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With love from the Pyramids of Giza

Ashoka Professor Ashwini Deshpande becomes witness to India’s incredible Soft Power

2 February, 2022 | 4m read

While nations around the world are investing heavily in modernizing their defense capabilities, the most potent armor of our nations is overlooked when we forget to share our stories with the world. Our relentless quest to make us more secure and stronger than our rivals can make us ignore the contribution that soft power makes towards realization of a better future for mankind.

But that shared future for mankind where “imagine there’s no countries/ it isn’t hard to do/ nothing to kill or die for/ and no religion, too” is utopia; critics allege that such a world is unachievable and impractical for modern nations to aspire for though they don’t deny the good in the vision that was resonated in John Lenon’s cult song.

The world map has since long been dotted with rivalries as every nation is engaged in achieving its national interest. There are wars, sanctions, proxies and pawns in international relations. But then, even in war there is poetry, there is music in the heartaches and hurrahs evoked by our stock markets, and triumphs as well as tragedies are recorded in the sands of time through stories, films and other works of art.

In the information age that is ruled by perceptions, these are of immense significance. Ashoka University’s Economics Professor Ashwini Deshpande’s recent encounter with an Egyptian travel agent is a case in point.

Professor Deshpande, who is also the Founding Director of Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA), wanted to transfer some money to Egypt but she was facing difficulties. Narrating her ordeal that turned out to be a pleasant surprise for our nation of 1.3 billion people, she wrote on twitter:

“Needed to transfer money to a travel agent in Egypt. Was having problems with the transfer. He said: You are from the country of Shah Rukh Khan. I trust you. I will make the booking, you pay me later. For anywhere else, I wouldn’t do this. But anything for Shah Rukh Khan & he did!.”

Despite the challenges that India faces, the story of India has been conveyed by the songs of Bollywood, hummed by Russians and the British long before India’s rise as a world power. Our arts and cultural extravaganza, our writers and our philosophers have been the flag-bearers of India sometimes in ways more crucial than the duly appointed diplomats. Swami Vivekananda’s historic speech in Chicago at the Parliament of the World’s Religions was an exhibition of India’s soft power even before its independence ~ the civilizational roots of India and its unique character is known far and wide.

In “Bollywood Boom”, writer and scholar Roopa Swaminathan has pointed to the spectacular success of Bollywood in the 21st century and its direct contribution to India’s rising soft power and influence. In this eye-opening book that was published in 2017, she showed how Bollywood not only brings to the country real income through trade and tourism but also enhances its global standing.

A country that was long held as the land of snake charmers and poverty is finally claiming its rightful place in international perception, Swaminathan argued in the book. She maintained that this change is not a result of the many campaigns carried out by Indian missions abroad but simply because of Bollywood’s oeuvre becoming more modern and refreshingly different.

And we perhaps know why!

Shah Rukh Khan’s team later sent a handwritten note by the mega star to the Egyptian travel agent. The note read: “Thank you for being kind to my fellow Indian. Very gracious and generous of you. May your kind of good souls multiply.” Along came a signed photograph for his daughter too.

This became the happy ending to what is truly an unexpected story. Professor Deshpande says it was her way of repaying the travel agent for his kindness. 

“Since he was kind to me, given the massive positive response to my first tweet, I thought I would tweet his photo and tag Red Chillies Entertainment to ask for a signed photo for his daughter. I wasn’t sure what will happen. I was very pleasantly surprised to hear from SRK’s manager and obviously delighted when she sent three photos, with a special message for the travel agent,” she shared. 

The collective strength of India, reflected in this case by the travel agent’s reverence for Shah Rukh Khan, helped her reach the pyramids with not guns but roses by her side.

(Written by Saket Suman)

Pic Courtesy: Amul ads have been documenting major milestones in India’s journey since 1967, with their punchline Utterly Butterly Delicious and the Amul Girl.

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