Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Just Like a River

Just Like a River by Muhammad Kamil al-Katib (Tr: Michelle Hartman & Maher Barakat) as per the back cover of the book is thought of as the most influential novel of its time in Syria. Set in Syria of 1980s, it's a realistic account of the society struggling with unemployment, a young generation dealing with western ideas, and a looming war (with Israel). Short and impactful.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Has social media come full circle!

The social media had an element of novelty when it first made its mark. The idea of sharing things with family and friends soon caught up. We made friends in lesser known countries and got to know more about different cultures. It was a pleasant 'discovery of world' for many.

With time the pleasantries gave way to more serious discussions, courtesy groups and blogs. Anonymous people made matters worse with offensive remarks and comments. Privacy issues too cropped up. Naturally the account owners were alarmed. The moderation part became stricter. But, that didn't stop people from voicing their strong opinions. Many started using the various social platforms to support their causes, with utter disregards for others in many cases. It became a bigger issue to handle. Online media laws were taken up more seriously in many countries.

Still the nuisance continued. Online threats, live streaming of suicides, videos showing how to make explosives, mocking of religious figures and a host of others problems penetrating the social media. So much that people were fined and jailed in many cases. At times innocents bore the brunt of this fightback. The virtual world started imitating the real world!

Those trying to set up an online society forget the ills that creep into one if not properly monitored. Absolute freedom is a myth. The progress of social media today is exactly a reflection of how the world societies shaped up. A network that was supposed to bring people from around the world together is now being used to divide people further. You have groups promoting hatred in the name of religion, colour, ethnicity, gender and what not.

As the adage goes, excess of anything is bad. We need to wake up to the truth. Everything virtual, no matter how convincing it may look, may not necessarily be true.

Let's start spending more time with real people in real world. The distant world maybe a click away but is still full of uncertainties and fake identities.

(The article was first published by The Other News.)

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Let's Clean our Inbox!

Junk emails or spam fill our inboxes more than ever before. A lot of precious time is wasted each day reading and deleting those unwanted messages. It's important today to understand spam and the ways to counter it.

In this digital age an email address has become an identity of sorts for people logged on to the net. Well, things are not always rosy when it comes to email.

So, on the one hand you've IT companies which are always exploring ways to make your email experience both fun and professional, on the other there are those who steal your email IDs and sell them to potential advertisers.

The end result is obvious! Your mailbox is bombarded with all sorts of promotional mails, ranging from ads to money transfers. In the end you are left scratching your head - all you wanted was a fast and simple way to communicate!

How to prevent email spam

Spam today has evolved into a new industry altogether. The IT security companies are busy with their anti-spam research and offerings, and so do the businesses involved in trading of email databases.
As a result even the not so frequent email-users are getting a taste of this nuisance in their inbox. Let's quickly go through some of the practical measures you can take to avoid spam.
  • "Prevention is better than cure" goes for spam as well. You would be better off spending some time on the ways you can stop junk mails from entering your mailbox in the first place.
  • A case of multiple IDs: Your email is your digital identity so there's no physical form attached to it. So you have to be careful when you use it.
These days whenever you've to register yourself on the web, and in some cases in real life also, you need an email ID.

The best possible turnaround is to have separate IDs, which you can use for different purposes. So now you've an email address which you use for your profession (your college/school account), one for friends and family, and one for public use.

Using different service providers for different sets of people makes it easier to remember and avoid junk emails where you want them the least.
  • A little prudence at work: Almost all the free email service providers today are offering big storage space for your emails. Always remember free comes with a price.
  • People have this habit of freely giving their mobile numbers and email IDs. End result is that you have both unwanted calls and emails. The easy way out is to share your personal information with only reliable sources.
  • Never respond to unwanted emails no matter how enticing they may look. Beware, a reply is enough proof that your email address is functional and it could soon become part of the huge database that criminals prepare and then make money by selling it.
  • Tension free addresses: There is a solution which can cut down your worries drastically, but, still not very popular. The idea is pretty simple; you've certain websites offering you time dependent (seconds, minutes, hour, days) email IDs. They are destroyed after the designated period elapses, so use them on the public domains. They come in handy when you've to register just for the heck of it. Some of the better ones are: www.10minutemail.com, www.mailinator.com, www.pookmail.com, and www.spam.la.


What if your inbox is already a victim of spam or you've lost patience with the manual procedures of cleaning it up?

The answer is simpl; install an anti-spam solution. A spam filter has to make sure you get 100 per cent of the email you want and blocks 100 per cent of the email you don't want, or it hasn't solved your problem.

But no spam filter can do that. Why? Because spam filters try to guess which email you want and don't want.
Some of the filters which guess exactly that - and quite accurately also- are:
  • Trend Micro Anti-Spam Pilot
  • ChoiceMail
  • Ella for Spam Control
  • EMailerID
  • InBoxer
  • OnlyMyEmail
  • MailWasher
Most of them come as Trialware, so you can always try and see the difference.

My advice is simple: get an effective spam filter installed but at the same time follow the basic precautionary measures discussed earlier.

Happy emailing!

(The article was first published by Gulf News.)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Make the best of email

Long before the popularity of the internet, email or electronic mail changed the way people communicated. A decade later emailing is still the most popular activity on the web. Many of us use an email client such as Outlook, Eudora or Thunderbird to check emails and almost everybody has a free webmail account (Hotmail, Yahoo!, etc). Most people do only three things when they log into their email account - read and reply to emails, delete unwanted ones and write new emails. We rarely use the optional features provided that can make our task easier for all future visits to our account.

Organise mails automatically

All mails sent to our email address land by default in our inbox. So if you are a heavy email user then in a very short time your inbox could be stuffed. Now think of the time you will waste if you start searching for a particular message in that heap. That's where the concept of folders and message rules comes in. If you are using Outlook, you could create a message rule by clicking on the Tools menu and then selecting Rules and Alerts. Alternatively you could open a message and then click on the Actions menu and select Create Rule. The rest of the process is self-explanatory. So when a new email message meets the criterion you've set in your rule, it will automatically go into the specific folder it is meant for. This helps remove clutter from your inbox and helps organise your mails.

When you are away

When on leave, you can use the auto-responder feature provided by most email services. Using the feature you can leave a message that would go as an automatic reply from your email account to all incoming emails or, if you so wish, only to emails from people in your contact list. Gmail provides this option under Settings and calls it Vacation Responder. Yahoo! calls it Vacation Response and you will find it under Mail Options. It's called Send Automated Vacation Replies under Manage Your Account under Hotmail's More Options.

Mark spam mail

Spam is always a nuisance. Today most email clients provide a feature to stop spam mail from entering and clogging inboxes. All popular email services are equipped with free spam filters. Just select the message you feel comes from a suspect source, and mark it as Junk or Spam.

Help for bloggers

Those into blogging can use email to both publish posts and promote blogs. If you have an account on Blogger.com, all you need to do is to log into your Blogger account, click on Settings and then click the Email option. If you did not create an address at the time of creating your blog, you can do so now. Now simply send an email to this address and it will be published as a blog post. Try it out! You could also use email signatures (to be found under options in most email services) to promote your blog. For this you need to put in a link to your blog with some text if desired as your signature. Your blog link with the text would then be added to the bottom of all email messages you send.

(The article was first published by Gulf News.)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The rich legacy of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan

THE Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in India for almost a century has been a beacon of hope to millions of Muslims seeking low-cost, quality education in India. The man behind it, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, thought of progressive Muslim education on a scale rarely attempted earlier and against formidable odds.

Today, AMU has more than 30,000 students on its campus and offers more than 300 courses. Over the years, it also paved the way for several other minority institutions in India. That said, there’s a lot still left to be done in improving the lot of Indian Muslims.

Muslims in India constitute some 14 per cent of the total population, which makes their social and educational progress fairly important in the national context. As the Sachar Commission Report of 2005 observed, the literacy rate among Indian Muslims in 2001 was 59 per cent, which is far below the national average of 65.1 per cent. If a progressive and persuasive Muslim leadership in the footsteps of Sir Syed seriously take up the recommendations of the Sachar report, such statistics could change dramatically.

Sir Syed used education as a tool for social change. This is something which works in any age. Education equips you with the right knowledge to look at the bigger picture. It makes you respect the opinion of others even when you don’t agree. The end result would be a more tolerant society. Tolerance promotes peace!

Sir Syed worked for the British East India Company for a fairly long period. He had a progressive mindset and highlighted areas of shared interest between the Christians (rulers of British India) and Muslims (natives). To send home his point, he even wrote a commentary on the Bible (Tabyin-ul-Kalam) — the first by a Muslim.

The brutal crackdown on Muslims that followed the Sepoy Mutinee of 1857 or the first war of Independence in India, resulted in a lot of bad blood between the Christian and Muslim communities.

Driven by the events, Sir Syed came out with his most famous literary work, Asbab-e-Baghawat-e-Hind (The causes of the Indian Revolt). It was mainly to dispel the theory of the revolt being mainly a Muslim conspiracy. He argued that the British failed to recognise the rights of the natives in their own land. But he also blamed his own community, admonishing them for giving patronage to religious orthodoxy and a failure to keep up with modern times. We should take a leaf from this approach.

Either you fight violence with more violence or you seek reconciliation. As we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no end to war. The more it drags, the more radicalised the society becomes. The message that should pass on from father to son should be one of peace and forgiveness.

Sir Syed was well aware of the changing times and how progress was eluding the Muslim community because of its isolation. He was of the view that nothing in Islamic belief and practice could oppose reason. He even wrote an unfinished commentary of Quran to further his point. We may or may not agree with his view, but his basic philosophy was right, Quran talks about sciences and the importance of learning. In other words, a believing Muslim should also be a seeker of knowledge, wherever it takes him to.

Sir Syed looked at modern scientific education as an enabler of social and economic growth of Indian Muslims. The first school he opened was at Moradabad in 1858, to teach modern history. He thought it would help Muslims to learn about other civilisations and societies and how they failed when they did not keep up with changing times. That’s what history is all about — lessons! We read it so as to not make the same mistakes. The events in Egypt and Libya serve as a grim reminder for all those in position of power. An unjust rule never lasts forever!

With an eye on Muslim representation in government and civil services, Sir Syed established the Mohammadan Civil Services Fund Association to encourage and help aspiring Muslim graduates. It shows that every single citizen could play an active role in nation-building. The success of a country depends on the level of participation of its people. A sense of ownership is much better than a mere display of patriotism.

It’s not mere coincidence that the global Muslim community finds itself in the same position as more than a century ago. Turmoil in the Arab world, paranoia about Islam and Muslims in the West and a surge in extremism are the same obstacles that Sir Syed had started with. That makes the methods he adopted to counter such problems all the more relevant today. Education, reconciliation, peace and progress are once again the need of times.

As we celebrate another anniversary of this great reformer, it is time to spend a few thoughts on the great cause to which Sir Syed dedicated his life. We need to understand and appreciate his model of Muslim empowerment.

The original Aligarh Movement was based on the principle of change from within and a tolerant worldly outlook. It aimed at equipping Muslims with modern education, something which even the religion permits. This is the legacy that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan left behind and which holds true to this day.

If one man can bring about so much change, 100 others across the globe could do much more!

(The article was first published by Gulf News.)

Friday, August 31, 2012

Islamic Calligraphy: In search of a lifeline

The art of Islamic calligraphy finds its roots in early Islam. Part of its popularity lay in the way Quran stresses the importance of written word. In Surah 96 (verse 3 to 4), God is described as one Who "taught man with the pen". The Surah 68 starts with the oath, "And by the Pen". There are several other Suras talking about writing, viz., Surah 96 (verse 3 to 4), Surah 82 (verse 10), Surah 50 (verse 16). Naturally, the best style of writings were developed for God. As Arabic became the language of all Muslims in Arabia and elsewhere, it gave birth to beautiful new forms of Arabic script.

Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law and the fourth Caliph of Islam, Ali ibn Abi Talib is considered to be the first master of calligraphy. He developed a Kufic script where the tops of alifs were twin-horned. [1] The Kufic in general is an angular script found on tombstones and coins.

The sacred nature of calligraphy ensured that in Islamic architecture inscriptions became an important means of decoration.

Beautiful Islamic inscriptions soon adorned mosques, madrasas, mausoleums, and shia imambaras. The art was gradually extended to other secular texts.

Calligraphy in India flourished during the Mughals and later on found patronage with the Nawabs of Awadh. The evidence of the earliest Arabic inscriptions on structures of 8th century have been found in India at Deybal (Sind), which is now in Pakistan. [2]

Unfortunately Islamic calligraphy is a dying art in India with very few people left practising it full time. Traditional calligraphy is the worse hit. Laments Saiyed Anwer Abbas, a Lucknow based historian, "The present state of calligraphy is not healthy for traditional calligraphy (by pen) since the advent of calligraphy and inscription by computer. There is some scope in 'Tughra-nawisi' because the calligrapher presents new designs (Tughra) according to his own ideas and imagination. Now, with knowledge of Urdu script becoming scarce in India, even the scope of tughra-nawisi is not bright."

Abbas is not alone, renowned Lucknow based calligraphy artist Hashim Akhtar Naqvi (credited with inscribing 'Bismillah-ir-Rehman-ir-Raheem' in over 6,000 calligraphic designs ), echoes similar sentiments, "It is true that my exhibitions of Bismillah-ir-Rehman-ir-Raheem draw huge crowds at all venues in India, but till date not even a single person approached me to learn calligraphy." He feels the government is also not very keen to revive the art and he is not willing 'to go out of the way to seek government assistance.'

Ghalib Academy (Hazrat Nizammudin), New Delhi, too has stopped its two year programme in Urdu Calligraphy.

MT had a first hand experience of this rare art at the house in Lucknow of another calligrapher, Azeem Jafri. A painter by profession, Jafri, mixes calligraphy skills with his work. He's very passionate about the art and feels it's a pious and 'halal' way to earn money. Jafri is training both his children (a son and a daughter) to carry on his legacy. He told MT that people don't value his creations on paper. "Some people give me Rs 500 for a sample, few art lovers from outside even pay Rs 5000, but most think it's all worth only Rs 300," says Jafri with a touch of sadness.

Irshad Hussain Farooqi is a rare craftsman who practices calligraphy on wood. In general Calligraphy is two dimensional, however, with efforts of people like Farooqi, producing it on wood makes it three dimensional. He plans to set up an institute of calligraphy in India. He's currently rebuilding his workshop in Delhi which he plans to use for imparting calligraphic lessons also. He is keen to take his designs to the Dubai International Exhibition for Arabic Calligraphy but needs help on that front. "I want to do much more for calligraphy in India but so far I'm unable to reach the right people," informs Farooqi.

The Musalman is one of a kind (evening) newspaper. It is handwritten by calligraphers before being mass produced. The paper was founded in 1927 by Syed Azmathullah. It's office is located at the Triplicane High Road in Chennai. Despite all obstacles the newspaper has managed to survive this long. MT contacted their office for more insight but was politely declined, "We don't give interviews to anybody." We don't mind till this unique tradition continues.

(The article was first published by Muslims Today.)


1 Prof. Annemarie Schimmel, Islamic Calligraphy (Institute of Religious Iconography, State University Groningen, Leiden E. J. Brill, 1970, Netherlands), 3.
2 Saiyed Anwer Abbas, Lucknow Ki Lupt Hoti Kalayen, Hamara Lucknow Pustakmala Series (Hindi Vangmaya Nidhi, 2012)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lucknow Boy - A Memoir

For somebody coming from Lucknow, the title of Vinod Mehta's new book itself is quite appealing. 'Lucknow Boy - A Memoir' by the veteran journalist is an honest account of his rather adventurous life.

The book traces Mehta's journey from a school going boy in the city to an editor of repute in Bombay and Delhi. His lack of experience in the trade makes his story all the more more fascinating. It also throws light on the way journalism works in India or elsewhere.

The author's father was transferred to Lucknow five years after his birth in Rawalpindi. Here he attended the reputed La Martiniere College. The city had a big impression on him. It was also here that Mehta made a few life long friends.

His account of Lucknow of the 50s and 60s is lively, more so for the person he was and the people he befriended. From 'a small time raja', C.P.N. Singh, to the 'quintessential aam admi of the 50s', Safdar, his acquaintances are a good reflection of the interesting times he spent in Lucknow. He also credits the city for teaching him 'to look at the individual rather than his religion or caste or the tongue he spoke'. You can't help admiring his secular credentials.

On an old friend's insistence Mehta went to England in the early 70s. This was also the time when his life long affair (not to mention his other flings) with news and books started as he survived on odd jobs. It would serve him well during the years in Bombay and Delhi, when he slowly and surely establishes himself as an editor of some repute.

Mehta's editorial ventures, be it Debonair, The Pioneer or Outlook, offer an interesting perspective on media functioning. All is not rosy, but if one is better prepared then he'll survive seems to be the advice of the book. He shares quite a few incidents about the nexus between the politicians, businessmen, and journalists.

Journalism, Mehta acknowledges, is a high pressure job that involves both glamour and risk. The risks increase as you climb up the ladder, so much that sometimes 'the professional environment you function in is so vitiated and underhand that you are tempted to throw in the towel'.

It's the ego which journalists needs to check, advices Mehta. The basic premise is to create awareness about relevant issues. Journalists have to remember that all they have is 'the best seats in the match'. They don't run the country in any way.

Mehta's candid observations on certain subjects and people did not go down rather well with me. I particularly find the reference to Firaq Gorakhpuri's homosexuality quite disgusting. The talk about Atal Bihari Vajpayee's 'strange domestic life' was also uncalled for. There's also an air of pompousness about the work he did. But you forgive him for this as he pokes fun at himself with equal measure.

Lucknow Boy may not be a literary masterpiece, but certainly as one written with brutal honesty. I'm sure Mehta won't have many friends left after this one. Overall the book offers an interesting commentary on the way news travels through the pages and the players involved.