Delhi and Agra — The Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort

geometric patterns of cieling of gate to Taj Mahal

I had thought the roads in Mumbai were bad. The streets of Agra are less developed than Mumbai, and much less than Delhi. The current capital had the smooth, well-maintained roads befitting the nation’s capital of one of the world’s nuclear powers. The streets of the old Mughal capital of Agra were more reminiscent of a developing nation — an irony considering the Mughal empire was known for its amazing infrastructure. The (busy, of course) streets were lined with huts, piles of bricks and garbage strewn about. Holy bulls moved nonchalantly through traffic from garbage pile to garbage pile to feed.

But still traffic jams happen... for natural reasons
Traffic jam in Agra

It took about three hours to get to Agra from Delhi. I had flown into Delhi from Mumbai the night before on a late flight and stayed in the nicest hotel I have ever stayed at in my life. But it was very late and I could not enjoy the amenities since I had to be up at 6:30am to drive to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. People in Mumbai told me that the road would be nice since it was a new highway, and it was. Although it took an hour of driving through dense fog to get out of Delhi, once we got on the highway it was smooth sailing.

Rear lights of vehicles barely visible in fog
Dense fog while leaving Delhi

The highway was surprisingly empty. Not only was there nearly no traffic (which was surprising enough in India!) but the countryside was empty too. For a country with 1.2 billion people I was expecting more density, something more akin to driving between cities in the population corridors of Japan… each city and town just sort of melds into one another with no break. On the road to Agra I stared out of the car window watching endless farmland and tiny villages pass by. Vehicles passed by us as well. Apparently our hired vehicle had a speed inhibitor limiting us to 80kmh, a common thing for commercially licensed passenger vehicles.

The land was flat and green. Rice paddies and mustard seed fields were divided by deserted single lane dirt roads. Occasionally we saw Hindu temple, or a Muslim mausoleum. Every so often there was a roadside stop with a gas station and some food amenities. We stopped at a nice one that was decorated “Chinese” style and had veggie sandwiches and masala chai served in traditional clay cups. I walked around the corner to the washroom and saw that there was a Starbucks… even here in the middle of nowhere.

Entrance of a Starbucks Coffee shop
A Starbucks in “Chinese” style

After a while the verdant fields gave way to the concrete interchange of dusty Agra, the old capital of the Mughals, Islamic conquerers with roots to the Mongol hordes who ruled India from the mid-16th century until being in turn conquered by the British in the mid 19th century. Agra is partially bisected by the Yamuna river, which wends and winds its way through the plain, and whose shores are decorated with spectacular Islamic architectural treasures. Today we would visit the two most famous.

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Learning about the Asian fintech boom

After reading Alibaba: The House that Jack Ma Built with a friend, we decided to get together for a discussion with the old #StartupCoffeeKL group to go over some of our learnings. For me, the biggest takeaway was the impact Alibaba was having on the financial world. As Mary Meeker points out in the 2018 Internet Trends report, eCommerce is the culmination of a number of verticals, and Alibaba has been innovating in all of them.

Slide containing text:

E-Commerce = A Look @ Tools + Numbers...

Payment
Online Store
Online Payment
Fraud Prevention
Purchase Financing
Customer Support
Finding Customers
Delivering Product
KP 2018 Internet Trends slide on eCommerce tools

For the eCommerce giant fintech may have started merely with payment transactions, but soon turned into other offerings and eventually was turned into Alipay (2004) and then (controversially) Ant Financial (2010). The whole battle over the wallet is playing out very differently in China and is fascinating to learn about. The mix of heavily regulated banking infrastructure and wide population of unbanked has made for a dynamic context. But Alibaba has been aggressive in gaining a foothold in other markets too. Alipay has bought into Mynt in the Philippines, Ascend Money in Thailand, and in 2017 Alibaba took a $200B (40%) stake in KakaoPay, the payment arm of Korean chat giant KakaoTalk. Alibaba’s messaging platform is not that popular so it is is interesting to see them take a stake in a different platform to get the kind of business intelligence Tencent is getting from WeChat. In preparations for the Olympics, and to accommodate the massive amounts of Chinese tourists in Japan, Alipay has made huge strides, going from about 50K retailers in 2018 to more than 300K. But they are not stopping there, and are looking to bring their partners along too.

Other companies are getting in on the act. Tony Fernandes’ AirAsia is trying to make the switch from a low cost airline to a data company and has spun out BigPay. Hear him talk about this shift in this short CNBC interview.

Slide from recent AirAsia investor deck showing their shift in business model.

It is interesting to see how these payment products are being born out of other data-intensive businesses. I am not sure if you can built a payments company from the ground up with no data anymore. Grab and Gojek in Southeast Asia are also examples of this. They are both covered in this month’s fintech special report from The Economist which I recommend. Two small tidbits from that special I would like to highlight:

This quote from Singapore about competition shows that not all models are the same:

“As a public policymaker, we are working with banks to rationalise their costs, and create a level playing field for them to compete with non-regulated entities.”

This approach has had the desired consequence: fintechs in Singapore have largely shifted from offering services to consumers to offering digital services to banks.

Secondly, from the same article, I found this comment about Ant Financial by Piyush Gupta, the chief executive of DBS, Singapore’s biggest bank illustrative:

“They are getting the customer relationship and the data to create value, and then passing the regulated part of the activity to banks.”

It makes me wonder, are we seeing another Uber-style disruption in the offing? You already know how I feel about that…

In conclusion fintech in Asia is a boom that has been going on for a while but just got on my radar this year. Payments seems to be a vertical on fire (think of even Apple getting into it with their own card earlier this year), but it is not one that I fully understand. And in Asia we have a very dynamic lab that we in North America could learn from. I certainly intend to continue learning about it.

Mumbai — Roads, Rails, and Water

Swallowing a malaria pill, I was enjoying the “inflight entertainment” of scores of seagulls flying alongside our ferry to Elephanta Island. The ferry was laden with Indian tourists going to see the “city of caves.” It took about an hour for the little boat to make the 12 kilometres to the island, puttering out from the Gateway of India, past the naval base with its aircraft carrier museum, weaving through dozens of ships at anchorage, and finally past an oil terminal before docking at an ancient stone jetty.

A small ferry in the foreground, with shore in background
Ferry to Elephanta. Taj Mahal Hotel and Gateway to India in background. (Photo credit to PB, my traveling companion)

Being on the Arabian Sea, Mumbai has been an important port city for millennia, an important crossroads for products, cultures, religions and empires from East to West and back again. This fact excited me the most about the opportunity to visit India.

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Mumbai — Opportunity and Diversity

Andheri is a neighbourhood of northern Mumbai, just past the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, a beautiful wood-panelled facility where white paisleyed pillars gently swirl up to the ceiling covered in a pattern meant to resemble the feathers of a peacock, the national bird of India.

I had been in Mumbai for four days and was standing on the roof of an office park in Andheri, looking out at the surrounding hills. Green trees grow tall making the hills look like lush jungle, even though underneath that canopy are millions of people, a tangle of traffic, and blocks and blocks of factories. Andheri is home to the SEEPZ Special Economic Zone. Every factory here in these 100+ acres are building products that can never be sold in India. The building I stood on held software companies, all providing services overseas. The pattern of greenery was occasionally broken by the pastels of a slum complexes, boxy rooms stacked upon one another, each a different colour, all clinging to the hill. 40% of Mumbai’s 18 million population live in slums.

Andheri from rooftop
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Kashgar, 15 years later

I have been thinking of this very impressive New York Times photo essay of Kashgar, and how it has changed in the 15 years since I visited. Kashgar is an old Silk Road city in the westernmost reaches of Xinjiang province in Chinese Turkestan. A friend and I had crossed the Taklamakan Desert on a 36 hour sleeper bus journey where we were given bunks in the front (since the back is where the goats and chickens went). We used Kashgar as a base to travel up the Karakoram highway, through the breath-taking Pamir Plateau, to the Pakistani boarder checkpoint.

In those days, the city was divided by the main road, with mostly Uighur communities in the north, and Han in the south. After days of eating mutton, we crossed the highway to the south to have some “Chinese” food for a change. Our beautiful hotel used to be the Russian Consulate during the days of the Great Game, romanticized by one of my favourite authors Peter Hopkirk. I remember walking through the old town, the narrow streets and clay multi-story homes transported me back to a different era… something like 1001 Nights. According to the Times, these buildings are being destroyed by the Chinese government as the state increases the surveillance burden on the Uighur population. Even 15 years ago I thought Beijing’s presence was overwhelming. The People’s Square, where there was a Nowruz festival being held with all sorts of Uighur folk dances, is overlooked by the second largest statue of Mao in all of China. We saw government propaganda written in the Uighur Arabic alphabet on wide red banners strung across overpasses. That was nothing compared to what is happening now. Watch and listen to the photo essay and see what Kashgar has turned into, and read this Twitter thread by one of the journos for some behind the scenes material.

screencap of the linked tweet from the NY Times

Some pics from Kashgar in 2004

Black intellectualism and learning from Asia — a sort of review of The Fire Next Time

cover of audio version of The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) contains two essays. The first, a letter to Baldwin’s teenaged nephew, served as inspiration for Between the World and Me which I extolled not only for the content, but for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ inspirational writing skill. It is like a finger pointing at the moon, and I am glad for Coates directing my attention to all that heavenly glory. “My Dungeon Shook — Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation,” written in the early 1960s is still relevant, and not surprisingly, influencing many young Black people today.

The second essay, “Down At The Cross — Letter from a Region of My Mind”, is much longer, and an elegant rumination of the black politics at the time. I particularly enjoyed Baldwin’s visit to the home of Elijah Muhammad — the anxiety of the experience is palpable — and Baldwin’s analysis of the Nation of Islam’s approach to the Civil Rights Movement. The book is undeniably an American classic, and Baldwin’s skill as a novelist and playwright shines through.

Near the end of his argument, the following passage particularly stood out to me:

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A quick end of year roundup

Last day of 2018. Only wrote 5 posts this year, but it was a big one for me since I took a big step up in my job and even took on a second job. Some highlights:

  • taught 2 semesters of Computer Science as a sessional instructor at University of British Columbia (Okanagan) 👨‍🎓
  • though I didn’t do a lot of writing, I did create over 600 slides for my lectures ✍️
  • paid off 2 of my 3 students loans (the final one will be done in the coming months) 💰
  • a magical trip to Hawaii (review) 🏝️
  • World Cup, which was brilliant, and motivated me to start tracking La Liga, in addition to my beloved Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League ⚽
  • read 50 books, including a lot about Asian history (not just Japan, but China, India, Tibet, Southeast Asia). Really taken an interest in what is happening on continental Asia these days. So interesting! 🌏
  • was even able to re-read a few books, which never happens ♻️
  • discovered Murakami Haruki (read 3 of his books) 📚
  • only watched 30 films (a third were rewatches). My all time favourite of the year: Bao 🥟

Now that my teaching is done, I plan on writing more in 2019. I haven’t set a goal yet, but likely the topic will be on Asia. Kinda think I might be going back to my Coming Anarchy roots. I will be in India next month, and Japan in the summer. So there will be at least 2 travelogues.

2018 was big for me. It feels like a new beginning. Here’s to 2019! 🥂

Your life-changing books

Here is the concept: what books have changed your life? I am not talking about your favourite books, or comfort food books that you have re-read over and over again (ahem… Harry Potter series), or even books that you recognize are a masterwork (eg Invisible Man or The Handmaid’s Tale) and deserving of praise. I mean books that, looking back, you see the ingredients for who you are today; books that are waymarkers for your life, turning points that you can say there are distinct periods before and after the book.

Some caveats: self-help books (like Getting Things Done which was transformational for me) don’t count, even though they will motivate you to take action. That also goes for books that inspire you to do (more of) an activity in the short term, like write (eg. Stephen King’s On Writing or Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler).

Lastly, I think we should skip over non-fiction books, like history, politics, and biographies. A person often reads these kinds of books with the intention of changing how they think about things, or at least further refining their thought. I think we should limit this to fictional works, which though may be written to affect the reader’s heart, due to the individual’s present life circumstances of which the author can never know, can often do so incommensurately.

So, if you will indulge me in my little game: which novels have changed your life?

Thinking about the various distinct phases of my 40 years in this existence, I trawled through the 600+ books on my Goodreads to see if I could determine the waypoints. However, the truth is, I already knew before even looking. There are only a handful (not sure if that is a good or a bad thing) that have left such an impression on my mind that I think of them often, even though many of them I have only read once. The candidates are below.
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From intergalactic villains to badminton

(The following started off as a tweet, which quickly developed into a tweetstorm, so I decided to move it to the blog, for this is where longer thoughts belong, right?)

I have been trying to wean myself off of comicbook-based entertainment: Marvel TV shows and movies. I need to take a break from the bombastic — less super and more mundane. Stories about the connections between normal human beings. 1/6

Somehow I have found myself captured by “slice of life” anime shows. Haha! Trading one kind of drawing for another! But it is not so comparable. There is so much humanism… and without obtuse metaphor (Ironman’s armor is really the brittle carapace of Tony Stark’s ego, etc) 2/6

These shows deal directly with the emotional material: interpersonal relationships with family, friends and lovers; community values; building confidence and becoming a better person, etc. All at the level of the normal people and not cosmic beings. 3/6

I just finished a series about high schoolers trying to reconstitute a defunct drama club (CLANNAD), which was brilliant. It looks like my next series is about a girl who is really good at badminton, but refuses to play. So excited! 4/6

This trend is also sorta reflected in my reading. When reading fiction I have been trying to steer away from genre-fic to read more literary work. 5/6

Why this new trend? Midlife crisis? 😅 Truthfully, I am not sure. It is something I am reflecting on (hence this thread). Speculation is welcome! 6/6