& occasionally about other things, too...

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Piroj Wadia

Piroj Wadia
The last time I met Piroj was in 2013 when I was in Bombay. I was getting ready to meet her next month when I’d be in Bombay again after a gap of four long years.

But my friend has decided to leave, abruptly and all too suddenly. 

We met at what used to the Wayside Inn, that unique Kala Ghoda eatery that had turned into a nondescript Asian food place. We were happy to meet each other, after so many years. We couldn’t recall when we had last met before that afternoon. I’d called her in 2011 when I was in Bombay, but we couldn’t meet then.

Decades had gone by from the time when we worked together at The Daily, where she’d become the features editor. Her sojourn at The Daily wouldn’t last long because by then (the late 1980s, early 1990s), the tabloid had transmogrified into something rather strange; different from what it was during RK Karanjia’s times. 

There were swift turnarounds in the editorial department, many talented and some not-so-talented journalists came and left. Piroj, along with a few others, were holding a rapidly crumbling edifice of a once-great institution. She left to return to active entertainment journalism, the field she had come from. 

At our lunch in 2013, it didn’t seem like we were meeting after decades. We picked up threads of incidences from our shared past. I had ceased to be an active journalist for nearly two decades. I was keen to know about people who were once so important to our professional lives. Piroj knew where everyone was and how they’d reached where they were. The afternoon evaporated in reverie and nostalgia. It felt great talking to her.

We left promising each other to exchange emails more frequently and, of course, to interact on Facebook. But life has its own agenda, and when you live in a different time zone, it becomes impossible to translate your concern into anything tangible. She sent me a clipping from a feature she did on Parsis in Hindi cinema for a Parsi magazine in Dubai, and we did exchange emails on occasions.

She wrote about her deteriorating health and how she was actively scouting for assignments. I tried to assist her by reconnecting her with common friends but nothing apparently came of it. 
I wish I could’ve been of help to her.  

Farewell, my friend. You’re being missed.

Read a book review by Piroj for my blog: Two tales and a city

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Festival of Literary Diversity-2017

From L to R: Mayank, Katherena, Naben and Jen
To those who respect status quo, diversity is a contentious concept that connotes the absence of merit, tokenism, arbitrary categorisation and even exclusion. On the other hand, to its advocates, an absence of diversity is a perennial dominance of majoritarian culture and an enforced opacity that prevents conversations about different identities that make up the Canadian mosaic. 

In a multiracial, multicultural society, diversity is necessary to ensure that different cultures and voices find adequate representation. In the world of writing and publishing, the absence of diversity is probably not as glaring as it was some years back, although opinions would differ. In the Canadian context, many small presses are aggressively putting out works of authors from diverse backgrounds. It doesn’t mean that it’s time now to sit back and rest; a lot more needs to be done and ceaselessly.

In this context, Jael Richardson’s The Festival of Literary Diversity is a breakthrough event that has suddenly created space for Canadian authors from a diverse background.  I interviewed Jael prior to the first FOLD for TAG TV (watch the interview here: Jael Richardson).  Her dedication and commitment come through in the interview. I attended the first edition of the festival in 2016 and was enthralled by the level of participation – both by authors and readers – at the festival’s main venue, the PAMA.

See post about the first FOLD here: Faith and Fiction.

Thanks to my publishers Mawenzi House, I was invited to the second edition of FOLD as a panellist. It was my first-ever participation in a literary festival as a published author, and it was undoubtedly a privilege to be on the same panel with Canada’s latest literary phenomenon Katherena Vermette, whose The Break has won many accolades; and Jen Sookfong Lee (Shelter).  The subject of the discussion was What a Crime, and the moderator Naben Ruthnum, a journalist-author, who had read all the three works and asked pertinent questions. Of course, Katherena and Jen were far more evocative and interesting in their responses as compared to me. 

I also participated in several other panel discussions and was able to meet and interact with many authors such as Amanda Leduc, Eden Robinson, Kamal Al-Solaylee, Gary Barwin, and my friends Farzana and Sheniz. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Whose voice is it anyway?

Image take from Native Appropriations website

There is a fierce and polarising debate going on in the Canadian media and literary circles over ‘cultural appropriation’.  As with any debate, it has many sides, but not all get reflected in the angry interactions on media, and especially on social media. 

An edited version of the following piece that I wrote for my friend George Abraham was published in the New Canadian Media in January (Whose Voice is it Anyway?). 

Here’s the original piece, for whatever it’s worth.

Last year my debut novel Belief was published in Canada. It’s a story of an immigrant family’s struggle to integrate into the Canadian mainstream, and just when, after nearly two decades of struggle to survive in an alien land, facing constant rejection, everything seems to be falling into place, the family discovers their son’s evident involvement involved in some sort of terrorist plot. Hurriedly, they consult their neighbours and inform a police officer known to the neighbours. It leads to the son’s arrest. The novel explores the family’s trauma following the son’s arrest.

The family’s Muslim identity is central to the story because it deals with the manner in which people of colour who are adherents of Islam are generally (and often unconsciously) treated in a society that they adopt as immigrants. Hearteningly, one (of the three) reviewers of the novel understood the nuanced and calibrated approach I’ve adopted in portraying this difference. Author Veena Gokhale, in her review in Montreal Serai, an online literary journal, observes, “Bhatt exposes the diverse ways of being Muslim – a reality that mainstream society does not care to comprehend.”

This is an important issue because in the desperation to grab eyeballs, the mainstream news and entertainment media often forget to make that critical distinction that Islam is not a monolith and all Muslims are not the same. While writing my novel, I had a simple objective to achieve – that there is little to distinguish between people on the basis of their beliefs.

The other issue that I wanted to examine was this whole business of radicalisation and terrorism. It’s important to underline that such a phenomenon doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Young men such as Rafiq, the main character in my novel, go astray in an environment where they are unable to make an emotional or a material connection with the society, and this leads to many complications for them, for their families and the society.

From the family’s perspective, how different would a son’s radicalisation and subsequent involvement in terrorism be from drug addiction? I’m not saying that there is no distinction. Society will definitely distinguish between the two, and weigh down heavily on radicalization and terrorism while condoning drug addiction, and we can argue that this has a lot to do with race, but that really is a different debate. I’d still want to believe that for the parents there wouldn’t be much to differentiate. I don’t know whether the parents of a son who’s a drug addict would take comfort from the fact that their son is not radicalised and is not a terrorist.

The other challenge of portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada was posed by the fact that I’m not a Muslim. This is a sensitive matter. Would I be able to portray with accuracy and empathy the life of a Muslim family, the family dynamics, and the inner turmoil? I was born in a Hindu family, where but for my grandmother nobody really practised the religion regularly and ritualistically. But I grew up and lived in a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood for more than three decades. When I was young Bombay was proudly cosmopolitan.

Also, as a journalist in Bombay, I covered religious violence that wreaked havoc on Bombay in 1992-93, witnessed firsthand the callousness of the state in bringing justice to the survivor victims of these riots, and recorded the adverse long-term effects of official neglect that Muslims in India have suffered. And perhaps, most pertinently, I’ve been married to a devout Muslim for over two decades.

Yet, to construct a novel was a grave responsibility. In recent years, there have been intense debates in the literary spheres about ‘cultural appropriation’.

Lionel Shriver let loose a veritable storm last year when she defended her right to write about anything that she as a writer wanted to (Read her speech here, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s response here). Closer home, our own Giller Prize winner Joseph Boyden has been hauled over the coals for claiming to be something that he isn’t quite – a native; his defence is that he feels like one, even if genetically he may not be.

To frame the issue in the Indian context (which I can claim to know better): should an upper caste Brahmin be allowed to depict the life of a Dalit (the so-called lower caste that was considered untouchable, till the Indian Constitution banned such practices)? The example that came to my mind was of Munshi Premchand’s Sadgati (Deliverance). Premchand, one of the foremost Hindi language writers of the 20th century, was born into the upper caste but was a radical progressive who advocate equality. His short story Sadgati is an evocative tale of the plight of a Dalit. Satyajit Ray, the iconic 20th-century filmmaker, who also belonged to the upper caste, turned it into a cinematic classic.

Let me hasten to add here that the exploitation of the Dalits in India continues even today in all forms – economic, cultural, social, and political – despite innumerable laws that are meant to prevent it, and that it is about time opportunities especially in the arts are created for them.

Well-meaning Muslim friends of South Asian origin cautioned me that my attempt at depicting a Muslim milieu in Canada would lack authenticity and sincerely advised that I abandon the misadventure. I was of course not going to do that mainly because I believe that imagination and craft could be better substitutes for experience. I believe that a novelist’s primary responsibility is to tell a story competently and responsibly. Innumerable novelists have created a world in their novels that are palpably real without ever being even remotely connected to the world they create.

I have done so in Belief, my debut novel, and I’ll leave it to the reader to judge whether the novel succeeds in portraying the complexity of being a Muslim in Canada.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Matter of Geography – Jasmine D’Costa

Different areas of old Bombay had their own individualistic and peculiar characteristics acquired from the different ethnic groups that dominated those areas. For the first ten years of my life, at the intersection of Kalbadevi Road and Princess Street in old Bombay. 

My grandfather's father came to Bombay in the late 1890s, and since then, for a little over a hundred years,  we lived in Bombay for four generations, till I decided to make Toronto my home in the 21st century.

From north of that intersection, Kalbadevi Road was predominantly a Gujarati locality, right up to Bhuleshwar. The temple of Mumbadevi, the goddess that gives Bombay its name – Mumbai, is on this road. The cotton market (Mulji Jetha), the gold market (Zaveri Bazar), the hardware (of the hammer and nails variety, because then there were no computers) market (Lohar Chawl) were all linked to Kalbadevi Road and the Princess Street.

The road parallel to Kalbadevi Road – Jagannath Shankar Seth Road – is the one that I’m more familiar with as that’s the one I took to go to my school every day. This road was predominantly Marathi in character. Till the late 1960s and the early 1970s, this road has a significant presence of the Christian community, too. To its west is the famous Parsi Dairy Farm and it leads up to the Marine Drive flyover. To its south is Dhobitalao. Jagannath Shankar Seth Road led to Chira Bazar, Thakurdwar, the St. Teresa’s church. The road to the right of this intersection went to Prathna Samaj and to the left went to Charni Road station.

Pydhonie, which was to the north of Kalbadevi Road, was predominantly Muslim, and further north was Mazagaon, which had a significant presence of Christians. Bombay was cosmopolitan, but its localities were insular, dominated by a specific ethnicity. This world gradually changed, as many locals moved to the suburbs in the 1970s and the 1980s. I haven’t been to the old areas of Bombay in a very, very, long time. But it stays etched sharply in my mind.

Reading Jasmine D’Costa’s A Matter of Geography revived those memories. The novel, Jasmine’s first, is set in Mazagaon, and is a story of a handful of neighbours who live in the Billimora Building, which is what Bombay calls a chawl (single-file tenements, connected by a corridor, with shared toilets).

The novel is about the love between Peter and Anna, what separates them, brings them together and keeps them apart. It is set in the backdrop of the 1992-93 communal violence between the Hindus and the Muslims after the Babri Masjid was demolished in Ayodhya (a town in north India, linked to the birth of the Hindu God Ram according to the mythological classic epic Ramayan).

Jasmine’s book brings alive the horrors of the communal carnage that left hundreds dead across India and broke the back of Bombay, changing it completely and permanently. A significant part of the novel is about the valiant efforts a group of Christian families undertake to save the lives of their Muslim neighbours – Ali and his mother (Saving Ali) from the rampaging Hindutva mobs.  The beauty of the novel is that the violence and the constant tension that forms its backdrop doesn’t ever overwhelm. Jasmine’s pithy observations about people and their lives keep the tone of the novel light and often hilarious.

Also, the characters that form the novel are all sharply carved, each distinct in their own unusual way. Anna, of course, is the one that is developed most lovingly by the author. The unpleasantness that makes her immigrate to Canada makes her stronger. When she returns to Bombay after a long time, as a mature, level-headed young woman, she is a caring person who is unwilling to be swayed by emotions and makes hard choices both for herself and for Peter.

The title of the book gets explained in what turns out to be the books most heart-wrenching scene when Anna decides that although she loves Peter and Peter loves her, she would return to Canada without him, and not want him to wait for her, because Canada is no place for first generation immigrants who are in their late 30s or older. Those who come to Canada when they are young have a generally successful and better life than those who come here when they are older. 

This passage, where Anna describes to Peter the slow disillusionment her parents experience after immigrating, is one of the most severe indictments I've read (fiction or non-fiction) of Canada’s utter failure at integrating its newcomers to enable them to have more fulfilling lives. Jasmine writes with empathy, which is a rare gift; and she writes with confidence.

The novel is published by Mosaic Press. Click here to buy the book: A Matter of Geography