& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, February 24, 2018

A decade in Toronto – 6

2009 was our first new year in Toronto and it began with a lot of promise. I started my program in journalism at the Sheridan College in Oakville. I was returning to school after a gap of over 25 years. The journalism class comprised students who were just like me – journalists from across the world who were trying to get a toehold in the field in Canada.

It was ironic that after nearly two decades in journalism, both as a working journalist and as a teacher, I was returning to journalism as a student. But I was keen to learn and unlearn. The Sheridan college campus at Oakville was as impressive as any that I’d seen or imagined, and the most interesting part of it all was the daily commute from Toronto to Oakville on the GO train.

With Yoko, Nelson and Mike at Sheridan
There were students from South America, the Caribbean, South Asia, Japan, and Africa. It was an interesting bunch of highly talented individuals, who were extremely independent-minded and like most journalists were not natural team players. Some became great friends during the duration of the course of the program. Yoko Morgenstern and Nelson Alvarado Jourde are friends I dearly miss.  Yoko is in Germany and visits Toronto infrequently, Nelson is back in Peru, and I haven’t met him in years.

The teachers were all equally interesting; Teenaz Javat is now a friend. She is a Bombayite who has had the privilege of working as a journalist in India and Pakistan. I have fond memories of Patricia Bradbury. She made the classroom come alive with her engaging, animated teaching. She also introduced us to Katherine Govier, the renowned and accomplished author, and now an activist for swifter, seamless integration of immigrants into the Canadian mainstream.

Of course, the hero of the program was Joyce Wayne, the program coordinator of the Canadian Journalism for Internationally Trained Journalists. A veteran professor, extremely well-read, a true heart liberal, with a permanent glint of mischief in her eyes, Joyce propelled the program to great heights and constantly challenged its participants to strive to do better.  One of my regrets (and I have many) was not to have done English literature at the university. With Joyce at Sheridan, I finally found a mentor who was as interested in literature as I am.

It was an evening program, so I had to change my shift timing and I returned to the night shift. It became fairly strenuous within a couple of months and by April 2009, it was impossible for me to get enough sleep during the day, go to Sheridan in the evening, and then do the night shift at the condo. On a couple of occasions, the patrol who roamed around in a vehicle at night caught me napping.  I decided to quit my job as a security guard.

I was confident that at the end of the Sheridan program, I’d at least get an internship placement somewhere. A major lacuna in the Sheridan program was the absence of a design component. I joined the Yorkdale Adult Learning Centre’s web designing program; a free program meant for newcomers.  It was an enriching experience. I was now spending several hours at a high school that besides having eager adult newcomer students also had regular school students my son’s age.  
Yorkdale group

I also met a bunch of fun-loving group of Latinos from South America. The classroom had students of all ages and from everywhere – Africa, South Asia, South America, Eastern Europe – all of us sharing the same sort of desperation: of getting a proper job. I wrote about my encounter with two religiously devout fellow students.  Click here to read: Question of identity.

But more interesting was the memoir writing workshop conducted by Allyson Latta at the North York branch of the Toronto public library. After quitting my security guard job, I had the entire day free for myself. Latta’s class was a perfect fit for me; the sessions taught me to look inside myself for stories. Click here to read about Latta’s memoir writing sessions: Allyson Latta.

Mahrukh worked briefly at a telemarketing company, but was laid off; then she worked as a data entry operator but the two-people company, operating from a basement on Dufferin and Lawrence disappeared when it was time to pay wages. She was singularly unfortunate in getting steady, sustainable employment; it caused her immense frustration, but she remained cheerful despite the adverse circumstances.

But we didn’t let that deter us from exploring our neighbourhoods. On weekends, we’d get into the GO bus or the GO train and go to different towns near Toronto. Within the first month of our arrival, we did an open-top bus ride in Toronto. On my first birthday in Toronto, we went to the Niagara Falls; it was all that we thought it’d be, and then some.  The most memorable part of our trip: The butterfly garden; we’d never seen anything as exotic and exciting as this garden.  

For me, there can be nothing more exciting than riding the streetcars in the rains. We’ve done the Queen Street streetcar ride more frequently than we’d care to remember – all the way from Long Branch to Neville Park. That year (2009) we went to our first Toronto Auto Show and continued doing so for the next few years. The one road trip that stays etched in my mind is the one to Stouffville, ON, to take rides on the model trains.  Click here to read about it: Day trip.

I was increasingly veering towards writing and started working on freelance assignments for the Canadian Immigrant and the New Canadian magazines. I had also begun work on improving and updating my short story that I’d written in December.  In May 2009, I sent the short story to Diaspora Dialogues, a Toronto not-for-profit that promotes creative expressions in diverse people. This simple act of courage (courage because rejections can be depressing) was to change my life.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Historical revisionism in Hollywood

With Mahrukh and Che in India, I’m spending most of my evenings watching movies and I’ve seen nearly all the Oscar contenders for the Best Picture category. This evening I saw The Darkest Hour.

It’s a fine film. It shows the gritty determination of Winston Churchill, one of the tallest leaders of the 20th century, a leader responsible to a large extent in keeping the morale of the people of the Allied countries, when Hitler’s rampaging armed forces ravaged Europe.

Gary Oldman, who enacts the role of the British Prime Minister, does justice to him by a fine performance that on occasions slips into unnecessary and incongruous levity.

In a particularly poignant scene in the film, Churchill, while he is being forced to negotiate peace with Hitler by his colleagues in the war cabinet Chamberlin and Halifax, takes a tube ride to gauge the public mood.

The British Prime Minister discovers that the common Englishman and Englishwoman have no desire to broker peace with Hitler, and everyone is willing to die for the country. Churchill begins to recite Thomas Babington Macaulay’s classic poem Lays of Ancient Rome (which incidentally Macaulay wrote while in India).

“…To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods..."

This poem is a classic of the British Empire.

The filmmaker Joe Wright takes some liberty in showing a black Londoner reciting along with the Prime Minister. I doubt very much if this actually happened, not the interaction between Churchill and Londoners in the tube, but that among those common people was a black person aware of Macaulay’s poem. This is historical revisionism at best (worst?).

The fact is that both Churchill and Macaulay were products of their age (they were not contemporaries) and both were deeply conservative, with little or no regard for any race other than their own. Both had extremely inimical relations with India and Indians and both considered Indians to be inferior if not entirely despicable.

Macaulay (in)famously proclaimed, “I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”

And Churchill, of course, could just not tolerate Indians, and especially Gandhi. He exclaimed in despair, “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor.”

Churchill is held responsible for the Bengal famine of the 1940s, when he was famously losing to Hitler while fighting him in the air, on the beaches, on the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets in the hills – everywhere except in the battlefield.

In her seminal book of 2010, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II, Madhushree Mukherjee claims that Churchill ignored pleas for emergency food aid for millions in Bengal left to starve as their rice paddies were turned over to jute for sandbag production and supplies of rice from Burma stopped after Japanese occupation. Between one and three million died of hunger in 1943.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which is poetry on celluloid, and, in my view, one of the finest war films ever made, is unfortunately also racially blind, and therefore, imprecise historically.

Historical revisionism was the bane of the communists at one time, but that seems to be becoming all-pervasive in Hollywood. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 5

Clippings of journalistic work in 2008-09
One evening in November, when I was at the concierge desk at the Heath Street condo, I got a call from Nick Noorani, the publisher of the Canadian Immigrant. Gavin had introduced us and I’d written to him. Nick invited me to write for his magazine. But it wasn’t just that – he chatted for nearly an hour, and though he was speaking to me for the first time, it felt like I’d known him all my life.

He wanted to know everything there was to know about me. He told me about his life – in Bombay, in the Middle East and then in Canada. He told me to be in contact with the magazine’s editor Margaret Jetelina, which I did and she responded immediately asking me to do a feature story on new immigrants working as security guards. 

Prior to immigrating to Canada, I’d been a journalist for many years and then had worked as a media relations and trade promotions person at the US Consulate. In Toronto, my instinct was to try to return to journalism because, in all the years since I’d been out of the vocation, I’d sorely missed writing. I wanted to write regularly, and journalism offered the best avenue to write.

But journalism as a profession is being transformed, and it appears that it’s undergoing an irreversible process of mutation both in terms of its character and composition. Over the last two decades, and especially at present, the vocation seemingly is hurtling into oblivion. To re-enter the vocation with a view to building a career seemed ill-conceived and foolhardy; it wasn’t on my list of priorities. However, my utter inability to get a regular, steady job in any field that’d pay me more than minimum wages was proving to be impossible. So, I was not totally averse to journalism.

Sunil Rao, who was then the editor of the South Asian Focus, had offered to publish my news reports and I’d already published a piece on the high auto insurance premium rates in Ontario. I enjoyed the thrill of working on a news story after many years and did a fairly good job; Sunil carried it as the lead story in December 2008. But he couldn’t pay me. Nick, on the other hand, was willing to pay – abysmally low by any standards but I reckoned, the payment could buy me my monthly metro pass.

The security guard duty at the Heath Street condo was proving to be fairly exhausting, even after my shift timing changed. So, while Margaret’s offer to me to write was still open, I just couldn’t find time to work on it. My first feature on security guards would only be published in May 2009, and that started my association with the Canadian Immigrant magazine that grew into a strong bond.

I did a few features and then Margret offered me a column which she imaginatively called Mayank’s Immigrant Adventures. I wrote the column every month till I became a citizen in 2014. I’ve posted all the columns on a blog. 

If you’re interested in reading some, please click here: Mayank’s Immigrant Adventures.

Even the Canadian Immigrant website (http://www.canadianimmigrant.ca) has retained some of my columns. 

We needed a computer at home but couldn’t afford one. Then, I saw a flyer for a shop in Mississauga that sold used laptops. We took the TTC bus route 32 A on Eglinton Avenue, which in those days went all the way into Mississauga to reach the shop. It was October and already cold; suddenly it began to rain and turned into freezing rain in a matter of minutes. The three of us – Mahrukh, Che and me – walked along Eglinton Avenue for nearly half-an-hour in the freezing rain to reach the shop. At the end of that harrowing trudge, we had a second-hand IBM laptop for which we’d paid $350. It served us for many years.

Living in Toronto on one person’s survival wages quickly introduces you to frugality. It was a great lesson to learn; one that cannot ever be forgotten.

Barack Obama became the President of the United States, and I heard the news on a radio. We still didn’t have a television at home.

While I was on duty at the condo one evening in November 2008, a resident of the condo – Howard Karel – came rushing from the gym and told me that my hometown was under a terrorist attack. He told me CNN was covering it live and I could go to the gym to see the coverage. I rushed to see the news and at once realized the enormity of the attack. Bombay was a regular target of attacks, but this was comparable to the March 1993 serial bomb blasts.

The attack continued for two days and nearly everyone in the condo came to meet me and talk to me; everyone was concerned for my family. The support for me from the people of the condo was so overwhelming that I teared up on more than one occasion. My emotional weakness surprised me, and I realized that four months away from my home and the mountain of uncertainty about our future had made be vulnerable.

Although Mahrukh continued to look for work, we were made aware that we couldn’t leave Che at home alone because he wasn’t yet 12-years-old. So, for all practical purposes, Mahrukh would have to stay at home. The pressure on me to find a better job was mounting every day. Later that month, I attended another job fair but couldn’t find any jobs. But I met two individuals who contributed immensely to the process of our settlement in Toronto.

The first was Aaron Uretsky, who represented Heritage Funds, and who sold me the idea of saving for Che’s education. I immediately signed up. The other person was Fayyaz Walana, who represented the Sheridan College. Fayyaz sold me the idea of doing a program in journalism for internationally trained writers at the Sheridan College. He informed me that I’d get a student loan from the provincial government that would not only pay the program fees but also provide me with subsistence.

I agreed immediately, and applied for the program, took a written test for English language and applied for a student loan. By December 2008, I was again a student – I’d be returning to a campus after over 25 years. 

The attack on Bombay and my own situation combined with my ardent desire to write again made me attempt writing a short story. I’d never ever imagined I’d write fiction. But journalism required time and contacts, and I didn’t have either. Writing fiction was both a challenge and something that I could do with my limited resources. I attempted to personalise the issue of terrorism and situate it in a family environment. I wanted to explore what’d happen to a family if they discovered that their son was involved in terrorism.

I wrote the short story and showed it to Susan Crangle, a communications professional and a resident of the condo. She edited the story and advised that I should submit it for publication. I wasn’t sure but did send it – half-heartedly – to the Toronto Star short story competition. Of course, I didn’t win, but in 2009 I sent a reworked draft to the Diaspora Dialogues and was selected for its short form mentoring program.

I also started this blog by posting test posts in December and planning a post each week from January 2009.

Although we’d been in Toronto for five months, the first year – 2008 – was coming to an end. We continued to remain uncertain about our future, about whether we’d be able to make it, or whether we’d have to return to India, but we were starting the new year on a new hope. 

The onset of winter had taken us by surprise. Having lived all our lives in tropics, the first winter proved to be severely cold. And when it began to snow, we rushed to Walmart to buy snowshoes for Che. A few days earlier, we’d gone to both Walmart and Sears to buy winter clothes but had forgotten shoes.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Rang Mahal –Tahir Aslam Gora

Rang Mahal
Fiction by immigrant writers is an established genre in all major languages globally. It is a genre that has evolved and matured over the last three decades but has been in existence for much longer. It includes both narratives about the past linked to the writer’s place of origin, and about the present linked to the writer’s new home. 

Writers often romanticize the past and view it with nostalgia that is nothing but selective amnesia. And it would stand empirical scrutiny to also say that in this genre the depiction of the present is uneasy and one that is often nothing more than an elaborate annoyance at their circumstances which primarily stem from and depict loneliness, and a yearning for a sense of belonging.

Often, immigrant fiction is indistinguishable from one another – the thematic treatment is similar, the storyline is a near replica of countless other works. While the content is boringly analogous, the form is formulaic in the structure and treatment.

It requires uncommon skills as a writer to create something that is both exemplary and unique within the parameters of the immigrant genre. Tahir Gora’s Rang Mahal is that uncommon work of fiction that succeeds in creating a world that is both known, experienced and lived by all of us, and yet is a very strange place.

Tahir Gora
Gora’s novel challenges common percepts of fiction on all its fundamentals – there is no plot, there is no linearity, no continuity and no conclusions; there is a cinematic depiction of the external surroundings that at once stimulates one’s senses – the reader experiences smells, colours, taste and touch in all its sensuousness as well as its coarseness. 

The narrative also dwells deeply into the thought processes of the characters, revealing a subliminal depth and liminal uncertainty.

Gora’s characters are sophisticated and yet raw, uncouth, seething with passionate anger. Their anger is directed more against themselves rather than at the world. This anger has its roots in the utter hopelessness that they experience as individuals (not necessarily as immigrants) who find themselves in situations that they help create but also wish to quickly and permanently escape from forever.

The lead protagonists of Rang MahalSahjaad and Sayaka - are progressive human beings who have left behind a place that was alien to them and their thinking. Their hope that they would find their roots in a new place is constantly belied and they remain alienated in their new home. Superficially, they find home and companionship and sex but their search for roots and for a place they can call home remain unfulfilled.

There are many aspects about Rang Mahal that are significant in the context of emerging trends in the immigrant literature genre and should be analysed and discussed for their path-breaking and bold innovation. However, I want to focus on the notion of alienation that the work so plaintively depicts.

One of the most poignant scenes in Rang Mahal is when Sahjaad finds himself alone in a park in a small suburban locality near Hamilton. It is a predominantly white neighbourhood and Sahjaad feels both unwanted and threatened to be stared at inquiringly. It is not an uncommon scenario in large parts of Canada, where except for a few large cities many areas continue to have a predominance of the white population.

In fact, Dionne Brand in her memoirs A Map to the Door of No Return – Notes to Belonging recalls her experience as the only non-white person in a Northern Ontario town where she settles temporarily to focus upon her writing. Her sense of being an alien is acute; everyone around her pretends that she is no different, even she pretends too, but everyone, including her, knows that she is very different and that the difference cannot ever be bridged.

At another point, she observes, “Multiculturalism is relative to the state of white fear. So is empathy.”

She writes, “…here I feel that I do not share the same consciousness. There is some other rhythm these people grew up in, speech and gait and probably sensibility….I have been living out here in the bush for two years now. This place fills me with a sense of dread but also a mystery. I fear the people more than the elements, which are themselves brutal… This is country where people mind their own business; they are as cold and forbidding as the landscape…”

Tahir Gora's views on fiction

In Sahjaad’s case, he turns his gaze inwards and reaches a startling conclusion. He claims that while other ethnicities and races find acceptance in an alien land, Pakistanis and Muslims are not accepted as naturally as the others are, and are considered ‘creatures from another world’. And the root cause of this absence of acceptance is because Pakistanis and Muslims themselves consider that they are creatures of another world.

He realises that it is always the immigrant who has to make all adjustments.

In her essay Imaging Homelands published in Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss, edited by Andre Aciman, Bharati Mukherjee categorizes the act of leaving one’s home country and adopting a new country thus: Expatriation, exile, immigration, and repatriation. Of all these categories, it is only the immigrant who is tolerated.

This is because the expat doesn’t need the approval of the host. The exile couldn’t care less. The expatriate is always the enemy, often overtly termed so by the establishment. The immigrant is the most loved because she is willing to be the charwoman. Despite being qualified as a medical librarian. It’s the immigrant who changes herself and yet retains her identity, to ultimately change her new environment.

Rang Mahal’s woman protagonist Sayaka epitomises these virtues and an amazing ability to accept her constantly changing circumstances.

Gora's novel is replete with breathtakingly straightforward postulations in the novel that are original and controversial. Unlike other works of fiction in this genre, Rang Mahal doesn’t find too much of a difference between the home of the past and the present. There is no imagined homeland here.  The place of birth (janmabhoomi) is as vile a place as the place of choice (karmabhoomi).

Let me conclude by repeating what I said earlier: There are many aspects about Rang Mahal that are significant in the context of emerging trends in the immigrant literature genre and should be analysed and discussed for their path-breaking and bold innovation.

Read an earlier post on Rang Mahal here: Tahir Gora's Rang Mahal