& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, July 15, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 12

Che at his school concert
2011 turned out to be a momentous year in many ways. Some of India’s biggest and most enduring cultural icons left us – Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, and Maqbul Fida Husain. Each had carved a special niche amongst Indians with their achievements.

Husain’s death was tragic. The artist who had shaped aesthetic sensibilities in post-independence (and post-colonial)  India had to live his last few years in exile, fearful that if he continued to live in India, he would be apprehended and imprisoned for hurting the Hindu religious sentiments because he had preferred to paint Hindu goddesses (and Mother India) in the nude. One should bear in mind that all this happened before Narendra Modi changed India irreversibly and forever in 2014.

Bharat Mata by MF Husain
On May 1 2011, American soldiers killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The man redefined our world and his ideology of terrorism divided (divides) people as nobody else has since perhaps Leninism did in the early 20th century. The manuscript that I was working on was primarily based on the ideology of hatred preached by Laden and his foot soldiers in the Islamic world.

The year began with the Islamic world suddenly seized by an urgent need for a revolution. Led by social media, the youth of Egypt took to streets and demanded democracy; young people from across the Middle East joined in. Briefly, with the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt and the brutal street lynching of Gaddafi, it seemed that after all these years of being under brutal dictatorships the region would see the birth of democracy.

It appeared that perhaps George Bush Jr had been right all along – that invading Iraq had been about ushering democracy in the Middle East. Of course, that was not to be, and aided and abetted by the United States of America (then under Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State) throttled democracy and reinstated a military dictatorship in Egypt, leaving most of the Middle East smouldering.

Also in 2011, the world’s population crossed 7 billion, and the seven billionth baby was born in India, and India won the World Cup, fulfilling Sachin Tendulkar’s dream.

However, this is not the place for a detailed discussion on global sociopolitical and cultural issues. This blog is about Mahrukh, Che, Canada, and me. For all of us, the year was turning out to be immensely important. Che graduated from the middle school and decided to go to the York Memorial Collegiate for high school. He had become an independent-minded young adult who took his own decisions.

Che's graduation from Middle School
In school, he learnt to play the clarinet and was included in the school’s concert choir. It was probably a routine matter, but for us – immigrant parents – it was an amazing achievement and we took pains in ensuring that he was dressed appropriately. Che’s transformation had been the quickest because he went to school and there is nothing better than grassroots education to ensure comprehensive integration.

Read about Che at school here: Losing accent

Mahrukh, who had completed her program in social work from Medix, was courageously working as a volunteer with different settlement agencies across Toronto. She was gaining tremendous experience and was acquiring firsthand knowledge about the intricacies of the settlement process. However, she remained singularly unlucky because while everyone admired her abilities and skills, nobody was willing to offer her a regular job.

I’d continued to work on my manuscript and an extract of my unpublished manuscript was published as a short story in the Indian Voices Vol I published in India by CP Thomas and edited by the formidable Jasmine DaCosta, who had already included another extract from the manuscript in the Canadian Voices Vol II. I was one of the readers at the launch of the collection at Toronto’s Supermarket Bar. I was delighted that MG Vassanji and Nurjehan Aziz were among the audience. The hugely talented Farzana Doctor was the other reader.  This was my moment under the spotlight (literally) and I enjoyed it every bit.

At the launch of Indian Voices Vol I
Jasmine DaCosta introduced us to Mariellen Ward, a travel writer of repute, who did an interview with the group (Jasmine, Farzana and Niranjana Iyer) about new Indo-Canadian writing in Toronto and got it published in the Maple Tree Literary Supplement edited by the versatile Amatoritsero Ede. Read about it here:  Defining Indo-Canadian writing

My association with MG Vassanji had continued even after I completed my program in Creative Writing under his guidance at Humber College and he included me in the core group of the organisers of the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts (FSALA). Along with the other committee members, I was to organize the second edition of the festival. I’d participated in the first edition in 2009 and had gone to the Robert Gill Theatre Koffler Centre at the U of T (St. George) at the reading of Bapsi Sidhwa (Ice Candy Man / Earth); Anosh Irani and Tahira Naqvi also read at the event.

Read here about FSALA 2009

For 2011, the program was perhaps a bit more ambitious with over 30 authors participating, including the iconic Girish Karnad, the Jnanpeeth award-winning playwright of groundbreaking plays such as Tughlak and Naga-Mandala. The festival also acknowledged Rabindranath Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary and Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s centenary. Ananya Mukherjee of York University performed an amazing skit in Bengali based on Tagore’s writings. For an academic, it was truly a jaw-dropping performance. I told her she’d have succeeded as an actor, too, had she tried.  

Read about the festival here:

The festival was remarkable in many ways. I had the privilege on meeting two of the best playwrights in India – Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani. Dalbir Singh, at that time a student, interviewed both of them at a scintillating session. With Karnad, I managed to have an exclusive chat as I walked with him back to the hotel. He was more concerned that I’d be cold because I wasn’t wearing any warm clothes.  

Saturday, June 30, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 11

Che and Mahrukh returning from Pune to Bombay
By the time 2011 began, both Mahrukh and I were missing Bombay rather desperately. It’d been three years in Canada, three years away from what we still considered ‘home’, three years that had been unexpectedly harsh, hard and unrelenting. We were happy that we survived, but also tired. We needed a mental rejuvenation. And what better way to get that than to go home on a vacation? In August 2011, we took Swissair and reached Bombay.

Our city had changed, transformed into a giant construction site. The number of skyscrapers under construction was evidently spiralling out of control; the Mumbai Metro had started from Ghatkopar to Versova, but the project would become altogether more ambitious in the next few years. The Bandra Sea Link had been completed and looked every bit the architectural marvel that it was envisaged to be.

We were ecstatic to be back, but not for long. Something had changed inside us. Bombay no longer felt like home. It’d changed, and so had we. Yes, the monsoon was at its peak, but - unexpectedly - the humidity was unbearable. And we were ashamed to admit that because we'd lived in that humidity for all but three years of our lives. 

After a few days of being cloistered at home, working on my manuscript, I ventured out and met some friends. They were all universally welcoming, affectionate and delighted to see me. However, their lives had inexorably moved forward, as had mine (although their lives seemed to have moved faster and far ahead as compared to mine). 

What remained was just a shared past. I wasn’t a part of their present and that changed the relationship into something that was somehow lesser than what it’d been; somewhat incomplete, static; somewhere directionless, uprooted.

Suddenly, my city was no longer my own, my people had become distant. It was then that the irony of my existence became obvious. I guess it's the fate of all immigrants – neither belonging to the city that had become one’s home, nor to the city that had been one’s home. I would never become a Torontonian, and I was no longer a Bombayite.

I was in an in-between world, belonging nowhere, condemned to be an outsider even in my own life. The relationships that one makes when one is young probably last longer because these relationships are not need-based; they are what one wants. As one grows older, and especially in the case of an immigrant like me, who emigrated at an old age, it’s almost impossible to form genuine relationships that one wants; and the only relationships that seem possible are those that are need-based.  

My relationships from the past had turned to fossil and my relationships of the present were transactional, based on mutual needs. No doubt, there have been (and hopefully there will be) exceptions, but perhaps they only prove the rule; or am I being too cynical and morose?

Mahrukh shared this feeling of being uprooted perhaps more acutely because she had (and still has) her family in India. If there is one thing that she has in great abundance it is resilience.  Immigration changes everyone, and everyone manages these changes differently. In Mahrukh’s case, the changes were too drastic and it took a tremendous effort for her to emerge from the trauma of displacement.

Being an outgoing and amiable person, she was able to make friends easily, bond with people not too different from us. However, she worked on transforming herself. The result was not manifest when we went to India in 2011, but within a few months, when 2012 began, Mahrukh joined Home Depot, which changed her so completely that she is no longer the woman she was when she left India.

We returned to Toronto after a month’s stay in Bombay. Somehow it’d felt strange to go home on a vacation, but when we returned, it didn’t feel strange to return to what wasn’t yet home.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A decade in Toronto – 10

Che in Kingston (2010)
I return to my memoirs after a long gap of over a month. The last couple of months have been hectic and difficult. I’ve changed my job and will be working at the Canada India Foundation from Monday, May 28. A former friend and colleague in Bombay had described my penchant for continuous transition rather aptly. He called me dust. “He takes time to settle down.”

In any case, the pressure of a job change and the freelance assignment led to a severe curtailment in the free time I could have at my disposal to do what I ought to do more – write. So, here I’m back blogging.

The year is 2010. Let’s continue from where we left off in the previous post. In November 2010, two years and some months in Canada, we took a three-night tour to Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City and Kingston in a bus. I’ve blogged about the visit earlier and if you’d care to read about it, click here: Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec City.

The grand Notre Dame Basilica in Montreal
In Quebec City, while strolling down the market, we met Jean-Philippe Vogel, a pen-and-ink artist who was selling sketches of cityscapes on the street. These were exquisite and detailed. I bought a few and recently gifted to a dear friend and another to a colleague.

We returned to Toronto with a promise that we’d go back to Quebec City and Montreal frequently. But such is the fate of immigrants that the lure of “back home” overrides every other destination. In 2011, we returned to India for the first time after immigrating to Canada, but we’ll talk about that later. 
Sheridan Medal for Academic Excellence

With Nelson and Laura
at the Sheridan Convocation
One of the major highlights of 2010 was my graduation from Sheridan College where unsurprisingly I won the Sheridan Medal for Academic Excellence (silver medal) for coming first in the class. After a couple of decades in journalism, both as a journalist and as a teacher, I guess I knew a bit more than the others on the subject.

It was the first convocation that I attended in my life. I’d skipped the one when I got my university degree nearly three decades ago. It was also the last time I met nearly all of them. And but for a few, I don't really miss their absence. Joyce, Yoko, Teenaz have become friends.

I was working on my manuscript and learnt about the 3-Day Novel festival that is held during the Labor Day weekend. I entered the competition and worked furiously to complete a manuscript in three days. It was terrible in quality but such a great experience that I did that for the next three years. At present, I’ve four novella length stories that I plan to cut down to short story length.

I continued to go to readings by other authors, and participate in literary events. Although 2010 was not the first time I participated in the Word on the Street festival held towards the end of summer, it was definitely the first year when I knew many authors. 

I met Robin Maharaj, whose novel The Amazing, Absorbing Boy I’d recently read. Katherine Govier had her new novel The Ghost Brush published the same year and both Robin and Katherine were reading at the festival. My friend Dawn, whose short story collection was to be published by TSAR later that year, was reading at the Diaspora Dialogues tent.

That year, I also attended the play reading of Habib Tanvir’s classic Charandas Chor. Sally Jones, who ran Rasik Arts in those days, had organised it. Another play that she staged at the Harbourfront Centre was about Tagore as a painter. Tea with Tagore had Ishwar Mooljee enacting the role of Tagore. I blogged about it, too, and should you be interested in reading it, click here: Tea with Tagore.

One of the most pleasant surprises of my life was to meet a college friend Nandita Desai (now Nandita Chawla) at the Harbourfront Centre. In high school, I’d a major crush on her, and everyone (but she) knew about it.  It’s such a strange thing about life. I exchanged polite pleasantries with someone who'd meant so much to me three decades ago. It all works out the way it’s meant to be. I was with my wife and son and she was with her husband and her daughter.  

That year, we also went to the Masala Mehndi Maasti, which turned out to be a washout thanks to torrential rains, but I was happy to hear Janice Goveas read excerpts from her play Dinner with Akbar. And, of course, Meena Chopra invited me to the launch of her collection of poems Glimpses of Setting Sun and an exhibition of paintings. If you’d like to read about the book launch event, click here: Meena Chopra.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 9

Becoming Canadian, and showing it!
2010: I return to what is turning out to be a sanitized version of my memoirs, after a long gap of nearly three weeks. I say sanitized because I’ve focused only on the positives of the last decade, and also, I’d rather not dwell upon the many unpleasant experiences that I’ve encountered during that time.

I’m sure all newcomers have such unpleasant experiences that may vary in their content but not much in the form, but when one looks back, one realises that such small irritants don’t amount to anything significant, and shouldn’t be given undue importance. This is because the positives overwhelmingly outweigh the negatives.  

Confidence & contentment
2010 began on a positive note for all the three of us – I finally had a secure job and Mahrukh was doing great at her social worker program at Medix. Che was out of middle school and into high school, having chosen York Memorial at Keele and Eglinton. With a secure job, I focused on my writing, and meeting and making friends with the community of authors and creative people in the Greater Toronto Area.

I began participating in reading sessions in Toronto and Mississauga. My circle of friends grew rapidly and I continued to develop my manuscript. I met Farzana Doctor, who significantly influenced my writing; and a couple of years later, she read my manuscript and recommended substantial modifications. I also participated in Meena Chopra's book launch in Mississauga. Meena is an artist I admire; she's also a poet, Her husband, Bhupinder, has a wry sense of humour, both are family now.

My attempt at writing fiction was turning out to be rather challenging and difficult. To write continuously and to develop a story are not among the easiest of things to do. I’d never done anything like this before and there were many missteps.  I didn’t have a name for the novel – that came four years later when I was rewriting the passages about Rafiq’s religiosity.

All I had was a first chapter, which started as a short story, and then I decided to continue working on it because it seemed adventurous to something that I’d never done before. I was in that sort of a state of mind – to boldly go where I’d never imagined I’d go, and writing fiction was definitely adventurous and challenging. I was elated that Diaspora Dialogues had accepted my short story and it was to be published in the fifth edition of their annual collection TOK: Writing the New Toronto.

But the journey from writing a short story to writing a full-length novel was not a natural progression even if it seemed so. I tried to adapt the story to an earlier attempt at novel writing (A decade in Toronto – 7) but soon realised that my characters were based in Canada and what I’d done earlier could, at best, be a back story and that, too, of just one of the four main characters. I didn’t know how to develop characters, build a narrative, and was too dependent upon dialogues, which tended to dominate the narrative.

I knew I needed guidance and when I learnt that MG Vassanji, who had been my mentor at the Diaspora Dialogues program, was a writing coach at Humber College’s creative writing program, I wrote to Antanas Sileika and started the program to work on my manuscript under Vassanji’s guidance. 

It was not easy working with him. He was painstaking, methodical and thorough. I think I must have worked on my first chapter over two dozen times and yet he remained dissatisfied. In July, when the creative writing program’s term ended, I continued for another six months, preferring Vassanji’s guidance rather than venturing on my own. I learnt the hard way that all writing was rewriting.

There was a slow build up in excitement as the launch of TOK 5 approached. But nothing had prepared me to e invited to participate as a panellist at a discussion during the launch event. I was overwhelmed when I got an email from Julia Chan of Diaspora Dialogues in April 2010 asking me whether I’d be interested in being a panellist and also read from my story at the launch event that was scheduled in May 2010 at the prestigious Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library.

Marjorie Chan moderated the panel discussion and the panellists included Shyam Selvadurai, Emma Donahue, Marni Van Dyke, Michael Fraser, and me. The discussion was interspersed with five-minute readings from each remaining writer.

Reading at the Toronto Reference Library

I was overawed to be participating in a panel discussion with such prominent and talented authors and was justifiably nervous. I think I gave adequate responses to the questions Marjorie asked me, generally thanking the Canadian immigration system to be so generous and well attuned as to give a newcomer like me an opportunity to be an author. Shyam who was sitting beside me had a diametrically opposite view and was resolutely critical of the system. I read the first part of my story – from the beginning to the passage from the email that ends with Rafiq’s mentor seeking war on Canada.

Chan, Fraser, Donahue, Van Dyke, Selvadurai and I
Dawn Promislow and Leslie Shimotakahara, who were also featured authors in the volume, were present at the launch. Mahrukh, Che and Durga were excited to be at the venue, as were Joyce and Yoko; others who participated became great friends subsequently – Sanjay and Rizvana, and Pratap (who’d been a mentee in the program). Gavin Barrett was, of course, there. He managed to make it to nearly every public reading that I gave since this one.  

Following the release of the book, Diaspora Dialogues arranged for a joint reading by all the emerging authors featured in TOK 5 at the rock at Yorkville. It was an unusual experience, more of a photo-op than a real reading, but a few bystanders did come forward to hear us read. 

Niranjana Iyer reviewed TOK 5 on her blog (Brown Paper) and found my story “well-written but predictable.” I wrote to her protesting slightly, but she became a good friend and subsequently invited me to the Karma Reading series where I heard and met Rohinton Mistry (the only time I saw and heard the reclusive author read a short story).

All the emerging authors of TOK 5 with Nala Hopkinson
Jasmine D’Costa, whom I’d met in 2009, now announced the launch of Canadian Voices Volume II that she’d be editing and Robert Morgan’s BookLand Press would publish in 2010. I submitted a chapter on Ruksana, the mother, in my work in progress. She accepted it and even accepted another chapter for Indian Voices that she was editing and that CP Thomas, a former colleague turned publisher would publish under the 42 Bookz banner. 

Jasmine continued to play a significant role in my efforts to build my profile as an author. She published my work and also introduced me to authors and editors, among them  Fraser Sutherland, who edited my work initially and with whom I'd spiritedly argue over small and big issues. As an editor, he was softspoken but firm and generally succeeded in convincing me to come around to his point of view.

Canadian Voices Volume II was launched in September 2010 and Indian Voices was launched in 2011. I had the honour of having MG Vassanji and Nurjehan Aziz participate in the launch.