& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Interview with Pratap Reddy - author

Pratap Reddy
Pratap, your first novel Ramya’s Treasure has been published recently by Guernica Editions. You have been working at it for a long time. In fact, if I remember it right, you began the novel even before you began your short story collection, Weather Permitting, which was published in 2016. Why has it taken so long to complete the novel?

Looking back, I can say that I did not work on the project for far too long. I did start the novel a few years ago, that’s true. It was when I was encountering obstacles in finding a publisher for my first book “Weather Permitting”, a collection of stories; I was being told time and again that short stories were difficult to sell. But when Guernica Editions picked up my book, I put my fledgeling novel on the back burner. I resumed work on the unfinished book only after my short story collection was published. The novel got completed in the very same year - 2016. Guernica Editions accepted my second book too, and it has come out in 2018. The interval between the publication of the two books is not unduly long. Even then, one must not lose sight of the fact that I have a full-time day job, and there’s only so much free time I can spare for writing.

You have also told me that Ramya’s Treasure is by far the most ambitious thing you’ve attempted. Please explain what exactly you mean by that.

This is a perfect example of a person’s comment made at an unguarded moment coming back to haunt him! First of all, I am not a writer of long standing – just two books old! It was ambitious insofar as it was longer than anything I had written until then. Secondly, the protagonist in the novel is a middle-aged woman, who has been dealt a bad hand by Fate. I wanted to chronicle her journey from a state of despondency and depression to finding a purpose in life. In hindsight, the subject was quite ambitious for a rookie author!

Although I am yet to read the book, I believe you have attempted parallel narratives that trace Ramya’s life in Canada and in India – that is an unusual and I dare say a difficult device to adapt to narrate a story. Why did you choose this form?

Being a first-generation immigrant, I am conscious of being part of two cultures, two nationalities, etc. So I wanted this to be very much a part of the narrative as well as my heroine’s psyche. Notwithstanding the challenges or the benefits of living in an adopted country offers, I believe that our past plays a part in defining our future. More so in the case of immigrants -- people who have transplanted themselves into another environment. I felt a compelling need to include the often untold backstory of an immigrant.

There are many stories about immigration and settlement, and nearly all of them depict a male perspective. You have chosen to narrate a story from a woman’s perspective. How difficult was that process? Are you satisfied with the result?

I am not fully acquainted with the entire landscape of diaspora literature, yet, it doesn’t surprise me that they are written predominantly from the standpoint of men.
As it happens so often in life, especially in old world countries, most of the major decisions are unilaterally taken by men, but it is left for their womenfolk to bear the brunt. Immigration is no exception.  After arriving in Canada, it is the women who need to adjust more, take on more responsibilities, besides going out to work so that the family can lead a more comfortable life. So, when I chose to write about the life of a vulnerable immigrant, my imagination of its own accord conjured up Ramya – a middle-aged down and out single woman who is attempting to take back control of her life.

Writing about a female character certainly posed a creative challenge; and, from my side, I tried to do my best to make her credible and convincing. But I leave it to the readers, the ultimate judges, to decide whether I have succeeded or not. Going by the initial reaction, especially from women-readers, it appears I have not made too bad a job of it.

Are you working on another book? Would you want to talk about it?

Yes, I have started work on another novel. It is about a young immigrant to Canada who returns to India and observes the changing social, political and economic landscape there. At least that is the basic premise of the novel, though I am not sure what shape it will finally take. Sometimes plots and characters have lives of their own, unrelated to the author’s intentions. I also have a small collection of stories in a slow cooker which needs to be increased to a book-length manuscript.

But, Mayank, I am not giving you any timelines! As an individual, I have many demands made on my time – professional, spousal, parental obligations. In the midst of it all (even while my head is teeming with plots and ideas) I must find the time to write…another book.

Buy Pratap's novel, click here: Ramya's Treasure  

Author's website: Pratap Reddy

Hotel Mumbai

Bombay (Mumbai) will not forget 26 November 2008. Ten jihadis from Pakistan launched an unprecedented attack on the city that lasted for four days. The Lakshar-e-Taiba trained jihadis attacked 12 places, killed 164 and wounded over 300 citizens of the city. Pakistan had once again exposed the utter vulnerability and gross inability of the Indian state to fight terrorism. The November 2008 attack was on a scale similar to the 1993 serial bomb blast masterminded by Bombay’s underworld and supported by Pakistan.

There were innumerable heroes in those four days in November 2008, some like police officers Vijay Salaskar and Hemant Karkare were acknowledged for their bravery (although controversies surround their deaths), many remain unknown, unsung, unremembered except by their families.  

Given its association with Bombay, the Pakistani men who masterminded and controlled the attack focused on the Taj Mahal hotel

The Taj is a popular Bombay landmark, facing the Arabian Sea, located beside the Gateway of India. Jamsetji Tata built it in 1903 because he was not allowed to enter the ‘Whites Only’ Watson’s Hotel. Another wing – the new Taj – as it’s called was built in 1973. Incidentally, the Gateway of India came up nearly a decade later in 1911 to commemorate the arrival of the King and Queen of England to India in 1912.

Four jihadis took charge of the hotel and systematically began to shoot the guests. The Indian and global media descended on Apollo Bunder and gave live coverage to the carnage as it happened. It took nearly two days for the lethargic Indian state to respond to the attack and it was only on the fourth day that it was able to restore order.

It’s nearly a decade since 26/11, and finally, there’s a feature film on the attack on the Taj. Anthony Maras directed Hotel Mumbai is a relentless film. It gives no respite to the viewer from the grim situation inside the hotel that gets progressively worse. Its depiction of the attack is graphic and adopts a documentary/television news format. 

Jointly written by John Collee and Maras, the film depicts the gallant efforts of the hotel’s staff to save the lives of the hotel’s guests. The story centres on a group of about 50 guests who are holed up in the Chambers Lounge of the hotel, where the members of the hotel’s staff try to save them from the four jihadis who have taken control of the hotel.

The four jihadis are Panjabi-speaking young men, sent on a suicide mission with the usual promise of eternal bliss in Paradise. They are constantly brainwashed over their cell phones by their masters in Pakistan into executing orders with coldblooded precision.

One of them, Imran (Amandeep Singh), who shoots all but one hostage, dies disillusioned because he discovers that his masters didn’t keep the promise of paying large sums of money to his family. He doesn’t kill one hostage because she starts reciting the Salah.  

Anupam Kher, who plays the role of the chief chef (Hemant Oberoi) of the hotel, leads the effort in which Dev Patel, who plays the role of a Sikh steward (Arjun), assists him. The other important characters include an interracial family American husband (David – Armie Hammer) and Iranian wife (Zahra – Nazanin Boniadi) with their nanny (Sally – Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who miraculously saves the couple’s baby in the attack. Jason Issacs plays Vasili, a debaucherous Russian intelligence official, who turns into a hero.  (See other credits here: Full Cast & Crew

There are innumerable scenes in the film that are memorable and heart wrenching. Hotel Mumbai is a taut thriller that retains the audience’s interest until it reaches its denouement, even though all that happens is now part of history.

For me, who can’t help but be a Bombayite (or Mumbaikar, if you will), the 2008 attack on Bombay was cathartic. I had left the city forever four months ago to make Toronto my home. My new home had yet to accept me; Mahrukh and I were struggling to make ends meet.

I remember that night in November when I was on m security guard duty at the condo on Heath Street when Howard Karel, a homeowner, came rushing from the gym and said, “Your home is under attack. It’s live on CNN, go see the news.” He offered to wait at the security desk as I rushed down to the gym to watch the news.

We didn’t have a TV at home then but had a discounted subscription to the Toronto Star, which reported the attack. Earlier in November, I’d bought a radio to get the news of the historic Obama election. But both the radio and the newspaper were inadequate. The lack of access to news of such an unprecedented event created a strange vacuum in our lives.  

The absence of steady and detailed news led me to spend hours on the internet, scrounging for information. The attack acquired such significance to our lives then that it found its way into my novel Belief.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Nandita Das’s Manto

Although Saʻādat asan Mano died in 1955, his works retain contemporary relevance because South Asian societies continue to be intolerant, filled with hatred and are as violent today as they were in 1946-47 during the Partition.

Manto has shaped the literary sensibilities of the subcontinent with his stark stories and a nihilistic worldview. He doesn't permit his readers the luxury to judge his characters. He is a humanist who never lets his readers forget that humanity, with all its foibles, is palpably alive, even in characters generally considered unworthy by the society. This is significant because most of his classic stories are about the traumatic period of the subcontinent's history – the Partition – when even the sane turned murderous.

Manto’s life was shortened because of acute depression that stemmed from his displacement and exile. He was a reluctant exile, and never forgot Bombay, the city that made him. His rejection by the Pakistani establishment – political but especially literary – caused resentment and despair and led to alcoholism. But, even while he battled imaginary inner demons and real-life adversaries, he produced literature of high quality that mesmerises and disturbs readers.

In 2012, when Manto’s centenary was celebrated, a surfeit of books and biographies were published. Unquestionably, the best biography was Ayesha Jalal’s The Pity of Partition - Manto's Life, Times and Work Across the India Pakistan Divide. Jalal is a scholar and Manto’s grandniece. I had the good fortune of participating in a talk she gave in Mississauga in 2012 (organised by a number of Urdu organisations) when she spoke about her Manto, her book and narrated stories about Manto’s time in Bombay. 

In an interview given to the Indian media about the biography, Jalal was asked among the contemporary authors who did she consider as good as Manto. Salman Rushdie, she said. I'm certain that many of Manto's and Jalal's admirers would've been displeased by that comparison. 

While Jalal revels in controversies, she is a great narrator. She’d regaled the audience with stories about Manto’s life and friends in Bombay. She narrated the incident of the ride Manto had with actor Ashok Kumar through a Muslim basti in Bombay during a particularly tense pre-partition rioting phase. Manto panicked, but Ashok Kumar reassured him that people loved movie stars; he was right and Manto wrong because the crowd helped them take a safer, shorter route.

Manto’s misunderstanding (it was nothing more) with his friend Shyam, a movie star, led to his leaving Bombay and settling in Lahore, but what is inexplicable is why he didn’t return to India, as Sahir Ludhianvi, Qurratulain Hyder, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, among others, did, when he didn’t find his new home suitable to his temperament. 

Perhaps it was his destiny to die unhappy, unaccepted and unfulfilled. 

The lack of acceptance by his contemporaries in Pakistan must have rankled Manto especially considering his bohemian circle of friends in Bombay. Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai Fables (HarperCollins, 2010) brings to life that grand era in the city’s history, and the life and times of Manto and his group (“By the 1930s, Bombay was the place to be if you were a writer, an artist, or a radical political activist…”).

Manto’s circle of friends included many Progressives, and he shared their sensibilities, but he remained deeply suspicious of their political ideology, to the extent that he parodied them in a short story Taraqquipasand (The Progressives). And while he was able to be sarcastic about them in India and still be friends, in Pakistan, the Progressives isolated him, calling him a reactionary, and the Pakistani state persecuted him for obscenity.

Alok Bhalla edited Stories about the Partition of India (HarperCollins, 1994) has some of Manto's best stories. Bhalla’s translation of Manto stories retains the sting of the original.

Here’s an example


The knife
ripped through the stomach
reached down to the penis
The cord of the pyjama was cut.
The man with the knife
with surprise,
as if he was reading a kalma to ward off evil,
“Chi, chi, chi…I made a mistake.”

Katha published Translating Partition in 2001 which also has a great selection of Manto’s stories and essays (and includes the classic Pandit Manto’s First Letter to Pandit Nehru published on 27 August 1954, five months before his death).

The letter ends with a memorable anecdote.

“You may get the scent of burnt meat in this letter of mine. You know there was a poet in our Kashmir, Ghani, who was well known as “Ghani Kashmiri.” A poet from Iran had come to visit him. The doors of his home were always open. He used to say, “What is there in my house that I should keep the doors locked?

“Well, I keep the doors closed when I am inside the house because I am its only asset.” The poet from Iran left his poetry notebook in the vacant house. One couplet in that notebook was incomplete. He had composed the second line, but could not do the first one. The second line ran thus: “The smell of kebab is wafting from your clothes.” When the Iranian poet returned and looked in his notebook, he found the first line written there, “Has the hand of a blighted soul touched your daaman?”

Nandita Das’s Manto has everything that an average Manto fan knows about the author and has read his stories. By seamlessly fusing important incidents from the author’s life with his best stories, the film is a veritable feast for Manto fans.

This is Das’s second film. Das’s Firaaq was a timely reminder of the atrocities committed on the Muslim minority in Gujarat in 2002. Manto will add to the debate on the rapidly reducing space for free expression of ideas and opinions in India under the Hindutva dispensation.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s portrayal of Manto transforms an ordinary biopic of an important author into a classic film. The actor infuses his performance with such energy that the actor and the character become one. Nawazuddin breathes life and fire into Manto’s explosive anger at the injustice he faces, and his despondency at his inability to get a grip on his life. 

The actor doesn’t need to speak to convey Manto’s determination in battling injustice; his steely glare and his eyes convey that evocatively. In nearly all the scenes with the family, the actor adopts a mildly tremulous tone that depicts uncertainty.

A particularly memorable scene is when Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the doyen of Progressives, rejects the Pakistani establishment’s accusation in the court that Manto’s story is obscene, but adds that it doesn’t qualify as literature either. Manto seethes at this off-the-cuff judgement by a fellow writer, and Nawazuddin conveys this despair with just a flicker of eyes.

The supporting cast, especially Rasika Duggal, who plays Manto’s embittered wife Safia, and Rajshri Deshpande as Ismat Chugtai (Deshpande dazzled recently in Sacred Games) are powerful. There are many cameos by popular and well-known stars such as Rishi Kapoor, Gurdas Mann, Javed Akhtar.

Another remarkable aspect of the film is the authentic depiction of Bombay and Lahore of the mid-twentieth century. During the post-screening interview at Tiff, Das spoke of the hardships she had to face to bring her imagination to life on the screen.

Some scenes are memorable, such as when Shyam and Manto are arguing over the latter’s decision to go to Pakistan, Shyam exclaims, “But are you even a Muslim?” And Manto replies, “(I’m) Enough of a Muslim to be murdered.”

During his persecution by the Pakistani establishment, the police raid Manto’s home to seize all his stories and papers but find nothing. When they ask the author, he bends down to pick up his fallen papers and says, “Bambai mein” (in Bombay).

In another scene when rioting in Bombay has become a norm, Manto begins to don caps and explains to Safia, “When religion goes from the heart to the head, one has to wear caps.”

Manto, the film, as well as Manto’s life, have a special resonance in today’s India when the Indian state is preventing free expression of ideas and speech. Das spoke sharply against the atmosphere of fear that has engulfed India and criticized the recent arrests of human rights activists.  #Tiff18

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Meena Chopra's new creation “SHE! The Restless Streak - Poetry & Art”

Meena Chopra
In her new book of poetry & art “SHE! The Restless Streak” Meena Chopra reveals the vibrant female force in the human element. Usually, an abstract painter and a nature poet Meena’s works in this book are semi-figurative female forms which complement her thematic poems on abstract female energy. 

Her poetry has a unique ethereal quality and powerful story-like imagery which engages the reader to unfold the mystique hidden behind each and every work whether a poem or a painting. The book is both a visual and reader's delight.

The full-colour coffee table edition of the book is being released on Saturday, 22 September, 1:45 pm at Central Library Mississauga along with a thematic art show which started on 7September and will continue till the 29 September 2018. You may find details on the event on the Facebook event page: https://www.facebook.com/events/205179256836573/

New book out 22/09/18
SHE”, the life force, the moving fearless female energy, subconsciously and unknowingly, has always been a predominant part of my art depicting genesis, whether it is in abstract forms, figurative forms or in the forms of verse”, says Meena when asked that what was the reason of picking up this subject.

Lata Pada, with her lifelong in-depth experience on this subject of cosmic feminine energy which is deep-rooted in the Indian Classical dance forms, will extensively be shedding light on the content & theme of the book SHE: The Restless Streak, Poetry & Art by Meena Chopra on the Book Launch/Art Show "SHE! The Restless Streak" Poetry & Art
Lata Pada (The Order of Canada) is the iconic veteran Bharatnatyam dancer, choreographer, artistic director and founder of Sampradaya Dance Creations in Mississauga, Canada.
Lata will reveal and expand on the idea of the dynamic feminine energy prevailing in the universe in its intrinsic metaphorical gear, the very central theme of the “Poetry & Artbook SHE! The Restless Streak” along with its essential role into arts, dance, music, poetry, literature & life at large. She will be doing this both verbally as well as through the rhythm of the classic language of “Abhinaya” ( portrayal through dance gestures and expressions)"
Foreword of this book has been given by world-renowned Canadian Master Artist, Historian and Order of Canada honoree, Charles Pachter. He says “In “SHE! The Restless Streak” Meena Chopra reveals herself to be a true original who combines words and images with grace and dexterity. Her poetry reveals subtle and astute observations of natural phenomena, from microcosmic details to sweeping macrocosmic overviews of human existence. 
Pachter adds, "In her visual metaphors combining the human body with surreal depictions of the human eye, she beckons us to ponder the meaning of life. Through the vortex of space, she draws the eye upward through expressions of monumentality and tonality, the orchestration of colour, and positive and negative balance. The result is shape-shifting, alluring and metaphysically inspiring. Her words and images together are a gift”.
You can find more about the book on Facebook Page: @SheTheRestlessStreak , Book is available on Amazon.
Author and Artist Meena Chopra is an internationally known award-winning poet & visual artist with an unbridled passion for words, space, colours and forms. Born and brought up in Nainital, India now lives in Toronto, Canada. Meena graduated from Isabella Thoburn College Lucknow. Later qualified as a designer from Delhi and then as an Artist Educator from RCM Ontario. 
After having a career as a designer for seven years in the fashion and garment industry in India, later switched to fine arts & writing poetry. She simultaneously operated a business in advertising, marketing and media. She writes poetry both in English and her native language Hindi and has authored two poetry books. 'SHE! The Restless Streak' is her third collection which showcases both her poetry and art. Her poetry has been translated into German and Urdu as well.
Twitter handle: @meenachopra Facebook page:  @meena.chopra.artist Instagram: meena_artist_author_media