& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The day Shiv Sena murdered Comrade Krishna Desai

Excerpt from Gyan Prakash’s Mumbai fables

"According to his family members, the (Shiv) Sena had physically attacked (Krishna) Desai during the 1967 election campaign. He escaped with his life by using his briefcase as a shield. Apparently, Desai knew he was a target. A feared trade unionist and a political leader with deep roots in the neighbourhood, Desai stood between the Sena and the Girgangaon. Anticipating an attack, he decided to send his family away to safety to his village in Ratnagiri. As for himself, he planned to go underground and take the fight to the Sena.

On June 5, 1970, Desai, as usual surrounded by Anil Karnik and others, was winding down for the day in his one-room hutment. His wife had laid out the dinner. Desai took off his shirt and was about to sit down to eat when he was summoned. His party associates wanted to discuss the next day’s planned Lok Seva Dal camping trip. Telling his wife and Karnik that he would be back shortly, Desai walked a few hundred yards down the winding lane to the office of a rice mill.

A mentally challenged man from his neighbourhood interrupted Desai’s conversation with his comrades in the office, informing him that some workers wanted to meet him. The assembled group looked out towards the open field that face the rice mill office. The power was off, and it was raining lightly. At the head of the narrow lane that led out from the field, the silhouettes of a few men were visible. Desai called out to ask who they were. A voice shouted “Jai Bharat” (Hail to India) in response. Desai’s young comrade Prakash Patkar walked towards them. As he neared the group, Patkar saw a few men standing by a car. One of the assembled men had a gupti, a long-bladed weapon tucked under his shirt. Patkar shouted out a warning to Desai, who rushed instantly to his side. Patkar was stabbed. Within seconds, Desai was surrounded and stabbed in the back, with his liver slashed. Having achieved their purpose, the attackers vanished into the darkness. Miraculously, Desai walked to the nearby house of a friend, who rushed him to the hospital, but he succumbed to the fatal wound.”

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Harem

Safia Fazlul
 TSAR’s 2012 fall launch was grand and exciting – an occasion to meet and make friends.

Of the bunch of fiction and poetry collections released at the launch, I picked up Safia Fazlul’s TheHarem.

It is a boldly told story of a young woman’s daring attempt to escape poverty and family restrictions.

Farina is a Canadian of Bangladeshi origin. She has grown up with nothing but contempt for her constrictive upbringing, her parents, their regressive ways, and her ghetto where women are abused by their men.

She runs away from this unending nightmare as soon as she turns 18. But it isn’t easy making money on survival wage jobs.

Sabrina, her childhood friend, with whom she was forced to attend the Islamic school, has turned into a stripper, not out of choice, but willing to make the most of her adversity to push her way out of poverty.

An exchange between the friends brings alive the dilemma they face - the stranglehold of tradition that keeps them poor but also helps retain their sense of dignity.

 “The bare-knuckled punches to my pride, Farina – that’s my big problem.” (Sabrina tells Farina)

I hear her loud and clear. Although I’m desperate for money, I’d never risk hurting my pride over it. For two insignificant brown girls like us, pride is much more important than money. We’re born to please our parents, raised to please our neighbours, and married off to please our husbands. Pride is all there is to remind us that we belong to ourselves.

For Farina, Sabrina’s decision to be a stripper is the ultimate surrender, and she can’t help but observe, 

“Our nudity – the shell of our sex – was the only thing we always had complete control over. While our parents and neighbours could watch what we wore, they couldn’t watch whom we got naked for. If Sabrina’s going to give up this control, then she might as well as settle for an arranged marriage and learn how to make samosas.”

She and her friends Sabrina and Imrana have nothing but disdain for their Islamic rearing and go out of their way to defy the traditions their parents hold dear and revere. In an act of ultimate defiance, they start Harem – an escort agency.

Money flows in, and with prosperity comes a sense of freedom. However, notwithstanding the derision she reserve for the values her parents tried to inculcate in her, ultimately there is no escaping these values.

So, even as she makes more money than she can keep track of, Farina is besieged with guilt. She also can’t avoid the ghetto completely, and falls in love with a boy who is nearly a mirror image of her father.

Harem is graphic and leaves little to imagination. It is also a sensitive and touching portrayal of Farina’s frailties that are normal for any 18-year-old. The relationship between the mother and daughter is raw, emotional and heart wrenching, for instance, when narrating her family history, Farina’s mother tells her, “We didn’t realize then that there is more than one way to lose a child.”

Many of the passages in the book are biting, pithy and depict with unrelenting accuracy the unbending social realities of the ethnic ghettos in Canada’s cities. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Tinderbox: The Past and the Future of Pakistan - MJ Akbar

MJ Akbar is an Indian institution. In my humble opinion, he has no parallels in Indian journalism.

He invented modern Indian journalism in the 1970s with Sunday magazine, and introduced the real India (that is Bharat) to Indians hitherto used to reading newspapers and journals edited by pipe smoking journalists who pontificated about things that had little or no relevance to most of their readers, and wrote in English that was a hangover from the colonial times.

Akbar and his magazine Sunday changed all that.

Carl Sandberg has famously described slang as “a language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work.” 

Akbar did that to English journalism in India. He made it work.

He made the post-Emergency renaissance in Indian journalism relevant and meaningful. 

It was a sort of rediscovery of India for a new generation of readers that was coming of age then. 

Leaving the pontificating to the fast-fading pipe smokers, he went to the heart of India and helped Indians understand India.

Akbar brought us face-to-face with the horrible atrocities the Dalits faced in India.

“The untouchable Jatav is touchable only when a pretty Jatav woman can be raped, or when a whimpering man has to be dragged into the field to do forced, whimsical paid labour.”

(Have Gun, Will Kill, January 1982 – report on the massacre of Dalits in Dehuli and Sarhupur in Uttar Pradesh from Riot After Riot, 1988).

He brought alive the horrors of unending communal violence that erupted in different parts of India.

“Many Muslims who were killed cannot be traced…to give just one example: Salim Mohammad was twenty-five years old, and he had been married to young Naeema just five months earlier. He was a worker who polished brass in one of the factories which have made Moradabad famous all over the world. He went to the Idgah, which is hardly five minutes away from his house, to pray; he never returned. A friend of his who was sitting nearby saw a bullet hit the side of Salim’s face. Salim fell dead. This friend went to the fallen salim, removed the only thing of value he had, a wristwatch, and brought it back to the family. (We saw the watch when we met the family; it was a poor man’s watch, a brand called Siwa; it had been given to Salim as a wedding present by his wife’s family.) Today Salim’s body cannot be traced. His family have asked for it, but the police say they cannot find a Salim among the dead.”

(Massacre in Moradabad, August 1980 from Riot After Riot, 1988)

Akbar has also written often controversial but always readable histories that have helped us understand ourselves better. By analyzing the past, his books have accurately anticipated the future.

India – The Siege Within (1985), Nehru – the Making of India (published in 1989 – Nehru’s centenary), The Shade of Swords: Jihad and the conflict between Islam and Christianity (2002), are among the books he has authored that have received winder acclaim (although his description of the Khilafat Movement as Gandhi’s peaceful jihad is a leap of imagination).

In Nehru’s biography, he quoted Russi Modi to corroborate the Nehru-Edwina relationship. “Russi Mody marched up, opened the door and saw Jawaharlal and Edwina in a clinch. Jawaharlal Nehru looked at Russi Mody and grimaced. Russi quickly shut the door and walked out.”

His latest book Tinderbox: The Past and the Future of Pakistan is again an invaluable addition to understanding the tortured history of India’s neighbour. Again, as in his previous books, he rakes up controversies. 

Explaining the ever-widening divergence between the paths that India and Pakistan have taken since 1947, Akbar says, “The idea of India is stronger than the Indian; the idea of Pakistan is weaker than the Pakistani.”

Akbar was in Toronto earlier this week to talk about `Terrorism and Geopolitics: The Coming Decade’ as part of promotion of his book at the University of Toronto’s India Innovation Institute. 

In an hour, Akbar gave a glimpse of his erudition, scholarship, vision, philosophy and also a bit of prejudice. A virtuoso performance enjoyed by the who’s who of the Indo-Canadian community.

I wonder how my Toronto friends of Pakistani origin would have reacted to the lecture, and to the book.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Saree Kahaniyan: The Saree Stories

Nitin & Jasmine Sawant

I had seen a vignette of Saree Kahaniyan: The Saree Stories at the Rang Manch Canada’s festival a couple of months ago, and it immediately touched a chord.

Jasmine Sawant’s street-theatre style play depicting the significance of a saree in a woman’s (and everyone’s) life was something many in the audience could easily relate to having experienced a similar situation in their lives. Shruti Shah and Naimesh Nanavaty performed a skit that would touch many hearts – the saree she wore the first time she met him.  

Last week, at the Desi Grants Award program in Mississauga, I saw a fuller version of Saree Stories. It is a composition of different vignettes from a woman’s remembrance of things past through her sarees.

Shruti Shah, this time enacting the role of a lonely widow in a stark white sari, sitting in her condo somewhere in Canada, and recounting her days of youth in Mumbai. From the time her mother threw away her saree in the garbage to the time when she and her husband get caught in a terrorist attack and she uses her saree to bandage a stranger grievously wounded in this random act of violence.

All the vignettes had a common thread – they were true stories, and all of them were from Mumbai. At Rang Manch Canada event the audience comprised mostly men, and the response to Jasmine’s skit was muted. On the other hand, at the Desi magazine event, there were as many women as men, and the response Jasmine got when she asked the women in the audience to share their saree stories was spontaneous, evocatively rich and varied.

Jasmine – in her role as the sutradhar – interspersed her narrative with a combination of some personal anecdotes, some history of the saree (in the past, men wore sarees, too) and some engaging small talk.

Both Jasmine and Shruti have their roots in Mumbai’s theatre world; both are pioneers of the now decade-old Sawitri Theatre Group based in Mississauga. 

Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151009042318881&set=t.653261577&type=3&theater