& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, March 11, 2017

In defence of free speech


There’s a lot of talk these days about the need to separate the idea of free speech from hate speech. Admittedly, the line between the two is often ill-defined and obscure, and while all attempts at hate speech need to be prevented, it is equally important not to put any unnecessary restraints on free speech, especially on any form of artistic expression.
What should be extremely worrisome in this context is the authority that the government automatically assumes in arbitrating on matters of art and taste - matters that are always subjective.

Considering the extremely subjective nature of any artistic endeavour, it is likely, especially in these divisive days, where nearly everything is segregated into ‘us’ and ‘them’, that an expression of art – whether it is a painting or a film or a documentary – may likely offend some sensibilities, even when it appeals to others.
India has a long and sordid history of the ignorant officials interfering in artistic endeavours, especially in the public exhibition of films. In spheres where such control is not possible by the government machinery, ideological vigilantism is encouraged to impose unofficial censorship on art by acts of vandalism and violence.

India has an unsavory history of restricting freedom of expression. From banning of books that narrate blasphemous verses to withholding certification to exhibit films that are perceived to be controversial, and from tearing down paintings that don’t adhere to a specific ideologically-driven belief system, to driving away globally-renowned artists from their homeland to die in an alien land, Indians are intolerant of a contrarian view.


India’s thin-skinned sensitivity to anything that differs from its self-image as the world’s largest democracy and a rapidly-growing economy is legendary and growing exponentially under a regime that views everything from a narrowly defined cultural nationalism.
Anything that portrays the country in any other way is not tolerated. The controversy over Reza Aslan’s documentary on an obscure sect of Hindus that is part of a larger series on Believers on CNN is now the ire of nearly every Indian or person of Indian origin with access to social media. (Read an opinion piece here: Scroll

This is hardly surprising. But what has come as a shock is that such ultra sensitivity is even present in Canada. Recently, Parks Canada did not permit the making of a film (Hard Powder) that depicts an indigenous person as a gang leader.  This, in my view, is political correctness being taken to the extreme. (Read news report here: CBC)
Yes, it is stereotypical to portray indigenous people as criminals, but to me the solution to the ethical dilemma that the tussle between free and hate speech is simple: If something bothers you, don’t see it or read it. There are many who may not be offended by it. And there are many who may be offended by what you find artistically, ideologically or factually inoffensive.  

For governments, the simple path to follow in all such matters should be not to fund anything that may be perceived as hate speech by any (even the minutest) section of the society. It should not be the arbiter of taste, and never assume the power to decide what the people should read and watch.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Terrorist, the Security Guard and the Emergence of a New Voice


The ancient Greeks told us that those whom Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. That may have been true in the ancient times. These days, the Gods turn them into novelists.

Writing a novel for the first time is guaranteed to drive anyone crazy. It was plain stupidity that made me embark upon this misadventure. It all began during the graveyard shifts at a condo in Toronto where I began working as a security guard soon after I immigrated to Canada in 2008. As a security guard, you mostly sit around and do nothing. But doing nothing for prolonged periods of time is boring. I decided to write a short story.
The idea for the story came from my apartment building at Keele and Lawrence, known colloquially as Gujarat Bhawan (Gujarat is a province in India, and Bhawan means a building) amongst the South Asian immigrants of the area. They were like me – qualified, experienced and doing survival jobs. It was entirely conceivable that the absence of tangible success could easily lead them to getting embroiled in unsavoury misadventures.
I began to explore the theme of immigration and linked it to terrorism. My purpose was not to get into a polemical argument. I was keen to explore terrorism’s impact on an immigrant family. Young people make mistakes and sometimes these mistakes drastically alter their lives and the lives of their families. I wanted to understand how a family would cope (or not cope) with a son involved in a terror plot.
I began to write sometime in December 2008 – my first winter in Canada. I showed the story to a resident, who suggested I enter it in a short story competition. That’s when I came across Diaspora Dialogues’ short fiction mentoring program. Diaspora Dialogues promotes diversity in fiction, poetry and drama.
Surprisingly, I was selected and MG Vassanji, one of the finest contemporary novelists in the world, became my mentor. I had the privilege of working with him for three months and the short story was published in Diaspora Dialogues’ TOK 5: Writing the New Toronto in 2010.
I should have stopped here and gone back to living my life.
But no, I decided that my story was good enough to be turned into a novel. I enrolled in to the writing program at Humber School for Writers. Days turned into months and then into years, and I struggled with my manuscript. Whoever claims that writing is fun is a congenital liar. A former good friend advised me to abandon the idea of completing the novel. I almost abandoned him, but continued to work on my manuscript.
Finally, when I could do nothing more to the manuscript, I began to look for agents because I was told that agents could get better deals. I wrote to an agent and she promptly asked me to send the manuscript. I did so and didn’t hear back from her, ever. Then I wrote to another agent. She responded within a day. No, she said, we’re not interested. I gamely struggled for a few more months, and then gave up. The manuscript languished for a couple of years.
Eventually, a friend suggested I send the manuscript to Mawenzi House. I was reluctant considering MG Vassanji had mentored me and Nurjehan Aziz, the publisher of Mawenzi House, is MG Vassanji’s wife. The friend assured me that the publishing house would take a professional decision. With some trepidation, I sent my manuscript.
It was accepted.
A process that had started soon after I landed in Canada came to fruition in September 2016 when the novel was finally published. It looked stunning. The cover image is a self-portrait by Charles Patcher, the renowned Canadian artist. Many of my friends, members of my family, total strangers have helped me in the writing this novel, some by evaluating the manuscript critically, others by providing me with the right passage from the Qur’an, some others by providing legal background.
As I was busy informing my friends and acquaintances of my novel, I heard back from Antanas Sileika of the Humber School for Writers. He said he had read a review in Quill and Quire. I rushed to the nearest bookshop to buy the magazine. It was a brief but good review. I’m not sure how well or badly the book will do. But its publication and a good review are more than I ever imagined for it.
In mid-November, I read from the published book at the condo where I worked as a security guard, and where I first began writing the novel. It was one the most exhilarating moments of my life.
That Sunday afternoon, many residents who had helped a security guard and his family settle in Canada were eagerly listening to an author talk about his experiences. This was overwhelming, and every bit worth the effort.

Published in the Winter 2017 issue of Write - the magazine of The Writers' Union of Canada

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Jawaid Danish wins the prestigious Ghalib Award

Jawaid Danish with the Ghalib Award
Jawaid Danish is a celebrated playwright in Urdu who has pioneered the portrayal of the problems and pleasures of the diaspora in his plays. Recently, he was awarded the prestigious Ghalib Award by the Ghalib Institute Delhi, a Government of India undertaking for his path-breaking creativity. GAB has a freewheeling chat with Jawaid

Q. Congratulations on the latest award. You seem to have made a habit of winning awards with a monotonous regularity. Please give more details about the award.

A. I’m flattered and humbled. I’m not in the habit of receiving such international awards.  It’s a pleasant surprise to receive the prestigious Ghalib Award for Drama – 2016.

Good heavens! It’s taken over 45 years for my plays to be considered worthy of such awards! Just kidding.

I was invited for the Sadaf International Award for Drama 2016 in Doha Qatar, recently, and while I was travelling with my Datangoi performances across the Middle East, I got this news while we were in Jeddah that I was being honoured with the Ghalib Award. The Doha award was for ₹100,000, and the Ghalib award for ₹75,000, I’ll definitely cherish the Ghalib award because of its historical significance.

Let me give some background about the Ghalib Awards. The Ghalib Institute was established in New Delhi in 1971 by the then President Fakruddin Ali Ahmed. It’s a fitting memorial to Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib. It’s managed by a Trust. The Drama Awards (along with other categories) were launched in 1973, with the purpose of promoting Urdu drama and literature. Among the award winners have been stalwarts of Indian Urdu drama and literature such as Ismat Chughtai, Habib Tanvir, Sheela Bhatia, Kartar Singh Duggal, Mohammed Hasan, A.R. Kardar, Rajinder Singh Bedi. I’m honoured and humbled to be in such august company.

Q. You have pioneered diasporic writing in Urdu in Canada. Your stories and plays are different from other writers in Urdu because you focus on the lives of immigrants in Canada. What motivates you to write about immigrants?

A.  My diasporic plays, or as they’re better known as Mahjari drama in Urdu, are different from the creations of other diaspora writers. The difference is that my plays are diasporic in theme and content, they talk about Canada and immigrant Canadians. There is not a single book of diasporic dramas or for that matter any other Indian language besides English at least in Canada, and perhaps anywhere in the West. Yes, there’s poetry, fiction, novel, but no plays on the problems and pleasures of immigrants.

As an immigrant myself, I’m especially interested in the lives of immigrants. I believe that unless you as a creative person have not experience through the cultural, emotional and psychological turmoil and tested yourself, you cannot write on immigrant issues with any empathy. There are better and mature plays written in most of the languages including Urdu in India, but none of them captures issues we face in everyday life as immigrants. It’s a different world, completely different experience.

Q. Which of your creations will withstand the test of time, and why?

A. I have 12 published Books to my credit, but I believe my collection Hijrat Ke Tamashey (Plays of Migrations) will stand the test of time.  It’s 26 years since the first edition was published, and up to now it has gone into reprint three times and the fourth edition is coming out next month.

The play is important because it was the first play of its kind, dealing with the life of immigrants. Prior to that, there were no plays on this subject in Urdu. A Bengali version, titled Bhopa has been published twice. Many of the plays in that collection have been translated into Hindi, English and Swedish. 

It’s received numerous awards; an M. Phil was done on the play by a student of Urdu literature at the Delhi University in 2013. A 13-episode serial was produced by Omni TV during 2007, which has had five reruns so far; it’s also been dubbed in English, too.  A telefilm Bara Shayer Chota Admi was produced with local artists in Toronto in 2013; it’s a controversial play from this book. 

My theatre group Rangmanch Canada has been active in organising an annual Hindustani Drama Festivals, showcasing the rich heritage of Indian Theatre, with multilingual drama presentations (not just in Urdu). I’m bridging the language barrier and bringing communities together.

Jawaid performing Dastangoi
Q. You brought Dastangoi to Canada and toured with it to the Middle East recently. Explain what this verbal narrative form and what does it seek to achieve?

A. I love challenges, I always try to do something different, some venture which is not been tested in Canada before.

Dastangoi is my new found love, It’s a Persian word, dastan mean tales and goi, is to tell a tale. It’s a 16th century Urdu oral storytelling art form.  One of the earliest references in print to Dastangoi is a 19th-century text containing 46 volumes of the adventures of Amir Hamza, titles Dastan e Amir Hamza. This art form reached its zenith in the 19th century, but it’s said to have died with the demise of Mir Baqar Ali in 1928.

Shamsur Rahman Faroqi revived it in the 21st century.  In recent years, it became popular in India, especially Delhi with Mahmood Faroqi and many others, with new tales and subjects.

I took the challenge of reviving this forgotten art form in Canada but wove the tales of our immigrant experiences.

The format style and dress code remain the same traditional 16th century, but the tales I’m telling are of present day immigrant life, problems and pleasures. It’s unique because I’m telling the story of five different characters, with five different dictions and dialects; it’s called Boli tholi in brij bhasha and Hindustani.  This form needs a captivating voice, and I use it to my full satisfaction. I’m confident that my audiences in Canada and overseas will remember 'Dastan Hijraton Ki’ for a long time.

Q.  Who among your contemporaries do you consider as writers of calibre in Urdu language?

A. We have some celebrated Urdu writers in Canada, but in my field (playwright) there is no contemporary. The stage of Urdu drama is vacant. We often have some Urdu plays staged, some are a comedy and some commercial plays, but the question is there is no published collection of Urdu drama in Canada.