Sunday, August 20, 2017

IOTY16: Notable Visit


The 8th BRICS Summit, Goa
For bringing together the heads of state of BRICS as well as revitalizing BIMSTEC

Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office in 2014, Indian foreign policy has become very active, with the PM himself having made a large number of visits to bolster India's ties with the world. However, the PM has also carried forward the initiatives of the previous government, including the BRICS forum that aims to give teeth to the idea of a post-America, multilateral world. Hosting the BRICS summit in India for the second time was a chance for India to add to that.

Hosting this summit was always going to be difficult, given the enormous success of the previous two editions - the one in Brazil, where the New Development Bank was established, and the one in Russia, where a new custom of inviting neighboring countries was created. India has to equal both these, and it did, by hosting 100 BRICS events to energize the event, and bringing representatives from BIMSTEC, an organization that itself was in need of new energy.

In the end, the final communique from both the BRICS summit and the BRICS-BIMSTEC outreach summits met India's foreign policy goals, and by carefully cutting out Pakistan after the SAARC debacle, India also sent the appropriate message about how it plans to move forward with its regional goals. Thus, the 8th BRICS Summit is the most notable visit from last year. 

IOTY16: Special Mentions


All the staff of Indian Banks
For their spirited work during demonetization that went above and beyond the call of duty

Indians banks are not exactly well-known for customer service - indeed, they are often a source of memes for all that plagues the public sector in India. They have stepped up to the challenge previously - form the difficult times when large banks were failing, to adjusting to new realities after 1991, and to adopting new technology. And of course, the work done to open millions of Jan Dhan accounts deserves praise.

But last year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi threw them the ultimate challenge, when he demonetized 84% of the currency in circulation. Instantly, massive queues formed outside banks, and there was a real danger of chaos, especially if there was even the slightest sense that banking staff were being tardy while the common man was forced to stand in line for their own money. However, in one of the most stunning examples when the nation came together to meet a crisis, there was no large-scale violence, and bank staff performed to the best of the abilities, going well beyond what was expected of them. There are tales of staff sleeping over for days in the bank branch, of young women employees leaving their children to the care of their grandparents, of special lines for senior citizens; all these stories out some faith that in a crisis, we Indians do come together.

Of course, there were the banks that tried their best to break the law by enabling black money to be deposited without necessary checks. Axis Bank in particular became the butt of all jokes. However, a few black sheep do not ruin the whole flock, and the performance of banking employees across the country deserves great praise. Whether demonetization actually meets its lofty goals or not, only time will tell. But it has certainly taught us some vital lessons.

J Jayalalitha, Former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu
For her espousal of Hindu values in the face of anti-Hindu Dravidian-Communist movements

Some political leaders are so important to the system that their death - and everyone eventually dies - becomes a seminal moment. Rajiv Gandhi's assassination and the death of Jinnah had long-term effects on their countries. Last year, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalitha, who only recently made history by winning a second consecutive term, died under mysterious circumstances, plunging the state into uncertainty. But in her loss, India has lost much more than a politician. For, she was the last protector of Hinduism in Tamil Nadu, a state whose rabid Dravidian politics, mixed with the venom of Communism, has seen itself becoming dissociated with the larger Hindu body of the Indian subcontinent.

Jayalalitha, to much personal danger, was a proud Hindu. Her donation of an elephant to a temple is remembered to this day, and her refusal to give a free hand to evangelicals in her state made her the hero of Tamil Hindus. In her death, there is a grave danger to Hinduism in the state, and it is hoped that her successors can end their quibbling and join hands to preserve her legacy. 

IOTY16: And the winners are...


Arun Jaitley, Union Minister of Finance
For his leadership in the passage of the Constitution (101st Amendment) Act enabling the economic unification of India

With the 2017 series of IOTY, I decided to shift the focus of the award back to its original intent: to commemorate the persons or events that had a significant impact on India in the preceding year. Over time, the award had become more a pop-culture show, with Bollywood-like categories being created to award things that really did not merit long remembrance. Some of this was for padding the blog to add more posts; however, as has been apparent, the time for that is long past, and only serious posts can remain, given my lack of time.

Therefore, starting with this new series is Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who has held and continues to hold a number of hats in the Narendra Modi government. He shares a love-hate relationship with both the Opposition as well as the BJP's own supporters, but has proven to be an indispensable part of this government. This award is given to him to commemorate his efforts towards the successful and historical passage of the Constitution (101st Amendment) Act, popularly called the GST Bill (though there are actually three subsequent bills related to GST). The GST, envisioned during the twilight days of the Vajpayee administration and championed by several finance ministers in the UPA days, finally saw the light of day after Jaitley finally managed to settle issues that states were holding forth on.

In 2014, when Narendra Modi won a massive mandate with the first single-party majority in three decades, there was an understandable degree of hubris, a feeling that anything was possible. GST was one of the first things that brought that crashing down, with the realization that not just the lack of a majority in the Rajya Sabha, but the need to take states on board, were necessary to truly build a New India. Thus, Mr. Jaitley worked with state Finance Ministers to get the GST through, and credit goes as much to them as to him.

GST is a revolution in the way indirect taxes are handled in India, creating a template for greater compliance, a unified national market, and India's first truly federal body: the GST Council. For his tireless efforts to make this a reality, Arun Jaitley is the Indian of the Year 2016. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Tale of our times


What a week to be outside America. First the neo-Nazis in Virginia - I never imagined I'd see those flags in the US or anywhere outside East Europe for that matter. But there it was. And then there was President Trump. I'd usually say that he scored yet another massive self-goal, except that he seemed to be dead serious for his support of these people this time. I cannot fathom how anyone, let alone the President, could get away by making a moral equivalence between Robert Lee and George Washington, but it did happen.

Anyway, half the world away, strangely in better weather than in Champaign, I could look at the events with the benefit and time and space as a barrier. And so I decided to well, chill out (it is a vacation), and watch a movie - and I stumbled upon this gem, American History X, that is eerily appropriate for our times. I was not looking for anything neo-Nazi themed, I just wanted a nice, family drama. I got both.

The movie is a strong look into the mind and thoughts of a white supremacist and some of the very real problems of the African-American community that the Left simply refuses to look at. More importantly though, the movie explores the evolution of an idea, from the intellectual who starts them with just ink and paper, to the first stormtrooper who puts them to action, and finally to the younger brother that absorbs them because they are all around him. I was very much reminded of Iqbal's espousal of the Two Nation Theory and the idea of Pakistan, and the Muslim League's Direction Action Day, all the way to the current Pakistani establishment. History manifests in funny ways.

My only qualm with the movie was the presence of the 'perfect' character (Avery Brooks - shoutout to the Star Trek man!) who seems to be made of Teflon, absolutely perfect with all the right words in the midst of chaos. Such characters just don't exist - people are not monochromatic, especially in a highly polarized environment. Otherwise, the movie was great to watch, dealing with some very serious issues that America is still dealing with today, almost 20 years after the movie was released. Perhaps President Trump should watch it too? 

This is the Asian superpower?

For over a month now, the armies of China (technically, the army of the CPC) and India have continued their confrontation on the high plateau of Doklam in Bhutan, India's closest ally and, for security purposes, de facto state. In that time, the armies have more or less stayed put without actually becoming violent (despite the fact that armies are trained to be violent), but the Chinese state-controlled media, particularly the xenophobic Global Times, have gone on hyperdrive with their threats of war. But something different happened today.

The Global Times is known to be hyper-nationalistic and bombastic, so nobody really takes it very seriously, except the narrow domestic audience that it is intended for. Xinhua, the official state news agency though, is taken quite seriously. Which is why, their rather racist and troll-like production about the Doklam event raised several eyebrows. By all accounts it was a propaganda piece meant to show Indians as being stupid, and the Chinese as the good, law-abiding people who have been wronged. Even more ironically, it was posted on Twitter, which is banned in China.

What is one to make of this? No fewer than eight threats of war made with rather grandiose imagery, and a troll-like production from the official news agency? If I didn't know better, I'd say that Asia's new self-proclaimed emperor has been caught without clothes and is making a fool of itself. There is something called sophisticated propaganda, and then there is the laughably cheap stuff - today's video firmly falls in the latter category. For all its smoke and mirrors, the Chinese have actually done nothing, and their record at war after World War II is quite poor (and even the WWII victory against Japan had a not-too-small contribution from the Americans and Soviets). Indeed, the 1961 victory against India is one of the PLA's few victories, and the Nathu La incident in 1967 showed that it was not necessarily a pattern.

The only thing left is for China to take a cue from its latest colony, Pakistan, and threaten to use nuclear weapons. After all, India and Japan are the only countries in Asia today that are willing to stand up the Asian bully, with or without American support, and neither of them have reproduced the willingness of ASEAN nations to bow out without a fight. For India specifically, China is dealing with a wounded country that knows the pain of losing territory and is unwilling to lose more without a fight. There is an understanding that, irrespective of the cost, defeat and further loss of territory is not an option (and as previously noted, for security purposes, Bhutan is Indian territory) - the roast of Rahul Gandhi following his meeting with the Chinese envoy, and the subsequent discussion in Parliament, showed that much.

Without a doubt, China is the largest continental power in Asia. Historically, it has been the Middle Kingdom, the center of global trade. However, even in history, it has never been an uncontested power, and the Indian civilization too has thrived at the same time. Pakistan, which rejected Indian civilization, considered itself superior for the same racial reasons that Xinhua showed in its troll-production. They have lost every war with India, including half their territory and population. Hopefully, the Chinese government does not believe its own propaganda. 

The dirty facts of war


Produced By: Cross Creek Pictures, Demarest Films, and others
Director: Mel Gibson
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Jacob Warner, Hugo Weaving, Teresa Palmer, and others
Pros: Excellent acting, good cinematography, good story
Cons: Slow, poor SFX
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

In the world of war movies, there are usually two extremes: the romantics, and the realists. Because of course, war is dirty business, with a lot of blood and death. Perhaps that's why former soldiers don't usually want to talk about the operational details of their missions, or simply gloss over the specifics. Hacksaw Ridge is in the latter category, showing the gory side of war in all its (lack of) glory. In that, there is a very human story, albeit one that is difficult to empathize with unless you're extremely religious.

Andrew Garfield undoubtedly steals the show with an extremely strong performance, with supporting actors also putting in a good show. The acting is the strongest part of the movie. However, the director also does a good job with the cinematography in what is clearly very difficult terrain and a difficult story to depict (war is messy). However, running at over 1.5 hours, it is a long movie and can get horribly repetitive, even unnecessary at times. And unfortunately, this reviewer felt it was boring - and laughable. Specifically, the SFX were laughable - even Star Trek's oldest  TV episodes and movies had better effects. In this day and age, this was quite disappointing. Still, a good movie worth watching. (OTFS)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Independence Day Lecture: Could we be occupied again?

The year 2017 marks 70 years since the last occupation of the Indian Subcontinent - by the British - ended, and the newly-formed countries finally took their destinies into their own hands, albeit with mixed results. However, the British were scarcely the first foreigners to colonize this ancient land - from the Mughals to the Turks and even earlier waves of invasions, this land has seen pitched battles from the time it became possible to cross the Himalayas. Invasion from the naval front was, of course, much harder due to the robust navies of the southern and Deccani empires, but the land-centric Mughals ended that. After a thousand years of humiliation, we are free. But for how long?

Trade: A double-edged sword
The origins of all external invasions were, of course, economic. The Indian subcontinent was a rich and powerful place, with plenty of food and gold to go around. Trade records go back to the Roman Empire, which at one time was losing a lot of money to Indian cotton imports. This trade is also what brought us into contact with other civilizations - it brought the first Arabs and the first Chinese, and help spread our system of mathematics.

But it was also this trade that brought the invaders, bent on conquering the land. There is a reason why the Turks did not simply pillage the land and leave, but chose to instead form their empire here. Perhaps the focal point of this economic invasion was the East India Company, a trade company that ended up controlling vast swathes of the subcontinent, complete with its own army and civil administration. Thus, trade quickly turned into capture.

And yet, trade has helped us immensely. After the costly mistakes of the first fifty years after independence, India's integration with the global economy has created more prosperity than even before. Closing ourselves off to trade did not help us - indeed, it hurt us at a time when global trade was able to bring the world back from the ruins of World War II. Even earlier, Japan's forceful opening up to the outside world eventually enabled it to become the first industrialized Asian country.

Trade, therefore, can be good and bad, simultaneously. The answer is not to choose one or the other, but to merely maintain constant vigilance. Countries around us, such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are currently selling away their sovereignty to China's Belt & Road initiative, in the name of enhancing global trade. The difference is really not that hard to catch.

Our way of life
But trade was not the only cause of our enslavement - our way of life has also been attacked. India is one of the world's oldest continuing civilizations, and so-called Hindu civilization (a word that itself comes from invaders) is the cornerstone of our way of life. In the face of monopolizing religio-political movements across the world that has wiped out thousands of indigenous peoples and their ways of life, Indian civilization has endured, in whatever truncated form.

And it is that endurance that has made us the target of invaders. There is, after all, a reason why the Hindu Kush is named so - a trail of tears as millions of Hindus were transported to their death towards slave markets, forever severing some parts of the subcontinent from its history and people. In contemporary times, just look at the fate of the Yazidis after the invasion of ISIS - a veritable genocide took place upon a people who not only link their way of life all the way back to India, but who, like India, have also endured. This is the fate that awaits us if we were to be conquered again.

Therefore, our way of life, our Hindu civilization, is the key to our preservation. If we lose it, as so many are on the verge of in West Bengal, then we would be conquered without ever raising a finger.

Unified defense
Finally, the third ingredient that made us ripe for conquest was the lack of a unified defense against foreign invaders. This is perhaps the most important factor of all that allowed us to fall, while simultaneously the unified Chinese empire was able to hold on, despite its internal rumbles. We were divided into many kingdoms that fought against each other - which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, as long as the civilization survives, who runs it is really besides the point. However, in the face of external intrusions, we failed to put up a united front, which led to our undoing.

Perhaps the most powerful symbol of this lack of unified defense is the Somnath Temple which, despite being so holy to Hindu civilization, was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt, with local leaders refusing to bury their differences to protect it once and for all. And perhaps, in that symbol, lies the answer to the original question: can we be conquered again? For, the Temple was indeed rebuilt at the behest of Sardar Patel, despite opposition from Nehru. And it stands today inside a country that has been unified (albeit amputated) after centuries, and is now protected by nuclear weapons.

So, can we fall? Quite possibly. Without our armed forces and a political system that speaks in one voice on national security, without trade that puts national interests first, and without preserving our Hindu civilization, we can certainly fall again. Right now, it seems unlikely. But time is fluid, and eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.

After five years, OTFS is happy to have delivered this year's Independence Day lecture from India. 

Jai Hind! Vande Mataram!
Happy Independence Day to Indians across the world

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Fare Thee Well

LOGAN (2017)

Produced By: Marvel Entertainment, and others
Director: James Mangold
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Stephen Merchant, and others
Pros: Good story, good acting
Cons: Poor screenplay, abrupt ending
Rating: *** of 5 (3 of 5)

The X-Men franchise has been around for as long as I can remember (although it was only supposed to be a trilogy) - and at the center of that universe was always the Wolverine. Therefore, perhaps it is only fitting that Logan is possibly a part of the last stand of that universe, unless someone decides to attempt a reboot in the future, that is. Nonetheless, despite the good intentions, it is apparent that this movie was quite forced.

Yes, the story was good - and also very simple. It's a rehash of the same old mutant-hunters tale, together with some corporate intrigue. The acting is good, but that was inevitable when you have the likes of Hugh Jackman and Patricm Stewart. But that's where all the good stuff ends. The director seemed to have had no interest in the audience while making the movie, making the screenplay quite boring and confusing. Add to that a very abrupt ending, and there's not much good to say about this movie.

If you hold nostalgia for X-Men and its slow death at the hands of Avengers and Guardians, you might consider watching this movie. But don't expect much more beyond that to keep you through the whole thing. (OTFS)

The Perfect Prequel


Produced By: Lucas Films, and others
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Wen Jiang, and others
Pros: Excellent story, great concurrence, great effects, wonderful acting
Cons: None
Rating: ***** of 5 (5 of 5)

I'm a Star Wars junkie: I've never hidden that, and never will. I've see the old six twice; I've grudgingly seen Episode VII. Because I love it so much, the very idea of a prequel to a sequel is quite insulting - it has to be really, really good to be respectable. The bar if acceptability is just so much higher given the pedigree. And shockingly, Rogue One meets that bar - it is quite possibly the perfect prequel, a worthy member of the franchise.

There is much that makes this movie perfect: the story on it own is quite good, with riveting scenes across the Imperial galaxy, and of course the wonders of hyperdrive. But there's more: the plot fits very well with Episode IV, when the Rebel Alliance actually destroyed the Death Star. This movie feels very much a part of that one, with familiar events concurring with new ones, ultimately making this a prequel in the truest sense of the term.

Add to that the excellent effects and wonderful acting, and you have a truly excellent movie. Indeed, a huge shoutout to Diego Luna for some splendid work. If any more movies like this are in the offing from Lucas Films, then we might just be about to enter a new golden age of Star Wars! (OTFS)

Harry Potter meets Ghostbusters


Produced By: Warner Bros, Heyday Films, and others
Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Colin Farrell, Katherine Waterson, and others
Pros: Exciting storyline, high on creativity, great effects
Cons: Slow at times
Rating: **** of 5 (4 of 5)

It just had to have happened: a full generation after the Harry Potter phenomenon swept the world, a spin-off was in the offing. Indeed, it's a miracle that it took so long! With Fantastic Beasts, a whole new generation has finally been introduced to that magical world. However, it isn't the same: the defining feature of that era was its simplicity, of the underdog defeating the super-villain. This era is different, it is of the master doing his thing. Welcome to the New World.

There is much to enjoy in this movie. The storyline is exciting, with a cross between Harry Potter and Ghostbusters, set in the grand city of New York. The story is very creative, bringing in a vast array of well... fantastic beasts, not to mention a whole new classification of wizards that are unique to America! Coupled with great effects of the kind necessary for such a grand tale, and this movie had all the ingredients of perfection (as expected from one written by JKR). However, the only drawback is its pace - it can get quite slow and boring at times, and I admit to having dozed off on the flight a few times. Nonetheless, a wonderful movie worth every moment. (OTFS)

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Revisiting High School

The Best Short Stories of O.Henry
Edited by Bennet Cerf and Van Catmell

If I think back to my high school English literature classes, two names (aside from Shakespeare, of course) stand out distinctly: Guy de Maupassant and O.Henry, both masters of the short story, from whom I took much inspiration in my days in Kshitij. Therefore, before I wrapped up my summer reading and headed for a vacation, I decided to revisit some of O. Henry's stories.

Now, some critics dislike O. Henry (which is a pseudonym) for his rather repetitive style and typical use of an anti-climax. However, I think they miss the point: his stories enjoy such a power anti-climax because of his peculiar style of writing, full of excruciating detail about seemingly minor things, and periodic outbursts of philosophy, all so that the reader remains focused on too many things until it is too late. While this formula sounds simple enough, it can be hard to perfect without simply boring the reader, which is where O. Henry's succeeds.

There are plenty of good tales in this collection, starting of course with The Gift of the Magi. The Pendulum in particular brought back some fond memories. Good reading! 

Too good to be true

The Rainmaker
By John Grisham

So with the debacle of historical fiction behind me, I decided to lean on my old mistress - legal thrillers - in the hope of finding some redemption. No, I was in no mood to take any risks, so I did not pick up an esoteric writer in some strange country. Instead, I decided to go with good old John Grisham and his novel, The Rainmaker, which is so mainstream that there's a movie about it too.

The novel is perfect. Too perfect. There's the underdog, there's the big, evil corporation. David and Goliath all over again. And like the biblical tale, it just goes perfectly - a series of unending coincidences and lucky breaks for the core of the novel. However, as unbelievable as the story might be, it does stay interesting, with Grisham having written plenty of drama and emotion into it: not less than three subplots are active at any given point in the book!

The Rainmaker is what I'd call a pop novel: there's nothing too intellectual about it, nothing to get you nervous. It's just a nice and simple read, which is exactly what I needed.