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January 25, 2009

Desis In Odd Places IV

During the past year or so, the story of Rinku and Dinesh have been doing the rounds on the sports, news and talk show circuits. In brief, they are winners of a reality show ("The Million Dollar Arm") held in India to find some top class baseball prospects. That anyone would look for pitching talent in India where it has been customary for generations of cricket fans to bemoan the lack of genuine fast bowlers (something only changing now with the advent of Ishant Sharma) is amazing and easily attributed to a marketing gimmick designed to sell sneakers to India's middle class consumers. That the winners of said gimmick would actually sign with a Major League Baseball organizaiton, in this case the Pittsburgh Pirates, is nothing short of mind blowing:

The Pittsburgh Pirates hope Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel really do have million-dollar arms.

The two 20-year-old pitchers, neither of whom had picked up a baseball until earlier this year, signed free-agent contracts Monday with the Pirates. They are believed to be the first athletes from India to sign professional baseball contracts outside their country.

Singh and Patel came to the United States six months ago after being the top finishers in an Indian reality TV show called the Million Dollar Arm that drew about 30,000 contestants. The show sought to find athletes who could throw strikes at 85 miles per hour or faster.

While neither pitcher threw hard enough to earn the $1 million prize, Singh made $100,000 from the contest and Patel made $2,500, plus his trip to the United States.

The contest was sponsored by a California sports management company that believed it could locate major league-worthy arms in a country of more than one billion. After working extensively with Southern California pitching coach Tom House since May, the pitchers staged a tryout in Tempe, Ariz., on Nov. 6 that was attended by 30 major league scouts.


"Think of them as two Dominican kids," House told the scouts. "They're very raw. But I think this has a huge upside."

When they first came to the United States and began playing catch, the pitchers were mystified by the concept of gloves and had to be taught not to try to catch the ball with their bare hands.
Patel and Singh are learning English, most of which they have picked up from watching ESPN's Baseball Tonight and by taking online classes.

And they are practicing their English on their blog, The Million Dollar Arm, which they update regularly. Intially, I thought the language on the blog was a joke, ghostwritten to be deliberately raw and conform to Indian English stereotypes. However, reading through the entries convinced me of its genuineness. It's hard to fake excitement at the opportunity of a lifetime. And the notion of desi athletes excelling in a game so far outside Indian norms is pretty cliche busting anyway.

What I liked most about the blog, in addition to the cameos by baseball superstars (tips from Barry Bonds, Randy Johnson and Brian Wilson? Really?), are the observations about living in a different, foreign country for the first time, the same problems encountered by immigrants such as homesickness and all that, but from a slightly different perspective i.e. not a student or white collar or blue collar worker and similar temptations. From that standpoint, a genuine voice on a ten dollar a month blog is worth more than a million dollars worth of marketing. Amidst much talk about practice and strength training, some choice excerpts on life in the USA:

  • The American Dream:: "Today was the first day of our training on American soil. People often hope to conquer this great, so-called ‘American Dream’ back home in India. But here we are, the lucky ones blessed with this dream. Who knew we would be the privileged two selected to play baseball in this great nation of opportunities!"
  • Jetlag: "I guess the Trans-Atlantic journey has affected me more than I’d want to believe. I was fighting sleep during practice hours yesterday. Today was no better. I hope coach hasn’t spotted me stifling my yawns. Definitely, don’t want the first impression to be the wrong one."
  • The Rock: "Rock very good actor. he writing Rinku, Keep Kicking Ass, Dwayne Johnson. "
  • Wedding In The US: "The Wedding festival in America like India little. Man and wife not ride horse or elephant in America. they walking to priest."
  • The Cable Guy Review: "We also watching the Cable Guy. The movie actor very good faces. he very crazy man, doing many crazy things in movie. End not so good."
  • Whether Santa Claus Exists: "We not believing in Santa Claus, but JB sir say it true. Santa sir deliver us sweat shirts in night. we find morning. we still think JB sir. Dinesh write note for the thanks and JB sir say you send letter North Pole. We going on line and see no one living north pole. very crazy american festival."
  • First Product Deal: "We get first deal with the Under Armor company. they makings us shoes, cleets, knickers, shirts. It was very awesome to return from the practice and received such kind gifts."
  • American Women: "One very, very bad thing about the news is that they say I on the BABEWATCH. This not true. i not watching girls. i only pitching, training, eat, watch baseball/Movies and sleep. American women very dangerous and very crazy. I like only Indian woman. Dinesh and JB, Sir have been harrassing me about this BABEWATCH. I do not like the BABEWATCH."
  • Being signed by the Pirates: "We right away went to the internet to locate Pittsburgh on map. It is in north east part of USA and looks like very good city."
  • The joys of Dennys: "We went with JB sir to breakfast at a great American breakfast eatery called Dennys. Rinku ordered a breakfast aclled the Lumberjack. We now know that a Lumberjack is a person who works as a tree cutter in the forrest so they must eat a lot of food. this breakfast was quite huge. It had eggs, bacon, sausage, ham, potatos, breads, and pancakes. I had French Toast and both meals were very fulfilling."

More nuggets on their blog, a must read if you want to follow two wild and crazy guys blogging their slice of the American Dream.

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- January 25, 2009 10:20 AM // Diaspora , Sports

January 12, 2009

(Belated) Happy New Year

Reprinting, by permission, a vignette from Athena Kashyap on her return to Mumbai in the aftermath of the latest attacks:

Shortly after the year turned, we walked up a narrow promontory of land, cradled on three sides by huge swathes of the Arabian Sea, up to the Ban Ganga water tank.

Gazing down at the brown sands of Chowpatty beach, looking demure under coconut trees, the colonial pillars of Wilson College visible right across from the beach, across from the sleepy roadway on which the morning’s traffic had yet to wake up, we could have been taking our walk a hundred years ago, expecting at any time to see a Victorian horse drawn buggy clip-clopping into the distance, disappearing into the foggy lights of the Queen’s Necklace.

But as we continued our walk, different eras of Mumbai’s past began to emerge. Here and there, we still spied a building from the British past—the chief minister’s bungalow, a Rajasthani palace built out of red stone—looking incongruous, even a little absurd, next to the concrete apartment buildings of our times, sitting squat and ugly, hugging the road so closely that not even Bombay’s tenacious trees could take root next to them.

Then, as we neared the tank, Mumbai’s ethnic identity from several hundred years ago began to assert itself. We found ourselves walking on narrow cobbled lanes built not horses nor cars but for pedestrians, lined on either side by temples, small houses with upturned roofs, entrances engraved with carvings, and stalls selling vegetables, sweets, and flowers. Here and there, a priest bustled around, barefoot, washing the steps of the temple, performing their God’s morning ablutions to get ready for the day. Pedestrians also hurried along, going about their daily routines, taking the children to school, setting out to work.

And there in the center lay the tank. It looked to be in poor shape, the steps leading to the water broken and strewn with plastics and remnants of food. People lay sleeping on its steps, nuzzled by geese hoping to find a morsel or two in the folds of the their blankets. A child defecated on the steps and his mother washed his bottom, and then washed his stool down a few steps below, a little beyond her vision’s periphery. A man cleared away some of the garbage from the rim of the tank, enough to let him collect a cup of water with which he brushed his teeth, spitting it back into the water’s dirty foam after he was done.

Despite the filth and squalor, the tank still maintained a quiet dignity as it lay shaded by the umbrella of ancient trees, lent no doubt by the story of its origin inscribed on a plaque at one end. As we read about its past we stepped back even further back in history, the tanks’ renovation in the sixteenth century, and its construction in the eight century, and then back into mythological time, when the Lord Ram pierced the earth with his arrow on this very spot to release a spring of fresh water, hiding underground.

Stories are told and retold to remember memorable events, and mythologies are built around miraculous happenings. Looking at this fresh water tank, it is easy to see why the spring, why this spot would be deified. Having a fresh water spring that survives on this tiny sliver of earth surrounded by the Goliath salty ocean seems nothing short of miraculous but finding this underground spring seems even more incredible. It is a testament to human kind’s intelligence and ingenuity, the godlike ability in us.

Today, with the wounds from the past year still not healed, the blood not yet washed away, we must remember that this land of Mumbai is a special land, and a sliver of hope runs through it. And, more importantly, that its inhabitants have within themselves the ability to make manifest an intelligence that will lead us from darkness to light.

Wishing you all a New Year filled with fresh hope to bring about positive change in our lives and the world. May the intelligence within each of you shine forth dispelling fear and insecurity, and may you live this year with courage and wisdom.

What she said. Thanks Athena for expressing it so well.

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- January 12, 2009 8:49 PM // India

January 10, 2009

Doubtsourcing: The Sitcom

I'd first heard about doubtsourcing, the comic strip, in a techcrunch writeup. I think all desis with a) an internet connection and b) a funnybone are well familiar with the output from Badmash and this latest offshoot from one of the core group members, Sandeep Sood, seemed to have hit the ground running. Then I stopped hearing about it and the website stopped responding (it's down as of the time this post was written).

What happened? I figured with the US recession going global and a rise in forecasts for the decline in outsourcing, perhaps Sandeep's strip itself had fallen victim to the ongoing trends.

I was wrong. I caught this ad on craigslist looking for voice talent:

Male Voice Actor needed for Animated Sitcom (berkeley) Reply to: gigs-940863403@craigslist.org [?] Date: 2008-12-01, 12:56PM PST

Badmash.tv is an animation studio working on its first animated sitcom, called Doubtsourcing.

We are looking for a voice actor to play the part of Jamie.

Further web hunting revealed a slew of such ads, a Sepia Mutiny comment:

As for the studio, we are working on an animated sitcom called Doubtsourcing (should have the pilot done in a few months)

and this interview:

His most visible success, though, has been the "Doubtsourcing" comic strip and it caught the attention of a venture firm in the Valley. His potential investors suggested that "Doubtsourcing" be developed into a full fledged animated series, a sort of The-Simpsons-meets-The-Office. With Badmash already making a foray into developing an animation studio in India, it seems like a natural progression.

I found the last part of the interview to be particularly interesting:

Where do you plan to air the show? Here in the US or in India?

SS: That is an open question. We are negotiating with a few different channels including the more mainstream ones like Warner. There’s also the option of bypassing TV altogether and going straight to the web.

The italics are mine. With pundits proclaiming online video to be the killer app this year (and my day gig reliant on that fact :-), the timing for a straight to internet play couldn't be more appropriate. The recent successful VC rounds of sites like funnyordie and jibjab show the interest in generating online original humor content. There are plenty of risks with this type of endeavour, however, particularly when relying on content to go viral. As Sandeep noted himself when commenting on another piece:

There’s a ‘Jib-Jab’ effect to these types of animations. Your first piece is totally fresh, delightfully amateurish, and funny as a result. Then, unless you come with something totally new, it’s hard to recapture the same buzz again.

This is something we’ve learned first hand at badmash - if you’re trying to be purely viral, you can’t ride the same idea or style for too long.

With the badmash crew leading the way in this space for the desi diaspora, it'll be fascinating to track their approach to promoting the latest incarnation of doubtsourcing, their revenue model and, most importantly, how well it catches on. Fingers crossed. One thing is true though: with fiascoes like Satyam's going on right now, there certainly won't be any lack of material or interest on this topic!

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- January 10, 2009 7:44 PM // Diaspora , Humour , Technology