& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Asterix is 50

What is it about a Gallic villager with a drooping moustache that is so endearing that everyone across the world loves him? I think it’s just that the only thing he fears is the sky falling down.

Asterix celebrated his 50th birthday on October 29.

It’s unfortunate that he’s not a big phenomenon in North America.

He occupies a very large place in my life. He’s a friend I’ve known for many years who makes me smile every time I meet him.

I can’t say that of many people I know.

Growing up with comics

Like most Indian kids who grew up in the 1970s in Bombay (it was called Mumbai only at home), I had a limited choice of comics. It was because we didn’t have money and comics were frowned upon.

One of my most enduring friendships – with Naresh Pandya – started because of our fascination for comic books.

They were called comics. Not graphic novels. And, the choice we had was a mixture of Indian and foreign.

Phantom and Mandrake were ubiquitous and predictable. Phantom was racist (White man in African jungle, fighting bad men to save innocent savages). Mandrake was insufferable. Indrajal Comics, which published them, was a part of the Bennett Coleman group.

We could get hold of DC & Marvel comic only when these reached the recycle newspaper shops (for some reason these were called Old Paper Marts, as in Vijay Old Paper Mart).

Justice League

Justice League heroes were a personal favourite, and among them Batman is a hero even after all these years. He’s a superhero without superpowers. Spiderman was only popular because he was on TV. Superman was a chocolate hero with an Elvis Presley bouffant.

Then there was the girls and kids category that included Archie (girls), Walt Disney and Looney Tunes (kids). Archie’s was an alien world. One could – and did – identify with his situations. Although even now I find it amazing that anyone could have so much pop.

Walt Disney and Looney Tunes comics were there, too, but one couldn’t be caught reading the “children’s” stuff.

Commando comics again were for the true connoisseur, or the comparatively well off kids. The pen and ink drawings were to die for.

I bought an omnibus Commando in Mumbai (by now it’s called Bombay only to deride the locals) just prior to immigrating. It’ll reach Canada in some years from now; hopefully.

Amar Chitra Katha

Among the Indian ones, there was the almighty Amar Chitra Katha. It’s charms unrecognised and unacknowledged. Over the last four decades, it’s become the landing page, the default destination, for Indian culture, mythology, history and society.

I read the multi-volume Mahabharata to Che a couple of years ago; he loved every moment of it.

There was Chandamama. Even then, I found it plain rubbish. It was infra-dig to read Bahadur.

Attempts to introduce Indian characters in the comic book format or to Indianise the content occurred only after I had graduated to better comics.

In recent years, Shekhar Kapur and Deepak Chopra along with Richard Branson tried to give Indian mythological stories (Ramayana) a graphic novel format, but nothing much has been heard about the effort for the last few years.


That brings me to Asterix.

I discovered Asterix quite by accident. Again, Meghnad was instrumental. Not quite happy with my obsession with comic books, he suggested that I should read Asterix. It came recommended by one of his colleague, an artist.

I read one book he had got home. I think it was Asterik and Cleopatra. It was different from anything that I had read and was reading. I discovered that Sunday magazine also serialised Astrix. I’ll save the Sunday story for some other time.

Over the years, Asterix became the epitome of creativity in the comic book format. It’s only recently, after I began reading graphic novels in Toronto (thanks to Toronto Public Library) that I finally found something that was as good – and occasionally better – than Asterix.

Even after all these years, Astrix remains an endearing part of my life that has shaped my thinking in so many different ways.

Shaping my mind

For instance, I’ve never really thought of Julius Cesar as that epochal figure that he is in western history. To me he’s that silly man punching a fist on his palm, whizzing around in a circle in a tent outside that Gallic village, devising ways to defeat the indomitable Gauls.

I have often wondered how the books would read in the original French in which they were created, given that they read so well in English translation (Much like how would Crime and Punishment read in Russian).

Also, I divide people into two categories: Those who like Asterix and those who like Tintin. If you don’t belong to either of these categories, you’re either too young or too different.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Gandhi High

Meghnad, my father, would’ve been 75 yesterday. It’s been 12 years since he died.

Yes, he died young.

Two good things happened yesterday. One planned, other delayed.

The planned one was going to see the play Gandhi High. The delayed one was Prabodh Parikh accepting my invitation to be a ‘friend’ on Facebook.

Both made me smile.

I had decided to take Mahrukh and Che to see the play on Meghnad's birth anniversary after I got to know of the play through Janice Goveas (Diaspora Dialogues).

Jehan, a Muslim adolescent

Gandhi High is a play about Jehan, a Muslim adolescent fighting his inner demons. Jehan has had a troubled childhood. He is unfairly compared to his over-achiever elder brother who’s a decade older than him.

A laggard at school in Vancouver, Jehan constantly got into trouble, the last one being involved in a car theft. His exasperated parents move to Toronto, hoping that Jehan would somehow stabilize.

Jehan finds solace among a group of young people. Like him, they're as angry with the world as they are with themselves.

He falls in love with Carly, starts drinking with his friends and becomes a cat burglar.

Jehan and his father are constantly bickering, neither wanting to hear the other’s point of view.

His father is fascinated by the teachings of the Mahatma and wants Jehan to study his life. Jehan feels that the likes of the Mahatma have no place in today’s world.


When he’s robbing a home that belongs to a South Asian family, Jehan has a sudden transformation.

While working on a school project he discovers that in the late 1980s, a move to name a school after the Mahatma in Toronto was blocked by those opposed to the ideals of religious tolerance.

Just when Jehan seems to be coming to grips with the realities of life, his father suddenly dies, leaving him emotionally stranded.

His world is crashing all around him. His friends are spiralling down in the dungeons of youth crime that is seemingly all pervasive in most of greater Toronto’s schools.

Jehan launches a hunger fast to focus attention on the safety of his young friends and to name his school after the Mahatma.

Inner demons:

But his inner demons get the better of him. Jehan he tries to commit suicide by taking an overdose of drugs and jumping off his apartment window.

The lesson that Jehan learns reading about the Mahatma’s life and times is that it is virtually impossible to get together people who don’t wish to be together; or to teach tolerance to intolerant people.

However, that doesn’t mean one gives up.

On the contrary, one keeps trying. Jehan’s friends are annoyed with him, but mend their ways so that their friend ends his fast. The community begins to support his demand to name the school after the Mahatma – hence the name of the play - Gandhi High.

Gandhi's teachings

MJ Akbar recently wrote – half in jest – that the Mahatma is a lesser of a draw than Jinnah. The exigencies of Indian politics may make it seem so.

On a larger canvas, Gandhi’s teachings of tolerance continue to inspire millions – right from President Obama, who tells an audience of 9th graders that he’d want to have lunch with the Mahatma, to a Jamaican-Canadian middle school teacher in Toronto, who says that the Mahatma’s views helps him tolerate other people’s prejudice against the colour of his skin.

Prabodh Parikh

Now, for the second occurrence that made me smile – Prabodh Parikh.

Prabodh is a writer, poet, litterateur, filmologist, teacher and more than anything else, a splendid human being. He is a true renaissance man, the likes of whom aren’t made any more.

When Meghnad died, Prabodh got together a few poets and writers and organised an impromptu tribute.

For me, that singular gesture really made Prabodh stand apart from the legion of friends that Meghnad had when he was alive.

Sathyu's Garam Hawa

Just before I immigrated, I had the occasion to go and see Garam Hawa (1973), the MS Sathyu film on the wounds of the subcontinent’s partition.

Prabodh organised the screening of this classic. I met him at the screening quite by chance and he was as ever effusive and warm.

I want you to listen to a qawwali (Maula Salim Chishti) from the film.

It was Meghnad’s favourite.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Michael Fraser

You can’t but like a poet who says women are like books without pages.

Poetry touches Michael Fraser with warm hands. He not only writes exquisite poetry, he also encourages other poets to read their works once a month at The Central at Mirvish Village.

I got to know of the Plasticine Poetry Series quite by accident. Michael and I happen to be co-mentees at Diaspora Dialogues’ mentoring program this year.

Of course, Michael is an award-winning poet. I’m unpublished.

I met him at Helen Walsh’s home in Spadina at the get together of the mentors and the mentees of this year’s program.

Michael, warm and effusive, came and greeted me. He said he wanted MG Vassanji to be his mentor. Vassanji was my mentor.

Michael said he organises poetry reading at The Central at Markham Street (Mirvish Village) every month, and would I be interested in attending?

Sure, I said. I’d certainly be interested. I write such bad poetry that listening to other poets may probably improve my poetry or rid me of the desire to write poetry.

I thought Michael was a media professional, perhaps a public relations guy. He turned out to be a schoolteacher.

My interest in poetry is recent. I’ve personally known two poets whose works have interested me. One was my father. The other shall remain unidentified.

I’m never going to able to write poetry that’ll match their poems. That, however, won’t prevent me from trying.

One gets shameless when one gets old.

For the last three months, every third Sunday evening, I’ve been going to The Central and have a glass of beer and listen to great poetry.

I can’t claim to understand everything that I hear or for that matter like everything that is read, but for sure, it’s all so much better than what I write under the mistaken belief that it’s poetry.

I’ve enjoyed the experience, met new writers and discovered a cosy, warm place where I can lose myself in the crowd; sit back and listen to some great stuff.

If you’re interested in knowing more about Plasticine Poetry Series, come to The Central. It’s at 603 Markham Street 1 Block W. Of Bathurst subway (www.thecentral.ca). The next reading is November 22 at 6:00 PM.

You may also contact Michael on e-mail: sambahead@yahoo.com.

Diwali in Toronto

Time flies.

It’s our second Diwali in Toronto. This year we did what Mahrukh described was the “NRI thing to do” – go to the massive Swami Narayan Temple complex in Toronto for the Diwali night celebrations.

The question about my identity is -- surprisingly -- becoming an issue.

I hadn't thought it would ever assume importance in my life. It's something I haven't been able to resolve to any degree of satisfaction.

Lately, I've been wondering what is it that is making me so conscious of my identity. Is it connected to my new status in Canada: "Visible Minority"?

Is my identity connected to my status as a minority? And therefore, does my identity necessarily need to have religious and cultural bearings? Visiting a temple on Diwali is not a religious thing for me. But is it merely cultural? Is this how most Muslims feel in India?

I don't know.

There aren't simple and straightforward answers. I don’t remember the last time I went to a temple prescient. It was probably in Ahmedabad when I had gone sightseeing the same institution’s main complex -- Akshardham. That was many years ago. Thereafter, some years later, terrorists attacked the complex.

Here in Toronto, the Somali cabbie who took us to the temple from Albion mall was awestruck at the number of people – and cars – that had assembled there.

There were thousands upon thousands of mostly Gujaratis from across Greater Toronto Area with a sprinkling of Punjabis and other Indians; but surprisingly not too many Sikhs.

We went to see the fireworks. It lived up to its billing. See the video. Sorry that took too long to upload. So just a photo.

Then, as most Gujaratis would do, I made a beeline for food.

There was the ubiquitous pav-bhaji and the quintessentially Gujarati dabeli. I heard a locally born and bred Canadian-Indian (who had obviously never seen a dabeli before) tell his wife, “Look, they’re serving burger style pav-bhaji.”

There were food stalls with spicy farsan, Indian-style Chinese food and vegetarian pizzas. And -- would you believe it -- papdi no lot (Che read that in English, and asked me "What's papdi?")

When Indians are with Indians, they behave as they do in India. So, there were no queues for food. There was groping and grappling. There was hollering and fisticuffs. There was chaste swear words, spoken in rough-hewn Gujarati.

Almost everyone spoke either English or Gujarati – both mixtures of the Navsari and the Etobicoke accents.

In the morning, we had lunch at a wayside Punjabi restaurant who was serving a Diwali buffet for less than $10. And we bought hand-made mithais cooked on by kerbside of the restaurant.

The owner was as happy serving us, as we were happy devouring the spicy Punjabi food, and watching a local Punjabi TV channel's special Diwali program.

We shared the table with a group of Jamaican-Canadians. They didn’t find the food spicy at all. Apparently, Jamaican peppers makes food spicier.

All this eating would make anyone resemble a beached whale. Sadly, I'm no exception. I’m now bordering on turning into a hopelessly obese North American – that’s just about everyone who’s a Gujarati in the US and Canada.

I’m bald, pot-bellied and old. And, all that extra weight is making me too full of myself.

Another event: I’m on Facebook. I wanted Generally About Books to be on Facebook. But that it didn’t quite happen the way I imagined it would.

No harm done. I see many familiar faces on Facebook. Most I want nothing to do with. Some I have reconnected with, and some who don’t want to reconnect with me.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Satellite Over South Asia

We live in a world where the here and now preoccupy our consciousness. We tend to move forward, forgetting – or trying to forget – our past. There never is any particular reason for this attitude or behaviour.
Mostly, it stems from the instinct to survive and adapt to a new reality that emerges in our lives. Then, after a while, we sit back and reflect. We remember a particular phase of our lives and feel both happy and sad. Happy to have lived through that phase and sad because it’s over.
To reconnect with old friends is always a pleasure. Doing so with William was no exception. Many, many years ago, when I was young, I worked on an interesting South Asia-wide project led by Dr. David Page and Dr. William Crawley, former BBC journalists-turned-academics.
This Ford Foundation project – called Media South Asia – brought together journalists, academics, filmmakers, writers, activists and other professionals from South Asian countries – Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka – to study the impact of satellite television across the Indian subcontinent. The Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, Britain, was one of the sponsors of the project.
Satellite television broadcasts that started with Gulf War I in 1991 had by the end of the 1990’s revolutionised South Asian societies. David Page and William Crawley put together an interesting team that researched the impact – social, economic, political and cultural – of satellite television revolution in that region.
I was involved with researching the impact of advertising on broadcasting in general and on programming in particular. The research involved interviewing advertisers (company officials who take decisions on where to put advertising resources), advertising professionals; market research professionals; ratings company professionals; broadcasters. During that period, I met the who’s who of India’s television and advertising world.
The final presentations by the researchers were in Kathmandu and the book launch was held in New Delhi. The first phase of their research resulted in a book – Satellites over South Asia. Their research continues, more than a decade after they started the project. My work forms the basis of the chapter The Lure of the Indian Markets in the book.
For me, the associations made during that research have lasted a long time; not just with the two coordinators David and William, but also with co-researchers such as litterateur Nilu Damle and filmmaker Deepa Bhatia.
With Nilu I also worked on another project – Grassroots Anti-corruption Initiatives and the Right to Information Movement in India – for the IDS. Robert Jenkins and Anne Marie Goetz coordinated this project.
Deepa did a brilliant interview with filmmaker Govind Nihalani for The Quarterly Journal of Opinion – an online magazine that I started with the help of a few then close friends. She also convinced her awesomely talented husband Amol Gupte who is an actor, writer, TV host to sketch for the online quarterly.
In Toronto, I accidentally met Afsan Chowdhury who worked on analysing the impact of satellite television on Bangladesh.
I exchanged email messages with William Crawley recently. He told me the Media South Asia project is now working on broadcasting regulations in Sri Lanka.
I wish David and William the very best.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mahautsav 2009

More than two decades ago, Vir Sanghvi had recognised the power of Hindi cinema’s reach across the globe. He had said that India should devise means to use this reach to develop into a soft power.

The Indian state didn’t take cognisance of this advice. The Indian Diaspora across the globe apparently did. India's soft power is widespread and palpable today.

It was on grand display at Toronto’s Roger Centre October 9 and 10 when a group of enterprising Indo-Canadians celebrated Diwali in a style.

The Mahautsav 2009 was a 30-hour non-stop indoor concert that had all the ingredients of a masala movie.

Song and dance, remixes, devotional songs, rendition of the epic Ramayan, popular television stars from India, Punjabi rockers from the UK, multitude of local Indo-Canadian talent.

Performers included Anurdha Paudwal and her daughter, Mahalaxmi Iyer, Stereo Nation, A-Slam, popular Indian television stars. The star that had the top billing – Sunidhi Chauhan – didn’t show up.

Toronto didn’t miss her. She missed the fun.

The best entertainer at the show was undoubtedly, the Punjabi rocker Stereo Nation. It was a high decibel, energetic and highly individualistic performance. The audience was spellbound. Hip-hop artists A-Slam from Vancouver despite just one act was brilliant.

In my view, the show was a brilliant manifestation of Punjabi Power in Canada.

Popular Indian culture is a derivative of the Hindi cinema (even after accounting for the difference in languages in the south).

Thanks to the persistence of Yash Chopra over the last four decades, Hindi cinema is nothing but a portrayal of a particular kind of Punjabi culture.

Across the globe, when the Indian Diaspora meet and celebrate festivals, it’s this particular type of popular Hindi cinema culture (which huge overtones of Punjabi) that is on display.

In the developed world – especially in Britain and Canada – Punjabi Power has acquired global dimensions. In Canada, Punjabi is the fourth largest spoken language.

It’s robust, dominating and feel-good. There can’t be a better way to have a good time.

Incidentally, the organiser – Harpreet Sethi’s Grand Victorian Convention Centre and the Radisson Plaza Mississauga, Toronto Airport and Roger Nair Productions -claim the Mahautsav is a world record for the longest non-stop indoor concert.

I'm happy to be a part of such a show. Thank you Asha Luthra.

It's time Yash Chopra gets the Bharat Ratna. I'm serious.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Wayfinders

It’s always nice to meet friends after a gap. Yesterday was no exception. Yoko Morgenstern and Nelson Alvarado Jourde are two individuals I met in January this year.

I admire and respect them.

Yesterday we met at the book launch event of 2009 CBC Massey Lectures.

Briefly, the Massey Lectures – started in 1961 and named after Vincent Massey, Canada’s Governor General – is an annual event.

A Canadian or an international scholar gives a series of lectures across Canada on a political, cultural or a philosophical subject. The lecture is based on a book.

Last year, Margaret Atwood surprised the world by her prescient Payback that anticipated the global economic recession.

The lecture series is a joint venture between CBC, House of Anansi Press and Massey College in the University of Toronto.

Wade Davis will be giving the Massey Lectures this year. Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobationst, filmmaker and photographer.

He looks like Bjorn Borg, the tennis ace of my era.

His book – The Wayfinders – analyses the extinction of human cultures. The back cover of the book says, “...anthropologists predict that fully 50 percent of the 7,000 languages spoken around the world today will disappear within our lifetimes. And languages are merely the canaries in the coal mine: what of the knowledge, stories, songs, and the way of seeing encoded in these voices?”

So far I’ve merely browsed through the first chapter of the book. But I'll read any book that begins with a quotation from the collected works of Mahatma Gandhi.

Illustrating the hijacking of anthropology by the apologists of the British Raj, Davis writes, “As naturalists throughout the nineteenth century attempted to classify creation even as they coped with the revelations of Darwin, anthropologists became servants of the Crown, agents dispatched to the far reaches of empire with the task of understanding strange tribal peoples and cultures that they might properly be administered and controlled...It followed with the certainty of Victorian rectitude that advanced societies had an obligation to assist the backward, to civilize the savage, a moral duty that again played well into the needs of empire. ‘We happen to be the best people in the world,’ Cecil Rhodes famously said, ‘and the more of the world we inhabit, the better it is for humanity.’ George Nathaniel Curzon, eleventh viceroy of India, agreed. ‘There has never been anything,’ he wrote, ‘so great in the world’s history as the British Empire, so great an instrument for the good of humanity. We must devote all of our energies and our lives to maintaining it.’ Asked why there was not a single Indian native employed in the Government of India, he replied, ‘Because among all 300 million people of the subcontinent, there was not a single man capable of the job.’"

Curzon, incidentally, is the viceroy who divided Bengal into West and East Bengal. The Indian nationalist coined the phrase ‘Divide and Rule’ that sort of epitomised British colonialism everywhere in the world.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Stories of Change

I attended a deeply thought-provoking conference yesterday (October 1).

The 2009 Maytree Leadership Conference was what I call a 'Big Idea' conference.

Thanks to Helen Walsh, President of Diaspora Dialogues, I was invited to participate in the conference.

The theme for this year’s conference was Telling Stories; Creating Change.

John Cruikshank, publisher of Toronto Star, set the tone for the conference with a radical idea.

He said it was time to shake the foundations of the notion that the free market model is the most rational economic model there is, or can ever be.

According to Cruikshank, that was the story of the past.

He suggested that there is a definite role for good governance (not big government) to regulate the economy so that the young, the old, and the poor are not left behind.

According to Cruikshank, this is the story of the future.

It’s an idea that will set in motion changes and create social upheavals across the world; especially in the developing world. (See interview)

I participated in a workshop on pitching story ideas to the media. Jennifer Lewington of The Globe and Mail and Julia Howell, communications consultant, conducted it with alacrity and verve.

Nelofer Pazira, author, filmmaker and journalist narrated her own story in the session on Adversity and Courage: Journeys to Canada Storytelling in Practice.

A story that had the audience spellbound. Listening to her it was hard to imagine that she spoke just five words of English in 1990 when she immigrated to New Brunswick from Afghanistan.

She addressed many dilemmas that immigrants face while settling in Canada. Pazira underlined my conviction that integration is easier, faster and less painful if the newcomer consciously adopts Canadian values.

The evening ended with certificates being awarded to refugee students.

Here is an extract from the booklet Making their Mark Canada’s Young Refugees that tells Ahmed’s story – a story that is shared by hundreds of thousands refugee children.

It’s a fictionalised but accurate account written by Peter Showler, Director of the Refugee Forum at the University of Ottawa.


“Ahmed remained in the camp for nine years. His father did not return and his mother was unhappy. At first he was not able to go to school. There was not enough food. He was always hungry and there was work to do. He helped his mother carry water and collect firewood. He had to go very far to collect wood. His sister used to go with him until the men attacked her and left him beaten. He still carried a dark mark over his left eye that would never go away. His mother sold some of her jewellery to buy a large knife that she said would protect them from the men who came at night. When his mother got sick, he took the knife and kept it under his blanket. The nights were very cold and he often woke up shivering, feeling the knife and he would listen for the men but they did not come. He was fourteen and sure that he would use the knife. His sister was always sad after the attack. People said that she was unclean and she died after the floods that came in the spring and made people sick.”

I read this on my way back home.

I have no right even to think (let alone complain) that I'm being discriminated in my new homeland.

Princess of Serendip

Photo: Jason Chow Photography (http://jasonchowphotography.com/)

One always feels happy when a writer one has read gets some official recognition.

Later this month it’ll be time again for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Every year when the prize is announced, I realise – all over again – how little I know of world literature.

There are 105 winners since 1901. I can’t claim to have heard of more than 35 writers from that list, and only eight before they won. (I started reading seriously only in the late 1970s).

An aside: Wouldn’t it be great if Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood won the prize this year? After all, no Canadian has ever won the Nobel for Literature.

I read Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door if No Return recently, and wrote here about her incisive insight on Naipaul.

She is now the third poet-laureate of Toronto. That makes me happy. It’s also fitting tribute to the genius of a poet and writer who paints images with words and brings to life abstract feelings of emptiness.

Sample this:

“There is a sense in the mind of not being here or there, of no way out or in. As if the door has set up its own reflection. Caught between the two we live in the Diaspora, in the sea in between. Imagining our ancestors stepping through these portals one senses people stepping out into nothing; one senses a surreal space, an inexplicable space. One imagines people so stunned by their circumstances, so heartbroken as to refuse reality. Our inheritance in the Diaspora is to live in this inexplicable space. That space is the measure of our ancestors’ step through the door toward the ship. One is caught in the few feet in between. The frame of the doorway is the only space of true existence.”

Discovering Dionne Brand was serendipitous.