& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Professor Chelva Kanaganayakan

Professor Chelva Kanaganayakan passed away in Montreal Saturday 22 November 2014. He was 62.

The first time I saw him was at TSAR’s fall launch in 2009, when his English translations of Tamil poems was released. Subsequently, I got to know him better when MG Vassanji invited me join the managing committee of the Festival of South Asian Literature and Arts (FSALA) that is now called the Toronto Festival of Literature and the Arts.

I met him formally in 2010. Vassanji had called for a meeting at his place, and just before the meeting was to begin, he remembered he had to pick up his son from the airport. So, Chelva and I, meeting for the first time, both guests of one of Canada's preeminent authors, chatted for an hour about literature in the absence of our host. 

Chelva spoke of new writing in India, especially since the 1980s to the present. We discussed Allan Sealy, who Chelva thought deserved more attention that he had got. When you are in the company of someone who is both knowledgeable and erudite, time loses its meaning. By the time Vassanji returned home with Kabir, Chelva and I had become good buddies.

During the festival Chelva contributed with ideas, arranged for the different venues, and was instrumental in getting eminent authors and film makers from South Asia to participate in the festival, these included, among others, Mahesh Dattani, the eminent Indian playwright; and Prasanna Vithanage, the Sri Lankan filmmaker.  He was also instrumental in getting Hari Krishnan’s InDance involved with the festival, and getting Dalbir Singh, his student, to interview Girish Karnad and Mahesh Dattani in 2011.

The literary festival got together highly individualistic bunch of people to work together. This inevitably led to friction. At the end of the 2011 festival, Chelva threw up his hands; he had had enough, he had decided to quit the committee. When I heard about it, I wrote to him the following note:

Hi Chelva,

I cannot claim to be your friend, but over the last year or so that I've come to know you a bit better, I've begun to respect you as a person. I knew about your professional and literary achievements in a very general sort of way till FSALA-11, and then I heard you recite poetry and deliver a speech. I was particularly impressed with your rendition of Cheran’s poetry in English...

You make scholarship and creativity sit lightly on your shoulders, which I think is a mark of any extraordinary human being. You prefer to be in the background, even while you make sure everything falls into place and works.

Chelva, this long and meandering preamble may confuse you and try your patience, so let me come straight to the point. I want you to reconsider your decision to quit FSALA organising committee. If there is anything I can do to change your mind on your decision, I’d be more than happy to do so.

I cannot imagine FSALA without you, so please don't quit. I look forward to a positive response from you.



He responded immediately:

Dear Mayank:

Thanks very much for your kind words. They mean a lot to me. And the feeling is mutual. You tread lightly, but you have been a very important presence. And you are a good friend.

My intention in writing the note was simply that I was finding it increasingly difficult to budget my time. But your point is well taken. I will continue to be part of the team although during session time, I might not be able to attend meetings regularly.

With warm wishes,


After the 2013 festival, everyone was tired and nobody wanted to take the initiative to start the preparations for the 2015 edition. I met Chelva at the Munk Centre when Mahesh Dattani was in Toronto last year to release his book Me and My Plays. He insisted that we should start working for the 2015 edition, and galvanized everyone to work together.

We met at Sawitri Theatre Group’s stage shows, and on occasions at the Munk Centre, where he would critique an insightful dissertation on postcolonial literature. I met him a few weeks ago when I attended the performance of Dance Like a Man.

Yesterday, Vassanji informed me of his appointment as the Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada (the highest literary recognition in Canada), and we planned to have a small get together to celebrate his achievement.

In the evening, Chelva left us forever, without even a goodbye.

He will be missed. 

Inspire - Toronto International Book Fair

Hindi Writers' Guild
Anindo Hazra & Ted Goossen (seated) with other participants

Sheniz Janmohamed
Inspire – the first Toronto International Book Fair was a major success, both in terms of the participation of authors, publishers and readers.

The three-day festival saw some big name authors discuss their work, they included the perennial favourites such as Margaret Atwood, and also rising stars such as David Bezmozgis.

The festival attracted 400 authors, and thanks to my friend Meenakshi Alimchandani, who was part of the organizing team, I had the privilege of being associated with the festival, facilitating the readings of Canadian South Asian authors.

The authors who read at the South Asian kiosk included Cheran, Cheryl Antao-Xavier, Kumkum Ramchandani, Braz Menezes, Farheen Khan, Samreen Ahsan, Vicky Bismillah, Kwai Li and Fong Hsiyng, Meena Chopra, Tula Goenka, Jasmine Sawant, Sheniz Janmohamed, Anindo Hazra, Pushpa Acharya and the Hindi Writers’ Guild led by Shailja Saksena. Eminent diplomat and author Navtej Sarna also read from his works, but at a different venue at the sprawling Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

The festival gave me an opportunity to meet and make friends. I met the suave Antanas Sileika, who gifted me a copy of his novel Underground; and I also met the enterprising Robert Morgan of Bookland Press.

South Asian panel
{l to r: Jasmine, Anosh, Manjushree, Anirudh, Priscilla (at mike)}
The main South Asian event at the festival was the collaboration between Inspire and the Jaipur Festival. The panel comprised AnirudhBhattacharyya, a veteran journalist-turned novelist; Manjushree Thapa, novelist; Anosh Irani, novelist; Jasmine D’Costa, novelist; Priscilla Uppal, poet, moderated the readings.

Anirudh read from his debut novel The Candidate, which is a breezy satire on the crazier than Rob Ford world of Indian politics. Anosh Irani read from Dahanu Road, and Jasmine D’Costa read from her collection of short stories Curry is Thicker than Water. Manjushree Thapa read from her new novel  Seasons of Flight.

Here’s an excerpt from Manjushree’s novel:

Being Nepali

An American woman, a schoolteacher, earnest and frizzy, once came up to Prema and asked, ‘Mind if I ask where you’re from? Originally, I mean?’ But when she heard the answer she just stammered, unable, perhaps, to admit that she didn’t know where that was.

Most Americans did better. They would say, ‘Oh’ or ‘Wow’ or even ‘Cool’ and nod in a friendly manner. Sometimes Prema would help them out by adding, ‘It is near India,’ or ‘Where Mount Everest is’ or ‘You heard of the Sherpas?” so that they might say, ‘Geez, that’s real far,’ or ‘I could have sworn you were Mexican / Italian / Spanish,’ or ‘You speak very good English.’ And then she would smile: ‘Thank you.’

Every now and then, though a response would stop her. One day, a woman on the bust heard her say Nippon and expressed her disgust at the practice of eating raw fish: ‘That’s like eating you-know-what!’ she exclaimed. Another man, a dark-skinned grocer, South Asian himself, baffled her with, ‘Aren’t you usually from Pakistan?’ It was Prema’s turn to stammer. She had also learnt that to the foreign ear, the country’s name could sound like ‘nipple’. More commonly, though, what Americans heard was Naples, as in: ‘I love pasta,’ or ‘My husband and I went to Rome for our honeymoon, but we never made it to Naples.’ 

Friday, October 31, 2014

The realm of tomorrow

Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel
The present dispensation in India (articulated by the head of the ruling party) has sparked an unseemly debate by making counterfactual historical claims that India’s first Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel would, in fact, have made a better Prime Minister than Jawaharlal Nehru. 

Of course, the real reason for instigating the "debate" is the deep rooted hatred that the present dispensation harbours against India’s first Prime Minister.

Jawaharlal Nehru doesn’t need to be defended. He will be always be taller than the tallest statue that may be built for anyone anywhere in India.

Here’s an extract from B. R. Nanda’s (1917-2010) The Nehrus (originally published in 1962 and then updated in the 1980s), describing Nehru.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s was a rich, varied and complex personality. Though born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and reared in the nurseries of the British aristocracy, he was destined to spend the best part of his life in railway trains, public meetings and prisons. He was no orator; his speeches were calculated not so much to impress or humour his admiring audiences, as to instruct and re-educate them. Over his countrymen he came to exercise a magnetic influence; as he says in his autobiography, he took to the crowd and the crowd took to him. But he was an intellectual with a deep strain of loneliness, the compassion for suffering humanity. He could abstract himself from his immediate surroundings even in the midst of a formal banquet or a state reception, and was most relaxed in the company of children and animals. Mountains with their snows and solitude fascinated him. He loved beautiful things, paintings, sculptures and books. In prison he had time to reflect on the five thousand years of India’s past, and to connect it with her present and future. As the American journalist Norman Cousins, put it, Nehru’s intellect was rooted in the Enlightenment but his spirit was in the Vedas. He was a writer of distinction. All his major works, the Glimpses of World History, An Autobiography and The Discovery of India were written in prison when he was still engaged in the battle for freedom. They all have autobiographical flavour, and bear the mark of a passionate, albeit humane, nationalism.

Drawing upon nineteenth century British liberalism, Fabian socialism, Marxist dialectics, Soviet economics and Gandhian ethics, Nehru’s political philosophy was eclectic. Not the least important ingredient in this philosophy was Jawaharlal’s own perception of India and the world….

Nehru had too great a sense of history to imagine that he could find final solutions for the numerous and complex problems which beset India and the world. He himself claimed neither omniscience nor infallibility. “All of us,” he once said, “are liable to err, and I rebel against the notion, that an organization, an idea or a country can be infallible.”

Nehru spoke in an idiom which had a worldwide appeal. Several of the young radicals of Asia and Africa who were destined to lead anti-colonial revolutions in their countries, were fascinated and inspired by Nehru’s writings. Indeed, his role in the fight against imperialism in India and abroad was so important, that if he had died in the summer of 1947 and never taken office, he would still have occupied a high place in history. As it was, he became the chief architect of post-independent India, and led her in the difficult years of transition from colonialism to democracy, from traditionalism to modernity and from stagnant to a developing economy. In a period of deep cynicism and doubt, Nehru was an incorrigible idealist, but his idealism was, as he once put it, “the realm of tomorrow.” 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Three poems: Kavita Mahajan, Sitanshu Yasaschandra, Dawn Promislow

Transitions often transform lives, and even when they don't, they always make life infinitely more interesting. At least that's been my experience. Life has been charitable to me. Every time I appear to be settling into a dull routine, something goes wrong (right?), and I'm pushed into uncertainty, either personally or professionally, and occasionally both.

Generally, this has happened twice in a decade ever since I can remember.

My recent professionally transition came as a surprise, and has taken a while for me to get accustomed to. It has had a fortuitous fallout - my commuting time has suddenly shot up by an hour. And that's given me an opportunity to read during my bus rides to Brampton.

At present I'm reading MG Vassanji's And Home was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa. It's a book that makes you pause and think every ten pages or so because in the midst of describing his journeys across his homeland, the author suddenly makes an observation that at once makes you uncomfortable and forces you to reflect deeply on what he has just said. 

At home, while celebrating Diwali (with flame-less diyas, and excessive sweets) I also read some poems, three of which I liked, and am sharing them here. 

The first one by Kavita Mahajan published in डिजिटल दिवाळी २०१४

मरून गेलेली आई



मरून गेलेली आई
घरात फिरत असते सगळं कसं चाललंय बघत
पलंगावर पडलेली साडी घडी करते बेडरुममध्ये
स्वयंपाकघरात ओट्याजवळ उभी
डायनिंग टेबलवरच्या जेवणार्यांकडे लक्ष देत
संध्याकाळी परसात बदामाच्या झाडाखाली
खुर्चीवर बसते थोडावेळ
माहेर मरून जातं आई मरून गेल्यावर
हे आईला माहीत नाही
ती तिच्या आईच्या आधीच मरून गेली म्हणून
घर बदललं आहे
पण आई बदलली नाही
ती बोलत नाही अजूनही काहीचशांत असते
घरभर फिरून पाहते सगळं कसं चाललंय.

Another in Gujarat by Sitanshu Yashaschandra posted on Facebook by ગુજરાતી સાહિત્ય અકાદમી (યુ કે)

વળાંક પાછળ વિશ્વામિત્રી
સિતાંશુ યશશ્ચન્દ્ર

દુનિયા આખીને પોતાની દોસ્તી આપવા જે દોડ્યા
પોતાને જેની ગતાગમ નહોતી જરીકે તેવી ગણતરીઓ કરવામાં પડેલા જગતે
જેમની ઉપર ઠાલવ્યા અવહેલનાઓના ગંધાતા ગંજાવર ઢગના ઢગ
એવા કોઈ વિશ્વામિત્રની નીમાણી કન્યા
મારી વિશ્વામિત્રી.
એને કોઈ એવા ઓવારા નથી, જ્યાં પનિહારીઓ પાણી ભરવાને જાય,
એને કોઈ એવા ઘાટ નથી, જ્યાં પ્રવાસે નીકળેલાં વહાણ પોરોખાવા લાંગરે,
એને કોઈ એવા કાંઠા નથી, જ્યાં લોકો સાંજુકના ટહેલવા નીકળે.
એનાં પાણીમાં કમર સુધી બૂડી અર્ધ્ય આપતા બ્રાહ્મણ કે બાપ્તિસ્તા થાપતા
પાદરી, કોઈ કહેતાં કોઈ મળે.
એમાં પાણી કહેવાય એવું પાણી મળે.
ઝૂમાં જીવનભર પૂરેલાં પશુઓ અને બાગમાં બે ઘડી ફરતા લોકોની વચ્ચેથી
તો ચુપચાપ સરકી જાય છે, ખબર નહીં કયું પ્રવાહી લઈને,
જૂના રગતપીતવાળી કોઈ બાઈ જેવી, શરીર સંકોડીને.
નદીને પરવડે નહીં
લાજ, વેદના, આશા કે આછું હસવા જેવી એકે સાહ્યબી
મેં જ્યારે જ્યારે એની આંખો તરફ નજર કરી છે
ત્યારે ત્યારે ગરદન ઢાળીને જતી રહી છે વળાંક પાછળ.
જો કે એક વાર યે હતી એક નદી.
જેમ ગંગા, સ્યેન, વોલ્ગા, ટેઇમ્સ, હોઆંગહો, એમેઝોન, નીલ અને મિસિસિપી,
બધી નદીઓ છે
એમ યે હતી.
ભલેને ઘણી નાની એમનાથી.
તો નદી.
વહેતું પાણી, જેમાં જળચર જીવતાં હોય, ચંદ્રનું પ્રતિબિંબ પડતું હોય,
વહેલી સવારે શિંગાળાં સાબર ને મોડી સાંજે ચળકતા દીપડા
જેની સામે વિનયથી માથું નમાવી પાણી પી શકતા હોય,
ને ભરબપોરે બચબચ બચ્ચાં જેવાં ધાવી શકતાં હોય જેને
ઊનાળુ તડકાએ તરસ્યાં તરસ્યાં કરી મૂકેલાં, એની અડખે પડખે પડેલાં,
વીઘાંના વીઘાં ખેતરો, 
એવી નદી.
આવું આવું જ્યારે એની ઉપરના પૂલમાં ઊભો રહીને હું બોલું છું
માત્ર વિશ્વામિત્રીને સંભળાય રીતે
સાંભળ્યું સાંભળ્યું કરી,
આંખો જોરથી મીંચી, મેલો સાડલો શરીરે થોડો વધારે વીંટાળતી
ઉતાવળી ઉતાવળી ચાલી જાય છે, તરતા કચરાના પાલવમાં મોં ઢાંકતી,
વળાંક પાછળ.
રહેવાય ત્યારે
ચોમાસાની રાતે
ઉભરાઈ ઊઠે છે નદી
આંધળી છોકરીની આંખો જેવી, ચુપચાપ
વળતી સવારે, વહેલી વહેલી, પહોંચે છે, કાંઠા ઓળંગી, પુલ પર થઈ,
ઉતાવળી ઉતાવળી, પગના પહોંચા ઉપર ઊંચી થઈ થઈ,
આવે છે,
કાળે ઘોડે બેઠેલા, કાળો પોશાક પહેરેલા, પથ્થર થઈ ગયેલા, એના એક વારના હેતાળ
રાજાના પગ સુધી છેક,
એકદમ અચકાઈ, અટકી, ખમચાઈ, જરીક જીભ કચડી, હોઠ બીડી, આંસુ
જાતે લૂછી નાખી, ઓસરી, અવાજ કર્યા વિના ચાલી જાય છે,
મૂંગીમંતર, કાદવ ખૂંદતી
પેલા વળાંક પાછળ.

And here's the final one by my friend Dawn Promislow
published in Muniyori Literary Journal


in the Moroccan restaurant
there are tagines

earthenware dishes with dome-lids
in earthen colours
rust, sienna, burnt brown

and when the dome-lid lifts,
steam wreaths,
and earth-like tones, again

orange, yellow-saffroned, browned
lamb deep-stewed

and you have never eaten Moroccan food before
this gilded night

and the green-earth tea is silver-lidded
silver-flecked cloth covering

and hot the deep-glint tea and sweet,

and the reason you are here is your daughter was in Morocco

and she knows about Moroccan tagines
so you are here in this warm-gold restaurant

with her

and she is deep-brown haired and honeyed
and rich with ochre, ambered tales

and honey-eyed, gold-lidded
softly lashed,
and glints her ruby-mouth

in timbered tones

she is twenty-one
and you have known her for twenty-one years,
so far

and rising from the crimson-threaded
the etchéd glass
the silver-glinting bevelled tray

you leave the restaurant

with her
and walk home
down the far dune
of Avenue Road
turning left at the light
and onto your Toronto street

where on this warm
evening the lights are gold and garnet
like they are in Marrakesh