Monday, March 30, 2009
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
The most poignant moment in Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family is when he finally gets hold of the photograph of his parents taken when they were on their honeymoon. Instead of having regular, posed photographs taken the couple indulges in horseplay and prefers the unconventional.
Ondaatje writes, “They both begin to make hideous faces. My father’s pupils droop to the south-west corner of his sockets. His jaw falls and resettles into a groan that is half idiot, half shock…My mother…has twisted her lovely features and stuck out her jaw and upper lip so that her profile is in the posture of a monkey…On the back my father has written “What we think of married life.”
By itself this would be mildly interesting and unusual, considering that such a photograph was taken in 1932, when the tendency was to take posed pictures. What makes it a shatteringly vivid memory for the writer is that, “It is the only photograph I have found of the two of them together.” (See photograph).
Despite the fact that his parents fought bitterly and divorced after 14 years of marriage, Ondaatje, who was very young when that incident happened, is forced to remember them forever at a time when they were enjoying their lives together like never before and never after.
Running in the Family is an unusual book and difficult to slot into any genre.
- It’s a compelling and unstructured ensemble of fact, fiction, poetry, oral history, photographs and fading memories.
- It’s a reconstructed biography of his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, half-sisters; and, of course, about himself.
- It’s a potent brew of stories, incidents, accidents, despicable drunkenness, honourable sacrifices, loneliness and togetherness, falling in love and falling out of love, cruelty, destiny, fate and faith.
- It’s the story of every family that is never told and that is because most families don’t have an Ondaatje to record it.
- It’s replete with sensuous poetry. Sample this:
I want no other life
and turn around
to the sky
and everywhere below
jungle, waves of heat
Holding the new flowers
a circle of
first finger and thumb
which is a window
to your breast
pleasure of the skin
of the belly
In her afterword to the book Nicole Brossard aptly remarks: “Most often writers lose patience with their families, but Ondaatje dances with his…”
Ondaatje left Sri Lanka when he was 11 and returned twice for brief visits in 1978 and 1980 to the , the mystifying land that Ceylon was before 1983 when its peace was shattered forever as the Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils began a civil war that has spilled over to even reach downtown Toronto.
He returned to his homeland to reconstruct his own history and the only way in which he could do that was to reconfigure the stories of his family especially his mother and father. Actually, not so much the mother as the father; Ondaatje writes, “Words such as love, passion, duty, are so continually used they grow to have no meaning – except as coins or weapons. Hard language softens. I never knew what my father felt of these “things.” My loss was that I never spoke to him as an adult. Was he locked in the ceremony of being “a father”? He died before I even thought of such things.”
The book is lyrical, captivating and yet in a very specific way, enervating. It leaves one mysteriously sad for the writer.
This is the first Ondaatje book that I’ve read. People who’ve read more than one Ondaatje tell me that his best is English Patient.
Images: Michael Ondaatje's photograph: http://www.smh.com.au/news/books/michael-ondaatjes-neverending-story/2007/05/03/1177788276873.html
Mervyn & Doris Ondaatje's photograph scanned from Running in the Family
Saturday, March 21, 2009
The journey was impromptu – as most things are in my family. We decided to take the Via Train because Che was keen to go by train. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an Amtrack train and Che was distinctly displeased because it, as he said, looked like Mumbai’s local trains from outside.
The journey wasn’t too long – just a little over an hour-and-a-half. Then a quick taxi ride and we were at the falls.
I had expected many people. Any tourist place in India would have at least a few hundred thousand tourists from both across India and across the world. At Niagara, there weren’t. Half the shops at the shopping mall near the falls were closed. The reason: It was bitterly cold even though March 20 was the first official day of spring.
The first impression I got of Niagara at the railroad station was that I was in a small town in Uttar Pradesh. Mahrukh felt the station resembled Lucknow railway station; except that there weren’t any people present. Lucknow's railway station is grand.
Niagara's railroad station, I felt, resembled Bahedi, a small town on the foothills of Nainital that I visited twice in the early 1980s when I was trying to fulfill my father’s unfulfilled ambition of becoming a chartered accountant.
Thankfully, after a few years I gave up trying to do something I didn’t want to, and to his credit, Meghnad supported me wholeheartedly as I became a journalist.
I’m sure Bahedi must be a much bigger and bustling town today. But in the early 1980s it was a sleepy one-train town that probably grew near a sugar factory.
Sorry for that digression. I'm getting old and I reminiscence more than I should.
The falls are the force and fury of nature in all its untamed violence. We had seen nothing like this before.
The closest that I can think of are the the Dhaundhar falls on the Narmada. Mahrukh quickly pointed out that I was merely being India-obsessed and not real. She’s right. Niagara is incomparably amazing.
You’ve seen the video along with this blog entry. Even in an amateur video the magnificence of the fall is all too evident.
Then we sat in a 50-meter high Ferris wheel, which got Mahrukh all excited and then we went a few miles out of Niagara Falls into the US territory – not crossing the border – but the cell phone service switched over to the US and reached the butterfly conservatory.
I’ve already put some of the photographs on the blog (the right panel). This was an unexpectedly wonderous experience. Tropical butterflies from across the world in a climate-controlled transparent dome - a sort of a hothouse.
Our barometer of whether a place is good or not is how Che reacts to the place; and after initial diffidence, he got involved and loved every moment we were there.
A cab driver – from Newfoundland – took us to the conservatory and brought us back to the railroad station. He found my fascination for our apartment at the intersection of two of Toronto’s busiest streets – Keele and Lawrence Avenue West – quite odd. That's not surprising. Most Canadians prefer quieter areas to live.
We spoke about the Sikorsky helicopter tragedy last week that killed 18 Newfoundlanders.
The return journey was also by Amtrack. We’re already planning a trip to Montreal. Che says Amtrack can’t be going there! He’s keen we do the Toronto-Vancouver trip. Maybe in a couple of years.
Friday, March 20, 2009
Every time I visit the Toronto Public Library I manage to get something new in the graphic novel genre.
I had no prior knowledge of the enormous reputation that Tezuka enjoys. He’s known as the father of Manga.
Tezuka’s MW is a gothic novel, extremely disturbing because it portrays extreme evil. It’s been a long time since I encountered a character that is so completely evil in a work of fiction. Somehow the notion of evil in fiction seems rather antedulivian if not completely anachronistic. And while the graphics were fantastic, somehow I didn’t quite enjoy the book. I mean, homosexual Catholic priests may have been shocking in the 1970s (actually not even then), but seem so passé now.
But it would be inappropriate for me to judge Tezuka based on reading just one book.
Modan’s Exit Wounds:
My interest in Exit Wounds was heightened because it’s based in Tel Aviv. Modan’s an Israeli graphic novelist.
Modan’s Exit Wounds is an evocative book. The drawing is simple – reminds one of a Tintin comic book. The storyline is simple, and the characters are contemporary and believable, except perhaps the cab driver’s father. My only problem with that character is not that he’s hidden from the reader even after the story ends, but with his inexplicable and at time completely unnecessary dalliances, and then his equally sudden and inexplicable marriage to a deeply religious woman.
I feel kind of sorry that I’ve been introduced to the graphic novel so late. Actually, I knew of its existence through (and I’ve said this before) the Lounge – the weekend edition of Mint. However, I never really got down to reading a graphic novel because I always thought that they weren’t anything more than a glorified version of a comic book; which they are and aren’t.
The other reason was that in Mumbai I wasn’t an active member of any library for the last decade or so – although I doubt if any of the libraries would have graphic novels.
Yes, I bought books in Mumbai regularly, but these were non-fiction. The transformation after immigrating to Toronto is that I’ve gone back to borrowing books and reading fiction actively.
I can’t afford to buy books right now and besides the Toronto public library there are so many people more than willing to lend books.
Exit Wounds panel: http://forbiddenplanet.co.uk/blog/?m=200712
Osama Tezuka portrait: http://www.japanese-arts.net/comics/comics_tezuka.htm
Last week I went to the Yorkdale Adult Learning Centre. It turned out to be a high school; predominated by African-Canadian children. On my way out, after my appointment, I glanced upon a sheet of poem that was probably meant for the school children, and though it must have been written in an altogether different social milieu, to me it was sort of a reflection of the matriarchy that the African-Canadian (or for that matter African-American or African-Caribbean society) has become.
The poem Mother to Son is by Langston Hughes
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t’ you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now –
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s been a rather busy period lately and I haven’t really found time to do any originally writing for the blog. The piece on Margaret Atwood that’s been on for a week is actually a class assignment for Joyce Wayne.
For sure, none of us who are in the Canadian journalism program would have found the time or taken the effort to read Canadian literature on our own. In a couple of months Joyce's made us not only aware of a whole new genre in English literature, she's made it mandatory we read and write about it rather extensively. It’s quite interesting.
I'm reading Michael Ondaatji's Running in the family right now. It's lyrical. More about the book later.
But I began talking about being busy. The thing with being busy is that you lose track of what you had planned to do, and move on to doing other things. I had planned a long time ago to write about Edgar Allan Poe. His 200th birth anniversary was celerbated earlier this year in January, but unlike with Lincoln and Darwin – their bicentennial created quite a stir, what with New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik publishing a book of short biographies on them - Poe's remained largely unnoticed.
I’d think Poe’s contribution to the development of modernism is as important as that of Lincoln and Darwin. Would it be wrong to attribute a large part of Dark Knight’s mind-numbing success to the fact that we began to love the genre created to a lrage extent by Poe?
During the last three months I’ve been trying to find on the net one of Poe’s short story that I had read many years ago in a collection of American short stories of the 19th century.
The story was about a man who terrorized his family all his life. But as he grows old, a strange sort of disease afflicts him, as he begins to lose his hearing and goes stone deaf.
In a role reversal, now the son-in-law and the daughter begin to ill-treat the old man as they assume that he’s going to die anytime soon. And then, he waxes his ears it is assumed that the old man is on his deathbed.
Then one day he cleans the wax in his ears and is as good as new. He’s back to his old, imperious ways.
I think the story was called Wax. I’ve looked for it everywhere on the net and haven’t been able to find it. I even wrote to one of the innumerable Poe societies, but they must have been all busy with the bicentennial, and nobody responded.
Another story that I haven’t been able to locate on the net is Boccacio’s short story of a debauched priest who seduces a young virgin (almost too young and the priest seems a pedophile) for many years. As the girl grows up into a fine young woman and the priest grows old, he’s unable to satisfy her, and brings ruin upon himself.
If anyone of you can get hold of these stories, please do read them.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
- The first phase is from 1961-1968 where Canadian landscape, exploration of the self and the craft predominate.
- The second phase is from early the 1970s to the 1980s when Atwood defines Canadian literature for Canada and the world.
- The third phase is from the 1980s to mid-1990s when Atwood the activist is redefining the world to Canada,
- In the last phase, we are witnessing the emergence of Atwood as a national icon.
order in a bland madness of snows.
on my electric typewriter
speaking of peaceful trees
of the door but of the door
opening; sometimes, no matter
how hard he tries
his children are not there
(11) Margaret Atwood: Waterstone’e Poetry Lecture. Delivered at Hay on Wye. Wales, June 1995
Friday, March 06, 2009
Images created on photoshop by Mayank Bhatt using photographs from the following sources:
Lillan Allen: http://swaymag.ca/spring2008/people11.php
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha:http://www.sepiamutiny.com/sepia/archives/003326.html
Glen Downie: http://www.torontopubliclibrary.ca/pro_tba_events.jsp
Robert Rotenberg: http://www.thrillerwriters.org/admin/mt-search.cgi?IncludeBlogs=17&search=Robert+Rotenberg
* demisemiseptcentennial means 175th anniversary. I didn’t know the word existed till Toronto Star used it a couple of days ago to list 175 likeable things about Toronto
We are Toronto,
– captured the true essence of the city that’s becoming my own.
This was the first literary event I attended in Toronto. Mahrukh was with me; that was a first, too.
The event was almost what I expected it to be – subdued; and had it not been for the cracker of a poet – Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha – it would have been a good literary event. Leah Lakshmi turned it into an exceptional one.
Allen’s poem was geographical, lyrical. To her the city is diverse, alive, inverse; a city in heat with a three-million sided heart. Leah Lakshmi’s poems were demographical, pithy, violent, in-your-face and shorn of all niceties. They made you laugh – uncomfortably because they seared your soul.
Leah’s poems were more appealing to me because they described my own situation. She used a term – tired brown smile – that, I think, sums up the totality of existence of all the visibility minorities in this city that is supposed to be the multicultural melting pot, but is so only in belief.
Let there be cows
beneath the CN Tower
Downie explained that the image of cows roaming at will in Toronto would be completely antithetical to the orderly and disciplined regimen of downtown Toronto. Downie’s purpose is to disturb the entrenched mores of social tolerance. Cows roaming around would – if nothing else – unsettle urban life so comprehensively as to make it unrecognizable.
Having arrived from Mumbai less than a year ago, I’m not quite sure I understand or agree with the imagery. Cows roam the streets of Mumbai at will. Yet, downtown Mumbai is as soulless as downtown Toronto, and people as mechanical and false as anywhere else.
Robert Rotenberg read the first, tightly-written chapter from his just-published book – Old City Hall for the final session of the event. Again, the scenario he depicted – of the 74-year-old immigrant from India, delivering newspapers at a condominium, being greeted by the night shift concierge and then having a daily conversation with one of the residents of the condo – is straight out of my life.
Also, I'd imagine, out of the lives of hundreds of thousands of immigrants.
Cynthia Good, director of the Creative Book Publishing program at Humber College in Toronto hosted the event. Diaspora Dialogues was associated with the event.
Not surprisingly, the audience comprised almost exclusively Caucasian Canadians. There were just three others.
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
Monday, March 02, 2009
Ides of March is March 15.
According to Borgna Brunner, Editorial Director, Information Please at Pearson Education, “The term Ides comes from the earliest Roman calendar, which is said to have been devised by Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome…the Roman calendar organized its months around three days, each of which served as a reference point for counting the other days: Kalends (1st day of the month), Nones (the 7th day in March, May, July, and October; the 5th in the other months), Ides (the 15th day in March, May, July, and October; the 13th in the other months), The remaining, unnamed days of the month were identified by counting backwards from the Kalends, Nones, or the Ides.” (Source: Infoplease)
Wikipedia, the most ubiquitous – if not the most authoritative – source on everything, states, “The term Ides of March is best known as the date that Julius Caesar was assassinated, in 44 BC, the story of which was famously dramatised in William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar.
It adds, “Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC, after declaring himself dictator of Rome, for life. According to a near-contemporary biographer, Caesar summoned the Senate to meet in the Theatre of Pompey on the Ides of March. A certain soothsayer warned Caesar to be on his guard against a great peril on the day of the month of March which the Romans call the Ides; and when the day had come and Caesar was on his way to the senate-house, he greeted the seer with a jest and said: "The Ides of March has come," and the seer said to him softly: "Aye, Caesar, but not gone."
“As the Senate convened, Caesar was attacked and stabbed to death by a group of senators who called themselves the Liberatores ("Liberators"); they justified their action on the grounds that they committed tyrannicide and were preserving the Republic from Caesar's alleged monarchical ambitions."(Painting)
An amazing factoid that I discovered serendipitously on a BBC website is that it was on this day (March 15) in 1876 test cricket was born.If you have time and internet, scholarship's seemingly a piece of cake!