& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, August 27, 2016

All Inclusive - Farzana Doctor

Warning: This post has spoilers. If you haven’t read All Inclusive and intend to read it, postpone reading this post until after you’ve read the novel. Also, this is not a review of the novel.

Beside frightening readers, ghosts have often made fiction more humane. If we ignore the ghosts who scare and focus on the friendly or at least the non-scary ones, the ghost in Hamlet is perhaps the best known fictional character of all times. There are countless other characters that are sometimes more alive than the living characters in a book.

Azeez Dholkawala, in Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive, is a friendly spirit, who is in search of his release that will only occur after he has fulfilled his duty. Azeez is unable to give up his spectral form because he has to help someone find her purpose in life. The dead helping the living find their mission to live - the idea is counterintuitive but the author handles it with consummate skills.

Azeez is killed in the terrorist bombing of the 1983 Air India Kanishka, and his body rests at the bottom of the Atlantic. Unbeknownst to him, he had fathered a lovechild just a day before his boarding the ill-fated aircraft.  His daughter Ameera grows up to be an independent woman.

The reader meets her when she has fallen out of a long relationship and is seeking a prolonged but temporary diversion. This diversion is a job as a tourist-trapper for an all-inclusive holiday resort in Mexico; a job at which she is effortlessly successful. Unconventional and free spirited, Ameera is addicted to non-traditional sexual experiences and frequently indulges in threesomes with tourists at the resort, which eventually gets her into trouble.

All Inclusive is Farzana Doctor’s third novel (after Stealing Nasreen (2008) and Six Meters of Pavement (2011)) is an easy read, and an unexpected page-turner; unexpected because the story and the characters are laid back and are in no hurry to do anything except just be who they are. 

Ameera is good at what she does but suffers from ennui that leads her to unusual sexcapades, which are rather gleefully described in explicit details. Azeez, of course, is on a mission to find his release and he doesn’t know what it is that will either release him or reincarnate him; the ghostly guides nudge him but don’t really help him in his quest.  

In Six Meters of Pavement, Farzana’s second novel, the lead protagonist Ismail Boxwala loses his infant daughter Zubi. She then permeates the novel despite her absence. In All Inclusive, Azeez is a constant presence throughout the novel. His steady and measured moves to find his purpose in death keep the reader riveted.

Farzana possesses a rare felicity of being able to under the skin of a character and make it come alive, even when the character is a ghost. Just as Ismail Boxwala in Six Meters, Azeez Dholkawala is utterly believable, if not always likeable. Ameera, on the other hand, is often a character from a deeper Shade of Grey.

All Inclusive is published by Dundurn, Toronto. You may buy the book here: All Inclusive

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Complete Persepolis – Marjane Satrapi

For all book lovers the reading list is always substantially longer, and ever-growing, most books on such lists remain unread, and some books eventually falling off over the passage of time. Umberto Eco is famous for his comment that unread books are more important than the ones that have been read.  

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has beautifully analyzed Eco’s love for his humongous collection of unread books in Black Swan: The Impact of Highly Improbable. Read about it in Maria Popova’s extraordinary blog Brian Pickings here.

There are many books on my list that I haven’t read, and many that have been dropped.

Marjane Satrapi’s The Complete Persepolis is one of the books that had been on my reading list for the last decade and more.

Recently, I was at the Chapters at Yorkdale with my son Che looking for a graphic novel when I chanced upon the masterpiece. But let me not omit the story of what happened before I bought the book. It’s symptomatic of the times we live in.

A book advisor at the shop seemed deeply suspicious of us (two brown-skinned men, one old and one young) browsing through the books in the shop. After hovering around, he came to ask us if we needed any help. Our visit to the shop was soon after the massacre of gay men by an Afghani-American fanatic in Orlando.

Just to make him a bit less jumpy, I asked him whether the latest Rushdie novel Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights was available in paperback.  He looked at me with greater suspicion but checked on the computer in the shop, and after drawing a blank said it’d be out soon.

Then I asked him whether the shop had any novel by MG Vassanji. The shop didn’t have one the last time I was there last year. But this time around, the book advisor managed to find a paperback edition of the Magic of Saida; as I had the book in hardcover, I told him I’d be looking around for something else.

And then in the graphic novels section, I found the Persepolis.

Satrapi’s memoirs were originally published in two parts in French, and the English translation by Pantheon edition was published soon thereafter. A few years later, a film was also made, which won more than 50 awards globally.

In most cases when you hear high praise for a book before reading it, it almost always doesn’t live up to expectations. In this case, however, it is not so. 

Persepolis is a masterpiece.

Satrapi’s memoirs are of her childhood, adolescence and youth in Iran, Vienna, and back in Iran. Originally published in two parts, this edition combines both the books. It is stark and simple, yet evocative. It is innocent, intelligent and innovative. It is deeply humane and avowedly political.

The main attraction of the book is the period which it describes – Iran's transition from west-backed 'liberal' monarchy to Islamic theocracy. In retrospect, the Iranian uprising against Shah’s monarchy is the probably the first revolt against western neo-colonialism and the exploitative political economy of oil. The uprising was different from the Ba’ath socialism that swept the Arab world more than two decades earlier. It is unfortunate that the Ayatollahs hijacked the Iranian revolution, and turned a popular people’s uprising into a verdict in favour of hardboiled Islamic (Shiite) theocracy.  

The Persepolis describes this transition of the society that was open and a fun place to one that is restrictive and impossible to live. Marji’s parents decide she must leave Iran and study in Vienna. However, escape to Europe doesn’t really change anything for Marji, except that she is made acutely aware of her non-European origins. Her stay gradually turns into a nightmare and she is forced to return to Iran after a few years. But by then Iran is a closed society and a police state, where religion determines everything.

And yet, life goes on, and what isn’t possible openly continues surreptitiously behind closed doors. Marji falls in love, studies art with the man she loves, marries him, thinks it’s a mistake and so separates, and then realizes Iran really isn’t a place for her and leave for France to study some more. In the interim between the Vienna sojourn and leaving for France are the lost years in Tehran where the interminable Iran-Iraq war consumed everything and everyone.

Marjane Satrapi is one of the best contemporary graphic novelists. My introduction to graphic novels is fairly recent (only after I immigrated to Toronto), and almost everything that I’ve read has been borrowed from the magnificent Toronto public library. 

Among the more memorable graphic novels I’ve read in the last few years are Bechdel’s Fun Home (memoir), Mariam Katin’s We were on our own (memoir), Rutu Modon’s Exit Wounds, and Tezuka’s MW. The Persepolis definitely belongs to this company. It’s undoubtedly a benchmark.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Tagore, Nationalism and the India Day Parade

A scene from Mani Ratnam's Roja.
Main Ratnam's depiction of ultranationalism is that the year in which Roja was released (1992) is also the year when the Hindutva forces demolished the Babri Masjid.

Does patriotism and nationalism necessarily have to be inimical to the idea of differences in culture, ethnicity, religion? Should it override human rights and the rights of minorities?  

August 7 was Rabindranath Tagore’s death anniversary. It was also the day Indo-Canadians in Greater Toronto Area celebrated the India Day Parade.

To Tagore, nationhood was not territorial, it was ideational.

In his 1917 essay on Nationalism, Tagore said, “India has never had a real sense of nationalism. Even though from childhood I had been taught that the idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching, and it is my conviction that my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

Nationalism remains a strong idea. It has been challenged but is unlikely to be defeated.
In India, the idea of nationalism has at least two distinct ideologies. The Nehruvian ideals of secularism and the Hindutva brand nationalism. Both interpret Indian identity differently. While the Nehruvian ideal allows for inclusivism, Hindu nationalism is exclusionary.

In his slim masterpiece Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani, captures the essence of Nehruvian ideals. While describing the impact of Partition, says, “Partition is the unspeakable sadness at the heart of the idea of India: a memento mori that what made India possible also profoundly diminished the integral value of the idea. It conceded something essential in the nationalist vision, the conviction that what defined India was its extraordinary capacity to accumulate and live with differences.”

Nationalism in Canada is quite different from what it is in India but is equally strong. Even though Canada actively propagates multiculturalism and values the distinctive contributions that different ethnicities make to the ever-evolving national identity, there is a strong sense of nationalism that is not just symbolic.

The reverence of the armed forces and the ubiquitous Canadian flag are two prime examples of this phenomenon.

Over the last few decades, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the rise of globalization, and the supremacy of global media and the internet, national boundaries, it had seemed, were becoming redundant.

It wasn’t quite the end of history, but there was clearly a need for a new paradigm to define societies that were increasingly becoming similar culturally.

Then, of course, the Syrian refugee crisis imploded, and Europe decided that having the great unwashed masses at its doorstep was a heavy price to pay for the intangible and chimerical gains of globalization. So, physical boundaries are back in fashion with a vengeance.

For a person who votes with her feet to leave her homeland and immigrate to an adopted homeland, nationalism cannot be the same as it is for the one who stays put. For the immigrant, nationalism often acquires a garb of nostalgia, it is the absence of what was and the loss of what could have been. That is the case with most immigrants, who are forever in the in-between world of two homes.

Every year, when I go to the India Day Parade at the Yonge and Dundas Square, this conflict is palpable within me, and I would imagine also within many of hundreds of Indo-Canadians who are gathered at the square. 

I don’t believe nationalism is either a necessity or a virtue. And yet, every year, when I hear Jana Gana Mana I have a lump in my throat. Nationalism or nostalgia – it’s hard to decide. This year, for the first time, I could also sing along with others the Canadian national anthem O Canada.

This year India enters the 70th year of its Independence. Thanks largely due to the new Counsel General of India in Toronto, Dinesh Bhatia, and Panorama India’s indefatigable chair Anu Srivastava, the program and the parade were substantially better than ever before.

The parade had participation from a cross-section of Indian diversity – from Kashmir to Kerala and from the Northeast to Maharashtra. Expectedly, there was film and television glamour. Shabbir Ahluwalia and Neetu Chandra. I hadn’t heard of any of the stars who were participating from India.

Neetu was a surprise – she is an articulate young woman, poised and confident; she is a taekwondo champion.

I sat with Imam Abdul Hai Patel, a great supporter of interfaith dialogue, and with Toronto’s Police Chief Mark Saunders. At the podium, the inimitable Jake Dheer emceed the show and invited all the dignitaries to address the audience that had grown to a few thousand by afternoon.

Toronto’s India Day Parade is second only to New York’s in size and popularity. Indo-Canadians from all corners of India were present, wearing colours only seen in India.

Across Yonge Street, outside the Eaton Centre, there were the protestors. A group of people, who gather every year, waving anti-India banners and proclaiming their unalienable right to Khalistan, were also present and shouted slogans against India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his government’s anti-minorities actions.

Thanks to Anu Srivastava and Arun Srivastava, I was invited to the VIP reception at the Hard Rock Café prior to the flag hoisting. It was a great experience. I met some good friends and many acquaintances after a long time, including the new Counsel General Bhatia.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

South Asian Canadian theatre

The Toronto Festival of South Asia is fun.

Toronto’s Gerrard Street East which is known as Little India (and should be renamed Little South Asia, because there are a good number of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghani establishments on the street) turns into a mela (village fair), with live performances by high-calibre as well as popular artists, and, of course, street food straight from Bombay’s Chowpatty and Delhi’s Chandni Chowk.

This year, the energetic and enthusiastic Tushar Unadkat helmed the festival as its creative lead. And transformed it completely.

Tushar introduced a literary component to the festival. The first was a discussion on the impact of Hindi cinema and South Asian media on the South Asian diaspora (Meena Chopra’s piece posted in this space two weeks ago was part of that discussion). The panel included Tahir Gora, Pushpa Acharya, Harpreet Dhillon, Meena Chopra and Tarek Fatah and Munir Pervaiz moderated the discussion.

Then, the next day, we had an engaging discussion on South Asian Canadian theatre. I moderated the discussion and was delighted that prominent people involved with theatre and who are South Asian agreed to participate in the panel discussion.

The panelists were: Jasmine Sawant, actor, producer, writer, manager, and the Co-Founder and Artistic Co-Director of the award-winning SAWITRI Theatre Group, based in Mississauga; Jawaid Danish, a playwright-poet and translator, and the artistic Director of Rangmanch-Canada, a not for profit Indian Theatrical Group; Ravi Jain is a Toronto-based stage writer, director, performer who works in both small indie productions and large commercial theatre; and Dalbir Singh, a PhD Candidate in Theatre and South Asian studies at the University of Toronto, and recipient of the Heather McCallum award for Emerging Scholars.

In an attempt to define the subject of the discussion, I exchanged emails with all the panelists prior to the discussion, and all of them came up with interesting insights not just about the subject, but also about themselves. For instance, Jasmine said she has trouble with the term South Asian. She said she uses the term not because she feels like a South Asian but because it is readily understood by the mainstream.

Ravi emphasized that all his work is an in-between space because I am in-between. He said, “As an artist, I’ve actually rejected being called a ‘South Asian’ artist, as I found that title limiting, and not reflective of the scope and breadth of my work. I am an artist. I am an avant-garde artist.” Ravi posed an interesting question, “Is Naseeruddin Shah starring in a George Bernard Shaw play South Asian theatre? More than Anita Majumdar starring in Hamlet? Or less than me onstage with my mom?

Jawaid’s contention during the email discussion brought out the crucial question of recognition and patronage. His question, which we should attempt to answer today, is simple: “Why do ethnic language plays don’t get the same recognition and grants?” Dalbir felt that it would serve us better if we also steered the discussion towards cultural diversity in general and how our stories are adequately reflected today and hopes for the future of theatre practice in this country.

At the panel discussion, we were also joined by Nitin Sawant and Shruti Shah of SAWITRI Theatre Group, Andy Hazra of York University, Sally Jones of Rasik Arts, Tushar and many others in the audience.

Jasmine kicked off the discussion by emphasizing that what is material to her creativity as a theatre person is the process of transforming a playwright’s vision from paper to stage. She said content should be equated with creativity not ethnicity; citing the example of Shakespeare, Jasmine said he stays relevant in all translations. Her theatre group involves artists, theatre craftspeople, and technicians of multiple ethnicities. This creates a confluence of many and varied visions that flows into the joint effort that reflects in the final product that is staged.

Jawaid, who has the singular honour of his plays being researched upon in Ranchi and Delhi universities, was unconvinced that honest assessment was being made of the Canadian South Asian theatre scene. He questioned the premise that Canadian South Asian theatre was being given due recognition. Jawaid’s contention was that only plays written in the English language were getting due recognition in terms of official patronage and grants. He said most of his plays had Canadian context and content, but because they were in Urdu, he had never been given any recognition, not just by the establishment, but even by his peers.

Ravi, who has won the 2016 Dora, considered the Canadian theatre Oscar, rejected the categorization of a theatre on the basis of ethnicities. He said he has been associated with the theatre that attempts to portray global experiences. His own play with his mother A Brimful of Asha despite being set in the South Asian milieu proved to be a global success because audiences everywhere could relate to its theme. Ravi also specified that he has tried to bring global theatre into Canada, and has been doing so to create awareness of a universal language of theatre that transcends ethnic, national and cultural boundaries and categorizations.

Dalbir, who has edited several books on Canadian South Asian theatre, also said that his sensibilities are totally Canadian. Although of Indian origin, he was born and raised in Canada and has little to no connection to India. He said South Asian theatre has increasingly been trying to contextualize South Asian diaspora presence in the Canadian society. Sally spoke about the need to have the right connections to be able to stage ethnic content in a multicultural environment.

The discussion veered to Mahesh Dattani, the Indian playwright who has worked in the English language. Andy Hazra drew attention to the absence of recognition (to the extent merited) of Mahesh’s work in India and compared it to the similar lack of attention being given to Canadian South Asian theatre. Nitin Sawant said it is important to understand and properly define Canadian South Asian theatre, and the criterion should be content. If the content and the context is not Canadian, even if the language is English, it cannot be deemed Canadian.

When I discussed the idea with Tushar, I had suggested to him that we also invite Rahul Varma of Teesri Duniya to the panel discussion. However, the festival didn't have that sort of a budget to invite participants from outside of the GTA. However, Rahul offered to send some inputs for the discussion, which I had planned to read as part of my moderator's responsibilities. But, as with all of us, we get busy with a multitude of things, and can't allocate time to all that we want to do. Rahul's note arrived a bit late, and I'm adding it to this blog, not as an afterthought, but as integral to the discussion above.

Rahul's note: "In the early phase of multiculturalism, there was hardly any professional artist of south Asian Diaspora and, producers imported plays from India on an Indian theme. Teesri Duniya Theatre took a different approach – in that it started creating plays from scratch in Canada instead of borrowing from India.  Doing so, Teesri Duniya Theatre undertook a three-pronged approach in its productions:  

(1) culturally diverse plays set in Canada  
(2) locally created plays on local and global themes and
(3) new forms, e.g. dance-theatre that knows no boundaries.

However, global themes mean less to us if Canada is excluded from the plot. Similarly, culturally diverse plays also mean less to us if they are dealing exclusively with material from the playwright’s ancestral country at the expense of intercultural experience occurring in Canada.  Clearly, company’s definition of a culturally diverse play is a play that draws heavily on lives lived in Canada. Such culturally diverse plays maintain a dual vision of the world and transcend differences in culture, color, race, gender, sexuality, and politics."

The panel discussion concluded with everyone agreeing that more discussions needed to be conducted at a regular frequency.