& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, August 18, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 14

Che - quietly confident

Che & Mahrukh
2012 heralded major changes in our lives. In our fourth year in Canada, our need was to belong to a place that we so much wanted to call our home. Our quest for a home of our own had become acute. We moved into a larger apartment in the same building so that Che would have a room of his own.

Che looks cool & I'm trying to 
The apartment was bigger, but our need was not so much for space as it was for developing roots, and for that, we needed a home of our own. A greater part of 2012 was devoted to looking for a home, and we did that in our usual ham-handed manner. Once again, Che rescued us. He’d seen a home that was on sale on Gibson Avenue just off Jane Street on Lawrence Avenue West; not too far from our rented apartment on Keele and Lawrence. We began the process in 2012 and moved into our new home the next year. 

With Mike Layton, Toronto Councillor
& Frank Scarpitti, Mayor of Markham at
the Arrivals launch
I responded to a social media post seeking the participation of newcomers in a project called Arrivals. The purpose of the project was “focused on celebrating the stories of new citizens and asking how we can better welcome newcomers, and a better representation of the voices of newcomers in the Canadian narrative and the value they bring to Canada as a whole.”

A team led by Devon Ostrom, an art curator and public art advocate, conceived the project which comprised taking photographs of the eyes of newcomers and putting them up on Toronto’s City Hall. It was to depict now newcomers saw Toronto, reversing the notion of the newcomers being under scrutiny.
The eyes at City Hall

I was selected based on my written submission – a short essay about my immigrant experience. A volunteer from the organisation Helena Shimeles interviewed me. She was so involved in her questions and in understanding my experiences that I cried while answering some of the questions. 

The second part of the project was an insertion of short announcements under a new section called Arrivals in the traditional births and deaths classified announcements of the Toronto Star.  A friend saw the announcement ad and assumed I’d died.

The project got enormous participation and I met Che Kothari, the photographer, who clicked a totally clich├ęd photograph where I posed holding my chin. An enlarged version of that photograph was gifted to each participant.

I met the super talented Haniely Pableo, a young Filipino singer, who was also a part of the project.

With Haniely Pableo (right) and another participant
2012 turned out to be a memorable year because Mahrukh joined Home Depot, initially as a garden supplies part-timer, and then gradually, over the next six years, through sheer dint of hard work, tenacity and determination, she finally became a permanent employee this year (2018).

I’ve probably said this earlier, but I’m happy reiterating it and reemphasizing it – that the biggest transformation in our family after we came to Canada has been in Mahrukh.
She was always an independent-minded woman, who has always known what she wanted, and has gone all out to get it; she’s also had the sagacity to accept things that she cannot change. Her presence in our lives has made our transition to Canada truly meaningful.

The year also began well for Che, and he was now at the York Memorial Collegiate for his high school. It was during this phase and especially when he was in Grade 10 that he suddenly developed anxiety issues that spiralled out of control until intervention by a psychologist helped him overcome these challenges.

As a family, we were ill prepared for these challenges and went through a particularly harrowing time for two years; more so because we weren’t aware of the matter.  I’ve always felt that the main cause of this was the burden of expectations that we had put on his delicate shoulders. He was unable to express his discomfort with his situation as a newcomer to the Canadian education system, and while he’d tried to adjust to everything that happened, without any complaints, he was unable to live up to the expectations that we had of him.
With Mike Layton

Che was unable to complete his High School within the stipulated time; it was delayed by a year. But, he remained very much the responsible immigrant child who knew the struggle that the family had gone and was going through to survive in Canada; he was an integral part of that struggle.

He didn’t want to be perceived as a burden and started looking for a job even while he was going through the mental trauma, and on his own found a job soon after completing his High School. His mental health treatment continued for a while, and he dropped out of the program in television broadcasting that he started after completing his High School.

One of the struggles that we face in our society is the unnecessary stigma that we attach to mental health. I’ve never understood why this is the case. If it’s natural to go to a doctor when we have some physical ailment, why shouldn’t it be equally natural to go to a doctor when we have a mental ailment.

It is also during such times that we experience the pettiness of people we know, and who claim to be our friends. A memory that will never fade away is of a few such “friends” mocking our child’s inability to do well at school, without knowing the hard time he was going through.

In the Indian context, 2012 turned out to be a year when we lost one of the tallest cultural ambassadors of India – a man who perhaps single-handedly created more awareness about Indian classical music than anyone else did.

Ravi Shankar, the acclaimed sitar maestro, passed away on 12-12-12. There is no musical instrument better than the sitar, and nobody could play it as Ravi Shankar did.

And Indian film industry lost its first superstar Rajesh Khanna on 18 July 2012. There are many ways to remember Rajesh Khanna. I remember him for putting the fear of Bhagwan Ram in Lal Krishna Advani’s heart in the 1991 election when Advani won by the thinnest of margins from the New Delhi constituency. (Read the blog on his death here: Rajesh Khanna).

During the year, we also lost IK Gujral, perhaps India’s most erudite Prime Minister; and the technocrat administrator responsible for the white revolution in India – VG Kurien.

Coverage in Globe & Mail
Bal Thackeray also passed away in 2012. As a journalist, I had interviewed him on a couple of occasions and then during one interview when I was at the Sunday Observer, I’d asked him who’d succeed him (two decades before he’d pass into history). He was apparently so disturbed by the question that he refused to meet me ever thereafter.

Bal Thackeray, without any doubt, is one of the most divisive political leaders to emerge in post-Independent India. But, he was not alone. Divisive politics has been the bane of Indian parliamentary democracy, and these leaders and their parties have no qualms in exploiting the innate divisions within the Indian society for petty electoral gains.

In 2012, Kasab, the sole surviving terrorist of the bunch that attacked Bombay in November 2008, was sentenced to death. I’m opposed to the death penalty, but on this occasion, I didn’t protest.

I also lost a friend and former colleague Eva Doctor, who suddenly passed away on 26 July 2012. We worked in different sections in the US Consulate, while I was there, and I'd periodically take time out and sit with her to chat about nothing in particular and come away relaxed. 

One needs at least one friend in a workplace with whom one can be oneself without pretence. Someone who can bring a semblance to sanity to an otherwise toxic and vicious place as most workplaces tend to be, and that the US Consulate in Bombay was definitely at that time. 

Monday, August 06, 2018

The Telomere Problem


Guest post by Sharad Bailur


Sharad Bailur
Is Fate a deciding factor in human life? This book actually asks this question, never openly or straightaway. But it is the subtext, the premise, on which the novel is built.

Much of its basic philosophy is based on my reading of the philosophy of History from Plato to Hegel to Marx and Toynbee on the one hand, and, Thomas Kuhn, and then mavericks like Karl Popper and Paul Feyerabend, on the other.

While the first four seem to think that events occur as a stream that flows in which mankind wallows helplessly and has no control over, Feyerabend and even Karl Popper have a different and more interesting take on the subject. Popper’s argument is that this “historicism is a myth”. Both believe that chance events make for history. There is no such thing as a discernible pattern that can help us decipher the future.

The Telomere Problem is fiction, science fiction at that, but it has deep philosophical roots. It begins with the inevitability of a love affair gone wrong,  leads to the inevitability of the ‘repair of the situation’, in an entirely novel, if inadequate, manner. It ends with the chance factor of an unexpected death.

This novel doesn’t involve spectacular fantasized subjects like space travel, or monsters from Mars; nor car chases and dancing around trees; and not even court cases and arguments. It is not about crime. It is not a conventional love story.

So, the only way this tale could be told was to make it plausible. Making it plausible involved educating myself in an entirely new subject –molecular embryology. A lot of what was written as long ago as 2007 has come true in the last eleven years. A lot of what is written is expected to come true in the lives of the present generation. That includes major scientific and social, and economic revolutions that will change the face of this earth.

Is that Hegelian? Are these paradigm shifts, as Thomas Kuhn would suggest? Or is it just a string of educated guesses, that could go completely off-track based on chance factors? I don’t know.

On the face of it The Telomere Problem is just a novel. It starts on a simple core premise – the cloning of Madhubala, the film actress, and how it is possible 29 years after her death. Were it to remain at that level it would have merely been an entertaining, if implausible, story. But then it acquired a life of its own, refusing to close when it should have and went on to deal with the dangers involved with cloning.

From there to the use of nanotechnology in medical treatment. From there it turns to the 
new methods being used to arrest ageing and to the emerging possibilities of living forever, and its consequences in fields as far removed as Society, Economics and even world power balance.

You may buy Sharad Bailur’s debut novel here: The Telomere Problem

Sharad Bailur is that rare specimen, who are becoming rarer in our troubled times - an unbiased intellectual, who is willing to change his opinion in the face of new facts. A veteran media relations professional, Bailur has experienced the seamier side of the media at close quarters, and yet maintained a rare gravitas in his dealings with media professionals. I've had the privilege of knowing him for 31 years. 

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Scent of Mogra and Other Stories

Guest Post by Aparna Kaji Shah

There is no single story about a place or a people. The well-known novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called it “The danger of the single story” because it is dangerous when we show the same thing about someone again and again; they become that, and all other possibilities are excluded. This is especially relevant in today’s climate, both political as well as social.

Aparna Kaji Shah
 In my collection, “The Scent of Mogra and Other Stories” the female protagonists have different stories to tell. They range from a fifteen-year-old girl from Jaisalmer, in eighteenth-century India, who runs away with the nomadic tribes, to a middle-aged woman in modern-day Mumbai. 

There is also the character of a grandmother in Toronto dealing with old age and disease; of a village bride who moves to Mumbai, expecting the City of Dreams to fulfill her every wish, and of a young mother in pre-independence India on her death-bed reliving the molestation by her father-in-law and fearing for her daughters after her death.

The title story, “The Scent of Mogra”, is narrated by a dead woman who is reminiscing about her life on Earth and about her daughter who she somehow knows is suffering. These are stories not just about women’s oppression and exploitation in a male-dominated society, but of resilience, passion, and triumph. The varied female protagonists, in their different time periods, go through the turmoil that is life-changing and that creates within each one an inner strength and a determination to move on. These women come into their own as life unfolds around them.

I am delighted to announce that “The Scent of Mogra and Other Stories” will be published this September by Inanna Publications. When I started writing these stories, some written in Toronto, and others in Mumbai while we were living there, I never gave a thought to having them published; I was so enjoying the creative process and the writing. But friends and family urged me to submit, and I did. I was very fortunate to be accepted by Inanna.

One of the themes that link the stories in this collection, women’s lives within a patriarchal structure, is close to my heart. But the writing of the stories took me outside of myself in a way that let me see the larger picture of women’s existence over the centuries; it gave me a deep appreciation of the unique texture of individual lives and relationships.

The stories will resonate with all readers, men and women, young and old, as they are drawn into the lives of the characters. The women who inhabit the stories inhabit the real world, and we all know someone like them. “The Scent of Mogra and Other Stories” will not only remind readers about the many issues that women face across generations and cultures but help cast a fresh eye upon them.

I hope that like all art that moves readers, viewers or listeners in its many mysterious ways, my stories will find a way to engage my reader’s heart, her imagination and intellect and provide the keen enjoyment that we all go to books for. Finally, my wish is that this collection will help someone feel less alone in the world.


I am excited about the launch of my book on September 28th, sponsored by The International Festival of Authors (Toronto Lit Up) and Inanna Publications, at Ben McNally Books in Toronto. I will read from my stories and sign books from 6 to 8 pm. I look forward to seeing many of you there. 

In case you would like to pre-order “The Scent of Mogra and Other Stories”, it is available on Amazon Canada, the US and the UK. It can also be pre-ordered from Indigo. You can follow me on Twitter @akajishah  and on Facebook at Aparna Kaji Shah.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 13

Che - quiet, shy & handsome
I’ll continue with 2011 because when I look back at the year, I realise that a lot of things happened. And while it’s not possible to capture everything into this series, I do want to ensure that I don’t miss some important occurrences.

My involvement in the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts enlarged my circle of acquaintances in the creative world. I realized that the suburbs of Toronto – Mississauga, Brampton, and Oakville had a thriving cultural scene buzzing with events and programs and that South Asians were organizing most of these events.

I was invited to an exhibition of Hindi film posters – Picture House – organized by Ali Adil Khan and Asma Arshad Mahmood at the Art Gallery of Mississauga. It was a painstakingly put together exhibition, where Ali and Asma put a stamp of originality on a subject that could easily have become a sentimental and lachrymose, not to say banal, depiction of a dying art. 

I blogged rather animatedly about it, and my journalism teacher-turned-friend Teenaz Javat read it. She got me invited to the CBC’s Metro Morning show for a brief chat about the exhibition. (Read the blog: Picture House)

At IIFA, photo by Mariellen Ward
In late June, I was invited to participate in the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards at the Rogers Centre with Mahrukh, Che and Durga who was with us. The invitation was from my friend CP Thomas, who was doing the public relations for the event organizer Wizcraft (co-owner Sabbas Joseph used to be a colleague).

Thanks to CP, a serial entrepreneur and the publisher of Indian Voices, we got some of the best seats at the awards venue. The show belonged to Shahrukh Khan and Priyanka Chopra, and a bunch of film stars from the yesteryears. (Read the blog: IIFA in Toronto)

Farzana Doctor, the author friend who organizes the immensely influential Brockton Writers’ Series invited me to read at the September 2011 edition of the series along with Jessica Westhead and Pratap Reddy. She was greatly amused by the emails I exchanged to finalise my reading at the series and quoted from it verbatim while introducing me.

With Pratap and Jessica at Brocton Writers' Series
I have tremendous admiration and respect for Farzana. She gave key inputs to improve my manuscript and make it more “Canadian,” when I was struggling with it. Of course, by the time the manuscript emerged as a novel, a lot had already changed. At different stages of my writing process, she was willing to assist, suggest, promote and otherwise help in whatever way she could. Being a star author that she is, she’d forgotten my name by the time her third novel was launched.

Later that month, at the Word on the Street, I participated in the “Adopt a Writer” program with Jessica Westhead at the Word on the Street festival. Books and books-related events had become a major preoccupation. The Munk Centre in midtown Toronto became a regular venue to participate in such events. (Read the blog: Parallel Histories) It was to continue for a few years until recently when I began to consciously slow down my activities in view of my deteriorating kidneys. 

Marshall McLuhan’s centenary was celebrated globally in 2011, and in Toronto, his hometown, he was remembered at a panel discussion organized by the McLuhan Legacy Network. It was an important discussion.

McLuhan remains prescient about the future of the media. He’d predicted the Age of Internet long before it became a reality. He said, “The next medium, whatever it is – it may be the extension of consciousness – will include television as its content, not as its environment, and will transform television into an art form. A computer as a research and communication instrument could enhance retrieval, obsolesce mass library organization, retrieve the individual’s encyclopedic function, and flip into a private line to speedily tailored data of a saleable kind.”

My blog was being noticed and I began to get offers from publishers for book reviews. I’d prefer to write mostly about authors, book events and about books without doing reviews. Calypso Editions in the USA sent me a new translation of Leo Tolstoy’s ‘How much land does a man need’. It’s a simple, straightforward folklore of human greed. I blogged about Tagore and Translation in two parts. (Part 1, Part 2)

Che - getting ready for the
school concert
At work, I was doing all that needed to be done to give back to the ICCC – the organization that had made life possible in Canada for me and my family. I enjoyed the work, and what I loved more was the constant interaction with people who were deeply involved with the organization. 

Under Satish Thakkar's leadership, the organisation took off and successfully scaled peaks of glory never before attempted in the three-and-a-half decades of the organisation's history. 
Harjit Kalsi was another stalwart – an unassuming, soft-spoken, hands-on manager, who made the most menial tasks pleasurable. Together, Harjit and I created a short documentary on Hindi film songs with the railway motif for the ICCC’s year-end gala that had the Indian Railways as its theme.

At home, Che was in his final pre-teen years and was turning into a handsome young man. The next three years would be hard on him; years that’d change him forever.  I’ve often thought about these years and often wondered whether I did the right thing in getting us here.