& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Last Night of the World – Joyce Wayne

Joyce Wayne and her new novel Last Night of the World

The relationship between the West and Russia has remained troubled for over a century. Both are unable to overcome deep-rooted animosity that is based on an unwillingness to understand the perspective of the other side.

Winston Churchill, who had termed Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” at the height of World War II, realised that the compromise of befriending Stalin to defeat the Nazis was a mistake and quickly made amends.

The ensuing Cold War that lasted for a better part of the 20th century caused the world to be divided into two distinct camps, inimical to each other and one that precariously co-existed (with stockpiles of nuclear weapons aimed at each other) in the maniacal Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

The collapse of Soviet Union in the 1990s did bring about a temporary truce and cooperation, but that didn’t last long, and Russia under Vladimir Putin has taken the relations to a new nadir. If it was the annexation of Crimea some years ago that brought the two on the verge of a war, it is the poisoning of a former spy that has caused an unprecedented diplomatic row. The West and Russia always find a reason to bicker.

Communism is dead everywhere, and it’d be hard to find a serious defender of the October Revolution a century later.  Although one is pleasantly surprised to find a strong and sizeable section of the millennials who prefer socialism to the inherent indecency of a form of government where the government appears keener to defend a corporation's right to profit rather than defend the rights of a human being to live.  

For a considerably long time, there were many across the globe who were convinced that the communism represented the best and the most representative form of a government that was of the people, by the people and for the people, and that only the communists ensured a true form of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Stalin’s murderous excesses shattered those illusions quickly and decisively in the developed world, and the socialist fantasies harboured by the elite in West were abandoned hastily. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic Gulag Archipelago exhausted the last remaining illusions about communism, although it was Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon that became a precursor of the narration of disillusionment with the communist dream.

And yet, in large parts of the developing world in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the communist ideology successfully took strong roots and flourished for many decades after the West flushed it out and came down heavily on its sympathisers. The exile of Charlie Chaplin is a stunning example of this reappraisal. 

The cruel fate of the communist sympathisers in the Western societies has not found adequate representation in popular culture or literature. Yes, the excesses of the McCarthy have been periodically portrayed in Hollywood films because Joseph McCarthy, the philistine, had a blacklist of Hollywood personalities branded as communist sympathisers.

While reading Joyce Wayne’s Last Night of the World (Mosaic Press, April 2018), I couldn’t help but think of the swift and sudden extinguishing of the communist dream. Joyce’s second novel evocatively brings alive the story of the post-World War II Soviet Spy Scandal, which rocked Canada and ushered in the Cold War.

The novel combines the racy pace of an espionage thriller with a mellow unfolding of love and loss. It’s a gripping narration of the inner and outward journey of Freda Linton, a young Jewish woman, who flees the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis, and works for the Communist cause only to be used and disillusioned; Freda is a survivor who sacrifices all and gives everything that is hers in return for chimerical longings.

I was unaware of the spy scandal that rocked the Canadian public life in the 1940s. The novel was, therefore, educative. It recreates a murky and sordid world of comrades who are spies and is centred on Freda, the spy who is used by the Canadian Communist Party on behalf of the Soviets to ensnare highly placed public figures in the Canadian establishment to get hold of secrets that would assist the communist cause. Freda is a true example of naïve commitment to a lost cause.

Nikolai Zabotin, Freda’s boss and lover, and a charming functionary in the high-powered world where diplomacy and politics meet, dispatches her to the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories to get nuclear secrets that would assist the Soviets in building nuclear weapons. Zabotin has to decide on which side of history he wants to be and guide Freda accordingly. 

What they decide will determine their future and the future of the world.

The novel brings to life an era that saw large sections of the Canadian establishment branded as anti-national and how it is permanently banished into oblivion even though nothing concrete was ever proved about their alleged involvement. 

The tragic case of Fred Rose is a classic example of how public mood can be and is swayed away from the truth to grievously harm people who don’t necessarily subscribe to the prevailing dogmas of the day.

Donald Trump is re-enacting McCarthyism in America right now, and nobody is able to stop him. Paraxodically, he is Putin's friend.

Last Night of the World also recreates the world of Jewish newcomers fleeing the Nazis in East Europe. The section that describes the Nazi cruelties on the Jewish people are terrifying and one has to stop reading and take a break. The pathos is palpable in the compromises and adjustments that Freda has to make in the brave new world where she has to sleep unwillingly with men (invariably much older) for what is considered as greater good.

The book is structured as tightly woven, breezy spy thriller. And it retains its momentum and pace throughout. However, the climax, set in Chernobyl, is really the pièce de résistance. Joyce’s imagination, as well as creative prowess, take flight here while depicting the desolation of the place devastated by the nuclear disaster; she creates imagery that has the quality of ethereal otherworldliness.

Last Night of the World is an important book because even though it is about an era long gone in Canadian history, it is a stark reminder that we are never too far from facing such hostilities suddenly and for no logical reason.

Read an extract from the book here: Extract

Buy the book here: Last Night of the World 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A decade in Toronto – 8

2009 ended on an upbeat note for us
2009 was a year when women helped me at every step. When the year began, I didn’t know most of them. They were strangers willing to help a stranger.  They believed in his abilities and his potential. 

That list had so far included Maggie Sivappa, Joyce Wayne, Jasmine D’Costa, Margaret Jetelina, and Isabel Huggan. To that list was now added Asha Luthra, at that time the President of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce (ICCC).

The ICCC is the organisation that made me a Canadian and welcomed me to its close-knit, family-like membership with open arms. Almost overnight, from knowing less than hundred people in Canada, I now knew over a few hundred.

With Asha and Satish
The ICCC’s then leadership – Asha Luthra, Neena Gupta, Satish Thakkar, Harjit Kalsi, Pankaj Mehra, Imtiaz Seyid, Kundan Joshi and many others – accorded me the privilege of working for an institution that has over the last four decades come to define the Indo-Canadian community in Toronto.

Nearly everything that I have today as a Canadian flows from my association with the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce; the Chamber has nurtured me as a mother nurtures a child.
A majority of the leadership and membership of the Chamber comprised Punjabis and they accepted me as one of their own, much as the Marathis of Bombay.

I’d applied for the position of the Executive Director in 2008, soon after Gavin Barrett told me about it, and I’d been interviewed at the plush downtown offices of Gowlings, where Neena Gupta was a partner.

The interview panel comprised two former Presidents – Sunil Jagasia and Krish Krishnan, along with Neena Gupta, at that time the Corporate Secretary and, of course, Asha Luthra, the incumbent president.

With the founding President of ICCC, Kishore Doshi
Subsequently, for six to eight months, I heard nothing from anyone. Then, in June 2009, Neena Gupta invited me to the ICCC’s Annual Awards and Gala Night at Toronto’s Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It was a glittering evening where the who’s who of Canadian mainstream was present.

Then again, deafening silence for a few more months. Then, when I was all ready to apply for a job as a journalist, I got a call again from Asha and went for another interview. This time the interview was at the ICCC’s office at 45 Sheppard Avenue East. Asha offered me a job as the Chief Administration Officer of the Chamber, and I immediately accepted it.

In October 2009, I began my first regular job in Canada. It’d taken a year and three months for me to get proper employment, and even today, I remain indebted to the then leadership of the ICCC for giving me not just a job but a life to my family. 

The first thing we did when I got my salary that month was to buy furniture – a couch from a Russian-owned furniture shop at Keele and Finch. And then in December, on boxing day, we bought a television.

Ruth & Rakhee
The Chamber already had two-member staff – Rakhee Shah, a young, sprightly Gujarati woman who spoke fluent Tamil and who’d managed the administration of the Chamber effortlessly; and Ruth, a Kenyan-Canadian who was the Chamber’s membership coordinator. Unfortunately, within a few months, both Rakhee and Ruth were out of the Chamber.

Ruth was eased out to make way for Tarun Verma, a young immigrant from Chandigarh, and Rakhee had to leave because of sudden hospitalisation. Subsequently, Pawan Chankotra joined the Chamber during PBDCanada2011. He continues to serve the Chamber.

With Pawan and Tarun
The ICCC was at that time over three decades old organisation and its membership and leadership comprised a close-knit circle of first-generation entrepreneurs and professionals and thanks to its leadership at that time, especially Asha and Satish, I came in close contact with a number of prominent business leaders in the Indo-Canadian community.

The first event that I participated because of my association with the ICCC was the Mahutsav organised by Harpreet Sethi, a dynamic entrepreneur. The ICCC’s own Holiday Dinner and Dance followed this program in November 2009, and the year closed with an Open House for attracting new members.

As with any organisation of this size and spread, there were (and are) different factions in the ICCC’s leadership and one group couldn’t get along with another group. However, all the groups worked for the interest of the Chamber, even if they couldn’t find common ground to work together. 

And everyone supported me despite their own differences. I was able to create a new, forceful and dynamic profile of the Chamber and its leadership by constantly interacting with its membership, stakeholders and sponsors.

My interactions with Satish developed a personal bond that has lasted for many years. Asha Luthra, Pankaj Mehra and Imtiaz Seyid deeply enriched my understanding of not just the ICCC but also of the Indo-Canadian community. From the quietly efficient Harjit Kalsi, I learnt the intricacies of organising mega events with over a thousand guests. 

There were so many others who enriched me professionally in the first few months of my association with the ICCC – Kundan and Surbhi Joshi, Vinay Nagpal, Jim Sahdra, and others. In the years to follow, there'd be many more.

There were community leaders such as Yogesh Sharma, who invited me to his home and introduced me to a group of Marwaris which included Naval Bajaj and Dharam Jain, Sampat Poddar and Rakesh Goenka, among others. Naval and Dharam were instrumental in ousting me from the Chamber five years later, but that’s another story and it’ll have to wait to be told. They remain friends.

I also met Vasu Chanchlani and Aditya Jha and developed a great personal rapport with both. Vasu is no longer with us, but Aditya performs the role of an older brother in my life, a person to whom I turn to when I need advice.

2009 ended on an upbeat note for us. Finally, we were well on our way to settling down in Canada. The risk and gamble that we’d taken in 2002 seem all working out just fine (see the photo at the top of the post). 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

SAWITRI Theatre Group's 15 years

Recently, SAWITRI Theatre Group celebrated its 15th anniversary at the Art Gallery of Mississauga at a glittering program attended by theatre connoisseurs and friends of SAWITRI’s dynamic founders Jasmine and Nitin Sawant.

The theatre group has been an important part of my personal journey in Canada in the last decade. It reintroduced me to the theatre and gave me an opportunity to enjoy the tremendous joy one experiences when actors perform on stage.

The first time I heard about SAWITRI was when Jawaid Danish invited me to Rang Manch Canada’s Hindustani Drama Festival in 2011 that he held in Mississauga. Jasmine and Nitin Sawant and Shruti Shah were present at the roundtable discussion held prior to the festival Challenges of Staging Indian Drama in Canada and Experiences of Desi Talents in Mainstream Showbiz.

About a year later, SAWITRI performed its play Saree Kahaniyaan (The Saree Stories) written by Jasmine, performed by Shruti and Naimesh, with Jasmine as the sutradhar (narrator). Since then, I’ve tried not miss a Sawitri play. The group has mounted a major play and several smaller staging annually.

SAWITRI has a frequent presence on this blog. If you’re interested, you may read the blogs of the different SAWITRI plays here:
Over the years, the group has created an audience for South Asian theatre and shaped the sensibilities of this audience by providing it with a rich variety of theatre experience in all the major contemporary languages of Bombay – Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English.

Jasmine and Nitin Sawant
Recently, prior to the celebrations of its 15th anniversary, I had the opportunity to sit with Nitin and Jasmine and chat with them at length about their group.

The group's name is an acronym. SAWITRI stands for South Asian Women's Intercultural Research Initiative. It's also derived from the character in Mahabharata. Jasmine is clearly the driving force behind the group, although she readily admits that too many supporters have played a crucial and critical role in making SAWITRI the institution that it has become today.  

Among their steadfast supporters is legion of friends who have become an integral part of the group and includes the legendary Lata Pada, the globally renowned danseuse and the artistic director of Sampradaya Dance Creations. Among the supporters that Jasmine and Nitin acknowledge for having contributed tremendously include Prakash Date, who directs all the Marathi plays that SAWITRI produces. Keyoor Shah is an integral part of the team who takes care of the technical aspects of the production and is also a member of the set-building team. 

Jasmine and Nitin also acknowledge the role of the co-founder Shobha Hatte-Belgaumkar who was a part of SAWITRI for the first 5 years, as was Nain Amyn who took care of wardrobe, make-up, etc. After 5 years, they both wanted a bigger canvas to express themselves. Shobha moved on to pursue her own acting career and Nain moved on to become a part of Mosaic Festival along with Asma Mehmood.

Aniruddh Sawant was one of the founding directors of SAWITRI along with Nitin and Keyoor when SAWITRI was first incorporated. Jasmine recalls, "No matter where he was in the country he always flew back to see a SAWITRI performance and had solid and spot-on constructive criticism's to offer which went a long way in improving the quality of our performances." He was a Drama Major from Cawthra Park High School and a tremendous artist. "I cannot tell you how much we miss his feedback," she says.

Apart from auditioning and acting in SAWITRI productions when he is cast, Siddhant (Sid) Sawant is responsible for the photoshoots for our posters and many a time for providing music for the productions. He too is a Drama Major from Cawthra Park High School.

Both Jasmine and Nitin derive tremendous satisfaction from their success and the journey that they commenced in 2003. Shruti has been an integral part of their journey. The Group was keen to produce socially relevant theatre; in 2006, it produced the powerful women-oriented play From Here to There (Janice Goveas).  

A year later, the group was registered as a not-for-profit, with a board of directors.  Jasmine and Nitin teamed up with Prakash Date to produce तो मी नव्हेच for the Marathi Bhashik Mandal. Subsequently, in 2009 SAWITRI produced Mahasagar, its first Marathi play. It was directed by Prakash Date. 

Without ceasing its shorter productions, the Group was now keen to do major plays. In 2011, during the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts (FSALA), the Group met Mahesh Dattani, the renowned Indian playwright who has an awesome global reputation for writing powerful plays on contemporary issues. The first collaboration between SAWITRI and Dattani was Where There’s a Will. Subsequently, it also staged Seven Steps Around Fire and Dance Like a Man.

Both Nitin and Jasmine take pride in discovering and nurturing talent in different spheres of theatre – from direction to production design and from stage lighting to costumes. Gabriel Grey, Christina Collins, Joe Pagnan are some of the professionals who are regularly involved with SAWITRI productions.

A self-funded entity for most of its existence, the group has managed to get some official grants lately but such grants cover generally about 20 percent of the entire production cost. As a not-for-profit, the group distributes all the extra resources generated amongst the professionals who work to put up the performance.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

SPPPFFy by Anu Vittal

Anu Vittal is an arts entrepreneur and a multifaceted personality well known in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), especially amongst the South Asian community. She recently published a book Create Happiness by Being SPPPFFy™: Millions of happy people in happy places!

SPPPFFy = Spiritual, Physical, Personal, Professional, Financial and Family/Friends!

These six fundamental verticals of focus will change your life to create a happy YOU!
She launched it simultaneously in Canada and in India. The book is a self-help guide to creating self-awareness and shows a path to attaining happiness. In the introduction to the book, Anu asks, “Would you like to create happiness in less than sixty minutes?” And then she responds, “Most of us are born, then grow up, go to school, university, get married, have x number of kids, work till 65 and then retire. And throughout this process, we are always ‘doing’ life with the aim of finding this elusive thing called ‘happiness’.

Anu believes that to live this way is an omission of life itself! “We spend our lives being busy looking for happiness externally rather than internally. The reason for most of life’s issues – health, complicated relationships, poor performance at work, mental depression, financial debt, etc. – stem from a lack of control over one’s feelings, which in turn stems from allowing external circumstances to control us. And this is where we fail in our pursuit of happiness.”

Anu’s recently-launched book introduces a structured program for empowering people with a proven process of being SPPPFFy™ to create “happy moments” in all areas of life. The acronym stands for Spiritual, Physical, Personal, Professional, Financial and Family/Friends! These six fundamental verticals of focus will change your life to create a happy YOU!

In 60 minutes of single-minded focus, you will learn to design moments of joy and how to live life fully in those very moments. It provides an easy-to-follow, step-by-step methodology aimed at daily internal investments in YOU to guarantee the result of valuing your authentic self and improving on it.

You will become a better version of the new you every day. You can have all that you want in abundance – love, wealth, health, a happy family, and lots of loving close friends. It also teaches you how to “create happiness” in the “now” moments so that you can live a more fruitful life for yourself and the world around you.

A Q&A with Anu Vittal

Anu Vittal
Describe SPPPFFy

The acronym spppffy™ stands for spiritual, physical, personal, professional, and financial and last but not least family and friends! This acronym came to me quite by chance. In Canada, we often use the word spiffy (slang for smart) and when I first heard this word from my manager, I was baffled because I misheard it as “scruffy.” And only when my manager understood the bewildered look on my face as I looked down to view my outfit, did he realize that I did not know the meaning of the word spiffy. So he explained it to me and I was thrilled with the compliment, looking very spiffy indeed – in my tan boots, smart kilted skirt, maroon pullover and a tan leather jacket to match my new boots.

Hence the word stuck in my head, and I often thought about it – I said to myself we all work on being spiffy on the outside but what about working from within and being spppffy™ on the inside.

So I invented this step-by-step process by which you are investing in you on a daily basis along six verticals I termed it as “being spppffy™”. So that you can become a better version of yourself every single day in all areas of life. The process itself involves a detailed life audit followed by a swot analysis, and customized smart goal setting methodology to meet the needs of each client.  These types of daily investments in your heart+mind+soul = happiness as you “renew” each day – so shall you reap the rewards of being spppffy™!

How difficult or easy is it to train oneself in controlling one’s mind, one’s reactions to the external stimuli?

I believe the brain is like any other muscle in our body - therefore we need to train it regularly. When we are breaking down a muscle in the gym whilst weight training we experience pain but we tell ourselves to breathe into it and to visualize how strong our muscles are becoming as we tear and build them.

Similarly, all our life experiences are providing us with an opportunity to expand our consciousness and evolve into a better version of our authentic self. This is why our reactions to various life situations make all the difference in realizing your full potential. If you react in a negative way to the same experience, it will provide you with a negative response which will make you unhappy. But by choosing to respond to a life situation in a positive manner it will provide you with a happy state. We all know that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Take for example a balloon – you fill it will helium it will rise and if you fill it with air it will drop to the ground. The choice to react is always yours and that’s what makes all the difference. Ultimately, we are the sum total of all your reactions to every experience. All experiences – be they positive or negative – make us the person we are, at any given point in our lives. And, like a flowing river, those same experiences, and those yet to come, continue to influence and reshape the person we are, and the person we become. None of us is the same as we were yesterday, nor will be tomorrow. And in staying in this awareness of self is the secret to happiness.

That’s why we say happiness is an “inside job”.

Do you think that in the case of most human beings, the problems that the face are a result of their perceived lack of control over the circumstances of their lives? Please elaborate.

Perception is the reality and in most cases, we seem to let our beliefs and perceived paradigms of society guide us forward instead of the actual reality as experienced by us. We tend to want to hang on to what is familiar than to understand and adopt the unfamiliar. That’s why scientists stand apart as they question the reality and create a law based on the “truality” of facts.

The truth is everything we see and absorb from a sensory perspective is unique to each human being even if you are looking at the very same thing or having the very same experience. This is where dialoguing with your brain becomes so important to be able to collaborate and train your mind to tell it what “exactly” you want it to think and do.
We believe that our brain creates thoughts that guide us but the fact is – it’s the other way around. The self or the “I” which is connected to the supreme conscious has the intelligence and the ability to instruct the brain to develop thoughts, ideas which leads to feelings and frequencies we want to bring into our aura.

These will then become the guiding tools to evaluate any life situation or problem in a true manner and then resolve them with ease to give you peace of mind and essentially a HAPPY YOU!

You are an art entrepreneur, how has your entrepreneurialism influenced your perceptions and how did lead to the realisation that resulted in the creation of SPPPFFy?

As an entrepreneur converted into an Artrepreneur I was able to combine my passion for art with my expertise in business innovation. I have always been someone who has based my theories on reality as I see it and on laws of nature or quantum physics or business. Because the neutrality of these laws is based on proven facts or researched scientific discoveries. So in my quest for a spiritual path, I started studying E=MC2 and metaphysics which provided me with a lot of explanations that gave me a clearer understanding as I started to practice spirituality.

I realized as multi-dimensional beings we need to intentional make investments in various pillars of our life to maximize our fullest potential. Therefore the 6 verticals of SPPPFFy, however, I also realized that the secret hiding place of happiness is in the innermost sanctum of self. Hence, I encouraged myself to practice living in each moment or living in the “now” in the best possible manner.  Over the last 5 years, I have realized this is the only way to live life “being spiffy” inside out and right side up!