& occasionally about other things, too...

Friday, February 27, 2009

Fun Home




Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is a classic graphic novel that marries memoir to the comic book. It’s a complex story told simply. Behind the simplicity is the evident hard work. The drawings are seemingly functional, but extremely nuanced. The script is simple, too, except for a few stumbling words that require a dictionary. Together, the words and the pictures create a world of characters and places that is at once warm yet distant, especially the characters.  

The book is about the difficult relationship between the writer and her father. She grows up in a family home that is a relic of a past that never was. It’s the father’s obsession. He spends most of his time decorating their home with Victorian furniture and knick-knacks. 

He runs a funeral service – which gives the book its title Fun Home. But there’s no fun at home. If all post-modern families are afflicted with the disease of being dysfunctional, the Bechdel household is more acutely dysfunctional than most. She explains: “We ate together, but otherwise were absorbed in our separate pursuits.”

Unfortunately, her father dies in a hit and run accident soon after she confesses to her parents about her sexual preference. The writer thinks he’s committed suicide because of her confession of sharing his sexual orientation. There isn’t much about the mother, but that’s because she’s the strong one. She knows of her husband’s predilection, and decides she won’t let it affect her failed marriage.

The book’s drawings are in all blue-tinged and create some sort of gloom, which may perhaps not be intended. The writer’s erudition and the keen attention to detail in the drawings are really the hallmark of the book. Some of the drawings are almost pornographic but are not out of place. I found the book deeply unsettling and disturbing.

If you haven’t yet read a graphic novel, this is the one to start with. It’s brilliant. Published in 2006, it created major waves in the publishing world and was Time’s book of the year in 2006. Lev Grossman and Richard Lacayo, writing about the book in Time, opined, “The unlikeliest literary success of 2006 is a stunning memoir about a girl growing up in a small town with her cryptic, perfectionist dad and slowly realizing that a) she is gay and b) he is too.”

They continue, “Oh, and it’s a comic book: Bechdel’s breathtakingly smart commentary duets with eloquent line drawings. Forget about genre and sexual orientation: this is a masterpiece about two people who live in the same house but different worlds, and their mysterious debts to each other.”   

Alison Bechdel’s self-portrait is from: http://www.entrecomics.com/?p=18368

Fun Home panel drawing is from http://creativedestruction.wordpress.com/2006/12/20/bechdels-fun-home-is-time-magazines-book-of-the-year/

Library – past & present

One of the best things about our Toronto home is that it’s walking distance from the Amesbury Park branch of the Toronto Public Library (photograph). Public libraries are a new concept for me. I wasn’t aware of their existence in Toronto before I came here. 

The best part: Membership is free for a Torontonian.

I was at the library today with Mahrukh and requested for The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood (edited by Carol Ann Howells). I didn’t know of the book. The librarian at the helpdesk helped me make the choice. I just told her that I need a book on Atwood (not by Atwood) for writing a paper in March.

The librarian was polite, attentive and helpful. I don’t recollect having had such an experience in Mumbai. I’m not suggesting that the librarians in Toronto are better informed about books than their counterparts in Mumbai. It's just that they have better resources at their disposal, and they are willing to help.

In Mumbai during the 1980s, I was a member of several libraries and had the time to visit them all. The only library where the person behind the counter tried to guide me was at the Lokmanya Seva Sangh library in Vile Parle East (its website is under construction. The URL is: www.lssparle.org.in/. I haven’t been to that library since the mid-1980s, so my impressions may not be relevant about its state at present.

In those days, there were a few individuals at the Lokmanya Seva Sangh library who had taken the trouble to stock that library with an amazing range of books. There’s certainly something about the generation of Marathi-speaking people who are now past 60; some of them are true renaissance men (and women) in the sense that they aspire to acquire truly holistic (as opposed to specific) knowledge. The depth and range of their interest is staggering.

One such gentleman – unfortunately I forget his name – guided me to classics such as Tin Drum (Gunter Grass), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez), Lord of the Flies (William Golding). And not all of these books were with that library at that time. I read Marquez and Golding, but couldn't read the Tin Drum. 

Let’s get back to my library on the Lawrence Avenue West. It’s an impressive structure, with glass-covered roof that lets in day light. It has a small reading-room on the north and the south end, and has rows of books, magazines, movies, documentaries and what-have-you.

One section is reserved for what graphic novels. The first time I had read about graphic novels was in Lounge, the newspaper Mint’s brilliant weekend edition. I was under the (erroneous) impression that graphic novel was just a high-falutin’ rechristening of the comic book. So, when I first saw the graphic books section at my library I was not too keen. Most of the books were definitely no more than comics – they were just better designed and the visuals were stunning. But not for me.

However, in the adult graphic novels section I chanced upon a classic: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. My next blog is on this absolutely brilliant graphic novel.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Slumdog's top dog

This is truly a proud moment to be a Mumbaiite. I'm no longer a Mumbaiite, but am quite happy with Slumdog's near-clean sweep at Oscars Sunday evening.

Mumbai is the backdrop to Slumdog Millionaire, the movie that made history yesterday winning eight Oscars. Mumbai’s Dharavi and the Victoria Terminus (now known as Chhatrpati Shivaji Terminus) are almost as important a role as the characters of the movie.

The movie isn’t just about poverty and deprivation. It’s a love story; and it’s about hope. Jamal and Latika finally live happily ever after! As in any true Mumbai Hindi movie.

The world's finally getting it.

Mumbai's called a city of hope for this reason. It's the classic Pandora's Box story: All the diseases are out there, but there's hope (always) still in the box. That makes the city so unique.

I haven’t quite understood the controversy that the movie has created in India. But I recall that even Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi the only other Hollywood Oscar winner with an India connection (it stormed the Oscars in 1982 and put Spielberg’s ET and Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie out on a limb) had faced far serious problems, with activist groups even staging protests against its filming.

Let’s for the moment put aside that issue and rejoice that a formulaic and archetypal masala movie – made in the true Hindi movie format – has won so handsomely at the Oscars. As the Toronto Star reported Monday, “Bollywood stormed Hollywood last night, as Slumdog Millionaire completed the final chapter of its rags-to-riches story at the 81st annual Academy Awards.”

Just as many Indians do, I find the use of the word Bollywood to describe the Hindi film industry (based almost exclusively in Mumbai) rather disparaging and one that puts the industry firmly into the wannabe category, which it certainly isn’t. But Toronto Star isn’t expected to share such sensibilities, especially not when almost everyone – but for a small minority – refers to it as Bollywood.

See the movie if you haven't yet. It'll inspire you. And you'll get to know my former home first hand.


Friday, February 20, 2009

Premchand & Manto


I was at a meeting earlier this week, where one of the topics discussed was the several languages of the South Asia. Hindi and Urdu are the main (and official) languages of India and Pakistan.
Shorn of the excesses of linguistic Puritanism and zeal on part of the establishments in India and Pakistan to distinguish the languages (and force officialese on the people), there really isn’t any substantial difference between the two. The word Hindustani captures the true essence of how hundreds of millions of people speak Hindi and Urdu language in large swathes of South Asia.

Munshi Premchand (1880-1936) and Sadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) wrote in Hindustani. Manto used the Urdu script. Premchand alternated between Hindi and Urdu. I don’t know whether they ever met. I would imagine they must have met considering they were contemporaries and both wrote in Urdu. Both were tremendously influenced – their works indicate this in ample measures – by humanism. Both were overtly political but used literature to voice their views.
Not for them the empty rhetoric of form versus content or the argument of whether art should be for art sake or should art be a catalyst for socio-political change. They were firmly believed in using art as means to highlight the ills in the society they lived in. Both were briefly involved with the Hindi film industry as writers.

It’s perhaps my misfortune that I’ve read both only in English translations. I can’t read Urdu, and though I can read Hindi, I prefer to read fiction in English; I guess that’s because of habit and nothing else. I have read Premchand’s Godaan and a few short stories by Manto’s – Toba Tek Singh, Thanda Gohst (Cold Meat), among others.

Manto immigrated to Pakistan after the Partition of the subcontinent, and died soon thereafter. But before his premature death – triggered I think by the acute depression caused because he had to leave Bombay – created masterpieces of prose form.

Toba Tek Singh is one of them. I’m no literary expert, but I can’t think of too many parallels in world literature that can match Toba Tek Singh’s stark brutality. It evocatively depicts the lunacy of the Partition of the subcontinent through the experiences of the lunatic Toba Tek Singh.

This is how the story ends: “After fifteen years on his feet, he was lying face down on the ground. India was on one side, behind a barbed wire fence. Pakistan was on the other side, behind another fence. Toba Tek Singh lay in the middle, on a piece of land that had no name.” (Translated from Urdu by Richard McGill Murphy, available at the Words without Borders website: http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article.php?lab=toba

Premchand is said to have brought realism to Indian literature. Godaan’s simplicity hides the inherently unjust nature of the traditional Indian society. For a scholarly exposition on the novel, please take a look at the Literature section of Indianetzone website. The URL is: http://society.indianetzone.com/literature/1/godan.htm. The anonymous author of this piece emphasizes the new introduction to the book by Vasudha Dalmia.

Dalmia’s introduction to Godaan states: “Premchand presented in his fiction an understanding of the social reality decades before academic scholarship could “squarely face it”. She suggests the use of some essays from the volume of Subaltern Studies published in the early eighties for a greater comprehension of Godaan through political and social history of Awadh.”

Premchand’s international fame is also because the foremost Indian film-maker Satyajit Ray turned two of Premchand’s works – Sadgati and Shatranj Ke Khiladi (The Chess Players) – into memorable movies. Also, several short stories of Premchand (most memorable of these was, undoubtedly Kafan) have been turned into television films by Doordarshan. Also, while researching about Premchand on the internet, I discovered an absolutely amazing blog called Munshi Premchand’s Stories.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Partition Literature & KGAF

Though it’s been just slightly over six months since I left Mumbai, it does seem a lot. It’s not that I miss Mumbai much. I certainly don’t miss the chaos. It’s freezing cold in Toronto most of the time. But there’s order. I don’t have to sit in an autorickshaw for hours in the midst of rising automobile exhaust fumes just to reach home after work.

The subway in Toronto is crowded sometimes, but never as much as Mumbai’s suburban trains. And, commuting to Oakville in the Go Trains is such a pleasure. I guess, after a few years, when the novelty of it all dies down, all these activities will become a drag and full of drudgery. But till then, I’d rather be in Toronto than in Mumbai.

I received an e-mail message last week from Anju Makhija, a prominent Mumbai poet and writer. I don’t know here, but attended a scintillating session of discussion on Partition literature in which she was a participant. That was during the Kala Ghoda Art Festival in 2008.

The Kala Ghoda festival is on right now. Over the last few years it has developed into a major event in Mumbai. I miss being in Mumbai because instead of participating in the Kala Ghoda festival – as a spectator – I’m reading about it in on the Kala Ghoda Gazette – the festival’s official blog.

Last year, one of the highlights of the festival was the panel discussion on Partition Narratives. I attended the session primarily because Alok Bhalla (photograph) was to be one of the participants. He did not make it because of some delay. The session, even without him, turned out to be – as I said earlier -- scintillating. If you’re interested in reading my report on it, click here.

Alok Bhalla is an academic. He has published extensively on translation theory, literature, and politics. I haven’t read anything by him except his Stories about the Partition of India. Partition literature is so vast, diverse and multilingual that it becomes difficult for a lay reader to come to grips with the enormity of the subject. Also, it is impossible to get good translations of these works in English.

Bhalla’s one volume paperback has the best short stories from almost all major languages of South Asia in which most of the Partition Literature was (and is being) written: Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, and includes works of writers from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. In fact, this book even has a short story originally written in Malayalam – a language not usually associated with Partition literature.

Bhalla’s book as the two best known classics of Partition literature:  Sadat Hasan Manto’s Toba Tek Singh and Rajender Singh Bedi’s Lajwanti.  If you want to read just one book on Partition literature, this is the one. Read it to understand the deep and permanent wounds inflicted by the Partition of the subcontinent. A brilliant and in depth review of the book is available at the following URL: http://www.urdustudies.com/pdf/10/27BhallaStories.pdf

An aside: I’m sure all Indians are aware of the Indian crabs’ story. I'm repeating it for those who haven't heard of it. It’s not necessary to close a basket carrying Indian crabs. This is because if one crab tries to get out of the basket, the other crabs will pull it down.  

On the authority of recent experiences in Toronto, we can safely say this is true for the entire subcontinent.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Philosophy is almost always boring especially when it exceeds a few hundred words. I have not been successful in reading books on philosophy because of the dense nature of the subject.

Yes, I have enjoyed reading the history of philosophy, and am particularly fond of Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy. But serious philosophy is an obstacle to reading.

Meghnad forced me (in a friendly sort of way) to read at least one book by the existential philosophers Sartre and Camus. He choose the books for me: Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Camus’s The Outsider (The Stranger). Meghnad’s fascination for the existential was a classic mid-20th century affliction shared by many of his contemporaries.

I found Sartre unbearable, and did not complete Being and Nothingness. Camus was absolutely riveting. The novel begins with a sentence that has is perhaps the most famous line of fiction written in the last century: "Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don't know.” My other favourite line is from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

By the time I began to read books with a greater degree of seriousness, and my aversion to philosophy subsided a bit, I borrowed Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An inquiry into values.

The title of the book is what attracted me to it. As I began to read it, I began to enjoy it. The book works on several levels. The most basic level is of course as a travelogue of the author's 17-day road trip on his motorbike, accompanied by his son. The other (and the more meaningful level) is as a philosophical treatise on quality. Perhaps because I was young when I first read it, or because it was the first such book that I read with interest, I read it twice.

The concept of quality that Phaedrus – the book’s main character – introduces to the reader and analyzed in this book is further developed into a full-fledged theory (Metaphysics of Quality) in the second book Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was first published in 1974. It has become an institution. The Wikipedia site on the book (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zen_and_the_Art_of_Motorcycle_Maintenance) informs me that it was rejected by 121 publishers before it was published. And then went on to become one of the most widely read philosophy book ever.

The reason for its amazing popularity is quite obvious: It’s written in a non-academic, story-telling style. Most serious students of philosophy have found the book seriously wanting in philosophical content, and have found the basic premise of the book questionable if not laughable.

More people from my generation – those in their teens in the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s – have read Pirsig’s book than any other book on philosophy. That perhaps only means that most of those who are middle-aged right now are quite stupid, or that Pirsig had something to offer.

The jury's out on that one.
(Pirsig's illustration is by Siegfried Woldhek and taken from http://woldhek.nl/files/cv-siegfried-oldhek-mrt06.pdf)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Imagining Homelands

For some inexplicable reason I have not yet read anything by Bharati Mukherjee.  It’s one of those things. You want to read the author’s work, but aren’t sure which is the most representative work.

Last week, almost by happenstance, I was introduced by Joyce Wayne (the course coordinator of Sheridan Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning’s Program of Canadian Journalism for Internationally Trained Writers) to Bharati Mukkerjee’s writing through an essay.

The essay Imagining Homelands forms an important part of Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language and Loss, edited by Andre Aciman, an Egyptian-American writer. Other contributors include the redoubtable Edward Said. 

I’m Joyce’s student. As part of my home work, I’ve been asked to write on Mukherjee’s essay. Here’s what I wrote: 

The counselors at the immigration services always say it with passion, and occasionally with unjustifiable conviction: “You have to fit in. Neutralize your accent. Offer a firm handshake. Adopt the Canadian way.”

To most immigrants this is a harangue, a diatribe. Their reaction is a mix of bemusement, anger, exasperation, resignation.

It takes many, long, painful years before the immigrant settles in her new environment. And then again, she almost never does. She continues to remain uncertain, diffident and tenuous, for the rest of her life.

In Imagining Homelands, Bharati Mukherjee suggests that the immigrant is either like her sister, someone who fiercely retains her ethnicity, or like Mukherjee, a global soul of the global village, at home in Brooklyn, New York, as in Park Street, Kolkata.

The reality is slightly different. I don’t think the delineation is so complete. The immigrant is seldom the two separate entities. She is almost always both: The sister, who retains her roots, and Mukherjee, who loses hers. She is embarrassed that her kitchen smells of spices but does not change the way she cooks. She will, on the other hand, change the way she dresses because her sari is impractical in her new environment.

Mukherjee’s categorization is the process of leaving one’s home country and adopting a new country is telling: Expatriation, exile, immigration, and repatriation. Of these categories, it is only the immigrant who is tolerated. The expat doesn’t need the approval of the host. The exile couldn’t care less. The expatriate is always the enemy, often overtly termed so by the establishment.

The immigrant is the most loved because she is willing to be the charwoman. Despite being qualified as a medical librarian. It’s the immigrant who changes herself and yet retains her identity, to ultimately change her new environment.

Mukherjee describes it eloquently:  “The immigrant calls to mind crowded tenements, Ellis Island, sweatshops, accents, strange foods, taxicab drivers, bizarre holidays, strange religions, unseemly ethnic passions.”

While a lot what she describes is relevant to the immigrant, it is mainly applicable to the educated immigrant from a slightly well-heeled background. I wonder – and I may be wrong – on how much of what she writes is really applicable from the Sikh immigrant who comes to Mississauga from the interior Punjab and lives the rest of his life in drudgery of hard labour. He is trapped. He doesn’t have a choice.

For the educated and the well-heeled immigrant, it’s only a matter of time before she succeeds in economically integrating into her new milieu. She may choose not to integrate culturally.

The labourer does not have that choice, ever.