Soothsaying 2021

Posted in current affairs by jrahman on January 14, 2021

Decades ago, when I was younger, chubbier, more reticent to talk to members of the opposite sex, and head full of hair, I used to escape from my mundane reality in random stories in the Economist magazine — election in some south European country, tanks in some tropical city following a coup, novel telecommunication links…. I would read about these exciting stuff in far flung places, and sigh out the window as the Force theme played in the background.

Okay, okay, there was never any background music, of course. Anyway, I am not sure whether their quality has dropped or I have become cynical and jaded, but I find the weekly magazine, even the Christmas double edition, boring and predictable these days. In comparison, the Financial Times, which I discovered much later at work, still continues to be daily staple, even if a lot of news stories are from exotic northern hemisphere locales that I know little about.

Nonetheless, I did take their soothsaying challenge last year. Of course, I had no idea what really would happen in 2020, even though I got 14 of 20 questions right. Guesses for 2021 are below. To summarise: the economy will rebound even as the pandemic lingers, authoritarian regimes will remain strong, as will be the Biden Administration. 

  • Will the WHO call an end to the public health emergency over Covid-19? No. Not in 2021. Maybe early 2022.

  • Will the majority of the world’s 5bn adult population be vaccinated? No. Not in 2021. Maybe 2022.

  • Will the Conservatives under Boris Johnson re-establish a clear lead over Labour? No

  • Will there be an independence referendum in Scotland? No. Not in 2021. But perhaps in 2022 or beyond.

  • Will the Greens be in Germany’s next governing coalition? Yes. I don’t know much about Germany — one of those far flung exotic places — so this is truly a wild guess.

  • Will Brussels charge a country with rule of law breaches in the use of EU funds? No. Ditto.

  • Will Joe Biden be a lame duck president? No. And I called an imperial presidency even before the Georgia run off. 

  • Will the US and China reach a trade deal? No. Ditto.

  • Will large-scale demonstrations erupt again in Hong Kong against China’s authority? No. Sadly, the regime has won for now.

  • Will India’s economy return to its pre-Covid size? No. Not in 2021. But of course it will eventually.

  • Will Nicolás Maduro hold on to power in Venezuela? Yes. Sadly, dictators are tenacious.

  • Will the US rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal? Yes.

  • Will Ethiopia’s Abiy Ahmed be re-elected? Yes

  • Will US boardrooms become much less white? No

  • Will 2021 be a turning point for electric cars? No. Not in 2021. But soon.

  • Will the combined stock market value of the five biggest US tech companies top $8tn? No. Regulations will hurt them.

  • Will more than half of European office workers be back in the office? Yes.

  • Will the S&P 500 finish above 4,000? Yes.

  • Will global carbon emissions return to pre-pandemic levels? Yes.

  • Will oil prices stay above $50 a barrel? Yes.


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Movement of the people

Posted in books by jrahman on December 10, 2020

Arguably, to write a work of fiction, all one needs is imagination, whereas non-fiction requires knowledge about the subject matter. I don’t know whether this makes it easier to write fiction than non-fiction, but it is certainly easier to write about non-fiction than fiction. To write about a book on, say, international labour mobility in the twenty first century, one needs to answer a few questions: what is the book’s central claim; is this claim novel; and is it credible? How does one write about a novel about migration?

Even that question might be problematic! How does one decide what’s a novel about? What’s the purpose of a novel? To preach or proselytise? To educate, or persuade? Is it a work of polemics, or entertainment? I guess many a seminar in literature departments of many a university would have failed to reach answers to these questions. One simple approach, necessarily subjective, would perhaps start with the notion that a novel ultimately has to depend on the story and characters, and to write about it, one would need to answer —how do we feel about these characters and their journeys?

It was a surreal feeling reading two novels about migration —international labour mobility in the twenty first century — back in late March, when labour mobility around the world screeched to a halt. Modern world has seen economic disruptions, natural disasters, and war. They usually lead to movement of people. This time has been different. But chances are that people will be moving again soon, and Amitabh Ghosh’s Gun Island and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West will continue to be relevant.

In the meantime, how do I feel about the two novels as works of fiction months after reading them?


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After the end of the world

Posted in books, movies, sci-fi, sci-fi by jrahman on August 31, 2020

It’s exactly six months this weekend that the pandemic first hit me personally.  I was about to travel overseas for work.  I dropped the kid to a play date.  She called to say bye while I was at the pharmacy to buy malaria tablets, mosquito repellent, and hand sanitisers — standard fare for a visit to the tropics — when I received the text asking me to get in touch with my team leader immediately.  Before I could get to it, the team leader called — mission aborted, they are pulling everyone out from field, stay tuned for next steps.

Like most white collar workers in the western world, I have been working from home for the last six months.  My little town hasn’t had that bad an outbreak.  Schools opened back in July, and local Desi communities have already restarted dawats.  But the malls are still hauntingly empty even on Friday evenings, and people are still nervous.  No one expects anything remotely like normal anytime soon.

Still, the end of the world it quite ain’t here.  But there are evenings when it’s hard to ignore the fact that the world is not what it was.  And what better way to survive those evenings than to immerse yourself into a book or a movie about life after the end of the world?


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Ekattur-er boiguli

Posted in 1971, books, history by jrahman on January 30, 2020

About a decade ago, upon hearing about an upcoming trip to Dhaka, a friend invited me to a party — Great, that’s about the same time Meherjaan will be released, and you must come to the premiere.  

Meherjaan? — I asked, not knowing anything about the big screen love story starring Jaya Bachchan and Victor Banerjee set in 1971.  As it happened, family commitments meant I couldn’t attend the party.  People who did attend, however, were probably not prepared for the backlash from the Bangla blogosphere.  You see, Rubaiyat Hossain had the audacity to display the ultimate effrontery: a Bengali girl falling in love with a Pakistani soldier, didn’t she — both the eponymous character and the director — know that there was a war?


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The grand ending

Posted in action, books, movies, sci-fi, sci-fi, TV by jrahman on January 8, 2020

Oh that ending was epic, right?

The nine-year-old exclaimed as we came out of the theatre one Saturday afternoon last antipodean autumn.  We had just finished watching what would eventually become the highest grossing film in history.

Couple of weeks ago, after watching the ending of another multi-movie (and in this case, multi-generational) saga, I asked him — Was that ending epic?

Yeah, I guess so.

The less than emphatic affirmation made me think — what makes an epic’s ending, well, epic?  Of course, I couldn’t but help throw in the biggest television series in history into the mix.

The Avengers, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones — three epics of our times — ended (well sort of, fine prints, see towards the end of the post) in 2019.  How do I judge these endings?  And here, let me stress that  I am particularly interested in the way the story ends, not necessarily on how the story is told (or shown).  That is, I am not going to get into arguments such as whether the Star Wars prequels were worse than the sequels (I change my mind on this all the time) or whether the last season was Game of Thrones poorer than the rest (yes, absolutely).

Now, we need some benchmark to judge these epics against, and what is better than the grandest epic of them all?


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The Fantastic Five

Posted in books, classics by jrahman on November 10, 2019

The kids are going through the classics of the genre, taking us along with them.  That’s, well, fantastic!  Not only are these books great to get children into reading, but they also open the mind to imagination, to worlds that are like ours and yet are not, and things that aren’t possible in ours are very much so in the realms of fantasy.  In those worlds-that-aren’t-quite ours, kids can see the actions and choices of characters and infer the morality or lack thereof.  As they grow older, children can re-read these to decipher the nuances and ambiguities.  Not just children, but grown ups too can read these imagined worlds and appreciate the fictions we tell ourselves in our own world — imaginary stuff like nations, religions, profits and losses, gender and racial identities and such like.

Of course, there is something to be said about coming across books serendipitously, as was the case for us in our childhood.  But we still wondered whether there might be a good order in which five classics of the genre could be introduced to kids over a number of years.


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A Song of Chaos and Power 3

Posted in 1971, action, books, Drama, TV by jrahman on April 25, 2019

From Bollywood to Hogwarts, plot twists involving separated, long lost families, mistaken or concealed identities, new revelations, or much less satisfactorily, some deus ex machina are common.  Sometime they genuinely come as a shock, and profoundly alter our understanding of the story.  I don’t remember a time when I did not know Darth Vader’s true identity, and yet get goosebumps watching Luke Skywalker hearing I am your father.  Typically, these plot twists hone in on the key individuals, protagonists and antagonists of the tale, even if there are larger, macro consequences.  For example, rise, fall, and apotheosis of the Skywalkers may matter for the entire far, far away galaxy, but the fate of the galaxy is not our primary focus, is it?

Game of Thrones has plenty of plot twists, relying on all the common tropes, and more.  Things are not what they seem like.  Royal children turn out to be not so.  Men of honour turn out to be not so dissimilar to men without honour.  Even death might not be the finality in this story.  The interesting thing about this saga, both in the show and the books, is that not only is there a focus on the relevant characters — you had a knife through your heart, you died, and now you’re back — but that there is no shying away from the fact that these twists are integral to the fate of the entire Seven Kingdoms.

The wars for the Iron Throne are also, as is the case in Bangladeshi politics, history wars.


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A Song of Chaos and Power 2

Posted in action, books, Drama, TV by jrahman on April 19, 2019

A friend quipped when I pointed out the parallels between Game of Thrones and Bangladesh — Wait, you telling me Hasina is Khaleesi and Khaleda is Cersei? Bhai ki deshe ferot jaben?

To anyone familiar with the show, the punchline of the ribbing is obvious.  But the joke is completely lost if one has never seen an episode.  Khaleesi is widely seen as the heroine of the show, and at least in the earlier seasons a veritable sex symbol.  Cersei, on the other hand, is the main antagonist, a bitter, manipulative woman with no regards for anyone other than herself.

You get the point my friend was making?  Good.  But — and as Ned Stark used to say, nothing before the word ‘but’ counts — this story is much more complicated than a fight between a good queen and a bad one, just as the battling begums is a sexist and inaccurate caricature of Bangladesh’s politics.  I will leave Bangladeshi politics for another time, and try to sketch out the story instead.

In the process, of course, there will be spoilers.  But to the uninitiated, this should not be a problem.  After all, we all know how the story of star-crossed lovers from feuding families end, but that does not stop us from enjoying adaptations set in Californian ganglands to the one starring Salman Shah.  I will, however, abstain from linking to the gazillion bytes of videos and blogs and discussion on the show and the books — do, or do not, indulge on your own.


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Dadagiri redux

Posted in action, adventure, Bollywood, books, classics, desi fiction, Drama, movies, thriller, TV by jrahman on May 21, 2018

When Shashi Kapoor passed away late last year, my facebook was abuzz (or should I say alight?) with clips of mere paas maa hai.  I wanted to post my favourite Kapoor as my childhood favourite hero.  I was sad to find no clip of Kissa Kathmandu ki — Satyajit Ray’s small screen adaptation of his Feluda caper in Nepal.  Granted it wasn’t Ray’s finest, but all sorts of weird and improbable stuff can be found online, why not this, I wondered.

My mind then wandered to why Ray cast Kapoor and not Amitabh Bachchan, the only tall man in India, for the role of the towering Bengali detective?  Perhaps it was because Bachchan was by then too busy with politics.  But that leads one to wonder why Ray hadn’t made a Hindi Feluda earlier?

For that matter, why did Ray not make more Hindi movies?  It’s not like he was oblivious to Bollywood trends.  He even set one of the Feluda adventures in mid-1970s Bombay, when Bachchan was smashing box office records and the bones of villains.  In the novel, Lalmohan Ganguly is advised by Feluda about the masala that would make a blockbuster:

…. instead of one double role have a pair of double roles.  The first hero is paired against the first villain, and the hero number two and the villain number two make the second pair.  That this second pair exists isn’t revealed at the beginning…..

… need smuggling — gold, iamond, cannabis, opium, whatever; need five musical sequence, one of which should be religious; need two dance numbers; two or three chase sequences are needed, and it would be great if in at least one of which an expensive car is driven off a cliff; need a scene of inferno; need heroines against the heroes and vamps against the villains; need a police officer with integrity; need flashback of the heroes’ backstories; …. need quick changes of scenes…. ; at least couple of times the story need to be on the hills or the seaside…..

…. at the end — and this is a must — need happy ending.  But the ending would work best if it can be preceded by several tearjerkers.

Of course, this is tongue-in-cheek.  Ray wasn’t into making blockbusters.  And he explained in a number of places that he was most comfortable in his mother tongue.  But Ray was so in tune with the zeitgeist that even Enter the Dragon is channeled in that story, and I can’t help but wish he would have made the movie that would have been rishte mein toh baap to Sholay, Don, Qurbani, Tridev or Mohra.


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Posted in adventure, books, movies, thriller, Uncategorized by jrahman on December 20, 2017

When Shashi Kapoor passed away a few days ago, my facebook was abuzz (or should I say alight?) with clips of mere paas maa hai.  I wanted to post my favourite Kapoor as my childhood favourite hero.  I was sad to find no clip of Kissa Kathmandu ki — Satyajit Ray’s small screen adaptation of his Feluda caper in Nepal.  Granted it wasn’t Ray’s finest, but all sorts of weird and improbable stuff can be found online, why not this, I wondered.  My mind then wandered to why Ray cast Kapoor and not Amitabh Bachchan, the only tall man in India, for the role of the towering Bengali detective?  Perhaps because Bachchan was by then too busy with politics.  But that leads one to wonder why Ray hadn’t made a Hindi Feluda earlier?  For that matter, why did Ray not make more Hindi movies?

The latest on-screen adaptation puts Ray’s sleuth in the modern day — check out the trailer:


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