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Aspiring polymath since 1982

The Indian Trinity

A few weeks back I got my hands on a book that shook my perspective on how engaging non-fiction could be. That book happened to be Richard Rhodes‘ “Making of the Atomic Bomb“. A 900-odd page look into the genesis of the idea of the bomb and its actual birth in the parched womb of New Mexico as Trinity, the first atomic bomb to ever be set off on the face of the planet. Its a fascinating look also into the lives of the bombs’ midwives, from Teller, Oppenheimer, Szilard, and a host of others.

I have always been a fan of the genre called “historical reimagined fiction”, a genre that blurs the line between fiction and reality to an extent where you start accepting the author’s account of historical events and narratives. One of my favorite authors and series in this genre happens to be Neal Stephenson‘s “The Baroque Cycle” trilogy. Another favorite was Patrick O’Brian‘s “Master and Commander” series, starting from the eponymous book to the final one in the series.

To actually then read a work like “Making of the Atomic Bomb”, where you know that there is no line to be blurred, that what is actually being narrated is reality, transcribed and collated from thousands of hours of interviews and research, is to take a look into the mind of genius. I also happen to have Richard Rhodes’ book on writing called, well, “How To Write“, where he mentions taking five years to pen this work. If you were to take a look at the bibliography at the end of the book, you would have a pretty good picture of where those five years went.

I am yet to come across any work taking the erudition and detail present in Richard Rhodes’ work to the subject of the Indian nuclear-military-space complex. As an Indian, its a fascinating topic which few people have ever explored, in terms of matter for books as well as for personal exploration. For a newly-independent nation to develop a competent nuclear power and associated research sector, create a whole military complex based on the principle of self-sufficiency, and also setup a space research organization that is one of the cheapest space launch providers out there, is a laudable feat.

So where are the books then? Now, I’m aware that there are biographies/hagiographies of the people who fathered and sustained these complexes, people like Vikram Sarabhai, Homi Bhabha, APJ Abdul Kalam, MGK Menon and others. There obviously is a reason that most people have not read any of these (excepting numerous ones on Kalam that must have got publicity during his stint as President). Some reasons that come to mind are poor or dry writing, little or no publicity, and little or no availability.

I’ve gone ferreting around in some of the biggest bookstores in India but have yet to come across any book on this topic. There are one or two writen by foreign authors though but available only through Amazon. It’s sad that some of the most inventive and self-sufficient stories to come out of Independent India are out of sight and out of mind of the Indian public because there aren’t authors talented or interested enough to take this chapter in our nation’s history and convert into a compelling narrative that would interest readers of all ages and backgrounds.

Of course, a criticism that most people would aim at me for shortlisting Indian achievements in the nuclear, space and military sciences is that it totally neglects the work done by our agricultural scientists such as MS Swaminathan and supporters like C Subramaniam. What of the achievements of Indian scientists in radio astronomy, neutrino detection and other esoteric fields? In my defence, all I can say is that these are the three areas that I’ve followed closely and am most able to say something about which won’t be moronic. It’s times like these when I really wish I had the gift and more importantly the patience required to write.

Filed under: India, , ,

Eee, It’s My Eee Review

Sorry, I just could not resist that. Getting to the point, I have in my hands an Asus Eee PC that I have been using for the past two days. My office has just bought two of them for evaluation purposes so thought I’d do a quick evaluation to see if it really is worth buying as a laptop replacement or not.

The model I have is a black Asus Eee PC 4G laptop. Specs are standard and are as given below:

7 “800×480 TFT LCD screen

900Mhz Celeron Processor clocked down to 700

Intel GMA 900 graphics processor (shared memory)

4GB SSD Storage

512 MB RAM

It’s a really appealing laptop to hold. Light (weighing in at 920 grams), it’s easy to carry around with you from room to room, with absolutely no strain. The black finish also feels good with a very matte Thinkpad-like finish to the plastic enclosure. No worries about this laptop slipping through your fingers and disintegrating on the floor.

The Eee had come re-loaded with Linux, the Xandros distro going by the reviews on the net. Unfortunately, I’m not able to comment on the performance of Linux on this machine as my Sysadmin promptly replaced it with Windows XP.

With Windows XP and Microsoft Office Professional installed, there is just over 790MB usable space left. If you through Eee specific sites, then you will find that a lot of people have stripped down XP and Office to reduce the space taken on the laptop. Your mileage might vary.

I haven’t timed the boot up and shutdown times to gauge responsiveness. Let me just say that with 790MB of free space left, it’s still very snappy. Definitely far more than most Windows-based desktops/laptops that I have used. Microsoft Office opens pretty quickly, even Outlook, but I haven’t had the opportunity of using my GB-plus inbox to test though.

There are two standard resolutions for the desktop on the Eee, 800×480 (the standard) and 800×600 (conventional). With 800×600, the screen will scroll to accommodate the increased desktop and that can be slightly problematic especially when using the cramped keyboard and touchpad.

800×480 is a good compromise with Microsoft Office applications fitting neatly in the available screen space. Touchpad-based scrolling will be necessary for webpages though, especially news sites like the New York Times. Also, readability is slightly better at this resolution with crisper text and images.

Moving on to the keyboard. As is obvious in a laptop of this size, it is a big compromise in terms of writing efficiency and comfort. You can forget about touch-typing on this machine. The keys are cramped up together and it takes a good amount of time to get used to the layout. It’s possible to get used to the key size in some time, but what is really an irritant is the placement of keys.

Case in point is the right shift key, which is totally useless due to it being sized like a regular key and placed right above the cursor keys. Try pressing shift and you land up typing on some other end of your document. Another irritant is the space bar that is placed in such a manner that it cannot be accessed without pressing an Alt key accidentally, which again leads you, elsewhere from you document.

Otherwise though, the keys are good once when you get used to the layout, with good feedback and feel. Horribly dull looking though. For a laptop that is aimed at pure mobility, it would have been good if they could have provided a backlit keyboard that would have increased the usability in an appreciable manner.

Next few things that I would like to focus on are the gripes I have with the laptop.

One thing that really sticks out is the amount of space wasted around the display due to the speakers being placed there. I think this is one area that has been addressed in the Eee 900, the next version of the Asus Eee 4G that I am reviewing. Asus has increased the screen size to 8.9” by removing the speakers. I’m sure that the difference between usability on a 7” screen and a 8.9” screen will be significant.

Second gripe is the touchpad. It’s way too small and would have been better if it was a little wider. For a laptop where a significant amount of scrolling is required, it is surprising that Asus has not stolen a sheet out of Apple’s playbook and incorporated double-fingered scrolling in the touchpad. Less about the touchpad buttons the better. Suffice to say that they look and feel cheap.

Third gripe is the heat generated by it. You would not expect such a small laptop to generate as much heat as it actually does. For something aimed at mobility, it gets so hot at times that it’s unusable, on your lap or in your hand. I’m hoping hat this is an issue that will be addressed through adoption of Intel Atom processors as and when they become available.

I wish I could open up the laptop to see what kind of heatsink they have inside and also if its been pasted on properly. From what I gather online, it’s not an issue isolated to my unit. (Update: It seems that there is no heatsink per se, but there is a steel cover for the motherboard acting as one. No wonder.)

A niggling gripe is that there is no indication lights for the Lock keys, so if you have accidentally pressed the Caps Lock, Num Lock or Scroll Lock there is absolutely no way of knowing what you did till you start typing. How much money can Asus save by omitting three LEDs or is just a simple oversight?

Final gripe and one of the most important according to me is the case of the Eee. Since it is so light and also bottom-heavy, due to the placement of the battery at the back, it has an unfortunate tendency to tip over at little provocation (slight nudge to the screen for example). This can get really annoying especially when you’re in the middle of doing some work on it. It is also nearly impossible to use when it’s resting on a soft surface like a bed or sofa.

Coming back to the million-dollar question? Is the Eee worth buying as a secondary laptop? My answer to that would be an emphatic no. Unless you are using a 17” or 19” desktop replacement monstrosity as your primary laptop, you would be hard-pressed to make a logical case for buying an Eee. (But then, which gadget buying geek would qualify as being logical when it comes to gadgets)

Is it worth it as a desktop replacement or road-warrior laptop? Hmmm, slightly more difficult question. It all depends on whether you have big meaty fingers or not, whether weight is a very significant parameter in your choice, and whether you can live with the compromises of working with limited storage and no optical drive.

It is definitely not a laptop where you will be playing Half-Life 2 LAN parties but for the basic usage of accessing the web, using Office applications and listening to music or watching videos, it more than adequately meets the demands raised by the user.

At 18,000 rupees in India, it’s definitely not going to be an impulse buy for most, unlike the US where the Eee is available for less than USD 400. Also, unlike the US where Asus is targeting markets such as primary and secondary education, first-time computer users and parents, in India most of these markets are still very nascent.

Also in India, computer purchases are still driven by the “value” mentality rather than the “gadget” mentality. Even for me, making a laptop purchasing decision depends on a complete comparison of hardware in the market, and assessing the differential price that each brand name is commanding. It is very difficult for me to see how Asus will penetrate the Indian market in any effective manner or even expand the market to include first-time computer users.

Would I buy it? No. Not even if I had the money to spare. This is mainly because while the Asus Eee was a revolutionary way of thinking about portable computing and reducing hardware clutter to the basic minimum required to get the job done, it has also attracted a whole new batch of competitors into this market, most notable being the HP Mini-Note series.

As prices and hardware configurations start getting better, the Eee’s basic values of cheap and simple computing start to get more devalued. Therefore, while my vote is against the Asus Eee as a product, I would definitely vote for the new crop of ultra-mini laptops coming into the market. And we all have to thank Asus and the Eee for that.

Hopefully, I will be able to get my hands on the HP Mini-Note laptop for a review as well as comparison with the Asus Eee. Until then, some more links that might be of use to a person looking into getting an Eee:

By the way, this whole post was written using the Eee. It did take longer than my usual time but I’m sure that in some time typing speeds will even out. In all it was good fun, but I could not imagine using the Eee on a daily basis.

If you want some more information regarding the different ultra-mini laptops out there, head over to my earlier post on this topic called The New Ultra-Mini Revolution.

Filed under: Gadgets, , , , , , , ,

eDemocracy and Participatory Citizenship

The idea for this post came from an event called eDemocracyCamp held in Washington DC that I happened to come across. As the name might tell, eDemocracyCamp is based on the BarCamp model, and its purpose according to their website is “eDemocracyCamp will connect citizens, researchers, developers, practitioners and anyone else interested in the topic to learn about the current state of e-democracy and share their visions for its future direction”.

Going through their website and the sessions that they held, made me realize that for all our talk about being the world’s largest democracy, for most of us our duties as citizens ends with the casting of a vote (if at all). I’m equally culpable as I finally got around to getting my Voter’s ID Card issued this January only. And this, when I do not consider myself an apathetic citizen.

Civil Society and Participatory Citizenship is a theme that has really interested me over the years though like most Indians of my generation, a general fatigue brought on by constant reminders through Tehelka, TV sting operations and the general perception about the political class, that the pervasive rot in our political system is enough to put us of any interest or involvement in governance, local or otherwise.

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The introduction of the Right To Information Act (RTI) was supposed to improve transparency and serve as an instrument for civil society to monitor and critique the functioning of the government. Though how aware the general populace is about RTI and how to go about using it for their benefit is still moot. Even in urban India.

Easy access to simple details such as land records, birth and death certificates, caste certificates, would enable the common man to break free from the grip of the lower bureaucracy was the rationale behind e-governance services in many states. In reality, several villages that I have had the opportunity too visit over the last one year are not yet aware of the availability of their government’s e-governance services.

Therefore access to information alone cannot be the “killer app“.

Mediation of information will be the “killer app”

I don’t know how many people are aware of it, but all the questions asked by MPs in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha sessions and the government’s responses to them are available online here and here. There might even be a similar system in some State Assemblies though I’m not aware of it. All this is fine till some actually tries to find some information on the website. It’s just not possible. Mainly because of their total reliance on search queries to go through the data

The organization that implemented this data, the National Informatics Center (NIC) has absolutely no clue (or interest) in tagging questions with relevant tags, creating a taxonomy of the data collected in the Parliament so that a person interested in knowing if the government has been asked any questions about uranium ore mining in Jaduguda can easily navigate to the relevant portion of the site.

Take the case of another NIC website, Agmarknet. The aim of the website was noble. To capture agricultural commodity prices from across the nation and disseminate them as far as possible so that a paddy farmer sitting in Kerala during the harvest season, will have an idea of the prices for the same paddy in Punjab. Again, an idea which looks far better on a presentation rather than in execution.

Mainly, because there is no assurance to the public about the quality and verifiability of the information being collected and then disseminated. Several times, impossible prices have been reported on the website because the people entering this information are clerks and peons at local agricultural marketing committees, who obviiously have no incentive or interest in ensuring that the information being entered is perfect. And as for dissemination, the less said about that, the better.

Most of my efforts online trawling through Indian Government websites has made me realize the sad fact that if we are going to wait for NIC or another government agency to improve eDemocracy and e-governance services, we will be in for a pretty long wait. Another realization that I came to was that efforts need to start in urban India first and then percolate to rural India. If we cannot make our urban citizens less apathetic about their local governance, expecting rural India to do so is expecting too much.

My third realization is that for transparency and participatory democracy to take off, we as a nation need to take back control of our data and our information, as thats what our choices and causes will be based on. It’s always stumped me why its easier to get data about our country off of multilateral websites rather than Indian Government websites. And when even the UN is setting up a common pool of data across all its constituents, it’s high time we did the same for India.

Fourth realization is that in India, Web 2.0, wikis, blogs have little or no role to play in the implementation of an eDemocracy system. India requires an Indian solution and an Indian medium, and as of now there is no media more pan-Indian than the cellphone and more in use by people of all social and economic strata. When they write the story of India’s rise in the 21st Century, no one technology will be in the spotlight, all the way from humble Nokia 1100 incarnations to Blackberrys.

My final realization is that participatory democracy, literally has to start at home. Don’t start with the creation of an application that tracks how and where the Indian Budget is being utilized and the efficiency of utilization. Start somewhere simpler, like finding out what your local Municipal Councillor is doing with his funds and why isn’t there a garbage bin in your street, for example. This is why Janagraaha has such a strong model.

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As for solutions that can be used in India, thats where I’m really stumped. There are some great solutions that I have come across, mainly through the eDemocracyCamp site. Some of them are:

  • They Work For You : A British website where entering a simple pin code will present you with information about the local MP of that area, his voting record in Parliament, his Parliamentary budget and expenses, and other pertinent information. A great, great idea.
  • Fix My Street : Another British website where entering your pin code will present with you information about your area and where you can lodge complaints regarding graffiti, garbage and road repairs required. Made by the organization called mySociety which also made the site above
  • Stemwijzer.nl : A Norwegian website which allows citizens to test their political preferences, compares them to the manifestos of the contesting parties in the elections, and calculates which party has opinions the closest to you
  • Legistorm : An American website that makes public information on staff salaries, privately funded trips and financial disclosures of members and staff of the US Congress. Something like this which clearly allows us to see what each MP is doing with his Constituency Development Fund would be relevant in India

Some interesting blogs on eDemocracy and participatory citizenship that i came across are:

Free (as in beer) and great reading material on this topic can be found at:

There are some Indian solutions that I have come across also, though they are mainly restricted to participatory mapping. There is an interesting project in Mumbai called Mumbai Freemap run by an organization called Collective Research Initiatives Trust and one run by Janagraaha here. Another project based in rural Andhra Pradesh that comes to mind is the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater System Project.

I’ll keep updating these links as and when I come across something interesting. Like my earlier post on information visualization, I want to make this post into a braindump of all the related and relevant information and literature on this topic that I come across.

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The way to move forward as I see it, is to start a discussion forum on not just eDemocracy, but also on Participatory Citizenship and the strengthening of civil society. Preferably, start of an with an online forum so that people from diverse backgrounds and ideologies can iron out their differences and arrive at a common plan of action (or atleast, a list of common grievances) to take forward in meatspace.

We should then think about organizing an event like eDemocracyCamp or Social Innovation Camp, where the different ideas and approaches that come out through the online forum can compete for more public validation and even funding for pilot projects from sources interested in civil society action and advocacy such as the Center for Civil Society, the Omidyar Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the like.

Create a foundation to run these activities so that there is an element of professionalism as well as continuity for these activities. Have a stellar advisory board for this foundation on the lines of what Janagraaha and the Bangalore Agenda Task Force have been able to gather, to provide critical inputs on functioning, funding and the future of the foundation.

It’s time for us as a generation to start taking small baby steps at creating a new public culture for our nation and our polity. And those first steps have to start with information. After all, Thomas Jefferson’s saying back in 1776 that “Information is the currency of democracy”, is an adage far more relevant and achievable in these times of pervasive electronic media.

To end, check out Hans Rosling’s brilliant presentation at TED where using publicly available data, he presents information in a manner easily understood and appreciated by common people. His project called Gapminder is striving to make the vast amounts of data and information collected by multilateral organizations available in a mediated format, increasing both usage and understanding.

This is the mediation required to generate information that is truly engaging and actionable for the public. Let’s hope that we see similar Indian initiatives coming forward soon.

Filed under: Society, , , , , , ,

Indie Inglish/English Music

My playlist over the past two years has steadily been dominated by indie & former indie bands from Canada, the States and the UK. Bands such as The Arcade Fire, The Killers, The Shins, Interpol, Death Cab for Cutie, British Sea Power to name a few, and lots, lots more. To hear the directions that these bands have taken sonically and musically especially compared to Top 10/20/30/40/50 bands that used to be part of my listening schedule, was both an auditory experience as well as an emotional one.

My first brush with indie music was with that of Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie. I really can’t recall how I came across them (might have been from The OC), but from then on it was flitting from one band to the other (thanks Amazon) as I compiled a larger and larger playlist and devoted more and more time into my listening. Thankfully, I have not made Pitchfork or the other great Indie music blogs out there a staple, or my time and hard disk would have given up on me a long time ago.

Meanwhile, over the same period, my exposure to Indian music dipped further and further away till I reached a point where I could (would) not even place the latest Indipop out there. And when it came to Indian music in English (i’d like to call it Inglish) , what ever little that came across my way through the numerous college festivals out there was all that I cared to be aware of.

There was a point in the past where I did follow the main Indian rock bands out there, though not through a regular forum such as the Rock Street Journal. Mainly from recommendations from school friends, flitting through my elder cousins collections and far removed reviews of Indian rock albums in the mainstream media. Even now, there are a few names that stick through from that time. Names such as Agni, Rock Machine, Orange Street, Mother Jane and obviously Parikrama.

Except for a small coterie of people, I wonder how many people out there actually remember these bands any more. And for the bands out there right now, I wonder how many of them will still be remembered outside their own circles several years from now?

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Why is Inglish music still a cottage industry?

Now, I’m definitely not a person who will be qualified enough to pass a summary judgement on this question but I do have my theories that I will present. My first theory is that the Inglish music scene is still dominated by bands who play covers. A lot of this also has to do with the fact that in India, most bands still make their money out of playing college festivals where it is difficult to avoid the barely-washed screaming out “Playing fucking Megadeth man, yeah!!” or “Machan, Maiden play punna da!!” and the like.

The second theory I have is that in India, people are still getting used to English music. Most people are still diving their linguistic loyalties from situation to situation and role to role without being firmly ensconced in one language. After all, our generation might be the first generation in India that was/is being schooled from toddlerhood in English (and this theory obviously ignores rural India totally).

Therefore I think for a lot of people, their exposure to English music is fairly limited to what is available on the TV and to what is available in the local music store (which obviously are not the places where you will get to pick up Indian English music at all). Which is why most people listening to English music follow what I like to call the Bryan Adams Curve™ or the Now Music Curve™ (patents pending).

If you’re into the rock sound you are on the Bryan Adams Curve™, where you start your progression with Bryan Adams, move on to Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Nirvana at which point you choose your stream and decide to either matriculate in Iron Maiden and Megadeth or in Nickelback and Limp Bizkit.

If you’re into the pop sound you are on the Now Music Curve™, where you start your progression with Britney Spears or Shakira, progress to either the Black Eyed Peas or Christina Aguilera, at which point you choose your stream and decide to either matriculate in Nelly Furtado and Paris Hilton or in Nelly and 50 Cent.

This is the reason why people like Bryan Adams can come to India every 2-3 years to be greeted with stadia bursting at the seams, replenish his retirement account and head off back to Canada. Where if I might tell you, if he were to die of asphyxiation because an elephant sat on him, it would not even make the headlines (I concede that it might make the day for some Canadian cartoonist though). I can imagine Bryan Adams shaking his head and wondering if it were some great cosmic joke that his greatest and maybe only fan following, is Indian.

Of course, I realize that this theory is a gross generalization but I’d like to invoke my patron saint for arguments such as these, Pareto, and invoke his great generalization that 80% of the people are drivel-listening sheep and the remaining 20% are the sheepdogs who bravely venture forth into musical territories where no sheep or dog has been before. Okay, I made the last part up but you get my drift.

My third and (thankfully) final theory is that in India, even the Inglish bands are getting used to English music and playing Inglish music. And this fact can be confirmed by listening to the inanity which passes as lyrics for most of the original compositions being made by bands out there and the utter lack of experimentation in most of the sound out there. Seriously, who wants to listen to lyrics and music that rhyme?

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So, what should Inglish bands do?

There seems to be some signs of change out there in the Inglish scene. Bands like Thermal and a Quarter, Orange Street, Them Clones, focusing purely on original compositions, putting out professionally produced albums, getting record company contracts and in some cases coming out with music videos also to push CD sales.

There are a few internet sites such as Gigpad, Muziboo and Radio VeRVe have come out which though not having a focus on Inglish music alone, have made it easier for bands to spread word far and wide. Also, there is an emergence of informal spaces for performance now. Opus in Bangalore is one that comes to mind, Turquoise Cottage in Delhi is another. Spaces where bands are given the freedom to come and perform their best in front of a well-intentioned, knowledgeable and usually appreciative audience.

And then there is the emergence of a band like the Raghu Dixit Project. Which through great music created a word of mouth demand, got opportunities to play at big events and is now not only into the mainstream but making great progress there too. A little window into what viral marketing can really do for a great band and what other great bands can also aspire to reach.

I think the main thrust has to come from the bands themselves. They need to innovate, in terms of their music and their lyrics till they arrive at a voice or a sound that is uniquely their own. And unique not just for India but across the world. With innovation will come the creation of their own niche, and along with that will listeners and patrons who are truly involved in the success of the band. Kevin Kelly, Senior Maverick of Wired Magazine puts it best in his post about the creation of “1000 True Users“. I think its a must-read not just for bands, but for everyone interested in exploring new trends in business models. (remember to read his follow-up posts also).

The second suggestion would be to look at new ways of distribution. An Inglish band looking at making a mark should not get caught into the mindset that a record company contract is the meal ticket. Look at bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails who are experimenting with new forms of distribution and pricing for music. Distribute music yourself in the beginning, either through CDs or paid MP3 downloads. Make sure that your pricing is right so that listeners out there will be tempted into an impulse purchase.

The third suggestion would be to create a community around the band and its music. Use the power of social networks such as Orkut, Ning, and Facebook to spread the word about the band’s music, about gigs that you are playing (be careful not to spam).

Use them to create member-only gigs where people who are really interested and passionate about the music attend and give their feedback and encouragement. Solicit marketing and revenue generation suggestions from your community. If they really care, they want you to be commercially successful so that the band will be around making more music for them. Make these people feel special and exclusive! They need to be, they were around when there was no one else.

The fourth and final suggestion is that if you’re in the business of music, then you need to treat it as seriously as you would any other business. If you just want to let your music do the talking, then you need to have the patience to wait around till it reaches the right ears. But, if you are looking at music as a career which pays the bills and some more, then you need to get acquainted with all the subjects that any proper entrepreneur would cover.

Marketing the band, sales and promotional activities for your album, designing the album cover and CD, forecasting sales of the album, estimating expenses and breakeven sales, creating and managing a relationship with your customers and your community, public relations are all activities that you will have to get familiar with. Read some basic books to provide you with a direction.

In the end, the direction for the Inglish music industry will have to come from the bands themselves. Listeners like me can at the most be early adopters. Here’s hoping the next big sound comes out from India.

Filed under: Music, , ,

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