& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Diana Tso at Stratford

A scene from Diana Tso

Diana Tso is a performer, playwright, poet, storyteller and an artist in education. As the artistic director of the Red Snow Collective (www.redsnowcollective.ca) Diana’s vision of theatre merges the east and the west storytelling art forms through music, movement, and text.

I spoke to her in June to find out about her work at the Stratford Festival, where she has roles in two important plays – the Euripides tragedy The Bacchae, reinterpreted as Bakkhai, by director Jillian Keiley and based on poet Anne Carson’s 2015 version of the Greek classic, and The Komagata Maru Incident based on Sharon Pollock’s play and directed by Keira Loughran, which re-examines the historical event that defined racial relations and tensions in Canada in the early 20th century.  

In Bakkhai, Diana is enacting the role of one of the seven women in the chorus, and in The Komagata Maru Incident, she is Evy, a sex worker, and lover of William Hopkinson, the immigration officer.

Excerpts from the interview:

What is it to be performing at Stratford?

A scene from Bakkhai
I'm living the dream. I've met so many artists and actors. The unique part of performing at Stratford is to have coaches that enrich one’s journey and build stamina to work as an actor. There were coaches to help us vocally, with our text, with our movement. The sessions help actors perform in two or three plays in one season.

How did Stratford happen?

I auditioned for the character of Evy in Komagata Maru, and simultaneously I was also offered the role of one of the seven women in the chorus in Bakkhai. Rehearsals began for Bakkhai in March and the final preview was in June. For Komagata Maru, the rehearsals began in June and the play opened in August and will run through until September.

What is Komagata Maru all about?

This is Canadian history. It’s an exciting role because it explores the situation of a person of colour in the Canadian society in the early 20th century and how she is able to stand up for herself against the stereotypical characterization of both a sex worker and a person of colour.

The character is able to seize her independence and be brave enough to make a positive change in her life; to do something better for herself and for others. Evy’s character has to be seen from the perspective of the early 20th century when women were scarce in Vancouver and almost seen as prized possessions.

The original play was written in the 1970s but this version has been re-contextualised to reflect the South Asian element which the director felt was missing from the original version.

It is particularly poignant at this juncture in Canadian history when we are rediscovering our native heritage and putting it back up on a pedestal where it belongs; when we are acknowledging the native roots of our nation and recognizing its value both in terms of what was snatched from them as well as what we need to do to give it adequate representation in our cultural mainstream. 

It is this process that also finds a reflection in Komagata Maru.

The play is especially relevant in the present context when we are seeing a rise in white supremacist ideology in the United States and also in Canada.

To buy tickets to The Komagata Maru incident, click here: Komagata Maru at Stratford

To buy tickets to Bakkhai, click here: Bakkhai at Stratford

Images take from Stratford Festival website

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Weston Village

Saturday mornings is my time. I generally leave home to go to do my weekly groceries and buy my weekly transit pass.

When I have to also go to the bank at Keele and Lawrence, I stop by at the Flame restaurant for one the best home-style omelette, toast and tea. It’s owned by a Greek-origin gentleman. Some months back (in April) I took a photo of the grilled cheese veggie omelette I was having and posted it on Google maps. It’s got an overwhelming number of hits (135,900 at the last count).

Then, on some Saturdays, I have to visit the pharmacy at Weston and Lawrence, to get my medicines from Mohamed Ahmed, the Somali pharmacist with a Poona connection (he studied in there), or to meet the other Mohammed from Afghanistan, who runs the laundry and alteration place.  On such days, I usually walk down Weston to be in the midst of one of the most interesting streets in Toronto.

Weston has a history and heritage. I’ve developed a sense of belonging to this stretch of road from Lawrence Avenue to Highway 401. To its immediate west is the Humber River; to its east is the railway line on which the new Union-Pearson Express operates. The village was an industrial hub long ago and has changed in its composition and character over the last century (as has most of other neighbourhoods in Toronto). Wikipedia has some fascinating historical information about Weston village.

On some weekends when both Mahrukh and I are at home together (which is rare) we go to the P&M Restaurant on Weston. It’s also a Greek place and serves delicious breakfast and lunch. Since I stopped having meat, I restrict myself to omelettes, and this place, too, has arguably one of the finest omelettes in Toronto. The place is family-owned and everyone tries their best to make you feel you’re a part of their family.

Earlier this summer, Mahrukh and I walked down Humber River into the ravines and crossed the river on a wooden bridge. In autumn the trees on the river bank turn yellow and transform it into a surreal, magical psychedelic place that you’d only find in children’s storybooks.

Further to the north is the Weston Library, which celebrated its centenary in 2014-15. Originally constructed through an Andrew Carnegie endowment in 1914, the library occupies a heritage building. Entering the building is like taking a journey into the past because it evokes a sense of being in an early 20th century wood and red bricks home with stained glass windows. The original structure was expanded and extended to accommodate the growing need for space sometime in the 1960s.

(Read about the original building here and about the extension here). 

Since I made Toronto my home in 2008, I’ve regularly visited four libraries – the main Toronto Reference Library (at every given opportunity/excuse), the North York library when my workplace was at Yonge and Sheppard; the Amesbury Park library when I lived on Keele and Lawrence, and now the Weston library. The Toronto Reference and the North York libraries are grand architecturally, and the Amesbury Park one is functional. The Weston library makes me feel at home because of its ambience. It’s not at all like a library. It’s a place that encourages browsing of books arranged in neat rows of bookshelves, with the original section of the building housing fiction books.

Today, I went to the library to return a book and borrow another one, and while browsing through the rows of fiction books, I saw my novel Belief nestled between David Bezmozgis’s The Betrayers and Rachel Billington’s Perfect Happiness on the shelf. That made me smile. I took a photo on my phone and showed it to the library assistant. She peered into the phone, and smiled and said, “Is that you? Your book? That’s great! You must write another one now.”

Sunday, August 06, 2017


It’s only in the realm of fiction that the past and the present can be made to coexist. Both on the screen and on the stage, interspersing of the past and the present compels the audience to willingly suspend disbelief and, when the playwright and/or the director gets it right, this commingling of time and space creates incredibly poignancy that is heartwarming.

As GRAMMA, the latest offering by Sawitri Theatre Group reached its climax, I was disappointed that the play would end soon. Yes, the grandmother had passed away, but, I argued with myself, the play could’ve gone on for a bit with by switching over to the story Samantha and Raj. In these two characters, playwright Jasmine Sawant created characters that were endearing in their youthful innocence.

And as far as I could tell, they couldn’t have been part of the original memoir. 

The play is based on Dr. Jane Fraser’s memoir of her grandmother Lillie Carberry (1865-1949), and Jasmine makes it relevant to our times by incorporating characters in the present. Adopting an Indian theatre tradition of having a narrator (sutradhar), Jasmine turns Samantha and Raj into narrators of the story of the eponymous GRAMMA’s life.

Lillie’s story epitomises the lives of Canadian women and families living in Mississauga from mid-19th century to the mid-20th century. But she's not the docile and domesticated archetypal woman of her times. Lillie's an independent woman with a steely determination to do whatever she wants to do. Out of necessity, such strong-willed people (and especially women) lead a life that to others may seem lonely but that's not so. They prefer their solitude without feeling lonely. Lillie’s best pals are trees outside her the many homes that she lives during her lifetime.

The gradually changing dynamics of human relations between all the characters are evocatively portrayed and the witty and perceptive exchanges between Lillie and her daughter and her mother make the characters come alive. Lillie’s relationship with her mother and daughter also reveals her deceptively dominant (and manipulative) nature, all of which is conveyed in a few pithy lines. Her late marriage and relatively early widowhood strengthen her character even more.  The loss of her babies makes her a hard woman, who has learnt that it's only she who can adequately console herself to overcome her immense losses. 

Lillie's an intelligent woman with strong opinions on worldly matters; she doesn’t mince her words expressing unconventional views such as the futility of war. She lives through two World Wars. Jasmine makes that early 20th century period relevant to present times and makes a strong political statement by including in the narrative the contribution of Indian armed forces (then part of the British colonial army) to the war efforts. Although it’s a part of prattle between Samantha and Raj, it underscores the fact that this contribution has never been adequately acknowledged (the latest example is Nolan’s Dunkirk).

The material progress ushered in through technology that the Canadian society experiences in the early 20th century (such as the telephone and the automobile) and the growth of urbanisation in Mississauga (localities such as Derry Road and Meadowvale) in particular and the Peel region in general personalises the play for the local audience, nearly all of whom would’ve been familiar with the geography.  

Both Sawitri Theatre Group and Jasmine need to be acknowledged for producing a play that is as Canadian as it can ever be. It's a welcome departure from what the group's been doing in the past few years. I’m sure this is the first of many such efforts to follow. 


GRAMMA's author - Dr. Jane Fraser
Playwright - Jasmine Sawant
Director - Christina Collins
Producer - Nitin Sawant
Production Design - Joseph Pagnan
Sound Design - Christina Collins & Sid Sawant
Costume Design - Shruti Shah
Projection Design - Nitin Sawant
Choreography - Akhila Jog, Shruti Shah & Raina Desai


Lillie Carberry / Little Brown - Amy Osborne
Samantha Fraser - Ivana Bittnerova
Raj Nilan - Carlos Felipe Martinez
Isabelle Carberry & Grace Brown / Grace Emerson - Lucy Winkle
Henry Brown & Luther Emerson & Rag and Bones Man & Janitor - Jesse Anderson

Makeup - Akhila Jog
Stage Manager - Jeremy Pearson
Technical Director - Keyoor Shah
Production Assistant, Props & Wardrobe - Raina Desai
Makeup Assistant & Wardrobe - Forrest Jamie
Assistant to Stage Manager - Devansh Shah
Set Build - Keyoor Shah & Nitin Sawant
Marketing & Administration - Jasmine Sawant

Postcard & Cover Design - Arti Bakhle
House Program - Shamy Kaul
Period Costumes / Props - Courtesy Heritage Mississauga
Antique piano and table - Carol Ambrault
Antique chair - David Huband
Piano Tuning - David Patterson
Rocking chair - Emma Ryan

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Modi's India - I

He came, he saw, he conquered

In July 2017, I returned to Bombay after three years, on my third trip to the city that shaped me, after immigrating to Canada in 2008. It was my first trip to Modi’s India. Narendra Modi had swept the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in 2014 and during the last three years steadily, and with supreme confidence, consolidated his and his party’s hold over India. Three years later, the entire Hindi-speaking belt and more states are under the BJP’s control either directly or in an alliance. From my conversations with a cross-section of people, I gathered that he is assured a two-thirds majority in the 2019 general elections.

Whether one likes him or not, Narendra Modi is the most important leader that has emerged in the 21st century in India. He has no competition, not in his own party, and definitely not in the opposition. Rahul Gandhi continues to flounder (apparently he’s lost 27 consecutive elections), and with him, the Congress, having recently secured a lone victory in the Punjab, which all agree was a vote against the Badals and not one in favour of the Congress. The party is has been reduced to a fringe outfit with a presence in Karnataka, and Puducherry in the South; Himachal Pradesh (besides the Punjab) in the North; Mizoram and Meghalaya in the North East.  

What about the other opposition stars? Arvind Kejriwal remains Quixotic and unpredictable, although he won an impressive victory in Delhi, many of his comrades have left him. Mamata Banerjee has replaced the CPM in West Bengal, and from all appearances, is unshakeable in Kolkata despite BJP’s rather desperate attempt to foster communal tension. It’s the turn of the Communists to rule Kerala for now, but the Left is in shambles in India. With Nitish Kumar doing what comes naturally to socialists – conveniently consorting with the communalists when it suits their needs – the BJP, by all accounts, has never had it so good in terms of the geographical spread of political power.

People who claimed to be in the know confided that the Modi government has initiated several policy decisions that will have a great impact on the Indian economy. Among the measures that are being touted as Modi’s major achievements include the demonetisation of high denomination currency in 2016, which definitely caused chaos including reported deaths of over 50 Indians who stood in queues to exchange their unusable money for usable ones.

However, after the demonetisation decision, the BJP won a spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh and brought in a firebrand Yogi Adityanath, a rabid proponent of the militant Hindutva ideology, as the chief minister of India’s most populous state.  Modi’s supporters claimed that India’s poor and dispossessed had welcomed Modi’s demonetisation decision and its stated purpose that it’d reduce unaccounted money (black money) in the economy. The move was expected to usher in a new era in the Indian economy and turn India into a cashless society; however, cash was still the king in Bombay, Dehli, Baroda and Poona that I visited during my trip.

Soon thereafter, the Modi government also implemented the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which has once again caused consternation in a sizeable section of India’s entrepreneurial sections. Again, Modi supporters have rushed to defend the decision claiming that only those businesses that are unwilling to be transparent are opposing the GST.  Undoubtedly, there are tangible benefits to the GST, as has been seen in many developing countries globally, and especially in Canada. It may be pertinent to recall here that the previous Indian government had consulted Canada rather extensively on the implementation of the GST.

However, the idea of a single tax regime that the GST was to bring about in the Indian economy remains elusive, although to be fair, it’s still rather early to judge the impact of the new tax. A close friend, who has been a small entrepreneur and an importer, was ambivalent about the impact of the GST on his kitchen appliances import business. He was happy that octroi duty (which reeked of rampant corruption) had been done away with, but the overall tax had increased substantially on imported appliances, which cater to the high net worth consumers.

Had this affected his business, I asked. Not really, he said, the number of high net worth consumers in India is steadily rising. This is the cumulative effect of 25 years of economic liberalisation.

The other measure that Modi supporters claim will give long term benefit to the Indian economy is the repeal of obsolete laws which continue to keep the economy shackled to the bureaucracy and slowing the pace of economic reforms. As per the latest news report over 1,100 (out of over 1,800) laws have already been repealed, and the Modi government continues to stay on course to repeal all the obsolete laws before its term ends. Undoubtedly, this will provide a major impetus in the future for economic growth.

Notwithstanding the concerns over the compromise of privacy, the implementation of the Aadhaar card for a billion plus Indians will assist the government administration in streamlining its services to the people, when implemented completely. The Aadhaar card is similar to Canada’s Social Insurance Number card, but with a photograph. Its stated objective is to usher in transparency by linking bank and tax information to it. It’s not complete and will take a long time to become an effective administrative tool for the government.

The global business and investor community and foreign governments have greater confidence about the future of the Indian economy than ever before. At a Canada – India bilateral business conference held in Bombay in early July, the Export Development Canada (EDC) informed the participants that it’d actively seek project finance opportunities in India, which is a clear departure from its previous practice and policy. In the past it focused primarily on transactional finance, assisting Canadian exporters in entering the Indian market. Representatives of other Canadian as well as multilateral agencies expressed confidence in the Indian economy and the way the Modi government is handling the economy. There was a consensus that the new banking regulation ordinance will finally begin to resolve the vexatious issue of bad business loans. One representative of a Canadian company claimed that no other economy in the world provided such a long-range growth and returns potential as India.

The media, by and large, is supportive of Modi personally and also of his government. What I noticed is a sudden rise in the number of right-of-center intellectuals who have begun to regularly put up a sophisticated defence of both Modi and his government’s policies, while minutely examining the shortfalls of his opponents. I didn’t have access to television at home, and therefore missed the firebrand journalism of Arnab Goswami (a phenomenon that has captured the Indian mindset and set the political agenda). I read the Times of India between July 3 and July 25; it continues to be the pro-establishment newspaper that it has always been, but hasn’t completely abandoned its values and sold its soul as I feared it’d have. It did a remarkable news report on how the common Indian Muslim is feeling insecure in Modi’s India. 

Politically and economically, it’d seem, Modi is unassailable. And he made it all look so easy. He came, he saw and he conquered.