& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Mixing Genres in Fiction

I have always felt boxed in by the definition of “genre” when it comes to writing fiction. Why be bound by the rules of a craft when that craft itself is in a state of evolution, and where tomorrow’s rules may be today’s exploratory scribbling?

When I sat down to compile my new short story collection, Crossing Limbo, I drew from stories written over the last ten years, written with long time intervals between each piece. Therefore, the stories didn’t resemble each other. When I wrote each piece I hadn’t the intention that they would ever become part of a collection, which usually requires a common theme and genre. I guess I had been scanning too many bookstores which had “mystery stories,” “YA” and “fairy tales,” categorizing the shelves and reading copious quantities of Alfred Hitchcock’s terror magazines to draw the conclusion that stories accreted to specific genres. I wrote my pieces whenever something had intrigued me at the time, and I selected the appropriate voice and genre that gave my subject matter the greatest expression, or so I thought.

Therefore, when I wanted to write about greed, I thought I would make the narrator a dog who is observing this weakness in humans; when I wanted to portray an Arab Spring, I put myself in the shoes of the bad dictator to understand his perspective on the approaching “bad season”; when I wanted to check out the seductive world of swingers, I had an inexperienced housewife naively enter the club to experience its shock impact; when I wanted to explore predation on the internet, I created a fictional chat line; when I wanted to write about disadvantaged immigrants, I chose the voice of one who had fallen on the wrong side of the track through no fault of his own; when I thought “ romance,” I thought how neat would it be to explore this ephemeral state with two candidates at extreme ends of the game of love: a tantric sex instructor and a sexless corporate executive. You can see where this is going... Before long, I had a mixed bag of stories that included the genres of magic realism, suspense, crime, erotica, romance, and everything else that I lumped under the broad umbrella of “literary fiction.” Who was going to buy this?

Then I said to myself, had I written a novel, I wouldn’t have been able to cover such a broad expanse of human experience without writing the next War & Peace. With short stories, I could get in deep and get out quickly and move onto the next, and readers would take that as par for the course. Besides, in these speeded-up times, the short story is supposed to be the replacement to the novel, just as the 140-byte Twitter line is supposed to replace the 420-byte Facebook post. Neither of these things has happened yet, but we are told to anticipate them. So I pitched my collection with this “deep and quick” angle in view and my publisher bought it. The editor added that even though the genres varied, the theme was consistent: dark literature about people traversing their personal limbo towards redemption. I hadn’t thought of that!

So I have this cocktail of a book that came out recently, and I am hoping that readers will appreciate the different genres, although I suspect that some form of selection will take place and the audience will divide and gravitate to different stories based on individual taste. However, I am hoping that bibliophiles, who devour everything, will find a smorgasbord in this collection instead of just Indian Curry,  Japanese Sushi, or Italian Pasta, and that it will satisfy their diverse tastes. And I look forward, somewhat in trepidation, to the reaction afterwards from all camps. Any book, once released, takes a life of its own. All the writer can do is reflect on the hours of engagement he had with it, akin to raising a child, and wishing it well when it leaves the nest.

(Shane Joseph is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and the author of four novels and three collections of short stories. His work After the Flood won the best fantasy novel award at Write Canada in 2010. His short fiction has appeared in international literary journals and anthologies. His collection of short stories,  Crossing Limbo (Morning Rain Publishing) was released in June 2017. 

For details visit his website at www.shanejoseph.com)

Reviews of Crossing Limbo could be read at:

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


After three-and-a-half decades, I saw Casablanca (director: Michael Curtiz) again. It was the first time in a cinema house. The first time I saw it was in the early 1980s at Bombay’s (Mumbai) American Centre. The United States of America’s diplomatic thrust in those days was to saturate Indians with Hollywood’s and Madison Avenue’s soft power.

Casablanca introduced me to Rick Blaine, the owner of the swinging nightclub and gambling den (Rick's Café Américain), the most happening place in a city otherwise charged with wartime tension. Humphrey Bogart essayed the role. Casablanca also had the inimitable Ingrid Bergman, a stunning natural beauty who was also a consummate actor, performing the role of Ilsa Lund, the woman torn between her husband (Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid) and her former lover (Rick, Humphrey Bogart).

What lifts Casablanca and makes it extraordinary is a melange of memorable scenes. Permit me to describe just two that are my favourite.

The first is when Ilsa walks into Rick’s café, with her husband Victor Laszlo, the guerrilla leader of the Resistance. She doesn’t know who Rick is, but immediately realises his identity when she sees Sam in the café, playing the piano. Dooley Wilson performed this pivotal role of the piano player and singer at Rick’s nightclub.

Ilsa strides across to Sam and after a few awkward moments where she extracts information about Rick from an unwilling Sam, requests Sam to sing As Time Goes By, a song that he sang when Rick and Ilsa were in love in Paris. “Play it Sam, for old time’s sake,” she says. And as a reluctant Sam begins to sing the song, Rick storms from the bar and shouts at Sam, “Sam I thought I told you never to play…”

Another scene that remains etched in one’s memory, long after the movie is over, is when it’s time for Ilsa and Victor to leave Casablanca for Lisbon. Rick manages to convince Ilsa to escape from Casablanca to Lisbon onward to the United States of America. He promises her that he would go with her, and dump Laszlo. But at the airport, as the aircraft is about to take off, Rick tells, no, he forces Ilsa that she should accompany her husband.  Two of the film’s classic lines “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you kid” are part of this scene.

Made in 1942, at a time when the Second World War was at its peak and Hitler’s armies were scourging large parts of Europe, Casablanca was Hollywood’s (and America’s) propaganda tool that worked remarkably well in creating public opinion against the Nazis. In all these years since I don’t think I’ve seen any male actor with such rough and raw appeal as Bogart; Harrison Ford comes close, but not quite.  Three of Bogart’s best films are the Maltase Falcon, the African Queen and, of course, Casablanca.

The Yonge-Dundas Cineplex was nearly full Sunday afternoon and an appreciative audience clapped when the film ended and the credits rolled up. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ashoak Updahyay's The Beacon

Ashoak Upadhyay is an idiosyncratic man. He’s a leftist intellectual, an economist, a journalist, a novelist and now the editor of The Beacon online magazine promoting long-form writing.

I’ve known him since the early 1990s. He was my colleague at the Observer group, though we worked at different publications, and then he was my editor at Business India, where we routinely argued over matters that, in retrospect, seem so utterly irrelevant. 

But he was a great editor to work with. In particular, I remember a report that he conceived and for which I did the field work on the burgeoning entrepreneurialism in Dharavi slum (in those days it was called Asia’s largest slum). Subsequently, another senior journalist turned the idea into a book.

A few years back, Ashoak published his debut novel – The Hungry Edge. It’s a layered tale consisting of stories within stories and is a commentary on urban Indians coping with the changes that globalisation is bringing into their social and moral lives. But it is also about memory and time and their role in shaping our passions and our self-perceptions.(Read an earlier blog about the novel here: The Hungry Edge)

Ashoak is a great guy to be around because he can (and often does) talk on every subject with great erudition. This erudition springs from his being extremely well-read and knowledgeable and also because he is opinionated and biased. 

It’s this combination of being expertise and bias that must have led him to launch The Beacon.

I'm sharing a recent email exchange with him where he talks about his website:

What motivated you to launch The Beacon?

The paucity of essay-length writings that are not knee-jerk responses to events as they occur or are boringly academic. Less journalism, even less pedantry, more readability, imaginative analyses, contemplation. Long form writing with long shelf lives that can be read after the contingent moment has passed.

What is it that you're trying to achieve through it

Different ways of seeing and thinking about, our diversities, differences and frailties. Conversations across races, communities, genders and cultures.    

In a crowded space will Beacon achieve that you envisage it should?

The space is crowded with platforms or media urging obvious thought, even more obvious actions on the contingent; there can never be enough platforms that make readers think heterogeneously and without the categories they have been told to think with.

And what are you doing to make it more relevant to a younger demographic?

Despite the dominating categories of homogenized thinking and action being pressed upon them, the young have the capacity to imagine, to see life in its variety, to see difference as intrinsic to the human race. The Beacon offers them the windows to the ineffable, the imagined, to the possible in the impossible.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

She knew India’s heartbeat

In the centenary year of her birth and thirty-three years after her assassination, Indira Gandhi remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma

‘Indira is India’

To some, she was the daughter of India. To many, she was India. Dev Kant Barooah famously proclaimed, “Indira is India and India is Indira” at the height of her popularity in the 1970s. She was the Durga for MF Husain. Rabindranath Tagore called her Priyadarshini. To her critics, such as Ram Manohar Lohia, she was the “gungi gudiya”, a notion she dispelled quickly once her ascent to power commenced.

In a patriarchal society steeped in moribund traditions she epitomised the universal mother figure, revered, adored, admired, and on occasions feared and maligned. Throughout her political career and even after her assassination, Indians have both deified and demonised Indira Gandhi.

Indira was a political behemoth that shaped the destiny of India. From 1966 to 1984, she was, unarguably, the most popular leader in India.  It is a measure of her enduring appeal that several decades after she had passed into history, the people of India continue to remember her as one of the best Prime Ministers of India.

In her biography on Indira, her friend Pupul Jaykar, describes her as, “A woman so closely tuned to the country and its people; so complex, so skilful, so far seeing, so concerned, so capable of an insightful listening, so moved by beauty; and yet, at times, so primeval, so obsessive, so brittle, even trivial – a woman who refused to be measured, who laid her own ground rule.”

Ambition and zeal

Questions about her ability have continued to be raised both during her lifetime and surprisingly even after her death. There is a small yet vocal section that believes her ascension to glory was because she was Nehru’s daughter.  Indira’s rise was measured, and events in her life propelled her to gradually occupy the centre stage. Being born in an illustrious family definitely helped, as did being a father’s daughter. However, what contributed to her rise as a leader of the masses was an inherent zeal to be of service to the people of India and a matching acumen to realize her ambitions. 

Nehru, ever the democrat, had said, “This business of picking up an individual successor is something I find quite alien in my way of thinking. I am not trying to start a dynasty. How terrible it would be if I, after all I have said about the processes of democratic government, were to attempt to handpick a successor. The best I can do for India is to help our people as a whole to generate new leadership as it may be needed.”

Indira’s education was mixed, varied, and one that encompassed different streams. It included stints at Tagore’s Shantiniketan, Oxford, schools in Switzerland, Delhi, Bombay, and Poona. However, she didn’t complete her studies. The atmosphere at home, and being Jawaharlal’s daughter and Motilal’s granddaughter undoubtedly drew her into the freedom struggle. As a teenager, she formed the Vanar Sena in 1930, when the Congress launched the Purna Swaraj movement; during the Quit India movement in 1942, when Indira was 22-years-old, she was imprisoned.

Earlier that year (1942), she married Feroze Gandhi, against her father’s wishes. She met Feroze in England and had been attracted to his radical, leftist ideas, but also confessed that “One of the reasons I got married was that I was determined to have children”.  A 30-year-old Indira greeted the dawn of India’s independence, working with the Mahatma in Delhi to bring calm to the victims of religious violence that had engulfed the subcontinent. She became Nehru’s shadow when he became India’s first Prime Minister.

Immersed in Congress

It was only a matter of time before Indira began working for the Congress party. She became a member of the party’s working and electoral committees in 1955 and earned notoriety for recommending the dismissal of India’s first Communist government in Kerala. The dismissal of the EMS Namboodripad government also revealed an authoritarian streak that would manifest more prominently a decade-and-a-half later.

In 1958, she separated from Feroze and began to devote more time to the Congress. She became the fourth woman President of the party in 1959 (Anne Besant, Nellie Sengupta and Sarojini Naidu had been the other three).  In September 1960, Feroze suffered a stroke in the Parliament, but went to the hospital only a couple of days later when the pain in his chest became acute and unbearable. Indira was in Kerala and rushed back to Delhi, but her estranged husband passed away the next morning – on 8 September 1960. For Indira, it was “as though somebody had cut me into two.”

After the Chinese debacle in 1962, when Nehru faced defeat both on the battlefield and psychologically, Indira ensured that VK Krishna Menon was sidelined. Menon was Nehru’s main adviser on the China policy. Nehru never recovered from this disillusionment and in 1964 passed away into history.

About her father, Indira said, “He was the humanity in a human being, He was deeply sensitive. He was far more of a poet than a politician. Someone one has said that out of a person’s quarrels with society comes out literature, but out of one’s inner conflict comes out poetry. I think in my father both these were there. There was a conflict with the status quo of the society as well as a conflict within himself.”

During the short-lived Lal Bahadur Shastri government, Indira was responsible for Information and Broadcasting portfolio. Upon his untimely death in Tashkent, the cabal of the Congress’s Syndicate (K. Kamaraj, Atulya Ghosh, S. Nijalingappa, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy) thought it fit to hoist Indira as the Prime Minister, harbouring delusions that they would be the puppeteers and Indira, their dumb doll, would dance to their tunes.

Durga incarnation

She had no patience for the old guard. After the Congress’s lacklustre win in the 1967 elections, Indira moved in with the stealth of a cougar, and split the party in 1969, jettisoning the geriatric leadership and creating her own Congress. She nationalised the banks in 1969 which gave a tremendous impetus to economic growth, and especially the agricultural sector. Bank nationalisation made it possible for farmers to avail of loans turning the green revolution into a success. Within the next two years, Indira created an aura of invincibility. She was determined to take a hard-line on everything.

1971 was a significant year for Indira and for India. In the name of equality, she also abolished the privy purses. She also turned American ambivalence in geopolitical equations to her advantage and signed a 20-year peace, friendship and cooperation treaty with the Soviet Union. Garibi hatao got her an overwhelming majority in the Parliament, and she used this new legitimacy to bury MA Jinnah’s two-nation theory by creating a third one – Bangladesh in the winter of 1971. The US President Richard Nixon dispatched the seventh fleet to the Bay of Bengal, but Indira couldn't care less. Atal Behari Vajpayee, always the one to capture the nation’s mood in words, declared Indira was “Durga astride the tiger,” and later denied ever having said so.

Such was her cocky confidence, recounts Sam Maneckshaw, the field marshal who gave the Indian armed forces their finest hour, that when they met after the war, she summarily asked him about the rumours that he was planning to overthrow her elected government and bring in army rule. “What if I did?” asked Maneckshaw. “You wouldn't dare,” replied Mrs. Gandhi calmly.

Indira could do no wrong. But such admiration resulted in heightened expectations, and she wasn’t equipped to deal with them. Inevitably, the rot set in. Her lack of patience for her opponents and a complete absence of scruples caused major problems. Unfulfilled aspirations can be a dangerous thing in a democracy, and Indira realised this in 1973-74 when out of nowhere Jayaprakash Narayan (J.P.) launched the Nav Nirman agitation and George Fernandes called for the great railway strike. The nuclear tests at Pokhran in 1974 did not help her fight the rising tide of anger.

Emergency’s excesses

The Allahabad High Court set aside Indira’s election in 1975 on technical grounds; she appealed, but Justice VR Krishna Iyer who heard the appeal only issued a conditional stay on the Allahabad judgement, permitting Indira to attend the Parliament but preventing her from voting. The opposition immediately demanded her resignation.
Her son Sanjay and other Congress leaders urged her not to resign. Indira agreed to their advice. As she told Dom Moraes, “What else could I have done except stay? You know the state the country was in. What would have happened if there had been nobody to lead it? I was the only person who could, you know.”

In June 1975, Indira declared an internal Emergency, and suspended democratic rights. She sent the entire opposition behind bars and muzzled the press. She argued that when the opposition advised the armed forces not to take orders from the government, a grave and unprecedented situation had been created which would have led to anarchy and chaos. The only way to effectively deal with this eventuality was to declare an internal Emergency.

Indira justified Emergency thus: “Our opponents wanted to paralyse the work of the Central Government and we found ourselves in a serious situation. And we took certain steps. But many of the friends in the country were rather puzzled as to what has Indiraji done? What will happen to the country now? But we felt that the country has developed a disease and, if it is to be cured soon, it has to be given a dose of medicine even if it is a bitter dose. However dear a child may be, if the doctor has prescribed bitter pills for him, they have to be administered for his cure…So we gave this bitter medicine to the nation…Now, when a child suffers, the mother suffers too. Thus we were not very pleased to take this step…But we saw that it worked just as the dose of the doctor worked.”

Unquestionably, the Emergency was an abomination. Nothing can justify it, and the excesses that followed in its name – such as the forced sterilisations – alienated the people from Indira. Sanjay’s rise during this period also ensured that effective power moved away from Indira and vested in her son.

Democrat at heart

What needs to be emphasised (and it is something that is not explained by any of the numerous Indira critics) was that she need not have called for an election in March 1977. Why did she do it? No dictator in the world has done that or not ensured his/her own victory after having called for an election. Indira lost decisively.  However, even when she was routed, her magic worked in south India, and the Congress won all the 153 Parliament seats at stake in the four southern states.  About her electoral defeat, Indira said, “People have always thought that I was imagining things and overreacting, but there has been a deep conspiracy and it was bound to overtake us.”

The Janata interregnum proved to be a comprehensive disaster politically and the experiment disintegrated within a couple of years. Indira’s persecution under the Shah Commission helped in hastening her return – first to the Parliament in 1978 and then to form the government in 1980.

Sanjay, clearly her favourite son, died in a plane crash in 1982, a dénouement that perhaps Indira had anticipated. She worried about Sanjay in a letter written to a friend, “Rajiv has a job but Sanjay doesn’t and is also involved in an expensive venture. He is so much like I was at that age – rough edges and all – that my heart aches for the suffering he may have to bear.” In a move that left nothing to the imagination about her dynastic designs, she forced a reluctant Rajiv to join public life.

Indira’s return and second stint were fraught with uncertainty. She was now keen to abandon her pet prejudices. She was aspiring for a prominent place in history, comparable to the one her father had and was not going to settle for anything less. To help build that image, India hosted the Asian Games in 1982, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in 1983 and the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) meeting in Goa.

However, India had changed and Indians were not as susceptible to their leaders’ charms. Moreover, the Indian media, after having been made to crawl during the Emergency, was in no mood to give any quarters. Arun Shourie, a World Bank economist, who was emerging as the enfant terrible of Indian journalism, had already changed the rules of the game. His grand expose of Abdul Rehman Antulay, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, (‘Indira Gandhi as Commerce’) had set new benchmarks in investigative journalism in India.

Coinciding with the NAM Summit, Shourie (and Shekhar Gupta) pieced together the story of the Nellie massacre (1983) in Assam.  India Today published it and timed it to coincide with the NAM Summit to create maximum havoc. The Summit was inaugurated on March 12 and India Today’s cover on Nellie hit newsstands on March 15. The global media gave precedence to the Nellie massacre and not the NAM Summit.

Punjab crisis

The crises in Punjab, which had been simmering slowly for a few years, suddenly boiled over with the meteoric rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the monk with a machinegun. He turned the holiest of holy Sikh shrines into an armed fortress and began to mastermind an operation that would have led to another vivisection of Indian. Indira approved of the controversial Operation Bluestar in June 1984 to flush out the militants from the Golden Temple complex.

In his memoirs, the former President of India Pranab Mukherjee said, “Some believe that this course of action could have been avoided. But the reality was that Bhindranwale and his followers had occupied and taken control of the Golden Temple, disregarding its sanctity. Extremists had turned it into a fortress and a base for operations aimed at the separation of Punjab from India. I still vividly recall Mrs. Gandhi telling me, ‘Pranab, I know the consequences.’ She understood the situation well and was clear that there was no other option. Aware that her own life was at risk, she took a conscious decision to go ahead in the best interest of the nation.”

Indira achieved a decisive military victory but permanently wounded the Sikh psyche. On October 31, 1984, in retaliation to Operation Bluestar, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, Indira’s two Sikh bodyguards, showered her with a barrage of bullets, even as Peter Ustinov waited to interview her for an Irish television channel. She had disregarded her intelligence apparatus’s advice to replace her Sikh bodyguards, stating it would negate India’s secular principles.

Coincidentally, a day before she was assassinated, at a rally in Orrisa, Indira, as if having a premonition about her assassination, had rather grandiosely proclaimed, “I am not concerned whether I live or die, and till I breathe, I will continue to serve, and when I die, I can say that each drop of my blood will be for India.”