclaimed their manliness with the ‘Singh’ surname – which, as you know, is derived from the Sanskrit word for Lion. From 1699, many generations of adorable sardarjis have made it their last name. So we would have had no Khushwant Singh, Sushant Singh Rajput, Shatrughan Sinha, or Ashok Singhal, if not for the lord of the jungle. Even Bollywood action flick ‘Singham’ flows from the Tamil word for ‘lion’.

The entire Sinhalese race, trace their lineage to Prince Vijaya, who’s supposed to have landed on the island with a lion flag in his hand. Likewise, Singapore or Simhapura (Lion city) owes its origins to the sighting of a sea monster (half fish-half lion) by the King of Malays, when he dropped anchor there.

The Turkic-Arabs were also in total thrall to the beast. The names Abbas, Asad, Babar, Haider and Osama are all one-word odes to the lion. The Europeans were as fascinated. The Leonardo in Leanardo da Vinci means ‘strong as a lion’. The French Napoleon was inspired by Italian Saint Napoleone, which in turn, literally means ‘Lion of Naples’. By the way, Sunny Leone has ‘Lion’ written all over. Now you know why she’s a man eater!

Leander, Ariel, Xerxes and Lionel are some other names that remind you of the mane. Marketing mavens who know a thing or two about milking powerful symbols have often appropriated the lion by making it their logo.

Movie studio MGM, Swedish car Saab, advertising award show Cannes Lions, the soccer extravaganza Premier League, French automobile giant Peugeot and our local Lion Dates Syrup have all rode on the lion’s back and have raked in the big bucks. Still wondering if it’s worth entering the den?