& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Erasmus of Rotterdam

A friend is someone who forces you to buy a book and compels you to read it. Kumar Ketkar is one such friend. He was here in Toronto recently (with his wife Sharada). We shopped for books at the Toronto Reference Library’s used books section, and he made me buy Bertrand Russell’s Wisdom of the West. It’s a coffee table book that succinctly describes the history of Western thought in a few hundred pages. It’s not a book to be read from start to finish. It’s a sort of book that one browses through, reads a few passages, skips a few pages, and then reads some more. Here’s a passage that I found particularly interesting:

Erasmus of Rotterdam

The greatest of the northern humanists was Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536). Both his parents died before he was twenty, and this, it seems, prevented him from going straight on to a university. His guardian sent him to a monastic school instead, and in due course he joined an Augustinian monastery at Steyn. The result of these early experiences engendered in him a lasting hatred for the severe and unimaginative scholasticism which had been inflicted on him. In 1494, the bishop of Cambrai appointed Erasmus as his secretary and thus helped him break away from the monkish seclusion of Steyn. Several visits to Paris followed, but the philosophic atmosphere at the Sorbonne was no longer conducive to furthering the new learning. For, in the face of the revival, the Thomist and Occamist factions had buried their hatchets and were now making common cause against the humanists.

At the end of 1499, he went for a short visit to England where he met Colet and above all More. Upon his return to the continent he took up Greek to good effect. When he visited Italy in 1506 he took his doctorate at Turin but found no one to excel him in Greek. In 1516 he published the first edition of the New Testament in Greek to appear in print. Of his books, the best remembered is ‘The Praise of Folly’, a satire composed at More’s house in London in 1509. The Greek title is a pun on More’s name. In this book, besides much ridicule on the failings of mankind, there are bitter attacks on the degradations of religious institutions and their ministers. In spite of his outspoken criticisms he did not, when the time came, declare openly for the reformation. He held the essentially protestant view that man stands in direct relation with God and that theology was superfluous. But at the same time he would not be drawn into religious controversies arising in the wake of the reformation movement. He was more interested in his scholarly pursuits and his publishing, and felt in any case that the schism was unfortunate. While in some measure it is true enough that controversies of this kind are a nuisance, these issues could not be ignored. In the end, Erasmus declared for Catholicism, but at the same time became less important. The stage was held by men of stronger mettle.

It is in education that the influence of Erasmus came to leave its most lasting impression. The humanist learning which, until recently, was the core of secondary education wherever Western European views prevailed, owes much to his literary and teaching activities. In his work as a publisher he was not always concerned with exhaustive critical examination of texts. He aimed at a wider reading public rather than at academic specialists. At the same time he did not write in the vulgar tongue. He was on the contrary intent on strengthening the position of Latin.

The ties that bind the elite

I’m reading Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India by Akshya Mukul. It is an important contribution to the understanding of the rise of the Hindutva forces that have come to power in India, and will seemingly remain at the helm for the foreseeable future.

At present, the Hindutva forces have taken complete control of India. While Narendra Modi continues to pull wool over everyone’s eyes (especially in the West) with his talk about development, and his supposed focus on improving India’s business environment, the forces of Hindutva have taken control of all aspects of India.

There are examples of this occurring every day.  For instance, a man was lynched by a mob near Delhi yesterday because the mob suspected that he was eating beef (and everyone conveniently ignores that India is one of the world leaders in beef exports).

The Indian government has issued a postage stamp to honour Mahant Avaidyanath, a radical proponent of Hindutva, who was a key figure in the Ramjanmabhoomi agitation, and who found LK Advani weak-kneed on the issue of building a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

Mukul’s book traces the rise of Gita Press, the publisher and popularizer of Hindu religious texts, in particular the Bhagwad Gita and the Ramcharitmanaas. The book traces the origins, the rise and the supremacy of Gita Press since its inception in early 20th century, as it engagingly narrates the life stories of pioneers its – Jaydayal  Goyandka and Hanuman Prasad Poddar.

The book makes a fundamental point that by the late 19th and early 20th century, the business castes (especially the Marwaris) had effectively penetrated into the exclusive bracket of the top two castes – the Brahmins and the Kshtriyas in north India. The Marwaris had, through the dextrous use of their wealth and India-wide network, developed a system of dominance that redefined Hinduism.  

Poddar (1892-1971) played a significant role in this transformation. He was a diehard Hindu who justified the caste system, was opposed to the Dalits entry into temples, was opposed to widow remarriage, was inimical to Muslims, openly propagating that Hindu women needed protection from lustful Muslim men, was a strong proponent of cow protection and poured vitriol on the Indian establishment for now banning cow slaughter.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) he shared a close relationship with Mahatma Gandhi for several years before falling out with him prior to the Partition. He vociferously defended the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) when the Government banned it in the wake of the Gandhi assassination. And yet, he was close to all the leading Congress party leaders, wielding tremendous clout over many political decisions.

Teji Bachchan (Amitabh Bachchan’s mother) was his ‘rakhi’ sister; with Raihana Tyabji (granddaughter of Badruddin Tyabji, and the aunt of historian Irfan Habib) he shared what can best be described as a platonic relationship; his friendship with the Hindustani classical maestro Vishnu Digambar Paluskar was also legendary. There are innumerable examples of many such relations that may seem incongruous.

I have yet to complete the book, but what strikes me after reading large parts of it is the cozy relationship that the elite of India had in the early to mid-20th century; relationship that crossed party and ideological affiliations.

It was a closed circle of higher castes that helped each other grow and protected each other’s interests. Political ideology mattered, no doubt; but common interests outweighed everything else. The rise of the Dalits and the Mandal castes in the last 25 years may have seriously challenged this supremacy, but I wonder whether this situation has changed in any substantial manner.

I’ll return to the book again. In the meantime, here’s an interesting passage.

It was Raihana – full of tantrums, unusually dramatic and exceptionally forthright – who dominated Poddar’s heart. For the world, Poddar was simply their elder brother and they his sisters, but there was an undercurrent of mystique, an unknown factor that ran through their relationship.

Praising an article Raihana had written for Kalyan, Poddar expressed admiration for her love for Krishna. ‘I know you are a true Muslim. I do not want you to become less of a Muslim. My Krishna is not of Hindus alone. He belongs to a gopi’s heart. Wherever there is a reflection of gopi’s heart. Krishna exsts and he is willing to give everything.’

….Raihana’s mind (is) totally immersed in Krishna; she saw Poddar as his personification and was in no mood to distinguish between the two… Literally and metaphorically, Raihana saw Poddar as her Krishna whose words were those of God….

Poddar admitted he had also never been so free with any of his associates, friends and those who revered him: ‘What I write to you is a fact, not my imagination or mere writing skill. I do not know how these things have been revealed to you. Only Krishna knows. I cannot tell you how my love for you is growing. My Krishna is your friend. What kind of pleasure and what kind of relationship is this? The question of Hindu-Muslim is outside the realm of our relationship. What has that got to do with us? I like your unfettered behaviour.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Love, Loss and Longing: South Asian Canadian Plays

Mahesh Dattani (left), Dalbir Singh (centre) and Girish Karnad (right)
at FSALA-11 
Dalbir Singh is a playwright, and a PhD from the Centre of South Asian Studies, as well as a Graduate of Centre for Drama, University of Toronto. His publications have appeared in journals and anthologies such as Canadian Theatre Review, Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre, Red Light, and She Speaks. His plays have been performed at such venues as the Harbourfront Centre, Factory Theatre, and CBC Radio.

He has previously co-edited an anthology of critical essays entitled World Without Walls: Being Human, Being Tamil (Mawenzi House, 2011) and Post-Colonial Drama (Playwrights Canada Press, 2015). He is the editor of Love, Loss and Longing: South Asian Canadian Plays *Playwrights Canada Press 2016), a collection of six plays from acclaimed and award-winning South Asian Canadian playwrights that explore themes of family, love, trauma, race, and more.
Featuring introductions by directors, dramaturgs, and playwrights, each play is contextualized to explain its relevance and importance in the community. His research interests are centred on questions of hybridity, nostalgia, and memory in contemporary South Asian Canadian theatre.

The collection includes:
  • Bhopal by Rahul Varma, introduced by Guillermo Verdecchia
  • Bombay Black by Anosh Irani, introduced by Brian Quir
  • A Brimful of Asha by Ravi and Asha Jain, introduced by Nicolas Billon
  • Crash by Pamela Mala Sinha, introduced by Judith Thompson
  • Pyaasa by Anusree Roy, introduced by Andy McKim
  • Boys with Cars by Anita Majumdar, introduced by Yvette Nolan
I met Dalbir for the first time during the 2011 edition of the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts (it was then called the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts). He conducted an engaging tête-à-tête with Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani. A student then, Dalbir appeared at ease talking to two of India’s foremost playwrights. In a freewheeling email interview, he discusses his new book.

What is this collection all about?

It was a daunting task to edit the first-ever collection devoted exclusively to the topic of South Asian Canadian plays. How do I choose what to include and what not to include? This volume certainly doesn’t attempt to represent all of South Asia and doesn’t intend to.  This collection reflects a wide array of perspectives through a variety of genres. I believe that the plays in this anthology speak to each other in interesting and complex ways; each telling stories rooted in themes that are universal in scope yet are specific in detail and context. Introductions accompany each play and are written by prominent members of the Canadian theatre industry who have served and supported the development of the writer.

What is so significant about these six plays?

All of the plays are from the past decade.

Rahul Verma’s Bhopal was the first production I had seen in Toronto’s Theatre Centre (directed by Guillermo Verdecchia) that featured a mostly South Asian cast (unheard of for that time), written by an Indo-Canadian and focused on an issue that still has reverberations that are felt to this day.

Bhopal is a play that examines what is widely known as the world’s worst nuclear industrial disaster that resulted in over 16,000 deaths in Bhopal, India. The play depicts the tragedy from multiple viewpoints including families affected by the nerve gas (as a result of a gas leak from a Union Carbide Corporation’s pesticide plant) doctors and government officials.

It serves as a reminder of corporate ineptitude and exploitation and how human suffering becomes quantified in terms of a loss of profits. This play was important in many ways which included helping pave the way for other Indo-Canadian artists to pursue and write their own stories.

Another play in this anthology is A Brimful of Asha. It is written by real-life mother and son, Ravi and Asha Jain. It’s a genuinely engaging tale about a mother who is desperate to get her aging son married off. Her painstaking efforts to arrange a marriage for him are beset by numerous obstacles – not least of which is Ravi’s hesitancy. A Brimful of Asha is very humorous but the fact that it’s based on real events, situations and conversations between the two gives it an authentic air of intergenerational conflict.

The other three plays, Pyaasa, Bombay Black and Crash have all won the Dora Award for Outstanding New Play (one of the highest accolades given to Canadian playwrights).

Pyaasa by Anusree Roy is set in Kolkata, India, and is a monodrama featuring several characters all played by the playwright herself. Pyaasa instantly struck a chord with me the first time I had seen it. It dealt with a contentious issue in the South Asian community that many choose to ignore. By examining the caste system and its destructive hierarchy through a group of characters from different caste affiliations, it posits the notion that caste is inherently performative – something to be adorned in order to delineate one’s superiority over others.

Anosh Irani is a playwright but he also happens to be the sole novelist in the group of writers who have contributed to this anthology. His novels, like his plays, focus on the interplay between gender, politics and locale. Most of his work is set in India, like the aptly titled multi award-winning play, Bombay Black which is included in this anthology.

Bombay Black’s action takes place within such a brothel by primarily examining the relationship between a young female dancer and a patron who also happens to be blind. Like the many other works collected in this book, there have been many changes administered to these plays in these new revised editions. It is perhaps the most revised piece in this collection by showcasing a plot device that is completely from its original production and thus completely changing the trajectory of the play.

The first time that I had met Pamela Sinha, it was to discuss the inclusion of her brilliant one-woman show, Crash for this anthology. It was a wonderful opportunity to meet such a warm-spirited writer and artist and to engage in intellectually stimulating conversations regarding the state of Canadian theatre today. Crash is perhaps the most amenable play in regard to casting in this anthology. Sinha has expressed the notion that she’d be open to the idea of the next production of the piece employing a non-Indo Canadian actor; to have the character be portrayed by other ethnicities.

Anita Majumdar’s Boys with Cars is part of her “Fish Eyes” Trilogy that examines through three separate young woman, their relationships to dance, fellow dancers, life at a high school, and yes, boys. The play, previously titled The Misfit, centers on the story of Naz, who longs to leave her hometown of Port Moody, British Columbia in order to attend university. However, complications arise before her dream can be realized.

Majumdar’s plays are often characterized by its feminist-oriented political relevance, its breathtaking choreography and its balance between dramatic and comedic tensions. Her plays read as a pastiche of multiple genres, conventions, attitudes, ideas and physicalities and are acutely attuned to Indo-Canadian youth and their constant struggles of belonging and maintaining some sense of identity.

South Asian, and more specifically, Indo-Canadian talent seems to be coming of age

Several volumes of plays devoted to the subject would still come to represent only a small fraction of the many voices that inhabit South Asia and its diaspora. Besides the playwrights featured in this anthology, there are many other South Asian Canadian writers and artists who are creating intelligent, humorous and poignant work. I wish that I could publish all of their work in this collection; writers like Anand Rajaram, Sunil Kuruvilla, Nisha Ahuja, Sheila James, Tanya Pillay, Bilal Baig, Jiv Parasram, Rana Bose, Doris Rajan, Raoul Bhaneja, Radha Menon, Uma Paremswaran, Serena Parmar and many more. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

Arabian Nights I, II, III

I – The Restless One, II – The Desolate One, III – The Enchanted One

I saw Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes at the Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff), which celebrated four decades this year.

The film comprises three parts - The Restless One, The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One. It is about contemporary Portugal. My motivation in choosing the 383-minute ode was to know about contemporary society in Portugal, a country that has historical links to India. 

It turned out to be a serendipitous decision.

The trilogy depicts the transformation of the Portuguese society in the face of economic recession, and the adversities faced by the population because of the severe austerity measures enforced by the international lending institutions.

Here are my impressions of the epic:

The first part (The Restless One) comprises three stories. The first is Men with a Hard On. It's all about erections induced by a potion recommended by an African adorning tribal costume to a group of technocrats trying try to resolve the economic woes facing their country but unable to agree where to levy the cut in social welfare.

The second - the Story of the Cockerel and Fire is about a talking cockerel who, much to the annoyance of the townspeople, crows rather loudly all night in an apparent bid to caution the townspeople of the misfortune that would strike them in the form of a young arsonist whose unrequited love causes her to set afire forests.

The cockerel acquires such notoriety that his name appears on the list of candidates contesting the mayoral polls. 

The magistrate, who claims to understand bird/animal talk, conducts a hearing to decide whether the cockerel is guilty as charged for disturbing peace. And after the hearing, agrees that the bird’s intentions were noble.

The third story is The Swim of Magnificents and it is about a man who is tries to make some money organizing an annual dip in the sea on the New Year. He gets nightmares when his plans run into a whale of a problem – a beached whale. The local authorities prevent the annual dip, and the man has a nightmare of being inside the innards of the whale.

Fortunately, the bloated carcass explodes, strewing its innards across the beach. In the meantime, the man and his much younger friend in a punk hairdo, begin to record experiences of middle aged unemployed men trying to find a job.

The first part of the trilogy Arabian Nights (The Restless One) sets the tone for a series of stories that continue in the other two parts (The Desolate One, and The Enchanted One).  

The film begins with the director (Gomes enacts the role) abandoning the project of making a film on Portugal’s economic woes, confessing that only abstraction can do justice to such a grand theme. But he confesses that abstraction causes him severe vertigo. He flees the scene and then, the narration is then taken over by Scheherazade, who adapts the stories of the Portuguese people to the 1001 Nights format.

It is this fantabulist bent that characterizes the entire epic. Miguel Gomes has little patience and evidently lesser respect for structure or form, and is agnostic to the intermingling of fact, fiction and fantasy. He combines documentary style camera work, with touristy panoramic visuals of the fabulous beaches and seafronts of Portugal.

All the stories have a basis in reality. In fact, while filming the epic, which took more than a year, the filmmaker had a team of journalists looking for news reports of specific and peculiar instances of hardships the Portuguese society faced during the restructuring phase. Check out the website: Arabian Nights.

In the second part – The Desolate One begins with the story of a serial killer, who murders his wife and daughter. Chronicle of the Escape of Simao 'Without Bowels' is about Simao who is on the run, and has been successfully evade arrest. He becomes a local hero among the locals apparently for no other reasons expect that they are happy to see someone defy authority. He surrenders when he apparently gets bored of the his existence in the wild, which includes an orgy with nubile young women who sit on him in the nude and slap each others bottoms.

The main story in the second part Tears of the Judge. It is about a magistrate who holds court in an amphitheatre to try cases that are straight out of the mid-twentieth century theatre of the absurd. The magistrate’s character is based on a real life magistrate in Portugal who broke down after handling out a sentence to a petty criminal for robbing people outside an ATM.

The magistrate hears cases pertaining to mail order Chinese brides, a stolen cow, a banker and a mother-son duo accused of petty thievery (and the son’s sex addiction). The banker is blamed for all the troubles, and he is never shown on screen. What is shown is his post-coital, limp penis covered in virginal blood. The camera voyeuristically closes in on his young wife, as she walks from the bedroom to the kitchen, blood flowing down her legs, and calls her mother to inform her about her first night.  

The final episode in this part The Owners of Dixie is a story of a destitute couple who get into a suicide pact, as they are unable to survive. They gift their pet (Dixie, an angelic dog) to a young couple, not too different from them, except in age, and their addiction to drugs. Everyone in the condo block loves Dixie, and despite it changing many masters, continues to remain everyone’s favourite.

Towards the end, we find out that in the condo’s corridors has a ghost of a dog that is similar to Dixie. Among the tenants living in the condo is a Gujarati family who has a pet parakeet who talks incessantly, but suddenly stops, and even when the family pays the vet a thousand euros (by borrowing) it speaks no more. 

The condo also has immigrants from India, who play cricket wearing Sahara India shirts, and a bevy of Brazilian beauties who prefer to sunbathe in the nude on the terrace of the multistoried building.

The second part was Portugal’s official entry at the Oscars for the Best Foreign Language film for 2015. It has eclectic music and stunning visuals that at once convey the claustrophobic insides of the apartments, and the sprawling destitution.

In the final part – The Enchanted One – we meet Scheherazade again. Her father – the vizier to King Shahryar – can’t get over the remorse of having got her daughter married to the crazy king. The father-daughter duo who belong to the medieval times meet on a Ferris wheel at a beach that is in the present times.

The father assures the daughter that everything will turn out just fine, but has difficulty believing that himself. Then, the princess sails off on a motorboat to an archipelago where she meets a virile stud of a man who has sired over 200 children. The princess, a practical woman, refuses to the man’s advances for a more permanent sort of relationship, preferring momentary physical pleasure.

The final story of the series - The Inebriating Chorus of the Chaffinches - is of working class men surviving on the outskirts of the city trapping and training chaffinches. It is a story not just of the fluctuating fortunes of these men, but also of the slowly transforming landscape that was once dominated by forests (prior to the 1974 revolution) being taken over by unplanned development.

The story is interrupted by another one of a Chinese immigrant who falls in love with a cop who leaves her after she becomes pregnant. The visuals for the entire episode comprise of tension between striking and on duty cops clashing over wages. The Chinese girl (whose Chinese name translates into Portuguese as Hot Forrest) is only heard, not seen.

The trilogy eschews any attempt to adhere to or abide by any logic, and deliberately strains the viewers’ tacit acceptance of process of suspension of disbelief. The narration is frequently interrupted by unheralded appearance of genies; but nearly all of them are at the end of their powers or easy to manipulate. Film closes with the classic 1970s number Calling occupants of interplanetary craft popularized by Carpenters.