& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, July 13, 2014


I’ve been fortunate to see more Satyajit Ray films in Toronto in the last six years than I could in more than a decade when I was in India. In India I saw most of Ray’s oeuvre on TV. Here in Toronto I’ve seen all the films on the big screen – either at Ray or Tagore festivals. It makes a world of difference to see these films on the big screen.

This summer TIFF Bell Lightbox has organized a comprehensive festival of Ray’s films from July 3 to August 17. The Sun and the Moon – The Films of Satyajit Ray will screen all of Ray’s important classics.

Surprisingly, the screenings have been well-attended. In fact, had it not been for the generosity of my friend Mariellen Ward, a friend of India and an intrepid travel blogger, who gave me a free ticket, I wouldn’t have been able to attend Kathleen O’Donnell’s lecture on and the subsequent screening of Charulata (The Lonely Wife – 1964).  

Kathleen O’Donnell is a professor at the University of Toronto teaching Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray. Ray turned Tagore’s Nastanirh – the broken nest – into Charulata.

Kathleen O’Donnell’s introduction to Ray delineated all the important facets of the filmmaker, including Tagore’s influence, the basic grounding in the ideas of the Bengali renaissance, the confluence of western and oriental thought as exemplified by the Brahmo Samaj,  his career as a commercial artist, his interest in calligraphy and the creation of the Ray Roman font, Ray’s abiding debt to the French filmmaker Jean Renoir, and his almost-maniacal attention to details to all aspects of film making – from directing to script, music, set-design, costumes, cinematography and editing. Unfortunately, as she was warming up to the subject, it was time for the screening.

Charulata is one of Ray’s best.  It is a period film (1879) – depicting the height of the Bengali renaissance, when the issues that had been raised nearly a century ago in public fora were now being hotly debated in homes. Of special significance was the role of women in the family and the society. The film depicts the cloistered lives of women in feudal households, with nothing much to do except knit, make paan, play cards, and supervise the household help; the few who could read and occasionally wrote.

Charu (Madhabi Mukherjee) is one such housewife, and falls in love with her husband’s cousin Amal (Soumitra Chatterjee).  The woolly-headed husband Bhupati (Sailen Mukherjee) runs his own newspaper, and is forever obsessed with British political happenings and English thought, and how these would affect Indians.  He doesn’t have time for Charu, or for the books she reads. Amal, on the other hand, is young and has all the time to feed Charu’s fantasies. She falls in love with him, but he is not willing to betray his brother and beats a hasty retreat. When Bhupati discovers Charu’s love for Amal, he is shattered and attempts to leave, but returns to what is now a broken nest.

In The Cinema of Satyajit Ray, film critic and Ray’s contemporary Chidananda Das Gupta (1921-2011) says, “The secret of their identification with an otherwise uncomfortable theme lay in the state of innocence of the characters caught in the web of forces greater than themselves. Their lack of conscious knowledge of what is happening inside them gives them a certain nobility; it is in their awakening that their tragedy lies. Amal, the younger man, is the first to realize the truth; for Charu it is an imperceptible movement from the unconscious to the conscious; for the husband, it is a sudden, stark, unbelievable revelation of truth. All three wake up, as it were, into the twentieth century, the age of self-consciousness. The rhythm of the unfolding is so gentle, impeccable and true that there is no sense of shock even for the conservative Indian, although Ray’s film was as daring for the wider audience as Tagore’s story had been in its day.”

Incidentally, it is believed that Tagore’s story may have been based on the relationship between Rabindranath and Kadambaridevi, the wife of Rabindranath’s elder brother Jyotirindranath. Kadambaridevi committed suicide soon after Rabindranath’s marriage. Rabindranath and Kadambaridevi wrote and read poetry together.

I also saw Mahanagar the next day. But I’ll write about that some other time. The post has become too long. 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A writer must follow inner criteria: Yoko Morgenstern

Q & A with Yoko Morgenstern, author, translator 

Yoko's novel Double Exile, published by Red Giant Books, will be released on July 22 at The Japan Foundation, Toronto

            Q. Your novel is unique in many ways because it walks along a precarious razor's edge by attempting to portray the helplessness of most Germans under the Nazi regime, and the fact that they had little choice but to support the regime. What inspired you to adopt such a bold theme?

A. It is based on my bachelor’s thesis. When I learned about Carossa, I strongly felt that his story had to be told. Not because he was a heroic person, but rather opposite.  He was an unfortunate combination of social responsibility and a passive personality. As Ayumi expresses in the novel, I couldn’t feel for him at first, and it was a challenge for me as a novelist to imagine and understand someone else’s life under an extreme circumstance.

Q. Your background is unique in the sense that you combine the sensibilities of three distinctive cultures - Asian (Japanese), European (German) and North American (Canadian). All these cultures find a reflection in your maiden novel. Would it be right to say that your personality has now become a confluence of all these three cultures and that no culture predominates?

A. Not really. As I age, I feel my Japanese identity more than anything else. This is also due to my engagement in translation of Katherine Govier’s novel past years, which is set in the 19th century Japan, and so I was deeply absorbed in its history, culture and language. But this can change from time to time. When living in Canada I developed somewhat of a Canadian identity. Although I’ve spent more than a decade in Germany, I never feel German identity or sense of belonging or whatsoever.

Q. You've worked on the manuscript for a long time, in addition to your own hard work, who and what helped you the most in the writing of your maiden novel.

A. I was fortunate to have a chance to learn fiction writing from Katherine Govier on a one-on-one basis. I also learned a lot every time I had something edited by native English speakers, but on the other hand, it could be confusing because sometimes every native speaker says different things, maybe you know that yourself. So I think it’s important for a writer, regardless of what language you use, to have inner criteria to follow.

And of course, reading feeds your writing. When I encounter striking words, phrases and sentences I write them down, which I have never done with my own language. Writing in someone else’s language makes you humble.

The last and most important thing is to have supportive friends, regardless of writer or non-writer. Without them I wouldn’t have been able to make it all this way.  

Q. You have written several powerful short stories, when you plan to publish a collection of short stories.

A. Yes, this has been on the top of my to-do list for a long time, but I just haven’t had a chance to complete it so far. I’ve been having a crazy couple of months - three books to publish in one season. It’s exciting, but also exhausting. I sort of miss quietness in which I can concentrate on creation.  Once things calm down, I’m going to write the rest of the stories.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Double Exile - Yoko Morgenstern

Yoko Morgenstern’s sensitive exploration of art and political responsibility, of internal and external perspectives on times of crisis, and of the interconnectedness of and analogies between different (national) histories is stunning and makes Double Exile an essential contribution to the literary landscape of the new millennium.

-- Maria Löschnigg, Professor of English and Canadian Literature, University of Graz, Austria

oko Morgenstern is originally from Tokyo. She started creative writing while she was living in Canada. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Montreal Review, The Globe and Mail, Salon II, and The Great Lakes Review, among others. Her Japanese translation of The Printmaker’s Daughter by the Canadian novelist Katherine Govier was published in Tokyo in June 2014.

Yoko learned English and Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. She took two ESL courses from 1997 to 1998, Academic Writing in 2008, and also participated in the U of T Summer Writing School in 2008.

She received a BA in Political Science from the University of Tsukuba, and a Post-Graduate Diploma in Journalism from Sheridan College. Currently she is at work on an MA in English and American Literature at the University of Bamberg.

Double Exile is Yoko’s debut novel. It is a story centering on a young woman’s travels to Germany, in hopes of obtaining the necessary information she needs to complete her thesis.

Ayumi has left her family and friends in Japan, and is on a mission to uncover as much as she can about the trials and tribulations of the German writer Hans Carossa. 

During the Nazi occupation, Hans refused to leave Germany as he did not wish to become an exile. Ayumi is hoping to dig up all of the facts concerning Hans, and finally get to the bottom of why he was labelled a controversial figure in history.

During her research, Ayumi encounters Alex, an old man who claims to have personally known Hans. Believing that she has hit a gold mine, Ayumi devotes the rest of her stay in Germany to Alex. As she unravels the harrowing truths surrounding Hans, the narrative is drawn into the past where Hans narrates his own story.

Interweaving the past and present, Ayumi struggles to not only understand Hans’ role in the war, but her own misguided reasons for coming to Germany. As Alex and Ayumi grow closer, Ayumi soon unearths several shocking truths that force her to not only reassess her own relationship with Alex but ultimately, her own relationship with her past and also the dark side of Japanese history.

As for the Canadian/American context; Hans and his Jewish friend in Canada correspond by using underground mail service. The model of this character is a Toronto-based Jewish journalist who is a survivor of Nazi Germany as well as the imprisonment by the Canadian government.

Yoko’s novel has earned serious praise from all quarters. Katherine Govier, novelist and a passionate multiculturalism activist, observes, “Double Exile is a compact and moving tale that sheds light on the political choices made by those writers who stayed home in Nazi Germany. Morgenstern’s straightforward, clean style lets the story tell itself. Ayomi, backpacker from Tokyo, comes alive with her honest drive to understand betrayal and loyalty --in their lives and her own. Yoko Morgenstern is a debut novelist unafraid of complex questions, and gifted with the simple touch.”

Says Laura Lush, a poet and writer, “Many have written about the rise of Nazi Germany and the indelible mark it has left in history. But none has told the story of the plight of the German Jewish writers so well as Yoko Morgenstern has in Double Exile.  In a trifecta of countries, time, and cultures, Morgenstern weaves a spellbinding psychological drama that innocently begins when a graduate student from Japan comes to Germany to search out the story of Hans Carossa, one of Germany’s greatest but seemingly most forgotten modernist writers. In prose that brims with intelligence and humanity, Morgenstern shows how Carossa and his contemporaries struggle with their decision to stay or flee Nazi Germany, a decision that results in equally unfavourable fates—accusations of pro-Nazi alliances if they stay or internment in countries such as Canada if they leave.” 

Yoko's debut novel is being launched in Toronto on July 22 at the Japan Foundation, Toronto. Click here for details: Double Exile Book Release

Monday, June 30, 2014

Kabir and Ramanand

Recently, I had a lively debate with my nephew (Karpur Shukla) about the supremacy of western discourse in understanding and interpreting non-western thoughts.  

We tend to be highly critical of the “Orientalists” but the fact is that most of our understanding of our culture, society, people, heritage, religions, spiritualism, and atheism, etc. is through English. And a lot of their original work was truly path-breaking.

Mahipati’s (1715-1790) Bhaktivijaya is considered a classic of Marathi literature. I have a translation of the book (Stories of Indian Saints) by Dr. Justine E. Abbott and Pandit Narhar R. Godbole, originally published in 1931 and reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass in the 1980s.

My introduction to the predominance of the Bhakti-Sufi way of thinking across the subcontinent has been through books such as this one.

Here’s an anecdote from the book about Kabir and his guru Ramanand.

He (Kabir) said to himself one day as his mind was thinking about it. “If one does not have a guru while in this earthly existence, he should be called a man without life…”

So I must go with feelings of reverence as a suppliant to the sannyasi swami Ramanand. Having decided this in his mind, he remained with that determination.

When after seeing many kings with her own eyes, and carefully considering the matter, Sita saw the form of Sri Ram, her heart chose him at once.

When the daughter of king Bhimaka (Rukmini) heard of the beautiful form of Shri Krishna, she sought to win him as her husband. So it was that Kabir held the desire for the dust of Ramanand’s feet.

Finding himself alone one day, he at once arose and went to the hermitage of Ramanand and loving embraced his feet.

Standing first at a distance, Kabir besought Ramanand saying, “Your greatness must show me compassion.”

When Ramanand heard Kabir’s voice, he put his fingers in his ears, went into a cave and sat alone on his mat.

Kabir stood outside and said in his soft sweet voice, “A lowly and helpless one, I stand at your door. Give me your assurances and satisfy my desire.”

Ramanand said to Kabir, “You were born in a Muhammadan family. I have, therefore, no authority whatever to give you instructions.”

Ramanand continues…

All wise men recognize that seed should be sown in a field after the examination of its soil. In making a gift, one should first seek someone worthy of it. When giving daughter in marriage one must choose the proper bridegroom.

Kabir replied, “I have determined to come to your feet. I have not spared body, speech or mind in doing so.

The moon loves the chakor bird but even if the love may not be exclusive, yet God in His pleasure rains nectar on it for its devotion.

Should the sun not express its intense love for the lotus by rising, still it will not open by an attachment for something else.

In the making of an earthen image of Dron, the reverence of the Koli (Ekalavya) bore fruit. So I have embraced the swami’s feet with body, speech and mind.

Thus speaking, Kabir again with love prostrated himself on the ground before the Swami. 

He then hastened back to his home with his mind full of intense love.

The story then goes on to describe how Kabir overcomes Ramanand’s resistance and accepts him as his disciple.

Here's a combination that is clearly made in heaven: Kabir, Abida Parveen, Gulzar: