& occasionally about other things, too...

Monday, October 02, 2017

‘Canada offers stories of different diasporas’: Mariam Pirbhai

Mariam Pirbhai’s collection Outside People and other stories, published by Inanna Publications, will be launched this week. She is Associate Professor, English and Film Studies at the Wilfrid Laurier University. Mariam explains, the stories in her collection explore “what it means to have to experience forms of migrancy (even as someone impacted by another’s immigration) at different levels of precarity or isolation”

Q. Your soon to be launched collection of short stories 'Outside People and other stories' is your first foray into fiction. How different is the experience of writing fiction compared to academic writing?

There is great cross-over, for me, in my academic and creative life so I don’t find this difference—between fiction and academic writing—as delineated as others might. There are many similarities between the two experiences, in fact. I can find myself wrestling with one sentence for days on end in both forms. I have to research many of the subjects that drive both my fiction and academic writing.

Both are outward expressions of the things that matter or come to matter and thus need to be said, in varying degrees of urgency. Having said this, when I write creatively, I find myself thinking more about the writing process: of such things as style, technique, form, etc. But here, too, it would not be such a far stretch to say that my academic training as a literary scholar is working on me and through me as well, putting me in the rather schizophrenic position of both writer and critic.

I can only hope that when one kind of writing--the creative or academic—starts to cross over into the other, however subconsciously, the end result delivers a coherent self or at least a collaborative fusion.  

Q. Outside People includes Pakistani Canadian perspective and also touches on issues of Islamophobia and recent legislation targeting Muslim Canadians, among other minority perspectives. Please tell us more about the collection.

As a Pakistani-Canadian who has lived in Canada for thirty years—since my late teens--it is impossible for me not to be concerned with the issues and struggles impacting Muslim Canadians. Having said this, I do not necessarily identify with any one community, ethnic or other, and I have grown up in various parts of the world, including England, the Philippines and Dubai, all of which have influenced this collection in various ways.

What really brings the stories in this collection together, then, is not so much a Muslim-Canadian point of view or a Pakistani-Canadian point of view, but rather what it means to have to experience forms of migrancy (even as someone impacted by another’s immigration) at different levels of precarity or isolation.

If minority-hood is already one kind of outsidership, how is this experience further compounded by gender, socioeconomic disadvantages, precarious forms of citizenship, religious beliefs, etc. In each of these stories, various states of migrancy (the temporary worker, the second-generation, the family members left behind, etc.), are filtered through the perspective of those (predominantly women) who find themselves facing dilemmas that are created at the nexus between the personal (e.g., fears, hopes, challenges, regrets) and the public (e.g., those larger forces like Islamphobia that govern our world).

For instance, one story takes a look at the anxieties of a domestic worker becoming increasingly estranged from her children living at the other end of the world; another story delves into the insecurities of a factory worker in Brampton undergoing cancer treatments who distances herself from the Muslim community for reasons of shame, as her son (a second-generation Canadian), her sole caregiver, starts turning to the very same community for support; another story that is loosely inspired from one of the worst road accidents in Southern Ontario’s history, traces the unlikely bond that arises between two agricultural labourers from the Caribbean and Latin America as they wait out a snowstorm on a chicken farm; and another story is told from the perspective of a young Pakistani-Canadian woman who is trying to forge her own cultural and sexual identity independently from that of family and state, as she witnesses a protest march against Québec’s proposed Charter of Values bill targeting Muslim Canadians’ religious freedoms).       

Q. You are a scholar on the subject of immigration fiction genre and have specialised in fiction by the diaspora from South Asia, Africa, the Asia-Pacific, and the Caribbean. What do you find dissimilar in terms of the narrative styles and the sharing of experiences between authors from different diaspora?

One of the gifts of living in a country like Canada is the opportunity to hear or read the stories of people from so many different diasporas. One of the first patterns that start to emerge is how very mixed up we all are, in the best possible way. Very few of us arrive here along some linear trajectory consisting of Point A to Point B, a fact that is sadly not always reflected in stereotypes about migration or the émigré. More often than not there is also a great deal of overlap from one diasporic community to another.

For instance, South Asians might be coming from anywhere in the world, not just the Indian subcontinent, and thus could belong to several diasporas, including Africa (someone like M.G. Vassanji or Tasneem Jamal) or the Caribbean (someone like Shani Mootoo or Cyril Dabydeen). To further complicate such geographic permutations, writers are further influenced by the particular traditions reflected in the hybrid constellation of their own diasporic communities.

Thus, one might find a Caribbean writer of any origin (African, South Asian, etc.) deeply influenced by the Creole languages of the region. Or one might find the sacred epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana providing the mythological and cultural landscape of a writer from Malaysia as much as that of a writer from Trinidad or India.

I try to reflect this cross-pollination of peoples and styles in my own writing. In this collection, for instance, a Mexican man meets an Anglophone woman of South Asian origin from Guyana, and this confuses his mother to no end because, as she says, “she never thought of Latin America as anything other than Spanish.” I guess it comes down to this: narrative styles can be as highly variegated as the circuitous ancestral routes or cultural genealogies of our diasporas and, invariably, of ourselves.

Q. What future does multiculturalism hold in Canada, considering it’s been summarily rejected in Europe and the US?

This question arrives on what appears to me to be a very hopeful day: the day after Jagmeet Singh, a lawyer from Brampton who bears all the outward symbols of his Sikh religion, just became the first “visible minority” to head one of this country’s major political parties, and thus holds the potential to serve as the future Prime Minister of Canada. Did the principles of multiculturalism have something to do with this landmark event?

Is this recent win a sign that we have entered a “post-multiculturalist” Canada? Or did the force of this individual and his convictions have something to do with this incredible achievement? I am inclined to think that however many racial or other barriers positive events such as this suggest we have broken through, we should never become complacent.

We need to keep reminding ourselves of the principles of equity, diversity and social justice that must be advocated for and protected, not only in spirit but also in law. Without a legal system to defend and ensure those rights, multiculturalism, like any rhetorical policy or set of ideals, falls short of the mark. 

To buy the book online, click here: Other People...

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sachin – A Billion Dreams

Finally, many months after its release in India, I saw the docudrama on Sachin Tendulkar (Sachin A Billion Dreams).

It’s a measure of my utter ignorance of contemporary cricket that during my recent India visit I had to ask a co-passenger the identity of a young man at the Bombay airport that everyone was eager to click a selfie with.

He’d caused a minor flutter at the Delhi airport when he sauntered in casually. A couple of young women shrieked, giggled and ran to click selfies with him. The same sequence repeated at the Bombay airport when the flight landed.

This time, men as old as me were eagerly queuing up to take selfies, and the charming fellow was happy to oblige. As he was led away to a waiting vehicle, I asked a man who had a satisfied grin on his face, having just succeeded in capturing a selfie with this young man.

“Who is that?” I asked him.

He looked at me as if I had landed from Mars.

“That is Shikhar Dhawan.”

I nodded politely and walked out, where this Dhawan was talking to another young man who was surrounded by people clicking selfies. The gentleman, who had informed me about the identity of Shikhar Dhawan, was readying himself to take a group selfie with this Dhawan and the other young man. He rushed past me and hurriedly said, “That is Bhuvaneshwar Kumar.”

In the Cool Cab that I took home from the airport, I Googled both Shikhar and Bhuvaneshwar on my cell phone and discovered that both are star cricketers representing the Indian team.

I hadn’t heard of them.

As I was watching the docudrama on Sachin, I remembered this incident. My love for cricket effectively ended after Sachin Tendulkar retired. I mean, I follow Indian cricket off and on and admire Virat Kohli’s awesome determination, but I have absolutely no information about most of the other players who comprise the Indian team. My interest is limited to who's winning and who's losing. 

On occasion, I get to hear of some astounding exploits by cricketers but am clueless about who they are. I’ve heard that Hardik Pandya has done some amazing stuff, but I wasn’t sure whether he’s a batsman or a bowler.

Fortunately, we live in a world made easy by Google.

The docudrama on Tendulkar is good but should have been extraordinary, which it is not, primarily because it attempts to encapsulate a legend’s achievements in his long career and mixes it with his personal life.

Sachin’s career requires a documentary of its own. There’s just too much to say and everyone in India (and especially in Bombay) knows everything there is to know about the legend. I’m sure, all of them must have felt that they missed something that was (according to them) vital to Sachin’s career graph.

For instance, I sorely missed in the docudrama the nugget that Sachin’s international debut was as a team member of Pakistan, with Imran Khan as his first captain.

But perhaps I'm being overtly critical. The docudrama does introduce the person behind the persona rather effortlessly. And to cricket fans, that information goes a long way in creating a wholesome picture of the icon. 

The docudrama also brings out the supreme adoration that a billion plus people of this planet have for this diminutive yet determined man who changed not only the way Indians played the game of cricket but, also in a large measure, the way Indians saw themselves and their India.

Sachin never had the brashness so typical of the north Indian style of cricket first seen in Kapil Dev and perfected by Virendra Sehwag.  Sachin's aggression was always understated. It personified a self-assured confidence that in cricket was only seen in Sunil Gavaskar.

The generation that grew up watching cricket on television in the 1970s and the 1980s would perhaps be a bit biased in favour of Gavaskar. After all, he played the terrifying West Indian pace bowlers without a helmet.

But Gavaskar played in a different era (and along with Indira Gandhi and Amitabh Bachchan created a unique Indian identity that symbolized an India that had emerged from the long shadows cast by the generation of leaders that fought for its independence). 

Sachin's rise, on the other hand, coincided with the rise of India's economic prowess and a growing realisation that it was time for India to take a leadership position among the comity of nations, and which had been deprived by colonialism and then by a defeatist, fatalistic attitude that considered karma as the sole determinant of results. 

Sachin gave Indians the confidence to change their mindsets. He showed Indians that they could boldly go where they hadn't gone before, take charge of their destinies and change it for the better.

Mukkabaaz - 1

If Uttar Pradesh were to be an independent country, it’d be the fifth largest country in terms of population.

One of the most ingenious arguments against the Partition of the Indian subcontinent in two and eventually three countries that I’ve heard was offered by a friend in Toronto who is a Punjabi from Pakistan. He said Partition divided the two most populous and cultural homogenous regions of the Indian subcontinent – the Punjab and Bengal between two newly-independent countries (India and Pakistan) in 1947.

According to this argument, the idea of Partition germinated in the then United Province, and its direct fallout was to propel Uttar Pradesh to a preeminent position of political influence in independent India.  This is evident in the number of prime ministers that the state has given to India (eight out of 14, and nine if you count Modi, who is elected from Varanasi). 

Punjab and Bengal were politically more progressive, where the confluence of cultures was a lifestyle choice that was never touted as exceptional. It was a way of life. In Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand, the religious fault lines ran (and run) deep.

UP's Ganga-Jamuni tahzeeb undoubtedly contributed to the formation of a syncretic identity that dominated the cultural and social discourse at least in the initial post-Independence decades, but caste has been an integral part of the social fabric in Uttar Pradesh, and the Hindi belt. 

Caste has often skewered the social discourse and made it toxic.  Since the late 1980s, especially in the post-Mandal India, caste has intensified its stranglehold on the region, turning Uttar Pradesh into a cauldron of angry caste politics.

The subalterns – the lower castes – have had to find different, innovative means to circumvent the dominance of upper castes and rise above the narrow confines of social hierarchy that is both rigid and stifling. The simultaneous rise of Mandal and Mandir politics brought a demographic awareness of the caste and its electoral significance.

Despite the political mobilization of the lower castes, a process that has now been going on for over two decades, the social dynamics of caste have seen little fundamental change.  Socially and culturally, the upper caste dominance remains largely unchallenged especially in everyday life of the people. The influence of Hindutva has, it’d seem, actually enhanced the dominance of the upper caste in the society.

It’d, therefore, seem inconceivable to many unfamiliar with the social composition of northern India in general and Uttar Pradesh in particular that even today, more than a decade-and-a-half in the 21st century, caste constriction is a stark reality.

Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz is supposed to be a film about boxing. Indeed, it is that. But at its core, it’s a film about caste. Caste and its horrors.

Mukkabaaz - 2

Cameroon Bailey of Tiff talking to Anurag Kashap at the screening
of Mukkabaaz along with the lead actors Vineet Kumar Singh,
Zoya Hasan & Sadhna Singh 
In Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (The Brawler) which had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017, caste permutations get unencumbered playout, bringing up close the always unsettling and often ghoulish aspects of caste orthodoxy that continues to dominate the practice of Hindu religion. 

A not-so-young lower caste aspiring boxer Sharavan Rajput from Bareilly is keen to get a break at the national level. To get ahead, he has to serve the upper caste coach Bhagwan Das as his personal aide, doing odd jobs for the coach and his family – from buying vegetables to being a masseur to the coach.

Bhagwan, a Brahmin, is a local gangster who has made it good. He controls the local district boxing establishment and rules it with an iron hand. Sharavan is in love with Bhagwan’s niece, Sunaina, a young woman who is mute. An unexpected turn of events leads the headstrong Sharavan to beat up the coach, and in retaliation, Bhagwan takes it upon himself to ruin Sharavan’s boxing career.

The small town ambience, which includes small-town attitudes, is beautifully and sensitively etched in almost every scene. Sunaina is constantly made aware of her status as a woman, as a mute, both by her parents and especially by her uncle, the brutish Bhagwan, who slaps her for having the temerity of not immediately giving him a towel when he wants it.

Sunaina’s parents are at Bhagwan’s mercy, and unable and even unwilling to protest their continued mistreatment. Sunaina’s defiance is manifested in her carefree love for Sharavan, who despite his wayward ways is committed to her, and is willing to brawl his way through till he succeeds in getting married to her.

Sharavan’s extreme poverty and low social status prevent him from effectively challenging his coach, and being a realist, he makes reconciliatory gestures to assuage the coach’s ego, but the coach is in no mood to compromise. 

In a scene that is stunning in its depiction of the utterly casual callousness with which the upper caste treat the lower caste in India, the coach pisses in a bottle and asks Shravan to gulp it down if he is keen to develop his boxing career.

In another scene, another ‘lower caste’ supervisor takes immense pleasure in making a relatively ‘higher caste’ Sharavan work as a janitor and a peon in his office and records on his cell phone the menial jobs that he orders Sharavan to perform. 

The film also depicts the laggardly, lethargic and indifferent sports administration of the country of a billion plus people, that routinely produces ‘also-rans’ in international sports competitions.

However, the real deal in the movie is the filmmaker’s slap across the face to the proponents of patriotic nationalism, the cultural revivalists, the revisionists who are at present ruling India with unbridled power, and without regard to any democratic or civilizational norms or niceties.  

The film begins with a mob of gau-rakshaks (men protecting cows from turning into beef) almost lynching Muslims who are herding cattle. The mob records this act of violence on their cell phone and the video goes viral instantly. Later in the movie, when Sharavan gets an opportunity to get even with the coach, he punches the daylights out of him while muttering repeatedly 'Bharat Mata ki Jai!'  

The guileless love between Shravan and Sunaina slows down the film a bit, but its depiction is not romanticised. It’s love of a couple who is battling severe physical and circumstantial odds. The extreme violence (which is a constant ingredient in most of Anurag Kashyap oeuvre) is often too stark and makes one uncomfortable because of its brutality. The boxing bouts are as real as they can get. 

The performances of all actors are excellent. Jimmy Shergill as Bhagwan hams a bit. Ravi Kishan, one wishes, had a meatier role but excels in the bit part that he has in the film. The film, of course, belongs to Vineet Kumar Singh, who enacts the role of Sharavan, with panache and chutzpah that is at once fresh and breathtaking. 

In general, Anurag Kashyap’s cinema portrays India that Indians often don’t want to see. In his cinema, one can smell India in all its gory. Mukkabaaz portrays This is the reality of India that Indians want to forget and not change. It's a reality that foreigners are only now beginning to realise and question. 

One has come to expect cinematic miracles from Anurag Kashyap, and in Mukkabaaz, he nearly performs one.