& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 9

Becoming Canadian, and showing it!
2010: I return to what is turning out to be a sanitized version of my memoirs, after a long gap of nearly three weeks. I say sanitized because I’ve focused only on the positives of the last decade, and also, I’d rather not dwell upon the many unpleasant experiences that I’ve encountered during that time.

I’m sure all newcomers have such unpleasant experiences that may vary in their content but not much in the form, but when one looks back, one realises that such small irritants don’t amount to anything significant, and shouldn’t be given undue importance. This is because the positives overwhelmingly outweigh the negatives.  

Confidence & contentment
2010 began on a positive note for all the three of us – I finally had a secure job and Mahrukh was doing great at her social worker program at Medix. Che was out of middle school and into high school, having chosen York Memorial at Keele and Eglinton. With a secure job, I focused on my writing, and meeting and making friends with the community of authors and creative people in the Greater Toronto Area.

I began participating in reading sessions in Toronto and Mississauga. My circle of friends grew rapidly and I continued to develop my manuscript. I met Farzana Doctor, who significantly influenced my writing; and a couple of years later, she read my manuscript and recommended substantial modifications. I also participated in Meena Chopra's book launch in Mississauga. Meena is an artist I admire; she's also a poet, Her husband, Bhupinder, has a wry sense of humour, both are family now.

My attempt at writing fiction was turning out to be rather challenging and difficult. To write continuously and to develop a story are not among the easiest of things to do. I’d never done anything like this before and there were many missteps.  I didn’t have a name for the novel – that came four years later when I was rewriting the passages about Rafiq’s religiosity.

All I had was a first chapter, which started as a short story, and then I decided to continue working on it because it seemed adventurous to something that I’d never done before. I was in that sort of a state of mind – to boldly go where I’d never imagined I’d go, and writing fiction was definitely adventurous and challenging. I was elated that Diaspora Dialogues had accepted my short story and it was to be published in the fifth edition of their annual collection TOK: Writing the New Toronto.

But the journey from writing a short story to writing a full-length novel was not a natural progression even if it seemed so. I tried to adapt the story to an earlier attempt at novel writing (A decade in Toronto – 7) but soon realised that my characters were based in Canada and what I’d done earlier could, at best, be a back story and that, too, of just one of the four main characters. I didn’t know how to develop characters, build a narrative, and was too dependent upon dialogues, which tended to dominate the narrative.

I knew I needed guidance and when I learnt that MG Vassanji, who had been my mentor at the Diaspora Dialogues program, was a writing coach at Humber College’s creative writing program, I wrote to Antanas Sileika and started the program to work on my manuscript under Vassanji’s guidance. 

It was not easy working with him. He was painstaking, methodical and thorough. I think I must have worked on my first chapter over two dozen times and yet he remained dissatisfied. In July, when the creative writing program’s term ended, I continued for another six months, preferring Vassanji’s guidance rather than venturing on my own. I learnt the hard way that all writing was rewriting.

There was a slow build up in excitement as the launch of TOK 5 approached. But nothing had prepared me to e invited to participate as a panellist at a discussion during the launch event. I was overwhelmed when I got an email from Julia Chan of Diaspora Dialogues in April 2010 asking me whether I’d be interested in being a panellist and also read from my story at the launch event that was scheduled in May 2010 at the prestigious Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library.

Marjorie Chan moderated the panel discussion and the panellists included Shyam Selvadurai, Emma Donahue, Marni Van Dyke, Michael Fraser, and me. The discussion was interspersed with five-minute readings from each remaining writer.

Reading at the Toronto Reference Library

I was overawed to be participating in a panel discussion with such prominent and talented authors and was justifiably nervous. I think I gave adequate responses to the questions Marjorie asked me, generally thanking the Canadian immigration system to be so generous and well attuned as to give a newcomer like me an opportunity to be an author. Shyam who was sitting beside me had a diametrically opposite view and was resolutely critical of the system. I read the first part of my story – from the beginning to the passage from the email that ends with Rafiq’s mentor seeking war on Canada.

Chan, Fraser, Donahue, Van Dyke, Selvadurai and I
Dawn Promislow and Leslie Shimotakahara, who were also featured authors in the volume, were present at the launch. Mahrukh, Che and Durga were excited to be at the venue, as were Joyce and Yoko; others who participated became great friends subsequently – Sanjay and Rizvana, and Pratap (who’d been a mentee in the program). Gavin Barrett was, of course, there. He managed to make it to nearly every public reading that I gave since this one.  

Following the release of the book, Diaspora Dialogues arranged for a joint reading by all the emerging authors featured in TOK 5 at the rock at Yorkville. It was an unusual experience, more of a photo-op than a real reading, but a few bystanders did come forward to hear us read. 

Niranjana Iyer reviewed TOK 5 on her blog (Brown Paper) and found my story “well-written but predictable.” I wrote to her protesting slightly, but she became a good friend and subsequently invited me to the Karma Reading series where I heard and met Rohinton Mistry (the only time I saw and heard the reclusive author read a short story).

All the emerging authors of TOK 5 with Nala Hopkinson
Jasmine D’Costa, whom I’d met in 2009, now announced the launch of Canadian Voices Volume II that she’d be editing and Robert Morgan’s BookLand Press would publish in 2010. I submitted a chapter on Ruksana, the mother, in my work in progress. She accepted it and even accepted another chapter for Indian Voices that she was editing and that CP Thomas, a former colleague turned publisher would publish under the 42 Bookz banner. 

Jasmine continued to play a significant role in my efforts to build my profile as an author. She published my work and also introduced me to authors and editors, among them  Fraser Sutherland, who edited my work initially and with whom I'd spiritedly argue over small and big issues. As an editor, he was softspoken but firm and generally succeeded in convincing me to come around to his point of view.

Canadian Voices Volume II was launched in September 2010 and Indian Voices was launched in 2011. I had the honour of having MG Vassanji and Nurjehan Aziz participate in the launch.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Last Night of the World – Joyce Wayne

Joyce Wayne and her new novel Last Night of the World

The relationship between the West and Russia has remained troubled for over a century. Both are unable to overcome deep-rooted animosity that is based on an unwillingness to understand the perspective of the other side.

Winston Churchill, who had termed Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” at the height of World War II, realised that the compromise of befriending Stalin to defeat the Nazis was a mistake and quickly made amends.

The ensuing Cold War that lasted for a better part of the 20th century caused the world to be divided into two distinct camps, inimical to each other and one that precariously co-existed (with stockpiles of nuclear weapons aimed at each other) in the maniacal Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

The collapse of Soviet Union in the 1990s did bring about a temporary truce and cooperation, but that didn’t last long, and Russia under Vladimir Putin has taken the relations to a new nadir. If it was the annexation of Crimea some years ago that brought the two on the verge of a war, it is the poisoning of a former spy that has caused an unprecedented diplomatic row. The West and Russia always find a reason to bicker.

Communism is dead everywhere, and it’d be hard to find a serious defender of the October Revolution a century later.  Although one is pleasantly surprised to find a strong and sizeable section of the millennials who prefer socialism to the inherent indecency of a form of government where the government appears keener to defend a corporation's right to profit rather than defend the rights of a human being to live.  

For a considerably long time, there were many across the globe who were convinced that the communism represented the best and the most representative form of a government that was of the people, by the people and for the people, and that only the communists ensured a true form of liberty, equality and fraternity.

Stalin’s murderous excesses shattered those illusions quickly and decisively in the developed world, and the socialist fantasies harboured by the elite in West were abandoned hastily. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s classic Gulag Archipelago exhausted the last remaining illusions about communism, although it was Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon that became a precursor of the narration of disillusionment with the communist dream.

And yet, in large parts of the developing world in Latin America, Africa and Asia, the communist ideology successfully took strong roots and flourished for many decades after the West flushed it out and came down heavily on its sympathisers. The exile of Charlie Chaplin is a stunning example of this reappraisal. 

The cruel fate of the communist sympathisers in the Western societies has not found adequate representation in popular culture or literature. Yes, the excesses of the McCarthy have been periodically portrayed in Hollywood films because Joseph McCarthy, the philistine, had a blacklist of Hollywood personalities branded as communist sympathisers.

While reading Joyce Wayne’s Last Night of the World (Mosaic Press, April 2018), I couldn’t help but think of the swift and sudden extinguishing of the communist dream. Joyce’s second novel evocatively brings alive the story of the post-World War II Soviet Spy Scandal, which rocked Canada and ushered in the Cold War.

The novel combines the racy pace of an espionage thriller with a mellow unfolding of love and loss. It’s a gripping narration of the inner and outward journey of Freda Linton, a young Jewish woman, who flees the Soviet Union to escape the Nazis, and works for the Communist cause only to be used and disillusioned; Freda is a survivor who sacrifices all and gives everything that is hers in return for chimerical longings.

I was unaware of the spy scandal that rocked the Canadian public life in the 1940s. The novel was, therefore, educative. It recreates a murky and sordid world of comrades who are spies and is centred on Freda, the spy who is used by the Canadian Communist Party on behalf of the Soviets to ensnare highly placed public figures in the Canadian establishment to get hold of secrets that would assist the communist cause. Freda is a true example of naïve commitment to a lost cause.

Nikolai Zabotin, Freda’s boss and lover, and a charming functionary in the high-powered world where diplomacy and politics meet, dispatches her to the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories to get nuclear secrets that would assist the Soviets in building nuclear weapons. Zabotin has to decide on which side of history he wants to be and guide Freda accordingly. 

What they decide will determine their future and the future of the world.

The novel brings to life an era that saw large sections of the Canadian establishment branded as anti-national and how it is permanently banished into oblivion even though nothing concrete was ever proved about their alleged involvement. 

The tragic case of Fred Rose is a classic example of how public mood can be and is swayed away from the truth to grievously harm people who don’t necessarily subscribe to the prevailing dogmas of the day.

Donald Trump is re-enacting McCarthyism in America right now, and nobody is able to stop him. Paraxodically, he is Putin's friend.

Last Night of the World also recreates the world of Jewish newcomers fleeing the Nazis in East Europe. The section that describes the Nazi cruelties on the Jewish people are terrifying and one has to stop reading and take a break. The pathos is palpable in the compromises and adjustments that Freda has to make in the brave new world where she has to sleep unwillingly with men (invariably much older) for what is considered as greater good.

The book is structured as tightly woven, breezy spy thriller. And it retains its momentum and pace throughout. However, the climax, set in Chernobyl, is really the pièce de résistance. Joyce’s imagination, as well as creative prowess, take flight here while depicting the desolation of the place devastated by the nuclear disaster; she creates imagery that has the quality of ethereal otherworldliness.

Last Night of the World is an important book because even though it is about an era long gone in Canadian history, it is a stark reminder that we are never too far from facing such hostilities suddenly and for no logical reason.

Read an extract from the book here: Extract

Buy the book here: Last Night of the World 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A decade in Toronto – 8

2009 ended on an upbeat note for us
2009 was a year when women helped me at every step. When the year began, I didn’t know most of them. They were strangers willing to help a stranger.  They believed in his abilities and his potential. 

That list had so far included Maggie Sivappa, Joyce Wayne, Jasmine D’Costa, Margaret Jetelina, and Isabel Huggan. To that list was now added Asha Luthra, at that time the President of the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce (ICCC).

The ICCC is the organisation that made me a Canadian and welcomed me to its close-knit, family-like membership with open arms. Almost overnight, from knowing less than hundred people in Canada, I now knew over a few hundred.

With Asha and Satish
The ICCC’s then leadership – Asha Luthra, Neena Gupta, Satish Thakkar, Harjit Kalsi, Pankaj Mehra, Imtiaz Seyid, Kundan Joshi and many others – accorded me the privilege of working for an institution that has over the last four decades come to define the Indo-Canadian community in Toronto.

Nearly everything that I have today as a Canadian flows from my association with the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce; the Chamber has nurtured me as a mother nurtures a child.
A majority of the leadership and membership of the Chamber comprised Punjabis and they accepted me as one of their own, much as the Marathis of Bombay.

I’d applied for the position of the Executive Director in 2008, soon after Gavin Barrett told me about it, and I’d been interviewed at the plush downtown offices of Gowlings, where Neena Gupta was a partner.

The interview panel comprised two former Presidents – Sunil Jagasia and Krish Krishnan, along with Neena Gupta, at that time the Corporate Secretary and, of course, Asha Luthra, the incumbent president.

With the founding President of ICCC, Kishore Doshi
Subsequently, for six to eight months, I heard nothing from anyone. Then, in June 2009, Neena Gupta invited me to the ICCC’s Annual Awards and Gala Night at Toronto’s Metro Toronto Convention Centre. It was a glittering evening where the who’s who of Canadian mainstream was present.

Then again, deafening silence for a few more months. Then, when I was all ready to apply for a job as a journalist, I got a call again from Asha and went for another interview. This time the interview was at the ICCC’s office at 45 Sheppard Avenue East. Asha offered me a job as the Chief Administration Officer of the Chamber, and I immediately accepted it.

In October 2009, I began my first regular job in Canada. It’d taken a year and three months for me to get proper employment, and even today, I remain indebted to the then leadership of the ICCC for giving me not just a job but a life to my family. 

The first thing we did when I got my salary that month was to buy furniture – a couch from a Russian-owned furniture shop at Keele and Finch. And then in December, on boxing day, we bought a television.

Ruth & Rakhee
The Chamber already had two-member staff – Rakhee Shah, a young, sprightly Gujarati woman who spoke fluent Tamil and who’d managed the administration of the Chamber effortlessly; and Ruth, a Kenyan-Canadian who was the Chamber’s membership coordinator. Unfortunately, within a few months, both Rakhee and Ruth were out of the Chamber.

Ruth was eased out to make way for Tarun Verma, a young immigrant from Chandigarh, and Rakhee had to leave because of sudden hospitalisation. Subsequently, Pawan Chankotra joined the Chamber during PBDCanada2011. He continues to serve the Chamber.

With Pawan and Tarun
The ICCC was at that time over three decades old organisation and its membership and leadership comprised a close-knit circle of first-generation entrepreneurs and professionals and thanks to its leadership at that time, especially Asha and Satish, I came in close contact with a number of prominent business leaders in the Indo-Canadian community.

The first event that I participated because of my association with the ICCC was the Mahutsav organised by Harpreet Sethi, a dynamic entrepreneur. The ICCC’s own Holiday Dinner and Dance followed this program in November 2009, and the year closed with an Open House for attracting new members.

As with any organisation of this size and spread, there were (and are) different factions in the ICCC’s leadership and one group couldn’t get along with another group. However, all the groups worked for the interest of the Chamber, even if they couldn’t find common ground to work together. 

And everyone supported me despite their own differences. I was able to create a new, forceful and dynamic profile of the Chamber and its leadership by constantly interacting with its membership, stakeholders and sponsors.

My interactions with Satish developed a personal bond that has lasted for many years. Asha Luthra, Pankaj Mehra and Imtiaz Seyid deeply enriched my understanding of not just the ICCC but also of the Indo-Canadian community. From the quietly efficient Harjit Kalsi, I learnt the intricacies of organising mega events with over a thousand guests. 

There were so many others who enriched me professionally in the first few months of my association with the ICCC – Kundan and Surbhi Joshi, Vinay Nagpal, Jim Sahdra, and others. In the years to follow, there'd be many more.

There were community leaders such as Yogesh Sharma, who invited me to his home and introduced me to a group of Marwaris which included Naval Bajaj and Dharam Jain, Sampat Poddar and Rakesh Goenka, among others. Naval and Dharam were instrumental in ousting me from the Chamber five years later, but that’s another story and it’ll have to wait to be told. They remain friends.

I also met Vasu Chanchlani and Aditya Jha and developed a great personal rapport with both. Vasu is no longer with us, but Aditya performs the role of an older brother in my life, a person to whom I turn to when I need advice.

2009 ended on an upbeat note for us. Finally, we were well on our way to settling down in Canada. The risk and gamble that we’d taken in 2002 seem all working out just fine (see the photo at the top of the post). 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

SAWITRI Theatre Group's 15 years

Recently, SAWITRI Theatre Group celebrated its 15th anniversary at the Art Gallery of Mississauga at a glittering program attended by theatre connoisseurs and friends of SAWITRI’s dynamic founders Jasmine and Nitin Sawant.

The theatre group has been an important part of my personal journey in Canada in the last decade. It reintroduced me to the theatre and gave me an opportunity to enjoy the tremendous joy one experiences when actors perform on stage.

The first time I heard about SAWITRI was when Jawaid Danish invited me to Rang Manch Canada’s Hindustani Drama Festival in 2011 that he held in Mississauga. Jasmine and Nitin Sawant and Shruti Shah were present at the roundtable discussion held prior to the festival Challenges of Staging Indian Drama in Canada and Experiences of Desi Talents in Mainstream Showbiz.

About a year later, SAWITRI performed its play Saree Kahaniyaan (The Saree Stories) written by Jasmine, performed by Shruti and Naimesh, with Jasmine as the sutradhar (narrator). Since then, I’ve tried not miss a Sawitri play. The group has mounted a major play and several smaller staging annually.

SAWITRI has a frequent presence on this blog. If you’re interested, you may read the blogs of the different SAWITRI plays here:
Over the years, the group has created an audience for South Asian theatre and shaped the sensibilities of this audience by providing it with a rich variety of theatre experience in all the major contemporary languages of Bombay – Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and English.

Jasmine and Nitin Sawant
Recently, prior to the celebrations of its 15th anniversary, I had the opportunity to sit with Nitin and Jasmine and chat with them at length about their group.

The group's name is an acronym. SAWITRI stands for South Asian Women's Intercultural Research Initiative. It's also derived from the character in Mahabharata. Jasmine is clearly the driving force behind the group, although she readily admits that too many supporters have played a crucial and critical role in making SAWITRI the institution that it has become today.  

Among their steadfast supporters is legion of friends who have become an integral part of the group and includes the legendary Lata Pada, the globally renowned danseuse and the artistic director of Sampradaya Dance Creations. Among the supporters that Jasmine and Nitin acknowledge for having contributed tremendously include Prakash Date, who directs all the Marathi plays that SAWITRI produces. Keyoor Shah is an integral part of the team who takes care of the technical aspects of the production and is also a member of the set-building team. 

Jasmine and Nitin also acknowledge the role of the co-founder Shobha Hatte-Belgaumkar who was a part of SAWITRI for the first 5 years, as was Nain Amyn who took care of wardrobe, make-up, etc. After 5 years, they both wanted a bigger canvas to express themselves. Shobha moved on to pursue her own acting career and Nain moved on to become a part of Mosaic Festival along with Asma Mehmood.

Aniruddh Sawant was one of the founding directors of SAWITRI along with Nitin and Keyoor when SAWITRI was first incorporated. Jasmine recalls, "No matter where he was in the country he always flew back to see a SAWITRI performance and had solid and spot-on constructive criticism's to offer which went a long way in improving the quality of our performances." He was a Drama Major from Cawthra Park High School and a tremendous artist. "I cannot tell you how much we miss his feedback," she says.

Apart from auditioning and acting in SAWITRI productions when he is cast, Siddhant (Sid) Sawant is responsible for the photoshoots for our posters and many a time for providing music for the productions. He too is a Drama Major from Cawthra Park High School.

Both Jasmine and Nitin derive tremendous satisfaction from their success and the journey that they commenced in 2003. Shruti has been an integral part of their journey. The Group was keen to produce socially relevant theatre; in 2006, it produced the powerful women-oriented play From Here to There (Janice Goveas).  

A year later, the group was registered as a not-for-profit, with a board of directors.  Jasmine and Nitin teamed up with Prakash Date to produce तो मी नव्हेच for the Marathi Bhashik Mandal. Subsequently, in 2009 SAWITRI produced Mahasagar, its first Marathi play. It was directed by Prakash Date. 

Without ceasing its shorter productions, the Group was now keen to do major plays. In 2011, during the Festival of South Asian Literature and the Arts (FSALA), the Group met Mahesh Dattani, the renowned Indian playwright who has an awesome global reputation for writing powerful plays on contemporary issues. The first collaboration between SAWITRI and Dattani was Where There’s a Will. Subsequently, it also staged Seven Steps Around Fire and Dance Like a Man.

Both Nitin and Jasmine take pride in discovering and nurturing talent in different spheres of theatre – from direction to production design and from stage lighting to costumes. Gabriel Grey, Christina Collins, Joe Pagnan are some of the professionals who are regularly involved with SAWITRI productions.

A self-funded entity for most of its existence, the group has managed to get some official grants lately but such grants cover generally about 20 percent of the entire production cost. As a not-for-profit, the group distributes all the extra resources generated amongst the professionals who work to put up the performance.