Friday, February 05, 2010

Changing Blog Host:

Hi folks,

As you've already seen, I've not been blogging actively much over the last few months. It's a mix of being busy and also not feeling the pull in the same way I once did.

Blogger, the service I've used to publish this blog from the beginning, has recently announced that they're discontinuing FTP support for Blogger in the next few weeks. That means I won't be able to have this blog hosted at my Lehigh webspace while also using their service. The stated reason is that FTP and SFTP create a large number of technical problems -- which rings true, since I've never quite been able to get Blogger to update my blog templates right.

It turns out it's fairly easy to move Blogger-based blogs to a custom domain name hosted by Google. I used to own, but I let it go, and now some parasite company owns the domain.

As a result, for now I'm going to be using WWW.ELECTROSTANI.COM, which is also my Twitter name. The entire blog should already be available there, though most of the links will point back to posts at Lehigh. All new posts will appear there.

Please update your bookmarks.

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Review: Amit Varma's "My Friend Sancho"

The mighty Bombay blogger Amit Varma's first novel, My Friend Sancho, is a quick and entertaining summer read, which also manages to make some serious points along the way. It does not aspire to be "serious" literature, but it is certainly several significant notches above One Night @ the Call Center. Indeed, I would not even put the two books in the same blog post, except Manish planted the damn meme in my head before I got around to reading Amit's novel.

(Before I get much further, I should mention that, while My Friend Sancho has not been published in the U.S. yet, you can still get it in the U.S. from here.)

I gather that Manish's comparison, in the post I linked to above, had more to do with the new market for books like these -- books that are primarily directed at a growing popular market for English language books within India, rather than the western "literary fiction" market to which most diasporic writers really aspire (even those who say they are writing with Indian readers in mind).

But still, do we really have to go there? Bhagat's Call Center was a mind-numbing collection of topical cliches, juvenile crushes, and predictable silliness. I gather that Amit would not be averse to selling a few copies of his book, but My Friend Sancho is a much smarter and more provocative book, which gets into the ethics of journalism, police encounters, and even, to some extent, cross-religious romance. Admittedly, Amit's book does have some blemishes, such as the bits where his fictional character references Varma's real-life blog, for instance. Also, the romance between Abir and Muneeza has a kind of innocence to it that doesn't fit Abir's otherwise jaded persona that well. But neither of these are fatal, and perhaps Varma will iron out some of the kinks in his next one.

You don't have to take my word for it; below are a few paragraphs I liked in particular in My Friend Sancho. If you like them, you'll probably like the novel. If not, perhaps not.

First, my favorite passage in My Friend Sancho is where Abir, the slacker, procrastinating journalist, puts forward his credo with regards to writing:

I worked on the story till about four in the morning. One of the problems while writing a piece like this, I've since realized, is that you get too ambitious. You read your New Journalism pieces from the books where they are collected, you read the features in The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and you tell yourself you want to write like that, and you paralyze yourself. The trick is just to tell the story simply, the best you can, without thinking of how impressed people will be when they read it. So I wrote and wrote.

Spoken like a blogger, except here is one blogger (Amit Varma, not Abir Ganguly, his character) who stopped procrastinating his novel and actually wrote the thing out. I also think he's exactly right about telling the story you have to tell simply and straightforwardly, without worrying whether you'll impress others.

[Note: another Indian blogger who has recently published a novel is Chandrahas Choudhury, of The Middle Stage. Chandrahas' Arzee the Dwarf just came out on HarperCollins India; an excerpt from it is here]

There's some great stuff about procrastination in My Friend Sancho, which resonates particularly well for me since I am a world-class procrastinator myself:

I went to office late in the morning. I worked for a couple of hours. That is to say, I tried to work. My mind kept wandering, and the internet gave it places to wander to. Every three minutes I told myself, Just two minutes more, let me just check out this page, then I will work. But I'd check out that page, and click on a link there, or think of something because of what I was reading and go somewhere else, and so on and on until it was almost lunchtime and I was better informed about the world but less so about my own piece.

I have been there. I have been exactly there, more often than I would really like to admit. (And I suspect Abir Ganguly and I are not alone in this!)

Another aspect of the novel I found provocative relates to Abir's attempt to cope with a police officer in his acquaintance named Thombre who has done something questionable. Rather than demonize Thombre as a clear villain, Abir finds himself sympathizing with the officer, who has risen up from a working class background:

Yes, yes, self-loathing is fashionable and I cultivate it well. But really, had I been born in Thombre's place, with his background, his parents, his circumstances, I have no doubt that I'd have turned out worse. Yes, worse: I would have been the lazy schmuck who failed to clear his MPSC and ended up as a mechanic somewhere, or maybe tired for a lower grade of government job, and was miserable--genuinely miserable, not just down because angst is fashionable. I'd have looked at a career path like Thombre's with envy. He had made the best of what life had thrown his way. I couldn't bring myself to condemn him on moral grounds--the world around him, the real world as he put it, had not place for morality. He did what he had to.

I am not sure I agree with Abir's act of sympathy here; what Thombre has done is not really forgivable in my book, no matter what the extenuating circumstances might be. Still, I find the moral quandary Abir has found himself in intriguing, and it's intelligible given where he is going as a character in this novel.

The writing in all three of the passages I've quoted is functional and unadorned. Excerpts like those above probably won't give anyone Grand Mal seizures as Great Writing. But the voice Varma has invented is interesting and the insights are honest; they resonated with me, giving me a reason to keep turning pages.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

1,000,000 Visitors

Sometime last night, my SiteMeter recorded my millionth visitor.

It's been nearly four years now since I started this blog (March 2004), so in fact that isn't all that impressive (blogs with larger numbers of readers might record the same number in much less time). But it is still a bit of a landmark, and maybe an opportunity for a little self-reflection.

Writing this blog has had a rather large impact on my life, mostly in positive ways. It's certainly been an asset professionally -- I meet quite a number of people at conferences who say, "oh, you're the Amardeep Singh whose blog I randomly came across when I googled [X subject]." Especially amongst people who are in my sub-field, the blog has become a kind of calling card (mostly because of Google, I find; the number of regular readers remains somewhat limited). It isn't magic, of course -- nowhere near as good as publishing, say, a really influential essay or a widely read academic book -- but it is sometimes nice to find that people know who you are.

There's also been the occasional media moment, though in the end getting quoted by a newspaper or two doesn't really make that much difference one way or the other (newspaper articles are quickly forgotten).

Perhaps most importantly, some of my longer blog posts have been the starting points for serious scholarly projects (including a couple of things I'm working on right now). Blogging has been a really effective testing ground for ideas, and a place to (publicly) jot down notes on an author or idea that could be developed into something more substantial later. It's also been good way to stave off intellectual stagnation: since I started doing this kind of writing, my sense of what might be worth writing about in a serious way has expanded quite a bit -- I've become much less "specialized," and much more prone to humor my broad, wandering curiosity. (I have always been more the kind of person who likes to know something about a large number of subjects than the other way around, which is probably why I've found blogging such a congenial medium.)

I've made a lot of friends through blogging, sometimes with people I've ended up getting to know in person, and sometimes with people who, because they're far away, I haven't yet met face to face. (One day I'd like to do a grand tour, and go and meet in person all the people I've corresponded with over the years via blogging... it would be quite a trip!)

I do sometimes regret that the blog isn't quite as dynamic or personal as it was during the first two years I was writing. For one thing, I simply have less time to blog than I used to. Having a baby means that your evenings and weekends are mostly computer-free, meaning that you really have to get everything (including "real" work and blog writing) done before 6pm on Friday afternoon. Another big culprit for that shift has admittedly been my participation in Sepia Mutiny, which has very active comment boards that tend to suck up attention.

That said, I'm fairly satisfied with the general direction I've followed with this blog, and not worried if the readership is no longer expanding by leaps and bounds. I'm now pretty comfortable doing what I'm doing here, and not particularly pressed to rustle up new readers. I've also said a lot of what I have to say on some glaring issues (like, say, communalism in India) and, after having debated back and forth with people on hot-button topics over months and years, I'm not in a big rush to re-open certain old debates out of the blue, unless something controversial occurs. (When it does, be assured that I will be there, if I have something to say about it...)

Thanks to everyone who has read, commented, or sent me feedback over the years.
I hope you stay with me through 2008, too; I'm not going anywhere.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Sameness, what Sameness?

Mukul Kesavan has a column in the Calcutta Telegraph. It is, I think, the first full-frontal attack on the desi blogosphere that I've seen published in an Indian newspaper.

And it's so, so wrong. Let's start at the beginning:

Every English-speaking Indian man between 25 and 60 has written about the Hindi movies he has seen, the English books he has read, the foreign places he has travelled to and the curse of communalism. You mightn’t have read them all (there are a lot of them and some don’t make it to print) but their manuscripts exist and in this age of the internet, these masters of blah have migrated to the Republic of Blog. A cultural historian from the remote future (investigating, perhaps, the death of English in India) might use up a sub-section of a chapter to explore the sameness of their concerns. Why did a bunch of grown men, in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, write about the same movies, novels, journeys and riots? Why Naipaul? Why not nature? Or Napier? Or the nadeswaram? Why Bachchan? And not Burma? Or Bhojpuri? And, most weirdly, why pogroms and chauvinism? Why not programmes on television? (link)

First, my biggest complaint with Kesavan's piece is his refusal to name names. The "Republic of Blog" is for him guilty of a mind-numbing sameness, but if he doesn't tell us what blogs he's reading, it's impossible to verify what he says.

Second, why only men? Aren't there lots of Indian women bloggers? Indeed, there are too many to list, so let's just name one good one: Rashmi Bansal's Youth Curry.

Third, why not acknowledge that people are blogging in various Indian languages? In addition to its English "main page," Desipundit links to blogs in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bangla, and Marathi. (Sadly, no Punjabi...)

Then the substantive question -- amongst Indian male bloggers writing in English, is there in fact a deadening sameness? Do people really only talk about, as Kesavan suggests 1) Hindi films, 2) English novels, 3) various and sundry travels, and 4) Communalism? And do the comments on communalism all take a left-center approach (commonly derided as "pseudo-secular")?

Two of the four topics named by Kesavan, English-language novels and communalism, are a little strange coming from him; Kesavan is himself the author of an English-language novel (quite a good one, actually), as well as a book called Secular Common-Sense. (More recently, he published a book about Cricket, Men in White, which I haven't seen.)

I think a quick look at some of the links at the (now dated) Top 100 Indian blogs at suggests a great deal more diversity than Kesavan allows. He doesn't mention all the tech blogs (there are LOTS of those, and they get many more readers than even popular general interest blogs like India Uncut), cooking blogs, defense policy blogs, or, for that matter, cricket blogs.

It's true that a lot of what people post on their blogs often isn't that exciting; it's intellectual chit-chat, quick links, and regurgitated news. But I think that chit-chat is, in an indirect way, actually a really important sign of a society's well being. And when the discussions turn to politics, the to-and-fro of conversations (and yes, arguments) that take place on blogs as well as in the mainstream media can be a really important way by which democracy sustains itself. Blogging can be one measure of the health of civil society.

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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Problems with Google Docs

You may be wondering where I've been. I've been working on some essays, most recently on E.M. Forster. That's about done, but now I have two more essays to write by April 1 -- one on the State of Postcolonial Theory, and the second being a revised/extended version of my MLA talk last December.

Shockingly, I've noticed that not blogging is sometimes correlated to getting more writing done. Amongst friends and colleagues, I've often argued that this actually isn't the case, that blogging and writing/publishing can in fact be fully complementary. At least for right now, for me, less blogging seems to mean more scholarly productivity. (I might yet change my mind, especially with the onset of Spring Break next week).

* * *

On my non-teaching days I've been doing research at the Van Pelt library at the University of Pennsylvania. I generally don't carry my laptop (it's both heavy and fragile), and for the most part that's not an issue, since most of one's time at the library is spent finding books and articles, photocopying them, and reading them. However, if you actually want to write at a computer, you have to use their public terminals. Some university library terminals have MS Word, but many times you just get a bare-bones Web browser.

But if you have Google, who needs MS Word anyways, right? Haven't we entered the golden age of "all you need is a browser"? (Wrong. And, No.)

For my session this past Monday, I uploaded my Word Docs to Google Docs to get around the public terminal problem. I then spent a couple of hours working on a paper in Google Docs on a browswer at a public terminal. And here's problem #1: there's no footnotes function in Google Docs! My MS Word footnotes do still appear in the document, but at the end. Instead of footnotes, Google Docs has a "comment" function, where you can insert the equivalent of a footnote. I tried using that to insert a few footnotes that needed inserting.

Upon returning home, I re-converted the files to MS Word, and noticed the second problem: the Google Docs Comments don't translate back to MS Word comments. Moreover, all the footnotes formatting in the original document is now gone. The footnotes are still in the text, but they aren't actually "coded" as footnotes anymore -- they're just text with a number attached.

Needless to say, if you have upwards of 30 footnotes in your article, this can be a huge pain. Until Google improves both its internal functionality and its compatibility with MS Word, I won't be using Google Docs for any serious writing.

Have other readers worked with Google Docs? Likes, dislikes?

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Friday, February 23, 2007

I'll take the bronze

Congratulations to Falstaff on winning "Best Humanities Blog" at the IndiBloggies, with 141 votes. Falstaff actually lives in the Philadelphia area, so it's slightly odd that we've never met. (Well, not that odd, considering that I spend most of my free time these days at Babies R Us, tussling with other "soccer dads" over who gets the last can of powdered Enfamil...) The incredibly prolific Chandrahas also got more votes than me (110). See his brilliant and scholarly comparison of William Blake to an Oriya devotional poet named Salebaga here.

To the 91 people who voted for me, thanks for your support! I appreciate you taking the time to navigate the Indibloggies' rather convoluted voting system.

I also wanted to congratulate Greatbong, for winning blog of the year. He is actually quite funny, and has a way with words -- both Hindi and English (though, perhaps, surprisingly, not Bangla). I'm not quite sure I'd be as quick to joke about the Samjhauta bombing as he is, but you can't go wrong finding silly stuff to laugh about and/or cringe over in big Bollywood multi-starrers.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Vote For Me, If You LIke: IndiBloggies

I've been nominated for "Best Humanities Blog," in the 2006 IndiBloggies. You can vote for me here [UPDATE: Voting has now closed]. Voting continues through February 20th.

Though recently most of my blogging has been short-form, I think I did some decent posts in 2006, and many of the more substantial entries are listed on the sidebar. But since I haven't actually updated the sidebar in several months, here are some of the highlights from between October and December:

Masud Khan

2006 in South Asia-oriented books

Anthems of Resistance: Progressive Urdu Poetry

The Myth of Martial Races

Nabokov, Butterflies, Mimesis

The Silencing of Tenzin Tsundue

Macacas, Youtube, and the Question of Respect

The Illusionist vs. The Prestige

Notes on MLA and SALA

Gandhi-Giri in Full Bloom

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

"Blogger Authenticity" vs. Presidential Campaigning

Amanda Marcotte left Pandagon to be the head blogger for the John Edwards presidential campaign. But now she's being attacked by right-wing bloggers for snarky comments she'd made earlier on the Catholic church; here is her carefully-worded (and laudable) response to the current blog-tempest in a blog-teapot. (I actually thought she was in the wrong on the whole "Burqa" blogspat issue, but that was a whole 'nother can of worms.)

The paragraph that caught my eye in the Time Magazine article on the pheneomenon was this one:

But bottling the lightning of blogger authenticity is not easy. Many blogosphere activists suspect anyone signing on with a campaign of selling out. And in the era of drum-tight message control, campaigns are not inclined to tolerate the independence bloggers need to maintain their credibility. (link)

Wait, do bloggers still have authenticity?

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