The no-risk, all-gain game of mortal prophecy

Everyone seems to be an expert on one thing or another these days. Illustration: Biplob Chakroborty

You must have come across people, not necessarily ostentatious, who foretell the future, making a monkey out of the gullible with their forecasts. In the past, they were called soothsayers, but with the upsurge of various media, that role has been taken over by politicians, professors and the pompous. The wonderful advantage of being an expert adviser—free or otherwise—is that there is a bouquet of appreciation if the prediction turns out to be right, guaranteed publication and press conferences as perks. But there is no penalty, hardly a rebuke, if the guess turns out to be wrong.

For example, here's one of mine: 500 years from now, apples will taste like guava. While it may appear to be a thoughtful package of creativity and imagination, the truth is none of us living today and those we shall meet in the next hundred years will be around to pat my back or slap my behind.

Never make predictions to draw unnecessary attention.

Predictions fail, as can evacuation plans. Lately, no one has had to put up a brave face on camera and tear his hair in private more than US President Joe Biden. His made-in-China crystal ball seems to have been bought in Kabul's Pul-e Khishti Bazaar.

Never rely on your secret service; depend on the enemy's.

In the mid-1980s, even the casual acquaintances in the UK asked me with the air of a know-it-all, and perhaps unintended slight, why we had so many floods in Bangladesh. Sheepishly, I wanted to say it was not our fault. Experts did warn us after repeated deluges that three-fourth of Bangladesh—or was it one-third?—would be underwater in a few decades. There was no mention ever of London, Dagestan (Russia), Saga prefecture (Japan), or Merida (Venezuela)—all knee-deep in water. I believe the prophets of Bay of Bengal are revisiting their geography books.

Never sprinkle salt on an open wound.

No sooner had Covid-19 struck, experts became eager with their prophecies. Notably on April 22, 2020—about six weeks after Bangladesh was hit—a World Bank press release headlined "World Bank Predicts Sharpest Decline of Remittances in Recent History." Elaborating, it said: "Global remittances are projected to decline sharply by about 20 percent in 2020 due to the economic crisis induced by the Covid-19 pandemic and shutdown." South Asia was flagged for over 22 percent regression. Astoundingly, Bangladesh received about USD 19.8 billion in remittance in 2020, compared to USD 18.4 billion it received the year before—a growth of 7.6 percent, according to a report by The Daily Star in February. The trend has continued to soar. In the first 11 months of the last fiscal year, the inflow of remittances reached nearly USD 23 billion, registering an increase of more than 39 percent despite the Covid-19 pandemic, The Financial Express reported in June. As it was, after its Padma Bridge polti, the World Bank lost substantial credibility.

Never rely on history in an ever-changing world.

I particularly admire cricket pundits. Their number is worryingly on the rise—because no sweat in delivering the bouncers. Prior to any series, they are on TV, frown lines prominent on their foreheads, their voice thick as thunder: "If we can bat, bowl and field well, we have a great chance of winning." In cricket, there is nothing else, unless you want to consider poor umpiring or rain saving the day.

Never overestimate your limited knowledge.

Covid-19 has produced experts like no other. Designating safe distance to one metre, then two metres, then six. Cautioning about Covid spreading by touching, or handling bank notes. They said infected droplets could remain effective for two to seventy-two hours. The confines of lifts are hazardous, haven't you heard? As are air-conditioned cars. When one officer suggested that normalcy would not return within six months, he was fired. He is till date one-third right. Have this medicine, do not combine with that. Vaccines needed sub-zero temperatures to be preserved, but now we see otherwise. Someone said the virus would perish above 23°C temperature. Excuse me! The rumour-mongers are roaming freely under the very nose of the public, many of whom thankfully have a sense of smell.

Never repeat the unsubstantiated.

Then there was the infamous calculation by Henry Kissinger. After Bangladesh emerged as a liberated country in 1971, the then US secretary of state unkindly stated that the new country was "a bottomless basket," suggesting that being dysfunctional, it would be begging to survive. His infatuation with the Pakistan-China corridor was blind. Well, that did not happen. On the contrary, Bangladesh's GDP has now overtaken that of Pakistan.

Never speak your mind when you are angry, hateful, and guilty of wrongly conspiring against a freedom-loving people.

Flashback to July 2012: In response to the Sheikh Hasina government's defiance of the World Bank's withdrawal of USD 1.2 billion fund for the Padma Bridge project, The Guardian quoted the executive director of Dhaka-based think tank Policy Research Institute, who was livid: "We must not build a bridge to disaster." He feared severe austerity to balance the books. Predictive expertise from several other specialist panels and opposition politicians were similarly adverse. Not only is the bridge projected to open to traffic in 10 months, but Bangladesh's per capita income of USD 883 then has risen to over USD 2,000 now.

Never open your mouth to show off your shallowness; rivers are deep.

I am all but pleased that a couple of my predictions, made in private, were proven wrong. I am man enough to admit: given our law and order situation, and surveillance record, I thought ATM machines would not work here. I am eating my flexi card with a gulp of bottled water, which too I assumed was a laughable venture. And now we are inundated in sewage water because our drainage system and waterbodies are filled with PET bottles.

Never follow a one-track mind.

Genuine forecasts, however, evolve from patriotism and are based on years of selfless sacrifice. March 7, 1971 witnessed the greatest public address in the history of this region. It was sheer poetry. Building up the waves in the sea of people and quenching the thirst of an expectant nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman declared at the Ramna Race Course Maidan: "Now that we have given blood, we shall give more blood, we shall free this country, Insha'Allah." In less than three weeks, Bangladesh was declared an independent country, and was liberated within the year. That was mortal prophecy at its best.


Nizamuddin Ahmed is an architect, a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.


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