& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Elizabeth Stories

The best period of one’s life is from childhood to adolescence. There’s no care in the world, and everything’s just fine. 

As we grow older, we tend to romanticize that period of our lives and create myths and mythologies around that period of our lives to make it seem more interesting than it really was.

This is especially so when we narrate that period of our lives to our children when they are of that age.  Most of the times, the stories that we remember of our childhood are either completely fabricated or at least partially, with the more tantalizing bits either added or deleted from the narrative.

The reality of everyone’s life is never ever as exciting as it is made out to be. Quite often we are just too embarrassed to talk about our childhood because of some deeply disturbing events that may have occurred which we try rather desperately (and unsuccessfully) to hide, even from ourselves.

I just read Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories, which I borrowed from the library at The Village Terraces, the condominium where I did my first job in Canada.

I'm unlikely to return to that place though I’ll certainly return the few books that I have borrowed. 

In addition to some wonderful people that I will sorely miss, and I'm sure they'll miss me, too. I’m also going to miss the library – I wish all condos in the world had such libraries.

Huggan’s book is a thinly veiled autobiography. Her words bring alive the themes of childhood that we all experience only to forget.  Elizabeth’s stories are about her childhood, and Huggan remembers them in excrucating details. They are larger-than-life on occasions and insignificant at times; but always compelling told.  

These are stories that leave us feeling that childhood injustices have no dénouement; they turn into stinging memories that haunt us for the rest of our lives.

Mid-way through the book, you begin to identify with Elizabethh. Whether you’re a man or a woman, as a child growing up you’re bound to have experienced what Elizabeth does. You could’ve grown up in Garten (somewhere in Ontario) or in Pune (in India). We’ve all experienced those little hurts from which we think we will never fully recover, and the little joys that we want to last for a little bit longer.

Elizabeth realizes – or imagines – that her parents are just too embarrassed about her clumsy ways. She says about her father, “I clearly and absolutely saw how much he wanted me to be a son. And what he had was a daughter who wasn’t even very good at being a girl.”  

She never outgrows her separateness from her parents, felt by all children of that age and felt more acutely by Elizabeth. Yet she equally acutely realizes what an odd mixture she is of her parents... “thinking how much I sounded like my father but how like Mavis (her mother) it was to go and lie down. I could never escape them.”

The stories reach out and touch us in an indescribably mellow manner and leave us exulting at having rediscovered something about our own past howsoever mundane it may have been. Elizabeth’s life is all about the plain and ordinary business of growing up.

The three stories that really stand out in the collection are Into the Green Stillness, Sorrows of the Flesh and Secrets. The characters that stand out are Jerry Wheeling, the hyperactive teacher and coach for whom Elizabeth develops a mammoth-sized crush, and who turns out to be a wife-beating misogynist; Esther Bauman, the Mennonite ‘Girl’ who gets so scared when Elizabeth kisses her smack on her lips that she immediately resigns and leaves their home, and of course Mavis – Elizabeth’s mother.

The Elizabeth Stories is a charming book, in a different sort of way; it's not The Wonder Years

Monday, April 20, 2009

Meghnad Bhatt 1935-1997

Last week my sister Sonal called to inform me that some kindred soul had remembered our father Meghnad’s death anniversary and written about his poetry in Divya Bhaskar, an important multi-edition Gujarati language newspaper published in India and North America. She was simultaneously emotional and ecstatic. “I’m happy at least someone has remembered him,” Sonal said without being able to hide her pride.

On checking the web link she sent me, I realized that eminent poet, writer and an institution in Gujarati literature, Dr. Suresh Dalal, had done the write-up.  Dr. Dalal’s contribution in shaping Meghnad’s literary career remains unmatched.

Is it possible to write about your father without becoming sentimental? I don’t think so, and yet it is so important to do so especially when he is someone who led a very public life as Meghnad did.

Meghnad’s is the biggest influence on my life.  Twelve years after his death I find myself to be too small a human being to fill in to his enormously large shoes. He was less of a father and more of a friend.  

In addition to being my father Meghnad was a litterateur, a trade unionist, and lifetime socialist who seared with genuine anger when he encountered injustice, a secular fundamentalist, and an Ambedkarite in an ideological sense of the word.

Meghnad was a Gandhian who loved Jawaharlal Nehru and Ram Manohar Lohia. George Fernandes was his friend, though he would have been hugely disappointed with his friend’s closeness to the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, but would have sympathised with him in his present isolation. He was an avid follower of political trends, but turned a political activist (as many others did) for Fernandes to help in the 1969 general elections that resulted in Fernandes’ historic victory over S. K. Patil.

After many years of “being exploited” he was instrumental in forming a trade union at the Mafatlal Group, where he worked as an accountant for three decades. That singular act of defiance – so uncharacteristic for a middle class clerk with family responsibilities – typifies Meghnad’s values: To remain committed to one’s beliefs even if it meant a lifetime of struggle and unfulfilled desires.


His radicalism was not just meant for the newspapers (Janmabhoomi Pravasi) where he wrote angry columns at the injustices prevailing in the society. It also got translated into his trade union work. I remember one day late in the evening when he returned home and told his stunned family that one of the Mafatlal brothers had warned him at a meeting, “Mr. Bhatt, I’ll have you arrested under MISA.” This was in the heydays of the infamous Emergency.

Above all else, Meghnad was a man of literature – a poet, a writer, translator, essayist, journalist and a raconteur, who lived and breathed the written word.  As he did not belong to any of the known “groups” in Gujarati literature and believed in his own creative merit, he remained unpublished for many years.
He published his first book of poems – Chhiplan when he was 45 in 1980, and that acted as a catalyst for him. He published two more collections of poems – Malajo (1988; I had a minor role in getting Baiju Parthan to design the book cover) and Amthabharan (1994).
He also published the Gujarati translation of Dr. Rafiq Zakaria’s fictionalized biography of Razia Begum, the queen of India and the world’s first woman Islamic ruler. Dr. Zakaria is perhaps be better known in North America as Farid Zakaria’s father, but Zakaria senior was in his days a well-respected moderate scholar.
Meghnad also published Spiderman – a book of essays on death and dying, written after  my cousin Hamir’s death at a tender age of nine, caused by leukemia.  He wrote a short novel – Amthanubhav (1980) and two short novellas – Avadhoot Sarika (1988) and a book of literary criticism Sankhaghosh (1991). 

He had an unpublished book of essays on Mahatma Gandhi when he died at 62, which was not returned by the person who promised to get it published and then published under her name some years later. 

Meghnad left behind a voluminous output of poems and polemical journalistic writing that remains relevant (but unpublished) more than a decade after his death.
Despite such tremendous achievements he remained extremely modest, and considered his father Harischandra Bhatt to be a far greater poet than himself. Harischandra is often credited with introducing an international perspective to Gujarati literature and his seminal book of poems was published posthumously.
Meghnad was hyperactive. In addition to his accountant’s job that he hated with rare passion he gave tuition to supplement his income. 

He struggled all his life working 16 to 18 hours a day, and enjoyed his struggle. He didn’t know what to do with his free time after he retired and became a full time journalist, writing about wine and non-vegetarian cuisine – he did a surprisingly good job of it considering he had been a firm teetotaler and a vegetarian all his life.
Soon after he died, Sonal spoke to me about how perhaps at the moment he was dying she felt a heart-wrenching pain in her chest, and I told her that I had felt the same, although at that time I had dismissed that feeling and had blamed excessive alcohol.

I have also never really acknowledged my mother Durga’s influence on my life. In so many different ways, I’m more like her than my father.  I have always romanticised my parents’ relationship. To me they were like Marilyn Munroe and Arthur Miller...maybe that's a stretch, but you tend to think of your parents in what you wanted them to be not what they were. 
Durga sacrificed her ambitions - she remained a radio artiste when she could easily have been an actress - first for her husband and then for her children...but about all that, too, a little later on the blog.
I’m reading Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories; it’s a book about the pangs of growing up expressed in a stark lyrical style that is breathtakingly simple and yet unrelenting in the unease it causes to the readers because Huggan has succeeded in portraying the seemingly enormous and often insurmountable difficulties and challenges we all experience during our formative years.
Huggan writes evocatively about Elizabeth’s growing up years from childhood to puberty (I’m still reading the book, so I don’t still know till what age the writer will take Elizabeth’s journey), and the predominant emotion that one feels while reading the book – even to a male reader – is “Yes, of course, I felt this awkwardness, too; and I really would’ve done things differently if ever I were to get another chance.” At one stage in the book, Elizabeth confesses, “...how much I sounded like my father but how much like Mavis (her mother) it was to go and lie down. I could never escape them.”
I guess that really is the story of everyone’s life: We inherit the worst qualities of our parents.  

Friday, April 17, 2009

Among the Cities

Howard Karel is a rare kind of advertising professional – he’s well read, articulate and a thinking person. There’s not an iota of vacuity in him that generally proliferates in a normal advertising professional. He’s a board member at The Village Terraces, the condominium where I worked as security officer. 

Sometime ago, I was talking to him about my assignment on multiculturalism in Canada and he gave me Jan Morris’s book Among the Cities (Viking 1985, Penguin 1986). “Read the chapter on Toronto,” he said, “It’ll explain many issues you’ve been grappling with.”

Jan Morris is a legendary British (Welsh) writer who is unfortunately better known not for her writing but for her sex reassignment from a male to female.  Morris’s piece on Toronto in Among the Cities is titled Second Prize. She wrote the piece in 1984 when Toronto celebrated its 150th year (its celebrating its 175th year in 2009).

The piece was originally published in Saturday Night and it was titled Canadians are nothing if not fair… 

Morris describes Toronto in many different and varied ways, touching upon issues of multiculturalism, ethnic enclaves, people, places, habits, behaviour and all that is characteristically Torontonian (I’d say to an extent that applies to Canada, too, but I don’t know Canada well enough to make that claim).

I hope you enjoy reading the selection as much as I did compiling it.

  • “… (Toronto) is the emblematic immigrant destination of late 20th century…which is nevertheless one of the most highly disciplined and tightly organized cities in the Western world.”
  • “Toronto has come late in life to cosmopolitanism…and as a haven of opportunity it is unassertive. No glorious dowager raises her torch over Lake Ontario, summoning those masses yearning to breathe free…”
  • “The promise of Toronto was promise of a more diffuse, tentative, not to say bewildering kind. On a modest building near the harbor-front I happened to notice the names of those entitled to parking space outside: D. Iannuzzi, P. Iannuzzi, H. McDonald, R. Metcalfe and F. Muhammad. ‘What is this place?’ I inquired of people passing by. ‘Multicultural TV,’ they said, backing away nervously. ‘Multi-what TV?’ I said, but they had escaped by then – I had yet to learn that nothing ends a Toronto conversation more quickly than a supplementary question.”
  • “Multiculturalism! I had never heard the word before, but I was certainly to hear it again, for it turned out to be the key word, so to speak, to contemporary Toronto. As ooh-la-la is to Paris, and ciao to Rome, and nyet to Moscow, and hey you’re looking great to Manhattan, so multiculturalism is to Toronto. Far more than any other migratory cities, Toronto is all things to all ethnicities. The melting-pot conception never was popular here, and sometimes I came to feel that Canadian nationality itself was no more than a minor social perquisite, like a driving licence or spare pair of glasses. Repeatedly I was invited to try the Malaysian vermicelli at Rasa Sayang, the seafood pierogi at the Ukrainian Caravan, or something Vietnamese in Yorkville, but when I ventured to suggest one day that we might eat Canadian, a kindly anxiety crossed my host’s brow. ‘That might be more difficult,’ he said.
  • “…multiculturalism, I discovered, did not mean that Toronto was all brotherly love and folklore. On the contrary, wherever I went I heard talk of internecine rivalries, cross-ethnical vendetta…there turned out to be darkly conspiratorial side to multiculturalism.”
  • “…this is not the sort of fulfillment I myself wanted of Toronto. I am not very multicultural, and what I chiefly yearned for in this metropolis was the old grandeur of the North, its size and scale and power, its sense of wasteland majesty…now and then I found it…names such as Etobicoke, Neepawa Avenue, Air Atonabee or the terrifically evocative Department of North.”
  • “…the pursuit of happiness is not written into the Canadian constitution…”
  • “Toronto seems to me, in time as in emotion, a limbo-city…It looks forward to no millennium, back to no golden age. It is what it is, and the people in its streets, walking with that steady, tireless, infantry-like pace that is particular to this city, seem on the whole resigned, without either bitterness or exhilaration, to being just what they are…”
  • “Among the principal cities of the lost British Empire, Toronto has been one of the most casual (rather than the most ruthless) in discarding the physical remnants of its colonial past…Nobody could possibly mistake this for a British city now…one the other hand there is no mistaking this for a city of the United States, either…Torontonians constantly snipe at all things American…(but) it is not a free-and-easy, damn-Yankee sort of city – anything  but…even its accents are oddly muted, made for undertones and surmises rather than certainties and swank.”
  • “Toronto is the capital of the unabsolute. Nothing Is utter here, except the winters I suppose, and the marvelous expanse of the lake. Nor much of it crystal clear. To every Toronto generalization there is an exception, a contradiction, or an obfuscation.”
  • “Toronto preoccupations can be loftily local…”
  • “In many ways Toronto appears…even now…almost preposterously provincial…yet it is not really provincial at all. It is a huge, rich and splendid city, metropolitan in power… (and) why not? Toronto is Toronto and that is enough…it has all the prerequisites of your modern major city…yet by and large it has escaped the plastic blight of contemporary urbanism, and the squalid dangers, too.”
  • “If ‘multiculturalism’ does not key you in to Toronto, try ‘traditionalism’…the real achievement of Toronto is to have remained itself…”
  • “…if fate really were to make me an immigrant here I might be profoundly unhappy. Not because Toronto would be unkind to me. It would be far kinder than New York, say, or Sidney down under. It would not leave me to starve in the street, or bankrupt me with medical bills, or refuse me admittance to discos because I was black. No, it would be subtler oppression than that – the oppression of reticence. Toronto is the most undemonstrative city I know, and the least inquisitive.”
  • “Sometimes I think it is the flatness of the landscape that causes this flattening of the spirit…sometimes I think it must be the climate…could it be the permanent compromise of Toronto, neither quite this or altogether that, capitalist but compassionate, American but royalist, multicultural but traditionalist.”
  • “This is a city conducive to self-doubt and introspection. It is hard to feel that Torontonians…share in any grand satisfaction of spirit. I asked immigrants of many nationalities if they liked Toronto, and though at first, out of diplomacy or good manners they nearly all said yes, a few minutes of probing generally found them less than enthusiastic…never because the citizenry has been unkind or because the city is unpleasant: only because, in the course of its 150 years of careful progress, so calculated, so civilized, somewhere along the way Toronto lost, or failed to find, the gift of contact or of merriment.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Book of Negroes


Aminata Diallo is a female version of Kunta Kinte; but she’s unforgettable

The strongest part of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes is when Aminata Diallo (Meena), the main character of the novel, argues with Armstrong, the slave trader, against slave trade. 

During the argument Armstrong says, “There’s no profit in benevolence,” and genuinely believes that the African slaves were not branded. 

Meena exposes the upper portion of her right breast to show the “GO” mark singed on her by her captors with burning metal when she had been kidnapped. 

A stunned Armstrong explains to Meena that GO means Gerry Oswald – the slave trading company. For the first time in nearly six decades of being a slave Meena gets to know what the two alphabets represent.  

This argument has a certain resonance in the debate over Canada’s military presence in Afghanistan. Those who justify Canadian presence in Afghanistan seem to be making arguments similar to the slave traders two centuries ago: “It is helps them more than us.”

There is no doubt The Book of Negroes is a publishing phenomenon. It is an immensely popular and critically acclaimed book, has stubbornly stayed on the Canadian best selling list for several months, won several prestigious and popular awards, and continues to remain one of the most-talked about books.  
It may sound uncharitable to say this but one of the main factors that has propelled Hill’s novel to its unprecedented glory is the world’s obsession with Barrack Obama

The first Black American president has unleashed a sort of collective catharsis in North America and Western Europe. Following his ascension to the world’s most powerful job there is an exultation at what the Blacks have collectively contributed to these societies that benefitted the most from slave trade.  

I realize that this is assessment may seem rather uncharitable and does not fully acknowledge the masterpiece that The Book of Negroes is. I am not even for a moment saying that all the praise and popularity that the book is enjoying is unjustified. 

I am only attempting to understand the underpinnings of its phenomenal acceptance by the reading public.

If have read (not seen) Alex Haley’s Roots you realize that the basic sentiment that Hill’s book evokes in you is the sense of déjà vu, especially in the description of the torturous sea voyage that the slaves are forced to take from Africa to the new world.  

In the years to follow, it is imminently possible that Hill’s Aminata Diallo will emerge as an equally important creation of literature as Haley’s Kunta Kinte. But Meena is someone who has come my way nearly three decades after I met Kunta and I've read Kunta experience the horrors of slave trade that Meena is subjected to.

Nevertheless, it is not new. That doesn’t take anything away from Hill’s novel or the authenticity of Meena’s character and life; it’s just that the feeling that ‘Oh! I’ve been up this road’ is difficult to dispel.

After posting my nibbling (and petty) disgruntlements, let me unequivocally state that in Meena we meet a character that leaves an indelible mark on our mind. 

The description of the unspeakable horrors that she experiences throughout her life is so evocative and vivid that periodically you just have to shut the book to give yourself a respite from being a part of a ceaseless and unrelenting grief.

Perhaps more unforgettable – because it is so inexplicable – is the stoic acceptance of her life and situation even when it stubbornly remains in perdition (although Meena is ambivalent about her belief and is happy both as a Muslim and as a Christian).

By involving us in Meena’s story and letting us come face-to-face with the cruelty of her situation Hill makes us aware of the gross injustice that was perpetrated for centuries on the Africans. 

Meena’s story is archetypal of the stories of countless millions who were stolen from Africa by people who belonged to a more evolved race. This really is the purpose of any great work of literature. 

To make the reader become part of a character so that she begins to empathize with the character and attempts to understand the social reality of the character’s life. 

All great novelists and their work – Dickens in Oliver Twist, Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, Premchand in Sadgati – act as catalyst for dissipation of anger in the society that needs an outlet to expiate for the collective sins of the past and the present. Hill’s novel does that for the cruelties meted out to Blacks in Canada for so many years.

Let me leave you with a few aphorisms from the book that shows the true genius of Lawrence Hill:
  • It was almost impossible to get into Africa, but easy to be taken out.
  • Men don’t need to know everything, and sometimes it’s best if they know nothing at all.
  • Be aware of the clever man who makes the wrong look right.
  • Your story is one of virtue, he says. Survival has nothing to do with virtue, I reply.
  • I could do nothing to change their prospects or even my own. That, I decided, was what it meant to be a slave; your past didn’t matter; in the present you were invisible and you had no claim on the future.
  • There’ nothing united about a nation that said all men were created equal, but that kept my people in chains.
  • I had reached that fine age when it was easier to speak than to be spoken to.
  • Isn’t reading a fabulous escape from the world?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Story of Language



It’s been one of the most thrilling weeks of my life in Toronto

I’m part of a group that’s working on a project for Joyce Wayne on Canadian literature for our course at Sheridan. 

The group comprises Nelson Alvarado Jourde, Mike Odongkara and Yoko Morgenstern. We had to make a presentation for Joyce, and we decided to make an audio-visual because Mike has this absolutely great Apple laptop that makes everything possible.

We’re all trying to be oh!-so-creative! The problem with being creative is that we are all generally speaking quite undisciplined and it’s taken us longer than the time we were allotted to get the project done. 

Then there have been moments of frayed tempers, when Mike and I fought like little children. Mike’s convinced that I take crack cocaine because of my inexplicably sever bouts of anger. 

Nelson, the sage of the group, tries to make peace and quietly gets everyone back on track. Yoko is the charm of the group and smiles really hard so that we remain civilized. She also gets Chinese food and cranberry pop to make the effort worthwhile.

We couldn’t have ever got together but for the fact that we are in Canada and at Sheridan. This is Canada’s multiculturalism at work. Nelson is from Peru, Mike from Uganda and Yoko’s from Japan and has lived for many years in Germany. English is a second language for all of us, and we speak it with different accents.

The recording we have of our presentation sounds rich because it’s not in the same nasal North American twang that’s so common to people in Greater Toronto Area (of course, Caucasian Canadians prefer to think they are accent-neutral).

What also adds to the charm of audio visual is that the recording is so totally amateurish that a professional podcaster told Nelson that it’s just plain horrible.

While working on the project (part of the result is on the blog Canada The Lost Soul) I often thought of an extremely interesting book – Mario Pei’s The Story of Language

Another reason for thinking of the book was a pleasant e-mail I got from Ramesh Purohit, a former colleague who’s seen this blog and wrote back to say how much he liked it. I remember lending him this book to him to read, and he, too, had liked it.

Pei’s book is for the non-academic people who are interested in the different languages of the world. In India, we tend to be rather casual about languages because we have so many of them. That’s not the case here in Canada. 

Here, multi-lingual people get the respect they deserve because they enrich the multicultural mosaic.

Pei’s book introduces the manner in which languages across the world developed, and although Pei was often criticized for ‘dumbing down’ the field of linguistics, he certainly wrote this book with a zeal to reach out to as many people as he could.

I read this short review of the book written by a certain Magellan (Santa Clara, Ca) on the Amazon website, that sort of sums up all there’s to Pei’s book. “There is a lot to learn about the basic structure and nature of language…this includes basic concepts about grammar and the parts of speech, the basic principles of word morphology, phonetics, and phonology, language change and evolution, structural linguistics and de Saussure's important and influential ideas in the area, understanding the major language families and how they differ from each other, and the same for the individual languages in your own language group, and so on.”

Most of the statistics of the book would be completely outdated, unless there’s been a new, updated edition published recently. However, that may not be the case because Pei died in 1978. 

I don’t remember which edition of the book I had read, but I do remember that it was the first time I had experienced what in retrospect was nothing but jingoism and (false) nationalistic pride about the importance Sanskrit has in the schema of world languages. I didn’t know Sanskrit then and I don’t know it now. I'm not proud of that, but I certainly don't associate myself with the nonsense of making Sanskrit the national language in India just as Hebrew is the national language in Israel.

Many years later, after a steady dose of reading, practicing and preaching secularism, I realize how exclusivist my views were at a certain age, and I remain thankful to so many different people who at different times of my life inculcated me with values that are more tolerant of the ‘other’.


Images: Mario Pei: 
http://www.niaf.org/milestones/year_1923.asp

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Loyalty Management -- Keep Toronto Reading One Book


Last month, on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of Toronto, I attended a literary event at the City Hall branch of the Toronto Public Library. 

One of the star performers – and there were several that afternoon – was Glen Downie, the poet who has won the Toronto Book Award 2008 for his book of poems Loyalty Management.

The Toronto Book Award is a city council award that honours “authors of books of literary or artistic merit that are evocative of Toronto.”

At the event Downie sat unassumingly in the third row. When he was introduced, he quietly went up to the podium and began to speak to the audience in a soft voice, introducing his book and then began to read from the book.

Frankly, I didn’t quite enjoy the poems as much as I thought I would. Perhaps it was the choice of the poems or maybe I don’t really appreciate poetry as much as I appreciate other forms of literature.

Now, Downie’s book is being promoted by the Toronto Public Library for all of April as part of the Keep Toronto Reading One Book campaign.

I borrowed Loyalty Management from my Amesbury library last week, and began to read it. I must admit that my first impression – made from what I heard when the poet recited his poems – was made rather hastily. 

The poem on cows really didn't impress me then (when I heard Downie reciete it) and doesn’t impress me now because cows on the streets are such a common sight in India. And they just don’t seem to evoke the same sort of surprised exasperation that they might in Toronto. They don't represent the same ideas.

There are other poems that are really interesting. What I find surprising is the streak of socialism that runs through the volume. Maybe that would be true of any poem written with an urban backdrop. Or maybe it’s just my imagination. 

I’m quite sure Meghnad would have loved the book, as I’m sure Joyce Wayne must have. There are many poems with what I call socialist theme. Petitioning is the one I identified with because I’m an immigrant.

Petitioning

They’re on their knees
in the precious dirt
when you come around

the people who sign
because they have little enough

the ones with far too much
zucchini
  too many plums

who fill your protesting hands
with their stake in the nation

who nod & smile
& say neighbourly things
in unofficial languages

Dowie possesses a rare ability to surprise the reader; he does this by abruptly altering the main motif of the poem in the last few lines and introduces a completely different line of thought. Almost always, it’s a juxtaposition of the innocent and the evil. The most vivid example of this is the poem Cold Snap.

Cold snap

Pacing he sleepward   her tiny
fist clutching my chest hair

I think rabbits
how they pull out their fur
to nest their young

how her uncle  as a kid
failed to keep them in straw

& found them one morning
frozen to the metal cage floor

                                          Drunk
on breast milk
   she slumps against me
warm in her first winter while
   in his
the Premier

drunk on power  declares
holy war on the poor

& we find them  one by one
inadequately nested
frozen in alleys
  doorways
& the floors of unheated bus shelters

I liked these two poems the most. However, they aren’t illustrative of the volume, so don’t be misled by my selection.

Read the book; borrow it from the local branch of your library if you’re in Toronto.  I’m sure you’ll like it.

If you’re not in Toronto, read a few poems here. Also check out the Toronto in Verse site.

Images: http://www.keeptorontoreading.ca/one-book

Friday, April 03, 2009

It's raining!



The most amazing thing about the weather in Toronto is that it rains anytime. It’s not restricted to a season as in Mumbai. It doesn’t ever rain as hard as it does in Mumbai. But to compensate for that it rains more frequently.

Of course, there’s nothing in the world that can compare to the Mumbai rains. It’s something that is exhilarating and enlivening, and exquisite and exotic.

Right now, summer’s begun in India. As the months go by and the heat becomes unbearable, all India will await the onset of monsoon. By May-end it’ll hit Kerala coast and reach Mumbai by the first week of June.

When it does, it changes the city from a snarling, over-heated beast into a cowering, demure virgin.

You know, I may be getting a bit carried away with romanticism here. In recent years, the uncontrolled urban sprawl has taken its toll and rains are more a problem than a respite to the summer heat.

But even now, you won’t find an Indian who doesn’t smile involuntarily when she hears of the rains.

One of the best pieces of journalism I’ve done is to write about the Mumbai rains when I was a reporter at The Daily (this was a long time ago…almost as far back as the time when dinosaurs roamed the planet), and had interviewed a few archetypal Bombayites (it wasn’t Mumbai then) such as Russy Karanjia, YD Phadke, G.R. Khairnar, Shobha De, Dr. PS Pasricha.

This morning, I was all ready and dressed to go out in the rain. Fortunately, I had a couple of appointments, so I had a reason to get wet. I had a meeting with Bill Dampier, my official mentor, and then to my son Che’s school for a discussion with his teachers about his dropping grades.

Great opportunity to walk in the rain; get drenched, get my socks soggy, jacket dripping with water, and fighting with the gusts of wind to hold my umbrella from turning inside out. I hadn’t factored the cold.

It was plain and simply wonderful; now my nose is running and I’m humming Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Have you ever seen the rain? Actually, a better song is Raindrops keep falling on my head from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (though there's no rain in the movie during this song).

One of the most amazing books on Indian monsoon is Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater. It’s the only authentic book on the Indian monsoon that I’ve read. It’s a book that one (as a native of Mumbai) can read without getting either a sense of déjà vu or that feeling of reading a travelogue written for a western audience by a westerner who has little or no clue about India.

Frater chases the monsoon from Kerala to Cherapunji – supposedly the wettest place on earth, according to the textbooks that were written during the British times, and haven’t been changed in over a hundred years, because most school textbooks in India even now claim that Cherapunji is in Assam. It isn’t. It’s in Meghalaya, and it isn’t the wettest place any longer, it has a water shortage.

The book has Nehru’s quote on Mumbai’s monsoon and how unimpressed he was by the momentous event.

See the post below for the quote.

Image: View from my window of Lawrence Ave W drenched in rain
Alexander Frater:
http://www.panmacmillan.com/Authors%20Illustrators/displayPage.asp?PageTitle=Individual%20Contributor&ContributorID=70891&RLE=Author
Chasing the Monsoon: http://www.amazon.com/Chasing-Monsoon-Modern-Pilgrimage-Through/dp/0805020527