These are uncertain times

“The consequences of our actions are always so complicated, so diverse, that predicting the future is a very difficult business indeed.”
– Professor Albus Dumbledore, speaking to Harry Potter about the Time-Turner at the end of J K Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Has Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda of ‘Make in India’ taken a new turn? It may have – if I’m to believe what I hear: that US President Barack Obama has flown off yesterday with a whole lot of deals for American companies during his quick visit to India, while flaunting his own agenda of ‘Made in America’ exports to countries like ours.

Here’s a report from BBC News India which puts President Obama’s visit in a nutshell:

“Mr Obama’s three-day tour has been aimed at boosting economic ties between the two major allies. On Sunday, the first day of his visit, Mr Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a breakthrough on a pact that will allow US companies to supply India with civilian nuclear technology. 

Analysts say the two governments have done “all they can do” and it is now up to the suppliers – or American firms wanting to sell reactor technology to India – to do business. 

At the business event on Monday evening, both he and Mr Modi hailed the bilateral progress, with the Indian leader saying a stronger relationship “will make this world a better place for all”. Mr Obama said trade had grown by around 60% in the past few years which was a “win-win” situation. “We’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “That said, we all know that the US-India economic relationship is also defined by so much untapped potential.””

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

Another article in The Economic Times states that President Obama has pledged $4 billion to strengthen economic ties with India:

“US President Barack Obama on Monday announced $4 billion of new initiatives aimed at boosting trade and investment ties as well as jobs in India, and opened up a whole new source of financing for social development ventures in the country through a new Indian Diaspora Investment Initiative. 

“Let’s make it possible for a young woman in rural India to start a business with a partner in America that will change both their lives,” Obama said, drawing huge applause at the US India Business Summit, where he called for more steps to help Delhi and Washington explore the ‘untapped potential’ of ties.

The $4-billion deals include $2 billion of leveraged financing for renewable energy investments in India through the US Trade & Development Agency and $1 billion in loans for small and medium businesses across India through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, or OPIC. Separately, the US Export Import Bank would finance a billion dollars to support ‘Made in America’ exports to India over the next two years. Obama also announced  that two US trade missions will be in India this year with a specific focus on infrastructure development in rail, roads, ports and airports.

Though US exports to India have grown by 35% since 2010 and support 1.7 lakh ‘well-paying American jobs’, they still constitute just 1% of US’ total exports and its imports from India account for just 2%, Obama pointed out.

“We do $100 billion a year of trade with India, which is a great improvement since I took office. But we do about $560 billion a year with China. That will give you some sense both of the potential growth that India might unleash and the potential for greater trade between our two countries,” he said. The initiative to route investments from the Indian diaspora in the US, the president said, would be a public-private partnership.

American companies can make sure that these accounts can help Indians in day-to-day lives by digitising retail transactions,” Obama suggested. He also called for growth to be more sustainable and inclusive.

“India’s growth in recent decades has lifted countless millions out of poverty and created the world’s largest middle class. There’s an important lesson in that. Growth can’t just be measured by GDP, can’t just be measured by a bottom line on a balance sheet. In the end, growth has to make people’s lives better in real ways,” he said.”

While President Obama has been busy trying to revive the failing US economy by winning business from countries like ours, a friend in a senior position in a leading telecom company in India called to reiterate the fact that the economic downturn has come down hard on his company and the telecom industry in general. Apparently, in his business, existing clients have delayed their renewals or renewed their contracts at substantially lower fees; prospects have either walked away or are delaying their decisions to purchase; and a few projects have been abandoned under a credit squeeze.

These scenarios are probably true for most businesses and countries around the world – India and the United States included. But, the heartbreak for most people is the fact that nobody seems to be able to predict an accurate picture of what lies ahead.

Globally, it seems, the demand for, and hence the value of, every type of asset (including intellectual property) is falling and it is uncertain if this trend will be reversed soon. This fall in demand is creating a downward pressure on incomes from those assets, leading to losses in businesses, jobs and demand for talent (an artist I met recently is selling his paintings at one-third of what similar paintings have fetched him two years ago)… which, in turn, are steering economies towards a world of unhappy minds and empty stomachs.

[Citation: Obama: US and India can be ‘best partners’, BBC News India, 27 January 2015; Obama in India: US president announces $4 billion of new initiatives, trade missions to help boost infrastructure, Economic Times, ET Bureau, 27 January 2015.]

Revolution, Rags and Tatters

Four days ago, at the 5th Yashwant International Film Festival (YIFF 2015) in Mumbai, I watched a tense and poignant film on the Egyptian Revolution of 2011. Honestly, my recollection of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 is sketchy – only bits and pieces from what I can remember seeing or reading on the internet. However, I do remember that it had started on 25 January 2011 – exactly four years ago today – with millions of Egyptians gathering in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and other cities to protest against the government of President Hosni Mubarak (who finally stepped down on 11 February 2011).

Reports say it had started peacefully with people of all religions and segments of society marching together, protesting the lack of freedom of speech, lack of free elections, lack of justice, unemployment, inflation, rising food prices, corruption, police brutality… but soon led to clashes between government security forces (who were supported by the military) and civilians, leaving behind over 800 people dead and over 6,000 injured in 2 weeks or so. There were riots, looting and vandalising too – and neighbourhoods had to set up patrols for their own protection.

It’s interesting to note that the film I watched at YIFF 2015, titled Rags and Tatters and made by Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla in 2013, actually stayed away from the protests, the clashes and the killings in Tahrir Square (now also called Martyr Square) and elsewhere in Egypt in 2011. Instead it focused on the confusion and uncertainty of the people of Cairo against the backdrop of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, following a central character who has in his possession a mobilephone video clip containing evidence of brutality by government forces, which he wants to share with the world while trying to stay in hiding and alive.

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

Although a film like Rags and Tatters may set the mood for the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 for film-viewers like us across the globe, the on-ground reality and its experience must have been far more dramatic, uncertain and scary for the people of Egypt than we’ll ever know. Yes, the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 did rid Egypt of President Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011, but all has not been well for the people of Egypt. After Mubarak’s resignation, the Muslim Brotherhood (the Opposition party) took power through popular elections and Mohamed Morsi became the next President of Egypt in June 2012.

However, Mohamed Morsi’s presidency didn’t last long. There were mass protests by secularists and the military against his government and he was deposed by the Minister of Defence, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi within a year. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is now the President of Egypt. Past-President Hosni Mubarak, who was given a life-sentence for crimes against the people of Egypt and for embezzlement of funds during his tenure, has been cleared of his crimes and charges against him have been dropped as on 13 January 2015.

As far as the 4th anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 goes, here’s a bit of news from Reuters from Cairo today:

“Two protesters were killed in Egypt and a bomb wounded two policemen on Sunday, the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak, security sources said. 

The anniversary is a test of whether Islamists and liberal activists facing one of Egypt’s toughest security crackdowns have the resolve to challenge the U.S.-backed government once again. 

Security forces have been stamping out dissent in Egypt since then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ousted elected president Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013 after mass protests against his rule. 

Dozens of protesters were killed during last year’s anniversary of the revolt. This time, security forces were taking no chances, fanning out across the capital and elsewhere.”

More information from Egypt dated 26 January 2015: 16 dead in protests marking Egypt revolution by Sarah Sirgany, Ian Lee and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN. Updated 0155 GMT.

[Citation: Wikipedia; Two protesters killed on anniversary of Egypt uprising as tension grows by Maggie Fick and Shadi Bushra, Reuters, Cairo, Sunday, January 25, 2015, 8:02 am; ; 16 dead in protests marking Egypt revolution, Sarah Sirgany, Ian Lee and Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN. Updated 0155 GMT.]

For the world has changed

“That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

These words could well have been spoken by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, describing the situation in our country when he took his office in May last year. Or, perhaps, by UK Prime Minister David Cameron, lamenting over his Party’s failure to show the people of the UK a light at the end of the tunnel. However, these words were spoken by President Barack Obama of the United States in his Inaugural Address at the White House six years ago on 21 January 2009.

Is the situation any better now for India, the UK or USA? Maybe yes. But, in January 2009, President Obama’s words were ominous: “Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many – and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”

Not exactly the kind of situation that inspires an incumbent leader to his/her office! The risks for President Obama were great – and the whole world was waiting to see if he could do some magic to save his country (and the planet), without tramping over and destroying others in his eagerness to fulfil his responsibilities. For, without doubt, such was the style of his predecessor.

But, President Obama seemed to know this well; and he pre-empted us all, saying (and I quote from his Inaugural Address):

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy.

To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy the relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world’s resources without regard to effect.

For the world has changed, and we must change with it.”

Yes, the world has changed. And it will change again. And we must change with it.

As President Barack Obama quietly watches the preparations for the 2016 US Primaries (his last day as President of USA will be 20 January 2017), and as our Prime Minister Narendra Modi settles comfortably into his office, the whole world is waiting to see what will happen next.

[Citation: President Barack Hussein Obama’s Inaugural Address, 21 January 2009.]

The Year of Magical Thinking

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in an instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as we know it ends.”
[Joan Didion’s opening lines in her book The Year of Magical Thinking]

If you find these words ominous, I apologise. I’m no soothsayer. I’m simply trying to come to terms with many of the odd and unexpected happenings in my life – particularly, in the past two and a half years. Still, the way things are globally and in India, terrorists notwithstanding, many of us may need a bit of magical thinking to help us through 2015.

Why ‘magical thinking’? Since I don’t wish to spoil your mood by forecasting anything darker than what you may have already heard from your neighbourhood economist or news reporter or the government, let me stay as true as I can to Joan Didion’s book, her mood and her yearning for ‘magical thinking’.

Joan Didion’s book, The Year of Magical Thinking, published in 2005, is an account of her grief in losing her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, quite suddenly from a heart attack on the night of 30 December 2003, while their daughter, Quintana, was in an ICU in a hospital downtown suffering from septic pneumonia.

Ms Didion had trouble accepting this reality. For an entire year, she hoped her husband would come back. She believed if she hoped enough, if she held onto her husband’s memories and possessions long enough and strongly enough, if she re-lived her earlier experiences with her husband vividly enough, if she performed the right actions timely enough, her husband’s death could be averted and her life would be normal again.

Alas, hope may be a strength in times of human weakness, but it cannot turn back time. And so, regretfully, Ms Didion confesses at the end of her book:

“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.
I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.
Let them become the photograph on the table.
Let them become the name on the trust accounts.
Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.”

By ‘magical thinking’, perhaps Ms Didion means hope. Perhaps she means acceptance. Perhaps she means the transition from grief to hope to acceptance as a natural progression of happennings and human experience. I’m not quite sure how to interpret this. Perhaps, I need to find the answer to this question in my own personal way as I journey through 2015.

[Citation:  The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, Harper Perennial.]

Bertolt Brecht Collected Short Stories

Bertolt Brecht has also written short fiction. Not much is written about this (after all Brecht is mostly known as a playwright and a poet), but this facet of Brecht’s talent came to my attention when I picked up a copy of his Collected Short Stories. Brecht’s collection contains 37 short stories in the main section of the book, plus a ‘fragment’ of a novel in the Appendix. The short stories are grouped in three sections, in a linear fashion, pertaining to critical literary periods in Brecht’s life.

The first group, called The Bavarian stories (1920-24), contains 11 stories and represents his early writings. The second group, called The Berlin stories (1924-33), contains 14 stories and probably represents Brecht’s most productive years in Germany before WW II – thanks mainly to Elisabeth Hauptmann, whom Brecht’s publishers had sent to help him complete a book of poems. The third group, called Stories Written in Exile, contains 12 stories and mainly represents the period of his fight against Fascism (which dominated Germany at the time) from the outside.

I loved the stories for their purity and non-political nature. For, it seems to me that, while Brecht was establishing himself as a playwright and a poet, he used his short stories to experiment with the plots and the parables he used so effectively later in his plays. Brecht’s stories, particularly those from his years spent in exile (when he fled Germany during Nazi rule and moved from one country to another before returning to East Germany after the War), some of them with their remote historical settings, are perhaps his most accomplished.

What is common in all these stories, and what makes them good reads, is Brecht’s storytelling ability. He uses a straight-forward narrative prose, telling the story as it is, without adding any undue artifice to stimulate the reader’s attention. It’s as if Brecht is trying to say, “this is what happened and that is exactly what I’ve reported here.” Hence, the stories are crisp and to the point. There are no overt political messages as there are in his plays. Yet, the stories are engaging, and a few, quite entertaining.

[Citation: Bertolt Brecht Collected Short Stories, edited by John Willett and Ralph Manheim, translated by Yvonne Kapp, Hugh Rorrison and Antony Tatlow; Methuen 1999 paperback edition.]