& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, January 13, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 1

2018 is a milestone in our lives – it’s our tenth year in Toronto.

Applying for immigration - March 2002
In 2001, we decided to immigrate to Canada. In March 2002, we signed up with an immigration agent. We were promised that we’d be in Canada in 18 months. Mahrukh, with her Master’s degree, had a better score, so she became the main applicant, and I became her accompanying spouse. Che, who was all of five-years-old, was excited as all children are when they see their parents are happy doing stuff together that keeps them excited and smiling.

However, after 18 months when nothing happened, we decided to change the agent. Another 18 months went by and nothing happened, and it seemed like nothing would happen forever. You can’t live in a limbo or stop living. Our hope of ever leaving India receded and we reconciled to our life in Bombay. 
At the Pearson Airport 12 July 2008, just after landing.
Our first photo in Canada
The wait continued, and by 2008, we'd all but given up hope of ever coming to Canada. By then, we'd set our roots in our new home in Powai, where Mahrukh and Che made new friends. Then in March 2008, six long years after we'd applied, we got our landing papers, and by July we were all ready to permanently leave India.

But, leaving India permanently is impossible. An Indian can never leave India. As they rightly say, you can take an Indian out of India, but you can’t take India out of an Indian. As it turned out, while we physically left India, spiritually we never could. Emotionally, we remain in India even today. Paradoxically, our bond with India is stronger now, after being outside for ten years, than it was when we were in India.  

First grocery bill
I have often asked myself why I wanted to leave India. The answer is straightforward and therefore complex. I wanted to live in a world where our son would be able to decide what he wanted to be without any pressure or unnecessary influence. I wanted to live in a world where I could start afresh in my relationship with Mahrukh. When we applied to immigrate, our marriage was young. Today, we are a few years away from celebrating our 25th anniversary.

Did I achieve my objectives? I believe so.

Toronto has changed our lives for the better. There are obvious and tangible benefits of living in a developed city that is looking at the future without being shackled by the past. It is fun to be in Toronto at a time when it is firmly anchored to the future and is investing all its resources to ensure that it will continue to be among the best places in the world.

As everyone who knows me knows I don’t own a car (and never have and never will). While in Bombay, I dreaded the commute from home to work and back on the city’s famous suburban trains. The experience of using public transit in Toronto and across the GTA is so much more pleasant, and it promises to get better.

But I don’t want to make this into a comparison about my former and present home. This about my decade in Toronto. I refrain from calling it my decade in Canada because I've not been anywhere outside of the GTA in the last decade, except on a short five-day tour of Montreal, Ottawa, and Quebec City.

I've become a Torontonian, or so I’d like to believe. I know some parts of the city through its public transit, and through TTC’s extensive network of bus routes. I say some parts because it’s impossible to know a city completely in geographical terms. But one can live in a city and become one with its ethos. Toronto’s philosophy is acceptance. 

A new home - March 2013
Yes, there is a glaring absence of equality in terms of opportunity, and there is unacknowledged but evident racism in many spheres. But, by and large, I live in a city where a majority of its inhabitants try to warmly embrace the new and the unfamiliar, despite stray incidents of intolerance. In these ten years, I'd like to believe that I've attempted to become more accepting of differences than before, less prejudiced, less intolerant and less bigoted. 

It's also the tenth year of this blog. I launched the blog in December 2008 just to create an avenue for myself to write. In the last decade, I've blogged every week and never felt that it was a chore.  

We're Canadian citizens - August 2014
Today, I also want to acknowledge a few friends who made our lives easier in Toronto. They are: MG Vassanji, Nurjehan Aziz, Puneet S. Kohli, Asha Luthra, Satish Thakkar, Helen Walsh, Jasmine D’Costa, Joyce Wayne, Gavin Barrett, Tahir Gora. There are many more, and I’ll acknowledge them in 2018 as I’ll be writing about my decade in Toronto frequently this year.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Trump’s Jerusalem decision

Cartoon by Dave Granlund / politicalcartoons.com
Until recently, most liberals were convinced that the US President Donald Trump was a bumbling idiot who got lucky. However, these days, in face of mounting contrary evidence, most of us are veering away from that grossly inaccurate generalisation, and have begun to realise that Trump may actually be an evil genius.

His calculated decision to move the United States Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018 is a sterling example of the savvy politician that Trump has transformed into during the 12 months that he’s been the President.

Although it’s being made to seem like Trump has revolutionized the US foreign policy, the fact is that by taking the Jerusalem decision, he has only completed an endeavour that began two decades ago when Bill Clinton was the President and one that has been sanctified by the United States of America’s Congress.  The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 legislates that the United States should move its embassy to Jerusalem no later than “May 31, 1999.”

Since it became law on November 8, 1995, the implementation of the Jerusalem Embassy Act has been postponed by a Presidential waiver every six months. Trump signed the waiver up to June 2018 and then informed the Palestine Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas that he’d be moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem thereafter.

Trump’s critics argue that the decision will alter the course of the “Mideast peace process” (which over the last six decades has proved to be chimerical). Moreover, it’ll also effectively scuttle any possibility of the Palestinians ever getting the legitimacy that they desire and deserve.

However, that reasoning doesn’t take cognisance of the traditionally strong relations that the United States and Israel have enjoyed (except during the previous Obama Administration, when Obama and Netanyahu couldn’t stand each other).

The strong bond between the two countries is even reflected in the text of the Jerusalem Embassy Act 1995 when it states at one point that, “In 1996, the State of Israel will celebrate the 3,000th anniversary of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem since King David’s entry.” 

It also justifies the move by logically stating, “The United States maintains its embassy in the functioning capital of every country except in the case of our democratic friend and strategic ally, the State of Israel.”

In his seminal book Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith – Religion in American War and Diplomacy, Andrew Preston explains the rise of Jewish influence on American domestic and foreign policy. He lists the following three factors that led to the pre-eminence of Jews in the USA.
  • Emergence of Holocaust as a significant cultural and political force in American life
  • Surprise Israeli victories in the 1969 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War
  • The rise of multiculturalism enabled Jewish pride to flourish in a domestic climate that was receptive to ethnic assertions of a unique and not originally “American” identity

Preston observes that although the Jews had never exactly ignored or forgotten the Holocaust, neither had they dwelt on it. But that sort of projected indifference changed drastically when in 1960 Israel captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. He was tried, convicted and executed in 1961.

Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher and theorist of totalitarianism, and herself a Jew, attended the trial and published her observations in a hugely controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Preston observes, “The trial, followed by Arendt’s book, reintroduced the Holocaust to a people who had thus far discussed it only privately, in hushed tones.”

Subsequently, in 1967, over the course of six days in June 1967, Israel and its Arab neighbours fought a war for supremacy in the Middle East. Tensions were mounting between Egypt and Israel, and it was feared that Egypt with its allies Syria, Jordan and Iraq would attack Israel. In a preemptive move, Israel launched an attack on Egypt and in six days the Arab coalition sued for peace.

Preston observes, “For the Arabs, the war was an unmitigated disaster that resulted in Israel’s capture of Jerusalem and occupation of the West Bank and Gaza…for American Jews, the impact was momentous.” Rabi Marc H. Tanenbaum observed that the impact of the six-day war was a “collective metanoia or spiritual conversion.”

Finally, the rise of multiculturalism enabled Jewish pride to flourish in a domestic climate that was receptive to ethnic assertions of a unique and not originally “American” identity. Before, the immigrant experience was based on the melting pot and its assumptions of assimilation.

However, the emergence of a powerful rights consciousness among minorities in the 1960s pushed forward by the civil rights and Black Power movements and the removal of immigration quotas, challenged the legitimacy of the melting pot.

Further, the Jewish American identification with Israel deepened with the Yom Kippur War of October 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on two separate fronts only to wind up with the same result: an Israel victory.

These factors resulted in the rise of Orthodoxy. Preston emphasizes, “Jewish self-confidence and mainstream acceptance bolstered the already considerable political influence of American Jews. Though Jewish support for Israel had already played a large role in domestic politics, it had not yet coalesced into one of the most effective lobbies in Washington. The Six Day War changed that almost overnight. Donations to the American Israel Political Action Committee and other pro-Israel groups soared.”

Tracing this rapid evolution, Preston says, “Though they remained loyal Democrats, on policy toward the Middle East and the Soviet Union, Jews often found common cause with the Republican Party. With an appeal in both parties, and with their population scattered throughout the country but centered in key states – Florida, New York and California in particular – Jews were able to influence the domestic debate on Middle East policy, sometimes (but not always) decisively. Their opinions certainly could not be ignored, no matter which party was in the White House. From a loose collective of various Zionist organisations, the Israel Lobby was born.”

Preston says by the mid-1970s, the Judeo-Christian ethic and the civil rights movements had made prejudice against Jews – and by extension, Israel – unacceptable, even un-American.

In the last four decades, Israel’s relations with the US have only grown stronger. Moreover, there is a growing disenchantment (notwithstanding the UN vote against Trump’s decision in mid-December) with the infructuous peace process in the Middle East.  Trump has played his cards well.

Following the refugee crisis after Syria’s implosion and the rise of ISIS, the entire western world is experiencing a palpable collective fatigue. There is little to no resistance to the rise of conservatism that is trying (and succeeding) to turn bigotry into a public policy.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Welcome back, Tiger!

Spoilers ahead

The very few who read this blog know how passionate I’m about popular Hindi cinema; and by the way, it's majorly disconcerting to all those who love mainstream Hindi cinema that an entire industry is known across the world as 'Bollywood,' which seems like a cheap derivative of the original American brand. Anyway, the point is that it shouldn’t surprise the few readers of this blog that I frequently write about popular Hindi cinema especially after I see a film in a cinema hall.

These days, thanks to the Android box that we have installed at home, we are able to access Indian movies and television channels easily. No more having to buy pirated DVDs for $1. If one is indifferent to the quality of the print, one can get to see the latest releases in Bombay the same or the next day. I don’t watch any television news from India because I no longer relate to it in the way I did a decade ago when I was in India. 

Yes, I’m in the tenth year of living in Toronto. Reminds me of the Pink Floyd lines from the timeless ‘Time,’

“…and then one day you find
ten years have got behind you
no one told you when to run
you missed the starting gun.
And you run and you run
to catch up with the sun that’s sinking
racing around to come up behind you again
the sun is the same in a relative way
but you’re older
shorter of breath and one day closer to death…”

Isn't that classic, yes it is. But also maudlin and depressing. So let’s get back to popular Hindi cinema.

On Christmas eve Mahrukh and I went to see Tiger Zinda Hai – on the first weekend of the film’s release. And it was as expected a totally awesome experience. The crowd was like it'd be in India. The cinema hall, which probably takes about 500 people, was brimming full with people.

I've written about the unique and unparalleled experience of watching a Hindi movie in Toronto on two occasions in 2016 so I won’t repeat myself. If you’re interested in reading about it, here are two examples:

Back to TZH: The audience erupted into a mighty and ceaseless applause as soon as Salman Khan came on the screen. From then, when he wrestles with wolves, to the end when he sings and dances to Swag se karen ge sab ka swagat, there is constant and loud cheering, whistling on a few occasions, and sporadic hollering; the applause just doesn’t cease. In any other movie this would be a disturbance, but in a Salman Khan movie, I guess it's background score.

The Tiger series is special to me because it advocates a sensible approach to India-Pakistan relations, and does so at present times when the powers-that-be in India have convinced them that Pakistan is evil. There seems to be an imminent possibility that the subterranean tension may bubble over and turn into something more than a mere exchange of gunfire across the borders. 

Like his predecessor Kabir Khan, who introduced the world to Tiger, Ali Abbas Zafar, the director and the co-writer of the sequel, too, has an idealistic and romanticised view of how the subcontinental relations should be.  I harbour a similar hope that the subcontinental neighbours will at least be civilised with each other if not turn into best buddies. I felt that for a few brief moments during the duration of the film when everyone suspended their disbelief, there were some in the audience who agreed with the director's vision.

But most of the audience members remained unmoved, at least so it seemed. It’s probably an indication of how the audience – although South Asian, but predominantly Indo-Canadian – feels about the present situation in the subcontinent. 

I found the scenes where the Indian and the Pakistani agents bicker only to end up as friends deeply satisfying and emotional, but the audience didn’t react to the scenes in any discernible manner. There were minor guffaws and short, almost embarrassed, laughter. The scene where both the Indian and the Pakistani flags are raised on the bus carrying the Indian and Pakistani nurses was greeted with only half-hearted cheering. 

The rescue of the Indian nurses and the intricate and ever-changing circumstances that lead to constant twists in the storyline keep the audience engaged. In Tiger Zinda Hai, the story invests into bringing alive the ISIS-unleashed crisis by introducing a young lad being used as a human bomb by the evil head of the outfit Abu Usman.

Sajjad Delafrooz, an Iranian actor, who performs this role turns in a refreshingly studied and underplayed performance. He shows an amazing ability to switch from rose-tinted tenderness to blood-red menace especially in scenes with the head nurse Poorna (Anupriya Goenka). This is no crazed dictator of a murderous movement, Usman is a cool-headed, calculating head of a militant outfit that knows what he wants and how to get it.

Paresh Rawal as Firdaus, the sleazy middleman who slithers into a position of benefit irrespective of the situation, is expectedly consummate. Thankfully, Katrina Kaif’s character, Zoya, the Pakistani agent now married to Tiger, and mother to his son, Junior, is not just a pretty face (although, admittedly, pretty she is. Indeed, very pretty) and has enough action scenes, which she performs dexterously and with chutzpah that is clearly missing from Tiger’s action scenes. 

As it turns out, Zoya is a Shia because she prays to Ali and whispers Ya Ali Madad before taking on the bad guys in a hand-to-hand combat. Although the outfit Usman runs is not called ISIS in the movie, the parallels are unmistakable, and the writer-director appears to have got the Shia-Sunni tensions right.

Salman Khan is cool and does what he knows best – be himself. Then, in a pivotal scene, he takes his shirt off. The audience gleefully whoops and drowns the ensuring dialogues for the next few minutes.  Together, Salman and Katrina make a perfect couple. Their chemistry is amazing. It’s time they got married in real life, too.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Authors and friends

During the year that is about to end, I met many authors at book-related events and bought their books, They include Aileen Santos’s Someone Like You, Caroline Vu’s Palawan Story and David Cozac’s Finishing the Road.

Aileen Santos
Aileen Santos met me at a book festival organised by Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton. She introduced herself and bought my book (incidentally, I sold more books at this FOLD organised book event than at the WOTS; and there is no comparison of the cost of the table between the two festivals).

The next day, Aileen sent me a message on social media terming her interest in my book “serendipitous” because the book is based in Brandon Gate, Malton, Mississauga, which is where Aileen teaches in a school. Aileen was born in the Philippines and her family immigrated to Canada when she was just two-years-old and lived in Mississauga, which is where Aileen’s debut novel Someone Like You (publisher: Two Wolves Press) is based.

The book’s protagonist Vanessa Soares is experiencing a metamorphosis after becoming a mother and begins to realise the common traits she shares with Maria, her mother, a person she hasn’t been close to ever since she can remember.  Both women are resilient, living through hardships that strengthen their connection as women and as mothers.

Caroline Vu
Caroline Vu is an award-winning novelist based in Montreal. Her novel Palawan Story (publisher: Deux Voiliers Publishing) is about Kim, a young Vietnamese refugee who escapes on a boat and manages to reach Palawan, a refugee camp in the Philippines. From there, she is sent to the US where she is raised by a family that adopts her. Many years later, she returns to Palawan and begins to record the stories of the refugees, but her own memories remain blanked out.

The jury of the Concordia First Book Prize (for which Caroline’s novel was shortlisted) describe the novel as one that “…shows what refugees live through – the atrocities, the inhumanity, the fear. She takes us beyond the images we’ve seen on TV and illustrates the consequences of the physical and psychological rapture with one’s homeland, language and culture. A wonderfully written and vibrant novel.”

David Cozac
David Cozac was a member of a now-defunct writing group that Joyce Wayne launched at Depanneur, a restaurant in Little Portugal on Dundas Street West. Besides Joyce, the other members of the group included David Panhale, Dawn Promislow, and Jasmine D’Costa. David Cozac and I were the only unpublished writers working on our manuscript in 2012 when the group met at this restaurant that specialised in artisan cuisine.  

Finishing Road (publisher: Tightrope Books) is a mammoth 360+ pages novel. The length of the manuscript would surely have been a reason for the prolonged delay in getting it published. The other reason, of course, is that David began working for the United Nations first in the US and at present in Ethiopia. His novel is set in 1990s Guatemala, a country that has been in a civil war for decades. David introduces us to a land beset by loss and to people seeking to end their isolation, free themselves of doubt and rekindle human connection.