Mukti

When fact is fiction

Posted in fantasy, movies, music, thriller by jrahman on July 15, 2017

I live in a country that Lyndon Johnson once called the ‘ass end of the world’ — whichever direction you travel, there is no short flight from this southern land.  One good thing about the long haul flight, however, is the chance to watch stuff that you otherwise might not have, provided you’re flying a decent carrier, of course.  My usual guilty pleasures are sitcoms — I think I watched more HIMYM and Big Bang Theory episodes airborne than on my couch.

I made an exception recently.  The Emirates have a reasonable collection of Bangla (or given they are from the Indian Bengal, should I say Bengali?) movies.  I was curious, and wasn’t left disappointed.  It appears that a number of noir films have come out of Kolkata recently.  How exciting, right?

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Political impact of remittances

Posted in democracy, elections, labour, political economy, politics by jrahman on July 12, 2017

Along with the garments industry and the NGOs, there is a broad consensus that remittances have played a key role in Bangladesh’s economic development over the past decades.  Notwithstanding that broad consensus, the economic impact of remittances may be more nuanced than one might think, as I conjectured a long time ago:

Well, how about a stylised, and very speculative, story along this line — while RMG has meant women entering the formal workforce, migrant worker boom has sent a lot of risk-taking men overseas; aided by the NGOs and microcredit, households have smoothed consumption and invested in human capital of their children; but they have not invested in physical capital, avoided entrepreneurial activities, and have not pushed for a more investment-friendly polity.

We would want to explore this story further. We would also want to explore the income side of GDP, and tie it into a political economy analysis.

The remittance boom, for example, should see the labour share of the economy rise. Of course, the question is, what happens to the money that is remitted back? It’s reasonable to assume that unskilled labourers are from the poorer parts of the society. So, in the first instance, any remittance back to the villages is a good thing in that it reduces the direst type of poverty — that is it stops things like famine or malnutrition. But what happens after that? My tentative hunch is that a lot of remittance has been saved but not invested in a productive way, rather they ended up fuelling land/stock prices —this is an area that needs to be explored in detail.

Needless to say, I have not followed up on these questions.  But at least the economic impact of remittances is something people have thought about.  What about the political impacts?  That’s the question Shafiqur Rahman of Oregon University explores.*

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Economic herstory

Posted in development, economics by jrahman on July 5, 2017

I have been trying to get back into the habit of writing.  Nothing fancy or ambitious.  Around a thousand or so words a week.  I asked a close friend on what I should be writing about.  He advised:

Rotate between three big buckets: politics/history, pop culture, and economics. When writing about the first topic, make sure it won’t sound ridiculous in six months. And avoid talking about people and focus more on theory and data.

My friend reminded me of this passage from a three-decade old paper on economic growth.

The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: Once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.

I wonder what Nancy Stokey feels about that!  My partner will for sure not be happy if I spend all my time thinking about economics.  But when not thinking about strange stuff, it is indeed harder to come up with a bigger question than why some societies have so much higher living standards than others.

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Mountains of the Moon – 8

Posted in adventure, books, Chander pahar, fantasy by jrahman on June 18, 2017

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A Bangladeshi superhero

Posted in adventure, Bangladesh, books, desi fiction, history, thriller by jrahman on May 11, 2017

It’s a sun-drenched, ocean-front, posh hotel where the scene is set.  A diabolical fiend is cheating on a game of cards with the aid of an earphone and a skimpily clad assistant with a binocular.

Enter our hero.

Watching the classic scene for the first time all those years ago, my thought was — whoa, 007 ripped off Masud RanaI had read Swarnamriga a few weeks before watching Goldfinger — first Rana novel and Bond flick for the schoolboy who didn’t know the original.  I suspect many Bangladeshis of certain ages would have similar Rana stories to share.

Okay, it is quite possible, likely even, that the typical reader has no idea what I am talking about.  A brief primer from wiki:

Masud Rana is a fictional character created in 1966 by writer Qazi Anwar Hussain, who featured him in over 400 novels.  Hussain created the adult spy-thriller series Masud Rana, at first modelled after James Bond, but expanded widely. …  books are published almost every month by Sheba Prokashoni, one of the most popular publishing house of Bangladesh….

Although there is no superpower as such, his attributes would make a combination of Batman, Bond, and Bourne pale before Rana. Of course, superheroes need supervillains.  Rana’s arch-nemesis is a megalomaniac genius scientist criminal mastermind named Kabir Chowdhury, who’s also a fellow Bangladeshi.  And then there is Israel.  However, it’s his foes from the first decade or so of the series that make for a fascinating political study.

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Dhaka consensus

Posted in democracy, Islamists, politics by jrahman on April 17, 2017

The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity — wrote WB Yeats nearly a century ago.  Given his own illiberal politics, I am pretty sure to him neither were liberals particularly good nor nationalists and statists bad.  But these days, it does seem that it is the liberal democrats who lack all conviction, while those full of passionate intensity usually idolise a strong state in the service of ‘the people’ — though often there is vocal, sometimes violent, disagreement about exactly who constitutes the said people.

Liberalism has never had much support in Bangladesh, where the writers and critics dealing with ideas have tended to cling to some variant of statism and nationalism.  In fact, as Shafiqur Rahman notes, there is:

…. a curious complete inversion of progressive thinking in Bangladesh compared to the rest of the world.

Throughout the world universalism and rationality are regarded as the bedrock of progressive thinking; in Bangladesh parochial nationalism and emotion are the guiding principles of progressives. Throughout the world progressive historians regard debunking national exceptionalism and national glory as essential for historiography; in Bangladesh progressives regard glorifying national history and suffusing it with strong emotions as the sacred duty of historians.

Throughout the world the best literature are dispassionate and clinical analysis of the human and social condition, in Bangladesh the more emotions you can pour in art and literature the better is its reception to the critical elite. Throughout the world the best political commentators are those who can provide detached, reasoned analysis of political developments, in Bangladesh the best political commentary are saturated with messianic imagery and the most cloying emotional appeals.

Shafiq calls this Bangladeshi intellectual paradox, and goes on to offer an explanation.  His thesis is that in the post-9/11 world,  Bangladeshi elite (his term) reached a consensus that ‘…a fundamentalism based on national glory, sacrosanct past and hallowed individuals’ was the only defence against the risk of a political order rooted in fundamentalist Islam, and liberal notions such as ‘universalism, rationality, freedom of expression’ would only weaken that defence.

I broadly agree with Shafiq’s analysis — under different life circumstances might have written something like this myself.  Of course, a good piece should make one think, and this made me get out of my stupor to jot down my thoughts.

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Stranger things

Posted in Bollywood, culture, movies by jrahman on January 22, 2017

If Shakespeare was writing it today, Hamlet might well have said to his friend Horatio that there are stranger things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.  Strangers in strange lands, that is how many of us feel about the world we live in.  Being a quantitative, analytical person using well established frameworks and models to make sense of the world, I can not possibly think of a stranger thing than the reality of President Trump.

No.  That’s not right.

I can think of far stranger things.  Stranger things that are far more uplifting than politics.  What is strange but that which is difficult to explain?  What is then stranger than how people fall in, after failing in and falling out of, love?

Falling in love, that’s dime a dozen, though romantic tragedies are bigger hits than happily-ever-afters.  Falling out of love, that’s rarer, definitely not quite your standard traditional Bollywood fair.  Love outside loveless marriage — that only used to happen in arty stuff starring Shabana Azmi.  Except for that Big B vehicle to extricate himself from a real life triangle, how many mainstream Bollywood pics  about extramarital affair can you think of?

Of course, traditions change.  Bollywood changed forever with Dil Chahta Hai.  And what better way to show that than through how love and marriage are treated in two Karan Johar directed Shah Rukh Khan starrers named after yesteryear hits?

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Sticking to the formula

Posted in books, classics by jrahman on January 20, 2017

William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays. Romeo and Juliet was the 28th, so one can assume that he was a quite experienced storyteller when he penned the story that ends with a pair of star-cross’d lovers taking their lives.  Just to refresh your memory: Friar Lawrence helps Juliet by providing a sleeping draught that will make everyone think she’s dead, Romeo is then supposed to come to her tomb and take her away, but messages get mixed and thinking that she is dead, he takes poison and dies just as she awakes from her drugged sleep, only to stab herself rather than to live without him.

Romeo and Juliet, the first romantic tragedy the Bard penned, was a big hit. Upon finding the successful formula of the taking of multiple lives in confusing circumstances, he ended four of his remaining nine plays in similar manner.

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So long, Obama

Posted in culture, people, politics by jrahman on January 18, 2017

Consciously or otherwise, most of us tend to compartmentalise our existence into home and work.  On the first front, above everything else, I consider myself a father first.  And on the second, well, let’s just say that I have been a bureaucratic functionary for most my working life.  On both, I cannot stress how much there is to learn from the outgoing American president.

Anyone who has ever worked in any bureaucracy would know to choose cock ups over conspiracies.  Well, it’s remarkable how few cock ups — I am talking about executive failures such as Katrina, not policy failures like Vietnam or ethical breaches like Watergate — there has been under Barack Obama.

Hats off Mr Chief Executive.

It’s been slightly over 10 years that I first saw the beginning of the Obama campaign.  I emailed my then wife that there was this really cool guy running for presidency, too bad he won’t get it.  Upon joining me in DC a few weeks later, she saw him and said that I was wrong, that this guy would make it all the way.  A few years later, while expecting our son, the mother-to-be read Obama’s memoir.  Barack was in the running for middle name right till the morning of his birth (losing out to his maternal grandfather).

Much has been written about the mercurial nature of Obama’s rise, his intellect, or oratory, or his policy and political legacy.  And I am sure much more will be.  But to me, it is much more striking how this ‘skinny boy with a funny name’ overcame his personal demons and with equal partnership with Michelle Obama raised two kids.

I am never going to have as demanding a ‘work’ as Mr Obama.  But I do have the privilege — and it is a privilege, not a right — to be a father.  I will reflect on his experience.

So long, Barack.

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2017 wishes

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on December 25, 2016

Every holiday season, I come across the line that gifts are a terrible idea.  Some years it’s a confident-sounding man trying to impress a social crowd with his neoclassical economics.  At other times, the argument pops up in places like the Financial Times or Vox — that you know best what to do with the money that’s spent on the gift bought for you, and as such, everyone will be better off without gifts: give cash if you must.

Of course, looking for pareto improvement in O’Henry shows just how clueless such male economists (oh, such types, in my experience, are always men) can be.  Gifts are as much but about you-the-giver as you-the-receiver.  What you give to whom tells everyone about the who/what/how of your values.  Buying the shiniest, largest toy, without regards to the recipient’s feelings — well, that says a lot, though perhaps not favourably of the giver.

The most precious thing you can give your loved ones is the gift of time.  If you love someone, spend your time with them and on them.  Whatever you did in the past, wishing you a fresh start from this holiday season.

Happy 2017.

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