& occasionally about other things, too...

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. 

Modi's India - II

The angry “Hindu”

Modi’s unbridled popularity and achievements should have ensured perennial exultation by his supporters of their leader’s unparalleled success.

That, however, is not the case. On the contrary, it’s claimed that large sections of the majority Hindu community in India are angry. Very angry. Logically, there is really no cause for the “Hindu” to be so angry. After all, a government that is totally committed to the “Hindu” is in power and is likely to be in power for the foreseeable future. Moreover, many of its policies are all tailored to assuage the majority religion.

It’s this “Hindu” anger that has set India on fire and has had the minorities scampering for cover.  If we believe the proponents of the militant Hindutva ideology, the “Hindu” is angry with all Indian minorities (both religious and caste-based). But he is especially angry with the Muslims, for many reasons, but mainly because they eat beef and have the azaan on the public address systems early in the morning. I was emphatically told that the “Hindu” is angry with the liberal left also because they have scuttled the rise of true nationalism in India and have dominated the public discourse with issues that are inimical to the “Hindu” interests.

The angry “Hindu” has made it impossible in India for anyone to consume beef, and it’d be pertinent to remember that beef is consumed not just by the Muslims and Christians but also by Hindu Dalits. Laws have been and are being passed in several Indian states which penalise the consumption of beef. The Indian government has banned the sale and purchase of cattle from animal markets for slaughter. The incumbent chief minister of Gujarat, the state which propelled Modi to power in Delhi, has proclaimed that it is his fervent desire to turn Gujarat into a vegetarian state.

According to an estimate, 26 people have been lynched to death because they were suspected to have either consumed beef or suspected of intending to massacre cows. This includes a callow 15-year-old Haryanvi lad Junaid who was lynched by a mob at Delhi while returning home from Eid shopping. The resulting uproar which included impromptu #NotInMyName rallies across India and brought the enraged but largely impotent saner elements of the Indian society out on the streets in several cities. The uproar, however, was short-lived and the lynching incidents have continued sporadically.

What I found shocking was the process of normalisation of such an unacceptable proposition. During my stay, I saw newspapers publishing laudatory news features on “scientists” who had developed kits that can detect and differentiate cow’s meat from other varieties of red meat. It’d appear that nobody in the media or in the public domain even thinks it is necessary or relevant to ask whether Indians can be so brazenly deprived of their right to choose their diet. 

The Dalits are the other group of minorities that have seen rising violence against them all across India, and especially in Gujarat. It suits the leadership to remain quiet about such issues. When it does speak, it equivocates. 

Modi's India - III

Controlling the mind-space

Under Modi, Battleship Hindutva that includes several organisations led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has launched a systematic takeover of India’s institutions. This process is at once obnoxious and abhorrent because in a democracy institutions acquire an identity through a constructed as well as a lived tradition and culture and constantly strive to remain independent of the government of the day.  Battleship Hindutva is attempting to wrest control of national institutions to simultaneously set the agenda and to change the paradigm of national discourse. It has already succeeded in controlling large sections of the media and is working hard to control the academia.

I met a professor of a nationally-reputed university who narrated an alarming incident. This professor had organised a seminar on Babasaheb Ambedkar’s relevance in today’s India. One of the speakers – a Dalit academician – while describing the present political situation turned critical of the present regime. After the seminar concluded, the professor who had organised it was summoned by the Vice Chancellor of the university and summarily told that in future all such seminars would require prior approval by the university and the vice chancellor’s office would vet the list of speakers as well as control their message.

This control is also being extended to the judiciary, which enjoys a reputation of being independent in the public perception. But the most disturbing is the creeping government control over the Indian Armed Forces, which nearly all Indians revere. The deification of the Indian Armed Forces and the Para-Military Forces by the Indian masses abetted by the media is a major concern. This deification has resulted in a consistent and blatant violation of human rights of many Indian citizens such as the people of Kashmir, the North East and the Adivasi (India’s Indigenous people) across India. The Indian and the state governments justify the excesses of the Indian Armed Forces in the name of protecting Indian interests and fighting “terrorism”.

In every which way possible, the present regime is controlling and directing the public discourse and simultaneously doing its best to keep the “Hindu” angry. And this angry “Hindu” is pushing the envelope of what is acceptable. It is no longer about Nehru’s perfidy; that is a given and has become passé. Now, it is banning Urdu words, Tagore and a lot more that has gone into constructing the Indian identity. Words such as sicular and presstitutes are routinely bandied about in the social media especially to describe anyone who so much as squeaks against the prevailing wisdom. And to any outsider, the prevailing wisdom is shockingly at variance with reality.

A friend who was always a right-wing sympathiser, (and there is nothing wrong with being a right-wing sympathiser) has during the last few years (probably after Modi’s ascension) turned into a vociferous advocate of Hindutva. He argued – passionately, too – that Hindutva is secular. When I pointed to a column by Akaar Patel, where he describes Hindutva, my friend nearly jumped from the sofa and shrieked, “Akaar Patel should be shot dead.”  I sat in silence, mentally devising a polite way to abandon the conversation, too dumbstruck at this vehemence and hate. Prior to this rather abrupt declaration, this friend, who is highly educated and affluent, also declared that there is really no point in India being a democracy. Citing China’s example, he said if a dictatorship can lead to faster development and control anti-nationals (he meant Muslims, but didn’t say so), then India should turn into a dictatorship. Incidentally, for the original proponent of Hindutva, Veer Savarkar, the militant ideology was larger than Hinduism. He said, “Hindutva is not a word but a history. Not only a spiritual or religious history…but history in full. Hinduism is only a derivative, a fraction, a part of Hindutva.”

A consistent defence that I heard from all quarters of the Modi regime is that it is making the bureaucracy work more efficiently. There is less corruption and the rule of law apparently seems to prevail more often than not, and this evidently had been sorely lacking for the last few decades. So, even if his regime may on occasions be seen as a bit despotic and authoritarian, it needs to be tolerated as there is no alternative to him. The older generation will remember this argument being bandied about by a cross-section of Indians during Indira Gandhi’s rule and especially during the Emergency (including by those Indians who were opposed to Mrs. Gandhi) in the 1970s. Then the Jan Sangh leadership, which had all been pushed behind bars by Indira, had justifiably termed her fascist. But nobody who supports Modi acknowledges this as a valid comparison.

At present, apparently, a large section of the Indians are enamoured by Modi and are unwilling to take seriously the generally prevailing perception that his regime has directly benefitted certain business houses such as Adani and Ambani. Perhaps the main reason why the Indian public is willing to give a long rope to Modi and his bunch of merry men is that in the previous decade under the Congress regime, corruption has become all pervasive, or at least that’s how the previous regime is remembered. Dr. Manmohan Singh, who should be credited for pulling hundreds of millions of Indians out of stark poverty because of economic liberalisation, is instead often compared to Mahabharata’s Bhishma pitamah, who despite being the elder statesman in Dhritarashtra’s durbar, allowed Draupadi’s molestation.