& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Afterlife of Stars - Joseph Kertes

Running through a minefield, seeing many dead men swaying by the lamppost, dodging bullets hiding inside the massive bronze boots of Stalin’s statue that had been toppled over; seeing a man’s head blown off; being privy to the horrific torture of one grandaunt; learning about family’s dark secrets accidentally, and all the time having to deal with an over-the-edge older brother, who is obsessed with divinity, human anatomy, history, and the family’s past.

It’s difficult to forget such encounters especially if one experiences them before one hits the double digit in age.

Joseph Kertes’ novel The Afterlife of Stars is an amalgam of emotions and episodes that generally take a lifetime to accumulate. However, Robert, the youngest member of a Jewish Hungarian family that is fleeing Budapest as the Soviets tanks overrun Hungary, experiences all the horrors of war and displacement in a matter of a few days, and they remain etched in his mind forever.

Yet to come to terms with the horrors of the Holocaust, the family has now decided to leave Europe and try their fortunes in the new world – in Canada, but before they start afresh, they have to come to terms with their past and with their guilt.

That’s not easy, especially for the young Robert, who knows why his grandaunt’s hands have turned into claws. The young heart is burdened by the sorrows of such enormous family secrets that he prefers silence, and turns into an observer and narrator of the family’s journey to freedom. At every stage, he realizes the futility of physical freedom especially because all of them have been perennially jailed by their memories of guilt.

The Afterlife of Stars is an ambitious novel that is told in the voice of a child who while living a life through hell is willing to lose himself in the imaginative world of adolescence and explore the most bizarre ideas with his brother, audaciously face the most foolhardy risks and survive to tell the tale, and sombrely touch the hearts of his elders by his meek acceptance.

I attended a book club meeting (my first) at the Spadina Museum yesterday organized by Diaspora Dialogues where Joseph Kertes discussed his novel with Helen Walsh. Not surprisingly, the book is autobiographical; he was one of the thousands who fled Hungary in 1956, he was five-years-old then.  Kertes is a natural raconteur, and narrated gut wrenching stories of the Holocaust. Though the audience was thin, everyone had read the book, and the conversation was engaging.

Reading the book, I had assumed that the family had stopped in Paris before coming to Canada. This is because the description of Paris, especially the city’s sewers, is an incredibly evocative parts of the novel. 

To my surprise, Kertes said that was all fiction.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Woman: A Search

A woman’s status in the Indian society is changing rapidly, and by some accounts is getting better in some parts of the country. A perceptible change is that at least there is consistent articulation of the need for things to change. 

But Indian society is multilayered and several centuries coexist simultaneously in the present, so while we may be witnessing a mild transformation in the status of women in some urban centres, their situation remains unchanged across large parts of India.

An indication of the utter disdain with which a majority of men in India view the position of women was on display recently when a senior political leader (and a former government minister), Sharad Yadav, shamelessly shouted at a woman government minister (Smriti Irani), telling her suggestively, “I know who you are.”

One doesn’t have to agree with Smriti Irani on anything whatsoever (and any sane person would, in fact, find it impossible to agree with her on anything) to respect her as a woman and as a minister. Pertinently, the exchange occurred in the Indian parliament.

(If you wish to read more about Sharad Yadav’s deep-rooted misogyny, click here: Thank you Sharad Yadav…)

The situation is not all that different for women of Indian origin in Canada, especially in places such as Brampton, where the Indian origin population is in greater numbers. Such places are hotbeds of misogyny and gender-based discrimination. Importantly, the plight of these women generally remains hidden and doesn’t find any mention in the mainstream media, except for an occasional report when something really drastic occurs.

Many who watched the exquisite two-part dance ballet Woman:A Search by Mrudanga Dance Academy at the Fleck Theatre of the Harbourfront Centre on March 21 may have justifiably marvelled at the mastery of the performers and the dazzling production, and gone home deeply satisfied at having seen an avant-garde performance.

They would have (again, justifiably) congratulated the Harbourfront Centre for including an Indian classical dance ballet in its repertoire of the Next Steps series festival.

However, underlying the artistic excellence of the ballet was (is) the unrelenting reality that needs to be shouted out loudly and repeatedly: that women in India (and women of Indian origin in the diaspora) continue to get the wet end of the stick, and that their amelioration remains sketchy and incomplete.

Mrudanga Dance Academy depicted not just the plight, but also the indomitable spirit of Indian woman, and it did so with finesse, subtlety and breathtaking artistry.

And it wasn’t just the classical Odissi dance by the academy’s troupe in Janma (birth), or the fusion of dance forms in Trishna (thirst); it was Rishabha Dhar’s enthralling music, where he suddenly introduced a saxophone interlude to accentuate Ananda’s longing for Prakriti during their momentary separation, electrifying the auditorium; it was the dazzling display of lights and minimalist stage décor; it was Ananya Mukherjee’s emotionally charged voiceover that made Prakriti’s pain at being perennially ostracized palpably real; it was the legendary Lata Pada’s sombre yet evocative monologue; and it was the scripts by Amit Dasgupta (Janma) and Ananya and Bandana  Mukherjee (Trishna) that gave a contemporary slant to modernist tales.

Of course, all these aspects went into making the show splendid, but what took it to another level, what made it memorable and unforgettable was Enakshi Sinha’s riveting Odissi recital.

Janma is a straightforward story about gender discrimination, where a woman is born in a family that has been praying for a son. She grows ups aware that she is unwanted, and learns to survive by resisting her marginalization. The recital concludes on a positive note when the woman herself gives birth to a girl child, and she vows to treat her fairly and not shun her.

Trishna is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s classic Chandalika, the play and the opera-style dance drama that for the first time ever brought the angst of a young Dalit woman Prakriti, who falls in love with Ananda, a Bhikshu primarily because he treats her as a woman. 

Trishna is based on a more woman-centric interpretation of Chandalika by physicist turned philosopher and Tagore scholar Abu Sayeed Ayyub. This interpretation portrays the epic mainly as a love story, where love has the power to conquer all – in Prakriti’s case the social isolation, and in Ananda’s case the vow of worldly renunciation. In this interpretation of Chandalika, the two lovers boldly embark upon a journey to shatter stereotypes, break norms and attempt to create a new, better world that would have no place for prejudice and hatred.

The performance was in support of the UN Women’s campaign Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

કાય પણ ઍક ફૂલ નુ નાં બોલો તો

Salman Rushdie, in his critically undervalued The Ground Beneath her Feet coined acronym HUG-ME for languages that everyone in Bombay was familiar with. 

He says, “Bombayites like me were people who spoke five languages badly and no language well.” The languages were (are?) Hindi Urdu Gujarati Marathi and English. 

A Bombay where we all understood these five languages, could speak four, read at least three, and write in two. 

This was the quintessential Bombay – a Bombay that now probably lives only in the diaspora outside India.

Jasmine and Nitin Sawant of the Sawitri Group are of that lost generation who live a Bombay that exists only in the imagination. 

The Sawitri Group have made a great contribution to the theatre scene in Toronto by staging Mahesh Dattani’s plays. Periodically, they also stage plays that capture the Bombay of the past, Bombay that is lost. 

A while back, the group staged Sai Paranjape’s सख्खे शेजारी, and earlier this week, the group staged Madhu Rye’s popular Gujarati play કાય પણ ઍક ફૂલ નુ નાં બોલો તો.

Rye’s play is a whodunit with an unexpected and unconventional dénouement that nearly five decades after it was first staged, retains its freshness. More than anything else, it’s a play about the Bombay of yore, a Bombay that could hold in its imagination a woman like Kamini Desai, the stage actor who is willing to suffer a lifetime of oblivion behind bars just to revel in a moment of narcissist wish fulfilment.

It’s a play that is in many ways a period piece. For instance, it cannot but raise eyebrows at the various dalliances between its main characters. Yet in many other ways it is timeless. For instance, Deshpande’s blackmailing of Jyotsna’s husband that he would publish a calendar of her (presumably nude) photographs if he didn’t pay him a hefty sum has a resonance even five decades later. Rehtaeh Parson’s suicide is a tragic example from the present times.

The play examines the fluidity as well as the hypocrisy of relationship, and realistically questions the basis of most relationships – husband-wife, brother-sister, writer-producer, writer-actor, between actors, between lovers, between colleagues. 

In a distinctly multilinear manner (cubist in treatment of the plot but without cubism's invasiveness), it examines a murder from the point of view of different characters, and probes the psychology of guilt that surfaces in each of the characters as they question their own motives.

Theatre is an actor’s medium, and Naimesh Nanavaty, a theatre veteran, understands this perfectly. His direction is subdued and non-intrusive, as he allows controlled freedom to all his actors, who without exception give a superlative performance, with Shruti Shah (Kanta Patel, Kamini Desai), and Nanavaty (Keshav Thaker) himself standing out for making it look easy and natural.

Sampradaya’s space enables intimacy between the performers and the audience, breaking down the barrier that a conventional stage otherwise imposes. It enhances the appreciation of the craft that is theatre. 

That intimacy was highlighted by Joseph Pagnan’s lighting design, especially during the interrogation of each character, and attaining heartbreaking poignancy when tears well up the playwright’s (Nanavaty) eyes.

It was an evening well spent. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Parables of Sri Ramkrishna Paramhans


Once a man went to a certain place to see a theatrical performance, carrying a mat under his arm. Hearing that it would be some time before the performance began, he spread the mat on the floor and fell asleep. When he woke up all was over. Then he returned home with the mat under his arm!


Once upon a time two friends were going along the street when they saw some people listening to a reading of the Bhagavata.

“Come, friend,” said one to the other, “let us hear the sacred book.”

So saying he went in and sat down. The second man peeped in and went away. He entered a house of ill fame. But very soon he felt disgusted with the place.

“Shame on me!” he said to himself. “My friend has been listening to the sacred word of Hari; and see where I am!”

But the friend who had been listening to the Bhagvata also became disgusted.

“What a fool I am!” he said. “I have been listening to this fellow’s blah-blah, and my friend is having a grand time.”

In course of time they both died.

The messenger of death came for the soul of one who had listened to the Bhagvata and dragged it off to hell. The messenger of God came for the soul of the one who had been to the house of prostitution and led it up to heaven.

Verily, the Lord looks into a man’s heart and does not judge him by what he does or where he lives.

Image: http://www.manicksorcar.com/